Operation Flagpole was part of the run-up to Operation Torch, the planned Allied invasion of North Africa during World War II. It involved carrying out a top-secret high-level meeting between U.S. General Mark W. Clark, representing the Allies, and Général Charles E. Mast, the leader of a group of pro-Allied Vichy France officers in French North Africa, to secure their cooperation with the invasion.
Eisenhower had sent an urgent cable to U.S. diplomat Robert D. Murphy of the American consulate in Algeria requesting the immediate dispatch of a top-secret high-level group to meet with Général Charles E. Mast, the military commander of Algiers and the leader of a group of pro-Allied officials in French North Africa.
The objective of this secret mission, code-named “Operation Flagpole”, was to reach an agreement through Mast and his colleagues to have Général Henri Giraud, a key pro-Allied French army officer, step forward and take command of French military forces in North Africa, and then arrange a ceasefire with the Allied invasion force.
Clark would be Eisenhower’s personal representative, with Lemnitzer as the top invasion planner, Hamblen as the invasion’s logistics expert, and Holmes serving as translator. Wright would serve as the liaison with the French Navy, with the specific objective of convincing the French to have their fleet anchored in Toulon join the Allied cause.
The decision the use Clark for a high risk mission was cute peculiar, to say the least. Clark was probably the one who knew the most about Operation Torch. If he was captured, the whole operation would be at risk.
The group flew in two Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers to Gibraltar, operational headquarters for the invasion, and on October 19, they boarded the British S-class submarine HMS Seraph. Seraph carried collapsible canoes, submachine guns, walkie-talkies, and other supplies, as well as three members of the British Special Boat Section – Captain G.B. (‘Gruff’) Courtney and Lieutenants R.P. Livingstone and J.P. Foot.
Clark and his entourage arrived in North Africa shortly after midnight on October 22nd 1942. They were met by Robert Murphy, the top American diplomat in Algiers. Clark abandoned the grand speech he had prepared in French and replied simply, “I’m damned glad we made it.” They made way to their rendezvous point were their met their host, Henri Teissier who eyed Clark carrying his carbine and said, “A general with a rifle! What sort of army is this?” At six A.M., General Mast arrived by car from Algiers with five staff officers. Murphy roused Clark and the others for introductions, followed by a breakfast of coffee and sardines in the living room. For more than four hours, the two generals exchanged mendacities. Mast urged the Americans to align themselves with his patron, Henri Giraud. If you bring Giraud to Algiers from his hiding place in southern France, Mast promised, all North Africa will “flame into revolt” and rally around him as a symbol of French resurgence. With sufficient weapons—Mast nearly wept, describing the bedraggled Vichy troops—North Africa could field an army of 300,000 in common cause with the Allies, all under Giraud’s inspiring generalship. Clark carefully sifted through Mast’s proposals. He pledged immediate delivery of 2,000 automatic weapons to North Africa, a promise that would not be kept. An African invasion force would involve half a million men with 2,000 aircraft. This was a fivefold exaggeration.
“Where are these five hundred thousand men to come from?” Mast asked. “Where are they?”
“In the U.S. and U.K.,” Clark replied.
“Rather far, isn’t it?”, Mast pointed out.
“No.”, said Clark.
After a few more hours of talking, Mast had to return to Algiers and warned Clark; “The French navy is not with us. The army and the air force are.”. Mast also pointed out that General Giraud intended to command all forces in North Africa, including any Allied troops. After some intelligence gathering, their host Tessier stormed in yelling “The police will be here in five minutes!”.
Clark and his entourage hid in the cellar waiting for the Police to leave and made their way to the beach. After a short spring, Clark stripped to his under-shorts and tucked his rolled-up trousers in the boat’s waist hole. The kayak capsized and Clark’s trousers were lost. Clark requisitioned an underling’s pants and made several attempts to break the surf and reached the submarine. He immediately composed a message to Eisenhower. Eisenhower eyes only…All questions were settled satisfactorily except for the time the French would assume supreme command…. Anticipate that the bulk of the French army and air forces will offer little resistance…. Initial resistance by French navy and coastal defenses indicated by naval information which also indicates that this resistance will fall off rapidly as our forces land.A few weeks later, the invasion force landed in North Africa were Vichi France did in fact offer resistance.The story about Clark’s lost pants would become quite famous in the United States, even after the war.