On a warm afternoon in early October 1942, Donald Q. Coster, a vice consul at the U.S. consulate in Casablanca, French Morocco, was sitting with a friend at a table in a dingy waterfront café. "Vice consul" was only a cover. Actually, Coster was a spy for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and he was in the café, a popular hangout for seamen, to listen for information on ship movements.
In civilian life Coster had been a Madison Avenue advertising firm executive in New York City. When war had broken out in Europe in late 1939, he had given up his cushy job for the challenge of driving an American Field Service ambulance for the French Army. He was captured, spent several quite unpleasant weeks in German hands, was released, and came back home to join the U.S. Navy.
Coster's fluency in the French language resulted in his being assigned to the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI). With Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of French Northwest Africa, being prepared in mid-1942, Coster discovered that, unbeknownst to him, he had "volunteered" for service with "Wild Bill" Donovan's OSS.
Soon the former advertising executive found himself seated in the Washington office of Bill Donovan and was informed that, effective immediately, he was a "vice consul" in the pay of the State Department. But he would take his orders from the OSS. "Casablanca is the most important place in the world at this moment," Donovan declared in a mysterious tone. "And you are going to Africa, to Casablanca."
Coster swallowed hard. It appeared that he, a total amateur in the cloak-and-dagger business, was going to be plunged right in the center of intrigue and espionage hijinks.
"French Northwest Africa will be invaded one of these days," Donovan continued, "by either the Germans or the Allies. Your job will be to help strengthen an Allied deception scheme to coerce the French Army in North Africa and German intelligence to believe that if the Allies invade, we will go ashore at Dakar."
"Yes, sir!" replied Coster, who felt the blood draining from his face.
Dakar, a major port in Sénégal on the western coast of Africa, lies 1,440 miles southwest of Casablanca. Dakar was a plausible locale for an Allied invasion. It was directly across the Atlantic from Brazil, which declared war on Germany in August 1942, becoming the first South American nation to do so.
To reinforce the many-faceted Dakar deception plan, Coster was to plant misleading information with Major General Theodor Auer, chief of the German Armistice Mission, whose function in Casablanca was to enforce the terms the Nazis imposed when the French Army had surrendered in the spring of 1940.
"How you accomplish that task will be left to your ingenuity," Donovan added. "Auer is cunning, ruthless, and knows all the tricks to catch spies."
Coster felt a choking sensation. Dancing before his mind's eye were a horde of Gestapo agents, cutthroat assassins, and ingenious Nazi torture techniques.
In Washington, the new OSS recruit was rushed through a quick course of instruction in the code he was to use. And little else. All he knew about espionage was what he had seen in Hollywood movies.
Now, at the disreputable waterfront café in Casablanca only a month before D-Day for Torch, two young men, obviously searching for a table at which to sit in the packed room, meandered near Coster and his friend, also a "vice consul." Coster invited the men to share his table, hoping to gain information on ship movements.
The two strangers accepted and sat down. One, named Walter, was especially talkative. His friend hardly said a word. Walter told Coster that they were Austrians who had been in France when that country was conquered by the Wehrmacht in 1940. A short time later, Walter said, they had been jailed by the Vichy government, the puppet French administration headed by senile, eighty-four-year-old Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain.
"We managed to escape and fled to Casablanca," Walter confided. His companion nodded in agreement.
While the chitchat continued, Walter happened to mention about "running on to Teddy Auer" on a Casablanca street. A chill shot up Coster's back. This, no doubt, was General Theodor Auer, the sinister chief of the German Armistice Commission.
"I knew him [Auer] in Paris before I was interned," the talkative Walter continued. "When we got to Casablanca, my partner here and I made a deal with him. We supply him with secret information and he keeps us out of jail."
Seeing the concerned look on Coster's face, Walter quickly added, "Of course my partner and I are very anti-Nazi."
Coster's mind was in a whirl. Here, by accident, was the pipeline he had been seeking to General Auer. Or had these two friendly Austrians been planted to coerce the vice consul's true role from him? Did they really hate the Nazis? With the specter of being found dead soon in a dark Casablanca alley hovering over him, Coster decided to take a risk. He would pose as a loudmouthed, rich playboy who drank too much and talked too much. While "drunk" he would spill the beans that the Americans and the British were preparing to invade at Dakar.
Coster's assessment of his two new friends proved to be accurate. A few days later, Walter and his companion called on General Auer and told him about the drunken State Department official's revelation that Dakar would be the invasion target. Auer was delighted. He broke open a bottle of champagne and shared it with his two spies, who had just pulled off an intelligence bonanza or so it seemed.
Just past midnight on November 8, 1942, the Allied invasion of the French colonies of Morocco and Algeria struck at three places including Casablanca along one thousand miles of North African coastline. In spite of comic-opera blunders by green and partially trained U.S. Army and Navy units, the assault troops got ashore in strength and pushed inland rapidly.
On the outskirts of Casablanca, a convoy of three German staff cars rounded a street corner and came upon an American platoon. Brakes squealed and the vehicles lurched to a halt. "Komm heraus, Schweinehunds!" (Come out, you sons of bitches!) a GI shouted, pleased to have had the chance to use the German phrase he had been honing for weeks. Ten impeccably attired members of the German Armistice Commission emerged slowly with their hands in the air.
At the same time, far to the south, a large number of U-boat wolf packs were circling around Africa's western shore off Dakar, waiting to ambush an Allied invasion convoy that never came.