M/S GENERAL DUFOUR 1956
M/S BADEN 1958
North Africa in turmoil
North Africa in turmoil
Seafarers as professional travellers sometimes become involuntary witnesses of political events or geopolitical upheavals all over the world. Such was the experience of the crew of the MS GENERAL DUFOUR in North Africa in the politically turbulent year 1956. A dirty underground war had been going on in Algeria since 1954. The French General Government, with a population of about 1 million French people, some of them born in the country, the so-called ''Pieds-noirs'', was of great economic importance for France.
When, in August 1954, on a holiday trip to Cape Spartel, I looked across the strait at the lighthouse to Europe, only 30 km away, it was my first contact with this continent. Little did I know that a few years later I would sail around this landmark at least ten times on my way to West Africa or back. Nearby Tangier was an international city at the time and Morocco was still in French hands. It was not until 1956 that the Kingdom of Morocco gained full independence after bloody unrest.
On 15 May 1956, I had signed on as a carbonaio, i.e. cleaner, in Genoa on the GENERAL DUFOUR in the engine service. There was a total of ten Swiss, seven of whom were engine men. This Nautilus liner, known as a hunger steamer, had an unusually large personnel throughput at that time. People were particularly dissatisfied with the catering.
France in a state of war
The two Algerian ports of Algiers and Oran were regularly served by the liners of the ''Nautilus Line'' (Keller Shipping) from Marseille. The cargo consisted mostly of supplies for the French army stationed there, i.e. small arms ammunition and equipment. Unloading took place in the military port under the strictest security precautions, including underwater security by frogmen. For these activities should not have escaped the notice of the FLN liberation front. The fact that the French Republic was now de facto in a state of war was quickly apparent in Marseille. In the streets one increasingly discovered members of the still existing colonial army in their sometimes colourful and strange uniforms. Among them were many foreign legionnaires on their way out, recognisable by their white caps. The ''Legion étrangère'' maintained a base with a recruitment office in the old harbour at Fort St. Jean. It happened that legionnaires approached us on occasion and discreetly inquired about our next destination. It was assumed that they wanted to escape the threat of being sent to Algeria by deserting.
Control of maritime traffic
The fact that a political change was imminent in the North African region was already evident from the conspicuously large fleet presence in the western Mediterranean. Not only France but also Spain kept some units under steam at all times. Every evening, a French navy ship left an Algerian port with the task of monitoring maritime traffic off the coast. The aim was to prevent weapons being brought ashore under the cover of night for the strengthened FLN liberation front. Ships sailing near the coast were often stopped and searched. During the day, this task was taken over by naval aircraft. In the sea area in question, our ship was flown over several times at low altitude for inspection purposes and questioned by radio about the whereabouts of our cargo. And all this in international waters. Algiers, the capital of Algeria, also called the ''White City'', stretches from the modern business district on the coastal boulevard of the European city to the medina, the old town, rising up on a hill. In between, you will find many shops, bistros and the ever-busy street cafés.
Repairs in Algiers
But a shadow lay over the bustling city. The war of independence that had broken out in the hinterland had meanwhile also reached the towns. From midnight onwards, there was a complete curfew in Algiers until morning. Time and again, heavily armed FLN terrorists drove cars past street restaurants and cafés frequented mainly by French people and fired at the guests with riot guns. Knowing these dangers, we always had a queasy feeling on our way to the city centre when a car crossed us on the lake promenade. There was no cover anywhere. Our exit was limited to the closer European quarter anyway. Apart from the military presence and the lack of nightlife, life in this beautiful city went on as usual.
It soon became apparent that our stay in port would be longer this time. The ship's command decided to have a major repair carried out before the upcoming West Africa voyage. With the help of the shipyard and under the supervision of Lloyd's, a cylinder was removed from the Doxford main engine and the underlying seal replaced. Increasingly, unwanted cooling water had been detected in the Carter. Due to the curfew, the local shipyard workers had to stay on board with us overnight. This repair, not an everyday occurrence, demanded everything from the engine crew. Little did we know that we would be allowed to repeat the same exercise in faraway Lagos under more difficult conditions, but this time without shipyard support.
Patricio the "Stowaway"
The work was done and, mindful of the fact that we had to be on board before curfew, we went ashore. Our mess boy Patricio was also part of the party. He came on board as a so-called ''stowaway'' at the salt shop on the Cape Verdean island of Sal. He hoped for a ride to South America, where his father supposedly lived. As a paperless person, however, the young man could not be deported in any port and so he was finally allowed to stay on board as the mess boy of the crew mess. Patricio was the declared favourite of the whole crew. Later, he was helped to get a passport at a Portuguese consulate. You have to remember that at that time Portugal was interested in keeping cheap labour in their island colony. Anyone who absconded was treated as a ''republican fugitive'' by the Salazar dictatorship regime and punished with prison. Two years later, we were confronted with the same problem on the Baden. One day after the salt shop at anchor in the bay ''Pedra de Lume'', on the island of Sal, we also discovered an illegal emigrant in a lifeboat. We handed him over to the authorities in Dakar.
Intermezzo in the military port
Now back to our initially rather unspectacular shore leave. Time flew by. The clock hand had moved forward to 15 minutes past 11 pm when we started looking for a taxi. But we were not the only ones looking for a quick ride before curfew. Finally it worked out. Four of us squeezed into the black Citroen (called a robber car). We told the local driver our destination, a pier in the commercial harbour where we had gone for repairs, and asked him to hurry. But what happened at the end of the journey was not written down in any script. Instead of landing at the requested pier in front of our ship, we ended up in the strictly guarded military harbour. We had no time to clarify this misunderstanding. The car doors were torn open and we looked in complete surprise into the muzzles of rifle barrels. With our hands raised, we were ordered to get out slowly. Not so easy in the tight spaces. When the soldiers noticed the curly-haired Patricio with the African-Arab appearance, it was clear to them that anyone who so brazenly enters a restricted zone is up to something. We were treated as potential saboteurs or terrorists. Strictly guarded by a dozen towering Senegalese, we stood with our hands up, facing a building wall, while a second group searched the car. As soon as one of us showed signs of fatigue, we were obliged to obey their orders with the barrel of the gun at our backs.
Only after the taxi had been thoroughly searched, even the seats were removed, were they willing to listen to us. Now we could finally show our ''laissez passer'', shore leave passes to the commanding officer. After each and every one of us had been thoroughly strip-searched and had had a tedious interrogation in the local language, we were escorted by a squad to the ship. To be on the safe side, each of us had to be identified by a superior. We felt sorry for the taxi driver, but why he got the wrong port entrance remained unexplained.
Algier, dangerous shore leave
Well, this not everyday occurrence should have been a warning to us shore visitors. The repairs to the main engine took longer than planned, so the next afternoon we had another opportunity to get to know this interesting city. Francois our Moses from French-speaking Switzerland, who spent a large part of his youth in Algiers and spoke a fair amount of Arabic, offered to introduce us to this city in all its diversity. We could not pass up this opportunity. Four of us set off for the city excursion in the afternoon. We soon left the busy, wide boulevards of the European quarter and followed the neighbourhood streets that surround the Medina, the Arab part of the city. From these ring roads, countless steep streets and alleys lead up into the old town, which is labyrinthine with side streets and stairs. Past tiny shops and handicraft businesses, the way was always uphill. It was a strange, colourful and fascinating world that surrounded us here. Life took place largely in public spaces. The alleyways were also workplaces for the old North African trade of silversmiths and the art of working non-ferrous metal sheet. All the fragrances of Arabia and others surrounded us. Francois was really an excellent guide. However, our curiosity made us overlook the increasingly hostile looks of the bearded men and veiled women who accompanied us the higher we climbed to the Kasbah.
Suddenly there was a loud noise and we heard the scuffing sound of combat boots. We saw ourselves surrounded by a troop of heavily armed soldiers who came rushing out of a side alley. They were French paratroopers (parachutes), who immediately took us in the middle, securing us on all sides, and after the initial astonishment, bunched us together. For these experienced fighters in clandestine and irregular warfare, it was incomprehensible that anyone would expose himself to these real dangers without need. And indeed, the hatred for the colonial power gave vent every day to countless murders of French citizens and their helpers.
Now we were escorted out of the potential danger zone for the second time, but this time for our protection. With an urgent admonition not to enter this part of the city again, we were dismissed by the section commander in charge. My knowledge of French was not good enough for me to understand everything, but his message got through. Arriving at the lowest ring road, we only realised the danger we were in. At the crossroads, an AMX tank stood ready for battle, its gun barrel pointed at the road we had just come from. On the way back to the harbour, we saw armoured vehicles and people controls at many intersections. All entrances to the old city were sealed off, while search teams combed the medina alley by alley. Now everything was clear. In the meantime, we had been caught in a large-scale raid against the FLN Liberation Front. We had the misfortune, or was it God's providence, that we had to abandon what was ultimately not a safe undertaking.
Marseille, shooting in the harbour
The fact that in those days the life of a North African was not of great importance was proven by the following incident in Marseille, which I witnessed. The entrance to the open harbour area leads over a truss bridge that spans a railway line. On the opposite side at the harbour entrance was a small bistro with a few tables along the road. From here, one could overlook large parts of the harbour and also the nearby bridge. This bistro was ideal as a last “watering hole” before returning home on board or as a meeting point before going ashore. Now I was waiting as an early bird for my mate Hans, ready to go out. Suddenly I was jolted out of my thoughts. A black Citroen roared up, pursued by a blue vehicle of the ''Garde mobile'', the fast special police unit. The getaway car was stopped. From the police car, the security forces rushed towards the car with their weapons at the ready. Inside, as far as I could see, were four Arab-looking men. The policemen held their weapons in the open windows of the car and ordered the passengers to get out.
While three men complied with the order with their hands up, the fourth turned around and tried to escape towards the harbour exit. Without hesitation, one of the police officers brought his rifle to bear and shot the fleeing man with one well-aimed shot. The way the action unfolded, the shot must have been fatal. This police force, which is responsible for France's internal security, including the fight against terrorism, is known for its rigorous approach.
Revolt in Ifni
Even "Franco Spain", which still owned the Spanish Sahara possessions formerly known as "Rio de Oro" on the Atlantic coast and the exclave of Ifni in Morocco, was not spared from unrest. In 1956, there was an uprising in Ifni against the colonial power. The Spanish fleet hurriedly left to help. On the occasion of a bunker stop in Las Palmas, we witnessed the arrival of Spanish nationals evacuated from Ifni by warships. We were able to observe how medical vehicles drove up at the opposite pier. On countless stretchers, the severely injured and non-ambulatory survivors of the massacre were carried off the ships and hurried by ambulances to the island hospitals. According to later newspaper reports, the mob must have raged terribly. It is said that whole families were slaughtered or mutilated with knives and axes. Many victims had their limbs hacked off. Women and children were not spared either. FLN and Ifni 1956, IS 2016, the methods are apparently still the same in this culture.
Coup in Oran
On the return voyage from West Africa to Europe on board the MS BADEN, we once again became the focus of world politics in the first half of May 1958. The ports of Oran and Algiers were to be visited before Europe. When we arrived in Oran, we had to realise that the situation in the country had drastically worsened in the meantime. A few hours earlier, on 13 May, the Algerian French under the leadership of General Jacques Massu, the commander-in-chief of the French troops in Algeria, had broken away from the mother country. General Massu, an old warhorse of the Para troops, felt betrayed by France, like all ''pieds-noirs'', and declared Algeria independent. It was a veritable coup d'état that took place here in these hours. The military moved in and there was no thought of a well-deserved shore leave after the long time at sea. The former General Charles de Gaulle, now Prime Minister of France, reacted immediately and declared a state of emergency. Our last port on the African continent was Algiers. Here in the capital, too, the situation was completely unclear. It was not known who was in charge.
State of emergency in Toulon
Our next destination and first port of call in Europe was Toulon, France's most important naval base on the Mediterranean. This port was hardly ever visited. We were the only civilian freighter there. Toulon is also the home port of many naval units and has a huge dry dock. In those days, one of the last two battleships that had survived the war was in dock for maintenance. It was either the ''Richelieu'' or the ''Jean Bart''. What lay there in dry dock had imposing dimensions. Size 48000 t, speed 32 knots, armament 8 guns cal. 380, 9 guns cal. 152, 12 guns cal. 100. These largest fleet units were protected by over 100 anti-aircraft guns. So the combined firepower was formidable, but obsolete in the missile age.
Now back to our needs. Toulon was also a garrison town and, according to experience, the leisure activities for soldiers and sailors were greatest in such places. Unfortunately, this was not the case. The navy had a holiday ban. There was a state of emergency and all bars, establishments and even houses of pleasure remained closed. For us African sailors, who were now stepping onto civilised European soil again after two months in Black Africa, this was truly a hard and undeserved blow of fate.
Heinz Läuffer, 20th. June 2019