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The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944by Rick Atkinson
The sun beat down on the stained white city, the July sun that hurt the eyes and turned the sea from wine-dark to silver. Soldiers crowded the shade beneath the vendors awnings and hugged the lee of the alabaster buildings spilling down to the port. Sweat darkened their collars and cuffs, particularly those of the combat troops wearing heavy herringbone twill. Some had stripped off their neckties, but kept them folded and tucked in their belts for quick retrieval. The commanding general had been spotted along the wharves, and every man knew that George S. Patton, Jr., would levy a $25 fine on any GI not wearing his helmet or tie.
Algiers seethed with soldiers after eight months of Allied occupation: Yanks and Brits, Kiwis and Gurkhas, swabs and tars and merchant mariners who at night walked with their pistols drawn against the bandits infesting the port. Troops swaggered down the boulevards and through the souks, whistling at girls on the balconies or pawing through shop displays in search of a few final souvenirs. Sailors in denim shirts and white caps mingled with French Senegalese in red fezzes, and bearded goums with their braided pigtails and striped burnooses. German prisoners sang “Erika” as they marched in column under guard to the Liberty ships that would haul them to camps in the New World. British veterans in battle dress answered with a ribald ditty called “El Alamein”“Tally-ho, tally-ho, and that was as far as the bastards did go”while the Americans belted out “Dirty Gertie from Bizerte,” which was said to have grown to two hundred verses, all of them salacious. “Sand in your shoes,” they called to one anotherthe North African equivalent of “Good luck”and with knowing looks they flashed their index fingers to signal “I,” for “invasion.”
Electric streetcars clattered past horsedrawn wine wagons, to be passed in turn by whizzing jeeps. Speeding by Army drivers had become so widespread that military policemen now impounded offenders vehiclesalthough General Eisenhower had issued a blanket amnesty for staff cars “bearing the insignia of a general officer.” Most Algerians walked or resorted to bicycles, pushcarts, and, one witness recorded, “every conceivable variety of buggy, phaeton, carryall, cart, sulky, and landau.” Young Frenchmen strolled the avenues in their narrow-brimmed hats and frayed jackets. Arab boys scampered through the alleys in pantaloons made from stolen barracks bags, with two holes cut for their legs and the stenciled name and serial number of the former owner across the rump. Tatterdemalion beggars in veils wore robes tailored from old Army mattress covers, which also served as winding-sheets for the dead. The only women in Algiers wearing stockings were the hookers at the Hotel Aletti bar, reputed to be the richest wage-earners in the city despite the ban on prostitution issued by military authorities in May.
Above it all, at high noon on July 4, 1943, on the Rue Michelet in the citys most fashionable neighborhood, a French military band tooted its way through the unfamiliar strains of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Behind the woodwinds and the tubas rose the lime-washed Moorish arches and crenellated tile roof of the Hôtel St. Georges, headquarters for Allied forces in North Africa. Palm fronds stirred in the courtyard, and the scent of bougainvillea carried on the light breeze.
Vice Admiral Henry Kent Hewitt held his salute as the anthem dragged to a ragged finish. Eisenhower, also frozen in salute on Hewitts right, had discouraged all national celebrations as a distraction from the momentous work at hand, but the British had insisted on honoring their American cousins with a short ceremony. The last strains faded and the gunfire began. Across the flat roofs of the lower city and the magnificent crescent of Algiers Bay, Hewitt saw a gray puff rise from H.M.S. Maidstone, then heard the first report. Puff followed puff, boom followed boom, echoing against the hills, as the Maidstone fired seaward across the breakwater.
Nineteen, twenty, twenty-one. Hewitt lowered his salute, but the bombardment continued, and from the corner of his eye the admiral could see Eisenhower with his right hand still glued to his peaked khaki cap. Unlike the U.S. Navy, with its maximum twenty-one-gun tribute, the Army on Independence Day fired forty-eight guns, one for each state, a protocol now observed by Maidstones crew. Hewitt resumed his salute until the shooting stopped, and made note of yet another difference between the sister services.
With the ceremony at an end, Hewitt hurried through the courtyard and across the lobbys mosaic floor to his office, down the corridor from Eisenhowers corner suite. Every nook of the St. Georges was jammed with staff officers and communications equipment. Eight months earlier, on the eve of the invasion of North Africa, Allied plans had called for a maximum of seven hundred officers to man the Allied Forces Headquarters, or AFHQ, a number then decried by one commander as “two or three times too many.” Now the figure approached four thousand, including nearly two hundred colonels and generals; brigades of aides, clerks, cooks, and assorted horse-holders brought the AFHQ total to twelve thousand. The military messages pouring in and out of Algiers via seven undersea cables were equivalent to two-thirds of the total War Department communications traffic. No message was more momentous than the secret order issued this morning: “Carry out Operation husky.”
Hewitt had never been busier, not even before Operation torch, the assault on North Africa. Then he had commanded the naval task force ferrying Pattons thirty thousand troops from Virginia to Morocco, a feat of such extraordinary successnot a man had been lost in the hazardous crossingthat Hewitt received his third star and command of the U.S. Navys Eighth Fleet in the Mediterranean. After four months at home, he had arrived in Algiers on March 15, and every waking moment since had been devoted to scheming how to again deposit Patton and his legions onto a hostile shore.
He was a fighting admiral who did not look the part, notwithstanding the Navy Cross on his summer whites, awarded for heroism as a destroyer captain in World War I. Sea duty made Hewitt plump, or plumper, and in Algiers he tried to stay fit by riding at dawn with native spahi cavalrymen, whose equestrian lineage dated to the fourteenth-century Ottomans. Despite these efforts, his frame remained, as one observer acknowledged, “well-upholstered.” At the age of fifty-six, the former altar boy and bell ringer from Hackensack, New Jersey, was still proud of his ability to ring out “Softly Now the Light of Day.” He loved double acrostic puzzles and his Keuffel & Esser Log Log Trig slide rule, a device that had been developed at the Naval Academy in the 1930s when he chaired the mathematics department there. His virtues, inconspicuous only to the inattentive, included a keen memory, a willingness to make decisions, and the ability to get along with George Patton. The Saturday Evening Post described Hewitt as “the kind of man who keeps a dog but does his barking himself”; in fact, he rarely even growled. He was measured and reserved, a good if inelegant conversationalist, and a bit pompous. He liked parties, and in Algiers he organized a Navy dance combo called the Scuttlebutt Five. He also had established a soup kitchen for the poor with leavings from Navy galleys; he ate the first bowl himself. Two other attributes served his country well: he was lucky, and he had an exceptional sense of direction, which on a shi
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