George S. Patton was bored. Seventy-five years ago, the rough-and-tumble U.S. Army general was stuck on the USS Augusta in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
At the end of a two-week journey, Patton and his 33,000 men would storm the beaches and secure their target: Casablanca, the white city of postcards and travelogues, which also happened to be Africa’s largest port on the Atlantic. The assault was part of Operation Torch, the United States’ first foray into the European theater in World War II.
The invasion wasn’t scheduled to start for more than a week, which left Patton with plenty of idle time. “It is hard to realize that in 10 days I shall be up to my neck in work,” he wrote in his diary on Oct. 28, 1942. “At the moment, I have nothing at all to do.”
To fill his day, Patton read books. After all, there were only so many meetings to attend and letters to write. As the commanding officer, Patton couldn’t play cards or dice with his soldiers, but he could trade or borrow books. Disappearing into a good story also offered a chance to escape the self-doubt that often haunted him, despite the brash confidence he freely brandished.
“So far I have read part of the Koran, finished ‘Three Harbors,’ and ‘The Raft,’ ” noted Patton. He read the Koran to better understand French Morocco, a Muslim nation. Beyond that piece of reconnaissance work, Patton’s reading on the voyage provides a glimpse of the era’s bestsellers — all but forgotten now — and a hint of what entertained the general who would help save the free world from fascism.
“Three Harbours” (1938), by F. Van Wyck Mason, tells the story of the American Revolution through the eyes of a family of merchants navigating the tricky politics of the era while sustaining their business in Boston, Norfolk and Bermuda. It was a very navy-centric novel for landlubber Patton to be reading, and at almost 700 pages, it could provide many hours of diversion. The general was a fast and dedicated reader.
As the waiting and anticipation bedeviled Patton, he borrowed another Mason novel, one of the popular Hugh North mysteries called “The Cairo Garter Murders.” Maj. Hugh North was a suave army intelligence officer with a knack for solving crimes. In “Cairo Garter,” North hunts for a killer who decorates his victims with women’s garters. “I have just finished and will start to worry, or should I feel utterly confident?” wrote Patton, perhaps feeling encouraged by North’s assured success.
For Patton, who valued stamina and men doing manly things, Robert Trumbull’s “The Raft” was another natural choice. Based on a sensational true-life adventure, “The Raft” describes the ordeal of three American naval aviators who ran out of fuel while searching for Japanese submarines. Forced to ditch their plane, they spent 34 days in the South Pacific aboard an eight-by-four-foot life raft. Despite having no sail or rudder, they sailed 1,000 miles until they reached an atoll, which provided food and water until they were rescued. In the wake of the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor and the full plunge into World War II, the trio’s story became front-page news, providing the American public and the U.S. Navy with a much-needed heroic story.
Patton also picked up another historical novel during the voyage: Marguerite Steen’s “The Sun Is My Undoing,” one of the most popular and critically successful novels of the early 1940s. This epic account of the transatlantic slave trade in the 18th century clocked in at 1,176 pages, bouncing from Bristol, England, to the African Gold Coast to Havana. “The Sun” charts the fortunes of the larger-than-life Matthew Flood and his offspring. It borrows plot points from 18th-century novels — upstart families, broken engagements, virtue besmirched, a hint of the gothic — but the focus on slavery adds a rawness to the book. Making note of it in his diary, Patton declared the book to be “pretty sticky.”
As Patton flew through these engrossing books, the convoy carrying American soldiers continued toward French Morocco. In a stroke of luck, the ships avoided detection by the German submarines hunting the blue waters of the Atlantic. On Nov. 7, the American task force split to take up positions at three points along the Moroccan coast. The invasion was scheduled to start the following day. “This morning it is very quiet and cool, almost too good to be true. Thank God. I hope He stays on our side,” Patton wrote.
On Nov. 8, the invasion began, and the carefully crafted adventure of novels gave way to the very real chaos of war. “Woke at 0200, dressed and went on deck,” Patton wrote. From the deck of the Augusta, he could see the lights of Casablanca burning through the night. “Sea dead calm — God is with us.” It was another piece of luck, as calm seas only occurred off the Moroccan coast every five or six days during autumn. Over the next few hours, the men of the Western Task Force began shouldering 60-pound packs and descending rope ladders into the landing craft below. As dawn approached, they rode the waves to the rocky beaches.
Seventy-four hours later, on Nov. 11, the Americans controlled Casablanca and French Morocco. The man who enjoyed best-selling adventures was well on his way to becoming one of the great characters of 20th-century history.
Meredith Hindley is the author of “Destination Casablanca: Exile, Espionage, and the Battle for North Africa.” She lives in Washington, D.C.