French citizens in Casablanca greet Allied troops in 1942.

Daniel Stashower is the author of "The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War."

'If you picked up this book, you might be a fan of the classic film Casablanca," writes historian Meredith Hindley in this absorbing account of the Moroccan city's pivotal role in World War II. The author, a senior writer for Humanities, the quarterly review of the National Endowment for the Humanities, acknowledges that "the core of the film's story holds true," but she's out to tell a larger one. "Destination Casablanca" recounts the real-life drama of the refugees, resistance fighters and Allied spies who flowed through the city in the build-up to Operation Torch in November 1942, when some 33,000 American soldiers stormed the beaches of French Morocco. In Hindley's telling, the struggle for control of Casablanca becomes the key to a campaign that would, in Winston Churchill's phrase, "threaten the belly of Hitler's Europe."

As she details the history of the White City, so named for its majestic sweep of whitewashed buildings, Hindley emphasizes the military importance of its thriving, recently redesigned port, which not only reinvigorated the city in the early years of the 20th century but also ensured that it would play a central role in the designs of German and Allied commanders. "As the war stretched beyond Europe and darkened North Africa, the port that fueled the rise of the new white city became both its most valuable asset and its greatest liability," Hindley writes. "From its quays, ships would depart, carrying soldiers to fight in France, and ships would arrive, bearing refugees attempting to escape Hitler's advancing armies."

Many of the refugees who landed in Casablanca in the early years of the war could well have afforded "to drink and gamble at Rick's," Hindley allows, but they'd have done better to save their money, as "they could be stuck in Casablanca for years." Others faced a struggle to find food and shelter. Tracing the "hasty and improvised" flight of thousands of evacuees from Gibraltar in 1940, Hindley outlines the privations of life in a cluster of dance halls that had been pressed into service as makeshift dormitories: "When mattresses weren't available, families slept on straw," she writes, and when the bathroom facilities proved inadequate, they "stood in line to use a bucket."

The sagas of individual refugees unfold throughout the book, putting a human face on the drama, but Hindley frequently shifts her focus to the global events taking shape in France, Britain and the United States, underscoring Casablanca's strategic importance on the world stage. In the early years of the war, she relates, "France's rapid defeat and the failure of the United States to come to her aid assured Hitler and his deputies that a war with the United States would end quickly." With its prime location on the Atlantic coast, Casablanca would offer a valuable staging ground for a German assault. "By using France's fleet and her naval bases in North Africa," Hindley writes, "Germany would be able to launch an offensive across the Atlantic."

Hindley is particularly adept at illuminating the tense inner workings of Vichy France, the unoccupied Free Zone under Marshal Philippe Pétain, and the elaborate power struggles that played out between high-ranking collaborators and French loyalists. She spotlights the role of 73-year-old Gen. Maxime Weygand, called out of retirement to serve as the Vichy minister of defense, who cannily maneuvered behind the scenes to prevent France's colonial holdings from falling into the hands of the Nazis. Weygand emerges as a thoroughly admirable if peppery figure: "It is a situation in which the greatest discretion must be exercised," he remarks at one stage. "It is a great misfortune that the British feel that everything must be shouted from the rooftops."

Hindley also makes good use of some of the era's most recognizable names, many of whom pop up in surprising ways. Josephine Baker, the barrier-breaking African American entertainer, puts her talents to use as a French resistance agent. "Regulations forbidding Jews and blacks to take the stage now banned Baker, once the toast of the City of Lights, from performing," Hindley relates. "A sign nailed to the door of the Folies-Bergère read, 'Access Forbidden to Dogs and Jews.' " Later, the French actor Maurice Chevalier is seen performing for prisoners of war at the same German stalag where he himself had been interned during World War I. Chevalier's "cozy relations" with the Vichy government, Hindley notes, landed him on a black list of Frenchmen suspected of collaborating with the Germans: "Some to be assassinated," the accusers vowed, "others to be tried when France is free." Hindley even throws in a literal fly-over by Capt. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, soon to be famous as the author of "The Little Prince," piloting a reconnaissance mission for the French air force.

With its lively storytelling and impressive scholarship, "Destination Casablanca" succeeds as a thorough and highly engaging chronicle of the French Moroccan theater of war. "Hopefully you aren't shocked — shocked! — at the differences between Hollywood's and history's Casablancas," Hindley writes in the book's final pages. Even today, she adds, a visit to the fabled city might bring about the beginning of a beautiful friendship or the end of an affair. "The White City endures," she tells us. "Just be sure to have your papers in order."

Destination Casablanca
Exile, Espionage, and the Battle for North Africa in World War II

By Meredith Hindley

PublicAffairs. 491 pp. $30