Africa Squadron, author J.R. Rogers, books about WWII, French Morocco, hunting German U-boats, Mission to Morocco by J.R. Rogers, Naval Lighter-Than-Air station, Office of Strategic Services, OSS, Port Lyautey, researching historical fiction, researching WWII, writing historical fiction, WWII blimps, WWII fiction
Mission to Morocco (MTM) had a rather auspicious birth. I was casting about, as I had with my three other novels, for a foreign setting in no large part because I was born and raised abroad of U.S. parents in Europe and Africa. Choosing somewhere in the world I’d never visited but wanted to has often encouraged me to set a story there. Also, because I’m a student of history, I invariably gravitated to a period in time in which I have never lived. I enjoy the research often more than the writing and it’s unquestionably easier to do.
I live in southern California, near a former World War II Navy base established in 1942 as Naval Lighter-Than-Air Station, a facility for airship operations in support of the United States Navy’s west coast patrol efforts to hunt down German U-boats in the Pacific during World War II. Consequently, I would often drive by the one huge remaining blimp hangar that still stands and dots the landscape, and can be seen for miles, and so somehow or another the idea of blimps as a story element caught my fancy and went on to become an integral part of the MTM story.
After several weeks of research, I further discovered that during World War II the Navy had established, at a blimp base near Boston, an air wing they named the Africa Squadron. It was so-called because the Navy used these blimps to patrol the coast of North Africa, up to and including Gibraltar, hunting for German U-boats. The blimps, huge and slow, could nonetheless accurately and silently drop bombs on enemy warships and they were based at a combined French/American airfield in Port Lyautey, Morocco. The transit time and effort to fly the blimps between Massachusetts and Morocco was a story in itself: 3,145 nautical miles in 58 hours, including time for stopovers in Newfoundland and the Azores.
This, then, was the genesis of the novel. It only remained to weave a story incorporating the actual facts: the blimps and their French Moroccan base, a novel I went on to set in the fall and winter of 1944. Locales would include Washington, DC, the blimp base in South Weymouth, MA, Port Lyautey, London, Casablanca, and Tangier.
My protagonist is a young, newly minted officer with the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to today’s CIA. His assignment is to shut down a ring of French-Moroccan pro-Nazi sympathizers and spies attempting to sabotage the Navy blimps. They take their directions from the German consul general in Casablanca who is in reality a Gestapo officer and an intelligence officer.
For a number of reasons I was never able to visit Morocco, though that hardly detracted from my vigorously setting about learning about Port Lyautey – now renamed Kenitra – and about French Morocco during the war years of the 1940s. I spent some two months online researching material and looking at many dozens of deckle-edged photographs of the period to enable me to describe with some validity places, architecture, terrain, and the types of clothes people wore.
I was also fortunate enough to find a website maintained by former Navy personnel who after the war went on to be stationed at Port Lyautey in the 1950s and were interested in the history of the place. Recently, they and or their descendants and children collected and posted online photographs of blimps and what the base looked like at the time, including the popular places in town, and the local people.
At the end of the war the Navy discontinued the blimp program and dirigibles were never again stationed in Port Lyautey, fixed wing aircraft were substituted. And when French Morocco gained its independence from France in 1956, the U.S. Navy turned the base over to the Moroccans.
Sounds like a marvellous read and wonderful historical detail, doesn’t it?
1944 – Colonel Ferdinand Hecht, who poses as a consular diplomat stationed in Casablanca, French Morocco, is in reality an SS officer with the Gestapo’s SD Afrika Intelligence Group. He directs a network of French spies reporting on American navy blimps operating from their Port Lyautey base against U-boats prowling the Straits of Gibraltar and coastal French Morocco.
America’s wartime intelligence agency the OSS is handed the task of dismantling the network and Lieutenant Sam Bradford arrives aboard a blimp of the Navy’s Africa Squadron to kidnap its suspected leader and transport him to London for interrogation. Under cover as a war correspondent, Bradford’s dogged investigation reveals a trail of local townspeople whose counterfeit demeanor masks their true allegiance to the Nazi spymaster. Intrigue, deception, and willful betrayal plunges the American lieutenant into a vortex of lies as the tentacles of the spy ring are uncovered, while embarking on a brief love affair with one of the suspects in the depraved Moroccan paradise.
Rich with atmosphere and period detail, the intrigue is played out against the northwest coastal town of Port Lyautey on the Sebou River where, in the dusty streets and alleys and in the byzantine Medina of this small colonial seaside town, the French influence is evident, but the compelling force is Arabic and overwhelming.