MUCH has been written in general terms about Dakar and the menace it might be to the United States if it should fall into German hands. Yet the American public knows little factually either about Dakar itself or about French West Africa, the area of which it is the capital.

French West Africa is a region of vast extent and magnificent distances, of varied climate and every sort of topography. Roughly, it includes the major portion of Africa lying south of the twentieth parallel of latitude and east of Lake Chad -- in size, something more than half of continental United States. Beginning on the seacoast at the north and proceeding down along the coast, the colonies which compose it are as follows: Mauritania, Senegal, Dakar (a sort of "District of Columbia"), French Guinea, the Ivory Coast, Togoland (a French mandate) and Dahomey. In the interior lie the French Sudan and the Niger Territory. Distances are enormous. Bamako is almost as distant from Dakar as Chicago is from New York. From east to west, French West Africa is roughly 2,200 miles in the widest section; and it is approximately 1,600 miles from north to south.

In spite of its large area, the population of French West Africa totals less than 15,000,000, and of these only a few thousand are white civilians, most of them members of the civil administration or officers and employees of the commercial houses and banks which are established there. In addition, France ordinarily has certain military forces in this territory--native troops with white officers and sometimes white noncommissioned officers. It is a tribute to the colonizing ability of the French that they have controlled and administered this huge territory with such a small number of white officials and officers. One reason why the population is sparse is that large areas are desert or semidesert, while others are practically uninhabitable on account of the tsetse fly.

Nevertheless, great parts of French West Africa possess much potential agricultural wealth. Thus before the present war, France obtained much of her coffee, cocoa, mahogany, bananas and other tropical fruits from the Ivory Coast; tropical fruits and various other agricultural produce from French Guinea; some cotton from the French Sudan; and from the Senegal large quantities of peanuts, which provide an oil much used for edible and industrial purposes. Transportation has presented difficulties. The only railroads are the line from Dakar to Bamako and Koulikoro in the Sudan, with a branch north from Dakar to St. Louis; the line from Conakry on the coast of French Guinea to Kankan in the interior of this colony; the line from Port Bouet and Abidjan on the shores of the Ivory Coast to Bobo-Dioulasso on the upper Ivory Coast; and a few short lines running inland from Lomé in Togoland and Cotonou and Porto Novo in Dahomey. These all are narrow-gauge lines. The roadbed in general is good, but the equipment of rolling stock is insufficient. The new railway from Algeria to French West Africa, about which so much is rumored and so little known, will probably have Bamako as its southern terminus. There it would connect with the already existing line between Bamako and Dakar.

A serious effort has been made to develop a network of roads, but many of them are unusable during the rainy season and few are really good.[i] Most of them have been constructed of local materials and so they vary greatly in quality. In general, they may be described as "dirt" roads. To a large extent they have followed old trails which have been improved by grading, rolling and ditching and by the building of bridges and culverts and the installation of ferries. In some places, rock ballast has been used. They tend to be dusty in the dry season and muddy in the wet. Some stretches of even the main roads shown on the accompanying map are impassable during the rainy period, partly on account of mud and partly because ferries cannot be safely used on the swollen streams. On the other hand, in the rainy season some sections of the rivers become useful for transport. The great Niger is difficult of passage at its mouth, due to myriad shoals and bars. Other sections are strewn with rocks and rapids. Below Mopti the river meanders by a labyrinth of channels through great swamps and marshes. But in the rainy season, it becomes deep enough even here for small boats, which carry the accumulated produce of the region to the railhead at Bamako.

Because of the British semi-blockade, discussed later in this article, many of the roads have experienced especially heavy service in recent months and have been badly cut up. Simultaneously the difficulty of maintenance has been increased because graders, rollers, etc., can no longer be used due to lack of gasoline and repair parts. I personally drove from St. Louis to Dakar and from Bobo-Dioulasso to Bamako. Parts of the first road had been recently repaired and were in good shape; the latter had experienced hard service and was badly torn up. It took 12 hours driving time in a Chevrolet car to cover the 225 miles from Bobo-Dioulasso to Bamako, with no time lost because of tire trouble or breakdowns. Both trips were made in the good season.

II

The importance of French West Africa at the present time is not predicated principally either on its vast area or on the valuable products raised there, but is chiefly due to the strategic location and military strength of the port of Dakar, which lies at the extreme westerly point of Africa on approximately the 15th parallel of latitude. This places it, by normal sea routes, about 3,500 miles from London and 2,300 miles from Lisbon, but only some 1,800 miles from Natal in Brazil. This simple fact ought to be enough to indicate its vital importance to the United States at the present conjuncture of world affairs. For let it be remembered that the distance from Bermuda to Horta, in the Azores, is some 2,000 miles, and that this hop is made regularly by the Clippers in the course of one brief night.

Dakar would be useful to the Germans if they could get it. But its value would not depend alone on the possibilities of its use as an air base for aggression against Latin America and eventually against the United States. It also would be extremely useful as a submarine base. In peacetime, Dakar was a frequent port of call for ships from Europe going to ports on the west or south coasts of Africa and for those passing around the Cape of Good Hope. It was also commonly a port of call for ships from southern Europe going to Brazil or the Argentine. That, more than its service as the major port of western French West Africa, was why its facilities were developed until they compared favorably with all but the greatest of the chief world ports. Its harbor is excellent, protected as it is to the north and west by the hook of land known there as the Corniche and to the south by a small island "la Gorée," and these natural features have been strengthened by the construction of breakwaters. Piers have been built, both for merchandise and passengers. On one side of the port is a pier expressly constructed to permit easy fueling of ships either by oil or coal. All of these piers have sufficient water alongside to provide for all except very large liners. In addition there is an excellent drydock and a submarine basin. These various features equip Dakar to serve ideally as a submarine base for German raids on British and other shipping anywhere in the central or south Atlantic.

A relatively minor but by no means negligible reason why Dakar is important is the fact that it is the capital and the administrative center of all of French West Africa. One can hardly say that whoever holds Dakar holds all of French West Africa; but it certainly is true that whoever possesses it has a strong natural grip on the territory of which it is the capital.

III

Let us now analyze the situation existing at Dakar in particular and in French West Africa in general.

Certain basic facts are important to keep in mind. In the first place, no nation thinks or reacts to events in just the same way as another nation does. Thus the French, whether at home or in the colonies, do not react just as Americans might think they would react to a given situation. Secondly, the events which took place at the time of the French defeat and surrender must be kept constantly in mind. It was an experience which shook Frenchmen to their very roots, and which has left them dazed. One reaction on the part of many of the French whom I met during the months spent in French West Africa was that it could not really be true and that if it were true then it could not fundamentally be their fault. Such a major catastrophe to a proud nation with a glorious history could only be the result of a betrayal, either on the part of their own government or on the part of their allies. The rationalization that the fall of France had been largely the fault of the British was, of course, sedulously cultivated by the Germans.

This particular feeling among the French in West Africa was inflamed by Dakar's unfortunate experience in September 1940, when the city was bombarded by the British fleet. There seems general agreement by most persons, the British included, that this action was a gigantic error. The intelligence work of the Free French must have been singularly inept and the judgment of the British most misguided. But the unpardonable sin was to fail to finish what was started. If the attempt to take Dakar was to be made at all it should certainly have been carried through to completion regardless of the cost.

The French in West Africa naturally think of the bombardment of Dakar as the biggest event of the war. Some of them speak of it as "our war." The shells from the British ships were badly aimed, according to usual British naval standards, and fell in many parts of the city. Some 75 whites were killed and approximately twice that many wounded, and an unknown number of casualties were suffered by the natives. Practically all of the citizens of the city, regardless of their basic sympathies, were proud that the British were successfully repulsed.

Nor was the bombardment of Dakar the only instance where the French and British have encountered each other in this area in the present struggle. A number of weeks earlier the British made a successful raid on the 35,000-ton battleship Richelieu which had escaped to Dakar after the downfall of France. At the time the British were acutely worried lest this ship, one of the most modern and powerful in the world, might, together with other units of the French Navy, be turned over to Germany by the Vichy Government. They felt it absolutely necessary to put her out of action, and achieved their aim in one of the most daring and romantic exploits of the war. A British officer and a few ratings in a small boat, with engine carefully muffled, brought in a mine, attached it to the stern of the Richelieu, exploded it and escaped. The explosion seriously damaged the vessel's steering gear and several of the propellers. Because the Dakar drydock is far too narrow to accommodate the Richelieu, coffer-dams had to be constructed and, after that, months of effort were needed to effect elementary repairs. In fact, it was not until the spring of 1941 that repair of the steering gear was finally completed, and even then one of the four propellers was still entirely useless and one could be used at only part speed. Furthermore, having been moored for months in tropical waters, the ship's bottom was badly fouled. Although it is now believed that she could put to sea, she would be able to proceed only at much reduced speed. It is interesting to note that although the British attack on the Richelieu is of course resented in Dakar, it caused nowhere near the amount of ill-feeling that the bombardment did. It was considered a brilliant coup and many Frenchmen in their hearts admire the audacity and success with which it was carried through.

Difficulties between the French and British in and around Dakar have not been limited to naval encounters. A cause of continual French complaint is the British semi-blockade of French West Africa. Due to the war, the only ships which have any possibility of entering and leaving the ports of French West Africa are those flying the flag of the Vichy Government. This is because German consent is required to enable a ship to enter a port in France, and if such consent were obtained then the British would refuse navicerts thereafter. Hence, neutral shipping is, as a matter of practice, excluded. From time to time Vichy French ships have sailed from Dakar for Casablanca and French ports loaded with colonial products, especially peanuts useful for manufacturing margarine as well as for industrial purposes. At first the Germans were content to take over a certain portion of these cargoes when they reached France, but as German needs increased they seized larger and larger portions. Presently, they changed their methods. Instead of requisitioning a percentage of the products outright they allowed the shipments to be consigned and delivered to French concerns, but then they came around to the storehouses or factories and bought up as large a proportion of the deliveries as they desired, using banknotes printed for them, on their orders, by the Bank of France. Obviously, the British could not permit these leaks through their blockade to go unchallenged, and began picking up ships trading between France and French West Africa. The usual British practice at first was to permit Vichy French merchantmen to pass when escorted by French men-of-war, so as to avoid further armed encounters with the French Navy, but to pick up ships sailing alone whenever found. Later the British began halting convoys also. As a result, sea commerce south of Dakar has been practically stopped, and trade from Dakar to Casablanca and France has been greatly reduced. A further British complaint is that the French authorities, at the time of the downfall of France, refused to permit many British ships to escape from French ports. In support of this accusation one sees in Dakar two British ships which since the summer of 1940 have been refused permission to leave. The recent spectacular escape of a Norwegian ship from Dakar called attention to the fact that some 18 or 20 other ships, principally Norwegian, Danish and Greek, are also being held there.

The hardships entailed for the inhabitants of Dakar by the British blockade, as well as for the people of France proper, and the resulting financial and economic losses, cause widespread irritation. By a process of rationalization most Frenchmen that one meets in Dakar are able to convince themselves that if the British would allow foodstuffs to go through to France from West Africa only a small portion would really benefit the Germans. Many fail to understand, too, to what extent shipping is indispensable to Great Britain if she is to win this war, and that she must find ships where she can to replace those sunk by the Germans in their blockade of the British Isles.

IV

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the British blockade, one thing is certain -- that it is a matter of vital concern to the French of West Africa in general and to the inhabitants of Dakar and the adjoining parts of Senegal in particular. In the first place, this area is largely dependent on imported food. Dakar is a city of 100,000, some 5,000 of them whites and the balance natives. The immediate hinterland produces little besides the peanuts which in normal times were largely exported and so gave the natives their purchasing power. The city of Dakar itself gained its purchasing power through trade, banking, shipping and other commercial activities, and through governmental expenditures. The natives lived principally on rice imported from Indo-China. The whites consumed meat from South America and South Africa, flour from France, garden stuff in season from France, Morocco and other places, and canned goods largely from the United States. All these have now been cut off. The last rice available was issued to the natives in April. At that time, there was talk of bringing in corn from Dahomey to feed them, but how it was to be transported some 2,000 miles or more in view of the existing British blockade was a question that never was solved. In the spring, bread was already rationed and was of a decidedly inferior quality; meat was becoming increasingly scarce; and such things as canned milk, essential for the white babies and children, were almost exhausted. As time goes on, it seems almost certain that the food stringency in Dakar will become increasingly acute.

But the shortages are not limited to food. In French West Africa quinine is almost indispensable, especially during the rainy season when every white person normally takes five grains a day. Months ago the supplies of this and other important drugs were practically exhausted. There is also a serious lack of cotton for native garments and of clothing for the whites, including stockings, shoes, and such ordinary articles as needles, thread, buttons, etc. Soap is produced locally, but of an inferior quality. There is also a serious lack of petroleum products of all kinds -- gasoline, kerosene, diesel oil and lubricants. The United States is reported to have sent in some gasoline, with British consent; but the amounts indicated fall far short of what is needed for the functioning of the country's economy on even a minimum basis.

French West Africa also has another complaint against the British and the Free French -- the anti-German and anti-Vichy propaganda which they are circulating both by radio and leaflets. In their zeal to help defeat Germany, in their regret and anger that all France did not stay in the struggle, the Free French have not always been discreet in what they have said in the attempt to win over their compatriots. Shortly after they secured control of French Equatorial Africa, they established a radio station at Brazzaville from which they have propagandized French West Africa. Some of their broadcasts, especially in the early months, lacked tact. Not infrequently undignified personal attacks were made on Governor-General Boisson, and though these were later dropped the memory of the earlier tirades lingers. The leaflets distributed among the natives also caused resentment, it being alleged that they were so phrased as to incite native revolts.

The treatment accorded the British who were in French West Africa at the time of the downfall of France or who have come there since, albeit inadvertently and unwillingly, varies greatly and thus indicates the mixed feelings that prevail among most Frenchmen in the area. News has been published in the United States of numerous ships sunk by submarines off the coast of West Africa. Ocean currents and winds are such that many of the survivors have come ashore on the coast of Senegal and some on the coast of French Guinea. According to the terms of the French armistice with Germany, all male British subjects between the ages of 16 and 48 found within French territory are to be interned. These British survivors within the age group indicated have in general been so interned. Boys under sixteen, older men and the few women who have been on the torpedoed ships have usually been returned by circuitous routes to British territory. The divergence of opinion among the French has been illustrated by the diversity of treatment accorded these persons in traversing French colonial territory. In some places, they have been well treated, in others they have been treated as common criminals.

V

In considering the state of opinion in French West Africa, we may group together the civil government and the army. In both these hierarchies, but particularly in the army, opinion is determined largely by the ranking officers. The civil government is headed by Governor-General Boisson, a man of dominating personality and of unusual energy in spite of the fact that he has an artificial leg and that his hearing is impaired as the result of his part in the first World War. In general, the army and government attitude is one of definite hostility to the Germans, though carefully muted because of the exigencies of the existing situation. No love is lost for the British, but whatever enmity there may be is definitely subordinated, at least at present, to the anti-German sentiment. Perhaps the general attitude may be most succinctly expressed in a phrase credited to Governor-General Boisson: "I defended Dakar against the British; I will defend it a hundred times more so against the Germans."

In the navy, however, the story is somewhat different. Many of the officers -- though by no means all of them -- look on Great Britain as the principal enemy. The French naval losses at Mers-el-Kebir, Dakar and Alexandria are of recent date and still rankle. Moreover, just as with the French Army the traditional enemy has long been Germany, that of the French Navy has been Great Britain. Trafalgar still has not been entirely forgotten. And for generations French naval circles have suffered from a certain inferiority complex in regard to the British Navy. Furthermore, the most important "appeaser" in France at present is Admiral Darlan, who naturally has selected naval men who share his point of view to send to such an important station as Dakar.

Items have appeared in the American press and announcements have been heard over the radio from time to time about "hordes" of German tourists being in Dakar. After the bombardment of September 1940, a rumor even circulated that the successful defense of the city had been due to the presence of German troops. My own observation was that until the first part of the summer there were no evidences on the spot of Germans being in Dakar or elsewhere in French West Africa, and information received subsequently indicated that the situation had not changed in the first months following. Of course, this is no guaranty that the Germans will not try to get to Dakar in the near future and may not succeed.

The most important unknown factor is the attitude of the French. If they really put up the stiffest resistance of which they are capable, Germany would have serious difficulties in capturing the city. French West Africa is separated from the settled areas of Algiers by some 1,500 miles of desert, and the distance to Morocco is almost equally great. The only practical way at present to traverse this difficult territory is by airplane. Only the largest planes could make a flight of this length and arrive at Dakar with any considerable reserves of fuel. If the French were willing to adopt a "scorched earth" policy, German invaders by air would confront an almost insoluble problem of supply, provided the British, with or without American help, maintain control of the surface of the middle Atlantic. The only other way to reach French West Africa is by sea. At present the Germans are not in a position to attempt to transport any appreciable body of troops to French West Africa by sea except in submarines. This would be both difficult and hazardous, especially if a landing had to be effected in the face of French opposition. If the French chose to coöperate, of course, the problem would assume quite another form.

The policy of Pétain and Darlan is apt to be decided by large considerations, both international and domestic, and no attempt will be made to forecast their action in this short article. There are, however, one or two points in the local situation to which it is appropriate to call attention. As already pointed out, Governor-General Boisson is on record as stating that he would defend Dakar a hundred times more vigorously against the Germans than he did against the British, and there seems no reason to doubt that his statement is sincere and that it accords with his own personal feelings. On the other hand, he is also reported to have said that he is a good soldier and that he will obey any orders which he may receive from his commander-in-chief, Marshal Pétain. If Marshal Pétain, under pressure of the Germans or for other reasons of expediency, whether national or personal, should issue such an order, nobody knows what Governor-General Boisson's attitude would be. Many of the ranking naval officers at Dakar, as already noted, are definitely hostile to the British. There is no reason to suppose that most of them would not even be willing to obey orders from Vichy to collaborate with the Germans. The possibility would be increased if Governor-General Boisson were to be recalled, as rumor indicated last spring might be Admiral Darlan's intention. A shift over to an admiral especially selected by Admiral Darlan would at once arouse misgivings both as regards possible German intentions of aggression in this region and as regards Vichy's complicity in those intentions. So far, however, Governor-General Boisson is still at his post and rumors of his possible removal have been heard less frequently of late. If the French should decide to resist a German attack on Dakar what means do they have at their disposal? Naturally they are not publishing such information and hence only a general estimate of the possibilities can be made. The native troops in and around Dakar, officered by whites, have been going through a course of training for months past and their number has been augmented by recruits. The batteries defending Dakar have been increased both in number and strength. There are a certain number of airplanes at Dakar, both fighters and small bombers, and the airfield there is excellent. It is reasonable to assume that the French have endeavored to increase the number of planes and augment their supply of munitions in recent months. Deep bomb-proof shelters said to be sufficient to protect the entire white civilian population of Dakar have been constructed.

However, the main defense of Dakar are the Richelieu and the French naval units now in Atlantic waters, including a number of cruisers, destroyers and submarines. Although the Richelieu is not really fit for sea duty because of her fouled bottom and the damage to her screws, she can be navigated if necessary. Her present position in the port of Dakar makes her essentially a floating part of the defenses of that city. With her fifteen-inch guns and secondary batteries, her anti-aircraft artillery and her trained officers and men, she is indeed a formidable defensive unit.

If it was the British rather than the Germans that the French were called upon to resist, they would have to face the possibility of an air attack from Bathurst, in Gambia, only about 80 miles distant. But the strategic situation of Gambia is weak -- a long tongue of land, only some 20 miles wide, surrounded on three sides by French territory. The French think that in case of hostilities they could nip it off in a few days. All in all, the French in Dakar ought to be able, if they wished, to put up a strong resistance to attack, whether German or British, and whether by land or sea.

If Hitler should seek to relieve pressure on his troops in Libya, he might turn his attention to the western Mediterranean, perhaps striking through Spain and Portugal at Gibraltar and Morocco. In such an eventuality Dakar in particular and French West Africa as a whole will again become front-page news, both as possible German objectives on Hitler's further way to South America, and also as possible points at which an effective defense might be built up against him.

[i] Main roads in general are passable all the year round. Secondary roads are impassable in the rainy season, as follows: Senegal (upper), June through October; (Casamance area), June through December. French Guinea, July first to mid-October. Ivory Coast (lower), mid-April to mid-June and mid-September to mid-December; (upper) mid-May to mid-October. Dahomey, May through December. French Sudan, mid-June to mid-October. Mauritania, mid-July through January. Niger, mid-June to mid-October. Togo, May through October.

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  • PAUL M. ATKINS, consulting economist, recently in French West Africa on behalf of American clients; author of a number of books and papers on economic and industrial problems
  • More By Paul M. Atkins