Operation Torch: YBSOB Decoded
One of the most critical issues facing the Allies in 1942 was where to open a second front in the West. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill were painfully aware that the Soviet Union was bearing the brunt of the fighting on the Eastern Front. After much deliberation, the decision was made to launch Operation Torch, an Anglo-American amphibious landing on the French North African coast. Lt. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was selected as the Supreme Allied Commander. Eisenhower tapped as his deputy Maj. Gen. Mark Clark.
Stakes were high for the Western Allies. It was Eisenhower’s debut as a supreme commander and the first time that Americans would be launching a major operation in the theater. The political landscape was at least as treacherous as the military one, because French North Africa was administered by the pro-German Vichy French government. Great care, and much hope, went into efforts to try and ensure that the French military would mount no more than a token resistance to the landings.
Torch consisted of landings by three task forces, with Maj. Gen. George S. Patton leading the landings in French Morocco, Maj. Gen. Lloyd Fredendall the landings in western Algeria and Maj. Gen. Charles Ryder the landings at central Algeria. Because of the animosity the Vichy government had against England, a major fear was that the French would fight fiercely if they knew British troops were involved. As a result the three task force commanders were American, as was the bulk of the landing force. After the beachheads had been secured, Clark was to fly to French North Africa and coordinate efforts under Eisenhower’s name with the French authorities while Eisenhower remained in his headquarters in Gibraltar.
The days leading up to the Torch landings were tense ones. On the evening of Nov. 6, just two days before the assault, Eisenhower and Clark found themselves unable to sleep. Sitting together in their pajamas and robes, the two shot the breeze over drinks. At one point, their discussion turned to military codes and Eisenhower suggested they create a personal one that Clark would use when he arrived in Algiers.
They both got out notepads and proceeded to make a list of names and matching code words. Churchill became “Jim,” Roosevelt became “Bill.” As names were added, other innocuous code words were chosen. Toward the end of the list’s creation, one of them (Clark recalled, “We’ve argued since about which one it was.”) said, “There ought to be a code word that just means a son-of-a-bitch.” Clark laughed. Both men had spent time in Washington, D.C., and London and had encountered more than their share of officious, obdurate, and intrusive politicians and senior military officers who had a knack for creating problems. He then said that they couldn’t use S.O.B., as the Germans undoubtedly already knew what that acronym meant. After a moment’s pondering, Clark said, “How about YBSOB – yellow-bellied son-of-a-bitch?”
Amused, Eisenhower agreed. YBSOB it was. And, shortly after Clark arrived in Algiers, his personally coded memorandums to Eisenhower were liberally sprinkled with the code acronym YBSOB. It seemed Algiers was full of them, particularly among the French high command responsible for civil affairs in French North Africa. Because the political situation with the French authorities was potentially explosive as a result of its collaborationist Vichy roots, copies were also forwarded to the White House in order to keep Roosevelt fully informed.
Several days later Clark received a message from Roosevelt forwarded to him from Eisenhower. Eisenhower’s cover note read, “I transmit to you the president’s message for you to reply direct.” The communication from Roosevelt said, in part, “I’m [reading] Clark’s dispatches from . . . Algiers with great interest. And he has my sympathy. . . . But there occurs a word that appears so frequently I’m led to believe it’s a typographical error. It is YBSOB.”
As Eisenhower had passed the buck to Clark, it was up to the Deputy Supreme Commander to ’fess up. Clark manfully got straight to the point in his response to the president: “The word YBSOB is not a typographical error. It means yellow-bellied-son-of-a-bitch.”
Three days later, Clark received a message from an amused Roosevelt: “I appreciate your frank message. And I agree with you on the necessity for having a word like that available. I only wish I had invented it when I first came to Washington, for there are a lot of them around here, too.”