Monday, 16 September 2013

Who were the Saadian Dynasty?

Who indeed? When investigating this question I found that the Saadi were a powerful ruling dynasty responsible for uniting Morocco in the 16th Century in the face of attempted Ottoman pan-Islamic domination and opportunistic Portuguese imperialism. They left behind them the most impressive surviving monuments in the city of Marrakech, which I shall be visiting next month. Hence my initial query.
I have been to Marrakech before, twelve years ago, but the visit was relatively fleeting and I did not have time to take in its more historic attractions of which the Saadian tombs and Al Badi Palace are the foremost. Memories of the visit to be truthful are a little hazy if you know what I mean and so I am looking forward to re-making its acquaintance in a more cultured frame of mind.
So, anyway, to return to the question at hand: Who were the Saadian Dynasty?

The archetypal Moorish warrior leader

The Saadian Dynasty began as the major power in the south of Morocco, who mounted a challenge both to the incumbent ruling dynasty of the Wattasid Sultanate centred on Fez and to the Portuguese who had established a number of enclaves along the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts from which they sought to control the hinterland and gain access to the riches of the caravan trade in gold and slaves from Sub-Saharan Africa.
The presence of the Portuguese was a key driver behind the emergence of the Saadi as they put pressure on the tribes to select a leader with whom they could negotiate. This leader was regional strongman Abu Abdullah al Qaim who, rather than proving tractable, united the tribes of the south in jihad against the Portuguese. Following his death in 1517 his eldest son Mohammed ash Sheikh succeeded to his position and took up the mantle of jihad. In 1524 the Saadian forces conquered Marrakech. Three years later Mohammed's rule over the south was acknowledged by the Wattasid regent in Fez, ostensibly as governor, recognising the suzerainity of the Wattasids, but effectively as lord of the south.
The Saadi leader was happy to trade with other European powers in his quest to oust the Portuguese and acquired western gunpowder weapons for his campaigns. In 1541 he turned his weapons against the colony of Agadir. The Saadian forces, bolstered by Ottoman trained freebooters, approached the siege with unexpected professionalism. A Kasbah was constructed atop the hill which dominated the port from which the Saadian artillery could pound away at the Portuguese defences. When a barrel of gunpowder exploded the walls were breached and the city was taken.

This 1905 photograph shows the commanding position of the Kasbah above Agadir

In 1549 Mohammed turned his army against the Wattasid capital of Fez which also fell to his artillery. The city was briefly retaken by the Wattasids with Ottoman assistance five years later but Mohammed marched against them once more and defeated and killed the last Wattasid ruler in the Battle of Tadla fought close to Fez.
Mohammed ash Sheikh was seen as a threat by the Ottomans due to his claim of descent from the Prophet through the Fatimid line. He therefore did not recognise the Ottoman claim to the universal Caliphate and refused to acknowledge the Sultan in Constantinople as his nominal overlord. During a tax gathering expedition in the Atlas mountains in 1557 he was assassinated by his Janissary bodyguards.
Mohammed was succeeded by his son Abdullah al-Ghalib who successfully saw off an attempted Ottoman invasion in the following year. Al-Ghalib's reign was marked by political manoeuvring to counter Ottoman aggression by seeking alliance with the Spanish. His brothers al-Mansur and Abd al-Malik found themselves exiled during his reign and made their way to the Ottoman court. Both would fight in the Ottoman fleet at Lepanto in 1571. Abd al-Malik was taken prisoner by the Spanish but later escaped and returned to Constantinople. Al Ghalib died from an asthma attack in 1574 to be succeeded by his son Abdullah Mohammed.
In that same year Abd al-Malik arrived in Tunis with an Ottoman invasion fleet and following the successful capture of the port led a force of ten thousand Ottoman troops inland to take Fez, overthrowing his nephew who fled northwards; eventually finding his way to the court of the young King Sebastian of Portugal.

Sebastian I of Portugal

The 24 year old Sebastian had been raised on dreams chivalric glory combined with Jesuit zeal and the opportunity to lead a military expedition against the infidel, albeit with the aim of restoring Abdullah to the throne was irresistible. The political advantages of expelling the pro-Ottoman Abd al-Malik and replacing him with a Portuguese backed candidate were obvious and so Sebastian set out in 1578 at the head of an army perhaps as large as 20,000 men. It was a mixed force of Portuguese and mercenary troops from all over Europe attracted by the Papal blessing for the expedition and the prospect of loot.
The campaign was a complete disaster. At the Battle of Alcacer Quibir, also known as the Battle of the Three Kings, Sebastian's forces, tired and hungry from their march inland from Tangier, nevertheless mounted a bold but reckless charge against a Muslim force which out-numbered them by perhaps as many as three to one. Having initially driven their enemies back, the Portuguese and their allies were ultimately enveloped and overwhelmed by the superior numbers of the enemy, whose crescent formation allowed them to surge around the flanks. Sebastian himself fought furiously, with three horses being killed under him before at last, wounded in the arm, he was surrounded, overwhelmed and cut to pieces.
In the ensuing rout his army was annihilated. It was a disaster for Portugal which ultimately saw the kingdom annexed by Sebastian's uncle, Philip II of Spain.

Battle of Alcacer Quibir

Abd al-Malik did not live to see his victory however. Already fatally ill at the commencement of hostilities, the Sultan had to be tied onto his horse to keep him upright. By the battle's end he was dead. His brother al-Mansur was declared his successor on the battlefield. The deposed  Abdullah Mohammed had also fallen in the battle.
Under Al-Mansur the Saadian dynasty knew its golden age. Enriched by the ransoms of wealthy European prisoners taken at Alcacer Quibir, Al-Mansur was able to beautify his capital of Marrakech, constructing the magnificent Al Badi Palace, the remains of which stand to this day. He was a ruler with imperial ambitions and sought alliances as far afield as England, dispatching envoys to the court of Elizabeth I to seek an alliance against Spain. In 1591 he sent forth an expedition against the gold-rich Songhai Empire of Mali commanded by a Spanish born eunuch named Judar Pasha. This bold enterprise, marching an army of four thousand soldiers and an additional two thousand non-combatants using eight thousand camels to carry their supplies and  equipment which included arquebuses and canons on a 135 day crossing of the Sahara, caught the Songhai ruler entirely unprepared. At Tondibi the opposing forces met and the Malian defenders attempted to disrupt the Moroccan lines by sending ten thousand cattle in a stampede towards them. A volley of canon fire sent the stampede back towards the Malian lines and thus their own tactic rebounded upon them. The superior professionalism and firepower of the mostly mercenary Moroccan army carried the day. Reinforcement by a second expedition led to the swift collapse of the Songhai Empire and the occupation of its legendary cities of Gao, Djenne and Timbuktu which the Moroccans would control for the next thirty years before the logistical demands of maintaining such a far flung imperial possession proved too much.

A Nineteenth Century depiction of Timbuktu

Al Mansur died from the plague in 1603. He was succeeded by two of his sons ruling separately in Marrakech and Fez and so began the inevitable decline of the Saadian Dynasty as twenty five years of civil war beckoned, at the conclusion of which their empire was left fragmented and largely in the hands of local potentates, the Spanish or the Turks.

Rise of the Saadians

Battle of Alcacer Quibir

Expedition to Mali

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Sunday, 1 September 2013

Operation Torch in Morocco

As I am off to Morocco later this week, here is another Morocco related post. This one is on a more recent subject.

On 8th November 1942 a US Invasion fleet launched an amphibious assault on Moroccan soil against the occupying Vichy French forces in one of the three prongs of the North African landings known as Operation Torch. The other landings occurred simultaneously on the coasts of Tunisia and Algeria.
US Tanks on the quayside waiting to embark on Operation Torch
The level of expected resistance was unknown. Furtive diplomatic efforts had been undertaken in the hope of persuading the Vichy French command not to resist but the level of success of these overtures was difficult to ascertain with any certainty.
It was therefore decided that the initial landings should be undertaken by US forces since the Vichy French defenders were less likely to bear any ill will towards Americans rather than the British. The assault on Casablanca under the command of General George Patton would be the only one of the three to be an entirely American operation. A total force of a little under 45,000 men sailed directly from the US, escorted by a naval task force under the command of Admiral Henry Hewitt. The invasion fleet numbered 102 ships in total. They would face a defending force made up  mostly of native troops under French officers. In addition the port contained a collection of French warships and submarines of which the partially built battleship Jean Bart was the largest. Having fled St Nazaire in 1940 to escape capture, the Jean Bart had been laid up in Casablanca ever since. One turret of her main armament of 15 inch guns was operational and able to pose a threat to American shipping.

Patton planned to land his troops on three sites. The principle landing at Fedala (Codename Brushwood), 18 miles north of Casablanca would see the majority of the troops put ashore to advance upon the city. A second force would land at Safi (Codename Blackstone), 140 miles to the south with the objective of seizing the port and putting tanks ashore which would then race to attack Casablanca. A third force landing at Port Lyautey (Codename Goalpost), was tasked with the capture of a key airfield which would allow supporting air forces to be flown in from Gibraltar.

Patton and Hewitt aboard USS Augusta

On the night of 7th November an attempted coup by pro-Allied French elements failed to capture the headquarters of the Vichy commander Gen. Nogues.

The Safi landing under Gen. Harman was completed successfully for the loss of only 4 American lives. The port was swiftly taken although sporadic resistance continued for a further two days.

At Port Lyautey the assault on the airfield under Gen. Truscott was held up by stiff resistance mounted by 85 defenders occupying  an ancient kasbah. These defenders were finally circumvented when the destroyer USS Dallas was able to make its way up the Sebou River before running aground and turning her guns on the kasbah whilst commandos advanced to the airfield by boat. Resistance from the kasbah was finally overcome by a combination of shelling and bombing by land, sea and air.

At Fedala the landings began smoothly enough with early morning fog providing cover for the landing craft and three and a half thousand men were put ashore before dawn. At approximately 7am however the defenders opened fire upon the landing troops. Shore batteries opened up supported by the guns of the Jean Bart.

The standing orders for the invaders had been to fire only once fired upon by the defenders in the hope of a bloodless victory. As the first shots were fired however the coded message ‘Batter Up!’ crackled over the airwaves to be greeted by the response, ‘Play Ball!’ The order to return fire had been given.

USS Massachusetts

Jean Bart managed to fire seven salvos before a shell from the USS Massachusetts, the only battleship in the US task force, succeeded in jamming the rotating mechanism of the turret and putting it out of action. 3 French submarines were destroyed at their moorings by shelling and aerial attack.

A sortie by the remaining operational 1 French light cruiser, 6 destroyers and 5 submarines had little effect on the US force. Heavily outgunned by the American cruisers and battleship and under attack by aircraft from the carriers Ranger and Suwannee the destroyers were all sunk or forced by damage to run aground. The light cruiser Primauguet and two destroyers made it back into port but all were badly damaged. The cruiser was ablaze and was run aground and the two destroyers subsequently capsized. Those submarines which were armed with torpedoes made unsuccessful attacks on the American ships before making a run for the open sea. One was destroyed.

Aircraft on the flight deck of USS Ranger
The defenders of Fedala surrendered the port in the face of heavy bombardment from the American ships and the town was swiftly taken. By the end of the first day 8000 men were ashore but only 5 of 77 tanks had been landed and many landing craft had been lost as conditions had deteriorated.

On the following day heavy seas made landing supplies increasingly difficult and in the afternoon operations had to be abandoned altogether. The troops were left critically short of many supplies in particular ammunition and radios. Over half of the landing craft had been lost and lifeboats from the fleet had to be pressed into service to bring supplies ashore.

By the end of the day on 10th November the ground troops had advanced to within five miles of Casablanca, under fire from Vichy French artillery. Meanwhile the Jean Bart, which had completed repairs to her turret, resumed firing on the US fleet. The response was a sortie by dive bombers from USS Ranger who scored two direct hits with 1000lb bombs, causing the battleship to settle on the harbour bottom. She would later be refloated and completed and enjoy a long career with the French navy.

Jean Bart docked in Casablanca

The final assault on Casablanca was planned for the following morning but the dawn brought the surrender of the city and hostilities were over. Patton was free to turn his troops eastwards and advance towards Tunisia and Rommel’s retreating Afrika Korps. An unexpected blow was dealt to the invasion force when a German U-boat the U130 slipped through the escorts and succeeded in sinking three troop transports.
For Patton it had been a successful operation with minimal loss of life but the logistical nightmares had seen the general lose his famous temper, storming ashore threatening to ‘Flay the idle, rebuke the incompetent and drive the timid.’ He would keep them on their toes all the way to Germany!

An account of the air battle

More on Operation Torch

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