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

You may also enjoy: Last of the Giants - Yamato and Musashi

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