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First Fire of Operation Torch - November '96 World War II Feature

Originally published by World War II magazine. Published Online: August 19, 1996 
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In the crucible of Operation Torch, the men of Sub-Task Force Goalpost received their baptism of fire capturing the Moroccan town of Port Lyautey.

by Pierre Comtois

The darkened ships of Sub-Task Force Goalpost lay silentlyoff the coast of a great continent. Ashore, lights gleamed,marking the unsuspecting target of the assault planned to takeplace before dawn. Suddenly, there was movement at the mouth of the Sebou River where it emptied into the sea from a long jetty. A line of four light steamers, well lit, crept out to sea directly toward the assembled fleet.

Brigadier General Lucian K. Truscott watched them warily from the deck of his command ship Henry T. Allen until the lead vessel was close enough for him to read its name, even in the dark early morning. As Lorraine passed Allen, the steamer blinkered a signal, and a young naval officer standing with Truscott translated it from the French: "Be warned. Alert on shore for 5." As the ships steamed out to open water, Truscott wrestled with the knowledge that the most ambitious combined-arms operation in history had been discovered by the enemy in its climactic hour.

Sub-Task Force Goalpost was only a single part of a larger, three-pronged invasion fleet called the Western Task Force, whose mission was to invade French Morocco. The Western Task Force in turn, was yoked to two others, the Center and Eastern task forces. The three task forces, under the aegis of Operation Torch, had the mission of seizing all of French North Africa. It was a military operation of immense complication, involving the assembly and coordination of hundreds of ships, thousands of tons of supplies and countless man-hours of planning and training under the added stress of cooperating with new allies and trying to second guess the intentions of the enemy. All this by a nation that had not even been at war a few months before. But once involved, the United States was an eager participant.

The final agreement on the Allies' first combined military action in the European theater did not come about overnight. The self-confident Americans had arrived in England early in 1942, spoiling for the showdown with Hitler. To the horror of their British counterparts, they suggested an immediate cross-Channel attack into France. With patience and persistence, the British explained the practical difficulties of mounting such a huge operation so soon, including the fact that the Allies were losing vast amounts of shipping to German submarines in the Atlantic. Until that problem was licked, they could not build up the materiel needed for an invasion of France. On July 22 the Americans approved Operation Torch, the British alternative to an invasion of Europe.

Although the grand design of Torch had the objective of securing all of North Africa for the Allies by squeezing Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps between Lt. Gen. Bernard Montgomery's British Eighth Army in the east and the combined American, British and possibly Free French forces in the west, it was not that simple. French forces in North Africa were under the command of the Vichy government, whose first concern was not to give the Germans any excuse for occupying the rest of France or her possessions. Unofficially, there were plenty of Frenchmen eager for an opportunity to actively support the Allies. Add to those two factors the element of French pride, and the Allies had a situation that was almost impossible to predict.

To find out how the French would react to an invasion of North Africa, the Allies flooded Morocco and Algeria with spies, set up an elaborate network of clandestine radios, arranged secret meetings with French officers and even succeeded in smuggling out of France the four-star general Henri Giraud, whose prestige, it was hoped, would convince the French military in North Africa not to resist the planned invasion. Even with all of this activity, however, there was still no guarantee that the landings would be unopposed.

Meanwhile, preparations for Torch continued, with the final plans calling for three separate groups of landings. The Eastern Task Force would land at Algiers, the Algerian capital, and the Center Task Force at the Algerian port city of Oran. The trickiest part of those operations would be when they passed through the Strait of Gibraltar; if U-boats caught them in that natural choke point, the Germans would have a field day. Consequently, the concern of the planners for the Mediterranean area was primarily one of deception. The third part of Operation Torch, the Western Task Force, had a number of other problems that made its task the most complicated of them all.

Placed under the command of General George Patton, the Western Task Force had the advantage of having a man at the top who would stop at nothing to see that the mission was accomplished, a quality that would be needed in the days ahead. Naval operations were in the hands of Rear Adm. H. Kent Hewitt, an easygoing man who, in the beginning, found it difficult to work with Patton, but with increasing familiarity became a solid partner.

One of the things that made the Western Task Force a tougher challenge than the others was the fact that its entire troop complement would be made up of American soldiers without combat experience. The question was often asked as to how they would perform in battle. Although there were plenty of veteran American officers whose experience went back to World War I, the U.S. Army of November 1942 was largely a new creation–its troops trained hastily after the attack on Pearl Harbor, sometimes at half-built facilities and with wooden guns.

As the weeks passed, Patton overcame problems of organization, supply, transportation, assembly and even last-minute training. On October 23, the same day that Montgomery launched his attack on El Alamein, Admiral Hewitt brought out the fleet from Hampton Roads and set sail. Elements of the invasion force left at separate times and from different places, finally assembling somewhere in the Atlantic as the troops continued to train aboard ship. At last, the armada reached the waters off Africa and once again divided into its three component parts. Operation Blackstone would land at the Moroccan port just south of Casablanca; Operation Brushwood would come ashore at Fedala, just north of Casablanca; and Operation Goalpost, under the command of General Truscott, with the most difficult mission of the three, would strike farthest north at Port Lyautey.

Although Truscott's mission was to attack Port Lyautey, the main purpose of Goalpost was to seize the airfield outside the town, preferably by the end of the first day ashore, in order for planes waiting on the carrier Chenango to use it to support the attack on Casablanca. It was easier said than done. An attempted overthrow of the Vichy French government in Morocco had failed just before the arrival of the invading army, dashing any hopes that the landing would be unopposed. As it was, the invading troops had an obstacle course of defenses, both natural and man-made, to overcome to reach the airfield. The town of Port Lyautey actually sat well back from the coast on the southern bend of the Sebou River. As the river bent northward and then southward again, it emptied into the sea along a jetty that stuck out beyond the shoreline. Within the western loop sat the airport, guarded by a number of anti-aircraft guns. Furthermore, the river was blocked by a cable stretched across it that would need to be cut before troops could be brought up and deposited at the airport.

Goalpost would be divided into three segments, made up of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd battalions of the 60th Regimental Combat Team (of the 9th Infantry Division), and placed ashore at Yellow and Blue beaches in the extreme south, at Green Beach just south of the jetty, and Red Beach to the north of the Sebou. A series of ridges ran along Red Beach that the 3rd Battalion, under Lt. Col. John J. Toffey, would need to cross in order to reach Hill 58 and establish a fire-control team to support the attack on the airfield. Separate units were expected to seize a bridge over the Sebou leading into Port Lyautey on the north. To the extreme south, the 1st Battalion, under Major Percy McCarley, would have to find a narrow road that gave access between a long lagoon to the left and more ridges to the right. Three miles inland, the 1st was to establish a strong blocking force along the Rabat­Port Lyautey road to protect Goalpost's southern flank from tanks known to be stationed at Rabat. Meanwhile, another unit would move northeast toward the airport.

Finally, the 2nd Battalion, under Major John H. Dilley, the "Go-Devils," would land just below the Sebou and immediately attack an old fort, called the Casbah, and its adjacent lighthouse that protected the river approaches to Port Lyautey. To get to it, the troops would have to fight their way past a single 200-yard opening in the ridges that was protected by six 138.6mm guns and sundry other obstacles, including machine guns, 75mm guns mounted on flatcars, and entrenchments.

In the early morning darkness of November 8, 1942, the Sub-Task Force, carrying 9,000 jittery troops, approached the Moroccan coast and promptly got lost. The flagship, the battleship USS Texas, ordered a change in course, and during the maneuver the other ships became confused and lost formation. In addition, ship-to-ship communications became snarled. Noticing some naval officers' nervous behavior, Truscott asked Commodore Harold Gray if he knew where they were. "Well, General," Gray replied, "to be perfectly honest, I am not sure exactly where we are." This admission and lack of communication with his commanders aboard the other ships led Truscott to the desperate expedient of taking a launch from ship to ship to inform his commanders that no matter what the condition of the fleet, the mission was to proceed as planned, with the exception that they would begin a half hour later than scheduled.

Although the landing should still have taken place in darkness, the confusion in assembling landing craft and sending them to an uncertain shore caused the first waves to hit the beaches a little after 6 a.m.–in full daylight. And Truscott had another headache waiting for him when he returned to his ship. There, his staff informed him that a pre-recorded message from President Franklin D. Roosevelt and General Dwight D. Eisenhower to the French ashore was at that moment being broadcast. The Eastern and Center task forces had landed ahead of schedule, forcing the broadcast. But what was timely for others proved detrimental to Goalpost. Now the enemy knew they were coming for sure.

As dawn began to break and the first ragged waves of landing craft began to churn toward shore, bad luck continued to haunt the mission. McCarley's 1st Battalion missed both of its designated beaches and landed almost 3,000 yards north of Blue Beach, with its second wave coming ashore before the first. Meeting no opposition, the men sorted themselves out, hiked around the southern end of the lagoon and made their way rapidly inland to the roadway to establish their positions on the flank.

Five minutes after the 1st Battalion landed, at 5:40 a.m., Dilley's 2nd Battalion came ashore, guided by previously placed signal lights, while enemy searchlights and red flares arced into the sky. The French coastal guns opened up on the fleet, but the guns of the destroyer Eberle extinguished the searchlights while the cruiser Savannah tried to put the shore batteries out of commission. Suddenly the Go-Devils were obliged to throw themselves flat on the beach as two Vichy French Dewoitine fighter planes swept into action.

With the roar of guns, the drone of planes, the shouts of men, amphibious tanks sinking in the surf and other vehicles struggling against the loose sand, Mehedia Beach was a mass of confusion. Truscott himself knew little of what was happening. His only information was coming from two men, Colonel Demas D. Craw and Major Pierpont M. Hamilton, who had landed with the 2nd Battalion to take a personal message to Colonel Charles Petit, commander of Vichy forces in Port Lyautey, asking him to lay down his arms and join the Allies. As soon as they hit Green Beach, the two men were to grab a jeep and race to the town ahead of the advancing troops. As they went in, they radioed Truscott, " At mouth of river. Being shelled by enemy and our own Navy….On Green Beach….Troops landed and moving inland. Proceeding on mission."

Far behind schedule, Toffey's 3rd Battalion had finally managed to get its landing craft to shore by 6:30 a.m., but the troops had still gotten lost. More than five miles north of Red Beach, Toffey decided to abandon the original plan and make a consolidated landing where he was and march overland to his proper position. Although the initial landing was unopposed, French fighter planes appeared overhead as the troops were still getting their equipment ashore. Two were shot down by groundfire before the rest were chased away by American F4F Wildcat fighters from the carrier Ranger. Consulting his maps, Toffey determined where they had come ashore and began to lead his men up the 165-foot ridge near the coast and from there to Hill 58, five miles away.

By noon, Toffey had his naval gunfire control party set up on the hill with telephone wire strung back to the coast along a hastily constructed road. Naval fire was soon being directed onto the airfield, and the 60th Field Artillery Battalion was getting its heavier equipment atop nearby Hill 74. As midnight approached, scouting parties reported that the bridge leading into Port Lyautey from the north was heavily defended and mined.

Meanwhile, the first day on the beach was not proving to be the walkover the 2nd Battalion had hoped it would be. Facing Moroccan tirailleurs (skirmishers) and French Foreign Legionnaires, the battalion's mission was to take the Casbah before its occupants had time to rally a defense. Unfortunately, the French were waiting for them. After a naval barrage on the old fort forced Dilley's green troops to retreat, the Go-Devils divided into two companies. Company F crossed a lagoon to its front in rubber boats while Company E plowed through barbed-wire-entangled thickets to regroup on the far side. Through binoculars, Dilley could only see a few defenders about the lighthouse, and he ordered an attack.

Hand-to-hand fighting brought the men over the trench system until, coming under heavy automatic-weapons fire, they slowed to a halt. Then, Lieutenant Charles Dushane, Corporal Frank L. Czar and Private Theodore R. Bratkowitz rose up and ran for the lighthouse. They made it inside, and after some shooting, emerged safely with 12 prisoners.

Pressing their advantage, the Americans attacked again, only to run into stiff resistance from the tank-supported Moroccan 1st Infantry Division. Again it was Dushane and Czar who sprang into action, this time firing an abandoned French anti-tank gun at the enemy. Although their heroic stand slowed the enemy by knocking out two of its tanks, Dushane was killed and Czar was forced to retreat along with the rest of Dilley's command as communications broke down. Near the end of November 8, fighting still raged in the village just below the wall of the Casbash.

Farther south, the roadblocks established earlier in the morning by the 1st Battalion were overrun by French tanks, endangering the whole of Sub-Task Force Goalpost. After encountering stiff initial resistance, McCarley and the rest of his battalion had managed to move inland before being stopped again by hidden machine guns. Before the day was over, Truscott had arrived on the scene and ordered McCarley to keep moving through the night to link up with the 2nd Battalion for the final assault on Port Lyautey.

The first night ashore ended with the situation still in doubt. Contact had not been established with the 3rd Battalion, Dilley's men had failed to seize the Casbah, the airfield was still denied to Allied planes, the southern flank was extremely vulnerable, and ship-to-shore communications were out. Rain began to fall that night as Truscott sat on the beach, feeling that the operation was slipping completely out of his control. He broke his own rule and lit a cigarette, then watched as dozens more followed his example all along the darkened beach.

On the morning of November 9, the most pressing problem for Goalpost was its weak southern flank. Truscott ordered Lt. Col. Harry H. Semmes to take the seven tanks of his 3rd Armored Landing Team that had made it to shore so far and have them block the Rabat-Port Lyautey road as soon as possible. Leaving word for the rest of his command to follow as soon as they could, Semmes leaped aboard his tank and trundled off, arriving in position just before dawn. Almost immediately, he was forced to beat back a determined infantry attack from some nearby woods. When the French infantry returned, they were accompanied by 15 or so Renault tanks of the 1er Regiment de Chasseur d'Afrique.

With tank-to-tank communication inoperative and with their gunsights unadjusted, the Americans retreated behind a low rise and opened fire. Protected by their heavier armor, Semmes' tanks had the better of the inferior French tanks and destroyed four (two of them by Semmes himself) while inflicting heavy losses on the accompanying infantry.

Meanwhile, with the help of Lieutenant R.Y. McElroy's low-flying Grumman TBF-1 Avenger torpedo bomber doing spotter duty, the guns of the cruiser Savannah pounded the French rear assembly area, destroying a number of other tanks. With the addition of 10 more tanks, Semmes was able to weather another strong counterattack and several weaker ones throughout the rest of the day, suffering nothing more than a dud shell embedded in his tank's armor. With French resistance waning in the south,
Truscott felt confident enough to transfer some of the tanks northward to join McCarley's stalled drive to the airport.

In the center, Dilley's men barely held out around the old lighthouse as officers scrambled to round up stragglers from the nearby woods and outbuildings. At last, more than 200 men were found and brought up, but too late. The French had reinforced the Casbah during the night, and they counterattacked with mortars and 75mm guns, forcing the Americans to abandon the lighthouse and settle for stalemate the rest of the day. During the action, 2nd Lt. S.W. Sprindis earned a battlefield promotion when he held back the French charge with a bazooka he fired from different positions along a wall, giving his comrades time to retreat in order.

Further confusing the situation was the appearance behind the lines of a French officer who claimed that the commander of the Casbah was requesting a cease-fire to discuss the possible surrender of the fortress. The naive Americans believed the man and sent him back, only to learn that he was simply caught behind the lines and trying to avoid capture. In the process he was able to give excellent intelligence to the commander of the Casbah when the Americans escorted him back.

The day before, Craw and Hamilton had managed to find a functioning jeep in which to begin their race throughout the streets of Mehedia Beach on their desperate mission to convince the French authorities to surrender before serious fighting began. Tragically, they had just reached Port Lyautey when they ran into a machine-gun position manned by a nervous crew who fired on them just as they rounded a corner. The jeep crashed, and Colonel Craw was killed instantly. Now Major Hamilton was a prisoner and had been taken to the local Vichy commander, Colonel Petit.

Even though their exact situation was unknown to the rest of Sub-Task Goalpost Force, Toffey's 3rd Battalion continued with its planned operations by engaging the enemy around the airfield in an artillery duel and moving ahead with a diversionary river crossing by Company I at night. The men made it to the opposite bank but were not able to advance any farther. At the Port Lyautey bridge, Companies K and M were forced back by artillery fire, but managed to set up a machine-gun position that denied use of the bridge to the enemy.

Ordered by Truscott to keep moving during the night, and without the help of their tanks, McCarley's three companies trudged forward through the rainy darkness. Intending to link up with Dilley near the Casbah, they lost their way in the dark and ended up in a machine-gun ambush just south of Port Lyautey. The columns split up to avoid the trap, with the hapless McCarley and his staff getting themselves captured by a squad of Foreign Legionnaires. McCarley, however, managed to escape by dawn, reaching his men in time to capture Port Lyautey the next day.

Meanwhile, another of McCarley's companies was busy capturing a well-attended cafe near the airport while the last company, with only 60 or so men, retraced its steps and moved on the airport the next day.

Elsewhere on the night of November 9, a small boatload of determined sailors under the command of Lieutenant M.K. Starkweather moved its way silently up the mouth of the Sebou River toward a submerged boom. The boom was preventing the old destroyer Dallas from moving upriver to the airport, where it was to deposit 75 soldiers in an attempt to seize the area before the enemy knew what was happening. The airport was to have been taken on the first night ashore, and now, two days later, the situation had grown more serious. The officer chosen to command the boom-cutting party had not appeared at the scheduled rendezvous point, and so the young lieutenant had decided to proceed without him.

The men held their collective breath as they passed directly beneath the guns of the Casbah and reached the boom. There, they swiftly cut the cable, and a man was sent into the cold water to make sure there were no other obstacles beneath the surface. There were none, but as they hauled the diver aboard they were discovered, and bullets began to crack around them. "Let's get the hell out of here!" shouted Starkweather as the little boat turned tail and exited the Sebou. They had suffered numerous minor injuries, but Starkweather reported the mission was successful.

At 5:30 the next morning, Dallas began its miraculous run up the river. Loaded with 75 anxious soldiers, a riverboat pilot familiar with the river, and its skipper, Captain Robert J. Brodie, Dallas, a stripped-down "four-piper," reached the boom only to find it still moored in place by a set of anchored buoys. It was full daylight by that time, and French gunners had a ringside seat to the small drama unfolding in midriver. They opened up with everything they had, including artillery that flooded the decks with near misses and machine-gun fire that raked the destroyer's superstructure. The boom had been cut too far to the north, where the water was too shallow for Dallas' draft. Brodie ordered full steam ahead and rammed the boom at midriver. It parted, and as Dallas reached the first turn of the river she was obliged to return fire at some 75s on shore. She silenced them and, by accident, also destroyed an anti-tank gun that had been holding up the 1st Battalion's tanks farther inland. After making the southerly bend in the river, Dallas encountered two ships that the French had scuttled in the river, but she maneuvered easily between them. With the 3rd Battalion's Company I cheering her on from their position on shore, and with some air cover provided by fighters, Dallas began her final run to the airport. Suddenly, she ran aground on a hidden sandbar, but that was close enough for the soldiers, who by this time were eager to get ashore. Their exit was greeted by a rain of shells from a nearby 75mm gun, which was rapidly put out of action. One of the covering fighters dropped a depth charge on it, an innovation of Sub-Task Force Goalpost. By the time Dallas was out of danger, one of her officers could declare, "The hand of God was right around us."

November 10 proved to be the climactic day of Operation Goalpost. The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd battalions at last reached their assigned objectives and closed in to capture the airport. Earlier that morning, a wayward company of the 3rd Battalion reached some high ground overlooking the airport just in time to provide covering fire for the unit landed by Dallas, which was charging from the west, and the men of I Company supporting them from their position along the riverbank in the north. By 8 a.m. resistance had ended, and the airport was at last in American hands. By 10 a.m. Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk fighters from Chenango were using the airfield and fuel and supplies were being ferried up the river.

In the meantime, Companies K and M of Toffey's 3rd Battalion were still in position on the northern end of the Port Lyautey bridge. Things had not changed until Toffey had his forward artillery observer call in fire from the 60th Field Artillery, still located atop Hill 74. Coupled with rounds from the distant battleship Texas and the destroyers Eberle and Kearney they destroyed enemy batteries along the Rabat­Tangier highway northeast of the city. After that, the French promptly blew out three spans of the bridge, which proved useless in saving the town from invasion as McCarley and part of his 3rd Battalion, supported by tanks, entered from the south and captured it. By noon, both the airport and the city were in American hands and French units were surrendering everywhere. The Casbah, however, still held.

In the early morning darkness, Dilley's 2nd Battalion had begun advancing once more toward the Casbah, backed by self-propelled assault guns. The French retreated back to the old fort. By midmorning, the enemy trenches and machine-gun positions were occupied by the Go-Devils, but sporadic sniper fire still managed to make life treacherous around the fort.

Back on the beach, Truscott organizeda force of cooks, mechanics and clerks so inexperienced that he had to take a few minutes to show them the proper way to fire their weapons before sending them out to clear the area between the beach and the Casbah of the pesky snipers. After ordering Colonel Fredrick J. de Rohan, commander of the 60th Regimental Combat Team, to take personal command of the assault on the Casbah, Truscott, accompanied by Maj. Gen. John K. Cannon, who had been sent by Patton to see how things were going for the 60th, boarded a jeep and followed the skirmishers toward the front lines.

Dilley's men had come under heavy mortar and machine-gun fire from the fort, with Foreign Legionnaires shooting from atop the walls in the best tradition of Hollywood's Beau Geste. Unfortunately, the flying lead was not make-believe, and de Rohan ordered up a couple 105mm howitzers to fire point-blank at the massive fortress gates.

The heavy gates held, and de Rohan was forced to rely on a more basic approach. Reinforced by 125 men of Captain Verle McBride's 540th Engineers and 871st Aviation Engineers, the Go-Devils rushed the gates under heavy fire and were repulsed. Undaunted, they tried it again with the same bloody results. At last, de Rohan asked Truscott for the air support Truscott had once hoped would not be necessary.

The request was transferred to the Navy, which diverted a flight of planes from another mission to take on the Casbah. With the target clearly marked by palls of smoke, and the American troops pulled back to a safe distance, the planes went to work. Truscott and Cannon watched them from the native village as, one by one, they dropped their heavy bombs. As the smoke and rubble filled the air, de Rohan brought up his howitzers again and blasted open the weakened gates.

Before the fort's French defenders could recover their wits, the Go-Devils charged through the breach, bayonets at the ready. The defenders, realizing further resistance was futile, surrendered. Almost 250 prisoners were taken by the victors, at a cost of 225 casualties.

Except for securing a strategic ridge southeast of the fort against a force of infantry and tanks, and the threat against the southern flank by reported French cavalry, which turned out to be four soldiers on horseback surrendering to an American telephone lineman, all resistance at Port Lyautey was effectively over. French soldiers were surrendering everywhere, and in Port Lyautey, Colonel Petit, who had been desperately trying to rally his men and had been captured in the process, suggested that he be remanded to the custody of his own prisoner, Major Hamilton, and subsequently ordered all his forces in the area to cease firing.

Sub-Task Force Goalpost had accomplished its mission, but it was not a pretty sight. In fact, the issue had been very much in doubt for the first few days, with nearly all its objectives unrealized. In the beginning, coordination between the Army and Navy was problematic, although much improved by the end of the operation. Inexperience was apparent during the landing and beach operations, and communications were inadequate. Even though they were hastily trained and inexperienced in combat, it was the troops themselves that overcame all the shortcomings and ultimately accomplished the mission.

 


Pierre Comtois last wrote for World War II on the American liberation of Manila. Further reading: Command Missions, by Lt. Gen. Lucian K. Truscott; and Operation Torch, by William B. Bruer.

 


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