The Buzz

FACT: America and France Fought Each Other during World War II

President Roosevelt, mindful of his promise to Stalin, twice directed his Joint Chiefs of Staff to cooperate with British officers as they planned an Anglo-American invasion to occur somewhere in North Africa or the Middle East during 1942. Thus, rather reluctantly, the U.S. military began preparing for what would become Operation Torch.

Torch’s final plan called for simultaneous attacks on French Morocco and Algeria in northwestern Africa. Key objectives were the Algerian ports of Oran and Algiers on the Mediterranean Sea, as well as Casablanca along Morocco’s Atlantic coastline. Once established on land, Allied forces would head for Tunisia, 500 miles to the east, where they were to eventually link up with General Bernard Law Montgomery’s Eighth Army, then advancing through Libya.

A worldwide shipping shortage troubled Allied officers, as did the U-boat threat. The region’s geography also presented operational challenges. Any convoy passing the Straits of Gibraltar bound for landing beaches in Algeria would be threatened by Axis-leaning Spain. Worse, Nazi Germany might use an Allied offensive as a pretext to occupy the Spanish mainland or its colony in Spanish Morocco, closing the Straits and marooning Allied forces in their Mediterranean lodgments.

But the chief cause of Allied anxiety was France. With 109,000 servicemen in North Africa, bolstered by tanks, aircraft, and a modern surface fleet, the Vichy, or collaborationist, French military could greatly disrupt any Anglo-American landing attempt if it chose to fight. The Allies, then, had to prepare themselves for this contingency while holding out hope that these colonial forces would not resist an invasion.

Following France’s surrender in June 1940, Axis officials installed a puppet government located in the small resort town of Vichy. With World War I hero Field Marshal Henri Petain as its president, the Vichy regime ostensibly administered France’s overseas possessions as well as an unoccupied region on the French mainland known as the Free Zone. While tightly controlled by the Nazi regime, Vichy France was permitted the means to defend its African colonies against foreign invasion. Whether this meant invasion from Germany or the Allies, no one was yet sure.

Allied commanders especially feared well-armed and belligerent French naval forces based at the crucial port cities of Casablanca and Oran. Vichy warships there could decimate a landing attempt even while docked, so direct assaults against those harbors were ruled out. Instead, invading armies would have to land some distance away and maneuver cross-country to converge on their objectives.

For example, Maj. Gen. George S. Patton Jr.’s Western Task Force needed to storm three widely separated beaches in order to surround Casablanca. Safi, 140 miles south of the city, possessed a harbor suitable for unloading medium tanks directly off their transport ships. Fédala, 12 miles north of Casablanca, was Patton’s main effort. His assault columns would then march on Casablanca and, with luck, seize its docks before French reinforcements could arrive. Seventy miles north of Fédala stood the all-weather runway at Port Lyautey, desperately needed by Allied air commanders to cover the invasion force. Patton knew all three operations had to succeed; the eyes of the world were upon him.

To take Safi Patton entrusted the 2nd Armored Division, an outfit he had recently commanded. Elements of the well-trained 3rd Infantry Division, fighting under Patton’s personal supervision, got Fédala. A reinforced regimental combat team (RCT) from the 9th Infantry Division, designated Sub-Task Force Goalpost, was identified for the Port Lyautey landings.

Goalpost required a general officer to command the 9,079 combat and service support personnel assigned to it. Accordingly, Truscott reported to Patton’s headquarters for this position in September 1942. A gravel-voiced Texan, Truscott’s last posting was as U.S. liaison to the British Combined Staff. He had witnessed the raid on Dieppe that August and also headed up a team that drafted the initial concept for Torch. Truscott, a career cavalryman, appeared perfectly suited to lead the Port Lyautey invasion.

Most of the soldiers earmarked for Sub-Task Force Goalpost were stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Truscott traveled there at the end of September to meet Colonel Frederick J. de Rohan of the 60th RCT, whose riflemen would form Goalpost’s backbone. Also present was Lt. Col. Harry Semmes, commanding the 1st Battalion, 66th Armored Regiment. Semmes had served with Patton’s tank corps during World War I, and when he learned no officer over the age of 50 would be allowed to deploy for Torch, went directly to his old boss pleading to be taken along.

“You can come,” Patton exclaimed after listening to Semmes’ appeal. “In fact, I’ll make you an armored landing team commander.” Semmes happily returned to his battalion and immediately began preparing it for the landings.

In camps across the United States and Great Britain, invasion forces gathered to ready themselves for this historic expedition. Troop lists were drawn up, training programs accelerated, and the myriad logistical details necessary for such an unprecedented transoceanic assault completed. It did not proceed smoothly. As historian Samuel Eliot Morison observed, “Preparations came to a close in the latter part of October in an atmosphere of unrelieved improvisation and haste.” These measures would have to suffice, as D-day was set for Sunday, November 8, 1942.