The Buzz

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

Issues of terrain bothered Goalpost’s planners. The Sebou River emptied into the Atlantic at a small resort village named Mehdia. Adjacent beaches permitted amphibious landings when surf conditions were right, although in November the ocean off Mehdia was notorious for its high tides. South of town, a lagoon stretching for almost four miles paralleled the shoreline. Attacking soldiers exiting north around the lagoon were channeled into a marshy gap; those heading south had to surmount an easily defended gorge before reaching the coast road to Rabat. North of the Sebou, trackless, scrub-covered ridgelines limited vehicular movement. The river itself could support ship traffic of up to 15-foot draft for the nine-mile journey to Port Lyautey and its airport.

All of these considerations plus the vital factors of weather, time, and tide, were evaluated by Truscott’s staff as it developed the invasion plan. It was a complex one. H-hour was set for 0400, two hours before sun up. The 60th RCT would land on five widely separated beaches along both sides of the Sebou, advancing rapidly inland to seize the airfield. The 54 tanks of Semmes’ armored battalion were to act as a reserve and exploitation force. To preserve surprise there would be no preparatory naval bombardment—all objectives were to be taken “with cold steel.”

Perhaps reflecting Truscott’s Dieppe experience, an old “four-stack” destroyer, the USS Dallas, would enter the Sebou at high tide and beach itself opposite the airfield. Then, 75 raider-trained infantrymen were to disembark and assault their objective under covering gunfire from Dallas. If all worked to plan, the field would be in American hands no later than 1100 hours and open to Army Air Forces Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk fighter planes (carried aboard the escort carrier USS Chenango) later that afternoon.

Opposing the men of Sub-Task Force Goalpost in Port Lyautey were 3,080 colonial troops of the 1st Regiment of Tirraleurs Morocco, a light infantry formation largely equipped with Great War-vintage weapons. They were solid fighters, however, and ably led by a 48-year-old veteran named Colonel Jean Petit.

Petit’s riflemen were augmented by a group of nine modern antitank guns, three light tanks, an engineer company, and several batteries of artillery. Within six hours they could be reinforced by a regiment of 1,200 Spahis, horse and mechanized cavalry, stationed 90 miles inland at Meknès. More substantial support would come from the colonial capital of Rabat, 29 miles to the south. There, the 1st Regiment of Chasseurs d’Afrique stood ready with two battalions of truck-borne infantry, a squadron of armored cars, and 47 Renault tanks.

Other French forces were determined to hold Port Lyautey. From a bluff overlooking the mouth of the Sebou River loomed the Kasbah, a 16th-century Portuguese stone fort. Nearby were emplaced six modern 138.6mm coastal defense guns, each with a range of 12 miles. The entire plateau bristled with earthworks; 75mm howitzers crewed by the Légion Etrangère (French Foreign Legion) covered both the Kasbah and neighboring beach exits.

American commanders hoped their landings would go uncontested, but General Charles Noguès, commander of all military forces in French Morocco, had to resist for reasons of national survival. Noguès could not know whether Allied operations meant an all-out invasion or were merely a raid like Dieppe. If he surrendered to a raiding party not intent on holding Morocco, German retribution would be swift and violent. From Noguès’ headquarters in Rabat, through the regional command post of Maj. Gen. Maurice Mathenet in Meknès, down to Colonel Petit in Port Lyautey the message was clear: you will fight.

A silent procession of warships steamed toward the Moroccan coast during the night of November 7-8, 1942. This was the Northern Assault Group, commanded by Rear Admiral Monroe Kelly. The battleship USS Texas and light cruiser USS Savannah stood by to deliver naval gunfire support, while six destroyers and a pair of minesweepers helped shepherd the landing waves. Naval aircraft from the escort carrier USS Sangamon provided air cover and antisubmarine protection.

The invasion started poorly when several transports fell out of position off the landing areas. Due to a shortage of barges, it took time—too much time—for the assault waves to assemble and begin loading troops. General Truscott even shuttled from ship to ship, trying to speed the debarkation process. Returning at 0430 hours to his command post aboard the SS Henry T. Allen, Truscott was stunned to learn his communications officer had intercepted a radio broadcast from President Roosevelt asking the French not to oppose American landings in North Africa.

Sub-Task Force Goalpost had lost the element of surprise, upon which much of its plan depended. Faced with a number of unpleasant alternatives, Truscott decided to press on with a dawn assault. As the sky lightened over Morocco at 0540 hours, American troops stormed ashore.

It did not take long for the French to react. Naval observers first saw searchlights flash on, illuminating the landing craft. A red flare then shot up into the murk, followed by heavy small arms fire. Soon, coastal guns bracketed the destroyer Eberle; she returned fire and began evasive maneuvers. By 0630 hours, Savannah and the destroyer Roe were trading salvoes with Vichy coast artillery near the Kasbah.

At dawn a number of Dewoitine 520 fighter planes appeared over the invasion area, strafing several beaches and attacking one of Savannah’s spotter planes before Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters from the Sangamon chased them away. Navy bombers also worked over the Port Lyautey airfield, catching several Vichy planes on the ground. But the heaviest action was taking place on shore.