Here's What You Need to Know: Early in the North African campaign, American tankers battled the Vichy French.
Lucian Truscott needed a cigarette. The 47-year-old brigadier general was having the worst night of his life. Earlier that day, American troops under his command charged ashore on the Atlantic coast of French Morocco as part of Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa. From the start, though, almost nothing went right.
“As far as I could see along the beach there was chaos,” Truscott recalled. “Landing craft were beaching in the pounding surf, broaching to the waves, and spilling men and equipment into the water. Men wandered about aimlessly, hopelessly lost, calling to each other and for their units, swearing at each other and at nothing.”
Alone in the darkness, General Truscott “sought the comfort of tobacco” and lit a smoke. He was heartened to see the pinpoint glow of other cigarettes appearing along the beach, although Truscott later remarked how surprised his troops would be to learn their commanding general was the first man to disobey his own blackout order.
The flicker of cigarettes at night was but one of many problems facing Truscott and the 9,100 soldiers he commanded. Put ashore by the U.S. Navy after dawn on Sunday, November 8, 1942, these assault troops had as their objective a military airport at Port Lyautey, French Morocco. Allied airmen needed this field, situated nine miles up the twisting Sebou River from the landing beaches on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, to cover the invasion. Truscott expected his men to seize it by noon on D-day.
Yet the Port Lyautey aerodrome would not fall to American troops for two days. A variety of factors contributed to this, most of which had to do with the near total inexperience of U.S. Army and Navy forces in the realities of amphibious combat. Landing barges came in late and far off course. Soldiers straggled during exhausting approach marches. Heavy surf and soft sand hampered beach operations, leaving the infantrymen ashore largely without tank, artillery, or medical support.
Worst was the French response to Truscott’s invasion. Instead of welcoming his men with brass bands, as one sergeant predicted, Vichy France’s colonial forces fought back with everything they had. French fighter planes attacked U.S. troops on the beachhead, while coast artillery guns dueled with American warships offshore. Allied soldiers could only watch helplessly as well-led French reinforcements rushed in from all directions.
Truscott was most concerned with his southern flank. There, U.S. infantry outposts had crumbled under an armored counterattack that threatened to annihilate the entire invasion force. Only the coming of night brought a halt to the enemy’s advance, which was sure to resume come morning.
Finishing his cigarette, Truscott considered what to do next. Then from out of the gloom came a man whom Truscott had been seeking all day. Lt. Col. Harry H. Semmes, one of the few combat-tested Americans ashore, dismounted from his M5 Stuart light tank and reported for duty. Truscott’s orders were simple: assemble your men, get into position by dawn, and stop the French counterattack.
Semmes saluted and set off on his mission. Only then did the World War I tank veteran ask himself how he was going to defeat 1,000 infantrymen and dozens of armored fighting vehicles with the seven M5s that had managed to land that night. Of this Semmes was sure—the approaching dawn would bring with it a momentous tank battle, one he would fight outnumbered against soldiers once regarded among America’s closest allies.
The struggle for Port Lyautey was part of a peculiar conflict fought between colonial French troops and Anglo-American forces from November 8-11, 1942. Allied planners labeled this campaign Operation Torch, while the
French called it la guerre des trois jours—the three-day war. Whatever its name, this massive expedition was easily the most ambitious, complicated endeavor of its kind yet attempted during World War II.
Torch originated in the strong desire of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to “open a second front” against the Axis powers. Reacting to pressure from the Soviet Union, then reeling from Nazi Germany’s seemingly unstoppable onslaught, Churchill and Roosevelt vowed to begin offensive operations against Hitler’s legions before the end of 1942. By doing so, they hoped to draw German troops away from the Eastern Front while demonstrating to Soviet Russia the Western Allies’ commitment to victory—a sentiment viewed with great suspicion by Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, whose Red Army had thus far done most of the war’s fighting and dying.
Although top political leaders were in agreement on the need for a second front, military officers within the British and American high commands clashed bitterly with one another over this campaign’s strategic scope and objectives. British planners envisioned an amphibious assault on North Africa to serve as a stepping-stone for follow-on invasions in southern Europe while simultaneously gaining control of the Mediterranean Sea. Their American counterparts were anxious to retake France and lobbied strenuously for a bold cross-Channel invasion, possibly as early as 1943.
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.