Operation Torch: Why Did America Fight French Forces in 1942?

January 18, 2021 Topic: History Region: Africa Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIU.S. ArmyVichy FranceNorth AfricaOperation Torch

Operation Torch: Why Did America Fight French Forces in 1942?

Instead of welcoming American troops with brass bands, Vichy France’s colonial forces fought back with everything they had.

“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.

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.

Following an unopposed assault on beaches south of the Sebou, Major John H. Dilley’s 2nd Battalion Landing Team (BLT) advanced to capture the Kasbah and its attendant coast artillery. The sound of shells passing overhead from Roe and Savannah disordered Dilley’s inexperienced battalion, however, and it sat paralyzed until those guns checked fire. French forces took this opportunity to rush reinforcements in from Port Lyautey; later that morning a Vichy counterattack led by three ancient Renault FT tanks almost drove the 2nd BLT into the ocean before it was blunted by Colonel de Rohan’s last infantry reserves.

There would be no help from the 3rd BLT, commanded by Lt. Col. John J. Toffey, landing to the north. This battalion was badly delivered five miles away from its designated beach and spent the entire day laboriously slogging over sand dunes while trying to gain proper positions. The raiding party aboard Dallas  remained offshore as Vichy machine guns earlier drove off a scout boat whose mission was to cut an antishipping boom across the Sebou.

The men of Major P. DeWitt McCarley’s 1st BLT also landed far from their intended beaches. They made an exhausting foot march around the lagoon’s southern end, dropping off several platoons of Company A (accompanied by 37mm cannons of the battalion antitank platoon) to picket the coastal road. The remainder of McCarley’s outfit then maneuvered overland toward the airfield against stiffening opposition. Automatic weapons fire halted the 1st BLT at dusk, several miles from its objective.

The guns and matériel needed to overcome this unexpectedly fierce resistance were not getting ashore. As the day wore on the seas grew rougher. Dozens of landing craft foundered in the surf, too badly damaged for harried shore parties to repair. After enemy shells straddled his transport ships, Admiral Kelly had no choice but to move them out to a safer area 15 miles offshore—“halfway to Norfolk,” Truscott grumbled. The surviving barges now faced a 30-mile round-trip journey, further slowing the delivery of equipment and supplies.

Worse, the transports were now out of radio range. General Truscott had to find out what was going on, so at 1500 hours he went ashore. His jeep, like so many other vehicles on the beach, immediately became mired in heavy sand; Truscott was forced to borrow a half-track for his first tour around the battlefield. What he saw greatly discouraged him: infantry pinned down by a few machine guns, stragglers everywhere, supplies piled up on the beach with no apparent organization, and few leaders pushing their men forward.

Toward nightfall, dazed riflemen from McCarley’s Company A began filtering back with tales of strong enemy attacks along Goalpost’s southern flank. Earlier in the day, two U.S. infantry platoons had marched out to establish blocking positions along the coast road. Nothing had been heard from them since midafternoon, and now Company A’s commander was reported missing as well.