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.

The advance guard of French chasseurs driving north from Rabat had swallowed these American outposts whole. Truck-borne infantry and armor overwhelmed a U.S. platoon at Sidi Bou Knadle, eight miles south of Mehdia, and then turned their weapons on 2nd Lt. Jesse Scott’s roadblock set up one mile away. Well-trained Moroccan riflemen supported by tanks made short work of Scott and his soldiers. Vichy forces then pushed against Company A’s main battle position, knocking out a 37mm antitank gun and capturing 2nd Lt. John Allers, the company commander. The French counterattack halted almost within sight of the beach, called off due to darkness and a line of American guns—dragged to the crest of a hill —that disabled two Renault tanks.

In the meantime, determined boat crews had managed to deliver seven M5 light tanks of Harry Semmes’ 3rd Armored Landing Team before rising surf closed the beaches. Semmes collected his tanks and before dawn moved out to a ridgeline marking Goalpost’s southern flank. Here he learned the radios and telescopic sights on all his Stuarts had come out of alignment during the journey overseas. Semmes’ tankers would have to fight much like their fathers did in World War I, using hand and arm signals while firing only at point-blank range.

On foot, Semmes guided his tanks into position along the ridge. A pair of M5s, commanded by Lieutenant John Mauney, covered the Rabat road from the west while the remaining five Stuarts, under Semmes’ control, sited themselves on the east side of the coast road. The American tankmen waited anxiously for daylight, certain a French attack was imminent.

The first streaks of dawn on November 9 revealed two battalions of Vichy infantry advancing from a white farmhouse a half mile away. Mauney’s tank section rode out to engage them. Deadly antipersonnel rounds and machine-gun fire from his two M5s nearly annihilated the lead company and so demoralized the rest that they never again offered serious resistance that day. But a bigger threat soon emerged from the edge of a cork forest to the east.

There, 14 two-man Renault R-35 tanks could be seen crawling forward against Semmes’ tiny force, firing armor-piercing rounds from their 37mm Puteaux cannons. Shell after shell struck Semmes’ Stuart. “I noticed there would be a shower of sparks when the front armor plate was hit,” he recalled. But, according to Semmes, instead of exploding “the white-hot hard steel core of the French shells ricocheted off … high into the air.”

Because their own guns were not boresighted, American tank crews had to hold fire until the Vichy armor grew dangerously close, 100 yards, to ensure hits. The M5’s 37mm was more powerful than its French counterpart, though, and U.S. shells easily punched through the Renaults’ plating. That was hardly the end of Harry Semmes’ troubles, however. He later wrote, “Because the weather was chilly, the mechanisms of the breeches of our American tank guns did not properly eject the empty shells when the guns were fired. All the loaders, who were also the tank commanders, lost their fingernails clawing out the shells after the guns had been fired.”

By backing into protected hull defilade positions while reloading, the Stuarts managed to keep their thicker frontal armor to the enemy and stay alive. But Semmes feared the advancing French tanks would soon flank his attenuated line. He soon received help from an unexpected source.

At daylight, the Savannah catapulted a pair of Curtiss SOC-3 Seagull spotter aircraft off its aft turret. These bi-wing floatplanes carried a crew of two and were armed with depth charges, a fixed forward-firing .30-caliber machine gun, and another .30-caliber on a flexible mount for rear defense. The SOC-3’s chief weapon, however, was its radio.

Flying low over the battlefield, one of Savannah’s Seagulls observed the desperate tank fight taking place between Semmes’ M5s and the Vichy Renaults. Radioing target data back to its mother ship, the vulnerable spotter plane then banked away to adjust fire. At 0750 hours, the first of 121 6-inch shells from Savannah’s main batteries began crashing in.

This shower of high explosives proved too much for the chasseurs. Pummeled by Savannah’s guns, all surviving R-35s began withdrawing into a nearby eucalyptus grove only to be savaged by a flight of low-flying Grumman TBF Avenger bombers from the Sangamon. Down on the battlefield, Semmes counted four destroyed Renaults—two of which his crew could claim. Semmes’ tank had been struck by eight Vichy shells, all of which failed to penetrate its steel hide.

General Truscott arrived in time to witness the battle’s aftermath. In the valley below, “a number of bodies were sprawled about in the various postures of sudden death,” he remembered. Harry Semmes described the fight his team had just won and requested reinforcements. An orbiting Seagull had just reported that the French were regrouping for another, larger attack.

It was not long before assistance arrived. Two half-track-mounted 75mm assault guns took up position toward the ocean, while 10 additional Stuarts extended Semmes’ line eastward into an adjacent cactus patch. These tanks belonged to Company C, 70th Tank Battalion, Captain William A. Edwards commanding, and were attached to Goalpost to provide infantry support. Instead, Edwards’ M5s would fight their first battle against enemy armor.

At 0900 hours the second Vichy assault began. One column of R-35 tanks moved up the valley while another infantry-armor formation attempted a flanking maneuver. They ran right into Company C, hidden among the cactus. Stuarts and Renaults played a deadly game of hide-and-seek. The tank commanded by 2nd Lt. Raymond Herbert had just killed an R-35 at point-blank range when it was hit in the side by French gunners. Herbert’s M5 burst into flames, badly wounding all four crewmen. Another Stuart was also destroyed in the fight.

Yet the Americans, aided by Savannah’s accurate gunnery, managed to hold. Tearing tank-sized craters in the ground, the cruiser’s 6-inch shells terrified the chasseurs and kept them from reorganizing. Her SOC-3 spotter planes got into the action too, even dropping 325-pound depth charges on Vichy targets. One of these projectiles exploded right next to a Renault, the concussion crushing everyone inside while leaving the tank’s hull intact.

When it was all over, Lt. Col. Semmes counted 27 burning R-35s and more than 100 dead French colonial soldiers sprawled in the fields below. American casualties totaled eight wounded. By 1430 hours the situation had stabilized, allowing Truscott to transfer Company C’s Stuarts for duty elsewhere. The rest of Semmes’ battalion, now with operational radios and gunsights, soon began arriving to help guard the invasion’s southern rim. While Vichy forces would make another halfhearted assault on November 10, U.S. tankers and the Savannah’s big guns quickly sent them scurrying back to Rabat.

The infantrymen of Sub-Task Force Goalpost could now focus on seizing their primary objective, the Port Lyautey aerodrome. Major McCarley’s 1st BLT, with Company C’s Stuarts in support, conducted an afternoon attack that wiped out 28 machine guns and four antitank guns. By sunrise on the 10th, they were ready to make one final push to the airfield. The 3rd BLT, converging from the north, stood ready to cross the Sebou River on rubber rafts once the signal was given.

But the Kasbah, now garrisoned by 250 diehard Vichy troops, refused to yield. Repeated American assaults on November 9 were easily repulsed. Feeling intense pressure to complete his mission, Truscott ordered Colonel de Rohan to personally lead a dawn attack the next day. The Americans were learning. Their early morning action started with two 105mm self-propelled howitzers blasting apart the Kasbah’s heavy wooden doors, followed by eight Navy Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers swooping down to plaster their targets with 500-pound bombs. Bayonet wielding infantrymen then rushed in, securing the Kasbah by 1050 hours.

While this assault was taking place, the USS Dallas proceeded up the Sebou River to run itself aground near the Port Lyautey airport. Dallas’ raiding party then went ashore via rubber boats to assist in capturing the airfield. By midmorning it was firmly in American hands—21/2 hours later, the first P-40s from Chenango began landing.

As darkness fell, U.S. troops could feel French resistance begin to fade. Telephone lines had already been humming for hours, carrying conversations between General Noguès in Rabat and Admiral François Darlan, the Vichy commander in North Africa, speaking from his Algiers headquarters. Sometime after 1930 hours Darlan issued a formal order declaring a suspension of hostilities. In Port Lyautey, Maj. Gen. Mathenet had taken command of Vichy forces. At 2330 he sent messengers to arrange a parley with Truscott the next morning.

At 0800 hours on November 11, the immaculately dressed French general passed through American lines under a flag of truce. Truscott, flanked by an honor guard of Harry Semmes’ tanks, met Mathenet at the Kasbah to direct terms for the cease-fire. After a final exchange of salutes, the two men took their leave of one another—no longer enemies but not yet allies. The battle for Port Lyautey was over.