World War II: This Daring Allied Raid on Algiers Harbor Ended in Failure

World War II: This Daring Allied Raid on Algiers Harbor Ended in Failure

A joint U.S. Army and Royal Navy force attempted a coup de main on Algiers harbor in the opening hours of Operation Torch.

Here's What You Need to Know: Preparations included seizing Algiers Harbor intact.

In November 1942, the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa, Operation Torch, caused a short but intense conflict with French forces loyal to the Vichy regime in power on the European mainland. The Allies sought to finish the Axis presence not only in Vichy-controlled areas but also to eliminate the Italian-German forces to the east in Libya. The British Eighth Army, fresh from victory at El Alamein, was steadily pushing those forces westward. Taking control of the entire North African coastline would cement the Allied position and make follow-on operations in the Mediterranean Theater possible.

It was hoped the French in the area would quickly come over to the Allied cause rather than side with the collaborationist Vichy government based in occupied France. Much intelligence work and political maneuvering occurred behind the scenes to ensure just such an outcome. Still, it was by no means certain which way the French troops would go when American and British soldiers came ashore. In particular, the French were still angry over the British attack on their navy at Mers-el-Kebir in July 1940. The British, afraid the French ships would be surrendered to the Germans as part of the armistice, had attacked a French force when it refused an ultimatum to either join the British or be interned in neutral territory. The British also supported or conducted attacks on French colonial bases in other parts of Africa. Despite the presence of Free French forces allied to the British, it was unclear whether the French in North Africa would be willing to essentially switch sides and march alongside the British and Americans. In light of this uncertainty, the invasion force had to be prepared to fight.

Part of these preparations included seizing Algiers Harbor intact. The invading armies required functioning ports to remain well-supplied with fuel, ammunition, food, and all the necessities of modern warfare. If the French stayed loyal to Vichy and wrecked the port facilities, it would render the Allied logistical effort much more difficult, delaying the advance eastward against the Axis. To this end, a risky plan to seize the harbor by coup-de-main was proposed. It would use a battalion of American soldiers and a pair of British destroyers in a joint operation code-named Terminal.

Operations Terminal and Reservist

Terminal was one of a pair of operations designed to seize intact harbors. The other, named Reservist, was a similar plan to capture the port facilities at Oran. Both were the ideas of British planners based on a prior, successful mission in the same vein. In May 1942, British forces invaded Madagascar, another Vichy French territory, to keep its maritime facilities out of Axis hands. During the assault on the port of Diego Suarez, a British destroyer rushed through the French defenses and landed a force of Royal Marines, who caused such havoc in the town the French defense was quickly defeated. The British hoped to repeat their success with such daring attacks on the North African ports at Oran and Algiers, both necessary to Allied objectives.

Both plans were essentially the same. A pair of British naval vessels would carry a force of American troops into the harbor. Upon landing the troops would spread through the port, capturing key facilities such as fuel depots and docks for unloading supplies. They would hold their positions until the main landing forces fought their way into the city and linked with them. If things went well, it was hoped the local French might even surrender to the American soldiers without a shot fired.

Many of those involved held strong reservations about the success of these plans. There were doubts the French would give up so easily, especially since they had fought fiercely at other places, such as Madagascar and Dakar. Also, many questioned how the French would know whose troops were coming ashore in the dark or whether they would trust what they saw even with large American flags flying prominently.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill himself said, “In the night, all cats are grey,” in reference to the idea. Some thought the idea bold and aggressive, a worthy notion. Others considered it tantamount to suicide for the assigned men. Even so, after deliberation, American General Dwight D. Eisenhower, senior Allied commander in the Mediterranean, approved the plan despite the varied opinions about it. For Operation Torch to succeed, the Allies needed those port facilities intact, and he deemed the risk, although high, worth the potential result.

“He Strives in Difficulties”

Algiers was the target of Operation Torch’s Eastern Task Force. The assault force for the actual invasion was composed of the British 11th Infantry Brigade along with the U.S. 39th and 168th Regimental Combat Teams from the 9th and 34th Infantry Divisions, respectively. Each unit was assigned its own beach to land on with follow-on missions to seize vital objectives and move into the city proper. Two battalion-sized groups of British Commandos were also assigned to go ashore and capture vital coastal gun emplacements and forts.

Many of the British troops would wear American uniforms as it was thought the local inhabitants would be more favorably inclined toward Americans. Overall command of the Eastern Task Force fell to British Lt. Gen. Kenneth Anderson. However, the amphibious phase of the operation would be led by American Maj. Gen. Charles Ryder, again an attempt to soften French reaction to the landings.

Two World War I-era destroyers were selected for the Terminal operation. The first was HMS Malcolm, commissioned in 1919. Armed with a pair of 4.7-inch guns, a suite of lighter antiaircraft guns, and torpedoes, Malcolm was just over 332 feet long and displaced 1,530 tons. Her Latin motto, In ardua tendit, “He strives in difficulties,” would prove apt. The second ship, HMS Broke, was begun in 1918 but not completed until 1925. Displacing 1,480 tons and 329 feet long, Broke had a heavier main armament of five 4.7-inch guns. There was not enough room in quarters aboard the two ships for hundreds of infantrymen, so most would have to stay on deck.

To provide a modicum of protection during the assault, both destroyers had sheets of iron a quarter-inch thick welded all the way around the deck to form a makeshift shield against small-arms fire. The entrance to Algiers Harbor was protected by a steel boom, so both ships had their bows reinforced to allow them to break through it.

The Minnesotans from the 34th Division

The unit selected to go ashore was the 3rd Battalion, 135th Infantry Regiment, a standard U.S. infantry battalion of the 34th Division. The entire division was training in the United Kingdom. Though the unit had no specialized training for such a mission, it was chosen and ordered to move from its training site in Northern Ireland to a camp near Belfast. Since the choice had been a last-minute affair, counterintelligence agents spread rumors through the rest of the regiment that 3/135th was sent on maneuvers in the Sperrin Mountains.

The battalion was a unit of the Minnesota National Guard, activated in 1940 as part of the 34th Division, a “pure” National Guard formation composed of units from several states brought together. At this early stage of the war, most of a National Guard regiment’s troops were still from their home state. Only after the infantry took casualties in combat did such units absorb replacements from across the United States. For its first mission 3/135th was a Minnesota battalion. Many of its soldiers sported Nordic surnames, and the regiment had a tradition going back to the Battle of Gettysburg, where it earned its motto, “To the last man.” Third Battalion had also earned the sobriquet “The Singing Third”; its men had a wide range of barracks songs, some of them considered rather bawdy.

The commander, Lt. Col. Edwin T. Swenson, a native of Stillwater, was described by one subordinate as dynamic and aggressive. Reportedly possessed of a generous nature and a quick sense of humor, Swenson also had a tough side; before the war he had been assistant warden at the Minnesota State Penitentiary. After arriving in Britain he had bragged that his battalion’s top sergeant had to be able to best him in a fight. He was also known for his excellence at swearing.

With little time to prepare for the new assignment, the battalion threw itself into intense training including some specialized techniques for assaulting a harbor, though neither officers nor men knew where they were training to go. Around 40 British naval personnel joined the battalion; once ashore they would help form joint boarding parties to seize ships docked in the harbor. To help maintain the illusion of English noninvolvement, they were also issued American uniforms.

Every day, the battalion would be trucked to Belfast Harbor for training. Just before training ended, the entire battalion went to the harbor and practiced loading and unloading from the Malcolm and the Broke. A small detachment from M Company remained on the destroyers at the end of the night. Finally, on the morning of October 26, the rest of 3/135th, 634 soldiers, embarked on the cruiser HMS Sheffield for their journey to the Mediterranean. Luckily for the ship and passengers, the trip was uneventful and the weather good. Two nights later, Sheffield joined a convoy headed for the shores of North Africa via Gibraltar.