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.