On 8 November 1942, as the struggle for Guadalcanal entered its most critical phase, U.S. naval forces half a world away helped launch the first great Anglo-American amphibious operation of World War II—Torch, the invasion of French North Africa. While U.S. and British troops began coming ashore near Algiers and Oran, Algeria, American soldiers of Major General George S. Patton’s Western Task Force started hitting the beaches at three locations along the coast of French Morocco, the main effort being at Fedala, near Casablanca.
Rear Admiral Henry K. Hewitt commanded the task force’s naval component, whose 53 battleships, carriers, cruisers, and destroyers battled Vichy French shore batteries and warships as well as German U-boats. The Northampton-class heavy cruiser USS Augusta (CA-31) served as Hewitt’s as well as Patton’s headquarters ship. Also on board the “Augie,” but only rarely crossing paths with flag officers, was Ensign Richard W. Belt Jr., a native of Carrollton, Missouri, who had graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy less than five months earlier in the accelerated class of 1943. His general quarters (GQ) station was in the plotting room (“Plot”), the control center for the cruiser’s main battery of nine 8-inch/55-caliber guns.
Although the Navy officially forbade sailors and officers from keeping personal journals, many, including Belt, bent the rule. He explained why at the beginning of his Operation Torch journal: “To me it’s just fulfilling my desire to unload my mind—to talk, to chatter, to relieve a little of the tension that makes me feel like a stretched rubber band.” The stress Belt experienced and under which other junior officers operate during prolonged combat operations highlight the following edited version of his journal, which begins on the evening of 7 November.
I had time to eat supper and nap for a few minutes before GQ sounded just before 2100. Now I’ll give myself a pat on the back. I visualized the hardness of the deck in Plot so I went fully prepared with my big sheepskin. It certainly has been coming in handy as a cushion even if I don’t need it for warmth. I might add that I filled my canteen with scuttlebutt water. That was really welcome during our vigil in Plot.
We manned our stations, tested phones, got reports from the other control stations, and had a little drilling & finally rested easy. Most of us had books or cards to occupy ourselves. That’s the nice thing about being in Plot—the ability to kill time in such a way. But I soon detected the overwhelming disadvantage. Being in Condition Zed, everything was clamped down tight so we were operating in rather stagnant air.1 But then the smokers started lighting up, and then the air was really poison to my delicate lungs. Gosh! I really gagged on that smokescreen. Hatches were finally opened about 0100, and we got a change of air at least. And then about that time we got a report saying that disembarkation has commenced. One of the strikers sent up above on an errand reported back that chow was being passed out. That made everybody snap up & start looking eager until we finally received a baloney sandwich apiece & a bit of coffee.
During this time of disembarkation we had several alerts but nothing happened—everything turned out to be friendly. We kept expecting the shore batteries to open up. The lookouts reported a vertically trained searchlight on the beach, the prearranged sign for no opposition. We who had been so keyed up now felt a little let down—it looked like no fight. But we snapped to when the lookouts reported that the searchlight was off!
Suspense was heavy and the tenseness of the situation was clearly evident among the 20 or so people in Plot. The time went on and on until daybreak. About that time we started getting reports that our landing forces were meeting opposition from French artillery & marines. We soon got orders to commence fire; our objective was to neutralize a shore battery just behind the point of Cape Fedala. We felt good down in Plot when our plane spotter sent in an NC-NC (no change charge—a hit) on the third salvo. We only fired a few salvos, a dozen perhaps. Our troops were well established on the beach so there was no point in ruining the town of Fedala with our bombarding.
And then the fun began! Almost immediately after “Cease Firing” we got a report that two cruisers and seven destroyers were headed toward us from Casablanca. Yum! Yum! That was more to our liking. The Big “A” wheeled toward them & opened up to almost 30 knots.2 The “Frogs” saw us coming and started laying smokescreens. We opened fire at 22,000 yards & kept lambasting away with A.P. shells. We were on rapid fire & really throwing out the lead. Our turret crews were working like demons.
The weather was most unfair to us. A heavy haze partially obscured the Frenchmen & with a dead calm their smokescreens were also very effective. Hence, we didn’t get good spots & practically no rangefinder ranges at all. However, we finally got on a cruiser & made at least one hit. Then it turned & ran behind a smokescreen so we shifted to a destroyer. It too headed back toward Casablanca & flames burst out on it. Then our third target was a destroyer also. Luckily for us, the haze seemed to lift so we got ranges and a perfect setup on the RK.3 Rowan was using his personally devised 100-yard straddle method of applying spots & it worked because we poured a full salvo of nine guns right into the target.4 It commenced listing heavily and then sank in a few minutes.
By this time the French had the word that it wasn’t safe in our territory so they high-tailed for their Casablanca harbor. We chased them home & then headed back toward the transport area. Afterward we got the picture from the topside men on what happened. They excitedly told of the 6-inch shells whistling all around—both from the enemy cruisers & also the unsilenced shore batteries down toward Casablanca.
We analyzed & rediscussed the morning’s work while munching sandwiches passed down by the chow detail. That was our second sandwich apiece—all the chow we had from supper Saturday evening until Sunday afternoon about 1500. I finally slipped away for a trip up to the head. We rested easy on our GQ stations. I caught an hour’s nap by shifting my phones to a spare man. That evening we were served more chow, and the men got a good meal this time so everybody was content, and we remained holed up for the night. It was fairly quiet—we mostly batted the breeze about the rumors floating back concerning the success of the mission.
The morning finally came (Monday a.m.). We heard that we might go down to Fedala to help the Mass. shell the harbor, but it was only a rumor.5 At last (after no breakfast) we secured from GQ about noon and shifted into Condition II, which is a “watch on & watch off” set up. I had the afternoon watch but was relieved long enough to eat chow. I really wolfed the food that meal! Then I had the watch until about 1830 and Chief Noe took over for the evening.6 I ate supper and turned in about 1930 after a hot shower. Being in fresh pajamas & between clean sheets certainly made me feel swell.
I could have gone on “bunk fatigue” for a week I think. But no such luck—a messenger from Plot woke me up at midnight. I looked at my watch and saw I was a half-hour late. When I demanded to know why he hadn’t awakened me on time, the poor kid shook his head and helplessly mumbled he had but I had gone back to sleep and he was afraid I’d throw a shoe at him if he tried to arouse me. He sounded so apologetic that I couldn’t read him off. Instead I even tried to help him because he said Mr. Rowan was definitely violent. I dressed and went on up to Rowan’s room. I shook & beat on Rowan for a solid ten minutes. He even got up, put on his slippers & then, being still asleep, he turned back in, and I again used force to drag him out. He finally came to and so we relieved Kelley & Noe about 45 minutes later.7
As we were late, we took the plotting room watch for the rest of the night until GQ at 0630. I read awhile, played checkers and cribbage with the men & somehow time dragged on out to morning. Suddenly, though, we snapped to when GQ sounded earlier than the customary half-hour before sunrise. Word was passed over the speaker system that we were standing down toward Casablanca to engage French destroyers coming out to seaward. Shortly after sunrise we sighted them and opened fire at about 20,000 yards.
I suffered a bit of mental anguish when the first spot came in Up 2,000 & then Up 800 on the second, which surely made my rangefinders look bad.8 However, we had to cease ranging entirely by optics due to smokescreen and haziness & spray, mist, etc. Even the radars were no good—too much interference from land objects in the background. Mautner came in over voice radio from Plane 19 with spots, which we used.9 But our radio communication was poor & slow so our rapid-hit spots weren’t received in time to do much good. Rowan on the RK was using his private straddling method.
The two French cans zigzagged in & out of their smokescreens & gradually drew us toward Casablanca. Then the topside circuits started buzzing with excited voices.
Boom! Boom! The Jean Bart with its 15-inch guns was opening up with two-gun salvos at about 13,000-yard range.10 The men on topside said the shell splashes of yellow dye were even reaching the foretop 130 feet above water. Naturally we decided to leave the country pronto. Our cheesebox armor plating wasn’t meant to argue with 15-inch shells. We turned and steamed back to the transport area off Fedala. Our plane spotter reported a heavy fire on one of the cans, so evidently we got at least a hit.
So by 1000 we were back off Fedala thankful to still be above water. Those cans had certainly sucked us in! We had supposed our only opposition would be cans, 6-inch cruiser guns, and 6-inch shore batteries, none of which we minded at all. But 15-inch slugs aren’t playthings, so we were a bit shaky after that experience. All in all, it was quite a hectic Tuesday morning.
We shifted back to condition II, and I stayed on watch until about 1330 and then had a couple of hours off until 1600. Naturally those precious hours were spent eating and sleeping. For the first time in my life I was going day after day catching only an hour here & there & the strain was telling on me.
With my usual ill luck at watch-standing I got a bum deal Tuesday evening. My third section got the evening 2000 to 2400 watch. I was J.O. on the bridge, so I had to keep on my toes & really fight off the “sleep microbes” gnawing at me. At last I turned in at midnight for a few hours until 0600 GQ. Nothing happened on this (Wednesday) morning. I spent it trying to figure the how and why of that range-taking fiasco and could only determine that either we ranged on the wrong targets or else our poor old guns were too damn shot up & perhaps our ballistics were all wrong.
I spent an interesting hour talking to the agreeable old boy who’s General Patton’s sidekick. He had been over to Fedala with the general and had plenty of dope on the situation. He told me about the landings, how Fedala succumbed quickly, how the people were almost 90 percent friendly but those other 10 percent were engaged in a little game of sniping at Americans. He also had the information about the successful landing at Port Safi to the south and the heavy losses sustained up north at Port Lyautey. He said our casualties in the Fedala area amounted to about 175 killed or drowned and 800 wounded.
Then he told me a really touching story about a drama he witnessed while ashore. He said that a French doctor came pedaling over on a bike to the Allied headquarters with a plea for help. He described the doctor as being young, about 30, but with heavy, deeply etched fatigue lines all over his haggard face. The doctor was still in his short white jacket & besmeared from head to foot with blood. The doctor told in his broken English of his plight—no help, no medicine, no bandages—many wounded at his field hospital. His language wasn’t perfect, but the illustrations he drew by gestures with his blood-soaked hands got results, so the general arranged for aid to the French medical corps. That little sidelight of the operations rather forcibly brought home to me that we are in a war, and this shooting we’d been doing wasn’t exactly target practice.
The ship was in good spirits Wednesday afternoon. We anchored at the edge of the transport area and either slept or chewed the fat about the stories we were hearing from all up & down the coast & the operations in the Mediterranean area. Our captain also made public a few of the congratulatory messages from several of the transports. One read: “We have watched with admiration, pride, & envy the excellent work of the USS Augusta during the past few days. Well done.” I guess those ships would have liked to have been throwing out 8-inch slugs alongside us.
I stood a rough watch on the well deck that afternoon—generals and admirals and lesser lights were going hither and yon. Higgins boats from other ships were all clustered around. The principal source of worry was that perhaps the French admiral (Michelier) would come aboard from Fedala, where the bigwigs were having a pow-wow about peace negotiations.11 We were all set to render honors, but the Top Kicks didn’t come out so everybody relaxed.
After going off watch at 1600 I had a sandwich and a glass of pineapple juice and then turned in to do a wee bit of bunk duty in preparation for my forthcoming midwatch. But the wicked don’t sleep. Hell broke loose in the form of GQ about 1830. Down in Plot we got the dope that three ships had been torpedoed right around us. A tanker off our port bow was only slightly damaged, but a destroyer, the Hambleton, had a vicious hit in her forward engine room, but the worst loss was the sinking of a transport with the loss of about 228 men. The sub responsible was caught on the surface by one of our cans, which made two hits and then dropped depth charges when the sub crash dived. They presumably got the sub.12
Ugh! That business rather turned my stomach. Here we had successfully convoyed 50 transports without a loss 3,500 miles & now they were plucked off like clay pigeons. Why were they there? Why hadn’t we entered Casablanca Harbor? Why not take them out to sea and keep on the move to avoid subs? Our poor strained tin-can sailors were on the verge of exhaustion—I don’t blame them for failing to keep a vigilant antisub patrol. God knows they have been doing more than their share!
On that fatal Wednesday night we remained at GQ until 2200 and then secured. I napped until my midwatch. We stood an alert watch that night, but no more sinking occurred & none of the cans made any contacts. The principal episode of the watch was receiving Admiral Hall back aboard about 0130.13 He had to climb aboard using an oil-splattered cargo net, which didn’t exactly put him in a good humor, and he criticized my method of getting his barge alongside. But now that’s water under the bridge so Hi Ho! It’s off to Tokyo.
The next morning the word got about that we would either stand down to bombard Casablanca or else we’d steam in as friends. It all depended on the outcome of the bigwigs’ conference over in Fedala. Then our admiral came back aboard & said we’d go as friends, so at Thursday noon we upped anchor for Casablanca Harbor. All hands fell in at quarters, and the ship really looked smart as we went in with minesweeps furiously sweeping ahead of us just in case some Frog had turned one loose to float down on us. Our snazzy appearance made a sharp contrast with what we witnessed going in—dead soldiers & sailors floating in the water; beached, burned, and sunken destroyers & cruisers of the French navy; plus the bombed Jean Bart. And then of course the merchant ships were all about the harbor, either wrecked by gunfire or scuttled by their own hands.
2. The French warships—the destroyer leaders Milan and Albatros and the destroyers L’Alcyon, Brestois, Boulonnais, Fougueux, and Frondeur—had orders to break up the U.S. landing near Fedala. The Augusta, Brooklyn (CL-40), Wilkes (DD-441), and Swanson (DD-443) were ordered to intercept the French force. Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, vol. 2, Operations in North African Waters: October 1942–June 1943 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1947), 98–100.
3. RK refers to the ship’s Ford Mark 8 Rangekeeper, an analog computer that was the core of her 8-inch fire-control system. See “Armaments & Innovations: The Revolutionary Rangekeeper,” pp. 10–11.
4. Lieutenant William H. Rowan.
5. USS Massachusetts (BB-59).
6. Chief Fire Controlman Joseph C. Noe.
7. Lieutenant (junior grade) H. J. Kelley
8. The spots showed the shots landing 2,000 and then 800 yards beyond the target.
9. Lieutenant Robert F. Mautner Jr. piloted one of the Augusta’s four SOC seaplanes that were used for spotting the cruiser’s gunfire as well as scouting.
10. The 35,000-ton unfinished battleship Jean Bart was berthed in Casablanca Harbor. As designed, her main battery consisted of eight 380-mm (15-inch) guns in two quadruple turrets forward, but only one of the turrets was installed and operational.
11. Vice Admiral François Félix Michelier, commander of Vichy French naval forces in North Africa.
12. The submarine was U-173, which torpedoed the tanker Winooski and transport Joseph Hewes in addition to the Hambleton (DD-455). While the submarine survived the subsequent depth-charge attack, she was sunk on 16 November.
13. Rear Admiral John L. Hall, Western Naval Task Force chief of staff.