It was 0300, 8 November 1942. Forty-eight-year-old Colonel Edwin Randle of the 47th Regiment, 9th Division, U.S. Army, clung to a rope net and glanced at the pitching boat far below. He adjusted his map case and rifle and continued his descent “a step at a time, feeling with his feet for each lower strand hearing the black water surge below. . . .” When he arrived, the colonel breathed, “Boy, I should have practiced that more!”1
Colonel Randle considered himself unready for his first direct experience of amphibious warfare; it was riskier than he had expected. And “unready” and “risky” could summarize Operation Torch itself.
Much Guesswork, Little Experience
Operation Torch was the code name for the Anglo-American invasion of Morocco and Algeria. It was World War II’s first major combined (bi-national in planning, command, and execution) operation and its first large, multidivision amphibious assault, involving three task forces and nine landings, spread from Safi in central Morocco to Algiers, nearly 600 air miles east. It landed 63,000 combat troops from six divisions and was supported by 350 transports and auxiliaries and 320 warships. It went from conception to execution in less than four months.
Torch’s scale and command arrangements represented new territory for the Allies, and planners had to substitute guesswork for experience and training. For example, there was no agreement on such a simple thing as landing craft loading arrangements. Some transports such as Colonel Randle’s used rope nets, some chain nets, and others metal ladders. The troops were green; many of the ships were new. Margins were tight. Errors were inevitable—and failure was a possibility.
The goal of Operation Torch was the conquest of French North Africa. The landings were just the first step. Once the troops were established ashore, the plan called for a flying column to dash forth from Algiers—in tandem with landings at Bougie and Bône in eastern Algeria—and overrun Tunisia. This task was to be finished by the end of November 1942, theoretically before the Axis could react in force. Strategically, Torch would complement a British offensive against the Italo-German Panzerarmee Afrika dug in at El Alamein, just 60 miles west of Alexandria, Egypt.
History considers Operation Torch a success, and from a distance of 80 years—and in the context of the triumphal procession of major amphibious operations that followed—such a judgment seems apt. Torch is commonly perceived as something of a training operation against a weak and divided foe: the despicable Vichy French. This assessment, however, does not accord with events.
The risks taken, mistakes made, and victories narrowly won argue, in fact, that Torch was among the more perilous operations undertaken by the Allies during the war. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill warned: “Should arrangements go astray, a military disaster of very great consequences would ensue.”2 It is the degree of risk that the commanders accepted, and the ships and troops faced, that is, after 80 years, the aspect of Operation Torch that memory should emphasize.
Weather was the first great gamble. Trying to dissuade the Americans from landing in Morocco, the British Chiefs of Staff cautioned that “surf conditions at Casablanca would prevent a landing four days out of five.”3 The Americans, worried that the Spanish might close the Strait of Gibraltar and sever their lines of communication should they land all their forces in the Mediterranean, decided to risk Morocco anyway. A window of moderate conditions happened on the right day. But even in the Mediterranean, the general lack of training made weather a particularly dangerous factor.
Every military action faces a prospect of bad weather. Storms delayed 1944’s Operation Neptune for a day, but in the case of Torch, with its nine synchronized landings originating from Britain and North America, delay would have been disastrous. As Royal Navy First Sea Lord Admiral Dudley Pound expressed it: “I had visions of large convoys waltzing up and down both outside and inside the Mediterranean with the weather too bad to land and the U-boats buzzing around. We really did have remarkable luck.”4
A prominent historian of the U.S. Army wrote about the landings: “An aura of peace prevailed on the beaches.”5 In fact, the Vichy French Army in Morocco and Algeria outnumbered the attackers by a margin of 2:1—a big reason why the Americans vigorously attempted to win the cooperation of French military commanders before the invasion. At Algiers, spotty enemy cooperation helped offset the impact of poorly conducted landings. But in other areas, U.S. troops met stiff resistance. At Port Lyautey, a counterattack by Moroccan native troops drove them all the way back to the beach. Nor was there an “aura of peace” at Safi, Casablanca, or any of the beaches around Oran, where the resistance was often intense.
In this author’s opinion, however, the greatest threat the invasion faced came off Casablanca—and not from the French Army. The naval Battle of Casablanca was the largest one-day naval action fought in the Atlantic Ocean during World War II. A famous team of military historians described this battle as follows: “French naval forces made a gallant sortie, promptly crushed by predominant U.S. strength.”6 This is nonsense.
High Stakes and High Risk at Casablanca
Task Group (TG) 34.1, commanded by Rear Admiral Robert C. Giffen on board the USS Massachusetts (BB-59), had three tasks. These were (1) to suppress the French battleship Jean Bart, immobilized in Casablanca Harbor but equipped with a functional four-gun 15-inch turret; (2) to contain the powerful French naval squadron based in Casablanca; and (3) to prevent the French squadron at Dakar 1,350 miles to the south, the modern battleship Richelieu, and three cruisers and three large destroyers from interfering. Two heavy cruisers and four destroyers screened the new U.S. battleship Massachusetts, which was on her first combat mission.
Besides Giffen’s force, the crowded waters around Casablanca included Task Group (TG) 34.9, with the cruisers USS Augusta (CA-31) and Brooklyn (CL-40), ten destroyers, and three converted destroyer-minelayers. TG 34.9 was responsible for protecting the loaded transports and for shore bombardment.
Vice Admiral François Michelier commanded the Marine au Maroc, and under him Rear Admiral Raymond Gervis de Lafond led the 2nd Light Squadron. They had no hint of the blow about to fall on them. Fuel shortages limited air reconnaissance out into the Atlantic. They were aware of Allied forces gathering in Gibraltar but believed this was an operation to relieve Malta. Almost 50 aircraft were in the near vicinity, with more up and down the coast. Defending the coastline were four major shore batteries with four 194-mm, seven 138-mm, seven 100-mm, and four 75-mm guns, not to mention the Jean Bart’s battery.
The attack transports of TG 34.9, loaded with the troops of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division, began launching their landing craft shortly after midnight. As the commander of one transport’s landing force put it: “On a dark night with no landmarks it is extremely difficult not to get lost.”7 Thus, organizing and orienting the first wave’s boats proved more challenging than anticipated, and the landings were twice postponed until 0445. Indeed, the two regimental landing teams, scheduled to land on a tight 2.5-mile stretch of beach, instead came ashore over a span of 25 miles.8 On the first day, the Americans lost 272 of 378 landing craft available at Fédala. This echoes the problems with training and organization that bedeviled the landings at Algiers and affirms that the landings were fraught with peril—and that the margin of victory was narrow.
For the French, the first intimation of trouble came at 0210 when a shore battery reported speedboats offshore. Admiral Michelier ordered a general alert, but this was also due to an attempted coup by a group of dissident army officers. With growing commotion offshore, Pont Blondin’s searchlight finally swept the cove between the battery and Fédala at 0523. This provoked a spray of U.S. machine-gun fire, to which the battery replied. These were the Battle of Casablanca’s first shots. Michelier ordered five submarines to sea, and then he bade the 2nd Light Squadron to raise steam and attack unidentified forces assaulting Fédala. Dawn was 20 minutes away, and thick haze smothered the shore.
Rear Admiral Giffen was 15 nautical miles west-northwest of Casablanca Harbor—in other words, out of sight and out of range—when the first French warships rounded the Grande Jetée. At roughly 0700, U.S. aircraft—Seagulls for spotting and antisubmarine patrol, Wildcats for protection, and Avengers for antishipping strikes—began appearing over the port and started tangling with French fighters.
Giffen hurried back to bring his 16-inch rifles into range, but as he approached, the El Hank Battery greeted him, firing nearly 200-pound armor-piercing shells from its 194-mm (7.64-inch) guns out to 25,000 yards. The French used dye packs to facilitate spotting, and the splashes from this salvo rose bright green to a height of more than 100 feet. Minutes later, two giant yellow geysers erupted well off the Massachusetts’ starboard bow. The Jean Bart had entered the action. The time was 0708.
A Massachusetts Mystery
Over the next hour and a half, TG 34.1 pounded the harbor, shooting through smoke and haze at ranges that varied from 21,800 to 30,450 yards. The Massachusetts hit the Jean Bart seven times, temporarily disabling her 15-inch battery and severely damaging a large destroyer at her berth. The passenger liner Porthos had arrived in Casablanca just hours before, bringing civilian refugees from Dakar, which French intelligence had assessed as the more likely target of an Allied attack. When the firing started, hundreds of passengers ran screaming from the dock. Twenty-four died when the liner capsized after being hit.
The Jean Bart managed only seven rounds before her guns went silent, but El Hank never missed a beat. According to a Massachusetts crewman, “heavy stuff was whizzing over . . . and splashing in the water close aboard.”9 To the east off Fédala, TG 34.9 was landing troops and slowly overwhelming the two batteries in its sector. Meanwhile the 2nd Light Squadron gathered off the harbor entrance.
At 0815 Rear Admiral Gervis de Lafond started heading up the coast with seven destroyers. His cruiser, the Primauguet, was taking too long to get under way, and two destroyers were unable to ready themselves quickly enough. He picked a good moment, as at 0815 TG 34.1 was 30,000 yards northwest of the harbor and headed away, swapping slow salvoes with El Hank.
At 0818 a Wildcat reported the French sortie; Admiral Hewitt noted this in his log, but Giffen did not. Not until 0855 did the Massachusetts, now far to the west, come about and hasten at 27 knots back to the battle. The battleship’s and the admiral’s reports do not say why, except for a vague reference to restricted waters. The Massachusetts’ absence at this critical moment is one of the battle’s great mysteries.10 In essence, it gave a powerful French surface squadron a nearly free shot at U.S. transports in the process of landing troops. All that initially stood between them and disaster for American arms was a flight of Wildcats and three destroyers—the USS Ludlow (DD-438), Wilkes (DD-441), and Swanson (DD-443)—that had been dueling with the Fédala battery. The Wildcats did their best, strafing the French column, but they could not stop warships. The U.S. destroyers intervened, but in a brief gunnery action, the heavier French weapons drove them off, moderately damaging the Ludlow in the process.
At 0825, the USS Augusta (CA-31), flagship of Task Force 34, with Rear Admiral Kent Hewitt and Major General George S. Patton on board, was arranging to land the general so that he could take command ashore. This important task had to wait, however. Hewitt radioed Giffen that enemy warships were approaching the transports, and he turned the Augusta to confront the French while the USS Brooklyn (CL-40) wove through her charges to reach the enemy also.
At 0840, the 2nd Light Squadron arrived off Yellow Beach to the west of Fédala just as a wave of landing craft approached the shore. Visibility was growing chancy. The morning haze had not burned off completely, the French warships were spewing smoke, and the American bombardment had ignited an oil storage tank that was burning fiercely, sending a rolling black wall of smoke from shore to sea, screening the transports and giving the landing craft, now under fire and taking losses, a refuge into which to duck.
The Augusta opened fire from 19,000 yards at 0843 and damaged the destroyer Fougueux with an early hit. Gervis de Lafond apparently never realized he was just 10,000 yards from the transport park. He turned back toward Casablanca, hoping to lure the Augusta into range of El Hank.
Slugfest on the Water, Trouble on the Beaches
Off to the west, the Massachusetts finally engaged the French squadron at 0916, but at 0935 Giffen turned west again. At 0940, firing 12,000 yards over her port quarter, the Massachusetts sank the destroyer Fougueux with a 16-inch blow that crumpled the target’s bow and caused rapid flooding. At 0956, with the range rapidly opening, the Massachusetts severely damaged the large destroyer Milan with a round that may have traveled an incredible 28,000 yards, a viable candidate for the longest-range gunfire hit in World War II.
At 1000 a shell from El Hank punched into the Massachusetts, penetrating one deck but causing only minor damage and no casualties. More dangerously, the submarine Méduse launched four torpedoes at 1003 as the battleship sailed majestically past, 800 yards away. The ponderous vessel turned barely in time—with one torpedo purportedly missing by five yards.11 Six torpedoes from the submarine Antiope had missed the USS Tuscaloosa (CA-37) just minutes before, with one weapon running down the port side a mere 50 yards away. The French clearly recalled Dakar where, in September 1940, a submarine had repulsed a British attempt to capture the port when she torpedoed and nearly sank the British battleship HMS Resolution.
Hewitt, assuming that Giffen had the matter in hand, had turned back to the landings, where things were not going well. Landing craft losses were accruing, French resistance continued strong, and General Patton was more anxious than ever to get ashore. The trouble was, the Massachusetts was sparring again with El Hank beyond range of the harbor entrance, where Gervis de Lafond’s squadron again had gathered. Thus, the French admiral, instead of giving up the battle, led his depleted squadron back toward Fédala at 1000.
Lafond’s persistence meant that the Augusta and Brooklyn and their attendant destroyers needed to intervene once again. During her advance, the Brooklyn spotted five submarine torpedoes streaking toward her. She turned 90 degrees and combed their wakes, reporting that the nearest weapon missed by 75 yards. In turn, the Brooklyn’s rapid firing 6-inch guns sank the Boulonnais at 1012 with six hits from the same salvo; eight minutes later she damaged the Primauguet, which had joined the French squadron late. At the same time, the Albatross hit the Brooklyn. The large destroyer’s 138-mm shells contained red dye. Spread over the cruiser’s deck, this caused one crewman to faint, mistaking the coloring for blood.
‘One of the Riskiest Operations’
The worse damage suffered by the Americans came at 1128, when El Hank tagged the USS Wichita (CA-45), blowing a hole in the main deck and wounding 14 men. By that time, the action was winding down, with two French destroyers sunk and every other French ship save one destroyer severely damaged. The last shots came at 1505, fired by TG 34.1’s heavy cruisers against El Hank. By then, the Americans were firmly ashore. The French 2nd Light Squadron had missed multiple chances to attack the transports, but the very fact that such opportunities existed raises questions about the way Hewitt organized his task force and Giffen fought the battle.
The tremendous and rather desperate courage of the French resistance certainly does not support the conclusion that the Americans were punching through paper. Instead, it suggests that Operation Torch was one of the riskiest operations the Allies conducted during World War II, and the Naval Battle of Casablanca was just one clear expression of that risk.
Mr. O’Hara is an independent scholar and the author or coauthor of 12 books, including Torch: North Africa and the Allied Path to Victory (Naval Institute Press, 2015) and Six Victories: North Africa, Malta, and the Mediterranean Convoy War, November 1941–March 1942 (Naval Institute Press, 2019). His articles have appeared in Naval History, Naval War College Review, MHQ, and other publications.
1. Quoted in Vincent P. O’Hara, Torch: North Africa and the Allied Path to Victory (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015), 235.
2. B. H. Liddell Hart, History of the Second World War (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1970), 315.
3. O’Hara, Torch, 51.
4. Michael Simpson, ed., The Cunningham Papers, vol. 2, The Triumph of Allied Sea Power, 1942–1946 (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2006), 44.
5. Charles MacDonald, The Mighty Endeavor: American Armed Forces in the European Theater in World War II (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), 90.
6. R. Ernest Dupuy and Trevor N. Dupuy, The Encyclopedia of Military History (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 1,086.
7. USS Leonard Wood, Action Report, November 1942, 7, RG 38, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD (hereafter NARA).
8. O’Hara, Torch, 185.
9. 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), 97.
10. See O’Hara, Torch, 196 for a discussion.
11. USS Massachusetts, Action Report, November 1942, 142, NARA.