World War Two: North Africa (2-5); French decide to fight

Operation TORCH had two major phases. The first, amphibious landings, included widely separated operations on the Atlantic coast of Morocco and on the Mediterranean shores of western and central Algeria. The second phase was an overland advance through eastern Algeria into Tunisia, supplemented by the consolidation of each of the three task forces near Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers, and by the increase of air strength at the newly acquired French airdromes.

The amphibious phase was to be conducted against such resistance as the French might choose to offer in spite of extraordinary efforts by the Allies to avert it. The second phase would begin while the French deliberated over joining the Allies in active opposition to the Axis powers or remaining passively neutral.

The amphibious landings were all to begin in the predawn hours of 8 November; the hostilities which ensued, as will later appear, were concluded successively in Algiers, Oran, and Casablanca: Although D Day was the same for all, H Hour was a matter of discretion with each task force commander, for with more than 700 airline miles intervening between Casablanca and Algiers, the conditions of tide, moonlight, wind, and sunrise at these widely separated beaches would vary. The commanders were free to delay after 0100 in order to grasp favorable conditions, rather than under compulsion to meet a precise over-all schedule regardless of the immediate situation.

[NOTE 5-1DS: In this part of the narrative, and in the section which follows, the geographical pattern of Allied advance from west to east has been allowed to prevail over a strictly chronological pattern, with an account of first the operations of the Western, then of the Center, and lastly of the Eastern landing forces.]

The Eastern and Center Naval Task

Forces adopted 0100, Greenwich time; the Western Task Force planned for 0400. The landing forces expected to be put ashore by American methods off Morocco and by British methods off Algeria. The Western Naval Task Force intended, within the limits imposed by its incomplete and hurried training for such an undertaking, to anchor the troop transports in a designated area several miles offshore and to release the landing craft which had been swinging from their davits. These boats would then assemble alongside certain ships to take aboard the troops, temporarily organized into boat teams. Once loaded, the boats would circle until time to assemble in waves at a line of departure between two control vessels. From that line they would proceed in formation and on schedule toward shore, escorted by guiding vessels equipped with radar and other navigational aids. No preliminary bombardment was to soften resistance at the beachhead, but fire support ships would take stations from which to shell targets ashore as required.

The waves of landing craft would go in at intervals which allowed each wave to unload and retract from the beach in time to make room for the wave behind it. The first troops to land were to capture the beach and prepare it to receive succeeding waves. Later arrivals would reconnoiter inland, expand the beachhead, and penetrate the interior to reach special objectives. After being unloaded and withdrawn from the beaches, the landing craft were to be guided back for later loads according to a schedule which would bring them alongside various transports rather than only to their own parent ships. After daylight the transports could be brought in closer or taken out farther to sea, depending on the progress of operations ashore and the enemy’s ability to retaliate. The fast convoy approaching the Strait of Gibraltar from the United Kingdom had been practically unobserved, the only warning being an unconfirmed report on 2 November from the German submarine U-514 of seven large ships, probably transports, moving eastward toward the Mediterranean.

The Western Naval Task Force, as already noted, crossed the Atlantic without being detected by either French or Axis reconnaissance. The main indication to the enemy that the Allies were preparing a landing on the Atlantic coast was the extraordinary accumulation of ships and aircraft at Gibraltar in October and nearly November, a process interpreted to mean that an attack might be imminent at Dakar as well as inside the Mediterranean. The convoys which were observed passing into the Mediterranean through the Strait of Gibraltar and which were kept under enemy air observation at fairly frequent intervals on 6 and 7 November attracted much attention, but Admiral Hewitt’s convoy succeeded in keeping out of sight until after nightfall. It then sped to the three major areas from which its attack on French Morocco was to be launched. Thus, off Safi, Fedala, and Mehdia, the three naval attack groups carrying the sub-task forces under General Patton’s command were taking their positions as D Day arrived.

French military forces in the Casablanca defense sector had been allowed to relax the state of readiness during the evening of 7 November, but the events of the early morning were to bring about a general alert throughout French Morocco. These warnings seem to have been instigated not by receipt of reports from Algiers or Oran, or by the recorded broadcast to the French people from the President transmitted from London, but rather by the efforts of the pro-Allied French in Casablanca to forestall resistance to the landings.

For these men had been actively at work to help bring about a peaceful occupation of western Morocco. The few Americans engaged for well over a year in preparing for such events awaited the arrival of the Western Task Force with mounting excitement. They heard the British Broadcasting Corporation’s warning signal, “Robert arrive,” shortly after sundown on 7 November. The U.S. Consul General, H. Earle Russell, was informed by one of his staff that landings were being made in Algeria and would begin on the west Moroccan coast at 0500, local time (0400, Greenwich time), on 8 November.

President Roosevelt’s notes to the Sultan of Morocco and to the Resident General, which were to be delivered in Rabat, more than fifty miles away, were entrusted to two vice-consuls with directions to present them as soon as the landings were in progress. A secret radio station (“Lincoin“) was in operation on the roof of a building not far from the port with an alternative apparatus at another point in case of emergency, and with storage batteries at hand to use when the city’s electric power should be cut off. Waiting in a small shelter near his instruments was the French operator (” Ajax” ). A messenger linked the operator with the consulate, where Vice-Consul W. Stafford Reid encoded and. Decoded messages. All radio contact with the approaching force was channeled by specific orders through Gibraltar. Unwillingness of the operator at Gibraltar to adopt the procedures which the operator at Casablanca deemed necessary in the light of experience, rendered contact imperfect, particularly at night.

All arrangements for sabotage, seizure of key points, and capture of leading Vichyites and German Control Commissioners in Morocco, which had been so long in preparation by French civilian groups organized by Vice-Consul David W. King, were set aside by an order from Mr. Robert Murphy in Algiers, scarcely three days earlier. This step transferred complete control to General Bethouart, commanding general of the Casablanca Division. King issued instructions on 7 November for a forty-eight-hour practice alert which would place his civilian groups in position to act when they discovered that the invasion was actually taking place, but even these orders failed to reach Port-Lyautey until much too late.

General Bethouart, acting for the organization headed by General Mast and others in Algiers, was expected to prevent resistance by the French forces ashore and to expedite an association in arms with the Allies against the Axis powers. He planned to seize temporary control at Rabat by a military coup, then to order the garrisons along the coast to remain in their barracks while the landings were executed, and to hold potential reinforcements at their interior stations.

French military plans for defending Morocco were elaborate and well established. They had been brought up to date by a series of directives from General Georges Lascroux, Commander in Chief of Moroccan Troops, dated 19 August 1942, The western coast from Spanish Morocco to Rio de Oro was divided by these plans into four sectors, of which all but the most southerly were within the objective attacked by the Western Task Force. These three sectors, from north to south, were headed respectively by the Commanding General, Meknes Division (Major General Andre Dody) ; the vice admiral commanding Moroccan Naval Forces (Vice Admiral François Michelier); and the Commanding General, Marrakech (Major General Henri Martin). Garrisons and auxiliary troops, which were normally stationed at various points within each area, were to be concentrated as needed in order to reinforce the defenders of the ports. Defense in depth for approximately fifty miles along routes to the interior was also planned.

Three sections of mobile reserves were available inland under the control of the theater commander (the Resident General), one group to assemble near Khemisset, a second, near Settat, and the third, a light armored brigade, in the Boulhaut-Marchand area. On the north, protection of the frontier between the French and Spanish protectorates was furnished mainly by garrisons controlled from Oujda and Guercif. Auxiliary native troops from the interior would be used either on the northern front or, eventually, on the western coast if that proved necessary.

Although the plans were primarily designed for the repulse of enemy forces pressing toward the interior from the west or north, they were also arranged with a view to defending firmly the Moroccan capital, Rabat, by a particularly large proportion of the available strength.

The Center Attack Group was just arriving off Fedala as General Bethouart sped past that town en route to Rabat to take there the first critical overt steps in his projected military coup. At 0200, he sent a letter to General Nogues in which he explained that General Giraud, aided by American troops, was taking command in all French North Africa and had designated General Bethouart both to take command in Morocco over all Army troops and to assist an American expedition about to land there. General Nogues was also apprised of the fact that orders were being issued to all Moroccan garrisons and airdromes not to oppose the landings. He was asked either to issue confirming orders or, if he preferred, to absent himself until he could simply accept a fait accompli.

 While this letter, with accompanying documents, was being delivered at the Residency, General Bethouart proceeded to the command post of the Moroccan Army headquarters. He was protected there by a battalion of Colonial Moroccan Infantry, recruited chiefly from young men who had escaped from France hoping to resume the war against the Axis, soldiers to whom the current mission was congenial. General Lascroux, whose post General Bethouart was assuming, was sent to Meknes under nominal duress. General Lahoulle, commanding French air forces in Morocco, agreed not to resist the landing if the ground forces also refrained. When he tried by telephone to persuade Admiral Michelier to adopt the same policy, and was induced instead to reverse his own stand, he too was placed under arrest. Orders to keep all planes grounded were issued to the air bases.

In Casablanca, at the Admiralty, General Bethouart’s chief of staff, Lieutenant Colonel Eugene Molle, handed to Admiral Michelier a letter from General Bethouart similar in character to that sent to General Nogues. The recently arrived admiral, commander of all French naval units in Morocco and commander in chief of the Casablanca defense sector, was urged to join the elements under General Giraud in receiving the Americans without resistance as a preliminary to joint action against the Axis. The American consular staff in Casablanca had had ample grounds for believing that the upper grades in the French naval establishment there were pro-Axis. For the American task force to occupy Casablanca and subsidiary ports unmolested, the French naval commander would have to issue orders of unmistakable force and clarity.

The situation placed Admiral Michelier under the necessity of making a critical choice. His responsibilities were large. The standing orders for defense charged him, as Naval Commander in Chief in Morocco, with defense against an enemy afloat, and, as the immediate commander of the Casablanca defense sector, with the employment of sea, air, and ground forces against landing parties. Only when the success of an invading force required commitment of the general reserves would the command over defensive operations pass from Admiral Michelier to General Nogues as Commander of the Moroccan Theater of Operations.

The unity of command over all armed elements was thus arranged in a sector extending inland for fifty miles in order to prevent a transfer of leadership at the critical point of an attack when an enemy began establishing his foothold ashore. Permanent, detailed instructions for all echelons had been issued, instructions to be enforced automatically in case of attack, whoever the aggressor might be. The mechanism of defense could be stopped only by very positive intervention. When the Admiral received Bethouart’s message, he scouted the possibility that the Americans could land a force during the night capable of holding any of the ports under his protection. The weather, the surf, and the failure of his coastal air or submarine patrols to detect the Western Naval Task Force within cruising distance of the shore before darkness–all seemed to warrant disbelief. He therefore decided that General Bethouart was the victim of a hoax, and assured General Nogues and others by telephone at intervals during the night that no large force was offshore.

Admiral Michelier directed the assistant commander of the Casablanca Division, Brigadier General Raymond Desres, to cancel General Bethouart’s orders holding the unit immobilized and, instead, to place its components where the standing orders prescribed. By 0300, the Americans in the consulate observed truckloads of soldiers, a stream of little “Citroens,” and many motorcycles and bicycles hastening through the city toward the port and coastal batteries.

The choice before General Nogues, when he received General Bethouart’s letter and found the Residency surrounded by insubordinate forces, depended directly upon the nature of the impending attack. He might have been placed in command of Moroccan defensive operations by direction of General Juin, who was his superior in such matters, and who was at the time, along with Admiral Darlan, under arrest in Algiers. He might have assumed the command on his own initiative had he recognized that the magnitude of the American forces about to land required the commitment of reserves from the interior stations. He could not have countermanded Admiral Michelier’s orders to the crews of the coastal batteries and the units of the Casablanca Division along the coast without being “dissident.” The most which could have been expected by those who knew him, in view of his determination to keep French Morocco from German military occupation and of his professional concern with the discipline of the French Army, was a course leading to token resistance.

Casualties might have been held to a minimum while at least an appearance of defense was being created. French failure to resist an American attack by forces manifestly weak and insufficient to control French Morocco, or any Commando raid of the hit-and-run variety, could not fail to cause Axis reprisals. Whether General Nogues assumed control with a view to confining French resistance to “token” proportions or allowed the Casablanca defense sector to resist manfully under Admiral Michelier’s direction would depend directly on the size of the American invading expedition.

With these considerations in mind, and before replying to General Bethouart’s letter, General Nogues began a cautious appraisal of the situation and ordered a general alert. The naval authorities denied the presence of large forces offshore. The landings did not begin at the time announced by General Bethouart, nor did any American force arrive at Rabat. By telephone General Nogues communicated with the commanders of the Meknes and Marrakech military sectors and ascertained that they remained subordinate to his authority rather than accepting the leadership of General Bethouart, as the latter had claimed.

President Roosevelt’s note to General Nogues was delivered considerably later than the plans called for, and was laid aside unrecognized for a later perusal. Any doubts concerning its authenticity might have been dispelled if the President’s radio broadcast had been heard by the Resident General, but by the time the document was read the size and strength of the landings were apparent.

General Nogues finally replied to General Bethouart by telephone after planes had strafed the antiaircraft batteries at Rabat and the airdromes at Casablanca, Sale, and Port-Lyautey, after ground troops had seized Safi and Fedala, and after naval gunfire had silenced the principal batteries near both ports. He then knew that fighting was also occurring at Oran and Algiers and that General Giraud had not been generally accepted as the leader in North Africa. He ordered General Bethouart to dismiss the protective battalion of Moroccan Colonials at once. To avoid bloodshed within the army, Bethouart and his principal associates sent away the guard and went to the Residency. There they were kept in custody until evening and then sent to Meknes to stand trial for treason.

In Casablanca just after 0630, leaflets containing General Eisenhower’s proclamation showered down over the city. An hour later, a cordon of guards ringed the U.S. Consulate; in the park across the street an antiaircraft battery was set up; and the air battle against Cazes airfield opened. Colonel William H. Wilbur, a member of Patton’s staff, had the mission of persuading the commanders in the city to co-operate with the Americans. But by 0800 as he arrived at the Admiralty after a trip in a small car that bore a huge flag of truce, the big guns on EI Hank, on the Jean Bart, and on other ships in the harbor had opened fire against Admiral Hewitt’s Covering Group. Shells from the Massachusetts, the Wichita, and the Tuscaloosa began to fall in the harbor in reply. Soon the port area was blanketed with smoke which rolled in over the city.

Hostilities had come to Morocco in a manner perhaps determined at Vichy but certainly attributable to the resolute French admiral at Casablanca and accepted by the Resident General at Rabat. The latter assumed command later in the morning and announced that a state of siege prevailed throughout French Morocco.

SOURCE: Northwest Africa: Seizing The Initiative In The West; by George F. Howe (United States Army Center of Military History)

World war Two: North Africa (2-6); Taking Safi

World War Two: North Africa(1-4); Completing the Preparations-Invasion Forces Sail


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