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

The capture of Safi, where the medium tanks of the Western Task Force were to be landed, opened the attack in Morocco. At about 0600, 7 November, the Southern Attack Group carrying the Safi landing force split from the main convoy of the Western Naval Task Force and headed toward its objective. In midafternoon, while the remainder of the convoy zigzagged, the transport Lyon dropped astern with the destroyer-transports Bernadou and Cole and in about two hours transferred to them by means of landing craft the bulk of companies K and L, 47th Infantry. These men, especially trained, were to be the first to land.

[NOTE 5-XR: The documentary records of the amphibiousand land operations in taking Safi are assembled in the following: (1) CTG 34.10 War Diary and Action Rpt, Operation TORCH: Assault on Safi, French Morocco, 8 Nov 42. This includes reports of the Philadelphia, Mervine, Knight, Beatty, Merrimack, Harris, Lyon, Lakehurst, and Calvert. (2) WTF Final Rpt, Operations TORCH, with annexes. DRB AGO. Of especial value is Annex I, Final Rpt Opns BLACKSTONE. This section is based primarily on those records. (3) See also Maj James Y. Adams, AGF Obsr’s Rpt, 7 Jan 43. Copy in AGF 319.1 (For. Obs), Binder I, Tab 8.]

Half an hour before midnight, the transports and warships began to enter their assigned areas about eight miles offshore, and Led by the old battleship New York and the light cruiser Philadelphia, it included the escort aircraft carrier Santee, eight destroyers, four transports, one cargo ship, the seatrain, two old modified destroyer-transports, an oil tanker, one mine layer, two mine sweepers, and a tug, soon the column came to a stop. (The Santee remained about sixty miles from the coast, guarded by two destroyers, during the next four days.) Safi’s lights were visible on the horizon as preparations for the landings began at once. Troops were alerted. Boats were lowered. Debarkation nets went over the sides. The landing craft were loaded. But in the black darkness, the complicated process of debarkation advanced less rapidly than had been contemplated in the plan of attack and made improvisation necessary.

The Objective and Its Defenses

To the men who were about to land, Safi remained until daylight as they had seen it pictured on maps and photographs, or described in field orders and operations plans. They knew it to be a small town (about 25,000) near an artificial harbor which had been used in recent years principally for the export of phosphates.

 The harbor was a triangular area of protected water sheltered on the east by the shore, on the west by a long jetty extending northwesterly from the shore for a distance of almost a mile, and on the north by a mole (phosphate pier) which projected westward about 300 yards at right angles to the shore. The gap between the tip of the mole and the jetty was the harbor entrance, an opening about 500 feet in width. Within this harbor triangle were several mooring places for ships with drafts of as much as thirty feet, and in the southernmost angle, the Petite Darse as it was called, were slips for shallower draft fishing boats. The merchandise quay at the northeastern comer provided berths for at least three large vessels.

Electric cranes were available there for loading operations. The wharves had access to covered sheds and to space for considerable open storage, and were connected by spur tracks to a railroad leading to the interior. Near this comer, also, was a 100-foot lighthouse tower.

South of the artificial harbor and the new buildings in its vicinity was the old fishing town of Safi, which extended along the coastal shelf and at a break in the bluffs up the easier slopes to a rolling tableland. The native city was nearest the sea at a point where a small stream entered it. Not far from the cliff like waterfront was the tower of an old Portuguese fort of masonry in the crenelated style of the late Middle Ages. On the hillside 750 yards to the east was the Army barracks, and about 2,200 yards farther inland, an emergency landing field for aircraft.

Safi’s beaches were few and, for the most part, lay at the base of high, steep, and rocky bluffs which allowed no exit for vehicles. Within the harbor, however, near the Petite Darse was a short stretch of soft sand, rising rather rapidly to the coastal shelf, which was designated as GREEN Beach. Just outside the harbor, extending northward from the mole for almost 500 yards was a longer strip of sand called BLUE Beach. A third patch of sand ran for a somewhat shorter distance along the base of the cliffs northwest of BLUE Beach; it was called RED Beach. Approaches to RED and BLUE Beaches were exposed to the surf.

Passage inland from them was possible for vehicles only from the southernmost portion of BLUE Beach. The last of the beaches at which landings might have been made was eight miles south of the harbor, at Jorfel Houdi, below rugged but not insurmountable bluffs and near a road. It was labeled YELLOW Beach and considered during the planning as a possible point of landing from which to march on Safi from the south. Its approaches were to be reconnoitered by submarine in time to be reported to the subtask force commander during the first hours after arriving off Safi. Should the report be favorable, the 2nd Battalion Landing Team, 47th Infantry, would be sent there while other units were striking farther north.

At Safi the invaders expected to find a garrison of over 1,000 men. The force actually there was smaller than that, consisting of one battalion of infantry, one armored battalion equipped with fifteen obsolete light tanks and five armored cars, and two batteries of artillery, one with four 75-mm. howitzers and the other four 155-mm. mobile guns. There were coastal guns on Pointe de la Tour and on the tableland above the harbor mouth. Air support could be summoned from inland airdromes and ground reinforcements from Marrakech, at least ninety-four miles away, and possibly from other points. In fact, road and railway connections with Marrakech alone might, if undisturbed, bring to the Safi area within ten hours about 1,400 cavalry, 2,000 infantry, two battalions of horse-drawn guns, and, in even less time, thirty tanks and ten armored cars.

The warnings which spread across French Morocco reached Safi shortly after 0320 (local time). The commanding officer at Safi, Major Deuve, started promptly for his command post, a small group of buildings on the rolling tableland just above the port known as the Front de Mer. While the invading force was organizing for landings, he confirmed the readiness of his slender defenses to resist what might come to Safi. An actual total of some 450 officers and men maned the following:

(1) At the Front de Mer, two exposed 75-mm. guns operated by naval crews and defended with automatic arms from surrounding rifle pits.

(2) On the Pointe de la Tour, a headland less than a mile above RED Beach, a coastal battery known as La Railleuse which

consisted of two operable and two inoperable 130-mm. guns in fixed circular emplacements, with a modem range finder and fire control apparatus. The guns had a reputed range of 19,000 yards. They were themselves protected by four .50-caliber antiaircraft machine guns and barbed wire barriers. They were maned by naval crews and defended by part of the 104th (Coastal Defense) Company of the 2nd Moroccan Infantry Regiment, most of whom remained on the alert in a neighboring village. shore, a mobile battery of three tractor-drawn 155-mm. guns in a well-camouflaged position.

(3) In a prepared position on high ground south of the town, next to the town’s European cemetery, ,a battery of four 75- mm. pieces operated by the 2nd Regiment of the Foreign Legion.

( 4-) Approximately two miles south of the town and a half mile inland from the

( 5) Beside the Public Garden, a platoon of light tanks.

The 5th Company of the 2nd Moroccan Infantry Regiment quickly sent forward a picket platoon and moved to positions from which to resist landings in and about the harbor.


9th Infantry Division ( 1st BLT, 47th Infantry / 2nd BLT, 47th Infantry /Headquarters, 47th Infantry)

Armored Landing Team (2nd Battalion (reinforced), 67th Armored Regimen /Headquarters, Combat Command B, 2nd Armored Division)

Armored Team on Seatrain (3rd Battalion (reinforced), 67th Armored Regiment /Armored Team Combat Support Troops)

Other Force “X” Personnel; Detachment of Air Force Air Support Party /1st Armored Signal Battalion / 122nd Si gnal Company (Radio Intelligence) / 142nd Signal Company / 163rd Signal Company (Photographic) / 239th Signal Company (Operational) / 66th Engineer Company (Topographic) / 56th Medical Battalion /Headquarters, 2nd Armored Division / Interpreters / Prisoner Interrogation Teams / Civil Government Personnel / 4th Platoon. battery A/3rd Artillery (AA) Battalion / 5th Platoon, battery A/3rd Co/ 1st Artillery (AA) Battalion.]

The Plan of Attack

The Safi landing force (designated Sub-Task Force BLACKSTONE) numbered 327 officers and 6,101 enlisted men, commanded by Major General Ernest N. Harmon, Commanding General, 2nd Armored Division. The force was organized into two battalion landing teams (BLT’s) for amphibious assault, with part of one infantry battalion in reserve; one armored landing team for early commitment with one medium tank battalion in reserve; a small medical unit, several specialized signal detachments, interpreters and interrogators of prisoners of war; and miscellaneous other detachments.

The light tanks attached to the two BL T’s came from Company B, 70th Tank Battalion (Separate). The Armored Landing Team consisted of elements of the 2nd and 3rd Battalions, 67th Armored Regiment (thirty-six light and fifty-four medium tanks), supported by two batteries of self-propelled 105-mm. howitzers, a provisional bridge company, signal and supply detachments-all from the 2nd Armored Division. The sub-task force commander took his staff and headquarters from that division, as did Brigadier General Hugh J. Gaffey, who controlled the Armored Landing Team through Headquarters, Combat Command B, and a detachment from Headquarters, 67th Armored Regiment.

The main purpose in taking Safi was to get the medium tanks ashore to use as needed. The forthcoming operation was expected to fall into four major phases. First the port must be brought under control by seizing the docks and preventing sabotage, and by clearing the enemy from a deep beachhead around it. Next, the armored elements on the transport Titania and the medium tanks on the seatrain Lakehurst had to be brought ashore and assembled for combat.

Third, the line of communication had to be made secure for a northward advance. Lastly, the armored force, in particular, had to hasten overland toward Casablanca using bridges over the Oum er Rbia river which must be secured as early as possible. To control the port and establish the beachhead, artillery batteries had to be neutralized and captured, machine gun positions cleared, the garrison subdued, and the arrival of French ground reinforcements or delivery of a serious air attack prevented by defended roadblocks and by supporting air cover.

After reconnaissance, the assault was scheduled to open with surprise landings in the harbor itself from the Bernadou and the Cole. Following the latter from the line of departure, 3,500 yards offshore, at intervals of not more than 50 feet so as to keep each other in sight, were to Come a wave of five light tanks for GREEN Beach and three successive waves of infantry intended for Beaches BLUE, RED, and GREEN respectively.

The trip in was to take from thirteen to sixteen minutes. Three more assault waves were to wait at the line of departure, the first two to be sent in by the control vessel at proper intervals and the last to remain in floating reserve until summoned from shore. First light was expected at 0536 and sunrise at 0700. The time for starting the run to shore was therefore set for 0330.

Debarkation Begins

Debarkation from the transports waiting off Safi proved more difficult than had been anticipated. Matters were complicated by the fact that, even before the men began shifting from the transports to landing craft, events did not go according to plan. After darkness had fallen on 7 November, the U.S. submarine Barb took station some two and one-half miles from Pointe de la Tour and disembarked a detachment of Army scouts from the 47th Infantry to row in a rubber boat to the end of the long jetty, there to mark the harbor entrance by infrared signals in order to help the Bernadou and the Cole. In complete darkness, they entered the harbor before they discovered their exact whereabouts and were obliged to take shelter from the fire of sentries. The submarine, however, started continuous infrared signaling from its station.

While landing craft were being loaded alongside the transports, a scout boat from the transport Harm commanded by Ensign John J. Bell, started in at 0200 carrying orders to the special landing groups on the Bernadou and Cole to execute the attack plan, and with instructions to obtain from the submarine a written report of its reconnaissance of YELLOW Beach. The submarine’s signals could not be seen. Ensign Bell therefore reported to the commanders of the Bernadou and the Cole that he would himself take a position off the tip of the jetty to assist their approach. He neared the harbor at minimum speed, cutting his motor every fifteen minutes and listening as he drifted.

[NOTE: The submarine remained until firing by friendly ships forced it to submerge, and then, shortly after 0600, started for a patrol station southwest of Mogador, out of the attack zone and in the path of any French naval reinforcements from Dakar. Its beach reconnaissance had been completed so near the time of attack as to be of minor value. Its assistance to navigation y the Bernadou and Cole was superseded by that furnished from the scout boat carrying Ensign Bell. (I) Barb Action Rpt, 25 Nov 42]

 At 0410, as he neared the spot from which to guide the incoming Bernadou, he saw the lights at the end of the jetty go out, and from the general direction of Pointe de la Tour, barely descried the destroyer-transport nearing the harbor mouth. Its infrared light was visible. Ensign Bell turned on his own.

The 1st Battalion Landing Team (BL T) 47th Infantry (Major Frederick C. Feil), disembarked from the Harris while the harbor entrance was being marked and the two destroyer-transports were getting into position to enter the port. The Harris twenty-eight landing craft were lowered by 0035 hours, while twenty-one more boats from the Lyon and the Calvert, were on the way. Those from the Lyon had difficulty finding the Hams and were late. Unloading operations in the darkness fell behind the appointed schedule, necessitating a delay of thirty minutes in the entire program. The vehicles and guns of the first wave of artillery had been loaded in three holds on the fourth deck of the Harris; to extract them, heavy vehicles had to be shifted and nine hatches had to be opened. The troops, moreover, weighed down with sixty-pound packs and weapons, crawled deliberately down the debarkation nets.

The limited training and experience of the Western Naval Task Force showed at this juncture. Getting the assigned landing craft to ship’s side and lowering tanks, vehicles, ammunition, and equipment in the heavy swell proved unexpectedly difficult. Only four out of five tank lighters for the first wave and only the first three personnel waves were loaded from the Harris and sent to the rendezvous area off its port bow in time for the delayed H Hour. The other two waves straggled. The wave of tanks and the three waves of troops started in, nonetheless, from the line of departure at 0400. They were escorted by the destroyers Mervine and Beatty.

The Battle Opens

The Beatty was expected to furnish fire support from an area south of the lanes of approach. It crossed behind the Bernadou to reach its position. In the darkness, the Beatty was mistaken by those on the Cole for the Bernadou itself. As the Bernadou neared the harbor mouth, the signal “VH” was flashed from the shore. It replied at once with the same signal. Nothing followed from the shore for about fifteen minutes. Then, as the ship passed the north end of the jetty to enter the harbor mouth, the defenders of Safi suddenly poured fire in that direction from the 75-mm. battery at the Front de Mer, from machine guns emplaced along the bluffs and the high ground east of the port, and from rifles on the wharves and jetty. From its hidden position south of Safi, even the 155-mm. battery opened up, and the 130-mm. battery on Pointe de la Tour also began to bombard the transport area. The Bernadou’s gunners replied with steady efficiency while the ship continued on her way. A flare with American flag attached was released above the harbor in the hope of moderating the hostile reception; for a brief period it assisted the French gun pointers but had no other effect.

At 0428, when French gun flashes were observed by those on the Mervine, her commander gave the code signal for meeting such resistance, “Batter Up!” Her gunners, who had kept their weapons trained on the lights near the coast as the vessel escorted the landing craft toward the shore, responded almost instantly to firing orders with accurate and effective salvos. Only a minute or two later, the Beatty’s 5-inch shells also began to strike the area from which French artillery and machine gun fire was coming.

At 0438, Admiral Davidson signaled “Play Ball.” The New York then took under fire the big guns on Pointe de la Tour, smashing the fire control tower with the second salvo of its 14-inch shells. At the same time, the Philadelphia shelled the supposed site of the battery to the south. For about ten minutes, fire was heavy, but it diminished as the Bernadou drew near shore within the port.

Bearing Company K, 47th Infantry (Captain Gordon H. Sympson), that old vessel pressed through the opening tempest of both hostile and friendly fire to the narrowing angle of the harbor near its southern limits. Boats at anchor barred quick access to the wharves; so the Bernadou made for a small mole between GREEN Beach and the Petite Darse, ran gently upon its rocks, flung over a landing net, and, at approximately 0445, disembarked the first American troops to land in French Morocco. The first men clambered down the net a few feet and hastened along the mole to the positions which they had been trained to take. Others were much more deliberate.

When the Cole observed the Beatty en route to her fire support position in the darkness and mistook her for the Bernadou, she turned southward to follow. Soon Ensign Bell in the scout boat saw her on a course certain to pile her against the jetty. By flashlight and then by voice radio, he signaled barely in time to stop her thirty yards short of a crash. Also by radio, he guided the Cole back on a curving course into the harbor.

The tank lighters by this time had cut ahead of her and, although one fell out temporarily with motor trouble, three continued into the harbor to GREEN Beach, arriving there some twenty minutes after the Bernadou.

The 47th Infantry Reconnaissance Platoon rode with the tanks in these lighters, and, on reaching shore, one section hastened through Company K to the post office to take over the telephone and telegraph central station and to cut communications with the rest of Morocco. They captured some French troops moving toward the port, seized an antitank gun, and disarmed civil police.”

The Cole itself ran through a renewed outburst of machine gun and small arms fire but swung along the merchandise quay. Company L, 47th Infantry (Captain Thomson Wilson), debarked and swarmed through the dock area, from which the defenders fled, while one American detachment overcame a machine gun crew to take possession of the petroleum storage tanks about 350 yards east of the harbor.

At daylight, the harbor, railroad station, post office, and highways entering the city from the south were held by men of the special landing groups. The enemy had taken cover in buildings and other places of vantage on the heights east and north of the port, from which sporadic fire was received well into the afternoon. The first three waves of the Major Fell’s 1st Battalion Landing Team, 47th Infantry, each with more than 200 men in a group of six landing craft personnel, ramp (LCPR’s), landed before daylight on RED, BLUE, and GREEN Beaches.

[NOTE 6-1LK: (1) The first wave consisted of 212 men, a few more than in the second and third, distributed among the following units: Company A, 47th Infantry; 15th Engineers; and 163rd Signal Company ( Photo). The first wave also contained the following specialists: communications sergeant with SCR-536; shore party beach markers; two light machine gun squads; two 60-mm. mortar squads; four aid men; and two litter bearers. (2) USS Harris Action Rpt, 16 Nov 42. (3) 47th 10£ Hist, I Aug 40–31 Dec 42. (4) Adams, AGF ObIT’s Rpt, 7 Ian 43. Copy in AGF 319.1 (For. Obs), Binder I, Tab 8.]

The plan to remain close enough for visual contact broke down during the run to shore. Each wave depended on navigation by compass and on the assistance of Ensign Bell’s flashlight signals to save itself from fumbling around the harbor entrance until first light. The three waves reached land between 0500 and 0530, largely where they had expected to, and got themselves and their equipment up the beaches against minor resistance from higher ground. Company B and a platoon of Company A, 47th Infantry, pushed inland from Beach RED, but others advanced from Beaches BLUE and GREEN only after about an hour’s delay. The fourth and fifth waves, held up by various difficulties in debarkation, did not go ashore before daylight.

Daylight revealed to the defenders at the coastal defense guns on Pointe de la Tour the exact location, within easy range, of the transports and the destroyer Mervine. They resumed the firing which had been suspended about two hours previously, concentrating on the Mervine while the transports hastily moved farther from the shore.

The destroyer, replying with its own guns as best it could, by energetic evasion also got out of range, but not until it had been straddled several times and its steering gear injured by a near miss astern. The fourth wave of the 1st BLT, 47th Infantry, started in for BLUE Beach just as the firing began and, passing unscathed under the shellfire, arrived about 0745. The fifth wave was withheld while the Harris moved out to sea, and did not land until about 0905. Meanwhile, Ensign Bell’s scout boat hurried away from its vulnerable position near the harbor entrance and was sent to assist the landings at YELLOW Beach.

The attempt to send the 2nd BLT (Major Louis Gershenow) to YELLOW Beach had been thwarted until after daylight. The transport Dorothea L. Dix, crowded with approximately 1,450 officers and enlisted men, 5 light tanks, and nearly 1,500 tons of vehicles and other cargo, made hard work of debarkation.

Lowering and loading of landing craft in the heavy swell fell considerably behind the schedule. Its scout boat, away in time to take station oft’ YELLOW Beach at 0355, waited there for the destroyer Knight to escort the waves of landing craft, but the Knight was not ready until after 0500.

The destroyer began the eight mile movement from the transport area with only five imperfectly organized waves of the ten needed to carry the whole landing team. En route, these five lost contact with the destroyer and returned to the transport area; here they circled about, and did not start for YELLOW Beach again until 0800, when La Railleuse had ceased firing.

The abortive first effort of the 2nd BLT to reach YELLOW Beach during the last hour of darkness had hardly begun when one of the most disturbing episodes of the Safi landing occurred. A truck being lowered by the Dix into an LCV (landing craft, vehicle) was swung heavily against the side by the ship’s motion. An extra gasoline can on the truck was crushed, spraying gasoline into the motor of the craft below. There it exploded, igniting the boat, the truck, and the ship’s side. Flames flared up brilliantly, silhouetting other vessels in the transport area. On other ships and among troops at the beaches or in landing craft, the belief prevailed that the Dix had been torpedoed. This impression was strengthened by exploding ammunition in the burning LCV, which gave the semblance of combat until the craft sank, the noise subsided, and the flaming truck was dropped overboard.

The harbor, the port facilities, and the southern part of Safi were brought under American control by the special landing groups and part of the 47th Infantry Reconnaissance Platoon in less time than it took the 1st BLT to take its objective-the high ground northeast and north of the harbor. The first three waves of the 1st BLT, as already noted, reached RED, BLUE, and GREEN Beaches against minor resistance, and in darkness.

They organized the beaches and prepared to advance inland to the Front de Mer, Pointe de la Tour, and other centers of French resistance. As the light improved, fire from machine guns and concealed riflemen increased. Company C, which landed at 0630, had expected the support of light tanks from GREEN Beach, but these vehicles were delayed for several hours. Only three tank lighters, it will beremembered, reached GREEN Beach together, shortly after the Bernadou had arrived there. A fourth lighter straggled in much later after repairing an engine failure which had forced it to drop out of the wave formation. A fifth made the trip from the Harris to the beach alone.

Once ashore, all the tanks were immobilized by drowned motors, faulty batteries, or by the steep, soft sand. It was after 0800 before they were ready for action. By that time, naval gun fire had silenced the coastal defense guns, and most of the high ground adjacent to the port was in American possession, although enemy riflemen remained concealed on the bluff or in buildings overlooking the harbor. The infantry, after bogging down under fire, were rallied by Colonel Edwin H. Randle and moved inland without the tanks to their objectives along the beachhead line. Company D passed through them after landing at BLUE Beach at 0705.

Completing the Seizure of Safi

Deepening the beachhead and clearing a channel for the seatrain Lakehurst from the transport area to the harbor were the next operations to be attempted. To assist in the first operation, the remainder of the 3rd BLT, 47th Infantry (Major John B. Evans), was ordered ashore from the Lyon to reinforce the special harbor landing groups as soon as landing craft became available. Disembarkation began at 0755 and the first wave started in at 0903, but the unit was not all ashore and reorganized until about noon.

The 2nd BL T began its second attempt to reach YELLOW Beach from the Dix just before 0800 and at noon most of the unit was ashore and ready to move upon Safi along the coastal roads. Part of the 2nd Battalion was eventually sent directly into the port, where it rejoined those who had by then marched north from YELLOW Beach after setting up roadblocks and blowing up the railroad en route. The Armored Landing Team, whose light tanks and other vehicles were on the Titania, while most of its personnel was on the Calvert, was ordered at about 0900 to start sending tanks to the beach in lighters. Within an hour, one platoon had cleared GREEN Beach and was bound to Pointe de la Tour to investigate the situation there. In midmorning, General Gaffey, with one more platoon of five tanks, hastened from BLUE Beach to reinforce an infantry team in quelling renewed resistance at the old Portuguese fort. Thereafter, all tanks were unloaded within the harbor from ship to quay.

Before either the 3rd BL T from GREEN Beach or the 2nd BL T from YELLOW Beach had extended its control over the site of the 155-mm. mobile battery two miles south of Safi, that battery renewed its firing in one final bombardment of Safi harbor. The Philadelphia’s supporting fire at the opening of the battle seemed at the time to have silenced it, but as the Armored Landing Team began to debark from the Titania, shells believed to come from these large guns made it necessary to neutralize them at once. General Harmon, at 1025, got a call through to the cruiser Philadelphia requesting fire on the battery’s supposed position.

Ten minutes later, while an observation plane helped locate the camouflaged target, the cruiser began dropping salvos of 6-inch shells which finally found their mark. To complete the destruction of the battery, bombers worked over it until a direct hit on one gun was seen. Later investigation indicated that the French had themselves rendered the weapons unusable. After the French shelling ceased, unloading of the tanks was resumed at noon, and when the channel had been swept early in the afternoon, both the seatrain Lakehurst and the Titania moved to dockside moorings. The Calvert and Lyon anchored just outside the harbor.

American possession of the main defensive batteries and of the harbor was disputed by harassing small arms fire long after it became imperative, under orders from General Patton, to expedite the unloading. American troops were engaged, for at least an hour after the seatrain docked, in a fire fight in the vicinity of GREEN Beach and along the waterfront streets against a few riflemen concealed in buildings and on the hillsides. Unloading kept stopping as men took cover from whining bullets.

The main center of resistance until midafternoon on D Day was the walled French Army barracks area, between the port and the newer part of the town, southeast of the medina. Company K, leaving one platoon at the roadblock on the highway to Mogador, was ordered back at about 0730 to engage the occupants of the barracks, but at the southern limit of the area was pinned down by machine gun and rifle fire. When I Company approached from the northeast, it too

was held up. The defenders then tried to counterattack with three light tanks only to have two of them knocked out of service by antitank rifle grenades, while the driver of a third was stunned in colliding with a wall. The tanks were seized and their guns were turned against the barracks.

Early in the afternoon, a section of M Company’s 81-mm. mortars, commanded by Captain James D. Johnston, began dropping high explosive shells around the area for two hours while the garrison still held out. In the meantime, Battery A, 84th Field Artillery, got its truck-drawn 75-mm. pieces emplaced above BLUE Beach in a position which commanded both the barracks area and the main thoroughfare to Marrakech.

The guns were not employed against the barracks for fear of harming friendly troops, but the area was surrendered anyway at about 1530, 8 November. About that time, General Harmon landed and soon had tank and motorized patrols clearing out the snipers who were harassing the troops unloading supplies in the port. The day’s operations, during which Companies C and L in the port area took the most punishment, were almost completed. Safi had been taken.

Almost from the first, civilian natives became a problem to the attacking troops. They gathered in awed crowds to observe the naval shelling; they were disdainfully unafraid of small arms fire. A soldier would snake his way painfully through rocks and rubble to set up a light machine gun, raise his head cautiously to aim, and find a dozen natives clustered solemnly around him.

Street intersections were crowded with natives turning their heads like a tennis gallery in trying to watch the exchange of fire. The wounded were poked and jabbered at. An unfolded map quickly attracted an excited group. During the afternoon, the natives thronged the beaches, unloading landing craft for the price of a cigarette, a can of food, a piece of cloth, plus whatever they could steal. Pilferage they attempted with tireless energy. Two days later tons of ammunition and rations were to be found loaded on native fishing vessels. The theft of weapons was far less frequent. Both civilian and military French officials joined in urging preventive measures to deal with the native propensity for sniping.

Control over the deepening bridgehead eventually gave security to the unloading operations from all serious danger except a retaliatory air strike. The air cover which the Santee could offer was extremely weak, for its complement had been hurried into combat while still greatly lacking in experience and training. Admiral Davidson preferred to depend upon the seaplanes of the New York and the Philadelphia. Since the French air units at Marrakech were reported to be friendly, plans to strike the airfield at dawn on D Day had been canceled, and air action was limited to reconnaissance.

French aviation remained quiet until midafternoon. Then, at about 1540, and again a little later, a two-engined bomber circled low enough over the harbor to draw anti. aircraft fire from the batteries ashore and from the seatrain. It seemed likely that, before daylight returned next day, Safi would be under French air attack.

When darkness fell on Safi, the beachhead extended about 5,000 yards from the port. All the roads leading into the townwere blocked. Traffic entered the city only after all persons had been searched for weapons; no one was allowed to leave. The streets were patrolled. Prisoners of war, eventually to number about 300, were accumulating in a newly organized enclosure.

Known Axis collaborationists were in custody. At the piers and near the end of the jetty, the transport crews were putting ashore the tanks, vehicles, and supplies of Combat Command B, 2nd Armored Division. To guard against possible counterattacks, the tanks from the Titania, the Harris, and the Lyon were either concentrated at an assembly area on Horseshoe Hill, about three miles northeast of the harbor, or sent on reconnaissance toward Marrakech. Casualties had been light, only three dead and twenty-five wounded having been evacuated to the Hams by the medical beach party. One man had drowned while going over the side from the Lyon.

Air Action at Saft

On D Day no threat of a French counterattack from Marrakech was noted, but French air reconnaissance and strafing in the latter part of the afternoon, at the probable cost of one plane, indicated that stronger resistance might be forthcoming. It could, as an early morning warning stated, take the form of a heavy bombing raid on the shipping and stores concentrated in the port; or it might take the form of an overland attack by armored troops. In any event, the Americans would be winnable to the air but reasonably strong on the ground. Their objective remained that of getting the armor ashore and on its way north to help effect the capture of Casablanca, not to use it in an attack on Marrakech.

The morning of 9 November brought the expected French air strike. At dawn, just as planes from the Santee were beginning antisubmarine patrol, and with the coast itself shrouded in thick fog, what sounded like a considerable formation of enemy planes passed over the town and harbor. Only one determined bomber, unable to discern the target through the fog, swept under the ceiling for a low-level run over the seatrain with its load of medium tanks. It struck instead one of the small warehouses near the ship, a building which had been used as an ammunition dump. The structure was soon ablaze and ammunition began to explode. The resulting damage, casualties, and delay in unloading, though considerable for a single bomb, were minor for a whole raid. The plane itself was caught by antiaircraft fire and crashed on RED Beach. The rest of the French formation did not return.

Less than an hour later, an American carrier-based plane reconnoitered the Marrakech airdrome and was fired upon. The task force commander reluctantly concluded that the airfield must be neutralized before his armored column could leave the area for Casablanca. In the latter part of the afternoon, therefore, a formation of twelve planes from the Santee delivered the first attack, destroying eight or more widely dispersed aircraft on the ground and setting fire to the hangar.!. Eventually, some forty French planes of all types were destroyed on the Marrakech field.

While approaching the Marrakech targets, and again on their return, the formation also attacked more than forty trucks carrying French reinforcements toward Safi, strafing and dispersing them. This air strike opened the last phase of the battle. With gasoline running too low for the return to the Santee, the planes had to land on the small airfield at Safi, which had been enclosed within the beachhead. But as the planes ran downgrade on its irregular runway, six hit soft spots and nosed over.

During the morning, Admiral Davidson and General Harmon recommended to Admiral Hewitt and General Patton that some of the Army P-40’s on the carrier Chenango be based temporarily at Safi. The planes could use gasoline and ground crews furnished by General Harmon’s force, with maintenance personnel and equipment from the cruiser Philadelphia. Drums of aviation gasoline and lubricating oil were taken to the airfield from the Titania, and four antiaircraft guns were set up there and maned by Army units. Although the P-40’s were not sent, the little field was dotted by nightfall with the unfortunate planes from the Santee. To get five which were still operational back in the air on 10 November, a portion of the adjacent highway was prepared for use as an air strip. A bulldozer began to level the trees on either side and, although delayed during the night by a sniper, completed the task next morning.

By then the wind had unfortunately shifted, sweeping across the highway. Only two out of five attempts at take-off were successful. The remaining planes were therefore left for salvage.

Unloading of cargo at Safi was completed as rapidly as possible, but with such insufficient provision for setting up inland dumps that the docks and beaches became congested. The transports, moored at the wharves or anchored off the end of the jetty, continued unloading throughout the first night after the landings. They were screened against submarines and air attack by a close semicircle of seven supporting warships while the cruiser, the escort carrier, and their respective destroyer screens moved out to sea.

The Titania’s landing craft were released to the Calvert as the former’s cargo was swung by booms down to the phosphate pier. To unload, the Calvert first used BLUE and GREEN Beaches, then slips of the Petite Darse, and finally a berth vacated by the Titania on the evening of 11 November. The Lyon came in on the evening of the 12th. A large naval working party, after making room on the docks, emptied the Lyon in time for her departure at 1600, 13 November. The Harris and the Dix were similarly cleared for return to Norfolk at that time.

Stopping French Reinforcement From Marrakech

The considerable French garrison at Marrakech, the center of the Safi-Mogador defense sector, was commanded by General Martin, from whom General Bethouart had expected to receive assistance. General Martin’s intention to aid the Americans was revised upon his receipt of orders which he would not disobey but which he executed with what seemed like less than maximum power or alacrity.

[NOTE 11SK: ( 1) Emptying the Harris required 368 boatloads, and was completed on the afternoon of 11 November (D plus 3). The Lakehurst suffered a jammed derrick and thus got all the medium tanks ashore only after being at the pier about forty-eight hours. Ltr, Patton to Marshall, 15 Nov 42. Copy in OPD Exec 8, Bk. 7, Tab 5. (2) Patton Diary, 11 Nov 42.]

Reinforcements for the Safi garrison were first sighted on the highway from Marrakech at 1350 hours, 9 November. One section in fourteen trucks had almost reached the Bou Guedra crossroads, fifteen miles east of Safi, before being strafed by the planes from the Santee. Planes from the Santee dispersed a second and larger group of perhaps forty trucks at about 1600, ten miles east of Bou Guedra. Near Chemaia, forty miles southeast of Safi, a third section consisting not only of trucks but also of horse-drawn vehicles and foot soldiers was observed and attacked about an hour later. [NOTE 6-11JH] While these air attacks were delaying the French advance, the 1st Armored Landing Team’s tanks and artillery

Navy scout observation plane is taken aboard.

which had already come ashore were dispatched under command of Lieutenant Colonel W. M. Stokes to intercept the column. First contact was reported at 1700, one and a half miles east of Bou Guedra. Colonel Stokes’s force eliminated a French machine gun outpost there, took the bridge, and continued the advance until sunset. Mines along the road knocked out one American tank. The Americans bivouacked that night east of Bou Guedra and prepared for a morning battle. The French occupied defensive artillery positions commanding the passes in the foothills farther east, and waited.

[NOTE 6-11JH: This column was later identified as consisting of: the 11 th Separate Squadron of the African Chuseun; lit Battalion (seven 75·mm. guns). Moroccan Colonial Artillery; 2nd Battalion (two companies only), 2nd Regiment of Foreign Legion Infantry; and Stair. Regimental Company. and 1st Battalion of the 2nd Moroccan Tirailleun Regiment. all under the command of Colonel Paris. Journal of Action. of the High Command of Moroccan Troops. 8-11 Nov 42. Copy in WTF Final Rpt. G-2 Annex, Item 11.]

When contact was resumed next morning, over three hundred 105-mm. shells were fired on the French artillery in the hills. The French replied for a time, revealing enough strength to promise a substantial engagement before progress toward Marrakech could be resumed. A determined attack with all elements of the armored force could have defeated the French only at somecost in casualties and delays. General Harmon’s orders specified that he should undertake operations against the Marrakech garrison only to guarantee security to the beachhead at Safi and to his line of communications to the north. The principal need for his medium tanks was against the city of Casablanca, 140 miles away. General Harmon himself surveyed the situation at Bou Guedra while the last tanks were being swung to the pier from the seatrain, and learned from the interrogation of prisoners that the French column had been deprived of its mobility by the previous day’s air and ground action. He concluded that the 47th Combat Team, with its light tanks of Company B, 70th Tank Battalion, could contain the enemy and protect the unloading operations at Safi while the armored column disengaged after dark and started for Casablanca via Mazagan. Late that afternoon, when the medium tanks were all ashore, he issued orders for the night march. It might still be possible to contribute to the capture of Casablanca.

The Armored Force Starts Toward Casablanca

At 0900, 10 November, Combat Command B, 2nd Armored Division, began its march north from the vicinity of Bou Guedra over the road leading to Mazagan. Along the coast, the Philadelphia, Cowie, and Knight started for Mazagan about 1930 to furnish fire support for the armored column there. The Bernadou and Cole, laden with men, ammunition, and supplies, each escorting six landing craft which carried gasoline in cans, departed that same evening to bring supplementary fuel and ammunition for the armored vehicles. The forces by land and sea made steady, uneventful progress beneath a starlit sky.

The armored column halted at 0430, November, three miles south of Mazagan, where the garrison was understood to be friendly and weak. Actually, it had been depleted by sending reinforcements to Casablanca. The bridge across the steep-sided Oum er Rbia river valley was intact and apparently not defended, but the principal crossing at Azemmour, twelve miles northeast of Mazagan, was believed to be strongly guarded by artillery, including antitank guns, and by infantry. The first step was to secure Mazagan and the next to cross the river at Azemmour, with a minimum of delay.

A reconnaissance force entered Mazagan without challenge about 0600, thus suggesting that capture of the town would be easy. The armored force south of Mazagan therefore divided, the medium tank battalion and one artillery battery going directly to seize the Azemmour bridge while the light tanks and another battery entered Mazagan.

About 0730, the Azemmour bridge was found to be undefended. At the same time, planes from the cruiser Philadelphia and from the carrier Santee began to drone over Mazagan while tanks rumbled along its streets. Quickly and without a fight, the garrison made a formal surrender.

Port and town were secured, but imperfect communication between General Harmon and Admiral Davidson left the latter for a time in some suspense. At 0850, a radio warning-“Stop bombing over Mazagan. No fight if no bombs” -indicated that his naval fire support would not be required. About an hour later, General Harmon’s report of the earlier French surrender at 0745 was received by those on the Philadelphia.

 The surrender of Mazagan, indeed, was made at the same time that Casablanca itself ceased all resistance to the American forces by which it was being encircled. Admiral Hewitt’s instruction to withhold the bombardment of Casablanca was overheard on the Philadelphia at 0710. Dispatches were sent from that cruiser to General Harmon by seaplane somewhat later, and Combat Command B, 2nd Armored Division, was assembling southwest of Azemmour when the need to hurry northward to Casablanca came to an end.

Rather abruptly, then, Sub-Task Force BLACKSTONE’S principal mission terminated without the final stage of commitment to battle in the vicinity of Casablanca. When General Nogues signified the readiness of Casablanca to cease resistance, the American armored force was not poised at the edge of the great city. It was more than fifty miles away, in the vicinity of Azemmour and Mazagan. Most of the tanks had not yet crossed the river. General Harmon’s force had prevented the reinforcement of Casablanca, and of Safi itself, from Marrakech.

While its armored elements had been moving to the position which they reached by sunrise on 11 November (D plus 3), the larger force at Fedala (Sub-Task Force BRUSHWOOD), with the Center Attack Group of the Western Naval Task Force, had been engaged in operations controlled by the fact that they were in much closer proximity to the ultimate objective. And farther north, the airfield at Port-Lyautey had come into American possession. From the operations of the Safi force, the story turns therefore to the battles nearer Casablanca during the same period.

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 (2-5); French decide to fight


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.