The amphibious operations in the Mediterranean for the capture of Oran and Algiers united elements of the U.S. Army, the British Army, and the Royal Navy in two joint expeditionary forces, supported by units of the U.S. Army Air Forces and the British Royal Air Force. The amount of training was generally below the requirements for success in operations against firmly defended shores. Here, as on the western coast of Morocco, the Allied Force had stretched its capacities to the limit.
There had been no time even for precise forging of the Allied military instrument, much less for polishing it. It was rough cast in the proper mold and used with that fact in mind. The complications of amphibious operations were many under the best of circumstances, but by using one country’s army with another’s navy the Allies unavoidably increased those complexities. The forthcoming operations in the Mediterranean were consequently expected to be unexampled in difficulty as well as in scale.
Naval forces engaged in the Allied attacks entered the Mediterranean in conformity with an elaborate pattern which had been prepared at the British Admiralty for Operation TORCH.’ In the van was the Covering Force (H), containing Vice Admiral Sir Neville Syfret’s flagship, the Duke of York, and two other battleships, Rodney and Renown, the aircraft carriers Victorious and Formidable, three cruisers, and seventeen destroyers. The Covering Force had the mission of protecting the landing operations from interference by the Italian or Vichy French fleets, a task which might take it well to the northeast of the rest of the convoy. British submarines already in the Mediterranean took patrolling stations off Messina, off the northwestern corner of Sicily, and off Toulon. Aircraft from Gibraltar, Malta, or the United Kingdom began reconnaissance flights over the sea between Spain and Sardinia, between Sardinia and Sicily, and over southern French ports. The first two convoy sections, bound for Algiers, went through the straits during the night of 5-6 November, and the third, the slower section bound for Oran, passed into the Mediterranean during the afternoon of 6 November. Spies reported the naval movements near Gibraltar to the Axis powers almost immediately.
As early as 4 November, the Germans were aware of a threat but did not recognize its import. “In Gibraltar, the Luftwaffe has ascertained up to now the presence of one battleship, two aircraft carriers, five cruisers, and 20 destroyers,” noted the keeper of the OKW /WFSt War Diary; “the concentration of such important naval forces in the western Mediterranean seems to indicate an imminent operation, perhaps another convoy to Malta.” Marshal Cavallero on the same day considered the possibility of an Allied landing on the coast of Africa. Before midnight, 5-6 November, he was informed that Allied transports were actually entering the Mediterranean.
The warning, although early, was not early enough. The Axis powers had been led to expect Allied action on the Atlantic coast but did not anticipate an expedition to the Mediterranean. This consideration, and the necessity to protect the supply lines to their troops in Africa and the Balkans, had led the Germans and Italians to cluster their naval forces in the central and eastern Mediterranean instead of in the western Mediterranean where efforts to intercept Allied invasion convoys would be most effective.
That the events of the next few days might well determine Rommel’s fate in Africa and perhaps the Axis fortunes in the Mediterranean theater of war was well understood. Hitler sent a special message to the crews of the submarines and the motor torpedo boats there: “The existence of the African Army depends on the destruction of the English convoys. I await a ruthless victorious attack.”
Conflicting views and mistaken countermeasures frustrated all efforts during the next two days to determine the nature, strength, and destination of the Allied expedition. The fragmentary reports from air reconnaissance and the absence of reports from the submarine screen on which the Axis leadership was forced to base its deductions late on 6 November left room for disagreement. The German Naval High Command (Oberkommando de Kriegsmarine-OKM), which had held the view that a convoy for the relief of Malta was the most probable explanation of the Allied naval movements, now admitted the possibility of Allied landings. The rating of possible targets by the OKM, in their order of probability, was: “TripoIi-Bengasi, Sicily, Sardinia, the Italian mainland, and in the last place French North Africa.” Kesselring expected the landings, if any, to be made far in the west out of the range of the Axis fighter-bombers. Hitler on the morning of 7 November was of the opinion that the Allies intended to stage a large-scale landing of four or five divisions at Tripoli or Bengasi in order to contribute to the destruction of Rommel’s army by attacking from the rear, and informed Mussolini of this view. The Duce immediately replied that he expected the Allies to land on the French North African coasts, but Hitler, unmoved, continued to hold to his Tripoli-Bengasi theory.
The Axis leaders yearned for a slaughter of British ships in the Sicilian straits in the manner of the attempted August convoy to Malta, hoping that such a triumph would offset the ill effects of the disaster of El ‘Alamein. Kesselring was therefore ordered to concentrate his air units for such an operation, and if opportunity for it should not materialize, to be ready to harass a probable Allied entry in southern France. Early on 7 November the Italian Naval High Command (Supermarinrz) accepted the view that the various convoy sections were in fact two attacking forces bound for the African coast at Tabarka, Bougie, and Algiers, but it abandoned this view a little later in consequence of remonstrance’s by the German Naval Command Italy (Deutsches Marinekommando Italien). However, at the end of the day the Italians reverted to their view of the early morning and ordered the available Italian submarines shifted accordingly. Late in the afternoon OKM reviewed the situation and on the basis of the many contradictory reports came to the futile conclusion that it must be ready to meet all the possible Allied landings. The German submarines south of the Balearics were therefore shifted toward the French North African coast.
French forces in the Oran area had maned their coastal defenses on the night of 6-7 November, when the Algiers convoy was off Oran, and after the convoy passed the alarm went eastward with it. Plans were made on 7 November to mine the coastal waters off Tunisia during the following night in case the convoy was heading for Bizerte.·
The reaction of the French Government could not be predicted by the Axis powers. Shortly before his departure by train for Munich on the early afternoon of 7 November, for the customary annual celebration of the 1923 Putsch, Hitler ordered the units which had been designated for occupation of southern France (Operation ANTON) to be alerted. The Italians prepared to participate in that operation and also to execute long-standing plans for an independent seizure of Corsica in case the French should make common cause with the Allies.
The convoy sections of the Allied expedition meanwhile proceeded on their courses, planned for them well in advance of the operation, although full responsibility passed to each naval task force commander when his ships reached the meridian running through Melilla, in Spanish Morocco. By miscalculating Allied destinations, the enemy forfeited his opportunity to strike the ships before they reached the landing beaches. Only three successful contacts were made with the Allied forces on 7 November, when 76 German planes were in the air, 9 German and 26 Italian submarines were stationed in the supposed paths of advance, and motor torpedo boat squadrons were ready for action if the weather permitted. An airplane hit the Thomas Stone at dawn, when it was almost 150 miles northwest of Algiers, bound for the beaches east of that city, and broke off its propeller and rudder.
At sundown a submarine struck H.M.S. Panther, in the Covering Force, damaging but not sinking the ship. An enemy air strike on that force during the afternoon was repulsed. The Allied ships for Algiers passed south of the westernmost group of submarines and then swung toward the attack area somewhat to the east of another line of submarines intended to intercept them. The Oran convoy also stopped short of the submarines in the new positions to which they moved on 7 November.
[NOTE NA-66: (1) SKL/I.Abt, KTB, Teil A, 1.-30.XI.42, 7 Nov 42. (2) The evidence concerning the attack on the Thomas Stone, while not conclusive, indicates that it was by a German airplane. A slight discrepancy in the reported positions of the ship and the aircraft raises some doubt, but the time of the air strike and absence of any reported German submarine attack near that time and place make attack by airplane seem probable.]
The attack on the Thomas Stone obliged her to stop while the convoy continued on its course. With the small corvette Spey as escort, the helpless transport waited dead in the water for arrival of a tug and other escort from Gibraltar. The 2nd Battalion, 39th Infantry, was aboard and was thus held back from participation in the assault. Its commanding officer, Major Walter M. Oakes, calculated that by using the landing craft of the transport the bulk of his unit might still complete the voyage to Algiers in time to join in its capture. He persuaded Captain Olten R. Bennehof (USN) of the Thomas Stone to accept the risk of remaining for a few hours after dark without the protection of the Spey and with only two of his landing craft until the arrivals of the destroyers known to be on the way. At dusk, Oakes and over 700 men in twenty-four boats began a journey of about 150 miles with the Spey as escort. The motors of the small boats soon proved unequal to the demand.
The night became a tedious succession of breakdowns and pauses for repair, interrupted by a brief period of excitement when one of the landing craft was mistaken for a submarine and subjected to fire. A rising easterly breeze at daybreak made quite apparent that the flotilla could not reach its destination that day. Leaving the boats, which eventually were scuttled or sunk by gunfire, the men crowded aboard the corvette and continued to the Algiers area, arriving late that evening. About two hours after the troops had left it, the Thomas Stone was found by two Royal Navy destroyers, which undertook towing operations. They were joined in this effort by a tug in early morning, 8 November, and despite great difficulties managed to bring the disabled ship into the port of Algiers three days later.
Giraud’s Associates in Gran and Algiers The enemy’s efforts to stop the transports were matched ashore by the preparations of Giraud’s followers to aid the landings and forestall the needless sacrifice of French blood. Mr. Robert Murphy first warned General Mast that the attack would come soon and then on 4 November that it would take place four days later. The immediate response was irritation and dismay, for Mast, rightly surmising that this fundamental information had been withheld from him at the Cherchel staff conference, realized that the shortness of the remaining time would force General Giraud into making a most difficult choice and would jeopardize successful operations by the pro-Allied French organizations in Morocco, Oran, and Algiers. His insistence upon a delay of at least three weeks, which Murphy transmitted sympathetically to General Eisenhower, was firmly rejected in Washington and London as out of the question. What remained was to spread the alert to General Bethouart, Colonel Paul Tostain, the chief of staff of the Oran Division, and the large Algiers group.
Just as in French Morocco, plans to assist the invasion had been formulated at Oran and Algiers. The key figure at Oran was Colonel Tostain, who was to be aided by a combined military and civilian group. Units of the 2nd Zouaves Regiment were expected to seize control of the two main military installations and to furnish arms for use by organized civilian units in seizing communications centers, principal officials, and Axis armistice commissioners. Guides were to be furnished to the invading troops. Sabotage of the port would be forestalled by civilian teams. General Robert Boissau, commander of the Oran Division, was either to be persuaded to countenance an un-resisted occupation of Oran or held in custody until that operation had been completed. These plans demanded too much of Tostain, who went to Algiers to consult General Mast, Giraud’s principal military adherent there, and returned to Oran on 6 November with the decision that he could not engage in insubordination so direct and complete.
The American vice-consul, Mr. Ridgeway Knight, thereupon radioed a warning to Gibraltar that the plans for Oran were failing and that the Center Task Force must expect a hostile reception. The civilian teams could engage in special tasks, but the arrangements for paralyzing French resistance had to be abandoned.
In Algiers, however, the pro-Allied French organization rushed preparations for action on the night of 7-8 November. Military participants under General Mast included Colonel Baril at Kolea and Cap Sidi Ferruch, Lieutenant Colonel Louis G. M. Jousse, garrison commander in Algiers, Brigadier General A. J. de Monsabert, commanding the Blida subdivision of the XIX Region Militaire, and Colonel Jean Van Haecke, chief of the Chantiers de Jeunesse, a youth organization with a camp at Blida. Other young Army officers were leaders of civilian groups organized to accomplish specific missions. The principal civilian leaders were Henri d’ Astier, Jean Rigault, and Jose Aboulker; they had a following of a few hundred men who had accepted association for such a day as now approached. Plans were based upon General Mast’s ability to issue orders to units of the Algiers Division, and to facilitate speedy Allied advance to Algiers and the Blida airdrome from the vicinity of Cap Sidi Ferruch. Algiers itself was to be neutralized by occupation of the many key positions in the great capital, and by having civilians masquerade (with the aid of Colonel Jousse) as regular Volontaires de Place in the city’s system of civilian defense. They could expect the connivance of the police.
Motor vehicles were made ready in secret. Firearms, which the Allies had failed to deliver, were limited to a small quantity of old rifles to be obtained from the military. The Villa des Oliviers, official residence of General Juin, would be surrounded. General Koeltz also was to be taken into protective custody. If the Allies could manage to take over the city within a few hours after landing, assuming that the preparations by General Mast’s organization were adequate, they could do so almost without firing a shot, and could then confront the civil and military leaders with a fait accompli. All could then rally to General Giraud. Such was their hope.
Eastward from Algiers, along the coast as far as Tunis, warnings on 7 November brought defensive forces to the alert. The pro-Allied French there awaited the appearance of the invaders before taking overt steps.
Giraud at Gibraltar
Shortly after 1500, 7 November, General Giraud’s party arrived at Gibraltar where, as already noted, it was anxiously awaited. Within an hour, Giraud was in conference with General Eisenhower and being briefed on the operation to begin a few hours later.
When apprised in detail of the plans, Giraud, as he later declared, was favorably impressed by all but four significant features. Had the landing forces taken sufficient pains to appear to the French as allies rather than conquerors? Had sufficient preparations been made to gain Tunisia? Could there not be some provision for holding a bridgehead in southern France? What was the plan for his assumption of command? The last matter, which had been deferred in preliminary negotiations, became at Gibraltar the subject of prolonged and sometimes heated discussions extending beyond the time when the transports had begun to disembark troops.
General Giraud probably believed that he already held the President’s acceptance of his explicit requirement that he be inter-allied supreme commander wherever Allied troops fought beside French troops on French soil. He was convinced that he must have the supreme command if he were to succeed in rallying the French Army and civilian population in North Africa without considerable bloodshed. He thought it appropriate for an officer of his seniority, experience, and special knowledge of French North Africa to take precedence over a younger American whose extraordinary qualifications were then less apparent than they later became.
General Eisenhower knew that the command was not his to bestow. He had no pertinent instructions from the Combined Chiefs of Staff, the source of his authority, and no reason to expect in the future any instructions granting command over American and British forces to a French officer. He found Giraud unwilling to accept any responsibility to the Combined Chiefs of Staff, and convinced that he must appear before the French as a free national leader, not as the appointee of the Allies. At the same time, Giraud proposed to lead the Allied forces in conformity with his own strategic judgments. With resolute persistence, he refused to accept the role which the Allies had planned for him, that of commander in chief of French forces only. The colloquy ended as the fighting began.[NOTE KN 2-33] Thus the pro-Allied French in Algiers were obliged to proceed without Giraud and in ignorance of his whereabouts and status.
[NOTE KN 2-33: Msg 113, Gibraltar to AGWAR for CCS, 0232, 8 Nov 42. Copy in Smith Papers. This message reported the conclusion of Generals Eisenhower and Clark and Admiral Cunningham that Giraud was playing for time to escape responsibility for the shedding of French blood, since he must have known that his claim was unacceptable.]
While the conversations of General Eisenhower with General Giraud were still going on in the Rock of Gibraltar, the Center and Eastern Task Forces were approaching their objectives at Oran and Algiers. In advance of the approach, five British submarines lay off the attack areas of Oran and Algiers surveying by periscope those sectors of the coast where the landings were to be made. Each submarine had as passengers men who were to guide the shoreward movement of landing craft in the assault. One man was to act as pilot officer in the leading wave for each landing beach, while another in a collapsible boat took a position close to shore from which to mark the beach by light signal for the last stage of the approach. After familiarizing themselves with the landmarks as best they could through the periscopes by day, they used the small craft at night to ascertain the inner pilotage conditions. On 4 November, one team was driven by a storm out to sea in the area west of Algiers, and was rescued by a trawler which took the men into that port. The others waited until after darkness on 7 November when the submarines took the stations at which the convoys were expected to find them.
Not long after nightfall on 7 November 1942, the Oran and Algiers convoys reached the points at which sections began diverging to reach the transport and fire support areas designated for the various separate landings. The aircraft carriers with their screens followed to appointed stations farther out to sea. North of Algiers, the Covering Force stood ready to ward off an attack by enemy surface forces and to detach certain heavy units for temporary service with the naval task forces. Already at sea in the Atlantic were troop and cargo convoys coming from the United Kingdom with reinforcements and bringing in particular elements of the Eastern Task Force to exploit success at Algiers by invading Tunisia. A few hours earlier than on the Moroccan coast the attack against Algeria would begin.
SOURCE: Northwest Africa: Seizing The Initiative In The West; by George F. Howe (United States Army Center of Military History)