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H-013-3 Operation Torch— The Naval Battle of Casablanca

8 November 1942 


Photo #: 80-G-38835  Battle of Casablanca, November 1942
USS Wichita (CA-45) engaging the French battleship Jean Bart, off Casablanca, Morocco, on 8 November 1942. Note the shell splashes off Wichita's bow.

H-Gram 013, Attachment 3
Samuel J. Cox, Director NHHC
December 2017 

The concept of Operation Torch was extraordinarily audacious, especially the invasion of French Morocco, which entailed transporting 35,000 U.S. Army troops and 250 tanks in complete secrecy 4,000 miles through U-boat–infested waters and landing them, at night, on a hostile shore. The big question was, “how hostile?” Would the Vichy French forces fight or capitulate peacefully? The plan had to assume that the French would fight, which proved to be a correct assumption. Although there were extensive secret negotiations between Allied and Vichy officials, the short story is that those Vichy officials who were willing to surrender didn’t have the authority to order surrender, and those who had authority were either unwilling to do so, or were not trusted enough to be told the Allied invasion was coming. In effect, the paramount need for secrecy was the primary reason why French forces fought; the attack was underway before they could receive orders to not resist. However, had the secrecy not been maintained, the Germans would have had enough time to react with U-boats and inflict considerable losses.

Operation Torch was also a rush job, because the landings in Morocco had to be executed before the sea conditions became too bad for amphibious operations, and the date chosen for the landings, 8 November, was already as late as possible in the season. Any significant delay would result in a postponement until spring, which would not provide the relief that the Russians on the Eastern Front and the British in Egypt needed (although as it turned out, Operation Torch didn’t do all that much to relieve German pressure in either place, since the Germans were content to let the Vichy French lose their colonies in Africa). In many cases, the need for speed and secrecy came at the expense of training, which would become apparent during the operation. For example, the U.S. Navy aircrews on the four new escort carriers (converted tankers) were so green that they were not allowed to conduct training en route under the rationale that it was better to suffer operational losses during and following combat missions rather than to lose the planes to accidents before the battle even started.

Operation Torch was also complicated. It makes the Japanese organization for the Midway operation look not quite so bad. In a nutshell, there were three major objectives: Casablanca, Morocco and Oran and Algiers, Algeria. The operations to invade French Algeria were Allied, with the troops going ashore mostly American, while the ships at sea were almost all British, under British command. The invasion of French Morocco was almost entirely a U.S. operation. The focus of this H-gram is on the operations of Task Force 34, under the command of Rear Admiral H. Kent Hewitt, and, in particular, the naval battle that occurred on 8 November off Casablanca between units of the Vichy French navy and the U.S. Navy.

Due to security reasons, Task Force 34 (about 102 ships) departed from multiple ports and followed multiple circuitous and deceptive routes. The mission of TF 34 was to put 35,000 U.S. troops, under the command of Major General George S. Patton, ashore at three primary landing areas in French Morocco. The primary landing site was Fedala, about 12 nautical miles north of the port and Vichy French naval base at Casablanca, where about 19,000 U.S. troops would go ashore. The northern landing area was near Port Lyautey and a nearby airfield, where 9,000 troops would go ashore. The southern objective was the port at Safi, about 140 nautical miles south of Casablanca, where tanks and about 6,500 troops would land. The port of Casablanca itself was too heavily defended to take directly, hence the need to land armor to the north and south and take Casablanca from the flank.

Naval air cover for the operation was critical, as intelligence indicated that about 168 French aircraft were based in the area and could oppose the landings. Air cover was provided by the USS Ranger (CV-4) and four Sangamon-class converted tankers, carrying a total of 108 F4F Wildcat fighters, 36 SBD Dauntless dive bombers, and 28 TBF Avenger torpedo bombers, as well as ferrying 76 U.S. Army Air Force P-40F fighters (which could be flown off a carrier, but not operate from one).    

Rear Admiral Hewitt was embarked on the heavy cruiser USS Augusta (CA-31) with Major General Patton. TG 34.1 was the covering group, commanded by Rear Admiral Robert Giffen, and consisted of the brand new battleship USS Massachusetts (BB-59), the heavy cruisers USS Wichita (CA-45) and USS Tuscaloosa (CA-37), and a screen of four destroyers and an oiler. TG-34.2 was commanded by Rear Admiral Ernest D. McWhorter embarked on Ranger. Ranger, along with USS Suwannee (ACV-27), would provide general air cover, with 54 Wildcats and 18 SBDs on Ranger and 29 Wildcats and nine TBFs on Suwannee.  The new light cruiser USS Cleveland (CL-55) and five destroyers screened the carriers. (The designation ACV would subsequently be changed to CVE.)  Suwannee was commanded by Captain J. J. “Jocko” Clark, the first Native American to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy (‘17), who would go on to a distinguished career as carrier, carrier group, and fleet commander in the Pacific and Korean War. Four U.S. submarines provided pre-invasion scouting and navigational beacon services.

The Center Attack Group (TG 34.9) covered the main landings at Fedala, near Casablanca, and included Augusta, the light cruiser USS Brooklyn (CL-40), ten destroyers, six minesweepers, and 15 troop transport/cargo ships.

The Northern Attack Group (TG 34.8) under Rear Admiral Monroe Kelly included the old battleship USS Texas (BB-35); the escort carrier USS Sangamon (ACV-26) with 12 Wildcats, nine SBDs and nine TBFs embarked; the escort carrier USS Chenango (ACV-28) with 76 U.S. Army Air Force P-40Fs aboard; the light cruiser USS Savannah (CL-42); seven destroyers; eight transport/cargo ships; and a number of other miscellaneous vessels.

The Southern Attack Group (TG 34.10) under the command of  Rear Admiral Lyal A. Davidson embarked on USS Philadelphia (CL-41) included the old battleship USS New York (BB-34), eight destroyers, two assault destroyers, three minecraft, six troop transport/cargo vessels, and two oilers. The escort carrier USS Santee (ACV-29) with 14 Wildcats, nine SBDs, and eight TBFs provided air support to the southern group.

As the 102 ships of TF 34 approached the Moroccan coast, Hewitt was faced with a difficult decision since the weather forecast for the day of the landing was very poor. However, delay risked losing the element of surprise, resulting in greater French opposition and German U-boat threat, and there was no guarantee that the weather would get appreciably better any time soon. Hewitt made the decision to accept the risk, and a significant number of landing craft were lost due to the sea conditions, but it would prove to be the correct decision.

The first conflict between U.S. and French forces occurred at about 0500 on 8 November when an armed French steamer, the Victoria, blundered into the staging area, and the minesweeper USS Hogan (DMS-6) fired warning shots across her bow. The Victoria returned machine-gun fire and tried to ram the Hogan, which responded with lethal 20-mm fire, killing the Victoria’s gunnery officer and forcing her surrender.

The code word to indicate that the French were resisting was “batter up.” The response giving permission to engage resisting French forces was “play ball.” The first “batter up” occurred at first light, as French anti-aircraft guns opened fire on Ranger VF-9 fighters flying near an airfield near Rabat. Receiving the “play ball” signal, the fighters then proceeded to strafe and destroy seven French aircraft on one airfield and fourteen bombers on another. Ranger VF-14 fighters engaged in a dogfight with French fighters, in which eight French fighters and four Wildcats were shot down. A VF-9 Wildcat was shot down later in the morning and additional French aircraft were destroyed on the ground. During the course of the day, about 20 French aircraft were shot down, but a number were able to get airborne and strafe U.S. troops on the beach. For some reason the French did not go after the U.S. floatplanes providing spotting services for U.S. ships giving gunfire support. Over the next two days, U.S. aircraft losses, including operational losses, included 25 F4F Wildcat fighters, nine SBD Dauntless dive bombers, and ten TBF Avenger torpedo bombers.

The landings at Fedala commenced before dawn, and, although marked by significant confusion, delay, and operational losses of landing craft, enough troops were ashore before daybreak to preclude the French from being able to counter-attack. Nevertheless, at first light and as the French realized troops were coming ashore, they opened fire on the soldiers, landing craft, and supporting ships. By 1700, almost half the 347 landing craft in use had been wrecked due to navigational errors and sea conditions; very few were actually lost to French fire. Nevertheless, the destroyer USS Murphy (DD-603) was hit early on by shore battery fire, with three killed. The minesweeper USS Palmer (DMS-5) was also hit twice with minimal damage.

The commander of Vichy French naval forces in the Atlantic was Vice Admiral F. C. Michelier. Michelier was considered too loyal to the Vichy regime by those Frenchmen who were willing to work with the Allies and therefore was not trusted to be informed of the impending Allied landing. Nevertheless, a number of indicators, including a failed coup attempt against Vichy army leaders in French North Africa, convinced Michelier that something was amiss, and he issued several alerts beginning at 0130 on 8 November. He apparently did not hear a radio broadcast by President Franklin Roosevelt imploring the French in North Africa not to fight. This broadcast was timed based on operations against French Algeria in the Mediterranean and preceded operations in Morocco, much to the consternation of senior leaders in TF 34 who heard it (and had not been informed it was coming) and believed it would blow the element of surprise. As it turned out, for whatever reason, practically no one in the Vichy hierarchy heard the broadcast.  As a result, Michelier had not received any instructions from high not to fight. So, when the U.S. invasion force showed up by surprise, he gave orders to his forces to engage.

At about 0700, as the Massachusetts, Wichita, and Tuscaloosa were preparing to engage French shore batteries, Tuscaloosa approached the entrance to Casablanca Harbor and reported that her scout plane was being fired upon, two French aircraft were closing, and two submarines were standing out from the harbor. The cruiser subsequently shot down one of the French aircraft. The formidable French shore battery known as El Hank (four 8-inch guns) opened fire and straddled Massachusetts with its first salvo. The unfinished and immobile French battleship Jean Bart opened fire with her operable forward quad 15-inch turret from pierside in Casablanca Harbor and hit a couple hundred yards from Massachusetts. Massachusetts received the “play ball” code at 0704, and she and Tuscaloosa concentrated their fire on Jean Bart. Massachusetts fired nine full 16-inch gun salvos (9 x 9 = 81 rounds) and hit Jean Bart five times within 16 minutes. The first shell hit in an empty magazine. The last shell to hit glanced off the number 1 turret’s armor and bounced into the city, apparently without exploding, as it later became a souvenir at French navy headquarters. The hit, however, jammed the drive train of the turret and put Jean Bart’s main battery out of action for eight hours. Jean Bart’s 15-inch guns had sufficient range to reach the landing area at Fedala, but Massachusetts’s quick action eliminated that threat. El Hank, however, was not easily silenced and would dog U.S. ships all day, despite hundreds of rounds fired its way. Tuscaloosa and Wichita fired on the submarine berthing area, and, along with Ranger dive bombers, sank three French submarines, and a number of merchant ships in the harbor. However, eight French submarines succeeded in exiting the harbor. Massachusetts’s only damage was a round from El Hank through her commissioning pennant.

 

At 0815, six French ships sortied at high speed from the harbor. Two destroyer leaders (i.e., large destroyers that served as flotilla leaders) and four destroyers, made a beeline for the Fedala landing area. Ranger aircraft strafed the destroyers, which shot down one of the Ranger SBDs. The French destroyers got close enough to hit several landing craft as they exchanged fire with the U.S. destroyers Wilkes (DD-441) and Ludlow (DD- 428). Ludlow and the French destroyer leader Milan exchanged hits on each other. The flagship Augusta and light cruiser Brooklyn arrived to force the French destroyers to turn away about four miles from the landing area. The French ships then hid themselves in a very effective smoke screen, darting out to fire a few salvoes before hiding themselves again while the U.S. ships expended prodigious amounts of ammunition. Major General Patton, aboard Augusta, apparently greatly enjoyed the display of naval gunfire, despite having his gear blown overboard.

At 1000, as the French destroyers bobbed and weaved in the smoke screen, the French light cruiser Primauguet sortied, and the Massachusetts and Tuscaloosa closed in on the destroyer action and one of them finally hit a French destroyer, the Fougueux, which blew up and sank. About the same time, the El Hank shore battery hit Augusta with an 8-inch round that fortunately did little damage. Shortly afterward, Massachusetts was almost hit by multiple torpedoes from an unidentified French submarine, while Tuscaloosa narrowly avoided four torpedoes from the French submarine Medusa, and Brooklyn dodged five torpedoes from the French submarine Amazone at the same time she and three U.S. destroyers were engaging the Primauguet and the remaining five French destroyers. At 1008, Brooklyn was hit by a dud shell, but got payback at 1112, when she hit the French destroyer Boulannais with a full salvo, causing her to roll over and sink.

By 1100, Massachusetts had expended 60 percent of her 16-inch shells and began to conserve ammunition as a hedge in the event the French naval forces at Dakar, West Africa (including the battleship Richelieu) showed up unexpectedly. By this time, the French ships’ luck had begun to run out under the hail of U.S. fire. The light cruiser Primauguet had been hit multiple times by Augusta and Brooklyn, including three hits below the waterline and one 8-inch hit on her number 3 turret, and she made a run for the harbor. The destroyer leader Milan had been hit five times and also made for port. The destroyer Brestois was also hit by Augusta and U.S. destroyers; she made it into the harbor, only to be strafed by Ranger aircraft and sank at the pier at 2100.

At 1115, the three remaining French ships, destroyer leader Albatross, and destroyers Frondeur and L’Alcyon formed up to conduct a coordinated torpedo attack on the U.S. cruisers, but the attack was broken up by Tuscaloosa and Wichita, although Wichita was hit by a shell from El Hank and had to dodge three torpedoes from a French submarine. Frondeur was hit aft, limped into port, and was finished off by strafing. Albatros was hit twice by shells, then by two bombs from Ranger aircraft and was left dead-in-the-water. Of the seven French surface combatants that sortied, only L’Alcyon returned to port undamaged.

At 1245, the French navy vessel La Grandier (Morison called it an “aviso-colonial” whatever that is, but it was said to resemble a light cruiser from a distance) and two coastal minesweepers sortied from Casablanca. Their mission was actually to rescue French survivors from the morning engagement, but their movement was interpreted as a threat. Two French destroyers that had not been engaged in the morning, the Tempête and Simoun, milled about smartly around the breakwater trying to lure U.S. ships back into range for El Hank, for which the U.S. ships had gained a healthy respect by this time. Augusta, Brooklyn, destroyers, and aircraft attacked the rescue ships, which managed to avoid being hit. In the meantime, a French tug came out and began to tow Albatros into port, but Ranger aircraft strafed, bombed, and forced Albatros to be beached. Ranger aircraft also repeatedly strafed the now grounded Milan and Primauguet. A direct bomb hit on Primauguet’s bridge killed the commanding officer, executive officer, and eight officers, and wounded Rear Admiral Gervais de Lafond.

Although the French had put up a spirited fight, and U.S. reports indicate an admiration for their professionalism, the battle ended up very one-sided. The French scored one hit each on the Massachusetts, Augusta, Brooklyn, Ludlow, and Murphy, none of which caused major damage and only the three deaths on Murphy. The French also destroyed about 40 landing boats, most as a result of strafing by French aircraft in the early morning. The French lost four destroyers sunk, and the battleship Jean Bart disabled, the light cruiser Primauguet heavily damaged, burned out, and aground, and two destroyer leaders damaged and aground. The French also lost eight submarines; three were sunk in port before they could get underway, the Méduse was bombed by U.S. carrier aircraft on 8 and 9 November and beached. The Sidi-Ferruch, Conqérant, and Sybille all went missing; at least one was sunk by U.S. depth charges. The Le Tonnant made it to Cadiz, Spain, where she was scuttled by her own crew. Of the eight subs that sortied from Casablanca, two made it safely to Dakar, and only Orphée returned to Casablanca unscathed.

However, the French navy wasn’t quite done yet. Action on 9 November was almost entirely on the ground and in the air. French aircraft bombed the transports off the beachhead at Fedala with no hits, and one bomber attacked the light cruiser Brooklyn with four bombs, which were near-misses. Six Ranger Wildcats engaged in a dogfight with eleven French fighters and shot down five of them and damaged four, for no losses. U.S. carrier aircraft also flew numerous missions in support of U.S. Army advances toward Casablanca, taking out tanks and a column of trucks bringing reinforcements. A plane known as the “phantom raider,” a Messerschmitt Bf-109 that had repeatedly strafed the beachhead, was finally shot down.

On 10 November, fighting continued as American troops closed in around Casablanca. Vice Admiral Michelier was determined to defend the port until the end. The survivors of the four sunken French destroyers were formed up into an infantry unit that, with a Senegalese battalion, would form the last-ditch defense, which was significantly bolstered by anti-aircraft guns on the Jean Bart and other ships in port. Two French corvettes sortied from the port and attacked U.S. Army troops from the seaward flanks. Augusta and four destroyers succeeded in driving the French corvettes back, at which point—by surprise—Jean Bart opened up on Augusta with her repaired main battery. The French had fixed Jean Bart’s damaged drive train for the one operational turret, but had left it so that it appeared still damaged to deceive U.S. scout aircraft. The deception was successful. Although only able to fire two-gun salvoes, Jean Bart repeatedly straddled Augusta with ten salvoes, at one point drenching Augusta’s bridge with yellow-dyed water from a near miss. In the forenoon, four torpedoes from a submarine passed under the stern of Ranger, but did not explode. So, at 1500, nine Ranger dive bombers rolled in on Jean Bart with nine 1,000-pound bombs, achieving two direct hits, which caused the battleship to settle to the shallow bottom (Jean Bart would eventually be refloated and repaired). (Of note, one of these SBD Dauntless dive bombers was later lost on a training mission over Lake Michigan, raised from the lake in the late 1990’s by A and T Recovery at the behest of the Navy and Naval Aviation Museum Foundation, and restored by the Kalamazoo Air Zoo, where it is now on loan from the Navy for display.)

On the morning of 11 November, Vice Admiral Michelier finally received orders from Admiral François Darlan via General Nogues to cease fighting. Darlan was the senior Vichy French official in French North Africa (by accident, he came to visit his sick son on 7 November) with authority to order a cease-fire. Darlan had been commander-in-chief of the French navy at the start of the war, and, when France surrendered and the Vichy government was formed, he remained in command of the Vichy French navy. Darlan had given his word that no French ships would fall into German hands, an assurance that wasn’t good enough for British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The Royal Navy subsequently sank and damaged much of the French Fleet at Mers al-Khebir, Algeria (where it had gone after evacuating French bases on the Atlantic and English Channel). Embittered by this action, Darlan rose to become the number-two official in the Vichy government after Marshal Petain. Darlan offered Hitler active military cooperation against the British, but the Germans didn’t trust the French either, and eventually he was reduced to just being the commander-in-chief of the Vichy French armed forces. When Operation Torch commenced, Darlan was captured by pro-Allied French forces (not associated with General Charles de Gaulle’s Free French forces).  Long story short, Darlan made a deal with General Dwight D. Eisenhower to surrender French Forces in North Africa in exchange for being named high commissioner. It worked, but it incensed de Gaulle. It also incensed Hitler, and the Germans invaded and occupied the part of southern France still under Vichy control, and the remainder of the French fleet at Toulon scuttled itself rather than fall in German hands. Darlan was assassinated by yet another French faction two months later.

Rear admiral Hewitt and Michelier met ashore at Fedhala on the morning of 11 November. Hewitt said he regretted having to fire on French ships. Michelier responded with, “I had my orders and did my duty, you had yours and did your duty; now that it is over, we are ready to cooperate.” The price to the French was about 460 sailors killed and over 200 wounded. Overall, Operation Torch cost the lives of about 1,300 French, 526 Americans, and 574 British.

And then the Germans showed up, although the first casualty was one of the missing French subs, mistaken for a U-boat and sunk by planes from the escort carrier Suwannee on the afternoon of 11 November. With the approach of the first follow-up high-speed supply convoy, and intelligence indicating German U-boats were approaching, Hewitt had to decide whether to bring the convoy in to Casablanca or bring in the 15 transports anchored off Fedala because there was not room for both. Although the convoy was capable of maneuvering against the U-boat threat, Hewitt decided to bring it in. Less then an hour after making the decision, the transport USS Joseph Hewes (AP-50), followed by the tanker USS Winooski (AO-38) and the destroyer USS Hambleton (DD-455) were all hit by torpedoes, probably from U-173. Hewes sank rapidly with 90 percent of her cargo and about 100 men, although most of her embarked troops were already ashore.  Winooski was damaged, but was able to resume refueling operations the next day. Hambleton suffered 20 killed, missing, or fatally wounded, and lost all power, but remained afloat and was towed into port by the tug USS Cherokee (AT-66) and eventually returned to the United States.

Throughout the morning of 12 November, the Ranger and other U.S. ships played cat and mouse with German submarines, with multiple reports of near-miss torpedoes and depth-charge attacks. By 1730, the German submarine U-130, hugging the coast so close she scraped bottom, had worked her way into the transport anchorage. U-130 fired four torpedoes from her bow tubes and one from a stern tube, and all five hit. The transports Edward Rutledge (AP-52,) Tasker H. Bliss (AP-42,) and Hugh L. Scott (AP-43) were hit and sunk, with the loss of another 74 U.S. servicemen, although over 1,000 were rescued from the water. U-173 torpedoed the cargo ship Electra (AK-21) on 15 November in the approaches to Casablanca, but Electra was saved by great damage control and with the assistance of other ships and the tug Cherokee. U-173 was depth-charged and sunk by the destroyer USS Woolsey (DD-437) on 16 November. U-130 made good her escape. The U-boat attacks demonstrated the importance of maintaining the secrecy of the invasion. Had the Germans been able to muster more than two U-boats to oppose the landings sooner, the results could have been devastating. As it was, the British escort carrier HMS Avenger was sunk by U-155 on 15 November during the Mediterranean portion of Operation Torch, with 516 of her crew lost.

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Published: Wed May 08 11:07:17 EDT 2019