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 OPERATION TORCH: The Coast Guard and the Invasion of North Africa

by Robert M. Browning, Jr.

 On 9 November 1942, Commander Roger C. Heimer (USCG) anxiously peered into the distance as word was passed that enemy aircraft were approaching. His vessel, the transport Samuel Chase (APA-26), for the past day had repelled successfully several enemy air attacks. Moments seemed like hours as everyone on the bridge strained to identify the planes. Finally they could be seen clearly, they were German dive bombers. As the dive bombers screamed out of the sky Heimer prepared Chase to get underway. His ship's gunners maintained a scathing fire on the aircraft as they released their bombs. Bombs missed the Chase on two separate occasions by just yards but they damaged the nearby transport Dempo. At dusk a torpedo plane approached the large Coast Guard transport. The plane came under immediate fire but banked behind an anchored British transport. With Chase now underway, Heimer began maneuvering the nearly five hundred foot vessel in a narrow bay to avoid the aircraft. Coming from behind the transport the torpedo plane flew toward the Chase just over the water and released its torpedoes. Heimer managed to steer the transport so that both torpedoes missed the stern by 100 yards. These tactical maneuvers won the ship's crew high praise and Heimer a bronze star.

This was just one minor incident of the Coast Guard's involvement in the invasion of North Africa in November 1942. The invasion was the first offensive operation that the United States undertook against Germany during World War II and was then the largest amphibious operation ever undertaken. Dubbed Operation "Torch" this strategically important expedition allowed the Coast Guard with its unique experiences to play a significant role.

The campaign to capture North Africa was made necessary because by the summer of 1942, Adolf Hitler had succeeded in defeating most of Europe, was driving the Russian army toward Moscow and along with Italy controlled most of the Mediterranean. His forces had taken the French colonial possessions in North Africa and also Greece and Crete making the Aegean Sea unsafe for British ships. Because of these tremendous gains by the Axis powers and despite the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed in December 1941, to defeat Germany before Japan.

At a Christmas-time meeting the two decided to strike Germany in 1942. They discussed both direct and indirect approaches. Landings in Northern France were, however, impossible for more than a year due to the shortage of men and ships. The critical shortage of landing craft also stalled any invasion for months and caused the United States to redirect its ship building industry to the detriment of combat vessels in the Pacific.

While all the preparations were being made by the Allies the situation in North Africa remained a complicated issue. Morocco and Algeria were both French colonial possessions. The German Army, however, had occupied most of France since mid-1940 when France surrendered. The surrender provided that three-fifths of France be turned over to Germany. The French formed a new government at Vichy. The colonial possessions of France, however, remained free but still semi-loyal to France. With this uncertain relationship existing between the Vichy Government and the North African colonies, the United States had to be cautious. An unopposed landing would be preferred, but to broker this without the Vichy Government finding out was difficult. To complicate matters further, the French Navy, including several capital ships occupied ports in North Africa--their potential opposition to the Allied landing posed a grave threat to the success of the operation.

In July 1942, the Combined Chiefs of Staff made the decision to invade North Africa. Two months later an invasion force had been created and divided into three separate task forces. The all American Western Task Force carrying 35,000 troops was scheduled to land on the Atlantic coast of French Morocco and capture Casablanca and Port Lyautey [now Kenitra]. The Center Naval Task Force composed of British ships and 39,000 American troops was to capture Oran. The Eastern Task Force escorted by British warships comprised 23,000 British and 60,000 American Troops whose goal was the capture of Algiers.

Due to the immense size of the landings it was important that they be carefully coordinated and that everything run smoothly. The Coast Guard's primary role as it had been in the Guadalcanal campaign was to facilitate the landing of troops. During the planning stages of the operation several thousand Coast Guard and Navy men were trained to handle landing craft. They practiced landings at the newly created Amphibious Force Training Center at Little Creek, Virginia, and also at Solomons, Maryland. Army and Navy amphibious doctrine differed and the training allowed the differences to be hammered into one coordinated system. Over 3,000 men were trained to handle landing craft specifically for the impending invasion.

The initial objectives of Operation Torch were the capture of the major airfields and ports of North Africa. This would allow the allies to continue operations from the ground, from the air and from sea. It would also deny their use to the Germans. All this was to be accomplished within 24 hours in a three-pronged assault: an expedition to Morocco and landings in Algeria.

The capture of Morocco was the job of the Western Task Force. Under the command of Rear Admiral H. Kent Hewitt, it comprised nearly 100 ships. The ground units of the Western Task Force that went ashore in Morocco were under the command of Major General George S. Patton Jr. The task force was split into three groups for the initial landings. The principal objective was a major assault fourteen miles north of Casablanca at Fedala. This landing, carried out by the Center Attack Group, planned an advance on Casablanca and to later join with the forces landed from the Northern Attack Group that was making a secondary landing at Port Lyautey [Kenitra] sixty-five miles north of Casablanca. The Southern Attack group steamed southwest to make a third landing at Safi, 125 miles from Casablanca. This allowed the Allies to also move on Casablanca from the south.

The Center Attack Group was the most important of the three groups attacking Morocco. Twelve transports and three cargo vessels carried nearly 19,000 men and over 1700 vehicles for the assault. For the entire operation there were 3,000 men assigned to the landing craft. As the transport force steamed to Fedala it formed up into four columns--the Coast Guard manned ships Leonard Wood and Joseph T. Dickman headed two of the four transport columns. The majority of the men were scheduled to make landings at four separate beaches near the town the next day.

Shortly after 12 am on the 8th of November, Leonard Wood arrived at the staging area followed by the other transports and began loading the numerous landing craft for the assault. The landing would not be easy. The beaches were rocky, huge swells were frequent, and due to the long sloping beaches the transports had to lie far from shore to discharge troops. Special beach marking boats left the Leonard Wood and Joseph T. Dickman to locate and direct the landing craft to the areas safe for landing. These "scout boats" would show a light to seaward to guide the boats from the transports. Getting men and supplies to the beach in a timely manner were extremely important. Dickman's 35 landing craft were divided, half carrying troops ashore and half to carry supplies to the beach.

The Dickman carried over 1,400 men of the 3rd Division and the officers and men of Western Task Force Headquarters. The landing plans called for twenty extra boats from other vessels to supplement those from the Dickman. These craft became detached during the maneuvers and did not arrive before the initial waves left the transport. A reorganization of the landing schedule allowed a sufficient number of men and material to arrive at the beach assembly area without hardship to the landing. The destroyer Murphy (DD-603) covered the landing of Dickman's boats. The boats reached the beach within range of a battery north of Fedhala at Pont Blondin. Upon reaching the beach, the fort became alert to their presence, began firing on the boats and struck the destroyer. The trip to the beach and the return trip was made under fire but not a single boat was lost.

As the Dickman unloaded men and supplies the batteries on the beach increasingly became a huge concern. They could potentially do extensive harm to the transports and mar the landing. Shortly after 5 am the cruiser Brooklyn (CL-40) was alerted to spotlights ashore and stood by to assist the landing if necessary. A few minor incidents occurred but nothing to greatly alarm those on the beach. At day break, however, the shore batteries began to open fire--the first real sign that the French were not going to welcome the allies with open arms. The Brooklyn moved in to silence the batteries, maneuvering just outside the transport area. In just over one hour the cruiser fired over 750 6-inch rounds, several times steaming into the waves of Dickman's landing boats and firing over the landing craft with each salvo. Other vessels also moved quickly to attack the shore batteries which were silenced and failed to do any real damage to the landing.

The Joseph T. Dickman performed well but the Leonard Wood had a much more difficult time during the landing. Her boats made the landing on Red 2 beach close to the city. The control destroyer Wilkes (DD-441) that was to mark the line of departure for the landing lay too far west of her correct position. The first four waves of landing craft steered for this vessel in complete darkness. The scout boat likewise added to the bad luck. While laying east of the beach where a rock reef began, the boat was approached by a mysterious craft thought to be hostile. The scout boat cut its cable to avoid the strange vessel and drifted to a position off the rocks. The first four boat waves which made up the initial assault were guided to the rocks by blinker and ran full force on them. The troops were disembarked over the rocks. Many of the boats were too damaged to return due to broken propellers, bent rudders and holes. Twenty-one of the thirty-two boats were lost in the landing. Others were lost due to shell fire or were broached by the surf after beaching.

The loss of the boats stalled the landing of men and equipment but getting the men to the beach was just the first task. Moving them beyond the beach was the next. To do this more efficiently the Coast Guard provided men for beach master duty. These officers and men not only helped supervise the unloading of the transports but acted as the beach-head traffic cops to supervise the unloading of supplies on the beach. This was one of the most crucial jobs for the success of the assault. On the beach the soldiers were extremely vulnerable and later in the day they came under fire from aircraft. One plane managed to strafe one of the Dickman's boats. Two of the boat's crew were wounded and engineman Paul Clark placed the men on board a destroyer and completed the boat's mission. He was awarded a Navy Cross for his actions. Another Coast Guardsman was awarded a silver star for the treatment of wounded on the beach.

The Coast Guard transports in the Center Attack Group worked all day to unload equipment and supplies for the men on the beaches. The trips to the beach were treacherous. The men in the boats have to contend with the fire from shore and the endless strafing from the air. Additionally boats were lost in the high and turbulent surf. Eventually the surf reached as much as twelve feet and the landings were made directly in Fedhala. For fifty hours without a break the Coast Guardsmen made steady trips to unload men and supplies, only stopping when their boats were lost. Chief Boatswain's Mate Harry E. Meekins from the Joseph T. Dickman stated that success was due to the fact that "most of us were surfmen from Coast Guard stations along the beaches . . . where we learned how to handle boats in all kinds of weather."

In Morocco the French forces never did staunchly resist. The greatest threat to the landing, the French naval vessels, never sortied from the harbor in Casablanca. The Battleship Massachusetts, heavy cruisers and destroyers formed a covering group to neutralize them. Shelling the French vessels from sea they were quickly put out of action. The landing craft likewise found their greatest enemy to be the rocky beaches and the heavy surf rather than the enemy. A seaman 1st Class on board the Leonard Wood commented " The opposition was spotty. They'd fire at us until we got near them, and then the French would surrender. It was obvious they didn't want to fight us."

While the landings were taking place off Morocco, the Coast Guard manned transport Samuel Chase under the command of Commander Roger C. Heimer (USCG) sailed with the Eastern Naval Task Force to attack Algiers. The British provided the naval vessels for this operation with the exception of four transports, one of them the Samuel Chase. The Eastern Task Force, carrying 72,000 officers and men, had followed the normal route for Malta-bound vessels in order to fool the enemy spotters. While in route a German submarine torpedoed the American Transport Thomas Stone and missed the Chase by 50 yards. Commander Heimer proposed to take the Stone in tow and likewise offered to take off the troops but each request was denied because the orders were clear--crippled vessels in the convoy were to be left behind.

The Chase was part of Group "Charlie" designated to land on four beaches twelve miles east of Algiers. The transports arrived just before midnight on 8 November. The Chase had her boats in the water in 55 minutes. The first waves of landing craft reached the beach fifteen minutes after midnight. By daybreak the boats were making steady trips to the beach with supplies and men. That afternoon the surf became rough and most of the boats from the transports were lost--according to Heimer because of their poor design.

While lying off Algeries the expedition's transports were attacked daily first by bombers and then by torpedo planes. The landing craft maintained their runs to the beach despite the attacks. The immense size of the Chase made her look formidable to the attacking aircraft and thus she received a disproportionate amount of the enemy's attention. The crewmen of the Coast Guard manned transport were commended by the British for their anti-aircraft defense and were credited with shooting down three planes. So intense was the fire that the British nicknamed the Chase the "Battleship"

Fierce French resistance never materialized. The French units in North Africa were divided between those loyal to the Vichy Government and the "Free French." The land forces, overall, made almost no resistance. The naval units offered the only opposition but could have contested the landings much more than they did. Most of the fighting was over by 11 November, at which time the Germans took over control of unoccupied France.

Operation TORCH proved to be the turning point in the Allies' war against Germany. After the loss of French Morocco, Germany remained on the defensive for the rest of the war. The capture of North Africa allowed the allies to begin to plan and prepare for than assault on Sicily where once again the Coast Guard would play a significant role in the amphibious landings.

Amphibious Landings

Amphibious landings are extremely complicated and take much coordination for success. The landings in North Africa were all begun within an hour of each other, were unprecedented in scale and began in total darkness on unfamiliar shores. Therefore to avoid problems and disaster, the organization for the invasion was meticulously planned from the beginning. The transports were loaded and arranged in such a way that the items needed for the initial assault were the most accessible. In total darkness the scout boats went in the water then followed all the other boats with the large tanklighters going into the water last. Within ninety minutes of the first boat touching the water the troops began climbing into the boats. After filling each landing craft they met at a rendezvous some distance from the transports and circled to wait for all the landing craft in the initial waves to proceed to the beach at one time. Just over two hours after the large transports had anchored the first three waves of the assault headed for the departure line where destroyers would follow them in for close support. At the departure line the boats were only fifteen minutes from the beach--the initial operation taking about four hours from start to finish.

Oran Harbor Operation

The only determined resistance to the Allied landings in North Africa occurred in Oran Harbor. The capture of the harbor was part of the Center Task Force's missions. Here two ex-Coast Guard 250 ft. "Lake-class" cutters were lost in a duel with shore batteries and enemy vessels. Their mission was to force their way into the harbor at Oran with anti-sabotage teams to capture the city's forts and batteries along with the merchant vessels and wharves. Ten of these vessels were transferred to Great Britain under the Lend-Lease Act in 1941.

On 8 November, at 0300 the former cutter Ponchatrain, renamed the H.M.S. Hartland, and the Sebago, renamed the H.M.S. Walney steamed towards the harbor's defenses. Coming upon a boom, Walney broke through and proceeded to force her way through another. Steaming into the harbor she came under fire from fortifications, two destroyers, submarines and other small combatants. At point blank range the cutter was quickly destroyed, capsizing and sinking a few yards from the head of the harbor with tremendous casualties. Hartland did not fare better. Lost in the darkness, enemy searchlights illuminated her and she was mercilessly shelled until she sank in a blazing inferno. The operation cost the lives of over half of the officers and men on board these two vessels.

Last Modified 1/12/2016