North African Spearhead--Arzew
The summer of 1942 was an unforgettable time for the World War II Allies. Until that year, defeat had followed defeat. Pearl Harbor came first for the United States, and then the loss of the Philippines; Britain had its Dunkirk and had lost Singapore; and the Soviet Union was fighting a desperate battle against the Nazi Army on its entire Western front.
Darby's Rangers' first operations--Operation Torch of 8 November 1942--began with the war in North Africa in support of the Allied landing. This invasion had the backing of both British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and American President Franklin Roosevelt, and the opposition of practically all the military staffs. It was first mentioned by the British at the Arcadia Conference in December 1941. They stressed the desirability of bringing French forces back into the war against Germany and thought of the North African operation as a relatively cheap means of seizing the initiative from Hitler. At the same time, the United States was busily engaged in the Pacific, particularly with the Guadalcanal operation which began on 7 August 1942. In late August 1942 the Soviet Union was to see the beginning of the Stalingrad attack by the Germans.
Churchill journeyed to Moscow to take news to Joseph Stalin, premier of the Soviet Union: the Western Allies were not going to invade the continent in 1942 but instead were to attack northwest Africa before the end of October. He gave Stalin the reasons for the inability of the Allies to help his beleaguered forces by drawing German divisions away through a continental attack. Churchill explained Operation Torch and what was hoped it would do; he was greatly surprised when Stalin agreed with its concept.
After Churchill's visit to Moscow, and with Roosevelt's complete approval, plans went ahead swiftly for the Allied invasion of North Africa. On 14 August the Combined Chiefs of Staff appointed Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, then in command of the American forces in England, to be commander of the Allied expeditionary force and directed him to prepare plans for the landing. Three task forces were developed for the operation. The Western Task Force was to capture Casablanca, the Central Task Force the city of Oran, and the Eastern Task Force the seaport of Algiers. In each case these amphibious landings were to be made in the classical historic mode of pinching off a seaport by attacking from the flanks, rather than head-on.
The Western Task Force, under the command of Maj. Gen. George S. Patton, included infantry troops and Maj. Gen. Ernest Harmon's armored forces. Harmon had elements of the 2nd Armored Division while the infantry was part of the 9th Infantry Division. The Central Task Force at Oran was commanded by Maj. Gen. Lloyd Fredendall and included the 1st Infantry Division and Maj. William Darby's Ranger Battalion. At Algiers the landing force consisted of a British division, a regimental combat team from the American forces, and three British Commando units.
IT WAS JUST THREE HOURS BEFORE THE START of the greatest amphibious operation in history with the hands of the ship's clock into 8 November 1942. I was standing on the bridge of H.M.S. Ulster Monarch with the master of the ship, trying to pierce the fog. Pricks of doubt ran through both our minds as we considered the assault landing to be made at Arzew, east of Oran, by my command, the 1st Ranger Battalion. Arzew was now some thirty miles off our starboard bow. Strange lights flickered in the distance along the shore, raising questions as to whether the landing force had been discovered. Knowing the importance of the assault landing, we were rubbing our hands nervously. What would the French do? Would they fight bitterly, or would they give up after their honor had been satisfied by strong resistance against an aggressive assault? A beacon, flashing its signal in a circle, spoke reassuringly. Perhaps the Rangers were going to make a landing in the dark without blue jets of flame crossing their path or large shells sending up waterspouts close by the landing boats.
The fog was growing thicker. I drifted over to the port side of the bridge and stared into the water, but close astern I could barely make out the misty outlines of H.M.S. Royal Scotsman and H.M.S. Royal Ulsterman, bearing the remainder of the 1st Ranger Battalion.
Suddenly I stiffened with fright. Cold chills ran down my spine and my hair literally stood on end. Two silver objects, racing with terrific speed, were heading for the ships. "My God, torpedoes! We've been discovered."
Clutching the master of the ship by the arm, I pointed shakily towards those streaks of foam in the sea. For a few seconds we stared at them in numbed silence. Nothing could be done since it was too late to take any evasive action. The streaks were within twenty-five yards of the ship and closing fast. As they approached nearer and nearer, I instinctively threw my hands to my head as if to protect myself from the expected explosion. Then as the objects were within a few yards of the ship, they leaped out of the water, throwing a fountain of spray. Diving gracefully, the two porpoises--for that was what they were--changed course to follow the ship. We mopped the perspiration from our foreheads and laughed weakly at one another's fears.
The North African invasion by United Nations forces was an awesome venture. The operation, carrying the hopes of many Allied peoples, was on a shoestring. Some of the landing craft, ships, and men had been made available just as the convoys were casting off from Great Britain and the United States. For months the public of the various countries of the United Nations had called for a second front; and when American troops first went to Northern Ireland and England, there was some feeling that the invasion of the continent was imminent. The soldiers on this expedition were not aware of any strategic decisions but knew only that they were going to the north coast of Africa, an area new to them and practically unknown to the average person on the streets at home.
As commanding officer of the 1st Ranger Battalion, I was well aware of the importance of the mission. Nervously I continued to scan the dim shapes all around. Beyond and to the rear of the three British ships bearing my battalion was a vast armada of assault ships protected by units of the British and American battle fleets. The Mediterranean was calm, but the fog and darkness gave little information as to the size of the swells through which the ships were pounding their deliberate passage.
I pondered the job ahead, certain that my unit--British-trained under Commando instructors and experienced in landing exercises in all kinds of weather on the islands west of Scotland--would fight smartly and courageously. There were nearly five hundred of us, each man versed in the use of weapons and aware of the importance of scrambling ashore and vaulting over the parapets of the forts. The coastal guns within had to be knocked out to make the landings of the main forces safe.
The three ships on which the Rangers were being carried to battle were British, British-manned, and bore the resounding title of His Majesty's Ships. Taken from the Glasgow-Belfast ferry run, they were small ships--never intended for battle.
When my men had first boarded the former ferryboats, they had a twinge of self-pity since they were obviously not built for combat, they were just the best available. Though Great Britain had a large merchant marine at the beginning of the war, they had had to scrape the barrel by 1942. Ships of all types and classes were handed their orders to join the military service and be converted, like these ferryboats, for assault use. The primary method of conversion was to rip out the luxury items and place davits inboard on the promenade deck to hold the landing craft.
The North African landing was to be a ship-to-shore operation rather than shore-to-shore. In the latter, men enter a large landing craft at a port, proceed across water, and land directly on a beach. This is the easier of the two, but for longer distances, ship-to-shore is a necessity. Men could not stay in even large landing craft over many hundreds of miles of open water without suffering from exposure which would make them unfit for an assault landing. By utilizing large ships carrying a number of small landing craft, fighting men can travel distances of more than a thousand miles and be disembarked several miles out to sea from their landing beach. This was the procedure for the North African operation.
The mother vessel is called an assault ship for another reason. Carrying necessary weapons, equipment, and supplies for the men aboard, it is "combat-loaded" so that everything is available in the priority needed. Guns and ammunition come first; food, shelter, and clothing next.
After the initial beach has been crossed and the defenses set up inland, succeeding waves of troops go ashore from ships which are "convoy-loaded" instead of "combat-loaded." In the former case, a number of ships bearing a battalion, a regiment, or a division, have all the initial supplies stowed economically throughout the convoy.
On 26 October 1942 the three ferryboats left their home port of Glasgow bound for Oran. They must have seemed like trusty old streetcars being sent out on a new and untried rail line. They steamed southward at good speed and eventually joined other groups of larger transports. The armada, gathered together like chickens in a barnyard, was protected by the mother hens of the fleets hovering in the distance. Only the superstructures of some of the men-of-war could be seen. Planes floated above the convoy all day in great easy circles, assuring the troops that aircraft carriers were accompanying them. Zigzagging, the convoy steamed south, headed like others presumably on the long voyage around the Cape of Good Hope to Egypt and the battle there against Rommel.
En route to North Africa, the convoys were subjected to a rough storm. Ships rolled from side to side. The Royal Scotsman lost one of the vital LCAs (landing craft, assault), which broke loose from its davits. A destroyer dropped back to sink it with gunfire so that no trace would be left for U-boats to pick up the armada's trail.
Initially many Rangers were seasick. Although hard men physically, keyed for battle and better trained than other American comrades in the expedition, they shuddered under the same fears, experienced the same chills, and succumbed to the same relentless roll of the ships. Aboard ship, we kept up a rigorous schedule of physical training. Setting-up exercises and runs around the deck took up much of the day, but at sundown the convoy area took on the look of a gigantic Fourth of July celebration. It began with a sputter as the Rangers tossed bottles and cans overboard for target practice. Rifles, automatic rifles, and machine guns spattered gunfire from the ships' sterns at the bobbing objects. Lieutenant Shunstrom, a former weight lifter, exhibited his muscles when he fired a string of bullets from a light machine gun held high over his head. The ships' crews tuned up their larger weapons. One ship would fire its antiaircraft guns; others trained on the shell bursts high in the air. The blazing sun dropped down on the ocean, halting the firing, and once more the convoy was wrapped in its protective coat of darkness.
Each day the Rangers had "skull practice." Like a good football team, we were planning and preparing for the payoff game. Officers discussed their plans on a large-scale plaster-of-paris model. Every section and platoon had maps and air photographs that showed the coast in the vicinity of Arzew in great detail. British and American intelligence agencies had supplied us with the most minute information about beaches, coastal guns, fortifications, and the arms of the French defenders.
Our objective area, the coast between Oran and Arzew, resembled a camel's back. Oran was on the eastern side of one hump, fronting on a large bay, and Arzew was thirty miles east on the eastern side of the next hump. The latter town looked across the broad Arzew Bay to the town of Mostaganem.
The plan was to land the 1st Division with the 16th and 18th Infantry Regiments to the east of Oran across the beaches of Arzew Bay and the 26th Infantry Regiment far to the west of Oran, to converge on Oran with two pincer movements and squeeze it off, thereby giving us the excellent naval base of Mers-el-Kebir and the port of Arzew itself.
I knew a month before we sailed that our mission was to capture, ahead of the 1st Division, the two gun batteries that dominated the long beach at Arzew.
Two separate coastal batteries were at Arzew: a small one at the harbor's edge named Fort de la Pointe and a larger position, Batterie du Nord, on a hill overlooking the harbor and the bay to the east. The latter was a more pretentious fort with a four-gun battery equipped with long-range rifles that could keep our fleet five miles at bay. They had the facilities for shooting in almost any direction. The guns were well sited and well controlled.
Our search for landing beaches disclosed only two between Arzew and Oran. Four miles northwest of Arzew at the top of the hump near Cap Carbon, was a beach suitable for the landing of a small force. Up the hump a short distance from Arzew was another small beach, appropriately named Cemetery Beach; the many offshore rocks noticeable in the air photographs made us shy away from a landing there. Assault boats would be broken up before they reached shore. The harbor of Arzew was the sole remaining possibility for a landing within our allotted sector.
The selection of landing locations was part of the problem confronting the Rangers. Knocking out two separate coastal batteries was another. We faced a dilemma: If the entire battalion attacked the smaller fort at the water's edge, we would very probably alert Batterie du Nord on the hill. If the Rangers attacked the larger fort first, French defenders would be alert and at "action stations" at Fort de la Pointe and other coastal defenses, and the boom in the harbor would be closed.
Contrary to standard practice, it was decided to split the 1st Ranger Battalion so as to attack both positions in a one-two punch. Four companies under my command were to attack the larger fort, while my executive officer, Maj. Herman Dammer, was to lead the remaining two companies against the harbor fort. (In the Rangers, every unit or task force was designated by the commanding officer's name, thus adding personality to their fighting.)
The Dammer Force aboard the Royal Scotsman had to replan their boat loading after the loss of the assault craft in the heavy Atlantic storm. Air photographs showed that Arzew on the eastern slope of the coastal hump had an artificial harbor enclosed by two jetties--the outer, or seaside jetty, pointing due south. Fort de la Pointe was situated at the land end of this sea jetty where it made a right angle with another sea jetty. The fort was composed of two separate positions. A barbed-wire enclosure guarded three coastal guns, and directly behind, there was a small French fort whose vertical walls were about twenty feet high. There were no guns in the walled fort.
Excerpted from Darby's Rangers by William O. Darby with William H. Baumer. Copyright © 2003 by William O. Darby with William H. Baumer. Excerpted by permission of Presidio Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.