THE BATTLE FOR NORTH AFRICA
The invasion of North Africa in November, 1942 was for the purpose of accomplishing several objectives. In the first place, it was designed to forestall an invasion of the western portion of North Africa by Germany and Italy which would have posed a direct threat to America across the comparatively narrow sea between western Africa and South America. Secondly, the occupation of Morocco, and Algeria was a part of a larger plan to drive the Axis entirely out of North Africa and to open the Mediterranean as a line of supply to Russia and our forces in the Far East. In the third place, North Africa was to form a base from which to launch an invasion of Europe proper.
The North African invasion forces had three immediate objectives: Casablanca, Oran-Arzeu, and Algiers. The Moroccan phase of the operation was entrusted entirely to United States forces. The Algerian invasion was a joint United States-British operation. The British furnished the naval force with the exception of five transports. They furnished 23,000 soldiers, while the United States supplied 49,000.
United States merchant ships, defended by Armed Guards, played an important and praiseworthy role in the North African operation. While the attacks which these merchant ships sustained were not as
severe as those on the run to North Russia, on later operations in the Mediterranean, or in the Philippines, still Armed Guards came to grips with the enemy and gave a good account of themselves. They defended some thirty ships which brought the munitions and supplies necessary to consolidate the conquest and begin the push toward Tunis. These merchant ships were but the spearhead of a much larger movement of merchant ships to build up our resources for the big push into Sicily and Italy. At times as many as 1,500 merchant ships were in the Mediterranean. The story of every skirmish with the enemy therefore obscures largely a burdensome mass of detail. It is necessary in this account to deal with the more spectacular but none the less representative actions, especially with the support of invasions, and to leave out of consideration many encounters with the enemy in the day by day struggle to build up our supplies in the Mediterranean theater. This omission is made with full recognition of the fact that many of the actions not described were just as dangerous for the personnel involved and just as important in the long struggle for victory as the actions described below. It is true also that the Armed Guards performed just as heroically.
Not a single merchant ship defended by Armed Guards was lost in the invasion and early consolidation of our position in North Africa. Some ships, in fact, came through with little or no action. The quick cessation of French resistance on November 11, three days after our landings on November 8, undoubtedly accounted in part for
the remarkable luck which merchant ships had in the large operation. The speedy establishment of air bases in North Africa did much to add to the safety of merchant ships. No longer would they have to suffer days and nights of constant air attack if they remained close to North Africa.
The Bayou Chico participated in the invasion through trips to Oran, Arzeu and Mars-el-Kabir without suffering attack. The Argentina and the Carter Braxton were likewise free of actual attack, but the latter did not arrive at Oran until December 9. The Walt Whitman began discharging cargo into landing craft at Mersa Bou Zedjar, near Oran, shortly before midnight on November 7 and never experienced attack. The voyage reports of the John Sergeant, the Thomas Hooker, and the Uruguay also indicate the uneventful nature of the invasion for these merchant ships. These ships unloaded in the Oran-Arzeu theater.
The S. S. Edward Rutledge, not to be confused with a navy ship by the same name which was lost in the North African invasion, came under fire from shore batteries and machine guns throughout the morning of November 8 but survived. Her gun crew did not do too much arguing before shooting. In the morning she opened fire on a plane which finally identified itself as British. In the afternoon she fired at two planes. One crashed and was identified as a Spitfire being used by the French. On November 9 she fired at two planes which were machine gunning the beach. She was the only ship to effect the
landing of ammunition and gasoline at Arzeu on November 8 under unfavorable sea conditions. Her Armed Guards remained at their battle stations from 2300 on November 7 to 1200 on November 10. The Charles H. Cramp anchored 500 yards off the beach at Arzeu Bay on November 8 after launching two landing craft the previous night. The only enemy action which her Armed Guard officer reported in this area came on November 9 when three Spitfires, evidently piloted by Frenchmen, strafed troops on the beach.
The Mark Twain was off Mersa Bou Zedjar on November 8 to unload her landing barges. Her Armed Guard officer saw French reconnaissance planes but did not fire. The Zebulon Vance was in the Gulf of Arzeu from November 8 to 19. She was in view of enemy planes which dived over the beaches five times but did not attack her. The William Wirt fired three times at unidentified planes while in the Gulf of Arzeu from November 8 to 14. The Bernard Carter Armed Guard officer reported that a bomb fell 400 yards from the ship at Arzeu on November 9. Planes were over the Chattanooga City five times on November 10 in the same area, but the ship did not fire. These planes, which came in groups of two, were believed to have machine gunned American troops on a hill close to the beach. The William Floyd likewise fired one round at two fighters with United States insignia which were strafing beach positions close to the ship at Arzeu on November 9.
The Horace Binney arrived at Arzeu on November 11 and went to
Oran on November 17. She fired at three planes which were over Oran on November 22. Otherwise her stay in North African waters was quite uneventful. The Reverdy Johnson likewise fired at a plane on November 22 at Oran. Her Armed Guard officer reported that this plane dropped bombs. The Andrew Hamilton fired at an unidentified floating object on November 12 off Oran, the same day a British ship was torpedoed. She likewise fired at a plane which reportedly dropped a single bomb on November 22. The John P. Poe also describe the torpedoing of a British ship on November 12 and the attack by enemy planes on November 22 when the convoy was about 30 miles off Oran. Her Armed Guard officer reported that depth charges were dropped eight times during the trip to North Africa. According to the Armed Guard officer on the Brazil, the British ship was torpedoed about seven miles from Oran on November 12. The Brazil had arrived at Oran on November 11. Other ships firing at enemy planes over Oran on November 22 were the Lewis Morris and the Richard Henry Lee.
The Borinquen reported no action with the enemy on her trip to North Africa. But one transport in her convoy reported sighting a submarine on November 20, one day from Oran. Depth charges were dropped by the escorts. The Borinquen also reported depth charges were dropped on several occasions after she left Casablanca on November 29. The John Davenport anchored at Algiers on November 11. On November 20 enemy planes bombed the docks and airfields. Several bombs fell near the Davenport and a British destroyer was hit. The Davenport fired
at an unidentified plane on November 22, one day after she left Algiers.
Merchant ships at Casablanca appear to have experienced no attacks during the early days of our invasion. The J. W. McAndrew, the Santa Monica, and the Santa Elena reported no activity at Casablanca after arrival on November 18. But the Santa Elena reported several sub contacts after she left on November 29.
The Mariposa at Mers el Kabir also enjoyed a quiet stay except for enemy planes on November 23, the day of her arrival.
Five ships, the Luther Martin, the Tawali, the Artemus Ward, the Contessa, and the Exceller, were involved in more serious action. The Luther Martin and the Tawali witnessed a heavy submarine attack some 150 miles west of Gibraltar in which a British and a Norwegian ship were torpedoed. The Luther Martin narrowly escaped a disaster when a torpedo passed within 50 feet. The Tawali reported a plane shot down when it appeared to dive at the ship. Her guns scored hits. The Luther Martin report indicates that this plane was a British patrol bomber. As the convoy approached Oran on November 23 a German plane scouted the ships. The Luther Martin went on to Algiers on November 29, arriving November 30. Here she witnessed several air attacks which did little damage. More serious was the damage to several ships by small mines placed along their keels by enemy swimmers. When the Tawali departed Oran
on December 11 a sloop was torpedoed.
The Artemus Ward was under attack 31 times at Bougie in 12 days. Enemy planes were over every day from November 16 to November 28 except one. Bombs were dropped eleven times. The most serious attack took place on November 21. From 14 to 16 planes came over and started an oil fire on the dock. The hull of a British ship received superficial damage and bomb fragments inflicted casualties in her gun crew. The closest bomb to the Artemus Ward was 50 yards away. It blew earth and stones on her deck. Several enemy planes were downed while the Ward was at Bougie.
The Contessa had a difficult and dangerous mission to go as far up the Cebu river as possible and deliver vital cargo, including aviation gasoline. She went up the river eight miles before running aground on November 10. By November 15 she had completed unloading her cargo and was out of the river by November 19. She fired only once at an unidentified plane which was brought down by gunfire from several ships.
The Exceller went in with invasion ships near Algiers. At dawn on November 7 she witnessed the torpedoing of a navy ship. Enemy reconnaissance planes were over the task force on the same day. She stopped several miles off Sourcouf, a small town east of Algiers, at 2120 and launched her tank lighters at 2330. The assault began two hours later. At 0215 on November 8 she fired at a plane which her Armed Guard officer later learned was Free French. Shells were fired
from ashore until 0500. Less than four hours later the ships were able to drop anchor about a mile off the beach. Enemy planes were over during the day and at 1645 three bombs fell from 35 to 75 feet from the ship. The after end of the Exceller was lifted from the water and she received some damage. About dusk enemy planes launched torpedoes. Two passed very close to the Exceller. One passed along the starboard side of the vessel, missing by a foot or less. On November 9 a few Heinkel 111's attacked but did no damage. The Exceller used Army 40 mm and .50 cal. machine guns, which were a part of her cargo, to defend the ship. At 1300 two planes dropped bombs about 200 yards astern and damaged a ship. The Exceller shot off a part of the wing of one of these planes. The crew landed and were taken prisoner. At 1540 seven enemy planes came over and hit British war ships and the dock. A Spitfire shot down one of the attacking planes. By November 10 friendly fighters were based at Algiers and the period of greatest danger [to merchant shipping] was over.
The initial assault on North Africa had been largely an Army and Navy undertaking. Merchant ships went in very quickly after the beach heads had been established. The luck of American merchant ships had been good. But even after Morocco and Algeria were secured they experienced frequent attacks as they visited ports in these countries. A few random reports of these attacks will illustrate the tremendous dangers and difficulties which merchant ships still faced even in Allied dominated portions of the Mediterranean.
Three merchant ships carrying United States Armed Guards were in a Malta convoy which entered the Mediterranean from the Suez Canal on November 16, 1942. These ships were the Mormacmoon, the Robin Locksley, and the Dutch vessel Bantam. On November 18 five bombers dropped bombs, scoring several near misses on the Mormacmoon and one near miss on the Robin Locksley. Near Benghazi some 30 enemy troop planes passed the convoy but did not attack. In the late afternoon enemy torpedo planes launched their deadly fish, scoring a hit on a British cruiser, but leaving the merchant ships unscathed. The Robin Locksley claimed the probable destruction of one enemy plane, with the Mormacmoon and other ships also firing. The return trip from Malta to Port Said in December was also full of action. Torpedo bombers struck on December 7. Bombers scored near misses on the Mormacmoon and the Robin Locksley on December 8. Depth charges were also dropped on the same day. Bombs also landed from 50 to 80 yards from the Bantam on December 9 and about 200 yards off the port bow of the Mormacmoon. The ships reached Port Said safely on December 11. At long last merchant ships had a fighting chance to reach Malta and leave undamaged.
The Agwimonte and the Alcoa Prospector were in a convoy of four merchant ships which entered the Mediterranean from the Suez Canal on December 1 and arrived at Malta on December 5. An enemy scout bomber appeared on December 4 and a number of depth charges were dropped on the same day. There were numerous air alerts at Malta, an average
of two a day. Fighters were able to intercept the enemy planes and no bombs were dropped in the harbor area. Enemy planes were over the convoy on December 18 on the return trip to Egypt and one plane dropped four bombs. Several ships also fired at two planes which were quickly identified as B-25's. One rather interesting sidelight of the return voyage of the Agwimonte was her duel with a British armed ship on January 12, one day before reaching Capetown. The Agwimonte waited until the British ship fired and then fired two or three shots at he spot of her last gun flash. The Agwimonte fired 18 rounds with her 5"/38. She was in turn straddled with projectiles from the British ship. One shell threw water on the gun crew. Shell fragments were found on deck the next morning. The action lasted about 50 minutes before ht e British ship became convinced she was firing at an allied vessel and broke off the engagement.
The William Johnson Armed Guard would hardly have agreed that North Africa was a safe place for United States merchant ships. This ship experienced 47 alarms and 21 actual attacks by German planes while at Bone from December 18, 1942 to January 6, 1943. At least three enemy planes were shot down by ship and shore batteries. The William Johnson was the first American ship to anchor at Bone. During the most severe German attacks on January 1 and 2 three ships of other nationalities were sunk and five others damaged. Six bombs fell close to the Johnson. Her after guns were machine-gunned and her flag was
pierced by bullets. The forward gun was covered with debris. Shell fragments were flying everywhere. Earlier, on the night of December 22-23, her Armed Guards and the merchant crew helped fight three fires among the ammunition piles along the quay. On January 6 three Stuka dive bombers attacked the ships at Bone and one plane dropped a bomb less than 100 feet from the stern of the William Johnson. She was the only ship to fire at the planes as they made their dives.
Trouble had seemed to follow the William Johnson on the entire voyage ever since she left New York on October 3, 1942. On October 7 a straggler was sunk off Halifax. Then came an attack by a wolf pack on October 13. About nine ships were sunk before that eventful Tuesday ended. The submarines picked off ships "just like one would shoot ducks sitting on a pond". While waiting at Algiers for orders on to Bone the William Johnson's Armed Guard witnessed a daring and successful attack by enemy swimmers with limpet mines. These Italians were landed from a submarine. They were equipped with rubber suits and time bombs. The broke the back of one ship, sank one and damaged two others. Six Italians were captured. Even after the convoy left Bone on January 6 there was trouble. On January 7 the commodore's ship was torpedoed.
On January 1, 1943 an explosion of unknown cause destroyed the Arthur Middleton just eight miles from Oran. There were eleven ships in the convoy which were getting into position to form a single line to enter the harbor of Oran. All of the ship disintegrated except a 40 foot section of the stern. This part of the ship sank in about 30
seconds. Only three Armed Guards survived from the entire crew.
Even Casablanca was not free from enemy air attack. A large number of United States ships were present at this port on December 31, 1942 when from six to eight bombers attacked. The 16 whistle bombs did no damage to the ships in port and appear to have been directed mainly at the town. Nevertheless, bombs landed on the dock area within a few hundred feet of the ships. The Armed Guards put up a terrific barrage, but it is impossible to assign definite credit for the two planes which were shot down. The Mokihana claimed a definite hit on a plane which went down.
At the beginning of 1943 Axis submarines were concentrated around the approaches to Gibraltar. Entry or exit from the western end of the Mediterranean was still full of danger from torpedo attack. Some of the ships which were under air attack at Casablanca were on their way to the United States in early February after visiting ports in the Mediterranean. The convoy was passing the outer light house at Gibraltar near midnight on February 7 when a British ship the Mary Slessor was torpedoed. Next day another ship was torpedoed and sunk.
Late in the afternoon of January 7, 1943 a convoy was plodding along about 70 miles west of Philippeville, Algeria. Dark gray planes with no insignia approached from 50 to 100 feet above the water. A British merchant ship was the first to go up in this surprise attack. This explosion destroyed the attacking plane. The gun fire from the
William Wirt threw two planes off course and caused their torpedoes to go astray. Another plane was able to launch a couple of torpedoes, one of which hit a small Norwegian ship, before the 20 mm fire from the William Wirt sent the enemy crashing in flames. The torpedo planes were followed by dive bombers. One of these was able to land a bomb in the No. 1 hold of the William Wirt before her guns sent it crashing into the sea. Two other bombs from the same plane were near misses which placed her 3"/50 AA gun out of commission and left her to carry on with her 20 mm guns. A third wave of planes came over. One of these planes was shot down by the William Wirt when it crossed her bow. This ship alone accounted for three of about 20 attacking planes. Fortunately, the bomb which landed in her No. 1 hold failed to explode, for this hold was full of high test gasoline.
The Walt Whitman claimed hits on the planes in the attack. The Thomas Hooker had a close call when a torpedo crossed the bow of the ship and when bombs fell astern. The latter reported 29 alerts and that she had fired nine times while at Bone from January 8 to 18. One of these attacks on January 13 resulted in near misses on the ship.
The enemy was relentless in his attacks on ships in this convoy. When they were on a westerly course on January 19 an attack of over one hour in duration developed. The William Wirt claimed a hit on one plane. But even more important than hits and planes destroyed was the effect of heavy gun fire from ships in keeping enemy planes from reaching an advantageous position from which to launch their bombs and torpedoes. On the same day an escort sank a surfaced submarine.
The next attack encountered took place at 0350 on the morning of January 20. High level bombers and torpedo planes were used. The William Wirt hit one plane which caught fire. One of its motors fell into the sea. Planes were high overhead for the next hour. The last attack came at 0530. Only one ship, however, was hit. This was the Walt Whitman which was damaged but not sunk by an aerial torpedo. The ship was able to make Algiers, where she experienced 18 air attacks between January 21 and March 26.
About two hours before midnight the enemy returned. The convoy was still about six hours from Algiers. Planes first appeared at 2045. They were high overhead, but were able to place two bombs within 100 feet of the William Wirt. One small coastwise ship was hit and shortly thereafter a plane fell beside the smoke-enveloped ship. The William Wirt Armed Guard believed that they accounted for the plane. The William Wirt hit another plane from one of two later waves of high altitude bombers.
The Germans were active against Oran at about the same time. On January 20, 1943 two bombs fell within 75 feet of the Mark Twain. Three bombs fell about 40 feet from the Edward Rutledge on the same day. Two members of the Charles H. Cramp Armed Guard suffered injuries when the muzzle of one of the 20 mm guns spread during the attack on Oran.
After experiencing a torpedo attack on January 29, 1943, the Bernard Carter went on to Bone. Bombs were dropping on the beach as
the convoy came into the harbor. This ship, the only American ship at Bone at this time, went to general quarters 23 times. Bombs fell six times. The Andrew Hamilton arrived at Bone on February 8. Her convoy had received rough treatment in the Mediterranean. An air attack on February 6 had sunk a corvette and placed bombs close to the Hamilton. Two British ships were sunk on February 7. Both planes and submarines were active on this date. Enemy planes were over Bone on February 9 and 10. On the return trip through the Straits of Gibraltar a British destroyer was torpedoed.
The John Davenport Armed Guard officer indicated that his convoy received severe losses both approaching the Mediterranean and while in that sea. On March 4 five bombers approached the ships some 400 miles off the French coast. The John Davenport shot the wing off one plane in this morning attack. Bombers reappeared in the early evening and dropped bombs close to the Davenport. On March 6 two ships were torpedoed off the coast of Portugal. On March 9 two ships were hit by torpedoes as the convoy was near Oran. Later at Algiers there was no heavy bombing, but another British ship was torpedoed on March 26 when the convoy was once again off Oran.
The trip to Malta from the eastern Mediterranean continued to be a dangerous one long after the allied landings in North Africa. The O'Henry was on such a mission where enemy planes attacked on January 8, 1943. Heavy bombs landed off the port bow of a Liberty and other bombs landed within 800 yards of the O'Henry. On March 5, 1943
the O'Henry was in a convoy 117 miles south of Valetta when six Heinkel bombers dropped about forty 250-pound bombs. Near misses did slight damage to a Dutch and a Panamanian tanker, and bombs fell within fifty feet of the O'Henry. The O'Henry shot down one bomber and left another in smoke and flames. But by April the O'Henry made a trip to Valetta in which the only action reported was the dropping of depth charges on April 17 and 19 and an air attack on Tripoli as the ships passed that port.
Convoy UGS-6, bound for the Mediterranean, had a running battle with the enemy and suffered considerable losses. Action took place both in the Atlantic and in Mediterranean ports. The large convoy left New York on March 4, 1943. Disaster first came on March 7 when two ships were in collision. The first ship to be sunk by enemy action was the Keystone an March 13. The ship was about 15 miles from the convoy and was proceeding at 11 knots to rejoin. She had been forced to slow to five knots to make repairs to her air pump and had become separated. After the first torpedo struck there was a heavy explosion and the ship was abandoned. Later another torpedo appeared to strike the ship and she went down bow first. The next ship to be torpedoed was the Wyoming (French) on March 15. She carried a Free French gun crew. Two torpedoes struck the ship and sent her to the bottom.
At about 1850 on March 16 the Benjamin Harrison was torpedoed
and later sunk by fire from an escort. There was much firing, some indiscriminate, by ships in the convoy at alleged periscopes or submarines. Sharks in the area added to the confusion. The John Jay, for example, reported firing at an object believed to be a coning tower. The Armed Guard officer believed that the object was hit. The George Taylor reported that two P-38 planes on her deck were damaged by 20 mm duds and a shell fragment from a 3" or 4" gun found on board. Two torpedoes passed close to the Henry W. Longfellow. The Delmar claimed hits on two submarines. The George Shiras, which had been within 10 feet of a torpedo on March 15, was within 50 feet of a periscope on March 16. The periscope was too close for her to depress her guns to score hits, but the ship claimed a hit on a second periscope four minutes later. The American Robin and the Mokihana may have scored hits on a submarine.
On the evening of March 17 the Molly Pitcher was torpedoed and later sunk by escort. The ship was about 150 miles northeast of the Azores. The Armed Guard officer, two other Armed Guards and fourteen members of the merchant crew stayed aboard for more than two hours after the torpedo hit and tried to save the ship, but without success. Two Armed Guards lost their lives in the torpedoing. The Bret Harte had a close call when torpedoes came close to her bow and stern. Three torpedoes passed close to the Joseph T. Robinson, and a torpedo missed the Delmar by 40 to 50 yards. The Benjamin Bourne dodged a torpedo by skillful maneuvering. Others passed close astern. One torpedo passed within 15 feet of the bow of the West Nilus.
The John C. Calhoun, the Henry W. Longfellow, the Calvin Coolidge, and the Wildwood fired at submarine or torpedo wake targets on March 18. The Wildwood claimed that the torpedo at which she fired sank before it reached the convoy.
Various ships in the convoy were under later attack after they reached North African ports. Several ships were at Oran on March 23 when a French tanker was hit by an aerial torpedo. The Esso Bayway reported that a ship abaft her beam was torpedoed on March 26 as the convoy was proceeding from Algiers to Gibraltar. Several ships were under attack at Philippeville. The William Johnson shot down a plane on April 27 and got another the following day. The Calvin Coolidge claimed an assist on April 28, one day after she left Philippeville. The Richard Jordan Gatling also fired at this plane.
The George Weems reported a very suspicious circumstance which may have indicated that an enemy swimmer attached a mine to the hull of the ship while she was anchored at Beni-Saf, Algeria. Later the Armed Guard officer witnessed the attack by enemy swimmers at Gibraltar on May 8 in which four ships were reported damaged by limpet mines. The Anthony Wayne observed only two explosions at Gibraltar on that date.
After her successful encounter with enemy planes at Philippeville, the William Johnson was under attack between Bone and Oran on May 9. She was in the air attack at Oran on May 19 in which the Samuel Griffin was hit by a bomb and set afire. The fire was not extinguished for four hours. One enemy plane also appeared on May 20.
Convoy UGS-7 also ran into difficulty with the enemy. On April 20 the Michigan was torpedoed without warning about 40 miles due west of Oran. This attack took place early in the morning. A few minutes later the French transport Sidi-Bel-Abbes received two torpedoes and sank.
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