Assault on Africa

by Fred Tupper, Jr

This exclusive article is the first to describe in detail the role of aviation in the launching of what has proved to be a major campaign in Africa.

The order "play ball" came suddenly just before dawn on the morning of November 8. It was the hour and the day and this was the signal to begin hostile operations. The North African invasion was under way.

The largest convoy in the annals of man — a great occupation fleet that stretched 25 miles in any direction — had already split up according to prearranged plan, each ship intent on its particular mission.

Aboard a certain Navy carrier squadrons of fighters, dive bombers and torpedo bombers were spotted on the flight deck, primed for action. Pilots in the ready room tensely waited for orders. Then the radio operator flashed word that French submarines were leaving Casablanca and that French light forces, including a cruiser and three destroyers, were steaming up the coast under cover of a smoke screen. North at Fedala, the huge shore batteries at El Hank were training their guns on the landing barges, and the battleship Jean Bart, berthed in the Casablanca harbor, was throwing 15-inch shells.

Orders came quickly. Several minutes after the radio report, the whole complement of combat aircraft were launched and in the air. One fighter group attacked the shore batteries at Fedala, another roared over Port Lyautey, strafing enemy gun emplacements. Dive and torpedo bombers went to work on the French ships.

Traffic on the carrier's flight deck was heavy. As quickly as the planes ran out of ammunition, they came aboard to rearm and refuel and got back into action. Everyone wanted to get into the fight. One rear gunner was offered $230 for his seat in a flight. He turned it down. On the flight he was killed by a shell fragment.

Opposition was stubborn. French antiaircraft guns, after the first few rounds, were getting the range and inflicting damage. Many planes came back bearing bullet holes and shell scars. One Navy pilot, strafing an air field, went so low that he brought back a bunch of foliage in his tail wheel. (A prewar botanist aboard identified it as eucalyptus.)

The pilots were having trouble, too, trying to silence the French emplacements. Grumman Wildcats were carrying 100-pound bombs in an effort to put them out of action. Dive bombers and torpedo planes scored direct hits with 500-pound bombs and wiped them out.

The French light forces proved easier prey. Planes intercepted them early in the morning. By evening they were stranded on the beach.

Occasionally, during that first day, a single French plane would break through the carrier's fighter patrols to strafe ground troops coming ashore from transports. One plane in particular was sneaking over a ridge at low altitude, making a strafing run and then darting back to safety. Camouflaged against the ground, it was difficult to detect but, finally, with the aid of a Naval ground liaison officer, it was located and shot down in flames.

In the meantime, the carrier was making history. In a single day, she set an all-time Navy record for launchings and landings and did it under the constant threat of submarine attack. Many of her bombers and torpedo planes were detailed away from the occupation party to depth charge a wolf pack of submarines.

And yet casualties were low. One pilot, forced to bail out somewhere over French Morocco, was apprehended and incarcerated in the bastille in Casablanca. The jail was just a block from the harbor and the pilot's cell rocked like a bowl of Jello during the height of the bombardment. But the flyer was more disturbed about his personal cleanliness. "I demand my international rights;" he screamed during a lull in the crescendo. "I want some toothpaste." And he got it, too. (Apparently, he said later, you don't need to exchange an empty tube in Africa.)

Another pilot was forced down at sea when his fuel gave out. He was logged as missing. Several months later he turned up in the capital of a neutral country after a series of hair-raising experiences that included keeping afloat for 20 hours by using his trousers as a life belt.

On the second day the carrier's aircraft ran into much sterner aerial opposition. One flight of fighters intercepted 40 bombers, shot down one and dispersed the rest. A second flight ran into a formation of 16 Dewoitine 520's. They collected five "certain" scalps and damaged four more that may have crashed later. Meanwhile dive bombers still blasted the Jean Bart. In a single day, according to the carrier reports, more than 40 tons of bombs were dropped on the French battleship. Later inspection showed how deadly was their accuracy.

Other flights were sent inland to strafe opposition troops and tanks converging on Port Lyautey and Rabat. The Wildcats swooped low over fields and roads, .50-caliber guns blazing until the tanks were in flames. The enemy troops retreated from the area.

By the third day, the pilots were really "on the beam." They scored heavily against French P-36 interceptors in the air and bombed and strafed planes on the ground. During the overall engagement 26 French planes were shot down and another 100 destroyed or incapacitated before they could take off. And yet, during this intense action, "not one United States plane was destroyed in combat," according to official reports.

But it had been tough sledding for the carrier. "We were just lucky," a high-ranking officer said afterwards. "Damn lucky." He pointed dramatically to the carrier's log for a morning operation. It read:

"0650 — Land (Africa) visible ahead. Eighteen miles."

"0806 — Submarine sighted on port quarter. Distance about 5,000 yards.

A carrier, to launch, must have a certain amount of wind over her flight deck. To have it, she must head up windward. The submarine had estimated the carrier's course and lain in wait.

The chaplain manned the ship's loud speaking system, giving a play-by-play report to the vast complement many decks down. "Submarine sighted," he announced, as calmly as if he was describing a ball game. "One of our bombers dropping depth charges."

"0812 — Torpedo wake sighted. Made emergency left turn. Full speed ahead."

The submarine had the jump on the field. She fired once, then ducked for cover. Her torpedo flashed across the carrier's bow. "Here it comes," roared the chaplain, "but it's wide. Wide. Wide!!"

The carrier had wheeled, her bulkheads groaning under the strain, and was lumbering about like a distraught elephant. From off her catwalks came the thumping of short guns and the sporadic crashing of the huge five inchers.

"0816 — Planes on starboard quarter and destroyer on starboard bow both dropping depth charges."

Overhead the torpedo planes leveled out and roared down to drop their loads. In came the cans, converging at top speed over the target area.

"0820 — Destroyer reported torpedo wake approaching our starboard bow."

The chaplain's voice sounded ominously over the din of the starboard batteries. "Get ready. Here's another. It's close. Very close. No! No!! It misses."

"0824 — SOC dropped depth charge. SBDs dropped depth charges. Destroyers dropped depth charges."

The planes were over the target area, releasing smoke bombs where the periscope feather had been visible and fol-owing up with 100-pounders. Then the destroyers moved in on their prey, dropping their charges methodically in widening patterns. Geysers of water churned upward as the bombs exploded fathoms down. Suddenly the sub broke water, her bow rearing upward, then slid slowly down and disappeared under the pointed wave crests.

"0832 — Ship passing through oil slick two miles in length."

From the carrier bridge the lookout reported oil and bits of wreckage. Signal blinkers from the destroyers gave confirmation. "Destroyed," yelled the chaplain, "Submarine destroyed."

The carrier was far away by now, launching again as if nothing had happened. Submarine attacks became an increasingly dreaded routine during those hectic days as the Axis wolf packs concentrated in force during and after the "cease firing" order against the French was broadcast on November 11.

Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Air Artemus L Gates had a word to say about it later on. "Carrier-based airplanes, covering the November landing operations on the west coast of North Africa, neutralized strong opposition which might otherwise have made this expedition an extremely costly affair." There was something he didn't say:

"Sometimes carrier duty can be downright exciting."

This article was originally published in the June, 1943, issue of Flying including Industrial Aviation magazine, vol 323, no 6, pp 31-33, 174.
The original article includes 6 photos.
Photographs from the US Navy.