Military history

To the Last Man

VIEWED from the great half-moon bay that cradled the city, Algiers spread up the verdant hills like an alabaster vision. Distance lent an enchantment not wholly dispelled by the stench of the Arab quarter or the vaguer odor of French colonial rule. Cinemas, emporiums, and chic cafés lined shady avenues enlivened each evening by promenading boulevardiers. Algiers had been an inconsequential hamlet until Moors expelled from Spain in 1492 took sanctuary there. Like Oran, the city soon thrived on piracy, and for more than three centuries sheltered corsair fleets that terrorized the Mediterranean basin. Barbarossa’s sixteenth-century palace still crowned the skyline 400 feet above the harbor; a Western traveler in the 1920s fancied that the old heap “resounded to the groans of Christian slaves.”

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For more than a century, Algiers had been the epicenter of France’s North African empire, a “white-walled city of flies and beggars and the best Parisian scent.” To one Frenchman, the old pirate haven now resembled “a reclining woman, white and naked, leaning on her elbow.” To Eisenhower and his planners, Algiers was the key to Algeria if not the entire African littoral. As the easternmost landing site in TORCH, the city was to provide a springboard for the subsequent drive into Tunisia. The Anglo-American invaders—thinly disguised as an all-American force—would be followed immediately by British troops who were to pivot ninety degrees to the east and make for Tunis.

So it was that Robert Murphy in the earliest minutes of November 8 pelted through the city’s affluent suburbs in his big Buick on the most important diplomatic mission of his life. The American envoy had remained in his office until early Saturday evening, affecting a placidity he did not feel. “Two years of hopeful soundings and schemings,” as he put it, were about to be tested. Murphy had been stung by the sharp rebuff from Eisenhower and the White House to his proposed delay of the TORCH landings. “I am convinced,” he had cabled Roosevelt, “that the invasion of North Africa without favorable French high command will be a catastrophe.” The reply from Washington had been unequivocal: “The decision of the president is that the operation will be carried out as now planned.” Murphy was instructed “to secure the understanding and cooperation of the French officials with whom you are now in contact.”

He had done his best. Trusted French rebels, including General Mast, had been given several days’ advance warning of the invasion. Upon hearing a prearranged radio message from London on Saturday night—“Allo, Robert. Franklin arrivé”—Murphy alerted the rebels that the landings were about to begin. The coup in Oran had evidently miscarried, but in Algiers several hundred French partisans began to seize key installations despite the failure of Clark to deliver the modern weapons he had promised at Cherchel; the intent, a French historian later wrote, was “to chloroform the city.” By ruse and by force, the insurgents soon controlled police and power stations, Radio Algiers, telephone switchboards, and army headquarters, where the French corps commander was held incommunicado. Some Vichy officers happily acquiesced in their arrests—“it saved them,” one observer noted, “any painful search of their conscience.” As for Murphy’s repeated radio query to Gibraltar—“Where is Giraud?”—there had been no satisfactory answer.

At 12:45 A.M. on Sunday he arrived at the Villa des Oliviers, a blocky, mustard-hued Arab palace in the well-heeled enclave of el-Biar; brushing past the tall Senegalese sentries, Murphy rapped on the door. A swarthy, mustachioed man in a foul mood came to the foyer. General Alphonse Pierre Juin, commander of all Vichy ground troops in North Africa, usually favored a Basque beret and a mud-spattered cape; at this moment he wore pink-striped pajamas. Maimed in 1915, Juin had been authorized to salute with his left hand, but he offered Murphy neither salute nor handshake.

“I am happy to say that I have been instructed by my government to inform you that American and British armies of liberation are about to land,” Murphy said.

“What! You mean the convoy we have seen in the Mediterranean is going to land here?”

Murphy nodded, unable to suppress a nervous grin.

“But you told me only a week ago that the United States would not attack us.”

“We are coming by invitation,” Murphy said.

“By whose invitation?”

“By the invitation of General Giraud.”

“Is he here?”

Preferring not to disclose that Giraud was sulking in a Gibraltar cave, Murphy waved aside the question. “He will be here soon.”

Murphy described the invasion forces lurking off the African coast, multiplying their size severalfold. “Our talks over the years have convinced me,” he told Juin, “that you desire above all else to see the liberation of France, which can come about only through cooperation with the United States.”

Now the opéra bouffe began in earnest. General Juin voiced sympathy with the Allied cause but was hindered by the unexpected presence in Algiers of his superior officer. “He can immediately countermand any orders I issue,” Juin said. “If he does, the commands will respect his orders, not mine.” Twenty minutes later, after a quick phone call and the hurried dispatch of a driver with the Buick, one of the war’s most reviled figures strolled into the Villa des Oliviers.

In a truncated nation of small men, Admiral Jean Louis Xavier François Darlan stood among the smallest. Stumpy and pigeon-breasted, given to jocose vulgarity and monologues on the efficiency of the German army, he was the sixty-one-year-old scion of French sailors. The death of his great-grandfather at Trafalgar supposedly fed Darlan’s pathological hatred of the British, although it was the Americans who called him Popeye. The French fleet was his fiefdom, but he also served as Marshal Pétain’s dauphin and commander of all Vichy armed forces. His favors to the Nazis had included the use of Vichy airports in Syria and resupply aid to Rommel through Tunisia. Churchill called him “a bad man with a narrow outlook and a shifty eye.”

By a coincidence that would forever seem either contrived or divine, Darlan was in Algiers to attend his son, Alain, who lay in the Hôpital Maillot so reduced by polio that his coffin had been ordered. Several times in the past two years, the admiral had privately hinted at supporting the Allies if circumstances warranted. Just before Eisenhower left London for Gibraltar, Churchill had told him, “If I could meet Darlan, much as I hate him, I would cheerfully crawl on my hands and knees for a mile if by doing so I could get him to bring that fleet of his into the circle of Allied forces.” Roosevelt on October 17 had sent Murphy similar if less histrionic instructions, authorizing any arrangement with the Vichy admiral that might help TORCH.

But Darlan seemed disinclined to parley. Upon learning of the imminent invasion, he flushed and replied, “I have known for a long time that the British are stupid, but I have always believed Americans were more intelligent. Apparently you have the same genius as the British for making massive blunders.”

For fifteen minutes, Darlan paced the room and sucked on his pipe. Murphy shortened his stride and paced beside him, insisting, “The moment has now arrived!” The admiral waved off the entreaties. “I have given my oath to Pétain,” he insisted. “I cannot revoke that now.” But he agreed to radio Vichy for guidance. Upon stepping outside, however, the men found that the Senegalese guards had been replaced by forty rebels wearing white armbands and armed with long-barreled rifles dating to the Franco-Prussian War. Juin was incredulous. “Does this mean we are prisoners?” he asked.

It did. Murphy’s colleague, the Apostle Kenneth Pendar, was dispatched to the Admiralty office downtown with Darlan’s sealed message for Vichy, which Pendar promptly opened, read, and discarded as insufficiently zealous for the Allied cause. Returning to the villa, Pendar told Darlan cryptically, “The necessary has been done.”

As the impasse dragged on with no word from Vichy and no sign of the Allied invaders, Murphy dimly wondered whether he had confused the date and launched his putsch a day early. The hours ticked past. Dawn approached. Darlan stopped pacing and puffing long enough to offer some thoughtful political advice. “Giraud is not your man,” he said. “Politically he is a child. He is just a good division commander, nothing more.”

The insurrection, in fact, was collapsing. Loyalist forces gathered their composure—“This isn’t just a civil defense drill?” one perplexed Vichy officer asked—and recaptured the strong points one by one. At army headquarters, insurgents and loyalists sang the “Marseillaise” together before the rebels stacked their arms and filed from the building. Upon learning of the events in Algiers and Oran, Pétain in Vichy sent President Roosevelt a curt message: “France and her honor are at stake. We have been attacked. We will defend ourselves.”

A loyalist patrol with three tanks arrived at the gates of the Villa des Oliviers, dispersing the rebels and locking Murphy and Pendar in the porter’s lodge. Juin’s aide rushed about waving an enormous revolver at the Americans, crying, “What have you done? What have you done?” Pendar wondered if he had blundered into a production of Pirates of Penzance. A Senegalese sentry offered each American a Gitane cigarette, the customary courtesy to those about to face a firing squad.

Regrettably, the Allies had planned a frontal assault on Algiers harbor that was identical to RESERVIST in folly. Again the mission was concocted and commanded by the British, with a predominately American supporting cast. Code-named TERMINAL and designed to capture the port intact, the attack featured two antiquated destroyers, H.M.S. Broke and H.M.S. Malcolm, under Captain H. L. St. J. Fancourt of the Royal Navy. Engineers welded quarter-inch iron sheeting, three feet high, around the upper deck of each ship as a thin shield against sniper fire. Forward compartments in the bow were filled with concrete, and heavy armor plates covered the prow. About the time Murphy began wondering whether he had confused the invasion date, these floating rams reached the eleven-fathom line in the Bay of Algiers and swung west toward the boom blocking the harbor entrance.

The 686 soldiers aboard Broke and Malcolm came from the 3rd Battalion of the 135th Infantry, which had left Minnesota almost two years earlier to join her sister regiments from Iowa in the 34th Division. The regiment’s motto—“To the last man”—had been hard won at Gettysburg. The 3rd Battalion called itself “the Singing 3rd,” and had mastered an impressive repertoire of barracks ballads, including one bawdy British ditty called “There’s a Troopship Now Leaving Bombay.” The unit retained its Minnesota accent, and the ranks were full of Ericksens, Carlsons, and Andersens. The battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Edwin T. Swenson, was a former assistant warden of the Minnesota State Penitentiary at Stillwater.

Witty and bighearted, with the craggy face of a prizefighter, Colonel Swenson was reputedly capable of swearing fluently for hours without ever repeating an expletive; he had told the British that his battalion’s top sergeant was whoever could whip him in a fistfight. Captain Fancourt in turn told Swenson that Allied commandos would capture French batteries overlooking the port; that several of the French guns could not be tilted low enough to hit targets below anyway; and that initial landings east and west of Algiers, which would start before the TERMINAL attack, would likely draw defenders away from the harbor. None of this proved true.

The lights of Algiers twinkled as the destroyers made for the boom extending from the crescent seawall. American flags flapped from the masts. Then the city lights went out and searchlight beams scissored across the water. Swenson briefly believed they were meant to direct the intruders toward the harbor entrance. But the beams found and fixed both ships, blinding those on the bridge. Sporadic gunfire opened as Broke, with Malcolm a mile astern, sheered to starboard to avoid a breakwater and then came about under a thick screen of smoke. A second try to find and sever the boom also failed, as did efforts to shoot out the searchlights and to illuminate the harbor mouth with flares, which were swallowed by the destroyers’ own smoke.

By this time, French gunners had ranged Malcolm. Beginning at 4:06 A.M., shells smacked through the hull, perforating the boilers and reducing the destroyer to four knots. Swathed in white steam, she made an easy target. Other shells hit the funnels. Fragments sprayed across the deck, where 300 infantrymen had flattened out behind the useless sniper shields. Fire broke out amidships among the pasteboard crates of mortar ammunition stacked on the center hatch. With the ship listing so badly to starboard that her weather deck was only six inches from the water, soldiers hurled flaming mortar crates over the deck rail. Malcolm managed to get under way again and limped seaward, where the crew spent the next several hours hosing blood and brains from the deck and heaving the dead overboard in weighted shrouds fashioned from mattress covers.

Then, on his fourth try for the port, Broke’s skipper, Lieutenant Commander A.F.C. Layard, spotted a pair of dim green buoy lights marking the harbor entrance. He increased speed to twenty knots and easily sliced through the boom of chained timber baulks. Layard berthed at the Môle Louis Billiard while the destroyer’s guns silenced sniper fire from the docks.

Badly shaken, Colonel Swenson and the Singing 3rd were slow to rise from the deck, but eventually scurried across the extended brows to the quay. Swenson instructed his men to “light out like stripey-assed baboons up the wharf until you can get some cover, then fight like hell.” But little fighting was necessary. As dawn broke over Algiers, the Americans controlled the electric power station, Morey’s Oil Depot, and several warehouses on the southern wharves near the seaplane base. Round objects that had resembled coastal defense guns in aerial photos proved to be latrines. Church bells across the city pealed out the Angelus call to Sunday mass. A preternatural peace settled over the quays and the handsome white houses stretching up to the Rue Michelet. Soldiers joked about how Algiers smelled like a saloon, the consequence of gasoline shortages that forced most vehicles to burn alcohol. Swenson strained to hear the tramp of boots from the 168th Infantry—the sister regiment from southwest Iowa—marching downhill to relieve their comrades on the docks after landing west of the city.

Instead, he heard the abrupt rush of artillery shells from a battery at Jetée du Nord a mile to the north. French sailors had dismantled an old wall to give the casemate guns a clear field of fire along the waterfront. The third round clipped Broke’s forepeak and burst against the quay wall in a great splash of smoke and masonry. With permission from Captain Fancourt, Layard parted all lines and moved the destroyer to a new berth in the lee of a French freighter along the Quai de Dunkerque. Calm returned until 9:20A.M., when French gunners again opened fire with a howitzer battery above the port. The first six shots missed the destroyer; the next five hit. Shells burst in the chart house and the wardroom. Another blew through the sick bay, killing one physician and tearing the right arm from another, who kept himself conscious with morphine long enough to advise an American medic on how to perform several urgent amputations.

Fancourt sounded the recall siren. But with Swenson’s troops scattered across the docks under sniper fire, only sixty men had scrambled back to Broke before she again parted lines and zigzagged from the harbor, smoke trailing her like a veil. Private First Class Harold Cullum, shot in the arm and abdomen earlier in the morning, crawled to the end of the pier too late to board; he lay in the sun munching sulfa tablets and sipping from his canteen, watching Broke steam from sight. “The morale effect of a destroyer sunk in the port in full view of the town might have an adverse effect on the situation,” Fancourt explained three days later. The morale effect of stranding 250 soldiers ashore was not addressed. Holed twenty-two times, Broke soon sank anyway, after all hands had leaped to the deck of a rescue ship.

Even with the ship gone, Swenson kept heart. He estimated that four French infantry companies surrounded Môle Louis Billiard—imposing numbers, but not overwhelming. He hesitated to use his mortars and machine guns for fear of killing the civilians who could be seen peering from doorways and intersections. But Royal Navy bombers pummeled the noisome battery on the Jetée du Nord, and Swenson continued to hope that the 168th Infantry would soon arrive as planned. Fashioning breastworks from hay bales and shipping crates, he organized an outer perimeter to keep French troops beyond hand grenade range and an inner defense to shield his wounded and his heavy weapons.

Then the unmistakable creak of armored tracks echoed through the quays. Several Renault light tanks peppered the breastworks with machine-gun and 37mm cannon fire. Swenson gathered the few anti-armor grenades available and positioned his gunners to ambush the approaching tanks; every grenade missed. Hay bales ignited, and fire spread to the warehouses. Two more Renaults arrived to set up a crossfire, backing the Americans to the water’s edge. Mortar rounds detonated as flames reached stacks of ammunition cases. With his riflemen low on cartridges, Swenson instructed the men to fix bayonets, then thought better of the order. Already, TERMINAL had cost twenty-four Allied dead and fifty-five wounded. Complete annihilation of the men on the dock would serve no cause. At 12:30 P.M., Swenson raised a white flag and surrendered.

Stretcher bearers quickly trundled away the wounded; encroaching flames threatened to ignite their bandages. Lining up Swenson and his men, Senegalese troops were stripping them of watches, rings, and bill-folds when a French officer stepped in, ordered the booty returned, and threatened to shoot the looters. A diehard sniper fired a final shot as the Americans marched uphill to prison. The bullet killed Corporal Alvin Ronning, a tall blond farm boy from Milan, Minnesota. So jubilant were the French defenders at repelling the assault that they neglected to scuttle the port, unlike the wrecked harbor at Oran. For the Americans in TERMINAL, this accidental victory nearly redeemed their ordeal.

Thirty-three thousand Allied troops stumbled onto the beaches east and west of Algiers on November 8 without grace, finesse, or agility. Overloaded landing craft shipped water and sank. Others foundered when their bow ramps opened prematurely, or broached from an inexperienced hand on the tiller. Some scrambling nets proved too short, requiring soldiers to leap six feet into the waiting boats. Despite orders to preserve utter silence, the pandemonium was such that “I should have thought the Germans in Berlin could have heard us,” one officer later wrote. The East Surreys and Royal West Kents finally got their rum ration, with the result that at least two officers ostensibly “testing for salt” staggered semiconscious to their bunks while the merry troops embarked for the Barbary shore in full throat.

Finding the right beach at night in Algiers proved even harder than at Oran. Boats puttered for hours, pursuing one signal light after another like children chasing fireflies. Seasickness so immobilized strong men that they envisioned being court-martialed for cowardice. Shouted queries across the water—“Who are you? Where are you going?”—brought incoherent moans or the rudest invective. A British beach-master, wearing white cuffs to be better seen in the dark, greeted boat after boat with a cheerful demurral: “I’m sorry to tell you, but you’re on the wrong beach!” Six landing craft drifted two miles off course to fall within range of a French battery at Ilot de la Marine; four were sunk. So many other boats were mishandled that only six of 104 in the Algiers flotilla survived the initial trip to shore. The half-dozen survivors put to sea again to pick up a second wave, only to find their mother ships gone; an unexpected 2½-knot westward set had pushed the convoy eleven miles to leeward in four hours.

Outnumbered five to one, the French defenders offered little coherent resistance. Near Cap Matifou on the eastern lip of the Bay of Algiers, soldiers unloaded by error on a sandbar clung to a toggle rope and bounced into the beach like kangaroos, springing off the sandy bottom through water over their heads. British and American commandos at Matifou found the coastal battery they were seeking, then threw grenades down an ammunition elevator. The dull detonations were followed by screams and a sharp, accented reproach: “Why don’t you go fight the Germans?” British naval gunfire fell short, hitting civilians and Allied troops alike; a French farmer trudged past on the coastal road, carrying the body of his dead twelve-year-old son. Other French families walked to early mass in their fine clothes, gazes averted from the Allied soldiers tramping past. In the town square at Aïn Taya, troops who had been dumped into the surf warmed themselves at a huge bonfire while an enterprising wine merchant unshuttered his shop, and villagers still in their nightclothes gathered to gawk at what the sea had heaved up on this strangest of Sunday mornings.

On the far western fringe of the Allied landings, the British 11th Brigade landed 7,000 men at Castiglione to find that a sympathetic French officer had declined to issue ammunition to his troops. At Sidi Ferruch, where in 1830 a French army had claimed Algeria for Napoleon II, the garrison capitulated in minutes. A French artillery major stepped from the shadows near the beach and declared, “You gentlemen are late.”

The 168th Infantry of the U.S. 34th Division, which was supposed to hurry east to reinforce Swenson’s beleaguered TERMINAL force at Algiers harbor, was both late and lost. Four thousand Americans in the regiment were scattered along fifteen miles of coastline. Officers raced up and down narrow country lanes in confiscated autos, searching for their commands. Among the displaced was Major Robert Moore, the former Boy Captain from Villisca, Iowa, now second-in-command of the regiment’s 2nd Battalion. Launched before midnight from the Keren, Moore led two companies in nine landing craft to an assembly area several hundred yards from the ship. After futilely waiting almost an hour for the rest of the battalion flotilla to arrive, Moore ordered the coxswain to turn toward land.

A naval officer motoring through the swell a mile offshore assured Moore that he was on course. But after beaching the boats and dragging their equipment across the sand, the men were chagrined to see British 11th Brigade troops. Moore quickly deduced that instead of landing at the beach code-named Beer White, the boat crews had veered eight miles down the coast to Apple White. Moore sent a scouting party inland; when it failed to return, he rousted the remaining 200 men from their bivouac and set out to find the rest of his battalion.

The deficiencies of the past two years in preparing the 34th Division for war now began to tell. The amateurish football field maneuvers and town-square drilling by the Iowa National Guard seemed irrelevant in the scrub pines of coastal Algeria. The hurried dispatch of the 34th to Britain ten months earlier, the dispersal of regiments across Northern Ireland, the poor training facilities, the rapid turnover in commanders, and the diversion of troops for use as laborers and headquarters guards meant that most of the infantry units arriving in Africa “were not prepared for combat service,” as a division history acknowledged. Like other regiments in the division, the 168th had a proud history, including five battle ribbons won in the Great War. But old ribbons would not take Algiers, nor infuse the men with combat experience, nor tell Bob Moore where he was.

Moore marched his two companies for more than a mile through vineyards and pine copses along the coastal hills before concluding that he was on the wrong road. He halted the men and ordered a countermarch, but the lieutenant at the head of the column failed to get word and instead continued unawares with a small vanguard. At mid-morning, 200 French colonial troops in a dozen trucks drove past Moore and his men, who stared wide-eyed and silent until the convoy disappeared from sight without a shot.

Hours after landing, footsore and thirsty, Moore heard gunfire in Lambiridi, just west of Algiers. A French machine gun on a knoll overlooking the road had killed two soldiers from Company G and wounded two others. Moore ordered three platoons to outflank the position; after a flurry of shots, seven enemy soldiers surrendered. French sniper bullets chewed into masonry walls and gouged divots from the pavement while children with outstretched palms begged cigarettes from American soldiers huddled in the doorways. Arabs in grimy robes and blackened sandals ambled across the square, acknowledging neither the snipers nor their American targets.

Moore hurried across an exposed intersection by mingling with the pedestrians, then tried to organize another flanking assault. He now commanded fragments from all three of the regiment’s battalions, including scores of stragglers. A second machine gun, firing from an upper floor, killed a lieutenant and wounded a captain. Moore worked his way along a hill overlooking the house. Squirming forward on his belly, he carefully rose up for a better look.

Suddenly he was on his back, stunned and confused. A private next to him was bleeding from a gunshot wound. Moore unsnapped his own chin strap and removed his helmet. A deep groove from a sniper’s bullet ran across the crest like a black scar. An inch lower and the first round ever fired at the Boy Captain would have killed him.

For the first time, Moore realized how frightened he was. Even nameless skirmishes could be lethal. “I thought the fight with the snipers was quite a battle,” he would say months later, after receiving the Silver Star for his valor at Lambiridi. “Now I know it was just a comic-opera war.” Still, good men lay as dead as if at Antietam or the Meuse-Argonne. When he had time to scribble a letter home, Moore wrote, “I got my helmet creased and set back on my butt before I realized that I was being shot at. Outside of that and being scared, I came out okay.”

In these first hours of the war, Moore had learned several vital lessons that thousands of other American soldiers were also learning around the rim of Africa. Some lessons were fundamental: stay low; take a few extra moments to study the map before setting off. But others involved the nature of combat and leadership: a realization that battlefields were inherently chaotic; that improvisation was a necessary virtue; that speed and stealth and firepower won small skirmishes as well as big battles; that every moment held risk and every man was mortal.

Moore shoved the helmet back onto his head and summoned a medic to attend the wounded private. The living awaited orders, and the white roofs of Algiers gleamed in the distance. Bob Moore, unhurt but now blooded, pressed on.

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