Military history

A Blue Flag over Oran

EISENHOWER was about to get his wish.

American soldiers had converged on Oran all day Sunday, November 8, driving 9,000 French defenders into a bowl twenty miles in diameter. From the west, Ted Roosevelt and the 26th Infantry marched through Algerian villages given code names drawn from soldiers’ hometowns—Brooklyn, Brockton, Syracuse—along roads named for pastimes from a former life: Baseball, Golf, Lacrosse.

Terry Allen and a larger portion of his 1st Division descended on Oran from the sandstone hills above St. Cloud, a key crossroads east of the city, and the salt lakes farther south. Children in dirty kaftans shouted “Hi yo, Silver!” or flung stiff-arm Fascist salutes to liberators they presumed to be German. Veiled Berber women with indigo tattoos peered through casement shutters, and in cafés men wearing fezzes looked up from their tea glasses long enough to applaud the passing troops, African-style: arms extended, clapping hands hinged at the wrists, no pretense of sincerity. A war correspondent seeking adjectives to describe the locals settled on “scrofulous, unpicturesque, ophthalmic, lamentable.”

Exhausted soldiers who could elude their officers skulked into the underbrush; soon the thorn bushes themselves seemed to be snoring. The raspy trundle of artillery shells sometimes woke the men, and often did not. Other troops threw their shoulders behind farm carts used as caissons. Sweating like horses beneath the molten sun, they plodded toward the unseen city beyond the horizon. Abandoned cartridge belts and field jackets blazed a broad, sad trail all the way back to Arzew. Occasionally a wood-burning bus rattled past, carrying unshaven French prisoners to cages on the beach. A cook from the 18th Infantry commandeered a brown mule and a two-wheeled cart to haul his field kitchen. When the mule bolted past a column of hooting GIs toward French lines, the cook threw aside the useless reins, dropped the animal with a single rifle shot, and forced the men, hooting no longer, to haul the kitchen themselves.

A wounded soldier lay in the tall grass, waiting for an ambulance and pleading with passersby, “Don’t kick my legs, please don’t kick my legs.” During a mortar barrage, four soldiers from Company E of the 16th Infantry took cover in an irrigation ditch. When the shelling lifted, a lieutenant across the road noticed a luminous blue glow and found that a shell fragment had severed the power line overhead. The fallen wire had electrocuted all four men.

So this is war, soldiers told one another: misfortune at every bend in the road. Misery and murdered mules and sudden death in a ditch.

St. Cloud was a buff-tinted farm town of 3,500, surrounded by vineyards, with sturdy stone houses and—because by November grapevines had been trimmed to mere nubs—fields of fire extending half a mile in all directions. Straddling the main road to Oran from the east, St. Cloud had been reinforced with the 16th Tunisian Infantry Regiment, the 1st Battalion of the Foreign Legion, an artillery battalion, and paramilitary troops of the Service d’Ordre Légionnaire, French Fascists who modeled themselves on the German SS. American intelligence rated the defenders “second- or third-class fighting troops.” But before noon on November 8, Company C of Terry Allen’s 18th Infantry had been ambushed, driven off, then driven off again when it returned to St. Cloud with the bulk of the 1st Battalion.

At 3:30 P.M., the battalion attacked once more down the road from Renan, joined by the 2nd Battalion trying to outflank the defenders on the south. Long, smoky ribbons of French machine-gun fire lashed the grapevines, killing the Company A first sergeant with a bullet in the forehead and mortally wounding the commander in the throat. A clock in the stone steeple looming above St. Cloud tolled four o’clock. From the belfry a sniper’s orange muzzle flashes winked insolently. American .50-caliber bullets gnawed at the steeple and clanged off the bells. Discordant pealing carried across the tile rooftops.

Men from both U.S. battalions crawled on their bellies through the vineyards toward the whitewashed stone wall encircling the St. Cloud cemetery 200 yards south of town. French and American riflemen flitted among the tombs and obelisks like shades in the fading gray light. Bullets pinged off gravestones and chipped the wings of marble cherubim. Gunfire roared in the crypts.

Lieutenant Edward McGregor formed a skirmish line from Company B, blew three blasts on his whistle, then leaped the cemetery wall to lead a platoon rush on the town. Three men leaped with him; forty others cowered behind the wall. McGregor spun around and rallied the troops with a wild-eyed vow to shoot every shirker in the back. This time the platoon followed until a bullet ripped the face from the B Company commander. “Keep going, Mac,” the officer urged, and fell dead. McGregor and eight others were captured. St. Cloud was not.

Now French artillerymen opened with their field pieces. The barrage sent American soldiers by the score into full flight. Officers pursued them bellowing, “Stop! Stop!” A wounded lieutenant beside the road pleaded, “Please, please, don’t leave me.” He was left. Medics would find him at dawn, dead white and still alive, his shattered arm too far gone to save. French guns also sniffed out a battery from the 32nd Field Artillery, which had set up behind a ridge north of town. Shells screamed down as a terrified herd of goats stampeded through the howitzer positions twice, each time knocking American gunners to the ground.

Night slipped down on St. Cloud, transforming the farm town into a dark, sinister redoubt. Bodies lay like bloody rugs among the stubby vines. Gunfire rippled from nervous sentries, and it was worth a man’s life to move about before dawn.

At seven A.M., on November 9, the 18th Infantry attacked again, with nearly 7,000 troops. By noon the attack had failed, with heavy casualties. For Colonel Frank Greer, the regimental commander, St. Cloud had become a grudge fight. The entire Allied drive on Oran was stalled because of this town’s resistance. Greer stood on the concrete loading ramp of the winery that served as his command post, studying St. Cloud through field glasses. Half the church steeple was gone now, and with it the clock chimes. Palm trees had been sheared off mid-trunk, and yawning holes could be seen in several house roofs. A riderless black mount, wearing a French cavalry saddle and dragging its bridle, grazed at the edge of town. A dozen other horses lay dead, their legs in the air, like upended tables.

“I’m going to put a creeping artillery barrage through that town, starting at this end and working right over it,” Greer said. Two hundred shells had been fuzed and stacked at each battery; the barrage of 1,500 rounds would begin at one P.M., followed thirty minutes later by a three-battalion assault. Scouts reported that hundreds of women and children were in the town, huddling in shuttered rooms as the world detonated around them. Some had already been killed, and many more no doubt would die in the bombardment.

At that moment a hatless, weathered figure in shirtsleeves pulled up to the winery in a jeep. Terry Allen had spent the night in a Tourville schoolhouse, wedged into a child’s desk with a gasoline lantern illuminating photos of Pétain and colorful wall maps of France’s colonial empire. Battle reports indicated that Roosevelt’s men were on Djebel Murdjadjo, the high ground west of Oran; T.R. himself was said to be chasing French hussars with a carbine. Tafaraoui airfield had fallen quickly, and 5,000 troops from the 1st Armored Division, having skirted a French strong point at Misserrhin, had just captured La Sénia airfield. Little was known of the VILLAIN paratroopers or the RESERVIST raiders, but a Foreign Legion counterattack from Sidi Bel Abbès in the southern desert was collapsing. “Boys,” Allen said, “I’ve just sent a signal to the French to put in their first team.” To an exhausted rifle company huddled in a ditch, he urged, “There are a lot of good-looking girls in that town ready to welcome the liberating Americans.” Others he simply warned, “Take Oran or you don’t eat.”

Standing beneath a fig tree, a cigarette dangling from his lips, Allen swiveled his head from side to side to keep the smoke from his eyes. Greer explained his intentions; a soft hiss leaked from Allen’s cheeks as he studied St. Cloud in the middle distance. The division staff opposed Greer’s plan. It took little imagination to picture terrified civilians mumbling their Hail Marys and fingering their rosaries in preparation for the next world. Terry Allen himself had prayed this morning, as he did before every battle.

He studied the map and took a long, final gaze at St. Cloud. Allen had been in a dozen provincial French towns like it during the Great War. Among his idiosyncrasies was a disdain for all foreign names more complicated than “Paris,” and he routinely substituted “Whatever-the-Hell-They-Call-It” for any polysyllabic place. But in St. Cloud he could picture the greengrocer, the dressmaker’s shop, the scruffy taverns with their Dubonnet signs and bored waiters in cummerbunds.

He turned to Greer. “There will not be any general artillery concentration,” he said. “If we bombard the town and then fail to take it by attack, it would be disastrous.”

Obliterating a French town “would make a bad political impression,” he added. And it would use too much ammunition. “We don’t need the damned place anyway. We can bypass St. Cloud and take Oran by night maneuver.” Leave one battalion as a holding force, Allen said, then swing the rest of your men wide of the town and get them moving toward Oran. Greer saluted, disappointment etched on his face.

If the order to sidestep St. Cloud seems obvious in retrospect, at the time it was not. By leaving a large armed force in his rear, and suppressing the impulse of his men to avenge their losses and win the town at any cost, Allen had taken a calculated risk. He had calibrated political and battlefield variables to make the first singular tactical decision by an American general in the liberation of Europe.

“I just couldn’t do it,” Allen later mused. “Just couldn’t. There were civilians in that goddam place. I couldn’t blast hell outta all of them.”

The circumvention of St. Cloud and the capture of La Sénia unhinged French defenses. Oran was encircled. For the final assault on the city, Allen at 7:15 A.M. on November 10 dictated “field order No. 3,” which ended: “Nothing in hell must delay or stop this attack.”

The French in fact delayed them, at Arcole and then at St. Eugène, but not for long. When a young major complained that his tired, hungry men needed rest, the 16th Infantry commander rounded on him and snapped, “You will not talk that way. You will attack.” By dawn on November 10, following a night of sleet and wild wind, the converging U.S. forces faced little more than sniper fire. Lieutenant Colonel John Todd, known in the 1st Armored Division as Daddy Rabbit, was told, “Take your tanks in and mill around.” Shoving the road barricades aside, Todd’s tanks rolled down the Boulevard de Mascarad and reached the blue bight of Oran bay; they were too late to prevent the harbor sabotage that followed RESERVIST, but they thwarted a French scheme to flood the port with fuel oil and set it ablaze. Lieutenant Colonel John K. Waters, commander of another armored battalion (and Patton’s son-in-law), put on an intimidating show of force along Boulevard Paul Doumer—although the tanks seemed less fearsome after some ran out of gas near the cathedral.

Festive crowds filled the sidewalks, flashing Vs with their fingers and flinching at occasional sniper fire. The pretty girls Allen had promised blew kisses from balconies on Boulevard Joffre and dropped hibiscus garlands onto the tank turrets. A potbellied burgher with a black felt hat and a white flag rapped on a tank hull, introduced himself as Oran’s mayor, and offered to surrender his town. The 1st Battalion of the 6th Armored Infantry—sister unit of the battalion destroyed in RESERVIST—stormed the gates of Fort St. Philippe to free more than 500 Allied prisoners: paratroopers, pilots, British tars, and American infantrymen from Walney and Hartland. Liberators and liberated wept alike. French camp guards formed up, stacked arms, and marched smartly to confinement in their own barracks.

For more than five hours, St. Cloud resisted a final attack—sans artillery barrage—by the 1st Battalion of the 18th Infantry and Darby’s Ranger battalion. The town finally capitulated after house-to-house combat, yielding 400 French prisoners, fourteen artillery tubes, and twenty-three machine guns. No one counted the bodies. At Château-Neuf, where golden carp swam in a tinkling fountain amid syringa and pepper trees, General Robert Boisseau surrendered his Oran division at noon on Tuesday, November 10. A large blue pennant was hoisted above the city, the prearranged American signal of Oran’s fall.

Beyond the killed and wounded of RESERVIST, the Big Red One alone suffered more than 300 casualties at Oran. Allen and Roosevelt also relieved two of their division’s nine infantry battalion commanders for various inadequacies. The tally of French dead in defending the city was put at 165.

The liberators immediately set to work converting Oran into a vast supply depot. Quartermasters requisitioned the local bullring for a food warehouse, then realized that it reeked, indelibly, of bulls. The provost marshal built a fenced compound in which to quarantine 150 soldiers who had developed venereal disease during the passage from Britain. Troops named the camp Casanova Park; the barbed wire, one commander explained, was “to make them feel like heels.” Lieutenant Colonel Waters, showing the initiative that would one day lead him to four-star rank, liberated ten barrels of red wine from the Oran docks and filled the helmet of every soldier in his battalion. A tank destroyer unit threw a jolly party for Allen and Roosevelt, who upheld Fighting First tradition by getting pie-eyed drunk.

Almost 37,000 men now occupied a beachhead seventy miles wide and fifteen miles deep. With the surrender of Algiers, the capture of Oran gave the Allies virtual possession of Algeria, although Morocco was still contested and North African politics remained more tangled than ever. Still, the dispatch sent from Oran to Eisenhower at dusk on November 10 summed up the prevailing sentiment, however ephemeral: “Everything is rosy.” After three days of fretful confusion this news proved bracing. “Now we must get ports in shape and rush eastward without delay,” Eisenhower cabled London that same Tuesday.

“This business of battle is just rush and rush,” he added. “But I like it.”

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