Military history

Battle for the Kasbah

OF the nine major landing sites chosen for TORCH in Algeria and Morocco, a beach that American planners had considered among the easiest was proving the most difficult. Eighty miles north of Casablanca, the seaside resort of Mehdia had confounded Brigadier General Lucian Truscott’s best efforts to subdue it. Landed badly but without serious opposition, Truscott’s 9,000 troops were supposed to capture the modern airfield at Port Lyautey, a few miles up the serpentine Sebou River. Once the field had fallen, aircraft from Gibraltar, and seventy-seven Army P-40s now parked on the escort carrier Chenango, would give Patton formidable airpower in Morocco—with bombs and fuel provided by the Contessa. Facing only 3,000 French defenders, Truscott had assured Mark Clark that the field “should not be too difficult to capture.” American troops believed the French defenders would be so cowed that they would greet the invaders “with brass bands,” as one sergeant put it. George Marshall told Eisenhower that he expected the airfield to fall by “noon Dog Day,” November 8. The assurance proved rash, and the expectations hollow.

“Beloved Wife,” Truscott had written from Norfolk two weeks earlier, “my greatest ambition is to justify your confidence and to deserve your love.” Sentimental and uxorious, he was also brusque, profane, and capable of hocking tobacco with the most unlettered private in the Army. “Polo games and wars aren’t won by gentlemen,” he said. “No sonofabitch, no commander.” Chesty and, at forty-seven, slightly stooped, he had protruding gray eyes, a moon face, and a voice as raspy as a wood file. His hands were huge, with fingers like tent pegs. He made his own polo mallets and trimmed his nails, obsessively, with a pocket knife. In uniform, Truscott was almost foppish: enameled helmet, silk scarf, red leather jacket, riding breeches. Before joining the cavalry in 1917, he had spent six years as a teacher in one-room schoolhouses. Until the disaster at Dieppe, which he attended as an American observer, he had never heard a shot fired in anger; he spent the grim return voyage to England belowdecks rolling cigarettes for the wounded from his plug of Bull Durham and wondering how to avoid a similar catastrophe in TORCH, for which he was a planner. “I am just a little worried about ability of Truscott,” Patton told his diary. “It may be nerves.”

Truscott’s opening gambit at Mehdia was to dispatch a pair of emissaries bearing a parchment scroll adorned with red ribbon and wax seals. In elegant calligraphy it urged the French commander to give up. Carrying this document were two aviators, Colonel Demas T. Craw, who had captained the West Point polo team for the class of 1924, and Major Pierpont M. Hamilton of Tuxedo, New York, a product of Groton, Harvard, and years of living in Paris as an international banker. In their finest pinks-and-greens the two men had hit the beach Sunday morning, boarded a jeep, and headed inland. Holding a French tricolor and the Stars and Stripes, Craw sat in front next to the driver. Hamilton, seated in back on an ammunition box, carried a white truce flag.

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The road from Mehdia angled past a sixteenth-century Portuguese fortress overlooking the turquoise Sebou where it emptied into the blue-black Atlantic. Already misnamed the Kasbah by the Americans, the citadel occupied the site of a Carthaginian trading post of the sixth century B.C. High-prowed fishing smacks bobbed at their moorings along the riverbank, nets draped over the gunwales to dry. Stork nests, intricately thatched and big as a queen’s bed, crowned utility poles along the road. Hamilton waved to Moroccan infantrymen, who waved back. A few artillery rounds burst in front and then behind. “Damn it,” Craw radioed, “we’re being shelled by both you and the French.” Three miles ahead, they spied the airfield’s concrete runway tucked into an oxbow bend of the Sebou. Beyond lay Port Lyautey.

The jeep climbed a low hill. Without warning, a machine gun stuttered twenty yards away. Craw slumped against the driver, instantly dead, his chest embroidered with bullets. A French lieutenant rushed forward, disarmed Hamilton and the driver, and then, leaving Craw folded in the jeep, delivered his prisoners to Colonel Jean Petit, commander of the 1st Regiment of Moroccan Tirailleurs. Petit expressed sympathy for the dead man, but less for the cause of French capitulation. “A decision of this kind,” he explained after studying the scroll, “is not within my jurisdiction.” While awaiting instructions from his superiors in Rabat, Petit offered Major Hamilton a private room and a seat in the officers’ mess, where the American spent the next three days thrilling his captors with vivid accounts of the secret bazooka and other new terrors in the invaders’ arsenal.

The failed diplomatic mission—for which Craw, posthumously, and Hamilton would win the Medal of Honor—proved Truscott’s last, best hope for a quick victory. Troops from the 60th Infantry closed on the Kasbah only to be driven back to the Mehdia lighthouse by wild shellfire from their own navy. With massive gates and masonry walls a yard thick, the fort proved impregnable. Eighty-five French soldiers inside at the time of the American landings were reinforced Sunday evening by 200 others, all peppering the invaders with fire from the battlements and rifle ports. The 60th Infantry commander ordered the Kasbah bypassed, then belatedly realized that nothing could move upriver until the fort’s big guns had been spiked. With more élan than sense, Truscott ordered the Kasbah taken “with cold steel” rather than reduced by U.S. warships. A French counterattack with three decrepit Renault tanks routed Truscott’s 2nd Battalion and scattered the Americans so effectively that company musters produced as few as thirty men. “Officers as well as men were absolutely dumbfounded at their first taste of battle,” one major later told the War Department.

Nightfall made matters worse. After repeatedly yelling “George!” at a suspicious shadow to no effect, a skittish sentry heaved a grenade and killed the lighthouse keeper’s donkey. Sepulchral moaning from a lagoon terrorized several tank crewmen until they realized it was the croaking of giant African toads. The French ambushed a patrol near a fish cannery along the river, wounding an officer and shooting six of his men in the head. Skittish troops on the beaches and ships shot down a twin-engine plane in a wild fusillade before realizing that it was a British aircraft dispatched from Gibraltar to monitor the landings. A burst of machine-gun fire from a jumpy American soldier missed Truscott’s head by an inch.

On the broad white shingle at Mehdia, Truscott cupped a cigarette in his big hands. He was violating his own blackout order but he desperately needed a smoke. The orange ember illuminated a face fissured with worry. “It came to me that even with hundreds all around me, I was utterly alone,” he later wrote of that “grim and lonely” Sunday night.

As far as I could see along the beach, there was chaos. Landing craft were beaching in the pounding surf, broaching to the waves, and spilling men and equipment into the water. Men wandered about aimlessly, hopelessly lost, calling to each other and for their units, swearing at each other and at nothing.

The troops ducked as one whenever a sniper round cracked overhead. Artillery crumped in the distance: certainly it was French; the Americans had been unable to get their guns ashore. The rising sea that tormented Patton at Fedala was worse here, with waves now cresting at fifteen feet. Ammunition, water, and half of Truscott’s troops remained on the ships. Wary of the Kasbah batteries, the Navy had moved its transports over the horizon—“halfway to Bermuda,” Truscott fumed—adding thirty miles to each round-trip for lighters and landing craft.

Like Patton, Truscott concluded that the landing would have been a “disaster against a well-armed enemy intent upon resistance.” So few American soldiers seemed to be shooting, and so many were willing to give up. Truscott suspected that peacetime training had taught them how to surrender better than how to fight. “One of the first lessons that battle impresses upon one,” he later observed, “is that no matter how large the force engaged, every battle is made up of small actions by individuals and small units.”

He drew on his cigarette and picked up a rifle. Every battle also was made up of small actions by generals. Bellowing over the crashing surf, Truscott ordered straggling infantrymen, stranded coxswains, and anyone else within earshot to grab a weapon and move inland. Here, he said, thrusting an abandoned bazooka at a Navy boat crew. The first tint of Monday’s dawn glowed in the east behind the Kasbah. There would be no Dieppe in Africa. Lucian Truscott would not permit it. No sonofabitch, no commander.

Yet only luck, valor, and French hesitation prevented the Americans at Mehdia from being thrown back into the Atlantic. Just seven of the fifty-four light tanks in Truscott’s armor battalion reached shore, but they were enough—with timely gunfire from the cruiser Savannah—to repulse French armored reinforcements heading toward Mehdia from Rabat on November 9. French Renaults and American Stuarts swapped fire at a hundred yards’ range, scooting up and back without exposing the thin armor on their flanks. When shell ejectors jammed, tank commanders tore out their fingernails clawing spent brass from the gun breeches. French bullets wedged between the turret and hull on several tanks, jamming the swivel mechanisms; crewmen leaped from their hatches and yanked out the slugs with pliers, as if extracting teeth. Navy pilots dropped fifty depth charges—designed to combat submarines—on French tanks and artillery.

By nightfall on November 9, the beachhead was no longer imperiled, although French snipers continued to kill men careless with their silhouettes. A U.S. infantry battalion that had been marooned on a beach far to the north hacked a trail through dense juniper to appear on the north bank of the Sebou across from the airfield. Stuart tanks approached Port Lyautey from the southwest. The night was “not a cheerful one,” Truscott later recalled, “although for me it was less grim and dismal than the night before.”

At first light on November 10, the U.S.S. Dallas approached the twin rock jetties bracketing the mouth of the Sebou. Seventy-five American commandos were aboard the World War I–era destroyer, whose stacks and superstructure had been whittled down to reduce her draft as she eased upriver to the airfield. At the helm was the former chief pilot of Port Lyautey, René Malvergne. A French patriot who had briefly been jailed for his Gaullist sympathies, Malvergne earlier in the year had been smuggled by the OSS to Tangier in a trailer pulled by a Chevrolet; every few miles the driver had stopped to hear Malvergne’s muffled assurances, “Tout va bien—pas trop de monoxide!” From Gibraltar, Malvergne had made his way to London—where he introduced himself at Allied headquarters as “Mr. Jones” and asked personally for Eisenhower—before being spirited to an OSS safe house in Washington, where he was known simply as the Shark. George Marshall had been furious upon learning of the escapade, and pointed out that Malvergne’s conspicuous absence from Port Lyautey would “rivet attention on this particular area.” Yet here he was, almost home, at the wheel of an American destroyer, wearing U.S. Army herringbone, and straining to recall the seasonal shift of sandbars in a treacherous pilotage he had not negotiated in many months.

Dallas yawed wildly against an ebb tide in violent rain that spattered the deck like gravel. Thirty-foot swells swept between the jetties, curling over the destroyer’s stern in great emerald tubes. Spindrift whipped past the bridge as Malvergne felt for the channel, narrowly missing the breakwater rocks. Seamen called the diminishing depths with a hand lead improvised from a steel shackle. The Sebou’s mucky bottom sucked at the destroyer’s hull, then abruptly held her fast near the cannery. Swells pounded Dallasfrom behind, and great splashes of turquoise blossomed around the ship as gunfire from the Kasbah began smacking into the water.

Malvergne ordered flank speed. Dallas’s propellers chopped at the river with such fury that her engine-room dials showed twenty-five knots when in fact she was barely creeping, her keel carving a trench in the silt. A mile upstream, the prow sliced through a cable boom stretched across the Sebou. The destroyer’s three-inch guns popped away at the Kasbah and French machine-gunners on the encroaching hills. Malvergne threaded a path between two scuttled steamers and traced the oxbow loop to the eastern flank of the runway. There, at 7:37 A.M., Dallas ran aground for good. The commandos launched their rubber boats, and within twenty minutes the airfield had been seized.

Two hours later, Truscott crouched in the shadow of the cannery below the Kasbah. He had captured the airfield, but the Mehdia garrison refused to capitulate. Another infantry assault on the fortress had been repulsed, then another, then two more. Over 200 wounded soldiers lay in aid stations near the beach, and dozens of dead lay in a makeshift morgue. All ship-to-shore movement had been halted by high seas, and water, ammunition, and medical supplies were now desperately short. Truscott was also running out of troops, and a message from Patton warned him that no reinforcements were available. A provisional assault company of cooks, clerks, and drivers met behind a dune for hasty instruction in how to use the Thompson submachine gun, then filtered into trenches north of the Mehdia lighthouse.

In the teeming rain, gunners wheeled a pair of 105mm howitzers up to the Kasbah walls and opened fire at point-blank range. The masonry yielded, but French counterattacks with grenades and machine-gun fire again drove the Americans back 200 yards. At 10:30 A.M., as Truscott scanned the enemy battlements with his field glasses, eight Navy dive-bombers appeared overhead. Howitzer gunners marked the targets with smoke shells, and moments later the Kasbah erupted in flame and dust.

“It was a beautiful sight for a soldier’s eyes,” Truscott later wrote. Whooping infantrymen boiled through the main gate and broken wall, chasing snipers through the labyrinthine fondouk with bayonets fixed, shoving grenades into firing ports at the commandant’s headquarters. Combat engineers forced the lower gate along the river, and the Kasbah surrendered. The garrison commander had been killed. More than 200 French troops emerged with their hands raised, and another 150 were captured in nearby trenches and mud huts. “The final assault,” an Army account acknowledged, “had touches of Beau Geste.”

Enemy resistance was broken, but sniping and sporadic shelling—including more than 200 high-explosive rounds from the Texas—continued until Tuesday evening. At 10:30 P.M., a French officer drove toward American lines in a staff car with a tricolor lashed to the radiator and a bugler repeatedly tooting “Cease Fire.” American sentries mistook the stirring call for “Charge” and opened fire, wounding the automobile grillwork but no passengers. After more hours of delay and confusion, Truscott received word at his command post on the beach that French commanders wanted to parley. A brief conference at the Kasbah, described in one account as “a brightly colored pageant of varied French and colonial uniforms, Arab costumes, and flags,” led to a formal cease-fire. French troops stacked arms and returned to their barracks. “Our parley,” Truscott reported, “ended with another interchange of stiff salutes.”

The three-day fight for Mehdia and Port Lyautey had cost seventy-nine American lives and 250 men wounded. The French, with pardonable imprecision, estimated their dead at 250 to 300. Colonel Craw and other fallen soldiers from both sides were buried together in a new cemetery on the bluff above the Sebou, a few yards from the Kasbah. Late on November 10, René Malvergne was ferried from the Dallas out to the Contessa for another run up the river. Scraping hard across the bar at the Sebou’s mouth, the scow sheared into the southern jetty with a grinding crash that seemed certain to detonate her 1,000 tons of munitions and fuel. Instead, Contessa simply settled in the mud, her bow plates crushed and the forward hold flooded, in under two minutes, with thirteen feet of water.

Both ship and pilot had come too far to give up now. Awaiting a rising tide, Malvergne swung Contessa’s bow downriver, rang up full steam astern, and backed up the river ten miles to the airfield. Unloading took three days. Malvergne returned home to his wife and children with a Silver Star on his chest.

In a final twist, of the seventy-seven P-40s launched from Chenango, one crashed into the sea, one vanished into the fog, and seventeen were damaged while landing at the hard-won Port Lyautey runway. Many of the mishaps reflected elementary pilot errors, which were attributed to “war hysteria.” None of the surviving planes saw action in TORCH.

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