Military history

“It’s All Over for Now”

GRAY with fatigue, Patton had returned to the Augusta in his crash boat to make final plans for the reduction of Casablanca. His struggles in climbing the boarding net so alarmed Hewitt that the admiral fell to his knees on the well deck and hauled Patton over the side. “Doctor, I think the general is very tired,” Hewitt told the ship’s surgeon. “I wish you would prescribe for him. You might prescribe for me, too.” The doctor measured out two bracing shots from a liquor bottle. Patton and Hewitt still addressed each other as “General” and “Admiral”—not until Sicily, nine months later, did they mutually agree to “George” and “Kent”—but this small episode, so charged with the stress and isolation of command, was another important moment in their ripening camraderie. Duly revived, they finished planning their battle, and Patton motored back to his army.

Hewitt resumed his station on the bridge on November 10 just as the mighty Jean Bart—considered hors de combat for the past two days—returned to life. French crewmen had secretly repaired her damaged turret but left the guns cockeyed as a ruse. An officer in the battleship’s cramped crow’s nest had been watching Augusta for hours, beckoning with a crooked finger and murmuring, “Come a little closer, come a little closer.” At 14,000 yards—eight miles—Jean Bart opened with a two-gun salvo. A pair of orange geysers heaved sixty feet out of the sea, splattering those on Augusta’s bridge with dyed water.

Nine more salvos followed. The bridge rang up flank speed, hard right rudder, and smoke. Augusta fled like a goddess in her own fog bank, chased by shells that straddled the cruiser but failed to strike home. Ranger’s aircraft retaliated promptly with a barrage of thousand-pound bombs that gouged a ten-foot hole in Jean Bart’s main deck near the bow and blew a twenty-foot length from the stern. The flight leader radioed back to the carrier, “No more Jean Bart,” and this time it was true.

For Patton, enough was enough. Eisenhower had explicitly ordered that “no bombardment will be executed without prior authority from me,” but Patton—citing balky communications—intended to raze Casablanca without even notifying Gibraltar, much less awaiting permission. At his headquarters in Fedala, engineers put the final touches on plans to blow up aqueducts and power lines. Pilots studied aerial photos of their targets. Gunners built pyramids of extra ammunition. Infantrymen honed their bayonets and edged forward for an assault now fixed for 7:30 A.M. on Wednesday, November 11.

At two A.M., about the time that Truscott learned of Port Lyautey’s capitulation, a French car approached a 30th Infantry picket with the usual bragging bugle and a truce flag lit with a flashlight. Two French officers and four enlisted men carried a dispatch from General Noguès’s headquarters. At the Hotel Miramar, Patton rose, dressed, and marched through the double doors of a smoking room off the lobby. As later recounted by Patton’s aide Charles R. Codman, a French major wearing a black leather helmet and a khaki uniform white with dust handed the general a flimsy onionskin. Patton sat on a banquette and by candlelight studied the scribbled message. More negotiating by Darlan and Clark in Algiers, Pétain in Vichy, and Noguès in Rabat appeared to have resulted in a cease-fire across North Africa. At any rate, the French army in Morocco had been ordered to stop fighting.

Patton looked at the major sitting rigid in a straightback chair. “Unless the French navy immediately signifies that it is bound by this ceasefire order,” he warned, “the attack on Casablanca jumps off as scheduled.” That gave the French three hours. Patton dismissed the officer and his delegation with a safe-conduct through American lines into Casablanca. “Staff wanted me to call off attack but I would not yet,” he wrote in his diary. “It was too late, and besides it is bad to change plans.”

At dawn, the guns were loaded and elevated, with fingers poised on triggers and firing keys. Navy dive-bombers vaulted from the Ranger and circled toward the city with full bomb racks. Hewitt dispatched a truculent if syntactically suspect message to Admiral Michelier, the Vichy naval chief: “Report whether you intend forcing me destroy your ship and shore installations and spill the blood of your people. The decision is your individual responsibility.”

At 6:40 A.M. the French reply reached Patton at the command post of the 3rd Infantry Division. He ordered his deputy over a walkie-talkie, “Call it off. The French navy has capitulated.” Then to Hewitt: “Urgent to Augusta. Cease fire immediately. Acknowledge immediately. Patton.” A Wildcat flight leader radioed, “Boys, it’s all over for now. Let’s go back.” The pilots jettisoned their bombs in the sea and returned to the carrier.

Franco-American amity—part of the natural order, in Yankee eyes—was quickly reestablished. The bloodletting of the past three days, if neither forgotten nor quite forgiven, was set aside, just as a marital indiscretion might be glossed over for the sake of the children. An unshaven American colonel toting a tommy gun and assorted pistols arrived at Admiralty headquarters, where a French officer threw up his hands in mock terror and cried, “Chicago, I give up!” The Americans claimed their dead from a French morgue and buried them on the beach in pits powdered with lime. Just past noon on November 11, Patton and Hewitt hosted a luncheon at a Fedala brasserie for their French counterparts, lubricating the pleasantries with Bordeaux and cognac.

At the Miramar later that afternoon, Noguès, Michelier, and other French commanders drove past the coconut palms and banana trees lining the driveway to find that Patton had posted a welcoming honor guard. In the smoking room he complimented his adversaries on their gallantry and proposed a gentlemen’s agreement under which French troops could keep their arms. Details of the cease-fire would be left to Eisenhower and Darlan in Algiers. Patton sealed the deal with a toast to “our future victory over a common enemy.”

“They drank $40 worth of champagne,” he later told Washington, “but it was worth it.” Hewitt shook Admiral Michelier’s outstretched hand and told him that the U.S. Navy, which had dumped 19,000 shells on Morocco in the past three days, regretted firing on the tricolor. “You had your orders and you carried them out. I had mine and I carried them out,” Michelier replied. “Now I am ready to cooperate in every way possible.”

The conquest of Morocco cost the United States more than 1,100 casualties: 337 killed, 637 wounded, 122 missing, and 71 captured. The Allies had secured an Atlantic base in Africa, strengthening the sea-lanes, tightening control of the Strait of Gibraltar, and discouraging any Axis expedition through Spain. “We are in Casa[blanca] and have the harbor and airport,” Patton told his diary on November 11. “To God be the praise.” In a letter to Eisenhower he added, “If you adhere to your plan things usually work for you.”

Press dispatches from Morocco, if sketchy and distorted, made Patton a national hero. The seventy-four-hour battle had given him a chance to display his most conspicuous command attributes: energy, will, a capacity to see the enemy’s perspective, and bloodlust. “Of course, as a Christian I was glad to avoid the further [ef]fusion of blood,” he wrote the secretary of war, Henry Stimson, “but as a soldier I would have given a good deal to have the fight go on.”

Yet Patton’s defects also were revealed: a wanton disregard of logistics; a childish propensity to feud with other services; an incapacity to empathize with frightened young soldiers; a willingness to disregard the spirit if not the letter of orders from his superiors; and an archaic tendency to assess his own generalship on the basis of personal courage under fire. He relied on charm and half-truth in explaining to Eisenhower his readiness to bombard Casablanca without authorization: “I cannot control interstellar space, and our radio simply would not work. The only person who lost by it was myself, since the press was probably unable to recount my heroic deeds.” But Patton was too discerning a professional soldier to be wholly satisfied. “Unfortunately I did not get a chance to distinguish myself except not to lay down a couple of times when we got strafed,” he wrote Bea.

Perhaps the shrewdest assessment came in Bea’s return letter, written on November 8: “I realize that there are months and perhaps years of waiting and anxiety ahead of me, yet today all I can think of is your triumph, and the thought that rings through my mind like a peal of bells is that the first jump is taken and you will never have to take it again.”

After leaving the Miramar late Wednesday afternoon, Hewitt returned to Augusta in a quandary. Fifteen transports and cargo ships remained in the vulnerable anchorage off Fedala. Although almost all Army troops had disembarked, three-quarters of their supplies—11,000 tons—remained in the holds. The Army was pleading for food, fuel, medical supplies, tentage, everything. An obvious solution was to move the ships into Casablanca harbor for unloading; a staff officer reported to Hewitt with sketches and notes showing five berths available along the Jetée Transversale and room for at least ten more ships in various basins. But when Hewitt had asked Michelier at lunch about the port, the French admiral threw up his hands. “C’est un cimetière!” Herding the ships in at night among the submerged wrecks would be hazardous, Hewitt agreed. More to the point, the next convoy from Norfolk—with twenty-four ships and 32,000 soldiers—would arrive in two days, on November 13, with expectations of a safe harbor. The port was far too small to accommodate everyone, and the arriving ships were more precious since they still carried all of their troops and cargo.

And yet. Hewitt studied the secret intelligence message received that afternoon. An estimated fourteen German submarines were heading toward Casablanca, including an eight-boat wolfpack designated Schlagtot: “Death Blow.” “Go after them, full attack,” the U-boats had been ordered. “Let nothing hold you back.” All U.S. ships and aircraft had been alerted to the danger. A minefield was laid along the northeast flank of the transport anchorage despite a shortage of sea mines. Eleven destroyers patrolled the other approaches. The Army had been asked repeatedly to extinguish all lights in Casablanca because their glare silhouetted the ships against the coast.

“Good lads,” Hewitt often told his staff officers. “You make it so easy for me. All I have to do is decide.” Yet with all the factors carefully considered, this decision was difficult. Hewitt knew that detecting even a surfaced submarine was hard—many cloud shadows had been bombed and shelled in recent days. Spotting a “feather,” the thin wake made by an extended periscope, was virtually impossible at night. And killing submerged U-boats with depth charges was like trying to hit a fish with a stone. At sixP.M.Hewitt gathered his staff again on Augusta, then sent another message to Patton once more asking him to turn out the lights. All vessels would remain at anchorage overnight. He would revisit the issue in the morning.

Blackout drapes covered the tall windows of the Miramar’s dining room. Outside, the faint scent of bougainvillea sweetened the air. A sea breeze stirred the bamboo thickets that screened a croquet green from the beach casino. Patton and two dozen staff officers dined on duck, very credibly prepared by a French chef who had been informally conscripted into the American Army hours before. Many a glass of wine was raised to toast the coincident occasion of Patton’s fifty-seventh birthday, his triumph in Morocco, and the twenty-fourth anniversary of the armistice ending the Great War.

At 7:48 P.M., the festivities were interrupted by a muffled detonation that rattled the seaward windows. As Patton and his men hurried to the veranda or climbed five stories to the hotel roof, two more explosions carried across the water. Three miles off the beach, yellow flames licked from one ship; brilliant orange fireballs floated into the sky as stocks of gasoline and ammunition exploded. Two other vessels also appeared to be in distress. Frantic blinkering flashed from the signal lamps on two dozen ships in an arc stretching to the horizon. With field glasses it was possible to see men flailing in the water, backlit by fire. “That,” Patton’s chief engineer later recalled, “ended the party.”

The German submarine U-173 had slipped through the destroyer screen and sprayed half a dozen torpedoes at the concentrated American ships. Three vessels had been struck, each in the port side. Joseph Hewes sank by the bow in twenty-six minutes, taking her captain and several seamen to the bottom. An officer aboard the tanker Winooski had spotted a torpedo wake slide past his prow, then turned his head just in time to see a second torpedo burrow into the hull between the bridge and poopdeck house; the detonation wounded seven men and gashed a twenty-five-foot hole in a fuel tank that was fortunately empty and ballasted with seawater. The destroyer Hambleton, waiting to refuel, was struck in the forward engine room, four feet below the waterline. The blast killed twenty men and broke the back of the ship so completely that “you could see her working her bow and stern, which were no longer rigidly attached,” a witness reported. Survivors huddled on deck and sang “Don’t Give Up the Ship.” Another destroyer spottedU-173 making for the open sea just before 8:30. But, owing to momentary confusion over whether the submarine was in fact an American landing craft, the killer slipped away. (Pressing her luck, the U-boat would be trapped off Casablanca five days later and sunk by depth charges, with all fifty-seven hands lost.)

The “goosing” of three ships, in the Army’s impudent phrase, cost Hewitt a sleepless night. Red-eyed and rumpled, he convened his top commanders aboard Augusta early on Thursday, November 12, in the cramped cabin of his chief of staff. Two hours after the attack, he had sent a superfluous warning to all ships: “Be especially vigilant against Axis submarines.” Winooski had been righted with hard pumping, and the swayback Hambleton was towed to sanctuary in Casablanca harbor. But for the rest of the fleet the issues remained unchanged: Tens of thousands of additional soldiers were scheduled to arrive tomorrow in the second convoy, and there was no room in the harbor for both Hewitt’s original cargo ships and the newcomers.

Hewitt was furious. For months he had warned the Army that this follow-on convoy would arrive almost a week too early, putting itself and the invasion force at risk. But Patton and other generals had worn him down by insisting that more troops and cargo would be needed in Morocco immediately. Hewitt had finally concurred, “with extreme reluctance and misgivings.”

For more than an hour he reviewed his options. All I have to do is decide. He could move the invasion transports into Casablanca immediately and let the arriving convoy wait at sea. For a victorious fleet, the measure seemed defensive, even embarrassing, and it would imperil the newcomers. Hewitt was more tempted by a proposal to continue unloading by lighter and at Fedala’s tiny harbor during the day, repairing to the relative safety of the open sea at night and ceding Casablanca to the new arrivals. But that would add days to the unloading, and blue water was hardly a refuge: this very morning, fifty miles off the coast, Ranger had narrowly escaped an attack by U-boats.

Finally, he could continue unloading day and night at Fedala, and hope that last night’s attack had been a fluke. Hewitt’s transport commander, Captain Robert R. M. Emmet, argued loudly for this third option. The Navy’s primary obligation at Casablanca was to support the Army, Emmet insisted. Even with a cease-fire in place, Patton and his commanders howled at the Navy’s delays in unloading.

Hewitt slumped in a chair. Emmet’s arguments had force. Surely the Navy could protect itself. And if a ship was torpedoed close to shore, the chance of salvaging at least some cargo was better than if it was hit far out at sea.

Augusta would move into Casablanca and berth at the stinking phosphate pier. The rest of the fleet would remain off Fedala, unloading as fast as possible. The admiral dismissed his men and headed toward the bridge with a churning sense of unease. If ever he needed a bit more velvet, it was now. But Kent Hewitt had been at sea for too many years and was too fine a sailor to deceive himself. His velvet was gone.

As dusk sifted over Fedala, and Patton’s staff gathered at the Miramar for Thursday’s supper, Captain Ernst Kals eased U-130 down the Moroccan coast from the northeast in water so shallow the submarine’s hull scraped bottom. Kals knew the Americans well: he had won the Knight’s Cross after sinking nine ships in a two-week spree along the East Coast earlier in the year. U-130 slipped at dead slow between the beach and the American minefield. The unseen feather purled the sea like a shark’s fin. Shortly before six P.M. the U-boat fired four torpedoes from her bow tubes, then nimbly pirouetted to let fly a fifth from the stern tube.

Each hit home. Three laden transports—Hugh L. Scott, Edward Rutledge, and Tasker H. Bliss—burst into flame. The 12,000-ton Scott, struck twice on the starboard flank, heaved from the sea like a beast harpooned, then promptly settled aft with a 30-degree list. Flimsy wooden partitions exploded into a thousand arrows, impaling sailors in the mess hall and cooks in the galley. Concrete slabs installed to protect the bridge fell through the buckled deck and flattened the compartments below. Lights went dead. Flame loped down the starboard companionway, and oil sloshed along the canted passages so that sailors slipped and fell in a tangle. Boiler number two exploded, sluicing scalding water through the engine room; men who touched the glowing bulkheads drew back a palmful of blisters. Sailors dragged their buddies from the sick bay and freed the lone occupant of the brig. The shout “Abandon ship!” echoed above the tumult. Those still able scrambled over the side before Scott sank by the stern with a hiss.

Her two sisters fared no better. Rutledge, hit twice, immediately went dark and mute. Captain M. W. Hutchinson, Jr., slipped anchor in the futile hope that wind and tide would nudge the ship ashore. She burned like a furnace and sank stern first, precisely seventy-eight minutes after being torpedoed. Bliss lingered for hours, and a weird keening rose from her fiery hull, where nearly three dozen sailors were reduced to carbon ash. An officer on Augusta’s bridge watched the Bliss and murmured, ambiguously, “The damned fools, the damned fools.”

Hewitt’s intelligence officer handed him a handwritten message at 8:25 P.M.: “Rutledge sunk. Bliss burning. Scott listing and abandoned…. Search for survivors will continue all night.” Hewitt stared at the dispatch. He ordered a tug to tow Bliss into the shallows, but no tug was available. At 2:30 Friday morning the transport slid beneath the waves. A few russet puffs of smoke marked her descent.

Fifteen hundred survivors struggled to reach the beach. A flotilla of landing craft and French fishing smacks hauled in sailors coated with oil but for the whites of their eyes. Five hundred men required medical treatment, overwhelming doctors still busy from the previous night’s attack. A camel barn on the Fedala dock was converted into a triage center. In the drafty wooden casino outside the Miramar, more than 150 litters were wedged between the baccarat tables. Men with strips of skin hanging like bark from a gum tree wandered through the door to ask, politely, for morphine.

Surgeons operated by Signal Corps torches. Corpsmen fumbled by candlelight to set fractures and stanch wounds. Of 400 burn cases, one in four—Patton described them as “pieces of bacon”—required multiple blood plasma transfusions. Most of the precious 1,000 units rushed to the fleet at Norfolk in late October had been saved, and so, in consequence, were at least twenty lives. But critical medical equipment was missing, including vital pieces of anesthesia machines. And so were lives lost.

Friday’s dawn brought the flat African light and full illumination of the catastrophe. Wounded sailors sprawled in the pews of the Catholic church and on classroom floors. Barges ferried the worst cases to shipboard sick bays, where some died and some lived and some loitered in the netherworld. An unidentified sailor taken to the Leonard Wood, clothed only in third-degree burns, regained consciousness long enough to spell out, mysteriously, K-E-N-S-T-K, then slid into a coma and died three days later, known only to God.

Soldiers looking seaward were unsettled by the ships’ missing silhouettes, as if teeth had been knocked from a familiar smile. Hewitt soon ordered all surviving vessels away from the coast. A day later, five transports berthed in Casablanca harbor, where they finished unloading and took on a ballast of wounded men for the return trip to America. The approaching convoy was waved away; it steamed aimlessly and without incident here and there in the eastern Atlantic for five days until being summoned into Casablanca on November 18, the precise date Hewitt had proposed months earlier. U-130, which had sunk twenty-five Allied ships, escaped for four months. Then she was cornered off the Azores and destroyed with all hands.

On November 17 Hewitt and Augusta sailed for Norfolk. He would return in triumph to Hampton Roads, as he had after the Great White Fleet’s circumnavigation thirty-three years earlier, more convinced than ever that the world was round but imperfectly so. Yet a certain melancholy attended, fed by the suspicion that 140 men had forfeited their lives because, among a dozen vital decisions, he made one that was simply wrong. Hewitt would be back—for Sicily, Salerno, Anzio, southern France—a large figure in a large war. But that November night off the coast of Casablanca remained, forever, a small and tender scar on his strong sailor’s heart.

If the shooting between Anglo-Americans and Frenchmen had stopped, the political scuffling had not. The brief final act of Operation TORCH played out in Algiers, where the invasion ended as raggedly as it began.

General Clark’s arrest of Darlan was rescinded on November 11 when the admiral pledged his conversion to the Allied cause—again—after learning that ten German and six Italian divisions had invaded Vichy France. With an Allied army in North Africa, Hitler could not risk an exposed flank on the French Mediterranean, so Operation ANTON gobbled up Vichy in hours. Darlan telephoned French commanders in Tunisia—while Clark eavesdropped—and ordered them to resist any Axis intrusion. He also cabled the commander of the Vichy fleet at Toulon, Admiral Jean Laborde, and invited him to weigh anchor for French North Africa. Laborde loathed Darlan as only one old salt can detest another, and he replied with scatological concision: “Merde!”

However, Clark went to bed and enjoyed the deep slumber of self-approbation until five A.M. on November 12, when he was awakened and told that Darlan had reneged yet again. The order to Tunisian commanders had been suspended pending approval by General Noguès, whom the besieged Pétain had designated as his plenipotentiary in North Africa. A familiar scene followed in the St. Georges conference room: threats, table-thumping, bad French.

“Not once have you shown me that you are working in our interests!” Clark shouted at Darlan. “I’m sick and tired of the way you have been conducting yourself. I think you are weak.”

The admiral meticulously creased several strips of scrap paper, then folded them into pleasing shapes.

“I want to fight the Germans,” General Juin declared. “I am with you.”

“No. You’re not.”

“I am with you,” Juin repeated. “I’m not being treated right. This puts me in a very difficult spot.”

Darlan tore the paper into tiny pieces.

“I know it, but I’m in a worse way,” Clark said. “I am not sure who my friends are. I can’t afford to make mistakes.”

At noon on November 13, Eisenhower arrived from Gibraltar in hopes of breaking the impasse. Clark picked him up at Maison Blanche airfield in two commandeered French cars with tires so frayed the drivers were told not to exceed eight miles per hour. Even at that snail’s pace, Eisenhower was happy to escape, if only for a few hours, what he described as his “badly ventilated office six hundred feet underground.”

“We have had many hours of strain,” he had written Walter Bedell (Beetle) Smith two days earlier, “and the events through which we have passed will be classed as quite important.” If the assessment seemed dispassionate, nonchalance verging on apathy would be characteristic of Eisenhower after later battlefield victories, too. In part, he was looking ahead, determined “to rush pell mell to the east.” He had written Marshall of his “burning ambition” to “make the Allied governments an early present of Tunis and the French fleet” at Toulon. In part, he may have been emotionally distancing himself from the casualties for which he was, as commander-in-chief, inescapably responsible. The losses, he had told Churchill in a letter, were “insignificant compared to the advantages we have so far won.” Few commanders in this war could function without arriving at a sensibility in which thousands of dead and wounded men could be waved away as “insignificant.”

At the St. Georges, Clark and Robert Murphy recounted the latest developments: General Noguès had arrived from Morocco and promptly called General Giraud a coward and a liar; Noguès had then ceded his powers back to Darlan; orders to resist the Axis in Tunisia had been reinstated, but to uncertain effect; Clark had again threatened reprisals ranging from shackles to the scaffold. Yet, after hours of loud bickering among themselves, the French this morning had agreed to an arrangement that Clark believed might serve: Darlan would become high commissioner in French North Africa, with Giraud as chief of the French armed forces, Juin as army commander, and Noguès remaining as governor-general in Morocco.

Eisenhower sighed. These political machinations perplexed and annoyed him. “Do these men want to become marshals of a greater and more glorious France or do they want to sink into miserable oblivion?” he had asked Clark. In a message to Marshall, he was even blunter: “If these stupid French would only realize what side their bread is buttered on, what a chance they now have to execute a master stroke. They seem completely inert.” Still, the new agreement looked like a path out of this “maze of political and personal intrigue.” Eisenhower had intended, he told Clark, to “lay down the law with a bit of table pounding,” but now that appeared unnecessary.

In the hotel conference room, Darlan had exchanged his uniform for a three-piece civilian suit. He and the others stood when the Americans entered at two P.M. Eisenhower shook hands and after a few pleasantries uttered only eleven sentences, including: “What you propose is completely acceptable to me. From this day on, Admiral Darlan heads the French North African state. In this attitude I am supported by President Roosevelt…. We all must agree to put together all means to whip the Germans.” He shook hands again and marched from the room.

Before boarding the B-17 at Maison Blanche, Eisenhower fished out a five-pointed star from his pocket and pinned it next to the other two on Clark’s shoulder, making him a lieutenant general. “When you are away and out of touch,” he had told Clark two days before, “I feel like I’ve lost my right arm.”

Feeling expansive, Clark returned to the St. Georges and summoned reporters. “Now we can proceed in a business-like way,” he told them. “Things look good.”

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Sixty years after TORCH, a precise count of Allied casualties remains elusive. Official U.S. tallies, which clearly undercounted British losses, put the combined Anglo-American figure at 1,469, including 526 American dead. British figures, which include minor actions on November 12 and 13, calculate Allied losses at 2,225, including nearly 1,100 dead.

The number of French killed and wounded probably approached 3,000. In three days, Vichy forces in North Africa also lost more than half their tanks, armored cars, and airplanes—matériel so sorely missed in the weeks ahead that Eisenhower considered eighteen French battalions equivalent in combat power to a single American battalion. Allied commanders initially suppressed news regarding the intensity of the TORCH fighting so the French would not “remain embittered against us for having to fight them into submission.”

TORCH had lured more Frenchmen—including many who had been morally deranged by invasion, occupation, and partition—back to the side of the angels. But the naïveté of Eisenhower and his lieutenants was such that none foresaw the consequence of embracing Darlan, whose purported villainy had been relentlessly denounced by Allied leaders for two years. “It’s not very pretty,” Charles de Gaulle wrote in mid-November. “I think that before long the retching will take place.” American military officers who had spent the past two decades perfecting cavalry charges on windswept posts in the middle of nowhere could be pardoned for having limited political acuity. The truth was that a callow, clumsy army had arrived in North Africa with little notion of how to act as a world power. The balance of the campaign—indeed, the balance of the war—would require learning not only how to fight but how to rule. Eisenhower sensed it; he wrote Beetle Smith, “We are just started on a great venture.”

The war’s momentum was shifting to the Allies, but in mid-November 1942, few men could see how irrevocable, how tectonic that shift was. Churchill, who a month earlier had warned, “If TORCH fails then I’m done for,” assessed the moment most elegantly: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

As for combat, TORCH revealed profound shortcomings in leadership, tactics, equipment, martial élan, and common sense. Certain features of the invasion, such as amphibious assaults and attacks on an enemy’s flanks, would be polished by harsh experience and provide a template for Allied offensives throughout the war. But the U.S. Army was simply inept at combined arms—the essence of modern warfare, which requires skillful choreography of infantry, armor, artillery, airpower, and other combat forces. Most soldiers also remained wedged in the twilight between the “habits of peace and [the] ruthlessness of war.”

Worse yet, few realized it. Tens of thousands of American soldiers had heard the bullets sing, and any number believed, in George Washington’s fatuous phrase, that there was something charming in the sound. That was only because they had not heard many. Those who had seen American tank shells punch through the French Renaults swaggered through their bivouacs with helmets full of Algerian wine, crowing “Bring on the panzers!” Such confidence was so infectious that the British and American chiefs of staff suggested paring down the TORCH forces in order to undertake other Mediterranean adventures, such as an invasion of Sardinia. “For God’s sake,” Eisenhower replied, “let’s get one job done at a time.” But even the cautious commander felt a little cocky: the White House was told to expect the occupation of Tunis and Bizerte in December and the fall of Tripoli in late January.

They believed they had been blooded. They believed that overpowering the feeble French meant something. They believed in the righteousness of their cause, the inevitability of their victory, and the immortality of their young souls. And as they wheeled around to the east and pulled out their Michelin maps of Tunisia, they believed they had actually been to war.

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