Military history

On the Knees of the Gods

AS Hewitt’s Task Force 34 zigged and zagged toward Morocco with Patton’s legions aboard, more than 300 other ships bound for Algeria steamed from anchorages on the Clyde and along England’s west coast. For all these vessels to shoot the Strait of Gibraltar in sequence and arrive punctually at various Barbary coast beaches, the two-week voyage must, in Churchill’s phrase, “fit together like a jewelled bracelet.” The challenge had roused the Royal Navy to its keenest pitch of seamanship, and the convoys held such perfect alignment that “only the boiling white foam thrown up by the screws betrayed that the ships were moving.”

Eight distinct deception plans had been adopted by the Allies to suggest that this armada was bound for Scandinavia, or France, or the Middle East. The ploys included noisy searches for Norwegian currency; public lectures on frostbite; the conspicuous loading of cold-weather clothing; bulk purchases of French dictionaries; and instruction for army cooks on how to prepare rice dishes. A platoon of reporters was shunted to northern Scotland for ski and snowshoe training. Whatever their effect on Axis intelligence, these clues so confounded American troops that many simply concluded they were sailing for home, especially when the fleet first veered far west to evade U-boat wolfpacks before looping southeast toward the Mediterranean.

Like Hewitt’s ships, those loaded in Britain carried tens of thousands of tons of war supplies. The cargo manifests also included $500,000 worth of tea, hand tools for 5,000 North African natives, 390,000 pairs of socks, and $5 million in gold, packed in thirty small safes at a Bank of England vault in Threadneedle Street. Complementing all those French lexicons, a special glossary translated British into American, noting, for example, that an “accumulator” is a battery, that “indent” means requisition, and that a “dixie” is a bucket for brewing tea.

The loading at British ports made even the Hampton Roads ordeal seem a model of logistical simplicity. On September 8, Eisenhower had sent Washington a fifteen-page cable confessing that his quartermasters in Britain were profoundly confused. Roughly 260,000 tons of supplies, ammunition, and weapons—enough to fight for a month and a half—had been misplaced after arriving in the United Kingdom. Would the War Department consider sending a duplicate shipment? The cable explained that the American system for marking and dispatching the cargo was poor—one U.S. Army regiment and its kit arrived in England on fifty-five different ships—and British warehouse procedures worse. Pilferage topped 20 percent, and many crates were buried beyond retrieval in a thousand dockside sheds. Eisenhower, not as embarrassed as perhaps he should have been, also asked that, as long as Army logisticians were rummaging about, would they please send various additional items, including barber chairs and a “bullet-proof, seven-passenger automobile of normal appearance.”

The cable stirred grave doubts about Eisenhower’s management acumen among the few senior officers permitted to see it. Both he and Patton seemed to be improvising to an alarming extent. A tart message from the War Department to London in October noted, “It appears that we have shipped all items at least twice and most items three times.” But with TORCH on the tightest of schedules, logisticians had little recourse. By October 16, another 186,000 tons had been shipped across the Atlantic—and 11 million rounds of ammunition were borrowed from the British. Much of this cargo was now Africa-bound.

Few of the 72,000 troops embarked in Britain knew or cared about these travails. Outnumbering their British comrades two to one, the Americans were mostly drawn from three divisions staging in England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland: the 1st Infantry, the 1st Armored, and the 34th Infantry. After a few days at sea, convoy life took on a monotony only partly relieved by topside boxing matches in makeshift rings, where pugilists in sleeveless shirts pummeled one another into insensibility. An Army booklet, “What to Do Aboard a Transport,” contained sections on “seasickness, cold, and balance” and “malaria and other plagues.” An equally dispiriting essay, on “mental matters,” warned, “One of the deep-down urges that must be controlled is that of sex”—advice that failed to curb the troops’ endless reliving of amorous conquests, real and imagined. (Belfast’s Belgravia Hotel, dubbed the Belgravia Riding Academy, was a favorite fantasy site of the 34th Division.) The mandatory “short-arm inspections” for venereal disease gave many a Lothario his comeuppance.

Regimental bands organized afternoon concerts of college fight songs and Sousa marches, always ending with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “God Save the King,” and the “Marseillaise,” in rotating order. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders marched fore and aft aboard the Cathay, loudly accompanied by bagpipers; although all soldiers had been ordered to remove their unit insignia, it was widely agreed that any potential enemy should know that Highland troops were afoot. Yanks with guitars or harmonicas played “Marching Through Georgia” or a ribald ballad about the medically exempt called “4-F Charley.” For their part, Tommies sang, “There’ll be no promotion this side of the ocean / Fuck them all, fuck them all, fuck them all.” More refined entertainment was provided 34th Division troops on Otranto by a soldier-thespian who delivered soliloquies from Hamlet over the ship’s public address system.

For the officers, the voyage was weirdly languorous, as if they were going to war on a Cunard cruise. Stewards awakened them with cups of tea each morning. Waiters posted printed menus in the dining rooms before every meal. An American officer on theDurban Castle later recalled, “Blouses were worn for dinner, [with] coffee in the lounge afterwards.” Slender Indian cabin boys in black-and-white livery filled the tubs with hot seawater each evening and asked, “Bath, sahib?” On the Monarch of Bermuda,Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., assistant commander of the 1st Infantry Division, entertained his staff officers by reciting long passages of Kipling from memory after they challenged him with a succession of first lines. He further cheered the men by observing that the division’s headquarters ship, several hundred yards abaft, appeared to be rolling twice as much as the Monarch. “Cleared for strange ports—that’s what we are,” Roosevelt wrote to his wife on October 26. “Here I am off again on the great adventure.”

Below the waterline, in the troop holds known as Torpedo Heaven, the adventure seemed less thrilling. The stench of sweat, oil, and wool blankets filled the nostrils, while the ear heard an incessant clicking of dice and snoring so loud it was likened to the ripping of branches from a tree. Bunks on some tubs were stacked six high; a soldier in one top berth passed the time by penciling poetry on the steel overhead—a few inches above his nose—and sketching tourist maps of his native Philadelphia. To preserve the blackout, hatches had to be closed at night; the air grew so foul that some Coldstream Guards rigged a canvas airshaft, to little avail. Amid heavy seas mid-voyage, the large drums for the use of seasick soldiers slid across the deck with unpleasant splashings. Mess kits, washed in seawater, produced mass dysentery. Long queues formed at the sick bays and heads, and abject soldiers lined the rails.

Troops caught nibbling their emergency D-ration chocolate bars were dubbed Chocolate Soldiers and punished by forfeiting two meals. This was a happy penance. The galleys served so much fatty mutton that derisive bleating could be heard throughout the convoy and the 13th Armored Regiment proposed a new battle cry: “Baaa!” Crunchy raisins in the bread proved to be weevils; soldiers learned to hold up slices to the light, as if candling eggs. The 1st Infantry Division on Reine de Pacifico organized troop details to sift flour through mesh screens in a search for insects. Wormy meat aboard the Keren so provoked 34th Division soldiers that officers were dispatched to keep order in the mess hall. When soldiers aboard Letitia challenged the culinary honor of one French cook, he “became quite wild and threatened to jump overboard.”

Morale suffered as much as stomachs. Relations between the cousins grew testy. Yanks resented the British food, if not the war itself. Tommies, who had long been entitled to rum rations, were shocked to get nothing stronger than ginger ale aboard ship. To monitor morale, American censors collected excerpts from more than eight thousand letters home: “The British are nothing but sorry sons of bitches, feed us stuff a hog wouldn’t eat,” one disgruntled soldier wrote. Another confided: “Don’t mind my continual bitching. It’s only that I hate myself & hate this life & I’m sick of it all.”

“To make a good army out of the best men will take three years,” Sylvanus Thayer, father of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, concluded in the early nineteenth century. Most American soldiers bound for Africa in October 1942 had been in the Army for less than three years, some for less than three months. They were fine men, but not yet a good army. Indeed, they were not an army at all, but a hodgepodge of units cobbled together after the decision to launch TORCH. Mighty hosts are rarely made from expedients.

The 1st Armored Division—formed in 1940 and known as Old Ironsides—was a case in point. More than half its strength had been left behind in Britain for a later convoy. Most of the division’s medium tanks had also remained behind, after they proved a couple of inches too big for the bow openings on the only landing ships available. Instead, the crews manned light tanks, with a puny 37mm gun, and some units still carried equipment from horse cavalry days. Even before crossing the Atlantic to Northern Ireland earlier in the year, Old Ironsides had been dislocated by frequent moves. Mackerel fishing in the Bay of Dundrum and fresh lobsters at fifty cents apiece were pleasant enough, but training on Britain’s narrow lanes and stone-fence fields was limited. (British officers trailed the American tanks and paid local farmers a shilling for each sixteen feet of fence destroyed.) Many of the division’s best soldiers volunteered for new Ranger, paratrooper, and commando units, to be sometimes replaced by men of lesser mettle with no armor training. Some crews had fired as few as three tank rounds. The War Department had long assumed that the division was destined for combat in northern Europe, and little thought was given to other possible battlefields. Old Ironsides, the only American tank division to see desert combat in World War II, was the only one to get no desert training. Hamilton H. Howze, the 1st Armored operations officer and a future four-star general, later asserted, “None of the division was worth a damn.”

This harsh secret, suspected by few and believed by fewer, was equally true of other units. The 34th Infantry merits particular scrutiny because it had been the first American division dispatched to the European theater and because the division’s saga, in North Africa and beyond, would embody the tribulations and triumphs of the U.S. Army as fully as any of the eighty-nine divisions ultimately mustered in World War II.

Twenty months earlier, the 34th had existed only in principle, as regiments of the Iowa National Guard and sister Guard units from Minnesota. Guardsmen in peacetime met once a week, usually on Monday evenings. For two hours of close-order drill they earned a dollar. Training in the art of war was limited to bayonet assaults against a football goalpost and skirmishes across the town square, where platoons practiced out-flanking the local Civil War monument. Training in more sophisticated martial skills was limited to a couple weeks of summer camp. Troops were pressed into civil service for floods, or harvests, or strike-breaking at the Swift meatpacking plant in Sioux City, where Guardsmen in 1938 had pierced the workers’ cordon with a flying wedge before setting up their machine guns on a loading dock. That was the closest to combat most had ever come.

On February 10, 1941, after nine false alarms, the War Department federalized the Iowa and Minnesota regiments to form the 34th Division. It was among the last of eighteen Guard divisions swept into the Army under the congressional act that limited Guardsmen to a year of service in defense of the western hemisphere. Regiments staged hasty recruiting drives to fill out their ranks before heading to Louisiana for further training. The 151st Field Artillery, headquartered in Minneapolis, offered new recruits $21 a month and a chance to “go south with the Gopher Gunners.” Those who signed up gathered on the balcony of the state armory, where a Guard major general told them, “I hope you return with Hitler and Mussolini on your shield”—disconcerting words to troops who had enlisted for twelve months of homeland defense. Many preferred to heed President Roosevelt, who had promised a crowd in Boston, “I have said this before but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into foreign wars.” Newspaper editorials across the Midwest caught the same spirit of denial. “World War II is a battle of airplanes and naval units,” the Daily Freeman Journal of Webster City, Iowa, intoned on February 27, 1941. “No one expects the United States Infantry to leave the borders of the United States, even if this country should get into war.”

Ten months later, war came, and not the pleasant war that required no infantrymen. The 34th Division was rushed to Britain in January 1942 as a symbol of American commitment to the Allied cause. In Britain, the troops unloaded supplies and guarded various headquarters, with little opportunity for garrison soldiers to become combat killers. The division missed large-scale maneuvers in Louisiana and the Carolinas that benefited many other U.S. units. As with the 1st Armored, hundreds of the division’s best men left to form other units; the new 1st Ranger Battalion had been carved mostly from the 34th Division. With the decision to undertake TORCH, the 34th—already in Britain and thus deemed available even if ill-prepared—was consigned to Algeria. The lower ranks were still flush with boys from Iowa and Minnesota, but not the division’s officer cadre: thanks to a general purge of National Guard officers from the Army, the 34th retained few of the leaders who had led them out of the Midwest. Once begun, the turmoil snowballed. In the past year alone, for example, the officers in the division’s 168th Infantry Regiment had been cashiered almost wholesale three times.

Among those who survived the purges was an engaging citizen-soldier named Robert R. Moore. Now aboard the Keren, Moore had spent the days since sailing from Britain quelling mutiny in the mess hall and keeping his men occupied with calisthenics and busywork. Of average height, with a broad Irish face and a toothy grin, Moore had gray eyes and a forelock that hung from his crown like a pelt. He hailed from the southwest Iowa town of Villisca, population 2,011, where he owned the local drugstore, a homey place with a striped retractable awning and Meadow Gold ice cream signs in the window. Moore had joined the Iowa Guard in 1922 at the age of seventeen, and six years later took command of Company F of the 168th Infantry’s 2nd Battalion. Known as Cap’n Bob or the Boy Captain, Moore was obstinate, charming, and unsparing, purging the company of those he deemed “no-accounts” and working hard to prepare his Guardsmen for the war no one expected to fight.

Fourteen years later, Bob Moore was thirty-seven. No longer a boy, he was also no longer a captain, having been promoted to major and appointed executive officer—second in command—of the 2nd Battalion. At night on the Keren, in his crowded cabin or by moonlight on the weather deck, Moore scribbled letters home and thought often of the last days in Iowa, in February 1941, as the regiment had prepared to leave for what everyone believed was a year’s training. Those days were the benchmark against which all subsequent progress could be measured in the transmutation of ordinary American boys into troops capable of crushing the Third Reich. Moore remembered how the men had plucked the brass “Iowa” insignia from their uniforms and replaced it with a brass “U.S.” He still had the letter he had sent to the 114 men in Company F, ordering them to report to the Villisca armory with “3 suits of underwear (either long or short, whichever you wear); 6 handkerchefs; 6 pair of socks (no silk); 1 white shirt (if you have one. It is not necessary, however).” For three weeks they had practiced the manual of arms in the same soup-bowl helmets their fathers had worn at the Meuse-Argonne, with the same Springfield bolt-action rifles. They pitched tents on the town square, grousing about their four-buckle shoes, which they swore the Army had deliberately designed to be an inch shorter than the average depth of mud; then they ate chicken-fried steak in the Presbyterian church basement. The Methodists organized a town banquet honoring the departing warriors with roast turkey served by home economics students in red, white, and blue uniforms. The after-supper program included a solo, “If I’m Not at the Roll Call,” and a reading of “Old Glory” by Miss Eva Arbuckle. A local booster supplied a tune with these encouraging lyrics: “The boys are okay, you need have no fears / For they’ve drilled each week for the last three years.” The splendid evening ended with the townfolk on their feet singing “God Bless America,” followed by the mournful notes of “Taps” from the company bugler.

Then the time had come to leave, and in thirty-two Iowa towns during the first week of March 1941 the troops gathered at their armories while citizens lined the streets leading to the train depots. Aging veterans of the Great War, their shadows stretching long and blue across the snow, stamped their frozen feet and reminisced about their own call to the colors nearly a quarter century before. In Des Moines, a live radio broadcast covered the progress of 600 men of the 168th Infantry from East First Street across the Grand Avenue Bridge to Union Station. When the band launched into Sousa’s “Field Artillery March,” a haunting anthem of World War I, a mother marching with her son had shrieked, “Those bastards! They promised they’d never play that again!” At Clarinda, the high school band played “God Be with You Until We Meet Again” as the antitank company boarded the Burlington special. At Red Oak, where officers from Company M had urged mothers to stay home and “avoid any emotional display as the men leave for their year’s training,” scores of tearful mothers thronged the platform, clinging to their sons in a last embrace.

And in Villisca, on March 2, cars lined the village square and 1,500 people spilled from the little depot into the adjacent streets. “Most cars I ever saw in Villisca on Sunday morning,” said the graybeards, before launching into another account of the departure of ’17. Shortly before eight A.M., someone spotted the flash of the drum majorette’s baton on Third Avenue. “Here they come!” the crowd murmured. Behind the Company F guidon, Bob Moore led his men across the viaduct in perfect march step. At the station, he commanded them to halt and fall out for final hugs and handshakes and murmured words of reassurance no one quite believed. An airplane circled overhead. “There’s a German bomber!” a prankster shouted. A nervous titter rippled through the crowd. Then the fatal order was given, and the men disentangled themselves to heave their packs into the coaches, blowing kisses through the windows. With a shudder, the train lurched forward, and a great cry formed in the lungs of those standing on the platform, a roar of pride and hope and dread of all that was yet to come.

The boys are okay, you need have no fears. Eighty-seven weeks had passed since that moment, far short of the three years Sylvanus Thayer deemed necessary to make a good army from the best men. Bob Moore knew he was a better officer now, and that his men were better soldiers. But whether the division was worth a damn remained to be seen.

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As the convoy neared the Mediterranean in early November, the men finally learned their destination: Algeria. Grumbling subsided. A new sense of mission obtained as the troops realized they were soon to attempt the most daring amphibious operation in the history of warfare.

“Everyone was excited and trying to be calm,” one private wrote. Someone from the 1st Ranger Battalion on H.M.S. Ulster Monarch mistook two frolicking porpoises for torpedoes and a brief, if intense panic ensued. Francophone officers in the 1st Infantry Division offered French lessons, only to emerge from their wardroom classes shrouded in chalk dust, with expressions of despair. American soldiers in yellow Mae Wests did jumping jacks on deck while chanting, “Nous sommes soldats américains, nous sommes vos amis.” To obscure the British role in TORCH, each Tommy sewed an American flag on his sleeve. “Long as it saves lives we don’t care if we wear the bloody Chinese flag,” a British officer said. A newly uncrated fifteen-page pamphlet advised, “Never smoke or spit in front of a mosque” and “When you see grown men walking hand in hand, ignore it. They are not queer.” Repeated lectures stressed such respect for Arab dignity that many GIs were said to think of the North Africans as the “First Families of Virginia, in bathrobes.”

Shortly after sunset on November 5, the convoy began to swing east, past the Pillars of Hercules. Soon the fleet would split apart, with 33,000 soldiers bound for Algiers and 39,000 for Oran. Wisps of mist drifted across the forecastles. Anti-aircraft gunners flipped up the collars on their peacoats, scanning a sky teeming with stars but still empty of enemy planes. Gibraltar loomed off the port bow. The lights of Algeciras, on the Spanish coast to the north, and Ceuta, in Spanish Morocco to the south, brought thousands of men on deck. Most had not seen a city illuminated at night in months or even years; the vision made them yearn for home and peace.

“The die is cast,” Ted Roosevelt wrote his wife, “and the result is on the knees of the gods.”

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