Military history


“In the Night, All Cats Are Grey”

TWO hundred and thirty nautical miles southeast of Gibraltar, Oran perched above the sea, a splinter of Europe cast onto the African shore. Of the 200,000 residents, three-quarters were European, and the town was believed to have been founded in the tenth century by Moorish merchants from southern Spain. Sacked, rebuilt, and sacked again, Oran eventually found enduring prosperity in piracy; ransom paid for Christian slaves had built the Grand Mosque. Even with its corsairs long gone, the seaport remained, after Algiers, the greatest on the old Pirate Coast. Immense barrels of red wine and tangerine crates by the thousands awaited export on the docks, where white letters painted on a jetty proclaimed Marshal Pétain’s inane slogan: “Travail, Famille, Patrie.” A greasy, swashbuckling ambience pervaded the port’s many grogshops. Quays and breakwaters shaped the busy harbor into a narrow rectangle 1½ miles long, overwatched by forts and shore batteries that swept the sea to the horizon and made Oran among the most ferociously defended ports in the Mediterranean.

Here the Allies had chosen to begin their invasion of North Africa, with a frontal assault by two flimsy Coast Guard cutters and half an American battalion. While Kent Hewitt’s Task Force 34 approached the Moroccan coast, the fleet from Britain had split. Half had turned toward three invasion beaches around Algiers, while the other half steamed for three beaches around Oran. Since the reaction of French defenders in Africa remained uncertain, in both Morocco and Algeria quick success for the Allies required that the ports be seized to expedite the landing of men and supplies. Oran was considered so vital that Eisenhower personally had approved a proposal to take the docks in a bold coup de main before dawn on November 8, 1942.

The plan was British. Concocted in August and code-named RESERVIST, the attack—similar to a successful British operation six months earlier against Vichy forces in Madagascar—was designed to forestall the sabotage of Oran’s port. British intelligence estimated that French sailors would need only three hours to scuttle all merchant ships at their quays, and another twelve to sink the huge floating dock across from the harbor entrance. To encourage a friendly reception from Anglophobic defenders, the British also proposed using mostly American troops aboard two Great Lakes cutters. Once used to chase rum-runners, the boats had been deeded to the Royal Navy under Lend-Lease and renamed H.M.S. Walney and H.M.S. Hartland. How French gunners would recognize the American complexion of the assault in utter darkness was never clarified, notwithstanding Churchill’s warning that “in the night, all cats are grey.” Each cutter—250 feet long and built to withstand North Atlantic storms but not shell fire—was fitted with iron plating around the wheelhouse and lower bridge. Code words drawn from an exotic palette were assigned to various docks, barracks, and other objectives to be seized: Magenta, Lemon, Claret, Fawn, Heliotrope, and Scarlet.

To command RESERVIST, the British chose a voluble fifty-three-year-old salt named Frederick Thornton Peters. Thin lipped, with arching half-moon eyebrows, Captain Peters had returned to the Royal Navy in 1939 following a twenty-year hiatus. After commanding a destroyer flotilla on convoy duty, he headed a training school for intelligence agents in Hertford; his students included Kim Philby and Guy Burgess, who would be notorious soon enough as British traitors. Peters razored his jowls so vigorously that they had a blood sheen. He favored slender black cheroots, preferably lit by a toady with a ready match. “Rain, darkness, and secrecy followed him,” one acquaintance wrote. Now glory was his goal. Peters meant not only to prevent sabotage of the port but also to capture the fortifications and accept Oran’s surrender. “This,” he confided, “is the opportunity I have been waiting for.”

Peters worried the Americans, and so did his plan. Even Churchill acknowledged that the catastrophe at Dieppe in August had “showed how a frontal assault on a defended port was doomed to failure.” Naval wisdom since Admiral Horatio Nelson’s day held that “a ship’s a fool to fight a fort.” At a minimum, one British theorist argued, “defenders must be drenched with fire and reduced to a state of gibbering.” No drenching bombardment would precede RESERVIST, and no defenders would gibber. An intelligence report warned, “The number of naval vessels in the Oran harbor varies daily, and [they] are capable of delivering heavy, long range fire.” The timing of the attack caused particular consternation. Originally, RESERVIST was to coincide with the first beach landings east and west of Oran. But now the cutters were to enter the harbor two hours after the landings had started, allowing time to cancel the mission if the French appeared either particularly inflamed or conveniently supine. The Royal Navy insisted RESERVIST was “more a Trojan horse operation than an assault.”

Convinced that Peters planned to attack regardless of conditions ashore, the senior U.S. Navy officer in the Oran task force, Rear Admiral Andrew C. Bennett, protested to Eisenhower. “If determined resistance is met from the French navy, which seems to be the general opinion, it is believed that this small force will be wiped out,” Bennett wrote on October 17. “If resistance is determined, then I am convinced that five times the number of troops would be insufficient.” RESERVIST was “suicidal and absolutely unsound.”

Another American admiral working in London, Bernhard H. Bieri, also protested. But Eisenhower felt obliged in the interests of Allied harmony to heed the British, particularly the four-star admiral Bertram H. Ramsay. “I can’t take your advice on this thing,” Eisenhower told Bieri. “I have to get my advice from Ramsay.” Bieri then approached Ramsay, who replied, “If it doesn’t do anything else, it’s good for the spirit of the people to carry out one of these operations. If successful, it’s a wonderful boost for morale.” Further objection from Major General Orlando Ward, whose 1st Armored Division was to provide the troops for RESERVIST, brought only a rebuke from Mark Clark, who had become an enthusiast. “If these craft are fired on by coast defenses, they are to retire,” Clark assured Eisenhower on October 13. Ward’s misgivings persisted, but, he wrote a subordinate, “My conscience is clear in this matter.”

The honor of storming Oran port went to Ward’s 3rd Battalion of the 6th Armored Infantry Regiment. First organized in 1789, the 6th Infantry carried battle streamers from Chapultepec and Chancellorsville, San Juan Hill and Saint-Mihiel. The regimental rolls had included Jefferson Davis, Zachary Taylor, and a particularly gallant commander mortally wounded while fighting the Seminoles in a Florida swamp on Christmas Day 1837. “Keep steady, men,” he advised before expiring. “Charge the hummock.” The current 3rd Battalion commander was a thirty-one-year-old Floridian named George F. Marshall. A West Pointer whose domed forehead crowned a long face and a strong jaw, Marshall had served in the Philippine Scouts and married the daughter of an Army doctor. He had jumped from captain to lieutenant colonel in recent months. If he had doubts about RESERVIST, he kept them private: the mission, he told a division staff officer, was “the finest assignment” possible. He would charge the hummock.

After a few days’ training in Britain with grappling hooks and boarding ladders, Marshall and 392 of his men—all that the cutters could carry—sailed to Gibraltar on a Royal Navy cruiser. Arriving on November 5, in time to witness the landing of Eisenhower and his staff aboard the B-17s, the men were ferried to the Walney and Hartland, which had sailed separately from Northern Ireland. They joined antisabotage specialists, including twenty-six U.S. Navy officers and seamen, six U.S. Marines, fifty-two Royal Navy officers and ratings, and the cutters’ British crews. At noon on November 7, the enlisted men and junior officers learned their destination.

The overloaded cutters wallowed so badly during the short trip across the Mediterranean that soup sloshed from the mess bowls. Neither Peters nor Marshall knew that in Oran a coup organized by Robert Murphy’s Twelve Apostles and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)—the American spy agency—was collapsing. Although a plucky cabal of royalists, Jews, Freemasons, and Communists remained eager to seize the port and other installations, a key conspirator in the army high command had lost his nerve. A coded alert sent to Gibraltar from a secret radio transmitter in Oran—“Expect resistance everywhere”—was not relayed to the Allied task force.

Each cutter flew an American flag the size of a tablecloth. Both boats also hoisted the White Ensign, emblem of the Royal Navy. The British crews had insisted on sailing under their own flag, deception be damned. Peters met his fellow officers for a final briefing in the Walney wardroom. “I think,” he said, “we’ve got a good chance of carrying out our mission without firing a shot.”

At one minute past midnight on November 8, the cutters’ crews took battle stations. Tars stacked extra ammunition in the quarterdeck lockers and the laundry, close to the guns. Scrambling nets were draped over the bows. On Walney’s darkened upper bridge, Lieutenant Paul E. A. Duncan of the Royal Navy stood in American battle dress with two pistols strapped low on his hips and a tommy gun clutched across his chest. He was Captain Peters’s linguist, and he practiced speaking French with an American accent, murmuring words he would soon bellow over the boat’s public address system.

With Hartland trailing 600 yards behind, Walney stalked the Algerian coast at six knots, carving a brilliant green furrow in the phosphorescent sea. Colonel Marshall’s men waited on the mess deck below, sipping coffee and listening to the water hiss along the hull. Physician’s assistants spread white sheets over makeshift operating tables. Among them was Marvin P. Clemons, a former coal mine brakeman from Eccles, West Virginia. The battalion surgeon, Captain Robert Fuller, had recently busted his rambunctious assistant from sergeant to private, and Clemons planned to desert after the first payday in Oran. He helped Fuller lay out the surgical instruments, while privately plotting his flight.

Peters, Duncan, and fifteen other men crowded the bridge. Their faces were so blackened with camouflage that close friends could not recognize one another. The amber lights of Oran spilled down the dark hills, then abruptly, at 2:45 A.M., began to wink out. The distant moan of air raid sirens carried across the water. Walney’s skipper, Lieutenant Commander P. C. Meyrick, read aloud an equivocal radio message from the task force command ship, H.M.S. Largs: “No shooting thus far. Landings unopposed. Don’t start a fight unless you have to.” The men on the bridge laughed. Their disembodied cackling died away as a flare soared lazily above the docks off the starboard bow. For the first time, Peters saw that a double boom stretched 200 yards across the harbor mouth.

Meyrick ordered the helmsman to swing beneath the shadow of the cliffs east of the port. Two small motor launches that had accompanied the cutters from Gibraltar prepared to lay down a smoke screen. Walney’s propellers wrenched at the water as Meyrick came about at fifteen knots for a run at the booms. At a nod from Peters—it was precisely three A.M.—Duncan gripped the microphone and in his faux American accent bawled into the dark: “Ne tirez pas. Nous sommes vos amis. Ne tirez pas.”

Red tracers arced across the water and the stutter of a machine gun echoed from the Môle Ravin Blanc. Tongues of flame erupted from shore batteries at Fort Laumone above the harbor entrance. Violent splashes sounded from out on the dark water. “Lie flat for crash,” Meyrick ordered. “We are approaching boom.” With hardly a shudder, Walney sliced the first cable and then, “like a wire through cheese,” parted the string of coal barges that formed the second boom. She was in the harbor.

A splintering crash cut short all congratulatory banter. One of the motor launches, swerving to escape its own asphyxiating smoke, had collided with Walney. No one was injured, but the launch—her bow crushed—fled into the night. Smoke lay across the docks like the densest fog, billowing white beneath the many flares now burning over the length of the port. A searchlight beam swung wildly across the water. Small-arms fire crackled from the docks and jetties, muffled by the deeper roar of the Batterie de Gambetta. An explosion ripped through Walney’s bridge, and Lieutenant Duncan fell dead at the microphone, his plea for a cease-fire strangled in mid-sentence, his pistols unfired in their holsters.

Then, silence descended for a long minute as Walney crept past the Môle Ravin Blanc and the Môle Millerand toward her objectives at the harbor’s west end. French gunners swiveled their attention to Hartland, now five minutes behind and caught in the searchlight. On Walney’s mess deck, 200 American soldiers had listened to the battle strains above, first with enthusiasm, then with alarm as machine-gun bullets stippled the hull. Several men writhed in pain on the deck. Medics crouched over them and fumbled for morphine. Colonel Marshall darted among his troops, rallying them with stout words, then headed toward the forecastle. As planned, British tars lowered three canoes over the side. One had been holed; it sank immediately, spilling soldiers into the water. Antisabotage teams in the other two paddled furiously toward the docks in Basin Maroc.

As suddenly as it had descended, the lull lifted. Peering through the shattered windows of the bridge, Peters saw the French sloop La Surprise gathering speed dead ahead. He ordered Meyrick to swerve and ram the ship, but the French captain was quicker. The first salvo, at 300 yards, smashed the iron plate girdling Walney’s bridge, killing the helmsman and others around him. Blinded in the left eye, Peters shouted another rudder command, but he was issuing orders to dead men. Walney drifted past at four knots and French gunners raked her decks with another broadside from twenty-five yards, the terrible muzzles almost close enough to stroke.

Worse was to come. As the cutter passed Môle Jules Giraud, a shell detonated in the engine room, causing heavy casualties and wrecking the lubricating-oil tanks. The automatic stop valve closed, the engines seized, and Walney was adrift. More shells destroyed both boilers, scalding the crewmen. Two berthed submarines, a coastal battery above the harbor, and French snipers peppered the Walney fore and aft. Shells slammed into the wardroom flat, the captain’s cabin, the steering compartment. Topside, the dead were piled three deep. Below, the mess deck resembled a charnel house, scarlet with the blood of butchered infantrymen.

Drifting to the Môle Centre at the western end of the harbor, Walney came abeam of the moored destroyer Epervier. Survivors in a boarding party managed to fling a grappling hook between the destroyer’s funnels, but with no steam to turn the capstans the men could not winch the cutter close enough for boarding. Instead, Epervier swept Walney with her deck guns, killing Meyrick on the bridge, killing the surgeon Fuller in his sickbay, and killing Colonel Marshall, last seen on the forecastle with a dozen of his doomed men, flinging grenades at the French destroyer. Fire now licked the deck. Of the seventeen men who had stood on the bridge an hour earlier, a solitary survivor stepped among the dead in the red glare of the spreading flames. It was Peters.

Hartland fared no better. Trailing too far behind the motor launches to be screened with their smoke, Hartland attracted the initial fury of French fire from Fort Laumone. Tracers danced along her deck, killing most of the cutter’s gunners even before she reached the harbor. Shrapnel severed a steam pipe, and a banshee shriek pierced the battle din. Shrapnel also temporarily blinded Hartland’s captain at the most inopportune moment, causing the cutter to veer to port and strike the jetty six feet from the harbor entrance. Pinned by the searchlight beam and momentarily aground, Hartland was holed and burning by the time she heaved herself from the rocks and made port on the second try. The captain, Lieutenant Commander Godfrey Philip Billot, ordered his gun crews to return fire, but he too was commanding the dead at their breeches. Hartland managed only three rounds from her three-inch battery before the guns fell silent for good.

Rounding the Môle Ravin Blanc and approaching the Quai de Dunkerque, the cutter now passed beneath the destroyer Typhon. A broadside from 100 feet ripped through Hartland’s unarmored hull; she staggered sideways. Shrapnel scythed the bridge, the forward messing compartments, and the dressing station in the wardroom, where medicos and patients alike fell dead. In the engine room, cordite fumes churned with steam from the fractured pipes. Teenage stokers died clutching their shovels. On deck, machine-gun fire swept back and forth monotonously, like a garden sprinkler; the dead were piled so high that survivors could not reach the fire hoses. Sailors helped wounded infantrymen into the unfamiliar life jackets, then heaved them over the side.Typhoncased her guns only when the four-inch shells—blowing through Hartland like blue flame—threatened other French vessels behind her. At four A.M., Commander Billot dropped anchor and stepped from the bridge; he was immediately wounded in the shoulder and both legs. With ammunition detonating, with flames now funnel high, and with decks glowing red from the inferno below, Billot ordered all survivors to abandon ship.

A mile to the west, Walney too was dying. Life trickled across the deck and spilled into the water. Sergeant Ralph Gower clawed his way topside, lost consciousness near the rail, and awoke to find himself pinned beneath a stack of corpses. “Them dead men wouldn’t move much,” he later said. Marvin Clemons, the demoted physician’s assistant, would not have to desert after all: Captain Fuller was dead, and Clemons took four bullets in the right leg before struggling through the water to refuge on a dock. Leo S. Disher, Jr., a journalist aboard Walney, struggled to safety despite twenty-five wounds and a life preserver shredded by shell fire. An American soldier yanked Disher from the water with one hand: the other had been shot away.

Men paddled through the oily scum, clinging to flotsam and shielding their heads from hot shrapnel hissing into the water all around. Some French sailors on the docks and aboard the Epervier helped rescue survivors. Others murdered the men as they swam, picking them off with rifle and machine-gun fire.

At 4:15 A.M., an explosion tore through Walney. Already holed by more than fifty shells, she heeled gracefully and sank. Both the Stars and Stripes and the White Ensign were still flying. Peters, who had been helping with the aft mooring lines, managed to reach shore on a raft with ten other men. French sailors took him prisoner.

Hartland burned into the morning, flames licking at her flags. A final, thunderous explosion blew her to flinders and damaged warehouses around the Môle Ravin Blanc. Of the 200 soldiers aboard, only two had reached shore with their weapons. They were promptly captured.

Dawn brought a strange tranquility. The hollow pock pock pock of rifle fire ebbed, then died completely. Clumps of floating debris burned like campfires. Far above, at the shrine of Notre Dame de Santa Cruz, a weathered stone madonna extended her hand toward the harbor, as if to offer absolution for all that she had witnessed.

French marines rounded up the survivors. The badly wounded, groaning and bloody, were hoisted into trucks and ambulances. Others had to walk. Barefoot or in tattered plimsolls, clad only in their underwear and coated with oil, they shuffled in a gray drizzle through the streets of Oran for two miles to a military prison. Weeping Frenchmen lined the sidewalks; jeering Arabs spat and threw stones. Casualties in the RESERVIST force topped 90 percent, about half of whom were killed. Of Marshall’s 393 men, 189 were dead and 157 wounded. The toll also included 113 Royal Navy dead and 86 wounded, plus 5 U.S. Navy dead and 7 wounded.

The British would claim that the gallantry of RESERVIST so impressed the French navy that it “contributed to the half-hearted manner” with which the port was sabotaged. But there was nothing half-hearted about it. Even as the bedraggled survivors trudged off to jail, the port commandant ordered the seacocks opened. Within hours, twenty-seven French hulks joined Walney and Hartland on the harbor floor. Masts and funnels broke the surface at cockeyed angles. Three floating dry docks were scuttled, including the 25,000-ton Grand Dock, which blocked the harbor entrance and later required two months to raise. The Royal Navy took small revenge by sinking or driving aground five French warships that had sortied from Oran; among them, La Surprise went down with her captain and fifty crewmen at dawn, while Epervier—engulfed in flame—beached herself, and Typhon was scuttled in the harbor fairway.

Corpses bobbed to the surface for weeks. They were hauled ashore and wrapped in blankets by men in rowboats with grappling hooks. More than 300 Allied dead confounded the living; the task force had included no mortuary team in the initial landing. Unseemly dickering over who would bury the fallen, and where, would persist for days after Oran had fallen. Finally, Army engineers selected a hilltop outside town and dug long trenches from the chalky hardpan with jackhammers and air compressors. Twenty-nine of those buried remained unidentified. Many men were never found, including George Marshall, who left a widow and two young sons.

Ostensibly to avoid antagonizing the French, Eisenhower’s senior British naval commander, Admiral Andrew Browne Cunningham, would insist that “silence is the best policy” regarding RESERVIST. The top British planners overseeing the Oran assault each won commendations. Peters, described by one witness as a dejected, hatless buccaneer wearing a black eye patch, won the Victoria Cross—Britain’s highest valor award—and the Distinguished Service Cross, the Americans’ second-highest award. Five days afterRESERVIST, the fickle winds at Gibraltar brought down his plane and Peters, who was en route to see Churchill, was killed. The French with breathtaking cheek billed the Allies for pilotage fees for Walney and Hartland, citing a local law requiring payment from every vessel entering Oran harbor.

Eisenhower eventually accepted blame for the debacle during a private meeting with the combined British and American Chiefs of Staff. No consequence attended the gesture. But Andrew Bennett, the American admiral most strident in opposing the operation, persisted in his criticism; he infuriated both the British and Eisenhower, who declared he was “going to get that fellow out of there immediately.” Unrepentant, Bennett soon found himself in Iceland.

As for Major General Orlando Ward, still in England with the bulk of his 1st Armored Division, news of the battalion’s destruction moved him to scrawl in his diary a fragment from The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám:

For some we loved, the loveliest and the best

That from his Vintage rolling Time hath prest,

Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,

And one by one, crept silently to rest.

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