Military history

In Barbary

FAINT odors of Barbary—charcoal smoke, damp earth, decay—drifted seaward to the nearly 40,000 assault troops preparing to envelop Oran from east and west on the early morning of November 8. Ignorant of the disaster unfolding at the port, the soldiers emptied their pockets of any scraps that could identify their units. The sad detritus of men leaving the world of peace formed little piles in the transport lounges: love letters, dance cards, railroad ticket stubs, lodge pins, driver’s licenses. The much maligned cooks roused themselves for a final meal “sumptuous as a condemned man’s, and as little appreciated.” An enterprising shortwave radio operator managed to pick up the Army–Notre Dame football game and broadcast it to the 16th Infantry Regiment over the ship’s public address system. Colonel Alexander N. Stark, Jr., commander of the 26th Infantry Regiment, told his men in a final address, “Let’s give them every chance to surrender peacefully with honor, instead of forcing them to fight. This could be a terrific mess if bungled, so let’s think clearly.” A voice heard in the gloom on one boat deck spoke for many: “Sure I’m scared, you dope. Don’t tell me you’re not.” Soldiers from the 1st Battalion of the 6th Armored Infantry—a sister unit of Colonel Marshall’s battalion—stared at the dark coast six miles away. The shoreline was tranquil except for some curious flashes near the harbor. “Looks as if they’re not going to fight,” the men assured one another.

Under the plan approved by Eisenhower and Clark, Oran was to be captured by a double envelopment of American troops landing on three beachheads—designated X, Y, and Z—spread across fifty miles of coastline and under the overall command of Major General Lloyd R. Fredendall. Tanks beached at X and Z were to race inland before dawn in a pincer movement to help capture two airfields south of Oran while Operation RESERVIST supposedly secured the port. Infantrymen would also encircle the city, preventing any reinforcements from reaching Oran if the French chose to fight. Allied intelligence reported that four thousand French sailors crewed the thirteen batteries of coastal guns protecting the city, and 10,000 soldiers formed the Oran Division.

The largest contingent of invaders—drawn from the U.S. 1st Infantry and 1st Armored divisions aboard thirty-four transport ships—would storm ashore at Beach Z near Arzew, a fishing town sixteen miles east of Oran. Two forts protected Arzew’s shingle; the task of capturing them before the main landing fell to the 1st Ranger Battalion. Trained for the past six months by British commandos, the Rangers sported wax-tip mustaches and Vandyke beards in emulation of their tutors. Their lineage dated to French and Indian War irregulars long celebrated for their stealth, their vigor, and their fratricidal brawls. The ranks now included former steelworkers, farmers, a bullfighter, a lion tamer, a stockbroker, and the treasurer of a burlesque theater. Their tough-as-a-boot commander was William O. Darby, a charismatic thirty-one-year-old artilleryman from Arkansas.

From the Ulster Monarch, Royal Ulsterman, and Royal Scotsman, 500 Rangers packed into landing boats like spoons in a drawer, pale faces peering from beneath their helmet brims. Rather than climb down nets, most men on these particular transports were loaded in their landing craft, which were then lowered from the boat decks by davits and squealing winches. Coxswains cranked the muffled V-8 engines and made for shore, the hulls slapping every ripple. The forward davit cable on one boat snapped as it was being lowered, dumping Rangers, rifles, and Darby’s radio into the sea. Amused tars rescued the sputtering men, whose roaring curses filled the night until a louder Cockney voice boomed, “Be bloody thankful our lads dipped you out of the deep.”

Two companies, led by Major W. H. Dammer, made straight for Arzew port. They found the French garrison slumbering like a children’s nursery. Barrels of sardines curing in brine lined the docks. Eight landing craft lowered their bow ramps, but the sloping seawall was higher than expected and the Rangers slipped back down the slimy stones again and again before finally gaining purchase atop the Grand Quay. Fifteen minutes later they crouched outside Fort de la Pointe, an ancient, moated battery above the harbor. Spotting a French sailor carrying laundry on his head, the lead squad trailed him through the front gate. A few shots rang out, followed by the splat of lead on paving stones and the convulsive jerks of a dying soldier. Rangers took the commandant and his wife into custody, along with sixty sleepy troops. From the landing craft below, a jubilant British sailor bellowed, “For King and country!” Fort de la Pointe had fallen.

Darby meanwhile led his other four companies across a stony beach a mile north of the harbor. Breathing hard, with the land seeming to rise and fall around them after weeks at sea, the Rangers scrambled up a steep ravine to outflank Fort du Nord. Three companies abreast cut their way through a thick belt of barbed wire, rousting a trio of French soldiers from the dugout they were sharing with an Algerian strumpet. A sudden burst of gunfire forced Darby to pull back his men and dump eighty mortar rounds on the fort. Howling Rangers then rushed the sunken emplacements and shoved bangalore torpedoes—steel pipes packed with explosives—into the muzzles of the four big shore guns. Others dumped grenades down ventilator shafts, flushing out gunners who had barricaded themselves in a powder magazine.

Soon the battery commander emerged, a peacoat over his pajamas and carpet slippers. Another sixty sailors trailed behind, carrying a white flag. At Darby’s insistence, the commander phoned a nearby garrison used as a Foreign Legion convalescent home and urged surrender; the Legionnaires obliged by flinging their rifles down a well and getting drunk. The mayor of Arzew, his teeth clacking in terror as he clutched the phone receiver with two trembling hands, also agreed to surrender his town.

Darby hurried to a rocky knob overlooking the sea. The Royal Navy would not move the troop transports closer than five miles from shore until assured that the Arzew guns had been spiked. The prearranged success signal was four green flares followed by four sets of double white star clusters. But Darby’s white flares had all gone to the bottom with his radio. Frantically, he fired one green rocket after another. Admiring murmurs ran through the troops packing the ships’ decks on the horizon. After confused debate, the task force commanders decided the signal meant what indeed it did mean: that in the land of Hannibal and Scipio Africanus, the Allies had captured their first town.

On the weather deck of S.S. Reina del Pacifico, a leathery, lantern-jawed major general paced the rail with the bowed stride of a horseman saddle-hardened as a child. Hair the color of gunmetal bristled from his crown. His thick neck and sloping shoulders implied his uncommon strength, fortified with Indian clubs and a medicine ball during the long passage from Britain. He often jogged three miles after breakfast, then spent the rest of the day cadging cigarettes from subordinates by elaborately patting his empty pockets. Two symmetrical scars dimpled his cheeks: a bullet through the face in the Argonne had removed his molars along with an annoying adolescent stutter. When he was intense—and he was intense now—the old wound caused an odd hissing, like a leaky tire. Pacing the rail, wheezing, he paused long enough to study the lime-green threads of phosphorescence trailing the landing craft below. As the first wave of troops beat toward the horizon, he murmured, “The shore.”

Terry de la Mesa Allen: even his name swaggered, an admirer once wrote. Commander of the 1st Infantry Division, Terry Allen embodied the unofficial motto of the Big Red One: “Work hard and drink much, for somewhere they’re dreamin’ up a battle for the First.” His exotic middle name came from his mother, daughter of a Spaniard who fought as a Union colonel in the Civil War. From his father, an artillery officer posted mostly in Texas, Allen derived extraordinary equestrian abilities as well as a proclivity for chewing, drinking, and shooting dice. After flunking ordnance and gunnery his final year at West Point, Allen left the academy, graduated from Catholic University, and took a commission in 1912. Wounded at Saint-Mihiel in 1918 and carried from the field on a stretcher, he regained consciousness, ripped off the first-aid tag, and dashed back to rally his men. The next bullet drilled him through the jaw, right to left, but not before he had broken his fist on a German machine-gunner’s head.

The drowsy interwar years were hard on an officer later described by an aide as “the fightingest man I ever met.” One triumph occurred in January 1922, when the Texas Cattlemen’s Association proposed a marathon horse race to determine whether a doughboy could compete with a real cowboy. Major Allen was chosen to represent the Army against Key Dunne, a world champion bronco buster and wagon boss of a 4-million-acre ranch in Chihuahua. Both men were to ride 300 miles to the finish line at the Alamo in San Antonio, Allen from Dallas and Dunne from Fort Worth.

Averaging sixty miles a day, they clattered across the state, Dunne in chaps and sombrero on a blaze-faced mustang named AWOL, and Allen in his snug Army riding uniform on a big black named Coronado. Crowds and banner headlines greeted each rider as he galloped across Texas. “Enough money was bet on the contest to build a battleship,” one commentator noted. Upon hearing mid-race that Dunne was short of fodder for his horse, Allen sent him a carload of hay and oats. After 101 hours and 56 minutes in the saddle, the young officer cantered across the finish line, more than seven hours ahead of his rival. Allen accepted the crowd’s huzzahs, then trotted off to play polo.

Less successful was Allen’s tenure at the Army staff college at Fort Leavenworth: he finished near the bottom of the class in which Major Eisenhower graduated first, and was denounced by the commandant as “the most indifferent student ever enrolled.” But as an instructor at the Fort Benning Infantry School, he impressed the assistant commandant, Lieutenant Colonel George C. Marshall, who rated Allen superior or excellent in nine of ten categories on his 1932 efficiency report (he was only satisfactory in “dignity of demeanor”). His gorgeous young wife, Mary Frances, concluded that horses were Terry’s second love, after fighting. When Allen’s photograph appeared in a Missouri newspaper article about promising young officers, the caption identified him as a “champion rioter and rebel.”

With war, the rioters came into their own. In contemplating who should command the Army’s multiplying regiments and divisions, Marshall and his training chief, Lesley J. McNair, kept a list in a safe of more than 400 colonels with perfect efficiency reports. Allen, neither a full colonel nor perfect, was not on it. Rather, he was facing court-martial for insubordination in 1940 when word arrived of his double promotion, from lieutenant colonel to brigadier general. He was the first man in his former West Point class to wear a general’s stars. No man better exemplified the American military leadership’s ability to identify, promote, and in some cases forgive those officers best capable of commanding men in battle. Among the encomiums that followed Allen’s promotion was a penciled note: “Us guys in the guardhouse want to congratulate you, too.”

After receiving his second star, Allen announced his arrival at the 1st Division by marching down the street crooning “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” The oldest division in the Army, the Big Red One had remained largely intact between the wars; it also retained a high proportion of West Pointers and other Regular Army officers. Its “work hard and drink much” philosophy blossomed under Allen, who received a private warning from Marshall about “drinking in the daytime…. Be on your guard.” Before leaving London, Eisenhower issued a tart memorandum noting that of all American soldiers arrested the previous month in Britain for being drunk and disorderly, two-thirds came from the Fighting First.

Proud, self-absorbed, and ornery, the division was as much a warring tribe as a military unit. “Men of the 18th,” Colonel Frank U. Greer proclaimed to his infantry regiment, “we’re goin’ a-fightin’!” When his superiors sent Allen a warning on the eve of TORCHthat the French should not be considered hostile, he had it burned. “You should forget you ever saw this message,” he told his intelligence officer. “It would be very dangerous for us at this late hour to begin telling our troops that the French are going to be with us.” The fervent loyalty the division felt toward its unorthodox commander was fully reciprocated. “Have never had quite so many perplexing problems to overcome,” Allen had recently written Mary Fran and their young son. But, he added, the men were trained and ready to fight. “I now have a really intensive faith in the First Division. They are 1,000 percent better than they were…. They are young but are hard and fit. Please remember that I am thinking of you and Sonny all the time.”

He swung a leg over the side of the Reina del Pacifico and with a gymnast’s grace scrambled down the net to the waiting boat below.

Chaos awaited him on the beaches near Arzew. An unanticipated westerly set had pushed the transports and landing craft off course. Dozens of confused coxswains tacked up and down the coast in the dark, looking for the right beaches. Most of the soldiers carried more than 100 pounds of equipment; one likened himself to a medieval knight in armor who had to be winched into the saddle. Once ashore, feeling the effect of weeks aboard ship with a poor diet and little exercise, they staggered into the dunes, shedding gas capes, goggles, wool undershirts, and grenades. Landing craft stranded by an ebb tide so jammed the beaches that bulldozers had to push them off, ruining their propellers and rudders.

The flat-bottomed oil tankers that were supposed to haul light tanks onto the beach instead ran aground 300 feet from shore; engineers spent hours building a causeway through the surf. As British sailors sounded the depths with a leadline, an American officer barked, “Men, this is what we’ve been waiting for. Let’s have at it!” Stepping over the side of the landing craft with his boots tied around his neck, he promptly sank from sight; his troops hauled him back into the boat as the coxswain edged toward firmer ground.

Linguists holding bullhorns hollered, “A bas les Boches! A bas les Marcon! Down with the Boches! Down with the Macaronis! Vive la France!” A mortar crew with the 18th Infantry fired a special shell the size of an ostrich egg. It soared 200 feet into the night, detonated with dazzling pyrotechnic sparkle, and unfurled an American flag, which floated to earth; given a clear target at last, French gunners replied with eager fire. “Okay, boys, it’s open season,” one battalion commander ordered. “Fire at will.”

Some fired, others balked. Decanted onto a strange, dark shore, many men feared shooting their own. The hillsides hissed with the night’s challenge and countersign: “Hi yo, Silver!” and “Awaaay!” General Allen’s pugnacity notwithstanding, many officers had been so indoctrinated not to fire first that French resistance simply baffled them. “They’re not shooting at us, they’re not shooting at us,” one infantry commander insisted, even as French artillery plastered his battalion. Others fired indiscriminately, as one soldier near Arzew later confessed, shooting up “half the grapevines in North Africa.” Hunting snipers outside Arzew, soldiers from Company K of the 18th Infantry killed an Arab civilian, who tumbled down a hillside with his robes flying about him. Soldiers from the 2nd Battalion of the 16th Infantry shuffled inland with their equipment piled onto a few commandeered mules and oxcarts until mortar fire forced them into a ditch. When some men moved back to reorganize as ordered, panic took hold, and troops fled down the road in disarray.

Confusion and error, valor and misdeed marked this first night of green troops in combat. Hearing an ominous clanking and a motor roar outside Arzew, 1st Infantry troops whispered hoarsely, “Tank coming!” Someone ordered, “Hold your fire.” But a volley from twenty riflemen ripped the night, followed by gurgling: the troops had riddled a wine delivery truck, killing the driver in his cab. “The image of that first casualty, an old truck driver caught in the dark, would be with us always,” one soldier later wrote. When a captured French colonial soldier reached into his jacket for his identity papers during interrogation, a skittish American guard ran him through with a bayonet. For some, the war would just last a few hours. A soldier from the 18th Infantry, who had been machine-gunned in the legs, arrived at the field hospital in St. Leu murmuring, “Everything’s all right.” A chaplain lay next to him until he died. “They’re French and always will be French,” a wounded correspondent observed of those who had shot him. “The French die hard.”

Terry Allen had seen worse. As a battalion commander in France, it was said, he had once pulled a pistol on a hesitant junior officer and shot him in the buttocks. “There,” Allen said. “You’re out. You’re wounded.” Such gestures would be unnecessary here. Allen’s flamboyance made him easy to caricature—he detested the nickname “Terrible Terry” because it made “me appear like a mountebank”—but during thirty years in the Army he had reduced his philosophy of war to a few commonsense precepts. In attacking, he urged his troops to “ride around ’em, over ’em, and through ’em.” And he instructed his officers: “A soldier doesn’t fight to save suffering humanity or any other nonsense. He fights to prove that his unit is the best in the Army and that he has as much guts as anybody else in the unit.”

Using a flashlight with red tissue over the lens, Allen studied the map and saw that his 18th Infantry Regiment was moving toward St. Cloud, steadily if not quickly. The 16th Infantry was angling farther south to outflank Oran. Initial reports regarding OperationRESERVIST sounded grim, but if the landings west of Oran succeeded, the entire task force could expect to have 18,000 men ashore within twenty-four hours, almost as many as the planners in London had hoped.

His “intensive faith in the First Division” remained as unshaken as his faith in God. “I believe if your cause is just,” he often said, “you get divine help.” So far the Lord appeared to be behind the Fighting First, just as Allen had requested in his prayers before leaving the Reina del Pacifico. Spotting an empty, bloodstained litter near his command post, he lay down and took a nap.

On the other side of Oran, the landings unfolded with the same mix of anarchy and success. At Beach X, nearly thirty miles west of the city, a flying column of light tanks managed to cross the strand and clank inland by mid-morning despite lost boats, unexpected sandbars, and an engine fire that caused one landing craft to burn through the dawn.

At Beach Y, a European seaside resort midway between Beach X and Oran, more than 5,000 infantrymen began staggering ashore along the broad bay at Les Andalouses. Behind the empty cabanas, a short, wrinkled figure clutching a riding crop stood in a jeep with “Rough Rider” stenciled on the fender, shouting “Get on your feet! Keep moving!” Brigadier General Ted Roosevelt had a voice like a foghorn. Prone men on Beach Y blinked hard, picked themselves up, and staggered inland. When Roosevelt spotted a French cavalry patrol working around the flank, he ordered his driver forward in hot pursuit. Bracing a carbine against his shoulder, he dropped one horseman and scattered the others.

Bookmakers in the 1st Division had fixed the odds at 10 to 1 against their assistant division commander surviving more than two weeks in combat. When he learned of the wager months later, Roosevelt bought one losing bettor a $10 meal and lectured him on the evils of gambling. Despite his antique disregard for personal safety, Ted Roosevelt was hard to kill. Like Allen, he was a force of nature. “T.R. and you are very much of the same type as to enthusiasm,” George C. Marshall had written Allen. “I am a little fearful.” Spotting some old sergeant, Roosevelt would bellow, “Goddam it, but you’re ugly! You’re uglier every day!” The sergeant, beaming at the recognition, would bark back, “The general isn’t a handsome man himself!” Roaring his approval and whacking his leg with the riding crop, Roosevelt then motored down the road in search of another comrade to charm.

Handsome he was not, with his gamecock walk, fibrillating heart, weak and vaguely crossed eyes, and arthritis so severe he needed a cane. In tattered fatigues and a wool cap worn like a cheap wig, he could have been taken for a battalion cook. “He was,” an aide allowed, “the most disreputable-looking general I ever met.” He was also, in Marshall’s estimation, “an A–No. 1 fighting man with rare courage, and what is rarer, unlimited fortitude.” Along with Allen and Patton, Ted Roosevelt was said to be the chief of staff’s “favorite swashbuckler.”

His father, the twenty-sixth president, had warned he would “never amount to more than a $25-a-week clerk,” and indeed he took a job out of Harvard working in a carpet factory for a dollar a day. But young T.R. became a rich investment banker by 1914, when he was twenty-seven. As a battalion commander in the 26th Infantry, he was gassed and shot; he finished the Great War as a lieutenant colonel with a permanent limp. He had believed war’s “unity of purpose” would “sweat the softness off our bones,” but came to disavow that fatuous notion, just as he eventually repudiated his ties to the isolationist group America First. After the war he helped found the American Legion; became a successful writer; and served as assistant secretary of the Navy, governor general of Puerto Rico, colonial governor of the Philippines, chairman of American Express, and vice president of the Doubleday publishing house, where he sponsored wholesome books “as American as Indian corn.” In 1941, at the age of fifty-four, he returned to active duty. He and Allen, who was seven months younger, were still working out their command relationship; as Marshall sensed, the two men were far too similar to be entirely comfortable with each other.

Now Roosevelt was ashore with his former regiment, the 26th Infantry, a copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress crammed in one pocket and a history of medieval England in his kit bag. He had landed in darkness with the first assault wave—“little, scarcely seen black shapes” scuttling out of the sea—and immediately began urging the fainthearted to “march to the sound of the guns.” Sometimes, writing home to Oyster Bay, he yearned for “the piping days of peace.” But not today. His crowded hour had come, and this spectacle was too magnificent to wish away. Glowing shells whirred overhead, and tracers skipped among the hills until their burning magnesium winked out. Artillerymen—including his son Quentin, a battery commander—hauled pack howitzers across the beach. “With their tow ropes over their shoulders they look like the illustrations in the children’s Bibles of building the pyramids,” Roosevelt wrote.

The French counterattacked with fourteen ancient Renault tanks, five of them so broken down they had to be towed into battle. All were destroyed in minutes, and their return fire barely smudged the American armor. The first colonial prisoners, Senegalese riflemen with rolling eyes and tribal scars notched in their cheeks, marched past to a freighter converted into a prison ship. A forward patrol reported capturing a French headquarters near La Sénia, five miles south of Oran, but the office safe yielded only two brassieres and a volume of risqué tales.

“Soldier, what in the hell are you doing there?” Roosevelt bellowed to a private cowering behind a hillock. “Come on, follow me.” The soldier followed, machine-gun bullets pinging about. Breathing hard, Roosevelt stopped his jeep just long enough to announce that he was heading to the front line in search of a French commander ready to surrender. “If I’m not back in two hours, give it all you’ve got,” he said, then jounced down the road.

“Would God I might die with my sword in hand,” he had once written in a poem submitted to Harper’s, “ringed by dead foes all around.” But not today.

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