Military history

VILLAIN

THE American soldiers investing Oran from east and west on this Sunday morning knew no more than their five senses told them, minus the half-truths, untruths, and honest errors spread by rumor on every battlefield. The French had obviously chosen to fight, but how hard and for how long no one could guess. Exhaustion, dislocation, and sudden death seemed as much a part of the Algerian landscape as the sand dunes and djebels—rocky hills—that now echoed with cries of “Hi, yo, Silver!” and “Away!” Even the commanders had only the sketchiest notion of how the overall battle for Oran was unfolding: troops ashore at X, Y, and Z; modest progress toward double envelopment of the city; apparent catastrophe at the harbor. Of the simultaneous landings at Algiers and in Morocco, they knew nothing.

One final element in the Oran invasion remained to play out: the first American airborne operation of the war. It was also among the most daring before or since. On the previous afternoon—Saturday, November 7—556 U.S. paratroopers had gathered at two airfields in Cornwall, on England’s southwest coast. Faces darkened with camouflage paint, the men had received printed orders specifying where in their jump suits to carry everything from two pencils (left chest pocket) and toilet paper (right hip pocket), to a razor with four blades (right thigh pocket) and four grenades (field jacket pockets). Slips of rice paper—edible, in case the men were captured—contained secret radio code words, including BLACKBIRD (“paratroops have been dropped”) and DUCK (“paratroops have been dropped, cannot find airport”). The soldiers taped their bulging pants pockets to keep them from snagging and prepared to board thirty-nine C-47 transport planes.

The objective of Operation VILLAIN was simple enough: to seize two airfields, Tafaraoui and La Sénia, south of Oran, and hold on until reinforcements arrived from the beach landing forces. Simplicity stopped there. The flight from Cornwall covered 1,100 miles—nearly three times as far as any previous combat jump—at night, across neutral Spain with inexperienced pilots and navigators flying for nine hours at 10,000 feet. Beguiled by German parachute operations in Holland and Crete, Allied planners failed to appreciate the high casualties. British commanders opposed the operation, and had told Churchill they preferred to husband the planes and troops for a quick strike into Tunisia. Even the U.S. Army planners responsible for capturing Oran concluded thatVILLAINwould make “no material difference.” Eisenhower had shared their skepticism. “That’s a long ways,” he said dryly, but ultimately yielded to Clark, who urged audacity. “The British just want to take our airplanes and use them for something else,” Clark had told Eisenhower.

The 2nd Battalion of the 509th Parachute Regiment, commanded by a short, bullet-headed West Pointer named Edson D. Raff, trained hard. But their practice jumps had occurred in daylight and good weather, using large drop zones. Only four sets of navigation instruments could be found for the 60th Troop Carrier Group. Another thirty-five sets, sent from the United States after urgent pleas, had reportedly “miscarried” in transit. At the last minute, navigators received British instruments, with which they were unfamiliar and which would not work in American planes anyway. Maps and charts were so scarce that only flight leaders received them. Some planes had arrived in Cornwall just a few hours before the scheduled takeoff, and crew briefings were limited to a “few minutes of distracted conversation.” The frenetic activity left many pilots so tired they could barely keep their eyes open.

Clark had approved one last complication before leaving London for Gibraltar. Because of uncertainty over the French reaction in Algeria, parallel plans were drafted. If resistance appeared likely, Plan A called for the paratroopers to take off from England at five P.M., jump before dawn, and overpower the two airfields. If the French appeared passive, Plan B called for the battalion to leave four hours later, land at La Sénia in daylight, and prepare for another mission toward Tunisia. Lieutenant Colonel Raff and his men were to listen for a broadcast from Gibraltar on November 7, relayed by the Royal Air Force, indicating which plan to use. The phrase “Advance Alexis” meant: carry out Plan A and expect to fight. “Advance Napoleon” meant: carry out Plan B and expect a docile reception.

In the quiet asylum of a London headquarters, this arrangement perhaps made perfect sense. But in the event it miscarried. Distracted by their negotiations with General Giraud at Gibraltar, Eisenhower and Clark paid insufficient heed to the conflicting reports from Algeria regarding French intentions. Notwithstanding Murphy’s warnings and other omens, optimism had prevailed at Gibraltar.

At 4:15 P.M. on November 7, Eisenhower’s signal arrived at the Cornish airfields near St. Eval and Predannack: “Advance Napoleon.” Peace was at hand. Pilots who had been warming their engines now cut the ignition and strolled to the control tower for another cup of coffee. Four hours later, the paratroopers settled into the bucket seats and tugged the blackout curtains over the windows, chattering about the warm weather that surely awaited them in Algeria. Seventy-eight engines coughed once, twice, and caught. The lead aircraft lifted into the thin fog at 9:05 P.M. Captain Carlos C. Alden, a thirty-one-year-old battalion surgeon flying in a plane named Shark Bait, scribbled in his pocket diary, “Dear God, in Thy wisdom help me to come back.”

After takeoff, almost nothing went right. Fair weather yielded to squalls over the Bay of Biscay. In dodging thunderheads, the pilots lost sight of one another. Soon, of the thirty-nine aircraft flying over Spain, the largest formation still intact was a mere three airplanes. Few of the navigators were proficient in celestial navigation, which thick clouds made difficult anyway, so the planes flew by dead reckoning. A strong east wind, which meteorologists in Britain had failed to detect, steadily shoved the C-47s westward; within a few hours, the unwitting crews were at least fifty miles off course. Colonel Raff’s paratroopers—still expecting a docile reception—huddled beneath wool blankets in the frigid cabins, nibbling British army biscuits and chewing wads of gum to ward off air-sickness.

Two navigation aids dispatched to help the aircraft find Oran also failed. The British ship Alynbank, thirty-five miles off the coast, was supposed to provide a homing beacon by transmitting a radio signal at 440 kilocycles. For reasons never adequately explained, she instead broadcast, unheard, at 460 kilocycles. The second aid was more elaborate. An electronic signaling device code-named REBECCA had been smuggled from Gibraltar to Tangiers to Oran in two heavy suitcases. Before midnight on November 7, an American OSS agent named Gordon H. Browne rode in the back of a French ambulance to a deserted pasture near Tafaraoui airfield. After struggling in the dark to erect a nine-foot mast antenna and guy wires, Browne switched on the apparatus and waited all night in the brush among the cooing plovers, unaware that the paratroopers had delayed their departure on the false expectation of peace. At five A.M., with dawn approaching and the gunfire near Oran now audible, Browne abandoned his vigil. He disassembled the antenna and dragged REBECCA into a cactus patch, where he blew her to pieces.

The sun rose on November 8 at precisely 6:30 A.M. to reveal a scatter of paratroopers across the western Mediterranean. One plane landed at Gibraltar and two at Fez in French Morocco. Four others touched down in Spanish Morocco, where the men—banging their fists against a wall in frustration and shouting, “Fuck! Fuck!”—would be interned for three months. Three more planes miraculously found La Sénia airfield, only to be greeted with a barrage of anti-aircraft fire. This awkward welcome, strongly suggestive of peace gone bad, provoked panicky radio chatter among the pilots, who were down to a very few gallons of fuel. On Shark Bait, soldiers began pumping up their life rafts. Colonel William C. Bentley, Jr., the senior airman on the mission and pilot of Raff’s plane, landed in a grain field to confirm—through the Socratic quizzing of some bemused Arabs—that he was on the right continent. They had at least found Africa.

Airborne once again, Bentley at eight A.M. spotted more than a dozen C-47s clustered on the western fringe of the Sebkra d’Oran, a dry lake bed stretching for twenty miles south of the coast. An armored column nearby appeared to be preparing to attack the grounded paratroopers. Raff ordered troops in the nine planes now straggling after Bentley to parachute behind the tanks. First out the door, Raff landed hard, cracked a rib, and was spitting blood when he learned that the tanks belonged to the U.S. 1st Armored Division. After landing at Beach X, they were heading for the airfields the paratroopers had failed to seize. Several hundred of Raff’s men spent the balance of the morning dodging sniper fire. Bentley meanwhile flew on with his gaggle and landed at the east end of the sebkra, where he was immediately captured. French guards marched him to a cellblock at Fort St. Philippe, where he was locked up with several hundred other Allied prisoners, including oil-coated survivors of RESERVIST.

The final act of VILLAIN was no more glorious. With permission from Raff, a resolute band under Major William P. Yarborough decided to capture Tafaraoui airfield on foot. They had hardly walked a furlong before realizing that mud beneath thesebkra’s dry crust made crossing the pan like marching through molasses. Shedding ammunition and wool underwear in a conspicuous trail, the men made for the southern rim of the lake bed. Exhausted, they dug shallow trenches with their helmets and collapsed beneath a blanket of weeds. Yarborough radioed for three C-47s to siphon the remaining fuel from the other stranded aircraft and then come fetch him and his men. No sooner had the planes taken off with Yarborough’s group aboard for the short hop to Tafaraoui than cannon fire from six French Dewoitine fighters riddled the fuselages. The American pilots spun around, lowered their wheels, and crash-landed onto the sebkra at 130 miles per hour. The Dewoitines made three more strafing passes, killing five soldiers and wounding fifteen. When the marauders finally flew away, a dead platoon leader dangled head down from the doorway of Yarborough’s plane, the copilot was slumped dead in his cockpit, and even the most audacious paratrooper was discouraged.

Most of Raff’s surviving men arrived at Tafaraoui by truck on November 9. The surgeon Carlos Alden, who had petitioned God’s protection in Cornwall, was the sole man in the battalion to reach the field by air on the morning of November 8. He had remained on Shark Bait after the other paratroopers got out to walk across the sebkra.

British skepticism of VILLAIN had been well founded. The operation contributed nothing to the invasion while expending half of all Allied parachute forces. Just fourteen of the thirty-nine planes could fly again immediately. At a time when every infantry squad was precious to the Allied cause, only fifteen paratroopers were judged fit for another mission within three days.

On the first day of their invasion, the Allies had nearly surrounded Oran. They had put thousands of soldiers ashore with only light casualties. The Royal Navy controlled the sea if not the port. But VILLAIN had demonstrated, like RESERVIST before it, that temerity untempered by judgment would exact a heavy price in this war.

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