Landing at Oran


Operation Torch, code-name for the Anglo-U.S. invasion of northwest Africa, was set to establish a strong foothold in French North Africa and squeeze Rommel’s forces in Tunisia between the Allied units in the West and Monty’s Eighth Army fighting through Libya. Allied high command was also hopeful of uniting the pro-Nazi Vichy forces in the French colonies to their cause.

PREPARATIONS AND INVASION

The 16th Infantry Regiment’s baptism of fire was to take place on a cool November night in 1942. The atmosphere was tense and the nervous expression written on the GIs faces betrayed their uncertainty at what the coming days would bring for them. The date was November 8, 1942, H-Hour was set for 0100 hours. Operation Torch was about to begin.

The build-up for Operation Torch was immense, with 24,500 men aboard 102 ships sailing from the United States and a further 35,000 in a convoy of over 250 ships sailing from Britain. On October 26, 1942, the SS Warwick Castle and SS Duchess of Bedford set sail from Grenoch Harbour in Scotland for North Africa. Aboard these two British vessels were the men of the 16th Infantry Regiment, eager for their first combat operation after months of simulated landings on the English coast. The 1st Infantry Division made up part of the Center Task Force that would land on the beaches close to the town of Arzew, Algeria, as the city of Oran, the regimental objective, was deemed too heavily defended for a frontal assault. The men of the 16th Infantry formed the core of ‘Combat Team 16’ (CT16), numbering over 5,426 men, with 3,288 of these belonging to the 16th. Allied high command had opted to use American units to assault the Vichy French African colonies because they believed the French would be less likely to resist against U.S. troops following several previous encounters between British forces and Vichy troops in the Middle East.

The uniforms and equipment of the so-called ‘Combat Teams’ also reflects the many steps taken by the Allies in preparation for the landings in North Africa. Prior to boarding the Landing Craft Assault boats (LCAs) for the invasion, the men were instructed to wear one white cloth armband on the left arm above the elbow to aid in identification at night. Officers were to wear them on both arms. In order to maintain a level of secrecy during the operation, all helmet markings and shoulder sleeve insignia were to be removed for the landings. Instead of the iconic ‘Big Red One’ shoulder sleeve insignia, assault troops wore American Flags sewn onto their field jackets in the hopes that French defenders would recognise them as Allies and hold their fire. There was also cause for concern among the Allied commanders that chemical weapons could be employed by the French, therefore the assault troops were ordered to bring their gas masks ashore and were also issued with British anti-gas capes, rolled up and attached to their haversack.

Men of the 1st Infantry Division boarding British LCAs off the coast of Algeria.

After a long journey from the south coast of England, aboard the SS Warwick Castle and SS Duchess of Bedford, to the Algerian port of Arzew, east of Oran, the men of the Big Red One were about to embark upon their first assault against Axis forces in the Second World War. The journey had not been a pleasant experience for the Americans, as Sidney Haszard mentioned in his memoirs, the quality of the British rations served on the two vessels left much to be desired. Frank Gervasi remembered his unit almost causing a riot aboard their ship when they found maggots in the soup. Harley Reynolds, serving with Company B, recalls the British sailors being incredibly anxious due to fears of German U-Boats or air attacks during the journey to Africa.

As H-Hour approached, the infantrymen swarmed down the nets of the transport ships and into the British assault boats that were to deliver them onto Z Beach. Everett Booth of Company K recalls the nervous atmosphere among the troops as they approached the landing beaches. The leading assault troops were tense with anxiety as the landing craft sped towards the shore, making a cacophony loud enough to wake the dead, as one GI remarked. Despite the noise of the approaching landing craft and some machine gun fire on the right flank of CT 18 where the Ranger Battalions were landing, Combat Team 16 landed on schedule at 0100 hours on the 8th of November without any opposition.

The First Battalion made a successful landing on the beaches close to St. Lieu , whilst the Third Battalion was delayed by thirty minutes due to several LCAs becoming entangled with the assault boats of CT 18, although this was quickly realised and corrected. Everett Booth remembers landing without any opposition, but there was chaos and confusion on the beach itself as men struggled to find their units and figure out where they were. In fact, one platoon from Company K actually fought part of the operation with Combat Team 18 as they could not find their own unit once ashore. Booth says it was over an hour before everyone got themselves organised and moved off the beach. As the men of the First and Third Battalions organised themselves, they began to slowly move further inland towards their objectives.

Anti-Aircraft unit along Arzew beach.

At 1000 hours, the Second Battalion of CT 16, which had been the landing reserve force, came ashore and began to move further inland. More units began coming ashore at Arzew as the morning progressed and the beaches remained undefended. Charles Hangsterfer, HQ Company, remembers landing at Arzew and not hearing a single shot fired at the incoming Americans. He did not see any casualties until he came across three men killed by a falling powerline (these men could well belong to Company E, as this incident is mentioned in their Company history from Operation Torch). Anti-aircraft (AA) cover was provided for the beach by A and B Batteries of the 105th CA Battalion (AA). As CT 16 moved inland, one AA Battery moved with them to provide protection against potential French air attacks. The lack of resistance surprised the American troops as they were unsure exactly on what they were going to face. Vincent McKinney remembers his platoon moving from the beach and watching a French soldier riding a horse coming towards them. Once they began calling out to him in French, he panicked and quickly turned tail to get away. Half an hour later, after following the same route as the horsemen, McKinney and his men came under heavy machine-gun (MG) fire and lost one man killed in action, this was their first encounter with the Vichy troops. With the beaches at Arzew in American hands and reinforcements coming ashore, Combat Team 16 pushed on to their assigned objectives and found that the French forces in Algeria were not about to welcome them with open arms as they had hoped…

MOVING INLAND AND THE PUSH TOWARDS ORAN

After the troops had landed at Arzew, the men of CT 16 prepared to move inland and push on to their objective: the city of Oran. Instructions on encountering French forces were to only engage if the Americans were fired upon first. During the overseas trip to Algeria the troops were issued with phrase books to enable the GIs to announce that they were allies of the Frenchmen. However, the green Americans proved to be quite trigger happy due to the nerves of going into combat for the first time, and this caused the rules of engagement to be largely ignored. As Ted Antonelli of the Third Battalion recalls, every time the men would meet what they thought to be an enemy position, they would call out in French, “We are Americans!” and then ‘start shooting like mad’ due to their nerves. Despite the trigger happy GIs, their objectives were taken relatively quickly with little opposition. Some men, such as William L. Nimmo of F Company, adopted a ‘fatalistic’ attitude stating that he believed “This is it. What will happen, will happen.” These recollections portray the mixed reactions to combat among the men of CT 16.

Train stopped by B Company. November 8, 1942.

As the First Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel William Cunningham, moved east off of Z Beach, they took the towns of Domesme, St. Lieu and Port Aux Poules completely by surprise. Clarence Benton of A Company mentions the GIs knocking on doors in the towns they encountered to announce that the Americans had arrived. This practise soon ended after one group knocked on the door and received a burst of machine-gun fire from the other side. The situation was to change dramatically when the First Battalion reached the town of La Macta and found the French garrison there determined to put up a stiff fight against the American troops. After the initial assault had been pushed back, the First Battalion re-organised and prepared for another attack to jump off at 1230 hours with artillery support from A Battery of the 7th Field Artillery. The supporting artillery proved effective and La Macta was in American hands just one hour after the assault began. The First Battalion remained in the vicinity of the town and established defensive positions to protect the left flank of the Arzew beachhead. They continued to hold the town against a French counter-attack on November 9th and repelled the enemy with supporting fire from the 7th Field Artillery.

As the GIs pushed closer to Oran, they encountered varying degrees of resistance and this only served to heighten the tension amongst the men of the 16th Infantry Regiment. Ben Franklin, of the Second Battalion, remembers a British Spitfire flying over his column whilst he was talking to one of the locals. The men in his unit quickly took cover and, assuming it to be French, began firing at the aircraft with their rifles, thankfully causing no damage. The men also began to become increasingly fatigued due to the rapid movement inland and excess equipment carried. Ben remembers that once the men got off the beaches, they threw away any equipment they felt was unnecessary to decrease their load. He says it was easy to follow the route of the Americans in Algeria, all you had to do was follow the lines of litter and equipment left in their wake. The Second Battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel Joseph B. Crawford, moved on to take Le Fleurs and Legrand by 1300 hours on the 8th of November with relatively sporadic resistance. Whilst Legrand was taken without opposition, Le Fleurs proved to be a more difficult task. Richard Cole, M Company, recalls an incident near Le Fleurs, where his men began laying down mortar fire on Vichy mobile artillery units. Once they had ceased firing, Lt. Walters, Cole’s commanding officer, was sent down to investigate the effects of their barrage. The French troops were lying in wait for the Americans and ambushed them as they approached, leaving five men dead from M Company. F Company also ran into opposition about 2 kilometres east of Le Fluers where they engaged French Forces in a pitched battle along a main road until they were ordered to withdraw another kilometre to improve their defensive positions. Only three men of F Company were wounded in the engagement. The following day, F Company mopped up the area surrounding Le Fleurs before re-joining CT 16 to take Oran.

The Third Battalion of the 16th Infantry, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Frederick A. Gibb, would experience heavy fighting on November 9th as they moved inland when they reached the town of St. Cloud. The town was already being assaulted by CT 18 which had been unable to defeat the French garrison. The Third Battalion was called up as support. After having taken all of their assigned objectives on the 8th of November, the Third Battalion arrived at St. Cloud around 0715 hours on the 9th and began their attack. K Company jumped off with two rifle platoons abreast keeping two more in reserve. The lead assault platoons were swiftly pinned down and were unable to advance due to heavy enemy fire, leading the reserve platoons to be committed to the left flank. This action was soon halted by automatic weapons and accurate mortar fire, which led to the men becoming bogged down. However, a fierce melee erupted in the outskirts, where some men were able to reach outlying buildings around the town and clear them using hand grenades and bayonets. During the engagement, K Company, commanded by Captain Russell B. Wight, was cited for an outstanding performance in the action at St. Cloud whilst facing a tremendous amount of small arms and supporting artillery fire. By 1700 hours, the Third Battalion and CT 18 had been unable to take St. Cloud, causing Terry Allen, commander of the 1st Infantry Division, to make the critical decision to leave one battalion of the 18th Infantry to establish blocking positions around the town. The remainder of CT 18 and the Third Battalion of the 16th Infantry were pulled out of the action in order to move rapidly towards the city of Oran, the main regimental objective.

THE CAPTURE OF ORAN

The movement to capture Oran began at 1700 hours on November 9th as elements of CT 16, CT 18 and CT 26 began pushing towards the city. The Third Battalion column managed to link up with the Second Battalion at 0600 hours on the 10th of November after a change in direction to follow the south column approach. They had been delayed in their approach after meeting heavy resistance in the town of Arcole. As the different elements of the 16th Infantry Regiment came closer to their objectives, they began to encounter stubborn resistance in the surrounding towns from the Vichy French forces. This is where some units had their first men killed in action (KIA) in the Second World War. One of the first men to fall in battle was Virginia native Private First Class Albert F. Smith of E Company. At just 24 years old, Albert was killed by enemy small arms fire whilst rising above an embankment to fire his Browning automatic rifle towards the enemy positions. He is now buried at the North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial, Carthage, Tunisia, Block A, Row 4.

First Division GIs driving through Oran in a commandeered local vehicle.

At 0715 hours on November 10th, the Second Battalion moved out from positions west of St. John Baptiste towards Oran after it had not reached the planned jump off point in time. The Third Battalion followed closely behind the Second as a reserve force, ready to be called forward if needed. There was one recorded incident of friendly fire at this time due to poor communications between the two battalions. The Second Battalion mistakenly identified men of the Third Battalion as Vichy troops and began firing mortars at them. Luckily the mistake was soon rectified after contact was established between the two units and the mortars ceased fire. Although no casualties were inflicted, this incident caused much confusion and delay to the attack. As the men of the 16th Infantry Regiment advanced, they came upon several isolated strongpoints held by stubborn French colonial troops led by Vichy officers. These were rapidly overwhelmed due to the supporting fire from the 5th Field Artillery Battalion and the 16th Infantry’s Cannon Company. Pushing onwards, the Second and Third Battalions managed to break into the outer suburbs of Oran by 1030 hours and slowly began edging closer to the centre of the city.

At 1000 hours, the 1st Battalion was relieved of its position at La Macta by the 19th Engineer Regiment allowing them to withdraw, along with two batteries of the 7th Field Artillery, and move to Oran in order to speed up the operation and reinforce CT 16’s attack. Orders were drawn up for a co-ordinated attack on the city in a bid to rapidly punch through the French positions with the 1st and 2nd Battalions jumping off line abreast at midday. The attack was preceded by some mechanized units of Combat Command B, which incorporated elements of the 1st Armoured Division, but as the men jumped off from their starting point for the attack, they faced no opposition. By 1 o’clock in the afternoon of the 10th of November, Oran was in American hands and hostilities ceased. Combat Team 16 suffered twenty-five men KIA, two of whom died of their wounds, and a further seventy-nine wounded. On November 11th, Major General Terry Allen addressed the Division at Oran:

“You have won your objective on the indicated day and have acquitted yourselves in a most creditable manner. I wish to extend my deep appreciation and thanks to every officer and enlisted man in this Division and to pay homage to our gallant dead and to our sorely wounded.”

Following the capture of Oran, CT 16 was put into Corps reserve and training operations commenced on November 11, lasting until December 24, 1942. In this period, the 16th Infantry and the remainder of the First Division participated in numerous training exercises to prepare themselves for the coming Tunisian campaign.

Operation Torch proved to be a successful operation for the Allies, uniting the Vichy forces in Algeria and French Morocco to the Allied cause. The operation also proved a valuable learning curve for the Allies and the men of the 16th Infantry Regiment who had experienced their first taste of combat in the Second World War and prevailed.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Knickerbocker H. R. and others (1947) Danger Forward: History of the 1st Infantry Division 1941-45, Nashville TE, The Battery Press Inc.

Baumgartner J. W. (1945) 16th Infantry Regiment 1861-1946, Du Quoin IL, Cricket Press.

Finke B. F., edited by Weingartner S. and Votaw J. F. (2004) No Mission Too Difficult! Old Buddies of the 1st Division Tell All About World War II, Wheaton IL, Cantigny First Division Foundation.

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