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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 5

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Navy's Air War

the Aviation History Unit OP‑519B, DCNO (Air)

Harper & Brothers Publishers
New York and London

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 7
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p49  Chapter 6

Prototype of Invasion

In any uncritical, over‑all view of the exploits of naval aviation in World War II, the Atlantic is likely to fall into a position of relative unimportance. The heroic accomplishments of the fast carrier task forces which ranged the Pacific during the last two years of the war, their overwhelming size and power, and the dramatic climax of their final triumph in the air over Japan, so completely overshadow earlier efforts in the Atlantic as to make the latter seem puny by comparison.

Yet it must be remembered that the Atlantic was a proving ground for Pacific operations; there, men, ships, and plane squadrons received the training which later carried them to fame in the war with the Japs. It must be recalled, too, that in the early years of the war, Germany, not Japan, was considered our Number One enemy, that the defeat of the oriental foe had to wait until the Atlantic mission was accomplished — the mission of carrying overwhelming quantities of matériel to be thrown against Germany, and of transporting and supporting the legions which finally forced surrender.

It might be profitable to remember, too, that one of our largest amphibious operations was carried out in the Atlantic a full year before the Marines stormed the beaches of Tarawa, and that the assault and capture of Casablanca, however imperfect it may have been in execution, pointed lessons which were definitely useful in subsequent Pacific operations. Here carrier-based aircraft proved their value in the protection of fleet and transport units, support of initial landing assaults, and direct support of subsequent advances inland by ground forces. Here the escort carrier established its worth as an adjunct of the fleet in offensive operations. Here cruiser and battle­ship planes demonstrated under fire their versatility as reconnaissance planes, fire spotters, and anti-submarine guards. Here was tragically demonstrated the need for thorough training of aviators, especially in navigation.

 p50  When our high command reached the decision to attack North Africa, the task of transporting troops, putting them ashore, and supporting them in the capture of Casablanca, was entrusted to Task Force 34, a vast naval armada organized under command of Rear Admiral (later Admiral) H. K. Hewitt, Commander, Amphibious Forces, Atlantic Fleet. Specifically, the mission of Task Force 34 was "establishment of Western Task Force (U. S. Army) on beachheads ashore near Mehdia, Fedala, and Safi, and support of subsequent coastal military operations in the capture of Casablanca, French Morocco, as a base for further military and naval operations." D‑Day was to be 8 November 1942.

The air group attach to Task Force 34 was made up of the large carrier USS Ranger, the escort carriers USS Sangamon, USS Suwannee, and USS Santee, the light cruiser USS Cleveland and nine destroyers. The escort carrier USS Chenango was attached to the task force, but its mission was the ferrying of seventy-eight Army P‑40‑1 planes, to be launched and flown to the airport at Port Lyautey after the capture of that field. The air group was under command of Rear Admiral E. D. McWhorter, USN, Commander, Carriers, Atlantic Fleet.

When word of the coming operation was first received by Rear Admiral McWhorter, his forces were far from ready. USS Ranger and her air group were well trained and seasoned, but some of the carriers and many of the squadrons had just been commissioned. For example, USS Santee reported to Chief of Naval Operations and sailed from the navy yard on 13 September 1942, with yard workmen still aboard. During the ensuing month she returned to the yard twice, and at no time during that period was she free of the yard workmen. There were only five experienced aviators aboard, and a bare handful of officers and men who had seen salt water before. In the case of USS Sangamon, 50 per cent of the ship's company had never been to sea in any capacity.

Little time for preparation remained, however, and with more experienced forces unavailable, Rear Admiral McWhorter was compelled to do the best he could with what he had. In an effort to overcome the "greenness" of ships, crews, and squadrons, the carriers were ordered to sail for Bermuda early in October, 1942, to carry out intensive training. At Bermuda, classes were conducted, lectures given, flight operations carried on, all adding up to one of the shortest, but most highly concentrated training periods on record for an operation such as the one about to be undertaken. Three and one‑half tons of papers, maps and photographs were used in study and briefing. Finally, a full dress rehearsal  p51 was held, using Bermuda as the coast of Morocco. There was not time for another.

On 25 October 1942 the air group sailed from Bermuda under conditions of complete radio silence. Meanwhile a covering group consisting of one battle­ship, two heavy cruisers, five destroyers, and one oiler had sailed from Casco Bay, Maine, on 24 October, and detachments of battle­ships, cruisers, destroyers, transports and other auxiliaries had sailed from Norfolk on 23 and 24 October. The Casco Bay and Norfolk groups rendezvoused at sea on 26 October, and on 28 October the air group joined the disposition.

The combined fleet thus formed was the largest ever to sail the Atlantic up to that time. It spread out over the ocean to a length of twenty-five miles, and an equal breadth.

The voyage to Africa was a busy one for the air group. In addition to training and briefing, which continued unabated, the carriers set up aerial anti-submarine and scouting patrols to function in co‑operation with the destroyer screen for the protection of the formation.

Task Force 34's plan called for a general covering group of one battle­ship, two heavy cruisers, and four destroyers, and three separate attack groups composed of battle­ships, cruisers, destroyers, and transports. The Northern Attack Group was to go ashore near Mehdia, the Center Attack Group at Fedala, near Casablanca, and the Southern Attack Group at Safi, to the south. After beachheads were secured and neighboring towns and airfields were captured, all forces were to converge on Casablanca and effect its capture. For the assault, the air group, too, was divided into the Northern, Center, and Southern air groups, each to operate in support of the appropriate attack group. The assignment of the air groups was to provide protection for warships and transports from air and submarine attack, bomb and strafe enemy coastal guns, troop concentrations, airports, and warships, and support troop landings and subsequent extension of beachheads.

The air group, and indeed the whole task force, was hampered in its planning by uncertainty as to the amount of fighting that would be required. Nobody knew how strong the French resistance would be. Reports were varied and contradictory, and estimates varied all the way from immediate, bloodless capitulation to full-scale, all‑out defense. However, the strength of French forces was known, and no chances were taken. The operation was planned as a complete surprise to the defending forces, and while it was the intention of our leaders to make peaceful  p52 landings if possible, preparations included provisions for dealing with determined and continued resistance at all points.

On the morning of 7 November (D‑1 Day) the task force was divided, and the various groups proceeded to their stations, preparatory to making simultaneous landings at the three predetermined points at 0400 the following morning. USS Sangamon and her destroyer screen accompanied the Northern Attack Group, and took station approximately thirty miles off Mehdia; USS Ranger, USS Suwannee, USS Cleveland, and screen accompanied the Center Attack Group to a point off Fedala, near Casablanca; and USS Santee with her screen proceeded to Safi with the Southern Attack Group.

At dawn on the morning of 8 November the carriers launched fighter planes and established combat air patrols and anti-submarine patrols over warships and transports at the three attack points. These patrols were maintained from dawn to dusk during the entire operation, and the carriers and their screens dispersed to sea at night to return to station at dawn. At no time did an air attack develop against our shipping, although submarines appeared sporadically, and on the twelfth made a concentrated attack, narrowly missing our carriers and sinking several transports.

At approximately 0500 on the morning of 8 November, landings originally scheduled for 0400 were made at all three points. Resistance developed, particularly in the Casablanca area, and within two hours Rear Admiral Hewitt had ordered a general offensive.

Torpedo planes, scout bombers, and fighters from the carriers went into action against airfields, coastal defense guns, and shipping in the harbor of Casablanca, and the fight was on.

There followed three days of intense aerial activity.

In the north, on the first morning, enemy planes appeared and strafed our troops on the beaches at Mehdia. Fighter patrols from USS Sangamon ranged the beaches all day, but still the troops complained of strafing. It developed that one enemy plane would sneak in low over a ridge, almost invisible to our fighters above, make one run, and disappear over the ridge. Finally, with the aid of a naval air‑ground liaison officer, our planes were able to catch the lone enemy and shoot it down. In the meantime, other planes from the Sangamon spent the day in attacks on the Port Lyautey airfield and other objectives.

In the center, bombers from USS Ranger and USS Suwannee struck at Casablanca, and Ranger fighters followed with heavy strafing. (Fighters from the Suwannee, meanwhile, were flying combat air patrol over the  p53 Northern Group, releasing Sangamon's planes for offensive sweeps.) Intense antiaircraft fire was encountered by the planes over Casablanca. Initial bombing was not too good, due to excitement and uncertainty as to character of targets. Hits were scored on the French battle­ship Jean Bart in the harbor, and at least one of three French submarines attacked was sunk, but the Jean Bart's guns were not silenced, nor were the harbor defenses neutralized. Throughout the day, the batteries of El Hank and the 15‑inch rifles of the Jean Bart ranged the beaches at Fedala.

During the day a French light cruiser and three destroyer leaders sortied from Casablanca Harbor and headed north toward Fedala. They were attacked by surface forces, together with Ranger and Suwannee planes, left burning, and the next day were observed to have been beached.

In the south, at Safi, the first day was quieter than in other areas, but was not without its mishaps and confusion. Two torpedo bombers went into the water on the first take‑off, due to extremely light wind across the deck. The first flight of six fighters, led by Lieutenant Commander Blackburn, was sent aloft to establish combat air patrol. One plane was lost from undetermined cause, and the pilot listed as missing in action. The remaining five planes became lost from their ship due to faulty navigation. Lieutenant Commander Blackburn ran out of fuel first, due to excessive gasoline consumption occasioned by failure of landing gear to retract completely. Before ditching, he ordered the other four pilots to head for shore and attempt to land on a suitable airfield. The four landed at Mazagan airfield, and were promptly captured, to be released four days later when the U. S. Army took over the field. Lieutenant Commander Blackburn was picked up by a destroyer after fifty‑six hours in the water.

In the meantime, four Santee scout bombers had established anti-submarine patrol early in the morning, and torpedo planes were aloft awaiting orders to proceed to the support of ground forces on the beach. Not until 1030 was communication established with the naval liaison station ashore, and then only one plane was called for. Accordingly, Lieutenant Commander Joseph A. Ruddy, in a torpedo plane, spent eight hours in the air as a one‑man force, carrying out reconnaissance and photography missions. He landed only once for refueling during that time.

At dusk, planes of all groups were taken aboard, and the carriers with  p54 their screen steamed away from the coast to avoid the ever-present danger of submarine attack in concentrated shipping areas.

In this first day of operation, the carriers and their planes had established immediate air superiority and control, maintained combat air patrol and anti-submarine patrol over all American shipping, given direct support to ground forces, and in co‑operation with battle­ships and cruisers, inflicted damage on enemy shipping and coastal defense installations. In addition, scouting and observation planes from battle­ships and cruisers had been in the air throughout the day, spotting for ship's gunfire, carrying on reconnaissance, search, photography, and anti-submarine patrol missions.

Fedala had surrendered to ground forces at 1430, and Safi was captured at approximately the same hour.

At dawn the next morning (9 November) the carriers returned to their stations and continued operations as on the first day. By now there was a semblance of organized resistance in the air, and the guns of Casablanca were definitely giving trouble.

In the north, Port Lyautey was reported captured at 1430. The airfield, however, which was to be used by the Army P‑40's brought over by the Chenango, was still in French hands.

In the center, French planes bombed the beach early in the morning, and were engaged by our combat air patrol. At 0915 Commander of the Center Attack Group asked for fighters to stop enemy strafing of the beach. Pounding of shore batteries and harbor defenses of Casablanca went on all this day, and many planes were destroyed on the ground at Rabat, Cazes, and Marrakech.

In the south the Santee, which had been forced to cease flight operations on the afternoon of D‑Day because of insufficient wind across the deck, was again having trouble on the morning of the second day. Because it was thought that the Santee's planes would not take the air, the heavy ships of the Southern Attack Group launched all planes for anti-submarine patrol and reconnaissance. Later, when the Santee planes appeared on station, the cruiser and battle­ship planes were recalled, not, however, before they had reported bombing a submarine near Cape Kantin.

On this second day the French air force in the Safi area dropped its apparently nonhostile attitude of the day before. In the morning a plane came though the overcast over Safi Harbor, to drop a bomb near the USS Lakehurst which was unloading heavy tanks to be used in the  p55 assault on Casablanca. The plane was shot down by antiaircraft fire from the transports.

At 0800 a reconnaissance plane from the Santee was fired upon by antiaircraft guns at Marrakech airport. The pilot dropped two bombs on the hangars and returned to his ship. Later a bombing strike was flown against the field, destroying 20 planes on the ground and damaging 5 others. En route to and from the field, the flight supported an attack by an American armored combat team, destroying 14 trucks loaded with enemy troops.

The airfield at Safi was reported captured at 1655.

The third day of the attack, 10 November, was the last day of actual fighting. It was much like the second, except that the fighting was more intense. Submarines, which had been sighted and engaged throughout the operation, now became much more numerous. One, apparently headed for Dakar, was beached after heavy strafing.

In the north, Port Lyautey airfield was captured in the morning, and the army P‑40's from the Chenango were requested. The first plane to land damaged its landing gear. Forty-three planes were landed, then the operation was temporarily discontinued because of the poor condition of the field. The remainder of the 78 planes were flown to the field the next day, too late to participate in the fighting.

In the center, our battle­ships, together with planes from the Center Air Group, worked on the guns of Casablanca, while fighter planes strafed and bombed installations, and shot down enemy planes that came up to oppose them. In the afternoon the order came to silence the Jean Bart. Nine bombers with 1,000‑pound bombs attacked, and twenty minutes later the leader radioed, "No more Jean Bart" — a pardonable exaggeration.

In the south, Santee planes, supporting the Army, destroyed three trucks, strafed gun emplacements and machine‑gun nests, shot down two twin-engined bombers near Bon Gehdra. A plane from the Philadelphia bombed a beached submarine at Cape Blanca. By night the landing field at Safi was in operation for emergency use.

Again on this day, six Santee planes failed to return to the ship, due to faulty navigation and crowded communications. One was abandoned in the air, one landed in the water, and four landed at Safi.

The final air, sea, and ground assault on Casablanca was planned for 0715 on 11 November. It was halted, however, on a report from General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Patton that the French would capitulate. The "Cease firing" order was given to the task force, and the battle for Casablanca was over. The  p56 carriers reduced their flight to anti-submarine patrols and began recovering stranded pilots.

The land struggle was over, but the sea battle continued. On 12 November, enemy submarines attacked in force. The Ranger was narrowly missed by four torpedoes, and several others were observed to pass close aboard other carriers. Fortunately, no warships were hit, but four transports were destroyed. On 12 November, units of the task force began leaving the area and within a few days practically the whole force was en route to the United States.

All fighting had gone off on schedule. Not a man or ship was lost on the voyage to Africa, none of our planes was shot down in aerial combat. Twenty‑six enemy planes were shot down by our fighters in the air, and over a hundred were destroyed on the ground.

There were valuable lessons to be gained from the Casablanca operations for both future training and operation of naval aviation. We had seen a sample of some of our strength, and, what was fully as important, had discovered some our weaknesses. The comments of some of the leaders of the venture indicated both these points. On the credit side of the ledger, the Commander-in‑Chief, U. S. Atlantic Fleet, noted:

"The value of aircraft on cruisers and battle­ships was clearly illustrated. The use of these aircraft for spotting, close anti-submarine patrol, and search relieved an equal number of carrier aircraft for combat missions, thus increasing the striking power of the air group by the full number of VO‑VS aircraft involved."

The worth of escort carriers converted from tankers was realized. As Rear Admiral McWhorter, commander of the air group, phrased it, "When a vessel of this class is in the striking force, tanker requirements can be eliminated at least in part." This advantage outweighed a weakness of this type of vessel. Because of its low speed, as has been seen, it was sometimes difficult to launch planes in light winds.

Important lessons were learned concerning armament. The devastating character of .50 caliber machine‑gun fire was seen in its ability to put a destroyer out of action. On the other hand, the ineffectiveness of light bombs was made apparent, and it was considered that 1,000‑pound bombs were needed to inflict real damage on heavy ships and gun emplacements.

As to training, there was much on both sides of the ledger. On the credit side, Cominch wrote:

"It is considered that the planning for the use of the Air Group, and  p57 the execution of the tasks assigned, were outstanding. Even on the part of the most inexperienced aviators there was a strict adherence to activity in support of the general task, which was impressive evidence of thorough indoctrination by the Air Group Commander."

On the debit side, there were occurrences which, though regrettable, directed and stimulated future training, thereby preventing recurrences on a larger scale. Outstanding in this category were plane losses through faulty navigation and poor plane procedure. The commander of the air group wrote, "Excessive loss of planes on Santee due to faulty navigation and inability to bring these planes in with equipment provided, indicates necessity of adequate training." Cominch also drew attention to this matter and at the same time gave the explanation for such losses. He wrote:

"Increasing evidence has shown that proper training of pilots is, up to a certain point, of more value than numbers. . . . It is considered that training is the most vital need at the present time in naval aviation. . . .

"Three-fourths of the carriers involved in this operation had less than one‑half of the shakedown training usually considered necessary, prior to the operation. . . ."

Another weakness of training that showed up in the engagements was the unfamiliarity of our forces with our own plane models and those of our allies. As a result, there were instances of friend firing upon friend.

All in all, the Casablanca venture formed an important piece in the building up of the Navy's air strength. The prototype of invasion had been built. Its improved descendants were to invade the islands of the Pacific in the years to come.

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