Operation Brushwood

This was the US landing of Major General George S. Patton’s Western Task Force at Fédala on the Atlantic coast of French Morocco within ‘Torch’ (8/9 November 1941).

Totalling some 19,000 men and therefore the largest of the Western Task Force’s three landings on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, the undertaking was designed to capture Fédala as part of a larger operation to capture Casablanca, the capital and main port of French Morocco.

Poor weather disrupted the landings of Major General John P. Lucas’s reinforced 3rd Division, and the landing beaches again came under Vichy French fire after daybreak. Patton himself landed at 08.00 to assume personal control and restore both order and vigour to the undertaking, and the beach-heads were secured later in the day. The original problem had been the fact that the troops of the first assault wave had landed on the wrong beaches and were uncertain of their position, and then the troops of the second wave were delayed. This gave the Vichy French defence time to organise its resistance, and the remaining landings were conducted under artillery bombardment.

With the assistance of air support from the supporting aircraft carriers, the troops then drove forward and captured their objectives. The US forces surrounded Casablanca by 10 November, and the city surrendered an hour before the final assault was due to take place. Patton’s Western Task Force had been transported, landed and supported by Rear Admiral H. Kent Hewitt’s US naval forces.

For ‘Blackwood’, these latter comprised the Covering Group (Task Group 34.1) with the battleship Massachusetts, heavy cruisers Tuscaloosa and Wichita, and destroyers Wainwright, Mayrant, Rhind and Jenkins supported by the oiler Chemungo; and the Centre Attack Group (TG34.9) with the heavy cruiser Augusta and light cruiser Brooklyn for fire support, destroyers Wilkes, Swanson, Ludlow and Murphy, and 15 transports, screened by the destroyers Bristol, Woolsey, Edison, Tillman, Doyle and Rowan, six minecraft, the light fleet carrier Ranger and the escort carrier Suwanee with cover from the light cruiser Cleveland and destroyers Ellyson, Forrest, Fitch, Corry and Hobson, the oiler Winooski, and the submarines Gunnel and Herring.

The fast minesweeper Hogan disabled the French patrol vessel Victoria, which was escorting a small convoy off Fédala, and with the minesweeper Auk captured the French ships. On 8 November French shore batteries damaged the destroyers Ludlow and Murphy, but were then silenced by the cruiser Augusta and destroyer Wilkes. The minesweeper Auk and destroyer Tillman also encountered a small convoy, escorted by the survey vessel Estafette, which was damaged by Tillman’s fire. The six ships under escort either dropped anchor or were captured.

In places, the French defenders put up considerable resistance to the US landing forces. Casablanca had become the principal French base for Atlantic naval forces after the German occupation of France’s European coast, and the naval battle of Casablanca resulted from a sortie of French cruisers, destroyers, and submarines opposing the landings. A cruiser, six destroyers, and six submarines were destroyed by the fire of US warships and by air attack. The sortie resulted from the orders of the naval commander, Vice-amiral François Michelier. The incomplete battleship Jean Bart, which was docked, immobile and with only one of her main armament turrets functional, was severely damaged by shelling and air attack.

Two sorties were made by Contre-amiral Gervais de Lafond to attack the Western Task Force with the cruiser Primauguet, flotilla leaders Albatros and Milan, and destroyers Boulonnais, Brestois, Fougueux and Frondeur, but both failed. Primauguet and Albatros were hit by the fire of Augusta and Brooklyn, and Milan by the fire of the destroyer Wilkes: all three French ships had to be beached to avoid sinking. Other French ships were sunk in the harbour or just outside by the fire of Massachusetts, Wichita and Tuscaloosa, which also inflicted further damage on Jean Bart.

Of the 11 French submarines present at Casablanca, Orphée, Méduse, Amazone, Antiope and Sibylle were able to get away and take up position off Casablanca and Fédala. Before Tonnant and Sidi Ferruch could depart, however, they were attacked and damaged by aircraft from Ranger and Suwanee: both French captains were wounded and their boats were able to depart only later under their first officers. In the harbour the submarines Amphitrite, Psyché and Oréade were severely damaged, put out of action and deemed to be total losses. Conquérant was in a floating dock, and although this sank after taking a 16-in (406-mm) shell from Massachusetts, the submarine was able to float out and depart.

The French submarines already at sea were ordered to attack. On 8 and 9 November Orphée sighted US ships but was not able to engage them and later returned to Casablanca. Méduse fired four torpedoes, which all missed, at Massachusetts and on 9 November, while attempting to return to Casablanca to take on more torpedoes, was hit by a floatplane from the cruiser Philadelphia and had to be beached at Cap Blanc during the following day in order to save the wounded. Antiope fired six torpedoes at Tuscaloosa and Amazone four at Brooklyn, but the US warships avoided these. The two submarines were then rerouted to Dakar. Sibylle was lost, probably on a mine in a US defensive field off Fédala, during 8 November. Tonnant attacked Ranger on 10 November, but the carrier evaded the four torpedoes. Unable to negotiate the Strait of Gibraltar, the submarine was scuttled off Cadiz on 15 November. The damaged Sidi Ferruch was sunk on 11 November off El Hank by aircraft from the escort carrier Suwanee. Having no torpedoes, Conquérant attempted to reach Dakar but was sunk by a Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat off Villa Cisneros.

On 11 November an armistice was signed between the Vichy French forces and the Allies. In their operations against all elements of ‘Torch’, the French navy had suffered 462 dead, the army 326 and the air force 15; the French forces had also suffered more than 1,000 wounded.