Operation Goalpost

This was the US landing of Major General George S. Patton’s Western Task Force at Mehdia on the Atlantic coast of Morocco in ‘Torch’ (8/11 November 1943).

The Western Task Force, whose primary objective was the port city of Casablanca, comprised only US units, with Patton in command and Rear Admiral H. Kent Hewitt heading the naval operations. To accomplish its mission, the Western Task Force had Major General Ernest N. Harmon’s 2nd Armored Division, Major General Jonathan W. Anderson’s 3rd Division, Major General Manton S. Eddy’s 9th Division, two separate tank battalions with 54 medium and 198 light tanks, and sufficient support units to maintain the total force of 34,871 troops delivered by sea directly from ports on the the eastern seaboard of the USA.

Hewitt’s naval strength comprised four major elements in the form of Task Group 34.1 (Covering Group) with the battleship Massachusetts, heavy cruisers Wichita and Tuscaloosa, destroyers Wainwright, Mayrant, Rhind and Jenkins, and oiler Chemungo, and three attack groups. The Northern Attack Group was TG34.8 for the delivery and support of 'Goalpost' comprised the battleship Texas and light cruiser Savannah for fire support, eight transports screened by the destroyers Roe, Livermore, Kearny, Ericsson and Parker, the escort carriers Sangamon and Chenango covered by the destroyers Hambleton, Macomb, Dallas and Eberle, the oiler Kennebec, the minesweepers Raven and Osprey, the seaplane tender Barnegat and the submarine Shad.

The US Navy had also to provide air support during the landing phase until fields ashore could be secured for the squadrons of Major General James H. Doolittle’s 12th AAF.

The Western Task Force landed before daybreak on 8 November at three points: Safi in Morocco (‘Blackstone’), Fédala in Morocco (‘Brushwood’), and Mehdia-Port Lyautey in Morocco (‘Goalpost’).

Because it was hoped that the French would not resist, there was no preliminary bombardment. During the previous night, an Allied-backed coup attempt had been made by Général de Corps d’Armée Marie Emil Antoine Béthouart, whose forces surrounded the villa of the pro-Vichy Général d’Armée Charles Auguste Paul Noguès. However, Noguès managed to telephone nearby Vichy French units, whose intervention prevented the general’s seizure. In addition, the coup attempt alerted Noguès to the likelihood of an Allied amphibious invasion, and he immediately bolstered the Vichy French coastal defences.

Major General Lucian K. Truscott’s sub-task force for ‘Goalpost’ comprised the 60th Regimental Combat Team of the 9th Division reinforced by the 1/66th Armored Regiment of the 2nd Armored Division, elements of the 70th Tank Battalion (Separate), and seven batteries of artillery. With support units, the sub-task force totalled 9,079 officers and men, and its primary objectives were airfields at Port Lyautey and at Sale, 25 miles (40 km) to the south near Rabat. To reach these, the troops would first have to take the coastal village of Mehdia and the town of Port Lyautey about 5 miles (8 km) inland on the Sebou river. The Vichy French defence of this area was commanded y Colonel Charles Petit.

The operational plan was more complex than that for ‘Blackstone’ because of the peculiarities of the local terrain: while the coast is basically straight, the Sebou river meanders sharply in an ‘S’ shape to form two peninsulas, Port Lyautey’s airfield lying on the larger of these. An advance straight inland from Mehdia was the most direct route to the airfield, but the troops would have to move through a narrow marsh between the river and a lagoon, and under the guns of a fortress. From bluffs between the towns artillery dominated all points.

Truscott therefore opted to land his force on five beaches along a 10-mile (16-km) stretch of coast. The 1/60th Battalion Landing Team and 2/60th Battalion Landing Team, going ashore to the south of the river and followed by the 1/66th Armored Regiment, would advance on separate axes to the airfield, while the 3/20th Battalion Landing Team would land to the north of the river and advance from the north down the other peninsula toward Port Lyautey. If all went as planned, the airfield and towns would be under US control by sundown on the first day of the operation.

Even before 04.00, the time scheduled for the landing, a number of problems began to develop. Approaching the coast during the night, the naval transports had lost formation, and the time of the landing was set back to allow boat crews to improvise assault waves. Heavy seas further slowed debarkation. As at Safi, all the landing teams were to go ashore in darkness, but only the first three waves of the 2/60th Battalion Landing Team had landed before dawn. Later waves were not only late but off course. The 1/60th Battalion Landing Team and 3/60th Battalion Landing Team missed their assigned beaches by 2,800 yards to the south and 5 miles (8 km) to the north respectively.

The Vichy French opposition was much more forceful than that at Safi and caused more confusion and delays. At dawn French aircraft strafed the beaches and bombed transports. A strong coastal artillery concentration at a fortress just to the south of Mehdia rained a heavy volume of fire on transports offshore. To the south the 1/60th Battalion Landing Team struggled in the sand for more than five hours to regain its beach, round the lagoon, and start toward the airfield, but was then pinned down by machine gunfire for the rest of the day.

To the rear French reinforcements from Rabat were firing on landing team outposts. In the middle the 2/60th Battalion Landing Team stopped to await naval gunfire support, and was driven back almost to the beach with heavy losses by a Vichy French counterattack.

While the US Navy was firing on the Mehdia fortress, the troops ashore did not yet have enough artillery to suppress the Vichy French batteries, whose fire prevented the lighters carrying tanks from landing and forced the transports to move out of range, thus lengthening the route to shore and further slowing the landing and delivery of heavier weapons and equipment.

By the fall of night on the first day of the operation, the US forces occupied only precarious positions some miles distant from the airfield they so desperately needed.

The second day was a mix of success and frustration. In the south the 1/60th Battalion Landing Team and several light tanks twice blocked larger columns of French infantry and armour. While naval gunfire dispersed the Vichy French, the troops made good progress toward the airfield until a ‘friendly fire’ incident halted them. In the centre the 2/60th Battalion Landing Team could do no more than hold position only 1 mile (1.6 km) inland against a Vichy French unit which had been reinforced during the previous night. To the north the 3/60th Battalion Landing Team succeeded in placing troops and artillery to the north and east of the airfield but then stalled under fire from Port Lyautey.

During the night of 9/10 November a tactical innovation involving the US Navy raised US spirits. On the Sebou river the destroyer transport Dallas pushed aside a barricade and made its way upstream with a raider detachment to spearhead the assault on the airfield.

As the night wore on, some colonial units of the Vichy French army ceased their resistance, but French Foreign Legion units continued to fight. Several companies of the 1/60th and 3/60th Battalion Landing Teams made progress, though slow, toward the airfield. At dawn on 10 November the 1/60th Battalion Landing Team started a new drive, this time with armoured support, and by 10.45 reached the western side of the airfield.

On the river, Dallas passed through a gauntlet of artillery fire and disembarked the raiders on the eastern side of the airfield. US troops now occupied three sides of their objective. Serious opposition still came from the Mehdia fortress. Although naval gunfire had already silenced the larger batteries, machine gun and rifle fire continued. US Navy dive-bombers were called in, and after only one bombing run the garrison surrendered. After taking possession of the fort and rounding up its prisoners, the 2/60th Battalion Landing Team moved on to close the ring around the airport.

By the fall of night the US victory was assured, the local Vichy French commander requested a parlay with Truscott, and at 04.00 on 11 November a ceasefire went into effect.