EDITOR’S NOTE: A little-known fact from the Second World War: During the Allied invasion of North Africa in 1942, the first hostile fire American GIs faced came from the guns of Vichy France. In fact, the Greatest Generation had to fight its way through the French to get to the Nazis.
Here’s an exclusive excerpt from the new book by NR’s John J. Miller and his co-author Mark Molesky, Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France. (For more information on the authors and their book, plus daily commentary on French politics and history, visit their website here.)
Just after three in the morning on November 8, 1942, two British cutters carrying a battalion of American soldiers approached the harbor of Oran, in French Morocco. Their mission was to capture and secure the port for the off-loading of men and materiel during the imminent Allied invasion, called Operation Torch. Almost a year had passed since Germany and Italy had declared war on the United States. The time had now arrived for the American army to enter the fight to liberate Europe and the Mediterranean from fascism. All along the coast of French North Africa that night, tens of thousands of GIs would storm ashore at Algiers, Casablanca, Fedala, Safi, Mehdia, and Oran. Once the Americans seized these cities, it was on to Tunisia to join the British Eighth Army in its struggle against Rommel’s vaunted Afrika Korps.
As the lead ship neared the boom at the mouth of the harbor, a single question animated the mind of all on board: Would the French resist? In the weeks leading up to the invasion, diplomats and intelligence officers had assured the American military that they would not. They were counting on French gratitude earned in the First World War. “Our latest and best information from North Africa,” wrote President Franklin Roosevelt to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, “is … [that] an American expedition led in all three phases by American officers will meet little resistance from the French Army in Africa.” But how could the president be so certain? Hadn’t the French government signed a shameful Armistice with Germany rather than go into exile and carried on the war from abroad? Hadn’t French leaders actively collaborated with their Nazi masters and even shipped valuable supplies to General Erwin Rommel in Tunisia? In 1941, French colonial troops in Syria had fought savagely for more than a month against a combined British and Free French force. But surely, replied the optimists, the French would rally to the Stars and Stripes when they saw it flying above American forces intent on their liberation.
Then the French guns opened up. Guided by spotlights from shore, machine gun tracers sprayed out across the dark water, followed by a withering artillery barrage. From the docks and jetties, French snipers squeezed off round after round. Neither the large and conspicuous U.S. flags flying from both ships nor the repeated calls over a loudspeaker in American-accented French–”Do not fire! We are your friends! Do not Fire!”–had any effect.
As the H.M.S. Walney broke through the boom and entered the harbor, a shell smashed through its bridge, killing the French-speaking sailor declaring Franco-American amity through his microphone. With the groans of the wounded filling the air, a French destroyer, La Surprise, made straight for the Walney. Its powerful guns swept across the crowded decks of the much-smaller ship and tore through its lightly armored sides. Then an artillery shell sliced through the Walney’s engine room, causing terrible injuries. Several more shells blew apart both boilers, blasting metal fragments in every direction and drenching sailors with scalding water.
With its engines gone, the ship now drifted with the tide. Sensing the kill, two French submarines and a destroyer began firing mercilessly into the stricken ship. Although the troops on board managed a courageous final stand with their small arms, the Walney was on fire, its bloody deck layered with corpses and its cabins choked with smoke and mangled bodies.
The H.M.S. Hartland suffered a similar fate. Already severely crippled and burning from several direct hits, the Hartland found itself next to a French destroyer, the Typhoon, which raked the cutter with machine-gun fire from bow to stern. The pile of corpses on deck was soon so thick that it impeded access to the fire hoses. At 4 A.M., an hour after the fighting began, the wounded captain ordered the living to abandon ship. French sailors rescued some from the oily sea. Sharpshooters and machine-gunners finished off the rest. By dawn, the doomed raid was over. Casualties stood at more than 90 percent, including 307 dead. To add insult to grievous injury, the French would charge the Allies a pilotage fee (per local law) for entering the harbor.
For the next three days, the Americans faced fierce fighting across twelve separate battlefields in Algeria and French Morocco. American GIs comprised the bulk of the landing force on the theory that they would antagonize the French less than the British. But the French Premier, Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain, refused to back down. “France and her honor are at stake,” he cabled President Roosevelt. “We are attacked. We will defend ourselves. This is the order I am giving.” Only superior numbers and American tenacity made Operation Torch a success. “Had the landings been opposed by the Germans,” admitted General George S. Patton, “we would never have gotten ashore.”
It is widely believed that Vichy was a weak puppet regime that cooperated reluctantly with the Nazis and put up only a token resistance to Allied forces. The comical figure of Captain Renault from the movie Casablanca epitomizes this image of Vichy officials as opportunists motivated almost entirely by petty corruption rather than fascist ideology. The reality was quite different, as the Americans discovered in North Africa.