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World War II: Naval Battle of Casablanca

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World War II: Naval Battle of Casablanca

US Navy F4F Wildcats take off from USS Ranger (CV-4) during the invasion of North Africa.

Photograph Courtesy of US Naval History & Heritage Command

Naval Battle of Casablanca - Conflict & Dates:

The Naval Battle of Casablanca was fought November 8-12, 1942, during World War II (1939-1945).

Armies & Commanders

Allies

  • Rear Admiral Henry Kent Hewitt
  • 1 aircraft carrier
  • 1 escort carrier
  • 1 battleship
  • 3 heavy cruisers
  • 1 light cruiser
  • 14 destroyers

Vichy France

  • Vice Admiral Félix Michelier
  • 1 battleship
  • 1 light cruiser
  • 2 flotilla leaders
  • 7 destroyers
  • 8 sloops
  • 11 minesweepers
  • 11 submarines

Naval Battle of Casablanca - Background:

In 1942, having been convinced of the impracticality of launching an invasion of France as a second front, American leaders agreed to conduct landings in northwest Africa with the goal of clearing the continent of Axis troops and opening the way for a future attack on southern Europe. Intending to land in Morocco and Algeria, Allied planners were required to determine the mentality of the Vichy French forces defending the area. These totaled approximately 120,000 men, 500 aircraft, and several warships. It was hoped that as a former member of the Allies, the French would not engage British and American forces. To assist in assessing local conditions, the American consul in Algiers, Robert Daniel Murphy, was directed to acquire intelligence and reach out to sympathetic members of the Vichy French government.

While Murphy commenced his mission, planning for the landings moved forward under the overall command of Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower. The naval force for the operation would be led by Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham. Initially dubbed Operation Gymnast, it was soon renamed Operation Torch. The plan called for three main landings to take place at Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers. In preparation for Operation Torch, General Henri Giraud was smuggled out of Vichy France with the aid of the resistance. Though Eisenhower had intended to make Giraud the commander of French forces in North Africa after the invasion, the Frenchman demanded that he be given overall command of the operation. This was refused and Giraud became a spectator. With the groundwork laid with the French, the invasion convoys sailed with the Casablanca force departing the United States and the other two sailing from Britain.

Naval Battle of Casablanca - Hewitt Approaches:

Scheduled to land on November 8, 1942, the Western Task Force approached Casablanca under the guidance of Rear Admiral Henry K. Hewitt and Major General George S. Patton. Consisting of the US 2nd Armored Division as well as the US 3rd and 9th Infantry Divisions, the task force carried 35,000 men. Supporting Patton's ground units, Hewitt's naval forces for the Casablanca operation consisted of the carrier USS Ranger (CV-4), the light carrier USS Suwannee (CVE-27), the battleship USS Massachusetts (BB-59), three heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and fourteen destroyers. On the night of November 7, pro-Allies General Antoine Béthouart attempted a coup d'etat in Casablanca against the regime of General Charles Noguès. This failed and Noguès was alerted to the impending invasion. Further complicating the situation was the fact that the French naval commander, Vice Admiral Félix Michelier, had not been included in any Allied efforts to prevent bloodshed during the landings.

Naval Battle of Casablanca - First Steps:

To defend Casablanca, Vichy French forces possessed the incomplete battleship Jean Bart which had escaped the Saint-Nazaire shipyards in 1940. Though immobile, one of its quad-15" turrets was operational. In addition, Michelier's command contained a light cruiser, two flotilla leaders, seven destroyers, eight sloops, and eleven submarines. Further protection for the port was provided by the batteries on El Hank at the western end of the harbor. At midnight on November 8, American troopships moved inshore off Fedala, up the coast from Casablanca, and began landing Patton's men. Though heard by Fedala's coast batteries, little damage was incurred. As the sun rose, the fire from the batteries became more intense and Hewitt directed four destroyers to provide cover. Closing, they succeeded in silencing the French guns.

Naval Battle of Casablanca - The Harbor Attacked:

Responding to the American threat, Michelier directed five submarines to sortie that morning and French fighters took to the air. Encountering F4F Wildcats from Ranger, a large dogfight ensued which saw both sides take losses. Additional American carrier aircraft began striking targets in the harbor at 8:04 AM which led to the loss of four French submarines as well as numerous merchant vessels. Shortly thereafter, Massachusetts, the heavy cruisers USS Wichita and USS Tuscaloosa, and four destroyers approached Casablanca and began engaging the El Hank batteries and Jean Bart. Quickly putting the French battleship out of action, the American warships then focused their fire on El Hank.

Naval Battle of Casablanca - The French Sortie:

Around 9:00 AM, the destroyers Malin, Fougueux, and Boulonnais emerged from the harbor and began steaming towards the American transport fleet at Fedala. Strafed by aircraft from Ranger, they succeeded in sinking a landing craft before fire from Hewitt's ships forced Malin and Fougueux ashore. This effort was followed with a sortie by the light cruiser Primauguet, the flotilla leader Albatros, and the destroyers Brestois and Frondeur. Encountering Massachusetts, the heavy cruiser USS Augusta (Hewitt's flagship), and the light cruiser USS Brooklyn at 11:00 AM, the French quickly found themselves badly outgunned. Turning and running for safety, all reached Casablanca except Albatros which was beached to prevent sinking. Despite reaching the harbor, the other three vessels were ultimately destroyed.

Naval Battle of Casablanca - Later Actions:

Around noon on November 8, Augusta ran down and sank Boulonnais which had escaped during the earlier action. As fighting quieted later in the day, the French were able to repair Jean Bart's turret and the guns on El Hank remained operational. At Fedala, landing operations continued over the next several days though weather conditions made getting men and material ashore difficult. On November 10, two French minesweepers emerged from Casablanca with the goal of shelling American troops that were driving on the city. Chased back by Augusta and two destroyers, Hewitt's ships were then forced to retreat due to fire from Jean Bart. Responding to this threat, SBD Dauntless dive bombers from Ranger attacked the battleship around 4:00 PM. Scoring two hits with 1,000 lb. bombs, they succeeded in sinking Jean Bart.

Offshore, three French submarines mounted torpedo attacks on the American ships with no success. Responding, subsequent anti-submarine operations led to the beaching of one of the French boats. The following day Casablanca surrendered to Patton and German U-boats began to arrive in the area. Early on the evening of November 11, U-173 hit the destroyer USS Hambleton and the oiler USS Winooski. In addition, the troopship USS Joseph Hewes was lost. During the course of the day, TBF Avengers from Suwannee located and sank the French submarine Sidi Ferruch. On the afternoon of November 12, U-130 attacked the American transport fleet and sank three troopships before withdrawing.

Naval Battle of Casablanca - Aftermath:

In the fighting at the Naval Battle of Casablanca, Hewitt lost four troopships and around 150 landing craft, as well as sustained damage to several ships in his fleet. French losses totaled a light cruiser, four destroyers, and five submarines. Several other vessels had been driven aground and required salvage. Though sunk, Jean Bart soon was raised and debate ensued on how to complete the vessel. This continued through the war and it remained at Casablanca until 1945. Having taken Casablanca, the city became a key Allied base for the remainder of the war and in January 1943 hosted the Casablanca Conference between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Selected Sources

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. Military History
  4. Naval Warfare
  5. Naval Battles: 1900-Today
  6. World War II
  7. World War II at Sea - Atlantic & Mediterranean
  8. World War II: Naval Battle of Casablanca

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