[Excerpted from U.S. Coast Guard Magazine, October 1943 edition.]
Robert C. Conrad
Here is an Eye-Witness’ Report of the Manner in Which Two Coast Guard Cutters Went to Certain Destruction at Oran in One of the War’s Most Gallant Epics.
Early in the evening, the curious had lined the stone fences that curved across the face of the hillside above the harbor of Oran. From this vantage point, they had scarcely two years before seen the British Fleet strike a fearful blow at a part of the French Navy anchored off Mers-El-Kabir, sinking its major elements.
The crowd was a mixed one. Nazi and Vichy sympathizers rubbed confident elbows with the hopeful Free French. Rumor had it that a large convoy of ships bearing American and British troops was heading for Oran.
Perhaps it was with a sigh of relief that they accepted another rumor to the effect that, while a vast convoy was moving eastward in the Mediterranean it was also holding its easterly course as it passed north of Oran. There seemed less need for concern. Even the garrison at Arzew, which had manned machine guns on the beach there was returning to its fortress for the night. The fear of attack seemed less now as the silhouette of the convoy swept beyond Arzew. The guards were sent as was usual and the troops turned in, leaving their machine guns strapped on mule backs to be ready to move in the morning if need be.
At the post of the French Foreign Legion at Sidi-Bel-Abbis, there was an atmosphere of expectancy, but the troops had to wait for more definite news before they could move north.
At Oran, however, certain naval units were standing by, their lookouts scanning the sea for tell-tale phosphorescent streaks. Their vigil was not wasted for at 0330 a small group, later called a “Suicide Squadron” by British news writers, crashed through the submarine defenses and rode into the Avant Basin. The group was described in Time magazine as being made up of two former U. S. Coast Guard cutters and a few British “M.L.’s.”
The American Flag was flying from each cutter -- flying above the heads of the American and British Military and Naval officers on the decks. Commandos, Rangers, and U. S. Marines waited below decks for the order to move.
At the guns of the forts capping the surrounding hills, crews swung their pieces toward the approaching ship. Warships in the harbor rustled with activity as they were made ready for action. The curving fence was deserted.
It was exactly at 0330 that the signal came to the approaching ships. The plan was now in full force. First one, then the other cutter moved through the gate in the anti-submarine nets. The “M.l.” strung along in a close cluster. The second cutter fouled on the net and backed off.
Someone turned to the Captain of the second cutter to remark, “That’s machine gun fire!”
“So it is!” the Captain said quietly. Then, into the voice tube, “Full speed ahead!” Over the net and into the hail-storm of shells and bullets, the second cutter charged, giving, as it were, the signal for the firing of heavier guns.
A cruiser’s main batteries opened up at point blank range. From the hill forts came shells which were cast into an invisible checkerboard. The entire harbor was plotted and this action was merely a repetition of long drills. Their aim was deadly. Some of the men on the decks of the cutters were blown into waters by the force of the blasts. Grappling lines were casts, and as the officer turned to order the lines hauled in, he saw only a dead crew. The cutter drifted away, her rudder damaged, and she was in equal trouble. But on deck, officers and men still left were fighting as only Americans and British can fight.
FIRE BREAKS OUT
Fires had already started below decks and men were groping their way toward fresh air blindly. Those not hit were shoving the wounded ahead of them before they would leave.
On deck, men not manning guns were filling the life belts of the wounded with air from their tortured lungs, then rolling the wounded into the water on the sheltered side of the ships.
A chief water tender who was regarded as somewhat of a martinet while the Navy men trained in the United Kingdom was squirting steel from a machine gun, toward the shore. When it jammed, a duration of war enlistee rose to free the jam and was instantly killed. As though he were clearing the decks of wreckage after a hard storm, a warrant officer was easing wounded men into the sea in an attempt to save their lives. In the lee of the bridge, three officers talked calmly. One of them spoke: “I’d give a lot for a good drink right now.” Another officer drew a small flask from the breast pocket of his fighting uniform, saying, “This is about all the brandy that was salvaged when my home was ‘blitzed’ -- I think this is a good a time to drink it as any.”
There was a softly spoken “Cheers”! as each man drank.
And in this toast was a memory of Dunkirk, of Dieppe and now, of Oran.
VICTORY AT A PRICE
In the early hours of morning, a weary column marched through the streets of Oran toward the city prison. Out of the east and west came the thunder of advancing American troops. Landings had already been achieved at Arzew and near Mers-El-Kabit and the American line was closing it. It wouldn’t be too long now.
Both cutters were hopelessly wrecked. Lives had been lost and many were wounded.
“And how can a man die better
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods?”