OPERATION TORCH

By W.E. Ehrman

The decommissioning of the 255 foot cutters several years ago brings to mind the last days of two of their predecessors and namesakes. The author, a retired officer who was "raised on Lakers" here describes the dramatic ending of the original SEBAGO and PONTCHARTRAIN.

In April 1941, the United States transferred ten "Lake Class" Cutters to Great Britain under terms of the Lend Lease Act of March 11, 1941. Two of the cutters, SEBAGO and PONCHARTRAIN, were renamed HMS WALNEY and HMS HARTLAND respectively. Both were lost during Operation Torch, the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa.

This initial operation called for the taking of the seaports of Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers so that heavy equipment and supplies could be landed and airfields captured to support the invasion. WALNEY and HARTLAND were attached to the Center Task Force. This force included a large armada of warships, transports, and landing craft.

The object was to take the port without damaging the important facilities by prior bombardment. To this end, troops were to be landed by surprise on adjacent beaches and encircle the city. WALNEY and HARTLAND would then crash the boom at the harbor's entrance, land troops at the heart of the waterfront, and prevent defenders from sabotaging port facilities and scuttling ships.

It was a bold plan and it ran into heavy opposition from staff members when first announced. It was pointed out that the assault ships would be without any support whatsoever until the invading ground troops had reached Oran proper; that the harbor was strongly defended by coastal batteries and shore units with automatic weapons; and the ships would be facing French naval units once they entered the narrow confines of the harbor. However, it was felt the element of surprise would bring success. The ships could break in and execute their mission before the defenders would have time to react.

At H-Hour, 0100 on November 8, 1942, invading forces from the Center Task Force were put ashore on the beaches adjacent to Oran. While this was taking place WALNEY and HARTLAND were maneuvering off the harbor entrance awaiting the signal to begin their dash. The landings on the beach went off smoothly against light opposition. Task Force Commanders believed the entire operation had caught the French by surprise and hastened to give the order for WALNEY and HARTLAND to begin the frontal assault.

The signal came at 0245, 1 hour and 45 minutes after H-Hour. WALNEY and HARTLAND squared off and headed at top speed for the log boom stretching across the harbor mouth. Royal Navy personnel manned both vessels and each carried about 200 men of the 6th U.S. Armored Infantry Division. The landing force included specialists equipped with canoes designed to quickly bring them alongside ships in the harbor and prevent them from being scuttled. In addition to their White Ensigns, both ships flew large American flags.

WALNEY was in the lead. Riding her was Squadron Commander, Captain R.T. Peters, RN, who had come out of retirement to volunteer for the "Death of Glory" mission. As she began her swift approach it became apparent that the French defenders of Oran were not only aware of her presence, they were full of fight as well. Huge searchlights from shore caught WALNEY in their glaring beams and she immediately came under heavy automatic gunfire.

Undaunted by the heavy rain of shells and partially screened by smoke generated by escorting motor launches, Captain Peters drove WALNEY head on into the log boom and crashed through it. Once past this barrier WALNEY found the narrow entrance the harbor blocked by the French Sloop LA SURPRISE, attempting to sortie. The French ship after narrowly avoiding a collision with WALNEY poured heavy gunfire into her at point blank range, wrecking WALNEY's machinery spaces and putting her out of control. WALNEY's headway carried her on into the confines of the harbor where she came under a murderous crossfire from several French submarines and a French destroyer. With his ship helpless and nearly 76% casualties on board, Captain Peters gave the order to abandon ship. The French took prisoner those who managed to reach shore. Not long after she was abandoned, WALNEY capsized and sank.

HARTLAND fared no better as she followed close astern of WALNEY. She too was spotlighted in the bright glare of the searchlights and had to run through the same gauntlet of heavy gunfire. Driven off course by withering blasts of gunfire which caused casualties to her bridge personnel, including her CO, HARTLAND missed the narrow entrance on her first try and struck the southern jetty. She backed off and lined up for another try. This time she cleared the hole, but immediate came under fire at extremely close range from the French Destroyer TYPHON. After unsuccessfully trying to moor alongside a trawler, HARTLAND ... battered and reeling ... drifted aimlessly. Fires spread rapidly below decks driving personnel topside where they were mowed down by relentless machinegun fire coming from all directions. With more than 50% casualties on board and the ship a mass of flames from stem to stern, HARTLAND was abandoned. Her survivors, like WALNEY'S, were taken prisoner. Later she blew up.

During the period that the survivors of WALNEY and HARTLAND were prisoners, the French defenders of Oran methodically destroyed it's port facilities and blocked the harbor with scuttled ships, thus carrying out the very acts of sabotage that the daring mission was supposed to prevent.

Hindsight shows that the mission could have been successful only if the vital element of surprise had been maintained. This could have been achieved only by scheduling the frontal attack on Oran PRIOR to the landings on the beaches.

The garrison at Oran nearly encircled on land and cut off any support by sea, held out until the morning of November 10 when American armor and infantry stormed into the center of the city.

French naval units also came out ..... or tried to come out ..... to fight. The sloop LA SURPRISE which had inflicted such terrible damage to WALNEY made it out into the open and headed for the transports, but she was cut off and sunk by HMS BRILLIANT shortly after daybreak on November 8 while the wrecks of WALNEY and HARTLAND were still setting into the mud of the harbor bottom. Four French destroyers, trying to break out, ran into HMS AURORA and her destroyer screen. When the smoke of battle had cleared, three of the French destroyers and been sunk and the fourth on forced back into the harbor.

When Oran fell the survivors of WALNEY and HARTLAND were released. Ironically, the Squadron Commander, Captain Peters, who had managed to survive the holocaust and who was one of the released prisoners, was killed later when the plane carrying him back to England was shot down. For his gallantry and devotion to duty during the disastrous attack on Oran, Captain Peters was posthumously awarded the British Victoria Cross and the American Distinguished Service Cross.

Operation Torch was the end of the line for the old SEBAGO and PONCHARTRAIN, but it was the beginning for a long road that finally led to the Allied victory in Europe.

Extracted from "We've Been There - The U.S. Coast Guard" by Esther Stormer ©1992 - Reprinted by permission.

 

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