South African Military 
History Society


Newsletter No. 466
KwaZulu-Natal December 2014

Contact: Ken Gillings 031 702 4828
Charles Whiteing 082 555 4689
Society’s web site address:

PLEASE NOTE: The documents attached to this newsletter do not necessarily reflect the views of or endorsement by the South African Military History Society, the KwaZulu-Natal Branch of the Society or the Scribe. They have been circulated in good faith in the belief that they may be of interest to some members.

The first speaker for the November meeting was Major Dr John Buchan, who paid tribute to the man behind the name of the monthly curtain-raiser, the late Major Darrell Dickon Hall, who died on the 11th November 1996.

The title of Maj Buchan’s talk was General George Patten and the Torch Landings. John has continued the legacy of the late Prof Mike Laing, who had perpetuated the memory of this remarkable soldier in an annual address to the Branch. We were delighted to have Mrs Mary Laing present for John’s talk which covered a virtually forgotten and much overlooked aspect of WW2.

The decision to plan the Torch landings in North Africa was triggered by the fall of Tobruk on 21st June 1942 and the planning undertaken by the Chiefs of Staff in July was accepted by President Roosevelt on 30th July 1942.

Roosevelt considered that a large American presence at the amphibious landing would be more acceptable to the Vichy French forces. The landings were to be made by 3 task forces. The Eastern and Central task forces were to leave from Britain and be transported by the British Navy. In view of the large component of American personnel and logistics, General Eisenhower was to be the commanding officer and General Mark Clarke his deputy.

The Eastern task force under Major General Ryder was to land at Algiers. The Central task force under Major General Fredendall was to land on the Algerian coast to capture Oman while the Western task force was to travel directly from the American west coast to Morocco. The commander of the Naval force was Rear-Admiral Hewitt. Major-General Patton was the military commander. In view of the landings being planned for November 8th, there was limited time available for preparation of this large scale venture.

For the troops, the limited training with landing craft was done in the sheltered waters of Chesapeake Bay. The poorly organised and co-ordinated storage of the wide variety of military supplies was to cause significant later delays and difficulties during the early phase of the landings. The gale that occurred when nearing the Moroccan coast caused concern as waves greater than 5 ft would disrupt landings. Fortunately good weather conditions and a calm surface were present on November 8th 1942.

Landings at 3 points on the Moroccan coast were planned. The central landing, under Patton’s direct control was to capture the large harbour at Casablanca. A smaller landing force was to capture the harbour of Safi, approximately 140 miles south of Casablanca. This harbour was of importance as there were electric cranes that would enable the unloading of the 40 Sherman tanks brought by the task force. After the successful landing they commenced their 2 day trip to Casablanca to assist as required. The Safi force had only a relatively small French garrison to contend with. The hostilities ended after 2 days, with minimal casualties.

The third landing under Brigadier-General Truscott was north of Rabat at Mehdia. The objective was to secure the concrete all weather landing strip a short distance inland. Resistance from the French military had to be countered. The loss of many of the Stuart light tanks during landing efforts compromised offensive ability. Only 7 of the 45 light tanks arrived safely on the beach. Similar tank landing difficulties occurred at Patton’s beaches. With additional support from landed artillery, and air support from the Grumman Wildcat aircraft from the fleet aircraft carrier Ranger, local control was gained. The airfield, lying in the bend of the Sebou River had been secured by the time of the ceasefire armistice that came into effect in the early hours of 11th November 1942.

Patton, on board the flagship Augusta had intended to be part of the initial landings on Fedala Bay, just north of Casablanca. As the Augusta had to join several other capital ships in controlling a naval offensive by the shore batteries at Casablanca and French naval vessels in the harbour, Patton’s landing was delayed. The percussion effect of the firing of the 15 inches guns had knocked out the bottom of Patton’s landing craft, when suspended over the sea on the davits. Fortunately Patton’s batman had earlier retrieved the pearl handled revolvers before the kit in the landing craft disappeared into the sea and Patton departed for the beach around 1:20pm.

There was a great deal of disorder on the beach. Many landing craft had overturned in the surf and numerous landings had occurred well away from the designated sites. Furthermore, there were delays in unloading supplies from the transport ships.

Later that day, Patton was able to move into the suites in the luxury Miramar Hotel at Fedala harbour, previously occupied by the German Armistice Committee. Organisation on the beach on the 9th November was additionally compromised by deteriorating surf conditions.

Renewed offensive naval fire from the Casablanca harbour on the 10th November 1942 convinced Patton to arrange a formal assault on Casablanca the following day. The attack which would include naval and artillery barrage, bombing by the carrier aircraft and possible tank support, was planned to commence the following morning at 07:30.

This had been impetuous behaviour by Patton as the required authorisation from Eisenhower for a major attack of this nature had never been requested. The armistice arrangements early on the 11th, prevented this attack taking place.

General Nogues and Admiral Michilier joined Patton and Hewitt at the Miramar Hotel in the afternoon for champagne toasts for the future and to celebrate Patton’s birthday on the 11th November. Patton’s earlier birthday in 1918 had occurred on the day of the Armistice ending WW1.

The activities on the Algerian coast by the Central and Eastern task forces were similarly planned. There were to be direct attempts to enter the harbours at Oman and Algeria respectively, while concomitant beach landings on either side of the harbour took place.

The British’ devised plan of sending small ships, carrying troops, into the harbour had been successful 6 months earlier in the poorly defended Diego Suarez harbour in Madagascar but in the heavily defended harbours on the Algerian coast, this strategy was disastrous.

In the Oman harbour, heavy casualties were sustained by the troops and naval personnel on the two small cutters that entered the harbour. After ending the attempt at harbour seizure, a further victory was obtained by the French by the successful scuttling of many ships anchored at the dockside and sinking a large electric crane across the harbour entrance.

The landings at Oran were to be assisted by the first parachute drop of American troops in WW 11, but this venture went horribly awry and military activity ended on the 11th November with the Armistice.

In Algiers, the harbour attack was repulsed, but in their jubilation the French overlooked the sabotaging the harbour.

In the early hours of November 8th, Robert Murphy, the chief American diplomatic official in Algeria had visited General Juin, in charge of the army in Algeria. As Admiral Darlan (his superior officer) was visiting Algeria at the time, he was brought in. Darlan would not initially agree to an armistice.

When activities were reviewed on the 9th November 1942, an Armistice applying only to the city of Algiers was agreed to. After further tortuous discussions, and with the invasion of Vichy France by Axis troops on the 10th November, a ceasefire armistice in Algeria and Morocco came into effect in the early hours of November 11th.

With French assistance, the British and American troops now prepared for action in Tunisia, against Axis troops.

The Main Talk entitled “Collapse in the West, 1940” was presented by past chairman Bill Brady.

The war to end all wars ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day on the eleventh month in 1918. The nation that emerged from this terrible war as the strongest military power was undoubtedly France; yet, just over twenty years later the German army astounded the world by sweeping through France with relative ease to inflict a devastating defeat on her arch foe. The type of war which Germany was preparing for was very different from that which she had lost in 1918. This time round it would be a lightening campaign named ‘Blitzkrieg’. The German Chief of Staff, General von Manstein proposed that the main thrust should be made through the Ardennes at Sedan, and then a dash for the channel coast to cut off and isolate the Allied forces, whom he was by this time convinced would advance north into Belgium. Hitler enthusiastically endorsed Manstein's audacious plan. He also saw the benefit of using paratroops and gliders to capture strategic positions. The main thrust of the German offensive was now to be shifted from the north to the south. The code name for the new plan was operation ‘Sichelschnitt’ - the sweep of the scythe.

German troop morale was high and there was a great deal of enthusiasm for the coming campaign. They were ardent, fuelled by patriotism and had complete faith in their Führer to whom they had all sworn an oath of personal allegiance. Conversely, the picture on the Allied side was very different; French and British troops had been subjected to a long harsh winter, waiting for an enemy who never came. Morale was extremely low, particularly with the French troops in the Sedan sector where the main weight of the German attack was due to descend.

The British contribution in France led by Lord Gort amounted to a mere ten divisions, (less than half of the Belgian army). A modest air force support was also sent to France; but the valuable Spitfire and some Hurricane fighter squadrons were retained for the defence of Britain.

The German airborne assault was launched at dawn on 10th May 1940; it was aimed at key sectors in the Low Countries which included the Albert Canal bridges. The Dutch resistance, though very courageous, stood no chance of delaying the Germans seriously, and by 13th May, the situation had become so grave that Queen Wilhelmina and her government were compelled to leave the country.

The Allied Supreme Commander, Marshall Gamelin, somewhat surprisingly faced the invasion with confidence and set in motion the complicated manoeuvre which was to advance his five armies into the Low Countries after the Germans invaded.

Further south, in the Ardennes region, the German comprehensive assault preparations were being conducted in the utmost secrecy. Entirely fooling Allied intelligence. While the Allied armies hurried north to cover what they believed to be the main threat; the Germans launched their daring and what proved to be decisive attack through the Ardennes against the thin crust of defenders. A general rout developed, with the French fleeing in all directions. The Luftwaffe provided invaluable air support by causing maximum confusion and pulverizing enemy airfields at the precise moment of the ground attack. The French army began to lose its coherence, suffering grievous losses in the process.

An energetic Allied counter-attack from the north and south would have had a very good chance of success and may have restored the French front; but, nothing was done. Surprise had been achieved on a grand scale and the poorly supported and overextended French lines were taken completely off-guard and off-balance.

French Premier, Paul Reynaud, phoned Winston Churchill on 15th May, a mere five days since the German offensive began, to announce, "We are beaten, we have lost the battle; the road to Paris is open”. Churchill flew to Paris the next day to attend a conference; it was his first visit since becoming prime minister. He asked Gamelin in French "where is the strategic reserve"? He was astounded by the reply "there is none". The French high command had gone to pieces and had plunged into despair; the plan devised by Gamelin had gone hideously awry. The British Commander in Chief of the BEF, General Lord Gort, on seeing the French Army disintegrating, and fearing envelopment, made up his mind that there was no point in staying in France. In defiance of French supreme command orders, he decided to retreat towards Dunkirk and establish a secure perimeter.

Whatever the reason, it meant that the chance of reaching Dunkirk before the British was missed and the Germans were unable to complete their overall objective; which was the total destruction of all the Allied armies. With their head now in a noose, the British had no choice other than to evacuate to England; by 4th June, 338 000 British and French troops escaped in ‘the miracle of Dunkirk’.

Another development occurred further south to add to France’s agony. On 10th June, Italy decided to intervene in the war on the side of her Axis partner; no doubt hoping to snatch a share of the spoils. The Italian campaign was a complete fiasco. On 14th June, the triumphant German army entered undefended Paris which had been declared an open city and evacuated the previous day. Prior to the cessation of hostilities, Hitler insisted that the French must undergo the humiliation of signing the armistice in the very same railway carriage at Compiegne that Marshall Foch had dictated surrender terms to the Germans in 1918.

Hitler’s thoughts now focused on Russia where he proceeded to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

After the usual lively debate and searching questions put by the audience to both speakers, Branch Vice Chairman Dr John Cooke conveyed the thanks of the audience to the two speakers for the usual high standard of lectures that the Society has become accustomed to.

Future Meetings. The venue – as usual – is the Murray Lecture Theatre, Department of Civil Engineering, University of KwaZulu-Natal Howard College Campus, Durban:
Thursday 11th December 2014:

Only one lecture: Ian Sutherland on “An RAF Crash in the Scottish Highlands”. This will be followed by an end of year cocktail party.


Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: “A Tribute to Winston Churchill – the 50th Anniversary”, by Past Chairman Bill Brady;

Main Talk: “Al Qaeda - the Eye of the Tiger” by Major Peter Williams

Thursday 12th February 2015 (NB – BACK TO THE SECOND THURSDAY):

Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: “The Battle of Santa Cruz, 25th October 1942” by Roy Bowman

Main Talk: “Shaka; his military career” by Dr Alex Coutts.

Thursday 12th March 2015:

Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: “The Colesberg Campaign, December 1899 to March 1900” by Steve Watt.

Main Talk: “The Myths of the Anglo-Boer War” by Chris Ash.

South African Military History Society /