The old American battleship Massachusetts is moored in the Taunton River estuary near the city of Fall River, an hour south of Boston. Having been converted into a museum, the ship launched in 1941 now shows off its war wounds, including a basketball-sized breach in the steel of the main deck, a constellation of pockmarks in one of the bunkrooms, and another on the quarterdeck. Alongside each scar, a sign indicates the guilty party: “an enemy shell” received on November 8, 1942. However, the plaques fail to mention that these projectiles were fired by the Primauguet, a French cruiser, and the El Hank coastal artillery battery in Morocco.
After being attacked, the Massachusetts received orders to defend itself: “Play ball!” By the end of the day, the U.S. ship had fired 78 6 shells. Off the coast of Casablanca, the Allied landings in North Africa had begun. The invasion, named Operation Torch, was directed by General Eisenhower, the future architect of the Normandy landings. His objective was to transport 107,000 American and British soldiers to Morocco and Algeria before marching them towards Tunisia – another French colony – and from there, launch a pincer attack on the German army. But as the Allied armada was casting off, one question was on everyone’s minds: How was Vichy France going to react to this assault? (General Juin, writing in France-Amérique, referred to it as “breaking and entering.”) Would the French dare to fire at their allies from the Great War?
From June 22, 1940, France had been a neutral country in the conflict. The armistice signed with Germany required the demobilization of its armed forces and the occupation of part of the country. However, the colonial empire was spared. It remained under French control and Pétain convinced Hitler to allow him to maintain an army there. In exchange, the colonies promised to fight off any invasion – or suffer the consequences. The Vichy troops were nothing if not zealous; in September 1940, they opened fire on the Free French and British forces as they tried to land in the city of Dakar. “The French were just as likely to fire on a Gaullist force as on the British,” writes historian Meredith Hindley. “It was unlikely, however, that the French would fire on the Americans.”
The Final Negotiations
This is at least what Roosevelt was hoping for. However, ahead of the invasion, the American president sent diplomat Robert Murphy to North Africa. Claiming to be leading an economic aid mission, Murphy organized an intelligence and resistance network, and moved heaven and earth to convince Morocco and Algeria to join the Allied side. Generals Giraud, Mast, and Béthouart agreed to defect. They prepared a coup and secretly met with the Americans three weeks before Operation Torch was supposed to be set in motion. However, a majority of French officers refused to disobey the Vichy regime. “If you do [come],” replied Charles Noguès, the resident-general in Morocco, “I will meet you with all the firepower I possess.”
As the American fleet approached its destination, General Patton was unsure of how to proceed. Eisenhower had appointed him to lead the troops landing in Morocco, but contradictory information was coming over the radio on the cruiser Augusta. “From some of the messages we have, it seems that there is a good chance that the French army and air [force] will join us,” he said in a letter to his wife on November 2. Four days later, he wrote an entry in his diary: “The intercepts [of enemy messages] indicate that the French will fight.”
At dawn on November 8, Noguès received a letter from Roosevelt informing him that an invasion was imminent and offering him one last chance to either cooperate or remain neutral. This final attempt at negotiating failed. The resident-general immediately put his troops on alert and had any conspiring officers and the entire American diplomatic staff arrested. Relations were severed between Vichy and Washington. In Morocco, French shore batteries opened fire on the U.S. fleet at 6:07 a.m. The American destroyer Murphy was hit shortly afterwards, leaving three sailors dead and 25 wounded. On board the sloop Commandant Delage, bombed in retaliation by U.S. Navy planes, mechanic Claude Théodin was shocked: “We fired at the Americans!”
A Fratricidal Duel
The battle for North Africa was ferocious. “Many French soldiers were pro-American but they obeyed orders,” says historian Vincent O’Hara. Another author, Jacques Mordal, describes a “terrible chain of events” and a “fight […] for the respect of obedience and allegiance.” Off the coast of Casablanca, the French Marine Nationale and the U.S. Navy went head-to-head for more than six hours in what became the largest naval battle in the Atlantic Ocean during World War II. The battleship Jean Bart, the jewel of the French fleet, narrowly misses the Augusta, a cruiser carrying Patton and the U.S. Navy’s Admiral Hewitt. North of Rabat, where American troops were approaching the air base of Port Lyautey, the French infantry pushed back with bayonets! Following orders from Hitler and Mussolini, Axis submarines and bombers came to support the French in Algeria and drive away the “incomers.”
Patton, who set foot in Morocco in the early afternoon of November 8, remained confident: “The French don’t want to fight [us],” he wrote in his diary. “I feel that most of the time they bomb the ocean rather than the beach.” A few days later, he sent a far different account to his wife: “Monday morning I spent on the beach. Things were pretty bad and we got bombed and strafed by French air[craft]…” Pétain’s orders were clear: Combat should be continued for as long as possible. Yet despite everything, talks began between French and American officers, and on November 11, the anniversary of the end of World War I, a ceasefire was signed.
The news came through just in time, as the U.S. Army, supported by tanks and bombers, was about to launch a large-scale attack on Casablanca. On November 26, a mass was held in honor of the French and American dead – some of whom are buried at the Ben M’Sik European Cemetery and the North Africa American Cemetery in Tunis. Roosevelt, Churchill, Giraud, and de Gaulle (who had been kept out of negotiations until then), attended a conference together two months later, and the new allies went on to fight side by side in Tunisia, Italy, France, and Germany. This fratricidal duel for North Africa, glossed over in the name of French-American friendship, was a “tragic mistake,” writes Jacques Mordal. “That the American armed forces fought against the French army in Morocco and Algeria, despite the fact that they were battling our mutual enemy, is one of the cruelest dramas of World War II.”
The Allies at War
Before Operation Torch, France and the United States clashed during the Quasi-War of 1798-1800. While never officially declared, this was a major conflict in the history of our two countries. The 1778 French-American Treaty of Alliance was revoked, more than 2,000 merchant ships were captured, and many French and American sailors were killed – mainly in naval skirmishes in the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean. And on May 28, 1754, before the Thirteen Colonies gained independence, a Virginian militia led by a young George Washington opened fire on a French detachment in Pennsylvania. Officer Joseph Coulon de Villiers, Sieur de Jumonville, was killed along with nine of his men. This was one of the first battles in the French and Indian War, which pitted France against Britain (and its American troops) for control of North America.