On 8th November 1942 the first U.S. troops entered hostilities in North Africa with the invasion of French Morocco and Algeria. These were French colonies that remained loyal to the French Vichy regime, which had reached an accommodation with the Nazis. It was hoped that this loyalty could be overcome and that there would be sufficient French officers who would not wish to fight the United States. British forces took a less prominent part in the operation, partly in a move to avoid antagonising French sensibilities following the sinking of the French Fleet at Oran in July 1940..
In the event the operation did encounter some significant French opposition but the resistance was quickly overcome. The Allies now had a position in the rear of Rommel’s forces in Libya which were currently falling back from El Alamein.
Lieutenant Freer Roger was with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and was expecting to take part in the landings:
SUNDAY, 8 NOVEMBER 1942
Before dawn we lay off Algiers, the convoy having turned hard a starboard during the night. We could see the twinkling lights of the city straight ahead. Even as the first ALCS left for the shore we heard President Roosevelt’s speech to the French nation.
As dawn came up we were close in-shore about four miles west of Algiers, and the first troops were ashore, having met with little or no opposition, except a Commando who had landed off a destroyer in Algiers harbour itself and had been fired upon. However, within a very few hours all resistance had ceased and we heard that Admiral Darlan had been captured by the Americans.
Within six hours our Spitfires were fying from Maison Blanche aerodrome and that evening, when a flight of 15 Ju 88s came over, ten of them were shot down, with no loss to ourselves.
Meanwhile, 36 Bde. were floating reserve, and that evening our ship docked at Algiers to unload other units who were going ashore. It was an impressive night watching our MT ships unloading. One American ship was unloading ‘Jeeps’ at the rate of one every 37 secs., and were being driven away by their drivers at top speed.
That evening the Jerries came over again but were met with such a hail of AA that they veered off and dropped their bombs in the sea. We remained at Algiers all the next day without going ashore, and that evening put to sea again.
This account features in The Words of War: British Forces’ Personal Letters and Diaries During the Second World War, a collection of memoirs from the Imperial War Museum’s archives.
The landing at Oran met with particularly stiff resistance as General Eisenhowers’s report makes clear:
Although our ground forces made land safely, our assault on ORAN harbor came to grief. Before dawn, two former United States cutters, now H.M.S. Walney and Hartland, which were flying both the British and United States ensigns and were carrying two companies of American Rangers and special anti-sabotage parties, headed into ORAN harbor.
They were escorted by Motor Launches 480 and 483, and their mission was to prevent blocking of the port and destruction of harbor facilities. Outside the entrance, the little force waited until an announcement in French was made by loudspeaker from the Walney, and then, with Walney in the lead, and with minelayers laying down a smokescreen, they broke the booms and dashed into the harbor. Here they came under an overwhelming fire from shore batteries and from French warcraft.
The companies of Walney and Hartland behaved with extraordinary courage and perseverance, and the two ships reached their objectives, but they were set ablaze and were disabled. Most of both the crews and the troops were casualties, the two Captains had to abandon ship, and the survivors were made prisoners by the French.
From Eisenhower’s report see Commander in Chief Allied Forces report on Operations
It was here that the commander of HMS Walney Captain Frederick “Fritz” Peters, a Canadian serving in the Royal Navy, won both the Victoria Cross and the U.S. Army Distinguished Service Cross. He was the only survivor of a direct hit on the bridge of the Walney which killed the ten men standing beside him and blinded him in one eye. The citation for the DSC states:
Captain Peters distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism against an armed enemy during the attack on that post.
He remained on the bridge in command of his ship in spite of the fact that the protective armor thereon had been blown away by enemy shell fire and was thereby exposed personally to the withering cross fire from shore defenses.
He accomplished the berthing of his ship, then went to the forward deck and assisted by one officer secured the forward mooring lines. He then with utter disregard of his own personal safety went to the quarter-deck and assisted in securing the aft mooring lines so that the troops on board could disembark. At that time the engine room was in flames and very shortly thereafter exploded and the ship turned on its side and sank.
Captain Peters, who was 53 at the time of the action, survived to be taken prisoner by the French. After he was liberated he was flown back to Britain but died as the plane he was travelling on crashed in thick fog when landing at Plymouth on 13 November 1942.