Friday, November 3, 2017

The Counterfeit Brigantines of Safi and the Ranger Deliverer of the Wadi Sebou

By Reece Nortum
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator
USS LST 547 lands an Army M4A1 Sherman tank during training exercises at Camp Bradford, Virginia, in 1944. While the Sherman and the Landing Ship, Tank (LST) were some of the most recognizable staples of amphibious warfare during World War II, only the Sherman was in production in time to participate in Operation Torch, the largest amphibious operation the American  Army and Navy played a part in since the Civil War.  In only about three months, four military facilities, including Camp Bradford, were created along the south shore of the Chesapeake Bay (plus an Amphibious Force headquarters at the Nansemond Hotel) to prepare thousands of Army and Navy personnel for the invasion of French North Africa. In order to keep a November 1942 invasion deadline, existing vessels, including old destroyers, would have to stand in for more specialized amphibious vessels that would appear in the following year. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)  
Seventy-five years ago, the sprawling facility along the southern shore of Chesapeake Bay now known as Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story was composed of four brand-new bases: Camp Bradford, Camp Shelton, U.S. Naval Frontier Base, and Amphibious Training Base. These bases, Amphibious Training Base in particular, became the center for pioneering the new techniques of amphibious warfare for the equally new types of vessels that would be required to win the Second World War: the LSM (landing ship medium); LCI (landing craft infantry); LCU (landing craft utility); LCM (landing craft mechanized), and LCVP (landing craft vehicle, personnel). At the new bases, the techniques of training had to be developed almost from scratch. Only the doctrine (The Landing Force Manual) developed by the Marines between 1935 and 1939 existed before the war began in 1941, but little testing and training had been done. During World War II over 200,000 naval personnel and 160,000 Army and Marine Corps personnel trained at Little Creek.

An SBD Dauntless from USS Ranger (CV 4) flies an antisubmarine patrol over some of the 102 warships and transports of the Western Naval Task Force, which left Hampton Roads on October 24, 1942.  By November 8, they were in position to launch the invasion of French-held territory in Morocco under Operation Torch. (National Archives and Records Administration)  

To accomplish the invasion of North Africa, Western Task Force would have naval support, which would come from an American task force: one aircraft carrier, four escort carriers, three battleships, seven cruisers, and 38 destroyers, in addition to troop and cargo transports and auxiliaries, under Rear Adm. H. Kent Hewitt. The Navy would also provide air support during the landing phase until fields ashore could be secured for squadrons of the 12th Air Force.
ABOVE: Launched only four days before the end of World War I, USS Bernadou (DD153), shown here probably during the early-1920s, was transformed [BELOW] so that she would more closely resemble a fishing brigantine during the initial landings of Operation Torch on November 8, 1942. (Collection of Gustave Maurer, Naval History and Heritage Command image)

USS Bernadou (DD 153) rests upon the shore at Safi, French Morocco, after landing troops during Operation Torch in November 1942. Examples of destroyers being used in unconventional ways became much rarer after more specialized amphibious vessels became available to American forces in 1943.  (Gift of J. Everett Berry/ Naval History and Heritage Command image)
 Three of the task force vessels were specially modified for unconventional missions during Operation Torch; the old unsuspecting WWI-vintage destroyers Cole, Bernadou, and Dallas. These old four-stack destroyers were retrofitted with deception in mind. The Cole and Bernadou would have their smoke stacks cut, their bridge towers lowered, and holes cut into their decks. Doing all this would allow installation of masts with sails into the decks with the aim of making them look like fishing vessels in the early dawn of November 8. With this design the Cole and Bernadou, part of the Southern Attack Group, attacked the Port of Safi, a very strategic piece of the invasion. This port and several others were instrumental in off-loading tanks, personnel, and much needed supplies for the Allies’ push into Africa.
The destroyers Bernadou (DD 153) and Cole (DD 155) as they appeared during Operation Torch. (Naval History and Heritage Command images)
This composite of reconnaissance photographs taken between November 1942 (just before the Port Lyautey aerodrome at the center of this image was captured) and February 1943 (after it was renamed U.S. Naval Air Station Port Lyautey), shows the Wadi Sebou River surrounding the airfield, with the shoreline just visible to the northeast. (National Archives and Records Administration)

The destroyer Dallas (DD 199) had a very different and more dangerous mission. This ship was also altered in the previous manner. Stacks cut, bridge lowered, and many other “non-mission essential” armor and ships pieces were removed for much needed weight loss. This river was very muddy and had low water depth for any major Navy ship. A historic new unit’s creation, The Special Mission Naval Demolition Unit, was formed for this near impossible task. Consisting of only two officers and 17 enlisted men, their mission was to clear the way through the cables and booms in the Wadi Sebou River, left as a defense against all ships traveling up river. This would allow Dallas to charge to Port Lyautey airdrome with her cargo of US Army Rangers to secure for allied planes. This was just a small piece of a large historic mission and many other firsts for America.

Looking east, USS Dallas (DD 199) is anchored off Port Lyautey aerodrome (with its main hangars and control tower upper right background) on November 11, 1942, the day after she made her way up the Wadi Sebou River with the Special Mission Naval Demolition Unit to land Army Rangers at the airfield. U.S. Navy landing craft are beached at the facility's waterfront in the foreground, with seaplane hangars, shops, and an aircraft assembly plant beyond. (National Archives and Records Administration)

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