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80th Anniversary of Army Aviation, Combat Debut: Operation: TORCH

Looking Back / Army Aviation, November 2022; By Mark Albertson

 

80th Anniversary of Army Aviation:
Combat Debut: Operation: TORCH

It was agreed between London and Washington that the Third Reich posed the greatest threat among the Axis Powers.[1]  Yet it was Japan which attacked the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.  Hitler solved a potential dilemma by declaring war on the United States on December 11, 1941.  Therefore what had been, for the most part, a European war was now a global conflict, December 1941, then, is the turning point of what we call the Second World War.  Hitler’s defeat at Moscow and the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor changed the complexion of the entire conflict.

For the United States, then, the European Theater was the primary front.  In 1942, the Red Army was locked in a make or break struggle with the Wehrmacht in the decisive land campaign; one which would determine the course of the land war for the entire global conflict.  Concern here, of course, was if the Soviets with their manpower advantage, underrated industrial capacity and capable military leadership could turn the tide, then what was to stop the Soviet steamroller from crashing across Eastern, Central and Western Europe to the Channel.  It was imperative that Americans and British forces get onto the Continent.  June 6, 1944, Operation:  OVERLORD is repeatedly viewed as seeing the Western Allies serving Hitler his eviction notice from France and the Low Countries; a distressingly short-sighted view of a tremendous effort in planning, organization and execution.  The underlying essence of Normandy was to get boots on the ground to insure that Western Europe remained in the Allied camp following the demise of the Third Reich.  Hence the American, British, Canadian and Free French fighting men who valiantly risked life and limb on the beaches of France won the first big battle of the Cold War.[2]

But that was 1944.  In 1942, the American and British armies were not yet ready to take on the Wehrmacht on the Continent.  But an attack was necessary some place.  And that some place turned out to be North Africa.  By November 1942, General Bernard Montgomery had already defeated Rommel at El-Alamein and was pushing the Afrika Korps west across the Desert.  Anglo-American landings at Morocco and Algiers saw fit to get American troops ashore to gain some needed combat experience on a secondary front, in addition to flanking Hitler’s Fortress Europa.

Like the rest of the American contingent, Air OP flyers were going to get their first taste of combat.  Army Aviation was on its way.

 

* * * * *

The Western Allies opened the second front on land with the Anglo-American invasion of French North Africa, known as Operation:  TORCH.[3]  The first great rollback of the Axis armies in the ETO[4] featured three prongs of attack:

  1. Troops of the Eastern Task Force, under the command of British Lieutenant General Kenneth Anderson, were to hit the beaches at Algiers.[5]
  2. Ground forces of Center Task Force, commanded by Major General Lloyd R. Fredendall, were to storm ashore at Oran.  Both Eastern and Center Task Forces had sailed from Britain.
  3. The third prong of the attack had steamed from the United States.  Rear Admiral Kent H. Hewitt, flying his flag the heavy cruiser Augusta (CA-31), commanded 102 ships of Western Task Force.  Twenty-nine of these vessels were transports lifting 35,000 assault troops under the command of Major General George S. Patton, Jr.  The flamboyant tankman was to land his forces in and around Casablanca.

Attached to the Third Infantry Division were four pilots of the fledgling Air Observation Post.

TORCH was Army Aviation’s first time at bat against the Axis.[6]  In command of the little Air OP contingent was Captain Ford “Ace” Allcorn.  On October 10, 1942, Captain Allcorn—then at Fort Sill—was ordered to pack his bags and report to Camp Pickett, Virginia.  There Allcorn gathered his little command:  Captain Brenton A. Devol, Jr. and Lieutenants John R. Shell and William H. Butler.

ford ace allcorn

Ford "Ace" Allcorn led the first Air Observation Post squadron into combat, November 9, 1942, during Operation Torch.

The aviators were briefed by the artillery officer of 3rd Infantry Division; then, they were hustled aboard the destroyer Dallas (DD-199) for the dash to Bermuda to catch Hewitt’s task force.

Captain Allcorn and his men were piped aboard the aircraft carrier Ranger (CV-4).[7]  Aboard the flattop were three L-4 Piper Cubs, all in need of servicing.  Much of the crossing, then, was spent readying the flivver planes for action.  The power plants were serviced.  Fabric was patched and doped.  And the SCR-609 radios were installed.[8]

uss ranger cv 4 foldable stacks

USS Ranger (CV-4) which shuttled Ford's little squadron of Grasshoppers to to French North Africa for Operation:  TORCH, November 1942.

cub atop uss ranger cv 4

 One of the three Cubs attached to Captain Ford Allcorn's command sits atop the flight deck of USS Ranger (CV-4).

 

* * * * *

Early in the morning of November 8, troops of the Western Task Force stormed ashore at Safi, Casablanca and Point Lyautey.  Air cover was provided by Ranger[9] and four Sangamon-class escort carriers:  Sangamon (ACV-26), Suwanee (ACV-27), Chenango (ACV-28) and Santee (ACV-29).[10]

Early on the 9th, Allcorn and his men got set to take off.  Destination:  Fedala, where a racetrack had been prepared as a strip for flying artillery fire direction missions.

Sixty miles offshore, Ranger turned into the wind.  The flattop was plowing up the Atlantic at 25 knots.  Captain Allcorn was in the lead plane, followed by Lieutenants Shell and Butler.  Captain Devol rode shotgun aboard Butler’s plane.

william butler brenton devol jr

November 9, 1942, Lieutenant William A. Butler, pilot, and Captain Brenton A. Devol, Jr., getting ready to takeoff for French North Africa.

Bluejackets seized the tail of Allcorn’s Cub.  The aviator revved the Continental power plant.  Suddenly the tars let go.  The Cub shot forward, into the teeth of a 35-knot blow.  “I was in the air as soon as they let go,” said Allcorn.[11]

Allcorn circled the flattop, until Shell and Butler joined up.  The trio then pointed their noses for the coast, flying in an echelon right formation.

Altitude:  2,000 feet.

The flight was uneventful . . . that is, until three miles from the beach.  The aviators shifted to an echelon left formation.   Suddenly Brooklyn (CL-40) began winking like a Christmas tree.  A 5-inch 38-caliber round nearly took out Lieutenant Shell, bursting in the wake of his lumbering Cub.

Allcorn and his wing mates dived for the deck.  Other ships in the invasion force opened up.  Tracers whizzed round the Cubs like angry bees.  Flak puffs blossomed like flowers.

Allcorn wave hopped towards the beach.  Around him, bullets splashed.  A forest of geysers rose and fell.  About a hundred yards from the breaking surf, Allcorn brought the Cub round hard and raced along the beach.

Machine gunners from the 2nd Armored Division bracketed the intruder.  The Cub’s windscreen shattered, showering Allcorn with a hailstorm of glass shards.  Smoke belched from under the cowling, trailing off into the slipstream.

Vichy machine guns joined the raucous cacophony.  French slugs chewed the wings, underside and fuselage.  Pain shot up Allcorn’s right side, as bullets tore into his leg.

The beleaguered aviator found a spot, coaxed the mortally wounded Cub in and pancaked in a rush of broken gear, snapping struts and shredded fabric.

He hauled himself from the wreck, then dragged himself clear as the L-4 tore itself to bits in a paroxysm of smoke and flame.

Meanwhile Butler and Shell, together with Captain Devol had set down near Vichy lines and were taken prisoner.[12]  They were soon released and rejoined friendly forces.  Allcorn was helped by civilians to American lines.  The gallant aviator paid a hefty price for his brief passage in the history books:  The first Army Aviator to fly off a carrier; the first in combat; the first to be shot down and the first to be wounded.

 uss ranger cv 4

Here is another photo of USS Ranger (CV-4).  Note how the stacks astern are folded down to accommodate wing clearance of aircraft, particularly when landing.  This design cue was borrowed from an earlier Japanese aircraft carrier, Hosho,  The Hosho, the first aircraft carrier in the Imperial Japanese Navy, completed in 1922, not only had flexible stacks, but featured mirrors and lights to assist pilots during takeoffs and landings.

Postmortem

From his hospital bed at Walter Reed, a convalescing Captain Allcorn explained to a member of General McNair’s staff that it was premature to even consider that the recent North African debacle spelled the end of the Air Observation Post concept.  He also dashed off a letter to Colonel William Wallace Ford, Director of Air Training, relating the series of events off Fedala.  In turn, Ford forwarded a copy of Allcorn’s analysis to General McNair.  The Ground Forces commander made sure a copy reached Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall’s desk.[13]

Colonel Ford’s analysis led him to conclude that there was a distinct lack of coordination with regards to communications and training between the Army and Navy.  For instance, Lieutenant Colonel John W. Hasborough, attached to the Field Artillery section of General Patton’s staff, was responsible for making sure that Allcorn’s little squadron was assigned to Ranger and then prepared to lift off the flattop at the proper time.  But it appears that precious little else was done once the Cubs had departed the carrier.[14]

Captain C.T. Durgin, skipper of Ranger, refused to break radio silence and alert the fire support forces off shore of the impending arrival of the Cubs.  As commander of the only fleet carrier available in the Atlantic, Captain Durgin was apparently taking no chances.  In consequence, those naval forces covering the beaches had no foreknowledge of Allcorn’s flight.  The gunnery officer aboard Brooklyn could not find the silhouettes in his aircraft recognition log.[15]

The lack of success of Army Aviation in its first time in action against the Germans fueled Hap Arnold, commander of the Army Air Forces and a vehement opponent of organic aviation in the Ground Forces, and his attempts to halt the Air Observation Post and assume control of Ground Forces aviation.

But General Lesley J. McNair, commander of the Army Ground Forces, hardly proved so brittle.  After all, the Army Air Forces had indicated during the 1942 Joint Training Exercises that they were hardly in a position to assume the tactical needs required by the Ground Forces.  He knew the concern prevalent among the airmen was that of a rival air force developing in the Ground Forces.  No matter, despite the setback at Fedala, the Air OP aviators and crews would prove the concept in North Africa, Sicily and Italy.  This will enable Army Aviation to mature and grow.

 Endnotes

[1]  See pages 41 and 42, Chapter 2, “The Requirement,” Writing the Victory Plan of 1941, by Charles E. Kirkpatrick.  “Roosevelt’s executive policy commitments to cooperate with the British began as early as January of 1938, when he permitted Anglo-American naval conversations.  Although he gave no guidance or explicit approval, the president also permitted the War and Navy departments to write new war plans—the Rainbow Plans—that envisioned war against the Axis Powers.  American officers conducted further discussions in London in August and September of 1940, and the work of that Anglo-American Standardization Committee established closer ties and the habit of consultation that culminated in American-British Staff conversations conducted between British and American staffs between January and March 1941 went further still.  It was these conversations that American military authorities agreed that Germany was the primary enemy in case of American intervention and that any eventual coalition would direct its efforts mainly against Germany with the goal of unconditional surrender.  As a corollary, the United States necessarily accepted the fact that it would have to contain the Japanese, should a two-front war develop, until the principal enemy was defeated.  Such a strategy was the only one that could guarantee the survival of Great Britain, a cornerstone of Roosevelt’s policy.”

[2]  After the Red Army’s hard won victory in Berlin in May 1945, Averill Harriman, American ambassador to the Soviet Union, in his capacity as the representative of his country’s interests in Moscow, duly congratulated Stalin for his nation’s great victory over Nazi Germany.  Instead of a simple thank you, the generalissimo looked at Harriman with a face as bland as the floor and replied, “Czar Alexander got to Paris.”  Implication here is clear:  Picture for a moment how the Cold War would have looked if T-34 tanks had reached the Channel.  Such was the underlying essence of OVERLORD.

[3]  An earlier plan for the invasion of French North Africa was codenamed GYMNAST.

[4]  ETO or European Theater of Operations.

[5]  On November 8, 1942, the assault troops of Eastern Task Force were commanded by Major General Charles Ryder, U.S. Army.  The following day, November 9, the Anglo-American ground forces fell under the command of Lieutenant General Kenneth Anderson, British First Army.

[6]  Not only was TORCH the combat debut of Army Aviation, but for most of the soldiers and sailors of Western Task Force.  As recently as 1940, many in Hewitt’s command had been attending college, ushering in movie houses or jerking sodas.  Take the light cruiser Brooklyn (CL-40).  Of 65 officers aboard, half were reservists; with only nine able to boast of three or more years of experience.  Of 1,050 officers and ratings, half were going to sea for the first time, with the entire complement making its combat debut.

[7]  USS Ranger (CV-4), launched February 25, 1933, was the first American flattop designed as a carrier from the keel up.  Langley (CV-1) had been a converted coal collier, the JupiterLexington (CV-2) and Saratoga (CV-3) had been originally designed as battle cruisers.  In accordance with the limitations on naval armaments set forth by the Washington Naval Agreement of February 8, 1922, the pair’s construction as surface gun platforms ceased and both were converted to aircraft carriers.

[8]  SCR-609, AKA Signal Corps Radio 609 or Set Complete Radio 609, was a popular type found aboard Air OP aircraft.  There were hand-portable, frequency-modulated two-way communicators.  SCR series radios were used by the Field Artillery.  SCR-500 series radios were used by the Armored Forces.

[9]  USS Ranger was the only fleet carrier available for TORCH.  Lexington (CV-2) had been lost at the battle of the Coral Sea on May 8, 1942.  Yorktown (CV-5) had been lost at Midway, June 7, 1942.  Wasp (CV-7) took the deep six off Espiritu Santo, September 15, 1942, torpedoes from the Japanese submarine I-15.  The gallant Hornet (CV-8), which had launched Doolittle’s Raiders on April 18, 1942, was lost at the battle of Santa Cruz Islands, October 26, 1942.  Saratoga (CV-3) and Enterprise (CV-6) were licking wounds incurred following battle actions in the Solomons; and, none of the new Essex-class flattops were as yet in commission.  Indeed, Essex (CV-9) would be commissioned, December 31, 1942.  Hence the Navy’s reliance on converted tanker hulls to supplement Ranger for TORCH.  

[10]  Perhaps an explanation is in order here as to the Navy’s alphanumeric designation of the Sangamon-class baby flattops.  On February 14, 1942, the namesake of the class, Sangamon, was classified as an Aircraft Escort Vessel with the designation AVG-26.  Then on August 20, 1942, Sangamon was reclassified as an Auxiliary Aircraft Carrier with the designation ACV-26.  On July 15, 1943, Sangamon was classified as an Escort Carrier with the designation CVE-26.  But at the time of TORCH, Sangamon and her sisters were considered Auxiliary Aircraft Carriers with the alphanumeric designation beginning with ACV.

[11]  See page 36, “The War Years,” Part VI, The Army Aviation Story, by Richard K. Tierney.

[12]  See page 150, Chapter 5, “Initial Deployment and Combat in the North African and Mediterranean Theaters,” Eyes of Artillery:  The Origins of Modern U.S. Army Aviation, by Edgar F. Raines, Jr.  Raines offers that Butler and Devol had been captured by the Vichy French; while Lieutenant Shell managed to land his L-4 at the race track at Fedala.

[13]  See page 10, “Disaster off Casablanca:  Air Observation Post in Operation Torch and the Role of Failure in Institutional Innovation,” Air Power History, September 22, 2002, by Edgar F. Raines, Jr.

[14]  See page 7, “Disaster off Casablanca . . . ,” Edgar F. Raines, Jr.

[15]  Years after the war, Colonel Robert R. Williams engaged one of the naval gunnery officers of the covering force off Fedala.  When he posed the question as to why the ships’ gunners had opened fire on Allcorn’s flight, he was told that the L-4s were not in the aircraft recognition books.  The naval gunnery officer did admit, “that his assistant had said the planes looked like Cubs.”  But then he looked straight at Colonel Williams and asked, “Now, what would you have done in my place?  If you are sixty miles at sea and saw a Cub putting by, would you believe it?”  See page 125, Chapter III, “The War Years: North Africa, Sicily and Italy,” The Army Aviation Story, by Richard K. Tierney with Fred Montgomery.

Bibliography

Albertson, Mark, 70th Anniversary of Army Aviation:  “November 1942:  Operation:  TORCH, Baptism of Fire,” Army Aviation, Vol. 61, No. 11, Army Aviation Publications, Inc., Monroe, Ct., November 30, 2012.

Atkinson, Rick, An Army at Dawn:  The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, Volume One of the Liberation Trilogy, An Owl Book, Henry Holt and Company, Inc., New York, NY., 2002.

Jones, Vincent, Operation Torch:  Anglo-American Invasion of North Africa, Ballantine Books, New York, NY., 1972.

Kirkpatrick, Charles E., Writing the Victory Plan of 1941:  An Unknown Future and a Doubtful Present, CMH 93-10, Center of Military History, United States Army, Washington, D.C., 1992.

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Pawlowski, Gareth L., Flat-Tops and Fledglings:  A History of American Aircraft Carriers, Castle Books, New York, 1971.

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Raines, Edgar F., Jr., Eyes of Artillery:  The Origins of Modern U.S. Army Aviation in World War II, CMH 70-31-1, Center of Military History, United States Army, Washington, D.C., 2000.

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