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The Spark of Operation Torch

The Allied invasion of North Africa

by Billy Wade

Copyright 1992 by the Confederate Air Force and Billy Wade. All rights reserved.

Originally published in The Dispatch magazine, Volume 17, Number 3, Fall, 1992 edition. If you are interested in subscribing to The Dispatch please write to The Commemorative Air Force, ATTN: Dispatch Editor, PO Box 62000, Midland, TX 79711-2000 or call (432) 563-1000. Reproduced with permission.

Most Hollywood scriptwriters would find it difficult to come up with a fictional scenario of intrigue, bravery, and suspense comparable to a real-life actual occurrence during "Operation Torch" which resulted in the coveted Medal of Honor for two courageous Army Air Force officers.

Lt. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was to command a joint American-British force in the first major offensive action against the Axis. The largest amphibious action the world had ever known which would involve more than 107,000 men assembled to invade North Africa in the fall of 1942.

For Eisenhower, however, a unique problem existed in that the primary defenders would not be Germans but the Vichy French. No one knew for sure how they would react, but the Allies recognized the anti-British feelings of the Vichy French stemming from an attack by the Royal Navy on the Vichy French fleet in 1940.

To try to get a handle on the situation, Eisenhower sent his deputy, Major General Mark Clark and three other officers on a top-secret meeting with a number of French officers including a pro-American, Major General Charles Mast, who was the Deputy Commander of the forces in Algeria.

The clandestine meeting did not result in any real understanding and the Americans barely escaped with their lives as the French police raided the house in which the meeting was being held. The meeting was held on Oct. 22 and the planned invasion was set for Nov. 8 right after midnight.

Would the French shoot or scoot? No one knew for sure. Eisenhower then devised an ingenious, as it turned out, plan to try to reduce casualties by sending several teams of American officers on the first wave of invaders with orders to race ahead of the lines and attempt to find the French commanders and ask for a cease-fire. It was a "grasping-at-straws" plan and certain to result in death for the volunteers.

Two of the volunteers were Army Air Force officers — Col. Demas T. Craw and Major Pierpoint M. Hamilton. Craw, a World War I infantry officer schooled at West Point, graduated from flying school in 1929. While assigned in Greece, he was captured when the Germans invaded, and later was released to then-neutral Turkey.

Hamilton was an instructor pilot in World War I and went into banking after the Armistice. He was recalled to active duty in 1942 at the age of 44.

Craw and Hamilton were assigned to go ashore with the 9th Infantry Division. If they made it off the beach, they were to go five miles inland to Port Lyautey, Morocco, and try to locate the local French commander.

With defensive fire from the beach defenders, the two AAF officers and an enlisted driver in a jeep barreled through the small town near the beach drawing fire from the French and their own forces as the Navy was shelling the town as well.

Somehow, they made it through and immediately ran into a force of local Moroccan troops. Expecting a deadly fusillade, the surprised and relieved Americans received friendly waves and sped on.

Before they could take evasive action, the jeep and its occupants ended up right in the middle of French artillery battery. The seemingly fearless Hamilton calmly asked directions to Port Lyautey and the accommodating French officer gave them!

But their charmed existence ended only about a mile away as a hidden machine gun emplacement opened fire and the slugs tore into Col. Craw, killing him instantly. A French infantry patrol took the driver and Hamilton as prisoners.

Taken to Port Lyautey, Major Hamilton followed his orders and demanded to see the Commanding Officer. He explained his mission; however, the French officer said he didn't have authority to issue a cease-fire order. Hamilton pleaded with the officer to relay his request for a cease-fire to the next highest authority.

The French general at Mekness also declined, but did promise to take the request to a higher headquarters. In the meantime, Hamilton and his driver became POW's and were locked up.

For the next two days, Hamilton pressed the French to agree to a cease-fire. Meantime, the fighting continued. Oran and Algiers had been captured, but Casablanca was fiercely resisting. Having not heard of a cease-fire, the local U.S. commander, Major General George S. Patton decided to reduce losses as much as possible by bombardment.

Ironically, the day he picked for the all-out bombardment by artillery, air force and naval units was Nov.11 — Armistice Day for World War I. After the heavy shelling and bombing attacks to soften up the defenders, Patton sent in the ground forces. Obviously, many lives were lost on both sides.

Hamilton, meanwhile, was still a prisoner in Port Lyautey and was unsuspecting about the plans of Patton to level Casablanca. Then the miracle hoped for was realized as the French commander agreed to an armistice on the night of Nov. 10, only hours before the assault would begin.

Major Hamilton and his driver roared toward the beach and managed to make it to forward lines of the U.S. troops. Chancing upon a tank unit, he used the tank radio to relay news of the French agreement.

It was now early in the morning. The bombers were approaching their targets and naval vessels lying offshore were getting ready to fire. At 6:48 a.m., Hamilton's news reached Gen. Patton. With only minutes to spare, the attack was called off and Casablanca was spared and literally thousands of lives, both civilian and military, were saved.

Both Major Hamilton and Colonel Craw were honored by the president for their unbelievable courage and dedication to duty above and beyond what could be expected of any man. Col. Craw's wife received her husband's Medal of Honor from President Roosevelt in March, 1943. Major Hamilton stayed in North Africa until the campaign was secured. He received his Medal of Honor on Feb. 19, 1943. He stayed in uniform and retired from the United States Air Force in 1952 as Major General. Gen. Hamilton died on March 4, 1982, at the age of 83.

As a footnote to history, the French officer who agreed to the armistice was Admiral Jean Francois Darlan. Admiral Darlan was the High Commissioner in French North Africa. One of the terms of the armistice was that Darlan would be the head of the French government when the liberation was accomplished.

On Christmas Eve 1942, Admiral Darlan was assassinated by a young fanatic, Bonnier de la Chapelle.

The head of the liberated Free French government, therefore, was awarded to Brig. General Charles de Gaulle, who was greatly admired by de la Chapelle.

Hollywood could never create a fictionalized history such as that that actually happened in late 1942 in North Africa.

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