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Book Excerpt: ‘Destination Casablanca’

The naval battle of Casablanca began with airplanes.

The cover of "Destination Casablanca." (Public Affairs)
The cover of "Destination Casablanca." (Public Affairs)

Meredith Hindley’s new book, Destination Casablanca: Exile, Espionage, and the Battle for North Africa, looks at the role of the iconic city in World War II. Seizing Casablanca, which was the largest African port on the Atlantic, was a key objective of Operation TORCH, which marks its 75th anniversary in November. In this excerpt, we join the U.S. Navy just off the coast of Casablanca on the morning of Nov. 8, 1942.

The naval battle of Casablanca began with airplanes. At 6:15 am, 30 miles northwest of the city, fighter squadron 9 began launching Grumman F4F wildcats, one by one, off the decks of the Ranger. As each engine fired, the propeller at the front of the plane spun to life, drawing circles in the hazy morning air. After being catapulted forward, the Wildcats broke the end of the deck, briefly sinking toward the ocean, before rising up to rendezvous with the rest of the squadron. Once assembled in the air, the squadron headed northeast up the coast to Rabat and Salé to bomb the airfields, destroying seven planes and 14 bombers belonging to the French air force.

Fighter squadron 41 climbed into the sky next, heading for Cazes airfield, five miles outside Casablanca. The French were waiting for them, having scrambled 16 planes. A dogfight broke out as planes from both sides climbed, turned, dived to avoid machine-gun fire, and fought for optimal position for the perfect shot. The French lost eight planes in the air and another 14 on the ground.

At 7:00 am, Dauntless dive-bombers, also launched from the Ranger, arrived in the sky over Casablanca. The boom-boom of the antiaircraft batteries in the harbor greeted their arrival, dotting the sky with small clouds of black smoke. The bombers dodged the shells as they headed for the submarine pens and French admiralty buildings that lined the port, their locations carefully noted after months of reconnaissance by the Office of Strategic Services. Three submarines sank at their moorings; the remaining eight got underway, commanded by their executive officers. Their captains perished when American bombs exploded on the docks. The planes also blanketed the commercial harbor, sinking ten ships and sending more than 40 crew members to a watery grave.

While the American squadrons flew their sorties, the covering group — the battleship Massachusetts, heavy cruisers Tuscaloosa and Wichita, and four destroyers — moved in to prevent the French navy from leaving the harbor and to neutralize the shore batteries. Hoisting their battle ensigns — the stars and stripes to identify them as American — they pushed their engines toward 25 knots.

For centuries, the white lighthouse at Point El Hank had announced to ships making their way along the Barbary Coast that they had found Casablanca. Now it served as the starting point for the covering group’s sweep past the harbor. Just after 7:00 am, the American ships, guns at rest, sailed past Casablanca, waiting for the French to make the first salvo. The French had turned El Hank into a battery, stationing four 194-mm guns and four 138-mm guns there, but the American ships passed unmolested.

A few minutes later, six rounds splashed 6,000 yards off Massachusetts’s starboard bow, sending columns of water one hundred feet into the air. Since the armistice, the Americans and British had fretted that Jean Bart, the formidable French battleship anchored in the harbor, would leave Casablanca and join the German navy. Now here she was, still moored but serving as a powerful battery, using her modern range-finding equipment to train her four 15-inch guns on the American ships.

The salvo from Jean Bart was just what Admiral Robert C. Giffen needed to unleash the covering group on Casablanca. He picked up the radio and barked, “Play ball!” As the Massachusetts let go the first salvo, smoke and fire discharged from the barrels of her 16-inch guns as the shells took flight. The roar of the guns and their recoil shattered the windows on the bridge, forcing officers and sailors to duck to avoid the glass.

Excerpted, with permission, from Destination Casablanca: Exile, Espionage, and the Battle for North Africa (Public Affairs).

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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