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Posts Tagged ‘General Mark Clark’

As General Mark Clark was preparing to depart from his secret rendevous in North Africa, Vichy commander General Charles Mast quietly said to him, “The French navy is not with us.  The army and the air force are.”  So in the early morning hours of November 8, 1942, as Allied forces made ready to disembark, there was a little hope that the French captains manning the wheelhouses in Casablanca had changed their minds in the previous weeks.

They hadn’t.

At just after 7:00am, the main coastal batteries at El Hank let loose on the fleet arrayed before them, straddling the battleship USS Massachusetts.  The French battleship Jean Bart then opened up as well.  Jean Bart (shown above) was France’s most modern battleship, but she was unfinished and unable to leave port, having but one of her two main turrets installed.  But the one functioning had four rifles, each capable of launching a 15-inch shell that could seriously damage (or sink) any ship on the other side.

As U.S. navy spotters saw the flashes of guns firing at them, they excitedly yelled “Batter up!” into their radios.  Hearing the coded reply of “Play ball!”, the fleet responded in kind, unfurling the guns and filling the skies with high-speed metal projectiles.  Jean Bart, immobile at her moorings, was a sitting duck.  The Massachusetts pelted her with 15″ shot, destroying the one active turret and adding holes in at least three different places.  The not-completed French slugger settled where she sat in shallow water.

Shellfire chopped up the docks, the mooring areas, French submarines docked there, and ten merchantmen that could do nothing but absorb incoming fire and sink.  Admiral Gervais de Lafond, commander the 2nd Light Squadron, quickly put his 16-ship force (destroyers and a cruiser) to sea to avoid disaster.  He actually got himself in a reasonable position to do heavy damage to Allied transports as his enemy battled with Jean Bart and the coastal batteries.

But the shells were coming fast, U.S. carrier aircraft were screaming in with guns blazing, and Lafond’s battle force was badly outgunned.  This engagement would not go well for the French as, one by one, Lafond’s destroyers (and eventually the cruiser) were sunk in shallow waters or beached as burning hulks.  Only the destroyer Alcyon was undamaged.  In all, the French lost 16 ships and 8 submarines.  An injured Admiral Lafond watched helplessly as the U.S. fleet (minus the destroyer USS Ludlow, which had taken significant damage and fled the action) continued on.

The Vichy-controlled French fleet in Casablanca could have decided not to fight against a much larger foe.  But, despite the gallantry of the men, the decision to do otherwise was little more than an irritant in the day’s activities.

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It was October 21, 1942.  In Virginia, the mid-afternoon sun shone down on an invasion fleet.  To date, it was largest of its kind ever assembled.  It’s destination?…the coasts of North Africa where Operation Torch would be unleashed.

An ocean away, off the coast of North Africa, it was also October 21, 1942.  But the sun had ceased shining hours before, giving way to a sliver of moon.  Had anyone been in the right place at the right time (near the small fishing port of Cherchel in Algeria), they may have seen another invasion fleet silhouetted against the Mediterranean waters…albeit a much smaller fleet.

In fact, this “pre-invasion” invasion consisted of just one vessel…the submarine HMS Seraph.  And its mission was not to shell or torpedo or blow up anything.  It’s mission was to, as quietly as possible, drop off General Mark Clark (shown on the left).

The biggest question with the upcoming Allied landings was whether or not the armed forces of Vichy France would fight.  Since France had been overrun more than 2 years before, a Nazi-puppet government, overseen by Phillippe Pétain and centered in Vichy, had been in control.  But many generals and officers were still anti-German and looking for a way to turn and fight.  Operation Torch provided that avenue in North Africa.

But those leaders wanted a couple things.  First, they wanted to meet with a high-ranking American officer.  Second, they wanted a Frenchman in command of any invasion force, so French forces wouldn’t be seen again as “surrendering to an enemy”.  And that’s why General Clark was on a submarine, off the coast of Africa, hoping not to get caught.

Over the next 24 hours, he would meet with military leaders on a small farm, narrowly escaping capture by local police forces who were told of suspicious activity at the farm.  In addition, he and the men with him were successful in spiriting General Henri Giraud (shown on the right) back to the Seraph and out of North Africa.

Giraud had been designated to lead all Free French Forces that landed in Operation Torch…which inevitably led to the next problem.  The French General was under the (self-created) impression that he would be in overall command of all the Allied landing forces, which would have been a problem even had that position been available.  It was already taken…by General Dwight Eisenhower, who was certainly not interested in either giving up or sharing his position with a French officer who, while anti-Nazi, was also pro-Vichy and pro-Pétain.

And so, with just a couple days until U.S. forces left their berths in Virginia, and little more than two weeks until those men would land on African soil, the Allied high command already had a difficult diplomatic task ahead of itself.

Recommended Reading: An Army at Dawn

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A diadem is a type of crown.  According to Webster’s dictionary, it’s a royal headband.  I’m no linguist, but the dictionary tells me the word originates from a Greek or Latin word that means “to fasten” or “to bind”.  So it’s probably somewhat appropriate that the offensive launched by General Harold Alexander on May 11, 1944 was given that name.  Operation Diadem was designed to, once and for all, break the Gustav Line that had held up Allied troops in Italy for months, while “binding up” the German forces that held it.  And, as we saw a year it ago, it succeeded in breaking through, though not without cost, which we also saw, specifically in the case of Max Brand.

But of course, one part of the Gustav Line stood out.  The abbey of Monte Cassino, or rather, what was left of the abbey, had become one the toughest fortifications along the entire line of strongpoints.  And the Allies were partly to blame for that.

Back in February of 1944, U.S. and British forces had decided (incorrectly) that Monte Cassino, blessed with a commanding view of the valley around Cassino Town, was being occupied by enemy soldiers and artillery pieces.  They also decided (incorrectly) that bombing the abbey would not only kill the Germans there, but would also make an assault on it that much easier.

So on the 15th of February, the abbey was heavily bombed, which succeeded in killing numerous not-Germans that were there, but none of the Germans that weren’t.  Then the surviving not-Germans left, and the Germans that weren’t there suddenly were, and had a perfect redoubt to boot.  And for next 3 months, assault after assault would crash against the remains of the abbey (which continued to be bombed and shelled as well), only to be repulsed with heavy loss.  All told, the casualties suffered in the four major attacks on Monte Cassino neared six figures, most of them suffered by General Mark Clark’s U.S. 5th Army.

But Operation Diadem helped to change all that, as the massive wave of 28 divisions overwhelmed defenses all along the line.  Had the Germans stayed and defended the ruined monastery, they would have been quickly surrounded.  And so they pulled back, leaving only those soldiers too weakened or wounded to evacuate.  And on May 18, 1944, a Polish reconnassaince regiment arrived on-scene, found it abandoned, and raised the regimental colors on the…well…diadem of the monastery, using a makeshift flagpole (shown above).  Monte Cassino (that beautiful pile of rubble) was now in Allied hands.

Recommended Reading:  The Day of Battle

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Sicily had been secured by the Allies in August of 1943.  Thanks to some bold decisions by American commanders, the Germans had realized pretty quickly that holding the island off the boot of Italy just wasn’t practical…or safe.  So, once General Patton had swung his tanks northwest and overrun Palermo, Axis troops headed toward Messina and a “vacation” on the Italian coast.  Had Montgomery’s forces been able to move north and east more quickly, a goodly number of the enemy may have been trapped.  But such as it was…

The next logical target was Italy and, on September 9, 1943, Allied forces landed at Salerno (just south of Naples) and at Taranto (inside the heel of Italy’s boot).  The landings overall were helped somewhat by the announcement the previous day that the Italians were quitting the War, thereby breaking the long-standing Pact of Steel.  The landings at Taranto were further helped by the fact that the Germans simply weren’t there in very large numbers.

Forces landing directly at Salerno and to the west of the city also faired well, meeting little resistance and capturing their objectives rather quickly.

The beaches to the south and east of Salerno, on the other hand, proved a significant challenge.  General Mark Clark, in overall command of the invasion, had decided to try and surprise the enemy.  So the landings in the early morning were made without any naval or aerial bombardment.  Unfortunately, the enemy wasn’t the least bit surprised, and when British and American troops started coming ashore, the Germans were waiting for them.

Stiff German counterattacks inflicted heavy casualties but, fortunately, General Clark didn’t hold back the big guns once the enemy rounds started falling.  Naval gunfire and bombs were able to stave off the German Panzers and, by day’s end, the Allies had a beachhead…a tenuous beachhead to be sure, but the Allies were in Italy to stay.

Recommended Reading: The Day of Battle

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