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Posts Tagged ‘Algeria’

I love to shovel snow.  No, I’m serious.  I really enjoy it.  My goal has always been to get the driveway and sidewalk completely clean after a snowfall.  So I start by removing as much snow as possible.  Then I take a metal scraper out and run it over any places where the snow has been pressed down, whether by feet or car tires or whatever.  Once that’s done, I bevel the snow on the edge of the driveway so it’s all nice and even.  It takes a while, but the results are worth it.

I write all that as though it still happens.  It doesn’t.  I’m no longer allowed to shovel snow.  The surgeon that fixed my back last October put shoveling at the top of the list of no-nos.  So now the neighbors tackle it with their snow blowers or my wife takes care of it.  I watch from inside the house.

The Sahara Desert is the largest desert in the world.  Well, technically it’s not because scientists consider the Arctic and Antarctica to be larger deserts.  I don’t know how they’re deserts, but there are a ton of things I don’t know.  Anyways, the Sahara is about as large as the continental United States, and it’s one of the hottest places on earth, with an average temperature approaching 90°F.  If ever there was a place that it wouldn’t snow, it would be in these vast three-and-a-half million North African square miles.

Oh, but it has snowed in the Sahara.  In January of 2012, the desert got snow.  But it’s pretty rare.  In fact, in my digging around, I could only find two instances when snowfall was recorded:  last year and February 18, 1979.

That first snowfall took Algerians by complete surprise, even though it lasted but half an hour.  And it probably snarled traffic and closed schools, despite the fact that it was gone before sundown.  The really good thing is that the sand trucks probably didn’t have far to go to fill up.  I wonder if the kids knew to have a snowball fight, or make a snowman, or snow angels…I hope so.

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The Grand Dorsal sounds like some part of a large dolphin, but it has nothing to do with swimming mammals.  To learn a little more about it, you need to consult an atlas.  Go to west-central Tunisia, just a stone’s throw (or an artillery shell’s throw, in this case) from the country of Algeria, and find the city of Kasserine.  Just to the west is the Grand Dorsal, and right there is a break in the Dorsal’s spine, forming the Kasserine Pass.

This two-mile gap was the scene of one of the more famous engagements fought in North Africa during the Second World War.  The Battle of Kasserine Pass was the first real meeting between the vaunted Panzers led by Erwin Rommel and U.S. forces.  And to say the battle (actually a series of battles), which began on February 19, 1943, didn’t go well for the Americans would be an understatement.

In fact, in terms of territory lost, the 85-mile retreat forced on the men over the course of the week-long battle was the worst shellacking of the war.  Harry Butcher, a former CBS executive turned naval aide and confidant to General Eisenhower, wrote, “The proud and cocky Americans today stand humiliated by one of the greatest defeats in our history.”  Eisenhower himself would say (to General Marshall), “Our people from the highest to the very lowest have learned that this is not a child’s game.”

It was a tough defeat.  Casualties exceeded 20% of men involved, a staggering total.  Hundreds of tanks, artillery pieces, and trucks with the American star littered the area as burned out hulks, while on the German ledger, losses were less than a 1,000 casualties (including just 200 dead).

But even in defeat such as this, there was hope.  The loss was tactical, not strategic.  For all their military prowess, Rommel’s forces had not reached (nor captured) any Allied supply depots.  Allied forces, particularly the British First Army, had not been forced back into Algeria.  And in general, Allied offensive capabilities had not been stopped, which meant that once America’s superior war production replaced the losses, the Axis would have to fight all over again.

And at the top, there was Eisenhower, who admitted his mistakes, learned from them, and then made the necessary adjustments (and personnel changes) to hopefully avoid them in the future.  The Battle of Kasserine Pass was a definite loss for the Americans, still getting their feet wet in war against a much more experienced foe.

But the takeaways, like many of the other engagements in North Africa, served to turn relatively green troops into a fighting machine that would, within months, stand victorious on the shores of Tunis.

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I very nearly published this piece a week early…I had the wrong date attached to it in the master spreadsheet.  Good thing I double-checked first.  I occasionally get facts messed up, but completely missing the date would have been really embarrassing.  Anyways…

With the fall of France to German forces in June of 1940, it didn’t take a whole lot of brain matter to see that the British were in a bad way.  Their only remaining “ally” in Europe was Vichy France, but this was only in the loosest sense, as its government, run by Philippe Pétain, was nothing more than an Axis puppet.

Of greatest concern to the British was the powerful French Navy.  When Germany had invaded back in May, the French fleet had scattered, some to British ports, but most to the French Algerian port of Mers-el-Kebir.  When the armistice was signed, Vichy was allowed to keep its navy and the Germans promised to make no demands for it.  But of course, Adolf Hitler had made – and broken – numerous promises before, so this one gave little comfort to the British.

So rather than risk a German takeover of the French Navy, the British decided on a bold move to protect themselves.  Known as Operation Catapult, it called for the British Navy to settle the “French fleet question” once and for all.  On July 2, 1940, the British sent an ultimatum to French Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul.  In it were four options.  The French could join the British and fight againt Germany, they could hand over their ships to the British, they could disarm their ships, or they could scuttle them.

Admiral Gensoul chose to do none of them.

So new Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered his own fleet to attack the French.  It was not a decision made lightly, as the French and British had been “brothers in arms” just two weeks before.  But business was business, and war was war.  Churchill gave the orders and said that history would determine the rightness of his actions.

For French ships in British ports, the “attacks” amounted to boarding and seizing the ships.  But at Mers-el-Kebir, things would be different.  Planes from the HMS Ark Royal mined the entrance to the harbor in an effort to prevent ships from escaping.  Once negotiations failed, the legendary battlecruiser HMS Hood opened fire on July 3, 1940.  Her first salvo to hit plastered the battleship Bretagne, sending her down with 977 men.  The battleships HMS Valiant and Resolution added their gunfire to the fray, and it little more than 15 minutes, the damage was done.

In addition to Bretagne, the Dunkerque had been heavily damaged, a destroyer had been grounded and three others badly damaged.  The French battleship Strasborg was able to pick its way through the mines and falling shot and escape, but that was the only good news for the French.  Nearly 1,300 French sailors had been killed, while the British suffered the loss of a half-dozen aircraft and six men.

As intrepid readers of Today’s History Lesson know, this was not the last time the Allies would try to prevent the French fleet from falling into German hands.  Nor was it the last time the French would refuse to comply.  But this refusal and the subsequent British attacks cost the French most dearly in terms of lives lost.

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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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