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.
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.