French West Africa

 

 

USS Brooklyn

December 3, 1942

Below are the true accounts of the experiences that I encountered on the expedition to French West Africa, and the resulting battles that presaged the invasion.

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On October 23, 1942, at 5:00 in the afternoon, we got underway in what later was to be called the greatest naval expedition in the world's history of war operations. Where we were going and what we were to do was not known by any of the enlisted men of the Navy -- such plans and knowledge is only known to the officers. For we can only adhere to the saying "Ours not to wonder why, ours but to do and die". And I suppose in the end, it is best that we do not know.On the second day at sea, we were told that we were on our way to attack Africa, in what was to be the beginning of the second front.

We were told that this had been planned with the greatest secrecy, and that at last the enemy was to be taken by surprise, and although the shock that we were actually going to see action was rather sudden, nevertheless, to know that for once the enemy was going to be surprised was most gratifying. That same evening, sitting in the semi-darkness of the radio shack, sweating from the heat, and half sick from the lack of fresh air, we heard a columnist back in the States make a prediction that the Allies would make an attack on Africa within 10 days.

There was complete silence in the shack, as we gazed at one another in amazement -- our plans, so secret that even we who were offering our lives in its execution and who could not be told, sat there and listened to a world-wide broadcast that such a thing was to be done! How easy for that columnist, living luxuriously and safe back home, to make that prediction! But how let down were the feelings of the men out there in the black Atlantic on their way to possible death.

It made one wonder just what are we fighting for when such information can be so freely told for all the ears of the enemy to hear! And God knows that they have enough ears! From the next morning on, we had submarines on our trail, and the shudder of depth charges was a constant reminder that our crossing was not to be pleasant.

The seas now started to run heavy. Our cruiser pitched so badly that we ate off of our trays while sitting on the deck. There was little cooked food, as the roll would pour the food out of the cooking vats. We had to go with very little sleep, as one would nearly roll out of his sack.

This weather caused great hardships while standing our radio watches. We were tied to our seats so as to prevent our skidding across the shack. Taking everything into consideration, it was a mighty unpleasant journey! I had been given the plane guard circuit, which was voice, and had very little to do with the exception of standing on my feet all day long in the pilot house. Radio was silent, and there was no transmitting done by our force until the day of battle.

For 13 days this heavy weather condition existed. We were by that time about 600 miles off Dakar and about 900 miles from place of attack. On the 14'th day, "Catalina" flying boats and great "Liberator" bombers, based at Gibraltar, met us and patrolled against sub attacks. By that sign, we were within range of land bombers, and we felt uneasy. Although our losses as yet had not yet been a single ship, one plane had crashed in the sea The pilot was saved, so our losses so far were nothing.

On the afternoon of the 15th day, we were told all about the plans of the operation. Our battle stations were to be manned at about midnight, at which time we would be nearing our attack area.

At 4 that afternoon, this great task force that spread out over miles of ocean, separated into three groups, as one was to attack at Casablanca, one at ????? and we were to attack at the center on a powerful land battery, at a place called Fedala.

We now began our run on the coast. At 7 P.M. I went topside for what I had an idea might be my last night on earth. For one hour I stood there and thought about home. I wondered if they had any idea where I was, and if they knew how much they were in my thoughts on this night just hours before we were to attack.

At 8, I went below and turned in, and fell asleep.I thought I had only closed my eyes for a minute, when the alarm sounded for us to man our battle stations. I looked at my watch and it was 5 minutes past ten. We knew that we must have run into trouble, as G.Q. was not to be sounded until 12:00, and with the feeling that at last the big moment had arrived, we jumped into our clothes, grabbed life belts, helmets, gasmasks, and some other little articles, and ran to our stations. Mine was on the bridge, and I had a first rate view and position to observe all that took place.

We had started running into French and Morrocan fishing craft. Our men were boarding them as fast as we found them, were sealing their radios, if they had one, in order to prevent them from notifying the beach.

Just how well our fifth column were working in Africa was now in evidence, as lights of different colours, and at certain points on the shore told us just how and what to do, and where to go. At a signal from us , the lights on the beach went off. At a little past 12, we swung into position.

At 12:30, over the radio came word that President Roosevelt had asked the Vichy not to resist us, that we were too powerful, and that resistance was useless. At the same time, we heard that Churchill had made the same kind of appeal.

At 1:00, the first invasion barge hit the water, to be followed by many, many more, and soon the troops were being disembarked.

At 2:15, the first barges headed for the beach.

At 3:00 A.M., I was beginning to feel a little sick at my stomach, as we were in beautiful range of the shore battery, which could easily have blown us out of the water!

At 3:15, word came that the attack was to be delayed for 1/2 hour, which would make it 4:30- zero hour had been determined to 4:00 on the morning of the 8'th of November. I began to breathe easier then at the postponement, but as 4:00 came and the French had not yet given an answer, I began to feel peculiar again.

At 4:15, another postponement of 15 minutes was announced. But now we realized that there was going to be trouble, because if no capitulation had come by now, they were going to fight.

At 4:35, the French started to machine gun our troops on the beach. We could see the tracers from our cruiser.

At 4:40, a French corvette came into our midst, and would not halt at the command of one of our destroyers. The corvette opened fire with her machine guns on the can. The destroyer did likewise, and her first shots killed the captain on the French vessel (This was not verified in print, but was told aboard our cruiser). The corvette then gave in, and hoisted our American flag.

The next day, I saw her bouncing around off Fedala, on patrol against plane and sub attacks. She flew both the French and the American flags. As a vessel of war, she would not have made good scrap metal for the Japanese Navy!

At 4:50, the command to stand-by was given. And at 4:57, the orders to go into action came over the circuit. One moment was calm, and then all hell broke loose! My cruiser and a heavy cruiser, the Augusta, cut loose with the big guns. The destroyers, and there were quite a few of them, were going at it with all they had. It was so dark that only the blasts of the explosions could be seen.

Our ship was maneuvering, and the concussions of her guns fairly made her dance in the water. By this time, I was a pretty scared boy, and was wondering how soon their [shore] battery was going to get our range.

In the midst of this bombardment, some time later, by now I didn't bother looking at the clock, the destroyer ahead of us radioed that she thought she had best get out of there, as there seemed to be the opinion that the land battery of the French had gotten her range. Just then a shell hit her, went into the fire-room and passed through the chest of an electrician, went into the sleeping compartment and exploded, killing another man and wounding several. The destroyer then retired to the rear temporarily, just slightly damaged, but with two dead and a lot of wounded.

At 7:45, the Army radioed us that there was no opposition and that our guns were killing off the townspeople. As I heard this, I got sick to my stomach, as I pictured women and little children being blasted to pieces with those shells we were hurling into that sector. Thank God the report given us about killing townspeople turned out to be untrue.

Our guns immediately ceased firing, and all was once again calm. We could see, through the smoke, several fires burning, and at one point where there had been large storage tanks of oil, a huge column of smoke was rolling into the sky. That is where the heavy cruiser had shelled. The battery was the job that had been assigned to our cruiser. So far, our only damage had been the destroyer that was hit. None of the transports had suffered from the fire of the battery.

We later learned that 120 of our soldier boys would never again see the dawning of another day. It seemed hard to believe that 120 of our boys had died on that coast, just a few miles from where we stood on the deck of our cruiser.

About one half hour later, word came that two French cruisers had come out of Casablanca and were proceeding on their way to give battle to us at Fedala. We were ordered to intercept and destroy them.

I, at this time, felt another peculiar feeling creeping into my stomach as our ship shot up to her full speed and headed out to sea. She was doing 33 knots in a very short time, and I knew we would soon be within range, as Casablanca is about 22 miles from Fedala, and our guns can easily shoot at least 20 miles. Back of us came the Augusta, but we were so much faster that I figured we would get ours before the heavy cruiser got away from the coast. As it was, we very well took care of the matter!

Just a few minutes had passed, when our planes from our cruiser gave us a range, and we started pouring 15-gun salvos in the direction of the French cruisers. It was bad at the bombardment of Fedala, but this was much worse, the shells of the French were falling all around us. They said later that several passed so close to our superstructure that you could hear them go by. One hit the water about 8 yards behind our fantail, which was the closest anyone observed.

We knew that the shells were falling much too close for comfort, and as we began to twist and dash all over the water to get out of their range, but still keeping up our own fire, I received word that the Augusta had been hit. I relayed it to the Main Radio for their information, and I had just finished keying it down when another flash came over that the report had been false. I immediately radioed this to Main Radio, and the sigh that went up from our ship could be heard all the way to Washington, as the 8-inch guns of the Augusta gave us a feeling of security.

However, a few minutes later, the bridge shuddered as though it were going to fly to pieces! We instantly knew we had been hit! Everything began to seem like a nightmare! We just looked at one another, waiting for the follow-up of the French fire, as we knew that several shells must surely follow that one. Then, into the bridge came the word that our No. 1 gun had been put out of action, and one man killed, one dying and 2 badly hurt.

My visions were as black as hell itself, and I thought how would it feel to either be blown to bits, maimed, or drowned in the salt waters of the Atlantic. I remember pulling my helmet down over my ears, pulling my legs up until they surely must have been around my neck, put my head on my arms, said goodbye to the loved ones at home, and waited for the end. But the end did not come! Our guns were still blasting away, the doors of the bridge were blown in by their blast, the men were trying to stand on their feet as the ship almost laid over on her side as we maneuvered to escape the French shells.

A new element had now entered the battle, in the form of a French submarine, which fired 5 torpedoes at us. I did not see this, but I later learned that the torpedoes missed us by a margin so narrow that it was terrifying. The French cruisers were also letting go torpedoes at us, as most foreign cruisers are equipped with torpedo tubes, while ours are not, but their torpedoes caused us no worry due to the range.

A few minutes later, I learned that they were sending motor torpedo boats at us, and at this news, I just groaned and prayed that they would soon run out of fighting machines.

During all of this, our guns were still pouring out mighty broadsides at our opposition. In what seemed like a life time, but was only a matter of 45 minutes, we were ordered to cease fire and return to the transport area at Fedala. A battleship and two heavy cruisers had arrived to take over the battle with the 2 French ships. We turned back to Fedala, but not before the glad news that the fire from our guns had set one cruiser ablaze and listing to port, and smoke coming from the other. And that both cruisers were trying their best to make it back to Casablanca. The one cruiser that was burning and listing to port ran into the beach and was a total loss, the other one we were to meet again later in the day.

In this battle, we fought off an attack by enemy bombers, which in itself is a pretty good feat. Being bombed, I think, is the most terrible thing imaginable.

When we arrived at Fedala, we were radioed to cease all fire until the temporary armistice between the French and us had been discussed, and at this information, we slowed our speed and for a short moment, left our posts to relax and observe the damage done to our ship by the hit scored on us by the French.

I went down to the com deck, and at the first sight of the vicinity where we were hit, I got sick!, My head was thumping to high heaven , and is little wonder I went woozy, because where the disabled gun stood was a mass of red, which I thought to be blood. It covered the bulkhead of the starboard side of the radio shack and was all over the decks. However, and officer told me it was a red dye from the French shell, used so as to give the observers on enemy cruisers the facts that they had hit us and that they had the range. The shell had come in just over the gun shield, knocked the cables that controlled the gun off their moorings, passed between the outspread legs of the sight setter, ripped out a section of the deck, smashed against the radio shack, put a hole in the bulkhead the size of a man's head, cracked the bulkhead to the extent of about three feet, and then ricocheted back over the gun shield into the sea.

This shell failed to explode, and to that we can be everlastingly thankful, because if it actually exploded, very few of us in the radio division would have returned home. I was about 12 feet above where the shell struck, and I have an idea that my unimportant existence would have come to an abrupt ending.

I inquired of P.M. [paramedic?] about the men, and was told that the one reported killed was only badly wounded, and that all would recover, despite the fact that all suffered serious injuries.

The officers met at exactly noon. At 1250, the alarm sounded, and with a feeling of great weariness, and sometimes I think, fear, I once more took my battle station, only God knew then, besides myself, that surely had enough of naval warfare!

As soon as we took our stations, word passed that the French at Casablanca would not capitulate, and that the Jean Bart, the huge 35,000 ton battleship, had opened fire on the Mass' [Massachusetts] and the two heavy cruisers, the Wichita and the Tuscaloosa.

The Army radioed us that the Navy was not to bombard the coast, as the people were not hostile, but that we were to sink any naval craft we could find.

We were not long in finding them! At about 1:20, we were radioed to intercept a cruiser and several destroyers on their way from Casablanca.

At the orders, our ship again put to sea, and I again began to wonder how much longer I had to live! Our predicament was rather serious now, we had expended nearly all of our ammunition, and were in no condition to wage another battle at sea.

But someone had to intercept them, and the command picked the Brooklyn to do it , with a little mental support from the Augusta, which always seemed to be kind of lagging when we went into action against the French Navy. In a few minutes, our guns blasted out again at the French! And the French blasted right back! The enemy had several destroyers and they were darting all over the ocean like squirrels. They were very fast; our guns would lay a barrage down on them and they would slip into a smoke screen. At that we would figure they were hit, and about the time we had figured, they would dash out at us from the screen from somewhere else. But they were not always so fortunate, as our shells caught one and sent it to the bottom. Later, I heard that all of its crew went down with it.

Our firing was deadly accurate this time, and the battle had lasted only a short time, when our planes radioed us that the cruiser was afire and out of action, and was being towed back to Casablanca by a destroyer. This so-called cruiser turned out to be the 3000 ton destroyer of the French Navy, and was so large it actually resembled a light cruiser.

This marked the end of our action that day. That night, we heard a French broadcast that said 325 men had died on the 3000 ton destroyer, and when we had a close look at it a week later while in the harbor at Casablanca, it is a small wonder that many more had not died, because it was a mass of junk, a ghastly picture of what modern guns can do. To know that 325 men had died before our guns did not leave a feeling of elation within me, but it had to be them or us, and our guns shot first, and straightest!

At 6:15 that night, I left my battle station, I had been at that post for 20 hours without sleep, food, and only one drink of water. At 6:20, I took one look at the coast of Africa, one at the sunset over where I knew home must be, offered up a prayer that I was alive, went below to my rack and remembered nothing until 5:30 Monday morning, when we were again summoned to our battle stations as we are every morning, and awaited the dawn and its offering.

Dawn had come, and we were about to secure, when a torpedo bomber came at us from the shore. Our AA immediately cut loose on it, and at our fire, it dropped its torpedo and disappeared out of sight and over the horizon on the coast.

The attack was not followed up, and a short time later, we secured from G.Q.

At 7:15, I was in the line for chow when our AA roared into action-- I dashed topside just in time to see the wake of 4 bombs that missed us by not more than 50 feet off our port side. The bomber was so high that he was not visible. By now we began to think that the French were really out to get revenge on us for what we did the day before. I spent the rest of the day at my plane circuit, but we had no further action.

As stated before, our ammunition was nearly exhausted, so we got orders to put to sea and relieve the Cleveland as guard for the carrier Ranger, which we did about 11:00 the next morning, which was Tuesday.

The next two days were routine. The only exciting event was that the Jean Bart was yet in action, and our battle wagon 'Mass' had asked for bombers to soften it up. This was not considered until the J.B. opened up on the Augusta, which carries the Admiral, and then shortly after noon on Tuesday, I saw nine dive bombers off the Ranger head into the sky with 15 Grumman "Wild Cat" fighters as an escort.

About an hour later, I saw them return and land. And then over the radio came the message that the Jean Bart was silent. The reason given was that the nine bombers had scored 7 hits with 1000 pound bombs. And who can say that isn't a good reason?

On Friday morning, just after dawn, the submarines attacked us. We were now low on fuel and were to refuel from the tanker Winooski that day. A lookout first spotted the wake of a torpedo. And the thrill of action this time was beautiful to see! Our cruiser never lost its position of protection for the Ranger as at high speed we maneuvered to evade the torpedoes. The Ranger in a matter of minutes had launched her aircraft, and the sky was fairly humming with them!

It was no secret that the subs were after us, and the carrier. Suddenly off to our port beam, I was a destroyer fire all of its 'Y' guns and, at the same time, roll depth charges off her fan tail.

A moment later, the ocean became a mass of huge fountains as the depth charges exploded far beneath the surface. At this spot, just as soon as the destroyer had cleared the force of her own charges, one of the dive bombers came roaring down in a power dive, and as it came out of its dive, I saw a black object drop into the sea. Another geyser was added to the sight, and either the sub was sunk or escaped, since no more action was observed at that particular spot. Oil slicks were seen rise to the surface.

Our own planes were keeping my radio asking for information. I could give them only what I had seen, and they radioed back that they would cover the cruiser against the attack, and such news made me feel much better!

Suddenly our 20 mm and 1.1 guns began to pour a stream of lead into the water off our starboard side. The Ranger's guns now opened fire on the same area as ours, and just ahead of the torpedo wake was a running geyser of water kicked up by our fire. The torpedo was about 30 feet from our starboard, going forward, and either was meant for us or was intended for the carrier. It missed both of us, and I can well imagine the relief on both ships!

A radio report now came into the circuit that another torpedo just missed the bow of the destroyer leading the carrier.

This huge carrier was a sight to see as she now nearly lay on her side in the turn she made to escape the follow-up of the first torpedo. I could not take my eyes away from the carrier , as at any moment, I expected to see her get hit, because what a grand prize of war to send to the bottom! But she did not suffer a hit, and into Hitler's coffin was driven a few more nails!

Before this attack, our plane had radioed me that she had spotted two fishing craft about 10 miles ahead, and on investigation, informed the cruiser that they appeared to be friendly. They were flying the flag of Spain.

At this phase of the attack, the fishing boats were in plain view, about 4 or 5 miles away, and then in power dives came several planes from the Ranger, almost skimming their masts before they pulled out. But in those dives, no bombs were dropped. The last plane to dive before we executed another turn and lost them, dropped a smoke bomb squarely between them, and the reason, while not known to me then, was made clear later on when they radioed that a sub was laying under the surface between the two ships, and the fishing vessels were a scheme to hid them.

I also learned our carriers bombers spoiled the subs scheme. A huge oil patch was spreading over the ocean from the vicinity of the smoke bomb!

We were now away from the sub trap, and none of the ships with us had been hit, but now over the radio came word that the tanker that was to have refueled us had been torpedoed. Also came word that at Fedala, the subs had attacked and had exacted a heavy toll. The taskers Bliss and the Hugh Scott, and Hambleton had been torpedoed. The Bliss and the Hugh Scott, both transports, going down with a large number of sailors being lost. The Hambleton, a destroyer, was still afloat.

Our fuel was extremely low, and our predicament became worse, the seas became rougher, until we had to radio into the harbor at Casablanca that we would have to put in there for fuel or put in at Gibraltar. This was, of course, the next day in the afternoon. That morning, Friday, Casablanca had fallen, and our forces were in command.

Permission to return to Casablanca for fuel was now granted, so we left the Ranger and her newly acquired escorts, the Philadelphia and several cans [destroyers], and later the Massachusetts, and with conditions as they were, we headed for Casablanca.

On Monday morning at 9:30 November 16, we pulled into the harbor, and saw at close range the effect of our attack on the city.

Of the city itself, I have never seen a more beautiful place. The buildings were all tan color, and seemed to be all new in appearance. The rolling hills just back of the city were barren of trees, but green with grass. All in all, the effect was enough to make a land loving boy want to go for a walk over there where large farms could be seen.

The French cruiser we had smashed was seen, and it was a pitiful sight, as was the 3000 ton destroyer, and another 1700 ton destroyer, and all from our cruiser's guns.

All about the harbor could be seen several ships blasted by the American attack of naval guns and our planes. The Jean Bart was there, and from where we could see, looked battered but not ruined beyond repair. In front of us was the Winooski, the tanker that was torpedoed while on its way to refuel us. She had a large hole in her side, but was still afloat and ready to go. Just off our port quarter, only the masthead of a ship could be seen. I still don't know whether it belonged to us or the French.

But most gratifying of all was the fact that not a home or building could be seen that had been damaged, and of this, we later learned that the French and Moroccans were thankful to the Americans for their humane way of waging war. Not a single life of a civilian had been lost from the fire of our guns. But not the same could be said of the French Navy. Over 2000 of their sailors had died under the guns of our Navy that day!

Of the American Navy, we lost 600 men killed, and a great many wounded. Though small in comparison to the losses of the French, nevertheless, that 600 boys had to drown brought a sad feeling. But for the grace of God, how many more of us would have been with them?

On the morning of the 17'th, we were pulled out of our berth, and started our trip back to the United States. We now had about 40 ships in the convoy, we were the only

cruiser, and the Shenango was the only carrier.

On November 31, after some of the roughest weather I had ever seen, we pulled into Norfolk, and even though I have never hated a city as much as I hate Norfolk, it was still a glorious sight to see American soil, and it brought a wonderful feeling to my heart to know at last we were safe for the present.

After taking on fuel and ammunition, we set out for New York, and docked there at the Navy yard at 5:00 PM on December 2.

From that point, I went to the one place I had been dreaming of throughout all that long trip, through storm and battle, that place was, is, and will ever be, home.

On the second day off the African coast on our way back [home], a fellow Radioman, 3/C [Third Class], passed away. He was a boy of 20, and slept right alongside of me. He had suffered an attack of pneumonia shortly after we left [for] the States and had not gained strength as he should. A blood infection set in and he died at 11:20 on Wednesday evening, November 18. I had gone down to see him at 4:30, and had taken him a package of letters from his girl, whom he was to marry on his return to the States. I wanted to read them for him, but he was too weak to hear them.

At 4:10, on the following day, we buried him at sea, in what was the saddest experience I ever hope to witness. The Chaplain prayed, the Captain spoke, and as the final notes of "Taps" were carried away over the sea, his body, clothed in the Stars and Stripes, was slid into the sea.

As I watched it go, I wondered just how harsh would be God's judgment on the souls of men who caused war, that young men and young people all over the world must have their lives cut off before having a chance to live! I am sure that when Judgment Day comes, His punishment cannot be too dreadful to those who have plunged the world into chaos, sadness and despair.

Milton A. Briggs, RM3/C

US Navy

USS Brooklyn

 

Addenda

I referred above that the cruiser Augusta was "lagging behind" in battle. I later learned that she carried General's Eisenhower and Patton, and thus was kept safe while the Brooklyn sailed in "harm's way."

 

Take me back. I want more.