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Torpedo Squadron Four - A Cockpit View of World War II - Revised, Updated Edition, 2011

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Air Group 4 - Casablanca to Tokyo

Dedicated to those who
served in VT-4, VB-4, VF-4,
VMF-124 and VMF-213

Ranger Air Group Over Casablanca --
OPERATION TORCH

Details of the USS Ranger's participation in the North African campaign called "OPERATION TORCH" are contained in the excellent history of the USS Ranger compiled by Robert J. Cressman for the Spring and Summer issues of The Hook: Journal of Carrier Aviation. (1) Perhaps the best perspective from a pilot's viewpoint was in a 1943 edition of a book entitled Wildcats Over Casablanca, updated in 1992 by John W. Lambert (2) Many of the pilots participating in OPERATION TORCH remained with Air Group 4 during most of the war.

During OPERATION TORCH, the Ranger was joined with 4 escort carriers, the USS Santee, USS Suwanee, USS Sangamon and USS Chenango, for the North African engagement. At the time OPERATION TORCH was considered the most ambitious naval operation yet conducted in the European-African theater.

Operation Torch - Submarine Sighted, USS Ranger

A sailor points at a submarine periscope spotted after two torpedoes were launched at the USS Ranger during OPERATION TORCH.

Smoke Ring, USS Ranger

The Ranger responds to the submarine sighting by laying down a barrage of fire. The arrow marks a smoke ring created by a 5-inch gun.

Firing at Submarine Location, USS Ranger

The Ranger fires explosive shells and 50-caliber tracer bullets at submarine location.

"When hostilities commenced on 8 November 1942, the Ranger Air Group numbered 72 operable planes (1 CRAG, 17 VS-41, 26 VF-9, and 28 FV-41). By the end of TORCH, Captain Durgin reported 16 of these 72 were 'lost or damaged beyond economical repair. During the battle, 43 had been hit by either enemy anti-aircraft or fighter gunfire.'" (1)

Significant damage was inflicted upon the French Air Force defending North Africa. "VF-9 claimed six certain kills and four probables in the air, as well as 49 planes on the ground. Scouting 41 claimed two aircraft destroyed on the ground and significant damage to the French battleship Jean Bart, the light cruiser Primagoet, and a destroyer. The Ranger Air Group also sank a submarine at her berth in the harbor. (1) For details on Bill Wade“s reconnaissance mission to photograph the Jean Bart, see "Bring Back the Handles."

OPERATION TORCH cost the lives of ten airmen from Task Force 34. From the Ranger, VF-9 lost Lt(jg) Stanton M. Amesbury, Lt Edward Micka, and Ens Thomas M. Wilhoite. VS-41 lost ARM George E. Biggs, Ens Charles E. Duffy, and ARM Aubra T. Patterson. Downed airmen who became POWs under the Vichy French were Lt(jg) Charles V. August, Ens C. E. Mikronis, Lt(jg) Charles A. Shields, and Lt M. T. Wordell, all from VF-41. (2)

One of the best summaries of OPERATION TORCH was printed in the USS Ranger (CV-4) News for October 1993. This report is reproduced here:

    England was relieved when America entered World War II in December 1941. The British hoped that the US would soon collaborate with them in operations against the Nazis. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, under pressure at home and from the Soviet Union's dictator Josef Stalin to open a second front, pleaded with President Franklin Roosevelt to join British forces in an invasion of the North African coast....

    The British fleet included 7 carriers in 3 task forces to cover 2 landing areas along the North African coast. Five American flattops made up the Western Naval Task Force, lead by Ranger. The American forces landed at Casablanca, while 2 British forces landed at Oran (Center) and Algiers (Eastern). The third British Task Force (Task Force H) covered operations in the Mediterranean, mainly to defend against any opposition from the Italians....

    Operation Torch Map, 1942

    Operation Torch Map - November, 1942

    For most of the crews, this was their first combat operation, and apprehension and discussion went through all the Ready Rooms. Ashore, the French crews felt the same way....

    As the British fleet sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean on 6 November (the Americans stayed in the Atlantic), the carriers sent out fighter patrols to scout for any enemy aircraft. Aside from one or two French scouts, the British and American combat patrols found the skies quiet as they approached the North African coast.

    On Sunday 8 November, the first waves of American and British Army troops hit the beaches at dawn. At first, French resistance was relatively light. Vichy shore batteries opened fire and were answered by guns of assembled surface ships. The French battleship Jean Bart, immobilized in Casablanca harbor, turned its 15-inch guns on the American landing force. The battleship USS Massachusetts sent a 16-inch shell into Jean Bart, jamming its one working turret.

    Jean Bart Sinking

    French battleship Jean Bart sank in port.

    As the battle progressed, French resolve strengthened and several Vichy destroyers and submarines sortied against the Allied forces outside the harbor. Ranger's Wildcats and Dauntlesses bombed and strafed the French ships and targets ashore. They also engaged in unexpectedly intense aerial encounters with their French opponents. In the first battles, 16 Vichy fighters were shot down for the loss of 4 Wildcats. Even biplane Curtiss SOC liaison floatplanes contributed by breaking up a French tank column with depth charges using impact fuses. The SOCs flew from cruisers and battleships and usually carried messages and spotted for artillery.

    On 9 November, Ranger launched its 3 Army L-4 Piper Cubs, which would be used as observation platforms. The 3 little single-engine planes were led by Captain Ford E. Allcorn, who took off into a 35-knot headwind, 60 miles from shore, running into anti-aircraft artillery from US ships, which were obviously unaware of the identity of the 3 aircraft.

    Piper Cub - Operation Torch, USS Ranger

    A Piper Cub preparing to take off from the Ranger during OPERATION TORCH. The pilot is Captain Ford A. Allcorn, the passenger Captain Brenton A. DeVall.

    French shore batteries also fired at the Pipers as they went over the beach. Capt Allcorn was wounded and his aircraft set on fire. He was barely able to sideslip his stricken plane to the ground, then drag himself from it before it exploded. Capt Allcorn thus had the unique, and somewhat dubious, distinctions of flying the first Cub from an aircraft carrier, becoming the first Army aviator to be wounded in the campaign, and the first to be shot down in the campaign.

    USS Chenango began launching its load of Army P-40s, most of which made it ashore. However, damage from the American and British air attacks was so great that the airfield at Port Lyautey had to be repaired. The remainder of the Warhawks flew ashore later....

    The Eastern Naval Task Force attacked Algiers, also finding little or no resistance, except for shore batteries. A quickly arranged cease-fire brought most of the fighting to an end in this area late on the 8th. By 10 and 11 November, all the French forces had capitulated....

    As the first waves of Americans hit the beach at Fedala (15 miles North of Casablanca), Mehdia (70 miles to the North), and Safi (140 miles South of Casablanca), Ranger's VFs 9 and 41 orbited Cazes' airfield. The French threat had to be clear before American aircraft went into action. However, as the Wildcat pilots saw several aircraft on the roll, Lt Cmdr Tommy Booth, CO of VF-41, called, 'Batter up!' In response to the prearranged signal, Ranger radioed, 'Play ball!" The fight was on.

    SBD - Operation Torch, USS Ranger

    SBD Dauntless dive-bomber from Ranger flies anti-sub patrol during OPERATION TORCH.

    TBF - Operation Torch, USS Ranger

    Grumman TBF being maneuvered into position on Ranger prior to takeoff during OPERATION TORCH.

    Although Cazes was a base for bombers and transports, there were several fighter squadrons on the field with Curtiss Hawk 75As and Dewoitine 520s. Most of the French aircraft sported one of the most colorful schemes ever applied to a large number of combat aircraft. There were variations, but the basic markings were bright yellow-and-red striped cowlings and tails. The eye-catching colors contrasted dramatically with the dun-colored American Wildcats and SBDs that now ranged over enemy airfields.

    Photo: Curtiss Hawk 75A
    Photo: Dewoitine 520

    The dogfights over the Moroccan coast were fierce at any rate, and American Naval Aviators found themselves up against an experienced, wily foe. Many French pilots had seen combat against the Luftwaffe during the Battle of France; some were even aces. Their American opponents, while some had a relatively high number of flight hours, were all untested in combat. To an extent, this difference in operational experience offset the disparity between the Wildcat and the elderly Hawk 75A, although less so the D520.

    Two D250s surprised Lt(jg) Charles Shields of VF-41. However, the young pilot turned into the threat and dropped the lead French fighter. Hardly catching his breath, Shields spotted 3 more aircraft directly over the field. When he dove toward the trio, Shields found 2 Hawks pursuing a lone Wildcat, piloted by Lt Chuck August. The 2 Americans turned the tables on the Vichy pilots, shooting both Curtiss fighters down.

    After strafing the airfield with the last of his ammunition, Shields was bounced by 4 more Hawks and had to abandon his aircraft. As he hung from his chute, he was surprised, then angry, to see the Hawks lining up on him. They intended to shoot him while he hung helplessly in midair.

    Desperate, Shields shot it out with his 45 pistol as the Hawks buzzed him, occasionally firing at the lone American. Neither side scored and Shields descended to the ground and capture. He was not alone. Several other Navy Wildcat pilots spent a few days as prisoners of war.

    VF-9 also saw action. Lt Cmdr Jack Raby led his squadron to Port Lyautey, where they shot down a twin-engine Potez 63 - one of the many light-bomber/observation twins that the French produced in the late 1930s.

    VGFs 26 and 27 had been in the same area and encountered several French fighters and bombers, shooting down several. Unfortunately, VGF-27 Wildcats attacked a Royal Air Force Hudson from Gibraltar, which they had wrongly identified as a French aircraft. The Lockheed twin crashed, with only one survivor of the four-man crew.

    Lt Cmdr Tom Blackburn of VGF-29 ditched his Wildcat after running out of gas trying to recover onboard USS Santee. It was an ignominious beginning to what would become an amazing combat career, albeit in the Pacific, with another type of fighter, the Vought F4U Corsair. Blackburn spent 60 hours in his life raft until a destroyer plucked him from the water. When he returned to his squadron, Blackburn, who had sent junior pilots ashore before ditching, learned that four of his squadron mates had crashed-landed and were captured.

    As Lt Malcolm Wordell, XO of VF-41, strafed an airfield, anti-aircraft artillery hit his aircraft, wounding him. He crashed in a cow pasture and made his way to a 'neighborhood' wine shop. The shop owner and wife ministered to the wounded American, plying him with rum.

    Local infantry troops soon arrived to collect their prisoner. The corporal demanded Wordell's pistol, which the lieutenant reluctantly handed him, after requesting a receipt.

    It had been a rough initiation for the untried fighter squadrons. The Wildcats had lost 7 F4Fs to enemy action - fighters and flak - and 16 to operational causes....

    With all the landing forces ashore, aerial action on 9 November centered around supporting the Allied troops and ending whatever French resistance remained. VF-9s Wildcats found 16 Hawks and shot down 5 of the Curtiss fighters for the loss of one Grumman aircraft, whose pilot was rescued. VF-9 also lost 3 more fighters in the course of the day during strafing missions to Port Lyautey.

    By the time an armistice was reached with the French authorities on 11 November - an appropriate date since it was also the date that an armistice ending WWI went into effect 24 years earlier - American Wildcat pilots had claimed 22 French aircraft, for the loss of 5 F4Fs in aerial combat (the claim included one or two misidentified British aircraft, and the French actually admitted to losing 25 aircraft). Fourteen Wildcats had been lost to operational causes. In total, 23% of all F4Fs in the American carrier force had been lost, a significant attrition rate. Capt C. T. Durgin, Ranger's CO, visited Cazes on 12 November. After meeting with the pilots from his air wing who had been captured, he remarked on the stout defense by the French: 'If this battle had continued at the pace of the first day, I would have had to return to the US for replacements.'

    On 10 November, Ranger's Dauntlesses made the final attack against the determined, but battered battleship Jean Bart, whose crew had returned one turret to operation. The SBDs scored two hits with 1000-pound bombs and the French ship was out of the war for good. Nine Dauntlesses had been lost during TORCH, most to operational causes.

    SBD - Operation Torch, USS Ranger

    Ranger plane handlers push an SBD Dauntless dive-bomber into takeoff position after it has just landed from a strike on French North Africa.

    SBD Check-Out, USS Ranger

    Ranger mechanics and ordnance-men check an SBD dive-bomber after a strike on French North Africa.

    OPERATION TORCH began the final stages of expelling the Germans from North Africa. It also let the French know that they were not forgotten. TORCH was also the first time the Allies used joint planning to forge a major operation, setting the pattern for future invasions, particularly the June 1944 invasion of Europe, and amphibious operations in the Pacific. TORCH also firmly established the aircraft carrier and its planes and crews in the close air support role, ready on arrival, and close to the action. (3)

The Ranger's Air Group discontinued involvement in OPERATION TORCH on 12 November 1942 and returned to home base at Norfolk, Virginia. In January 1943, the Ranger made two more trips to ferry Army Air Force P40s to the African theater. Homeward bound on one of these three missions, Lt(jg) G. W. O'Mary crashed his TBF-1 on takeoff and went down with the plane. His two crew members were rescued For details on this accident, see The Day O“Mary Died.

Launching F4F Wildcats, USS Ranger

Launching F4F Wildcats from the Ranger, 1943.
(Photo by Bill Wade, AG-4).

Footnotes

(1) Robert J Cressman. "A Very Valuable Ship: An Operational History of USS Ranger (CV-4)." Spring and Summer Issues of The Hook: Journal of Carrier Aviation.1993.

(2) John W. Lambert. Wildcats Over Casablanca. Updated from the 1943 version and released in 1992

(3) USS Ranger (CV-4) Newsletter, October, 1993.

Note: The 1993 Issue of The Hook magazine contains an article by Barrett Tillman on Dean S. "Diz" Laird, a fighter ace in VF-4. Diz relates his experiences on the Ranger, Bunker Hill, and Essex. He was one of the six AG-4 airmen to participate in the 50th anniversary celebration of OPERATION LEADER in Bodų, Norway on October 4, 1993.

See Also:


Air Group 4 - "Casablanca to Tokyo"
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