Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Presentation: Dad's Navy Days Part 6 (2)

Dad's Navy Days, 1941 - 1945

By G. A. Harrison

Some of the inhabitants of Arzeu, meet the US soldiers on the beach (IWM)

Introduction: The following post will be part of a Nov. 2016 presentation regarding my father's WW2 service with the RCNVR and Combined Operations organization.

Part 6 - Operation TORCH - The Invasion of North Africa, November 8, 1942

The following description about Canadian involvement in the invasion of North Africa is provided from the files of Lt. Cdr. J.E. Koyl (D.S.C. - R.C.N.V.R. - deceased) as found in Combined Operations by Clayton Marks, page 174

Shortly after Dieppe, the Canadian Flotillas, now six in number, were making their preparations for a new operation which subsequently turned out to be "Operation Torch" eg. the North African invasion. For several weeks the British and American troops were trained in amphibious warfare and on completion of this training, the invasion was completed successfully. This operation, as compared to Dieppe, was a complete holiday as the opposition in most quarters was negligible. By the middle of December, 1942, the Canadian Flotillas were returning to England. The H.M.S. Ettrick was sunk off Cadiz with the loss of 18 Canadians. Survivors were picked up by a Norwegian destroyer and returned to Gibraltar. The S.S. Clan McTaggart was also sunk in approximately the same area with the loss of 1 Canadian. Picked up survivors were returned to England aboard a British corvette.

Jake Koyl (far right) in Scotland

About N. Africa my father mentions, "Our Coxswain was L/S Jack Dean of Toronto..." and in St. Nazaire to Singapore, Volume 1, details about Jack Dean's actions are recorded:

In the North Africa invasion Dean was in an LCM (landing craft mechanized), which landed on the coast between Oran and Algiers in the face of light machine gun fire and ran a shuttle service from ship to shore.

"We worked steadily for 11 days," Dean said. "It was a 24 hour a day job and we would catch a couple of hours sleep at night if the sea was calm when they were loading or unloading."

Dean's landing craft carried American troops ashore and then ferried in supplies: bulldozers, ammunition and tons of light equipment until the merchant ships were empty. He returned to Britain and obtained his commission as a Sub Lieutenant and in a few months he was back in the Mediterranean taking troops ashore in Sicily. (Page 71)

L/S Dean may be seen standing at the front of ALC 428 (IWM)

Londoner Clayton Marks records the following historical information in his text Combined Operations:


All information regarding Operation Torch was a very guarded secret, so secret that only a handful of men in the highest planning circles knew it's details. Along with a sketchy outline of the plan, some of the requirements and conditions were made known. Assault convoys and reinforcement convoys moving from the United States and the United Kingdom to the Mediterranean were expected to come under heavy attack by submarine and from the air. The escort forces much larger than usual, would be required, and it was hoped that Canada could furnish some of her Corvettes to assist.

The first objectives of the great Armada which got underway during the late days of October were the ports of Algiers, Oran and Casablanca. The Germans were well aware of the preparations for Torch, and were completely misled as to the objectives. Apparently convinced that Dakar was to be the point of landing, they had disposed their large submarine forces well to the south of the actual routes taken by the convoys, and the long processions of Allied ships passed to their destinations almost unmolested.

The French Navy was known to be much bitter against the Allies, and especially the British, than the other services; the destruction of their fleet at Mers el Kebir, the Naval base a few miles west of Oran, in 1940 was not easy to forgive. It was almost certain the port installations at the last moment would be sabotaged. To anticipate this a couple of ships - former American Sloops, now under the White Ensign and manned by the Royal Navy - carrying American troops were sent into each of the harbours of Oran and Algiers in the early hours of the morning. Both attempts failed with heavy losses. At Oran, first the Walney, which charged the Boom at 15 knots, and then the Hartland, which followed her, were fired on, burst into flames and later blew up; in the former out of 17 Officers and Ratings on the bridge, only Captain Peters survived, and the landing party waiting to go ashore, only five. The crew of the Hartland were more fortunate, and although they suffered heavy losses, were able to abandon ship before the end. Peters was awarded the V.C. and was killed in an air crash on the way home.

At Algiers the two ships were the destroyers Broke and Malcolm. The Malcolm was hit in the boiler rooms off the entrance and had to withdraw; the Broke got in at 0530 at her fourth attempt, and managed to berth safely, though under fire. For the next few hours, apart from some small arms fire all was calm, and some French Officials came on board and suggested that the American Officer take over the town, but at 0915 she was heavily fired on by a howitzer, and had no option but to pull out. She got clear and was hit repeatedly as she moved across the harbour. She was taken in tow by the "H.M.S. Zetland", and sank the following day on the way to Gibraltar. Despite these two operations, no sabotage was carried out by the French. The French General Juin, who was representing Admiral Darlan said that all resistance would cease at 1900, November 8th.

At Oran resistance was more prolonged, and the town had to be fought for before surrendering at noon on the 10th. The way was now clear for a clear thrust into Tunisia.

At Oran landings were made on three beaches covering a front of fifty miles - two to the west of Oran and one to the east at Arzeu (Arzew). At each of the three landings at Oran something went wrong. The westerly force encountered a small French convoy a few miles short of the beach, in a fashion somewhat similar to Dieppe. This caused delay to the minesweepers who were leading the way in, so that they were overtaken by the Personnel ships. Captain Allen (S.N.O.L.) decided to take a chance and go ahead without them, but there was some confusion, which was added to by a westerly current, and the non-appearance of a Motor Launch which was supposed to pilot the Landing Craft to their allotted beach. As a result, the second wave got ashore before the first, but there was no opposition and it did not matter. The Bachequero, superbly handled, beached on a tiny strip of sand between two rocky headlands, and proceeded to pour a stream of tanks and other vehicles to the African shore. By the 11th, 430 tanks and other vehicles and nearly 1200 tons of stores had been landed at X beach.

At Oran's Y beach, Les Andalouses, there was a false beach of sand running the whole length of the sector, five or six yards off shore, with five feet of water inside it. Air photos had not revealed it and it came as a complete surprise. Many Landing Craft damaged their rudders and propellers as they bumped over it and many broached to.

Captain Lees (S.N.O.L.) in "Glengyle" was thankful that he also had no opposition.

At Arzew, Z beach had been selected for the biggest of the three landings - here the S.N.O.L. was Captain Q.D. Graham. The assault craft lost cohesion, and instead of touching down simultaneously they arrived piecemeal over a period of more than twenty minutes. The American Commander insisted on sending so much gear ashore with his men that the landings from the LCM Flotilla were delayed by nearly two hours and the whole program fell more and more behind the clock. The troops went ashore greatly overloaded", and here again, any opposition would have been disastrous.

At Casablanca, the sea was rising, the wind in the most dreaded quarter and the forecast for surf 15 feet high. The Meteorological Officer prophesied that conditions would improve. He was rewarded, in that the wind at once began to veer and the weather to moderate; but even so, the two more northerly landings suffered considerably from surf and swell, which on several beaches was six feet. At Fedala, a number of troops, heavily burdened with their equipment, were rolled over and drowned in the undertow, and on one beach 18 Landing Craft were lost out of 25. At another beach it proved too soft so that only tracked vehicles could get off of them, and they were soon chock-a-block with stores, with stranded lorries and light tanks and with Landing Craft, which were unable to draw off the beach against the surf and were left there by the ebbing tide. There was three days of hard fighting, but all resistance ceased on the 11th of November.

The six Flotillas of Canadian Landing Craft included in the forces which made the landings at Oran and Arzew had an easier time than expected; and their heaviest casualties occurred after all resistance was over, when the ships returning to England were torpedoed. The H.M.S. Ettrick lost 18 Canadians and many Royal Navy personnel, and the sinking of the S.S. Clan McTaggart, with the loss of one Canadian seaman, and two Lascar seamen.

The Canadian Landing Craft ferried in American and British troops almost without incident, although they were occasionally under sporadic fire from French ships and shore batteries. After the nervous initial stage was over, the men were inclined to make a picnic of the work. Nevertheless, at the conclusion of the landings it was reported that it had actually been difficult to get the men out of their craft to be relieved. The assault landings were followed by a week during which reinforcements and supplies had to be ferried ashore. Some of the beaches were blessed with good weather; and the men worked stripped to the buff, resulting in a thick Mediterranean tan.

The order of the day - "a thick Mediterranean tan" (Photo by RN Photographer)

A host of minor complications ran down through all the graduations of rank. Canadian Ratings, often less sea-wise than their British counterparts, were better paid. Their mechanical aptitude, on the other hand, was often higher, and they were not reluctant to admit it. They were explosively volatile ashore; and there was a free-and-easy character about their discipline which at first sight caused the raising of some "pussers' eyebrows". The cousinly difficulties were long in unraveling, however an increasing familiarity and improving teamwork wove the groups together. Within a month or so, as the convoys ploughed back and forth, air attacks, submarine attacks and every variety of emergency had proved the essential quality, both the veterans and the newcomers and a gusty harmony reigned. (Pages 67 - 69)

Mr. Marks' book contains a bit of poetry as well:


T'was a peaceful land so far each deep in a dream of his own,
And things we'd do, in so bright a hue, we'd never tell on the phone:
Where events stand out so vivid with little or nothing in rhyme,
'Tis the land that we call slumber, where no watch is kept on time?

T'was into the night, fresh from the fight, we sailed on the sea alone
When disaster overtook us and the ship gave a lurch and a moan;
Most men were away in that land so gay, dreaming perhaps of home,
But in the moment's disaster, most men stood alone;

Then came the pipe "Take to the boats", we're torpedoed there by the bow,
While the howl and rush of the Darkies, was a jibbering, panicky row;
Most of our men took to the boats, few remaining on board,
But they went soon in the water, a word on their lips to the Lord;

Some of the men, just out of their teens, could swim nary a stroke,
But they paddled away into the night, a smile on their lips and a joke;
It takes a stout heart to make the start and courage to keep up the fight,
But these men were born to be, and they struggled for life that night;

The gallant old ship, was on her last trip, sinking fast by the bow,
How she took the strain, that gave us all pain, no one I'm sure knows how;
Then came the second torpedo, struck just there at the keel,
As she blew up there in our faces, going down in a drunken reel;

She'd heaved a great sigh in silent goodbye, to the men she had served so well,
While we in the boats and the water, a grand story of her we would tell;
'Twas a glorious sight at the Navies might, we were saved at the break of day
By a very grand crew, who fed us stew, a word for them we would pray;

All hands were saved excepting one*, where he went no one could tell,
But vows were made in silence, our foes to see in hell;
This story's not new just to us few, we are few of the fortunate many;
We again live to fight, in freedom's right and our King may his years be many.

by - W. Smith, C.P.O., O.N. 2333 (Page 70)

*Lost: L/S C.D. Grimmon - R.C.N. - 4026

Lloyd (Luke) Williams, a member of one of Canada's six flotillas present at N. Africa - and aboard the above-mentioned ship - adds the following story:


With regard to the 55th LCM Flotilla at North Africa my memory is quite hazy, so what follows is my recollection only, after fifty years. Others may differ or may be able to add more.

I recall that at the time we passed Gibraltar, the sea was crowded with ships as far as the eye could see. We landed just west of Mers-el-Kebir, at Oran's "Y" beach, Les Andalouses, on the "S.S. Clan McTaggart" which was our Mother Ship. The troops that we landed were members of the United States 1st Infantry Division complete with their mechanized vehicles and other necessary supplies.

We were shelled from the hills above the beach for a couple of days until a Royal Navy destroyer put a stop to it by several well-placed shells. On the third or fourth day after the landings and when all the ships had been emptied, the Officers and crews had an opportunity to travel into Mers-el-Kebir to see the results of the Royal Navy bombardment of the French Fleet in 1940.

Some days later the "Clan McTaggart" sailed in a small convoy to Gibraltar with orders to join other convoys all northbound under escort to the United Kingdom. Unfortunately we developed engine problems that necessitated repairs to be made in Gibraltar. These repairs did not take too long - maybe four hours or so - and we were then given permission to sail alone and catch up to the convoy.

At about 1600 - 1800 we sailed and I remember standing on a bridge watch from midnight to 0400 when I was relieved. I went below and had just jumped into my bunk (top) when there was a terrible explosion. I ran up on deck and was advised we had been torpedoed. I then went back to my cabin to check on my cabin mate, S/L Harold Walkely, who was still sound asleep. To wake him I had to literally pull him out of bed. As we got up on deck, we went to our boat station only to find that the Lascar crew had cut the rope falls and the lifeboat was hanging by one set of falls. These were ordered to be cut in hope that the lifeboat would land right side up - it did. Apparently others did not. I remember vaguely moving around the ship in search of people needing help. The ship had settled by this time but was considerably lower in the water. The Captain ordered 'abandon ship' and a number of people jumped in the water or shinnied down the boat falls into the water.

I remember being picked up by a Carley float and then transferring onto a half empty lifeboat. We pulled around the "Clan" looking for people and it was there we could see three follows standing on the stern. I believe one of them was Leading Seaman Grimmon. All three went down with the ship. Sometime the next morning, we were sighted by an R.A.F. Catalina flying boat out of Gibraltar, who radioed our position to the "H.M.S. Landguard", an ex U.S.N, sloop. Around 0900 we were picked up by this ship and then proceeded to join the original convoy.

That convoy had been attacked by U-boats on the previous evening and had lost some ships including the "S.S. Ettrick" that had on board another landing craft Flotilla. We carried on to the U.K. and eventually to "H.M.C.S. Niobe" in Greenock, Scotland. Our Flotilla Officer, at that time, was Lt. Judd Whittall, R.C.N.V.R. from Vancouver.

An interesting coincidence was that the American Officer in command of the troops aboard the "Clan McTaggart", fought his way through North Africa, Sicily and parts of Italy and was being returned to the U.K. to prepare for the Normandy invasion. We landed him in Normandy from LCI(L)-310 on either our third or fourth trip. (As found in Combined Operations, Pages 71 - 72)

Please link to Presentation: Dad's Navy Days Part 6 (1)

Unattributed Photos GH

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