Battle of Safi Harbor : 8 November 1942
Battle of Safi Harbor The famous British Admiral Lord Nelson reputedly said, “A ship’s a fool that fights a fort,” so one wonders about the wisdom of using a ship to break into a heavily defended harbor.
But, at 0428 on 8 November 1942, the heavily modified World War I–vintage destroyer, USS Bernadou (DD-153,) penetrated the harbor of Safi, the only port (besides Casablanca itself) in Morocco with facilities to off-load medium tanks, which would be needed for the assault on Casablanca.
George Howe describes Safi:
“The gap between the tip of the mole and the jetty was the harbor entrance, an opening about 500 feet in width.
this harbor triangle were several mooring places for ships with drafts of as much as thirty feet, and in the southernmost angle, the Petite Darse as it was called, were slips for shallower draft fishing boats. The merchandise quay at the northeastern corner provided berths for at least three large vessels. Electric cranes were available there for loading operations. The wharves had access to covered sheds and to space for considerable open storage, and were connected by spur tracks to a railroad leading to the interior. Near this corner, also, was a 100-foot lighthouse tower.
South of the artificial harbor and the new buildings in its vicinity was the old fishing town of Safi, which extended along the coastal shelf and at a break in the bluffs up the easier slopes to a rolling tableland. The native city was nearest the sea at a point where a small stream entered it. Not far from the clifflike waterfront was the tower of an old Portuguese fort of masonry in the crenelated style of the late Middle Ages. On the hillside 750 yards to the east was the Army barracks, and about 2,200 yards farther inland, an emergency landing field for aircraft.
Safi’s beaches were few and, for the most part, lay at the base of high, steep, and rocky bluffs which allowed no exit for vehicles. Within the harbor, however, near the Petite Darse was a short stretch of soft sand, rising rather rapidly to the coastal shelf, which was designated as GREEN Beach. Just outside the harbor, extending northward from the mole for almost 500 yards was a longer strip of sand called BLUE Beach.
A third patch of sand ran for a somewhat shorter distance along the base of the cliffs northwest of BLUE Beach; it was called RED Beach. Approaches to RED and BLUE Beaches were exposed to the surf. Passage inland from them was possible for vehicles only from the southernmost portion of BLUE Beach. The last of the beaches at which landings might have been made was eight miles south of the harbor, at Jorf el Houdi, below rugged but not insurmountable bluffs and near a road. It was labeled YELLOW Beach and considered during the planning as a possible point of landing from which to march on Safi from the south.
Its approaches were to be reconnoitered by submarine in time to be reported to the sub-task force commander during the first hours after arriving off Safi. Should the report be favorable, the 2d Battalion Landing Team, 47th Infantry, would be sent there while other units were striking farther north.
At Safi the invaders expected to find a garrison of over 1,000 men. The force actually there was smaller than that, consisting of one battalion of infantry, one armored battalion equipped with fifteen obsolete light tanks and five armored cars, and two batteries of artillery, one with four 75-mm. howitzers and the other four 155-mm. mobile guns. There were coastal guns on Pointe de la Tour and on the tableland above the harbor mouth.”
Bernadou was trailed by the World War 1 vintage battleship USS New York. New York was designed as the first ship to carry the 14-inch (356 mm)/45-caliber gun.
With her funnels and masts cut down very low to make her more stealthy, Bernadou’s mission of bringing 197 U.S. Army soldiers trained in night raider tactics into Safi to prevent Vichy French sabotage of the critical port infrastructure depended to a large degree on surprise for success.
Bernadou’s skipper, Dublin-born Lieutenant Commander (and future rear admiral) Robert E. Braddy, could tell by the high-speed traffic converging on the port that the French had been alerted (having presumably failed a challenge signal from a French light a few minutes earlier was also another indicator).
However, although the French expected “something,” they didn’t expect a destroyer to come barreling right into the port. In the darkness and confusion the French did not open fire until Bernadou was already in the harbor, taking the estroyer under fire from multiple directions, with 155-mm, 75-mm, and machine guns, despite Bernadou’s firing of an American flag flare. At 0428, the supporting destroyer, USS Mervine (DD-489), gave the radio call “batter up,” indicating the French were resisting.
She immediately received the “play ball” response from Rear Admiral L. A. Davidson.
This gave U.S. ships permission to open fire (the first such call of Operation Torch), which also caused the battleship USS New York (BB-34) and light cruiser USS Philadelphia (CL-41) to commence firing on French positions.
Although French shells were hitting all around Bernadou, her guns proved quicker and more accurate than those of the French, silencing the artillery with 3-inch rounds and the machine guns with grenade launchers.
USS New York literally fought a fort, silencing a 75-mm battery in the Old Portuguese Fort.
With her primary planned berth fouled, Bernadou beached herself at the head of the harbor and Army troops went ashore and fanned out through the port.
USS Cole (DD-155), under the command of Lieutenant Commander (and future rear admiral) George G. Palmer, and modified in the same manner as Bernadou, was supposed to be following immediately behind Bernadou and leading a wave of Army assault craft, but nearly ran head-on into the breakwater since she was erroneously navigating off a light in a house window instead of the lighthouse (which was out).
As it turned out, the delay was providential, as the army craft had gotten lost, too, and had Cole led them in at the peak of French resistance, casualties would have been higher. Nevertheless, the Cole brought her 197 embarked troops into the harbor along with the accompanying wave of assault craft and suppressed renewed French resistance.
Despite the at-times intense French resistance, only ten U.S. Army troops were killed and damage to Bernadou and Cole was minimal. French casualties numbered 27 killed and 44 wounded.
Although Bernadou was high on the rocks, both she and Cole would continue to serve as convoy escorts throughout the war. In this case, the sheer audacity of the plan led to success, and both destroyers were awarded a Presidential Unit Citation; the commanding officers, Braddy and Palmer, were awarded the Navy Cross.