– The Algeria-French Morocco Campaign –
The 9th Infantry Division was introduced to the North-African theater – and vice versa – just before dawn on November 8th, 1942, when the 39th Combat Team (which had come via the British Isles) landed at Algiers. At the same time, the 47th Combat team was hitting the beach at Safi, French Morocco while the 60th Combat Team was hammering at the Kasba and the airport at Port Lyautey, Morocca. There, in the short sharp murderous battle that preceded victory, the Division received the baptism of fire which put the ultimate touches to its preparation for the big job. Following the cessation of hostilities, plans were made to regroup the Division at Port Lyautey. The 39th Combat Team remained near Algiers, and during the next three months it was strung out more than 500 miles, guarding communication lines. The 47th made a foot march of over 250 miles from Safi to Port Lyautey, while the remainder of the Division landed at Casablanca and moved to the Division area. By the first of January 1943, the 9th Division, less the 39th Combat Team, was concentrated near Port Lyautey.
For the next month, soldiers of the 9th in turn guarded the Spanish Moroccan border, drank red wine, staged a review for President Roosevelt, saw Martha Raye, slept in cork forests, and found out that the guidebooks don’t tell the whole story. On Jan. 31, 1943, the first elements began moving by train and truck from Port Lyautey. The route was through Elmo Grain, Sidi Slimane, Petit Jean, Fez, Taza, Guercif, Taorit, Oujda, across the Algerian frontier, through Marnia and Turene to Tlemcen. The stay in Tlemcen was short.
At 1100 February 17th, 1943, orders were received to move the Division Artillery to the Tunisian front where Rommel had broken through. Four and a half hours later the 34th Field Artillery Battalion. crossed the Initial Point as leading unit. Snow was on the ground and rain fell as the artillery and the cannon companies pulled out. By day and night they drove via Sidi bel Abbes, L’Arba, Setif, Ain M’Lila, Ain Beida, to Tebessa. Brig. Gen. S. LeRoy Irwin, artillery commander, then received orders from II Corps to proceed to Thala, which was seriously threatened. The road out of Tebessa was jammed with traffic, and heavy guns repeatedly slid off roads made slippery by mud and continuous rain. By 0400 on February 21st, the Artillery Battalions were in position to fire. In three days and twelve hours this column of 411 vehicles, 138 officers, and 2032 enlisted men had covered 777 miles of winding, congested and slippery roads, through rain and snow. Rommel’s thrust was stopped.
Meantime, the remainder of the Division left Tlemcen on February 19th. Heavy wet snow fell as the convoy moved out at 0830 on a route that led — remember the names? — through Lamtar, Detrie, Sidi bel Abbes, Boulet, Mercier Lacomba, Ain Frass, Ain Fakin, Tizzi, St. Andre, Mascara, Ain Fares, El Bofdj, Tliouanet, Relizane, Hamedena, St. Aime, Inkerman, Charon, Malikoff, Orleansville, Oued Fodda, Rouina, Duperre, Lavandere, Affreville, Miliana, Marguerite, Bourkika, Ameur el Ain, Mouiniville, Calmatie, L’Arba, Rivte Alma, Menerville, Souk el Haad, Dalestad, Thiers, Bouiara, El Esnam, El Adjiba, Mzita, Coligny, Setif, Ain M’Lila (where barracks bags were stored) — to arrive near Bou Chebka on February 27th, 1943.
During the move the 39th Combat Team joined the Division, reuniting the 9th once again. The Division immediately went into position and began patrolling around Sbeitla and Kasserine. In late March, the 60th Combat Team was detached to fight the battle of Maknassy, while the remainder of the Division moved to El Guettar. Here, as part of General Patton’s II Corps, the 1st Infantry Division on the left and the 9th Infantry Division on the right were to attack on the Gafsa-Gabes axis to relieve the pressure on General Montgomery’s British force to the south. Detachments reduced the 9th for this operation to six — and for several days to five — Infantry Battalions. Principal handicap, however, was the almost complete lack of adequate maps. Nevertheless, the attack was launched on the morning of March 28th, 1943, and for the next 11 days a bitter battle was waged for hills 290, 369, and 772. By April 7th, 1943, the enemy had pulled back and the 9th Infantry Division, after occupying forward positions, made immediate plans to begin the long, secret trek to northern Tunisia.
This meant moving an entire Division from southern Tunisia to the extreme northern flank bordering the Mediterranean. By April 13 the relief of the British Division in the sector had begun. Also, the 60th Combat Team had rejoined the Division at Bou Chebka and had begun to move northward.
Attached to the Division during the next operation were four Tabours of Goums: grim-visaged, swarthy, turbanned, “bathrobe-wearing,” silent Berber tribesmen who, as part of the Corps Franc d’Afrique, fought and died for seven months beside their American, French and British comrades. “Goum” — a word these tribesmen never used in referring to themselves — is an Arabic term meaning “irregular soldier.” With the relief of the British swiftly completed, the 9th Infantry Division was now ready as a unit, and on April 23rd the attack was launched in the Sedjenane sector.
The Division commander soon decided that a frontal attack on the Green Hill-Bald Hill position would be too costly. He therefore decided to employ the bulk of the Division in a wide flanking movement through extremely difficult terrain north of the main road, to outflank enemy positions and cut lines of communications north and northeast. Such a maneuver would be hampered by an almost total lack of communications throughout the area to be traversed. However, the Germans would never expect such a difficult maneuver if our troops could be moved into position without detection. Secrecy was essential to preserve the element of surprise. In preparation for the attack a careful study was made of the terrain and dominant observation was selected for each of the intermediate objectives to be captured by the regiments each day. While these objectives were not always captured on the planned dates, most of them eventually were occupied, and in every case such occupation proved decisive in outflanking the Germans. The extreme width of the front — 28 miles — posed a very difficult problem for the artillery commander who had to scatter his units. As a solution light battalions were kept in their usual role, supporting the infantry regiments, but medium and heavy artillery were divided into two groups, one for the south and one for the north. Supply was a great problem. The French had virtually no transportation. Three hundred mules were obtained, and for several days the regiments were forced to rely solely on them for supply transportation and evacuation.
In the campaign which followed, the soldiers of the 9th proved that they could take advantage of the lessons they had learned the hard way. The first proof was a brilliant envelopment of the Green-Bald Hill positions which the British had assaulted unsuccessfully for months. At Djebel Dardys and Djebel Mrata the 60th Infantry Regiment massacred a German counter-attacking force. Djebel Cheniti was a brilliant demonstration of Infantry “leaning up against” artillery preparation.
The 9th Infantry Division continued to drive steadily toward Bizerte, one of the principal Allied objectives. Finally at 1515 hours May 7th, the following conversation took place:
– CO, 894th TD Bn.: “Have covered the entire valley of the Oued Garba. No sign of enemy in the valley. Believe way to Bizerte wide open. Request permission to proceed into Bizerte and occupy city.“
– G-3, 9th Div.: “CG instructs you proceed Bizerte and occupy it. Report your position every half hour.“
– CO, 894th TD Bn.: “Will comply with pleasure.“
And then, as Major Dean T. Vanderhoef, Assistant G-2, played the “William Tell Overture” on his ocarina over the radio telephone, troops rolled into Bizerte. Mopping up continued for several days and when all resistance ended, a brilliantly successful operation was complete. The 9th Infantry Division had come of age.
Days of combat in North Africa were over. Tunisia had been a disillusioning land, devoid of cinematic glamor; a land of overloaded burros and few houses for shelter. The battle had featured over-extended fronts and equally extended lines of supply. Communications were across a country once described by a dough boy as “miles and miles of miles and miles” — a country strewn with French, German, and American mines whose exact location no one knew. These had been the days when cold-numbed fingers were sliced on C ration cans, when air superiority didn’t always seem a certainty, when Yank and The Stars and Stripes were things that didn’t arrive, when the only news came by way of BBC (and nobody had a radio) and when the theory became a fact that “Africa is a very cold continent where the sun is hot”.
Other Divisions after the end of the African campaign went back to bivouacs near Oran or Algiers, but they sent the 9th Division to Magenta, 80 kilometers south of Sidi bel Abbes in the direction of the Sahara Desert. After the inevitable policing-up around Bizerte the 9th hit the road west, over the same route traversed three months before. Magenta, Algeria, where the Division was assembled by late afternoon May 26th, developed into an elaborate bivouac as days slipped into weeks. Though dust, heat and flies seemed to increase almost daily, the coolness and beauty of mornings and evenings were worth the trouble and heat of mid-day. There was always the certainty of a night’s sleep free of heat, but the mid-day sun was so intense that a Division order (never rescinded) specified a siesta for all troops from 1300 to 1500 hours each afternoon. Sidi bel Abbes, French Foreign Legion Headquarters and the nearest town of any size, was 50 miles away, and some passes were issued to Division personnel each day. Truck convoys brought the troops in and returned them to their areas each night.
Shortly after the arrival of the Division in this area, changes began to take place. The 9th passed from control of II Corps to I Armored Corps. On June 1st orders were issued transferring Brigade General S. LeRoy Irwin, Division Artillery commander, and Colonel Edwin H. Randle, 47th Infantry Regiment commander, from the 9th Division to the United States. Both received promotions and new commands. Irwin took command of the 5th Division and Randle became Assistant Commander of the 77th Division, which later landed on Guam. On May 30th, Colonel Reese M. Howell was relieved from the 17th Field Artillery Brigade to command the 9th Division Artillery. Appointed Brigade General on June 9th, he took command of the “Div Arty” on June 17th, 1943.
Between May 26th and June 27th, 1943 the 9th participated in a program of training and rest. Emphasis was placed on rest — not forgetting reveille, formal retreat, calisthenics, Saturday morning inspections and all the thousand-and-one formalities which plague a GI who otherwise might have ten minutes to himself — with movies, band-concerts and as much entertainment as could be lured to the forsaken spot that was the Division area. Units were sent to the beach at Ain el Turck near Oran in rotation for periods of four days each. Dysentery was prevalent. The training program featured schools, demonstrations and conditioning exercises. Throughout the stay in the area the 9th received much cooperation from the French Foreign Legion. In return the Division trained personnel of the 2nd Spahis (French) in reconnaissance work, and personnel of the French 9th Colonial Division in tactics and technics of cannon-company and heavy weapon material. Details were also trained by the 9th Signal Corps and the 15th Engineer Battalion.
But movement was in the air again. On June 29th and 30th, the 39th Combat Team (with attachments) and the 9th Div Arty moved out for Bizerte, via Orleansville, L’Arba, Setif and Souk-Ahras. Colonel George Smythe took command of the 47th Infantry Regiment. Another restless week followed as the remainder of the Division stayed at Magenta pursuing its training program. And on July 8th orders were issued directing the remaining units to Ain el Turck. The Infantry Regiments, with attachments, were to march.
Thus, seven weeks after having moved into the Magenta area, the Ninth Division left. The new area was near Bou Sfer, with all units within walking distance of the beach. In this “staging area” preparations were immediately begun to move to Sicily. For two weeks training was conducted in the morning but each afternoon units were formed and moved to the beach at a walk-and-run, where the remainder of the afternoon was spent.
Source: Official 9th Infantry Division booklet “Hold Fast”.