30 October 1942
Atlantic Ocean : Convoy SL 125 heads home from Freetown with 37 cargo ships, and runs into a U-boat wolfpack northeast of Madeira, opening a seven day battle with 10 U-boats. The Germans eagerly tear into the convoy, sinking the President Doumer with 174 seamen drowned. As the Germans pour their undersea resources into the SL 125 battle, they ignore the massive Allied convoys bearing down on French North Africa.
Those convoys, in fact, are now at sea. 600 vessels carrying an assault force of 90,000 men (with 200,000 follow-up) are bearing down on French North Africa. The convoys have sailed 1,500 miles from Britain and 3,000 from the United States. The only Allied airbase in the area is Gibraltar, which is still 500 miles from Algiers. The small strip there is overcrowded with P-38s and Spitfires (in American and British service) - 350 aircraft all told. All these aircraft and ships in Gibraltar’s harbor are visible and continuously studied by German Navy Lt. Hans Redl in Algeciras.
This first Anglo-American invasion of World War II is very much a patchwork affair. There are 370 merchant ships and about 300 warships. Many of the latter have been yanked from the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet, which has reduced convoy escorts in the Atlantic and suspended convoys to Russia. Allied shipping programs around the world have been disrupted by the call-up of tugs, trawlers, tankers, transports, and store ships.
American troops headed for North Africa have rehearsed in Chesapeake Bay or Scotland. The Army Air Force has not been able to spare aircraft or men to train with the ground troops in ground-air cooperation. The training has been rushed. The 39th US Infantry Regiment, for example, has sailed from America with 60 days supplies and 10 units of fire for all weapons. Its vehicles have to be landed for waterproofing and re-stowing in tactical order on arrival in Scotland - with only two weeks before leaving for war.
The British forces earmarked for Torch are equally green, having spent most of the war in home defense. Their exercises in August have shown that more training - for which there is no time - is needed.
So far, Britain’s two invasions of the war are Madagascar and Dieppe. The first was sucessful for British but it was against an isolated Vichy French force, distant from its homeland, under complete air and sea superiority. The French are still holding out. Dieppe has been a ghastly failure.
The British techniques and equipment are a fairly proven force, hardened by repeated defeats. Nonetheless, their tactics and weaponry - the Lee-Enfield rifle and Bren gun - are capable and tried. The American tactics are poor - textbooks say that troops are to move through valleys and make hilltops the flanks - and their weaponry - M-1 rifles and M-3 Stuart tanks - untried.
The French defenders, however, are a known factor. There are 55,000 of them in Morocco, 50,000 in Algeria, 15,000 in Tunisia. Most are native infantry units with French officers, leavened with Foreign Legion regiments, Chasseurs d’Afrique, and colorful Zouaves. These forces, left out of the 1940 defeat, are veteran troops, at home in North Africa, experienced at desert war. Veteran outfits like the Foreign Legion are the stuff of legends. Even so, their rifles and equipment are obsolescent. They will have to rely on discipline to make up for technical deficiencies.
They are backed up by 12 units of motorized field artillery, and about 270 tanks in Morocco and Algeria, mostly Hotchkiss H35s and Somua S35s, armed with 37 mm guns. In 1940, these were among the best tanks in Europe. But they are outclassed by the British and American Sherman.
The French deploy about 500 planes, including a few Dewoitine 520s, which are outstanding fighters, able to take on the German Me 109. The rest are a mix of elderly MS 406s and Curtiss Hawks. Even so, they are equal to or superior to the British Sea-Hurricane and the American F4F. Until the Americans and British can seize airfields for their Spitfires and P-38s, the French will be able to seriously interfere with the Allied invasion.
The French Navy is another intangible. France’s most powerful battleship, Richelieu, is at Dakar, too far away to intervene. But her sister, Jean Bart, uncompleted, has been towed to Casablanca to avoid German or British seizure. She cannot move, but her 15-inch guns are operating. The other French ships in North Africa are light cruisers and destroyers. The main fleet, led by the modern battlecruisers Strasbourg and Dunkerque, are poised to intervene, and could do so with deadly effect.
Behind the French defenses lurk the 100-lb. gorilla - German and Italian forces in Sicily and Italy. The Nazis have 298 planes in Sardinia and Sicily, and the Italians deploy 574, all 200 miles from Tunis or Bizerte. If Hitler chooses to intervene in French North Africa, he can do so quickly.
Seventy miles north of the Nile Delta, four British destroyers wage a 16-hour chase of the German U-559, finally catching her. U-559’s skipper scuttles his damaged sub, but before it goes to the bottom, Lt. Tony Fasson, Able Seaman Colin Grazier, and Canteen Assistant Tommy Brown enter the submarine and unscrew its Enigma machine from its mount.
With water streaming in, Fasson and Grazier hand up the machine to Brown, along with its documents, keypads, and ciphers. Brown grabs the Enigma and hurls it into his whaleboat. Seconds later, the U-boat, with Fasson and Grazier aboard, goes to the bottom. Both receive posthumous George Crosses. Brown receives the George Medal.
In a bizarre follow-up, British authorities learn that Brown is only 16 years old, having lied about his age to join the Royal Navy. He is immediately discharged and sent home. Two years later, he is killed while trying to rescue his two sisters, who had been trapped in their slum tenement during a fire.
The U-559 seizure is critical to the Royal Navy. The soaked and priceless Enigma machine contains the keys to the major German U-boat codes Shark and Triton.
Stalingrad , Russia : At Stalingrad, fighting dies down as both sides are exhausted. Chuikov’s men still hold the Mamayev Kurgan, a few factory buildings, and a narrow strip of the Volga Bank. The Swastika flies over the rest of Stalingrad.
German quartermasters start issuing winter kit to their troops, fearing a repeat of the previous winter’s horrors, which caught the Germans to thinly clad. The 1942 German winter kit includes reversible trousers and jacket, field gray, and white.
German troops also fight another fierce battle against a determined enemy - lice. “For a time being there was no point in even thinking of washing,” writes a German soldier. “Today I killed my first batch of eight lice.”
Russian Hiwis tell the Germans what to do - bury each article of clothing under the ground with just one corner left above the ground. The lice will move there and can be burned off.
German troops are suffering from lice and many other ailments - jaundice, dysentery, typhus, and paratyphus. 55 percent of 6th Army’s deaths in the age groups 17 to 22 are caused by disease. Doctors in Berlin are puzzled that well-trained soldiers eating balanced rations, and engaged in physical activity, could be dropping so quickly.
The doctors attribute the high sickness and death rate to cumulative stress and short rations.
El Alamein , Egypt : At El Alamein, RAF Desert Air Force P-40s and Hurricanes continue to dominate the skies. Both aircraft are inferior technically to the German Me-109, but the Germans are outnumbered, outgunned, and short on fuel and pilots. Desert ir Force has total air dominance over Alamein battlefield thanks to great organisation of RAF Vice Marshal Mary Conningham and Tommy Erhearst and excellently equipped Egyptian airbases. At the other side of hill though Rommel and Panzer Army Afrika feel like they have been complately abandoned by Kesselring and Luftwaffe.
Montgomery spends most of the morning writing out his directive for Operation Supercharge. Its object is to “destroy the enemy armored forces” and “bring about the disintegration of the whole enemy army.”
All day long, British troops maneuver in their rear areas, while commanding officers and adjutants visit the front, planning the next moves.
On the German side, 600 tons of fuel arrives in Tobruk with last Italian tanker, enough for 24 hours of operations. Axis truck convoys head east along the Via Balbia - the Coast Road - and immediately come under heavy bombing from RAF air raids , slowing their advance. Rommel orders his staff to prepare a withdrawal plan.
That evening, the battle resumes. The Australian 20th Brigade is assigned with driving north to the sea to finally eliminate the Axis salient, held by the 1st Battalion, 361st German Infantry Regiment and the 125th Regiment.
The Australians plan to send three battalions north to grab a point called Barrel Hill. From there, two battalions will turn right and cut of the German strongpoint, called Thompson’s Post, while everyone else heads for the sea.
Behind them, the 24th Australian Brigade will advance, backed by the 2nd/3rd Pioneer Battalion, to cut off the pocket, hopefully sealing off the enemy. The Australians receive support from British 23rd Armoured Brigade’s Valentine tanks and Australian, New Zealand, and Highland Division artillery - a grand total of 312 field guns and 48 medium guns, hurling 64,000 rounds. Overhead, three squadrons of A-20s Boston bombers from Desert Air Force drop 85 tons of bombs into the area.
The bombardment has the desired effect. 2nd/32nd Australians covers the 2,000 yards to the railway line with little resistance. They take 175 prisoners from the 1st Battalion of the 361st German Regiment. 400 yards further, the Australians reach just south of Coast Road, and set up their 500-yard diameter position called Saucer, encountering three German doctors and their orderlies, with their wounded. The doctors stay in the Australian area, and tend both sides’ wounded.
As 2nd/32nd digs in, 2nd/48th and 2nd/24th Australian Battalions move up, followed by the Pioneers. In the dark, the Australians lose track of each other, and identify themselves with profanity.
2nd/24th and 2nd/48th Australian Battalions swing east to cut off Thompson’s Post as midnight approaches. They have 2,250 yards to Thompson’s Post.