Disaster off Casablanca: Air Observation Posts in Operation Torch and the Role of Failure in Institutional Innovation

Includes excerpts from the article in Air Power History, Fall 2002, by Edgar Frank Raines, Jr.

Both failure and success sometimes lie in the coordinated and spontaneous actions of individuals and the totality of their organization. This is steadfastly true of U.S. Army actions to push combative forces out of North Africa during the early stages of WWII.

The idea of an air observation post (distinguished from the Artillery’s ground observation post) originated in February 1940 with the Royal Artillery of the British Army. An American interpretation of the same was put to test by the U.S. Army on November 9, 1942, off Casablanca, French [protectorate] Morocco. Three civilian L-4s—Piper Cubs concealed in olive drab and adorned with a small insignia star in yellow surround—took off from the USS Ranger heading for shore to support the 3d Infantry Division Artillery’s drive on the city. The invasion was identified as Operation Torch, and it would initiate the U.S. Army’s Air-Observation-Post (Air OP) Program.

Insignia, specification number 24102-K (Amend #3) with yellow outline, issued October 1, 1942, and used in the North African Campaign.

The program, long since in discussion, sought to resolve an infantry-artillery coordination problem that sprung from the Great War. Lessons plus technological changes ensuing that savage era were being examined interwar. The term “liaison” was applied, signifying intramilitary coordination. While the designation for a “liaison aircraft,” uniquely identified by armed forces organizations as a whole and not just air forces, had yet to be established, its functions would swiftly emerge.

Air Corps officers of the old school consistently emphasized speed as the key factor to survivability in combat. The result was a generation of aircraft that were too fast for effective visual observation by their flight crews. Observation aircraft were large, maneuvered sluggishly, and were in fact slow compared to the latest pursuit aircraft presently in operation. Additionally, the complexity and weight of these aircraft meant that they had to be based at well developed airfields, those established far behind the lines.

While not generally recognized as a producer of military aircraft, Piper offered a solution with its commercial “Cub” (in later military parlance, the L-4). A flivver—a contemporary term for light and comparatively cheap—it proposed greater reliability, short landing and take-off runs, and sufficient ruggedness to operate out of forward air strips. The pitch was put forward outside of normal military practices where it would eventually gain acceptance. Once again, separate from Air Force protocol, Army Field Artillery employed civilian light aircraft pilots, giving them pilot courses focused on the skills they would need to fly tactically in combat. Upon joining his parent unit the pilot would have the opportunity to gain experience in working with ground units.

An Army Piper L-4 observation plane is overhead during North European invasion rehearsals, practice landing operations at Slapton Beach, England, in 1944. National Archives photo.

Three early model L-4s (delivered by the Army in bad repair) were readied for the mission and launched from the USS Ranger. Unrecognized, nor properly forewarned of the assignment, the aircraft were attacked by friendly fire. Attempting to avoid the curtain of fratricide in the transport area, the pilots separated from their formation, dove for the ocean surface and weaved at a height of about twenty feet to thwart the accuracy of surrounding gunfire.

During the haphazard attack Capt. Ford E. Allcorn lost the windshield and door of his L-4 to machine gun fire. With his engine “smoking,” he passed over the shore line, where now ground forces opened fire. A tank machine gunner landed five slugs into one of Allcorn’s legs. The pilot lost control, crashed, and was just able to crawl from the wreckage before the plane caught fire and exploded.

The other two aircraft veered off to the north. Pilot 2d Lt. William H. Butler and Capt. Breton A. Devol, Jr., his observer, succeeded in crash landing [for lack of a runway] still behind the Vichy French lines. Surviving impact, they would later rejoin their unit. The third L-4, piloted by 1st Lt. John R. Shell landed on the race track that was their objective. However, when he attempted to take off again to try to fulfill the mission of directing artillery fire, he encountered such concentrated friendly small arms fire that he quickly landed again.

Three Field Artillery observation airplanes, assigned to the 3rd Division Artillery, were transferred to the theater of operations aboard the US Navy Carrier Ranger. These airplanes took off from the carrier which was well out to sea in mid afternoon, 9 November, having been ordered to land at the Fedala race track. They flew low and by dead reckoning. As they approached the transports, they were fired on by transport AA guns and especially by the AA armament of the cruiser Brooklyn, but miraculously reached shore safely. Turning down the beach, they were fired on heavily by our ground troops. One plane was shot down, badly injuring the pilot who already had received three bullet wounds from our small arms fire. The other planes were grounded for the remainder of the action.

Field Artillery annex to the final report of the Western Task Force

Later, at the Department of Air Training Allcorn was called “Ace,” because for a long time he was the only member of the staff with air combat experience. He would return to the Mediterranean Theater of Operations as an artillery air officer.

Some officers at Army Air Forces HQ had long contemplated reversing the War Department decision establishing the Air OP Program. Maj. Gen. Henry H. Arnold’s argument was that Piper Cub-like aircraft could not survive modern combat. Nevertheless, the debate went on. The fundamental explanation of the innovation was that it was intended to solve a genuine problem and that there were no alternative solutions readily available. A whole generation of American Field Artillery officers had devoted themselves to solving the riddle of artillery-infantry liaison.

Operation Torch collapsed due to the Army Air Forces failure to provide adequate types and numbers of aircraft for the maneuver season. Further marring the operation, the Army Air Forces simply did not consider the training of ground troops a priority.

Not until the spring of 1943, in the campaign in Northern Tunisia, did light planes begin to redeem the high promise that the Field Artillery reformers envisioned for them. And not until the spring of 1944, did the system reach its full sophistication along the Winter Line in Italy and at the Anzio beachhead. By then the U.S. Army Field Artillery was arguably the best in the world, and the air observation posts were a key component in this success.

Piper L-4 “Elizabeth” takes off from the flight deck of USS Ranger to spot gunfire and carry out reconnaissance near French positions, during Operation Torch, November 1942. National Archives photo.

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