Secrets and my Recollections of World War II - Operation Torch

Secrets and my Recollections of World War II

Gardner L. Friedlander 1990, 2000


The Invasion of North Africa

General George S. Patton.

Per orders of October 14, 1942,  six British trained radar officers (Lieutenants Boutillier, Friedlander, Graves, Hall, Rhodes and Woodruff) joined the 561st Signal Aircraft Warning Battalion, the radar battalion for the 12th Fighter Command in the XII Air Force commanded by  General Doolittle. The rest of the SAW battalion was already embarked (on three ships) in Glasgow. John Graves and I boarded the (free) Polish naval troop ship "H.M.T. Batory" for the invasion at Oran. It was a joint British-American unit that (in addition to American headquarters,  housekeeping, security, communications and plotting room personnel) had British radar which was superior to the then current American, and well trained British enlisted men to run the sets. There were no British officers along; we (trained in Britain) six officers took their places. It had been decided there was to be no obvious British presence in "OPERATION TORCH", because 18 months earlier the British had sunk the French fleet at Oran, our destination. We didn't want to antagonize the free French any more than necessary!

After a pre-dawn practice landing with the American 1st division (part of which was also on "Batory") on a Scottish beach at Inverary, we went to sea, joining a very large convoy of troop, cargo, and battleships. Again, not a pleasure cruise: very crowded conditions and rough weather. Conditions for the enlisted personnel were especially bad. I still remember the stench of vomit and sweat; not enough water on board for more than cooking and maybe washing teeth, face and hands. We had plenty of work to do for the ten days or so southbound: practicing going down landing nets to the small boats; the not-so-obvious job of coordinating British and American language and skills for providing radar information after landing; and the day to day army tasks of guard duty, teaching hygiene, first aid, etc. ad infinitum. It was good, however, to be back with an American unit. Our dentist found that months of restricted British diet had caused my teeth to deteriorate, and he and the battalion surgeon started me on vitamins and other diet supplements, as well as updating my immunization shots, etc.

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(Signal Corps Knife.)

I took my regular turn as "Officer of the Day" for the ship; we had regular guard posts (I don't know why). During my OD duty, one of the 1st division enlisted sentries fired his Tommy gun, possibly 20 shots. One went through the wall of the quarters of the ship's captain. Fortunately no one was hurt, and I (the officer in command) was surprised I didn't have any trouble from the mishap. Not even a dressing down!

We were intercepted by German subs. A few ships in our convoy were sunk, including the cargo ship containing ALL of our battalion's trucks and communication gear. We were to land without one telephone, switchboard, wire, or vehicle. We had our radios and radar aboard "Batory", and more fortunately, many ingenious men (a good many from the Bell telephone company), who scrounged and made do with civilian and enemy wire and equipment.

After that sub attack, every distant lightning storm or dark cloud (once even the rising moon) started rumors of another attack. Some men wore their life jackets night and day, and some slept on deck in the cold Atlantic air. About the only real diversion (other than rehearsals for what was to come) was the continual high stakes poker games. One of my privates gave me a large sum ($5000.00?) to send home for him after landing.

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Through the Straits of Gibraltar at night, and on towards Oran. On "D" day, November 8, 1942, we climbed down cargo nets into landing craft and went ashore at x beach (Cap Arzew); re-embarked; then landed (two days later, after the majority of the fighting was over) on the breakwater at Oran. It was a mess. We saw tanks on landing rafts tip over and disappear. Some small boats couldn't be started, and some tipped over in the heavy surf. Units fired at each other, as well as at the French defenders.

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There was hostile fire. Although prewar in civilian life I had been a hunter, I was one of many who had NEVER fired an army weapon, even in infantry training! I was named beach "Chemical Warfare Officer" (poison gas), because in England I had picked up a poison gas test kit, and it was the only one there. Luckily I didn't have to use it. What would my whistle blowing (to indicate poison gas) have meant to anyone else? That first night there was much small arms fire; some probably our own men firing at ghosts. It didn't keep us awake long; we'd had a busy day.

After that short night we marched the few miles to the airfield, our gear arriving in commandeered vehicles. The six of us who had trained in England were in charge of some 200 British troops and their radars (about equal numbers at the three landings at Oran, Algiers, and Casablanca). We erected a radar in its tent at the Oran airport. That evening (D + 3) I "controlled" (talked in on the two way radio) a group of fighter planes (Spitfires) coming from Gibraltar after dark. The airfield had no lights other than kerosene cans lighted at the last moment, nor did the aircraft have landing lights. After the last had landed, I got a radio "Thanks, well done" from the British squadron leader. He later came to the set and thanked me in person.

Our radar was very primitive by today's standards. It had one cathode ray tube to show the distance a target was from the set, and a second to help pinpoint  the direction. Both were inaccurate; it really took two or more sets' plots to estimate where the target was, and guess the number of planes, and their altitude. Hence, our designation as "Filter Officers". However, with one set a trained person could guide planes to that set (at an airfield), or vector a plane to intercept another.

The radars were crude, set up in a tent. One man rode a sort of stationary bike to turn the set towards the target; a second turned a crank to point the antenna up or down while the operator watched the monitors.

In a few days we had land lines (telephones, French and German) operating between the half dozen radars and our operations room located deep in a rock cave at the Oran waterfront. I am repeating great admiration: our American communications soldiers, many of them recruited from AT&T, were superb, utilizing captured German (and some French) materiel and trucks. We received our first American trucks, jeeps, communication equipment and supplies in Italy a year later.

Some days later the rest of our battalion arrived from Casablanca and Algiers; all "American" radar operations were now centered in Oran. Our commanding officer gave three of the radar officers other duties (one as motor pool officer); three of us were in control of operations. Our combined American-British signal aircraft warning battalion reported directly to the 12th Air Force. 

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Saturday, 08-Sep-2018 05:44:14 MDT

Gardner L. Friedlander 1990, 2000
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