Posted: 9/11/2007 7:53:37 AM EDT
Destroyer’s WWII mission snared N. African airstrip
By Philip Ewing - [email protected]
Posted : September 17, 2007
Here’s a sea story for you — have you heard the one about the ship that captured an airport?
This World War II yarn has some unlikely heroes:
First is the destroyer Dallas, a Clemson-class four-piper commissioned in 1920, decommissioned in 1939 and then recommissioned the same year.
Second is Rene Malavergne, a French Moroccan river pilot who had been imprisoned by France’s Nazi-controlled Vichy government, escaped, then returned to help guide the Dallas under fire up a twisting, treacherous river where its main guns and a team of Army raiders seized the enemy airfield.
Malavergne became the first non-American awarded the Navy Cross, and after its victory, the Dallas received a Presidential Unit Citation.
In late 1942, captained by Lt. Cmdr. R. Brodie Jr., the Dallas was fighting in the waters off North Africa, wrote Samuel Eliot Morison in the second volume of his superlative 15-volume history of the Navy in World War II. The Dallas was part of the force helping with the Allied invasions of North Africa; on one mission, commanders needed to neutralize an airport near a place called Port Lyautey, today called Kenitra, in Morocco. Brodie and the Dallas drew the assignment.
Early on the morning of Nov. 10, Lt. Mark Starkweather, a reservist, led a special team to the mouth of the Wadi Sebou, the river that wound inland past the air base, and cut the security net strung across to keep out American warships.
Then, still in darkness and under heavy rain, with Malavergne at the helm, the Dallas started up the river.
“The channel runs so near the south jetty that one almost scrapes the stone, and seas were high and breaking, making the destroyer yaw badly; machine-gun fire opened up on her at that juncture,” Morison wrote. Soon the ship ran soft aground in the river mud, but Brodie ordered full power and the 1,215-ton destroyer ground through.
A few miles up, the Vichy French had scuttled two river steamers to block the channel, but Malavergne knew the waterway so well that he was able to thread the Dallas, a ship with a 31-foot beam, between them.
With 75mm shells dropping all around (“turning the water to a froth,” Morison wrote), the ship grounded again, but again “managed to move ten knots by driving her engines full speed, with her keel cutting a trench in the soft mud,” Morison wrote.
After a 10-mile transit, the Dallas had come close enough to land its 75 Army raiders, who paddled ashore in rubber boats without a casualty. They joined with elements of the Army’s 3rd Battalion, which had been advancing over land, to start the attack.
By 10:30 a.m. on Nov. 10, U.S. Army Air Force P-40 Warhawk fighters were landing at the Port Lyautey airstrip.
Just a bit ballsy
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