Operations of Love Co, 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, in the Night Raid on Maknassy, Tunisia, December 17, 1942. Personal experience of a Company Commander.
Maj Stephen B. Morrissey
Official histories of World War II, it has been claimed, will toe the most complete and most accurate ever written. With maps and statistics, they will describe the maneuvers of regiments, divisions, and armies around the world. The maps will be in gay colors. Strong, fat arrows will coil, penetrate, envelop, and hammer at enemy forces. The decisions of famous leaders will be analyzed exhaustively. These histories may almost begin to tell the real history of the war. In occasional paragraphs, the exploits and failures of rifle companies, platoons and squads may toe mentioned. To front-line veterans below the rank of major, these records will be inadequate. They will have the feeling that at least 75% of the story should emphasize the achievements, the war effort, and the sacrifices of riflemen in the small units.
The most important lessons of the war, they feel, are psychological rather than tactical or strategic. The inner lives, emotions and motivations of the men who did the real dirty work should be studied. Surviving infantrymen can remember the times when this feeling of self-importance was the very thing that kept them going. They felt they were in the vanguard of history. They can remember also how men in rifle companies would fight for the prestige and reputation of a rifle company beyond any other motive. To get mentioned in the newspapers was another incentive. Ordinarily, it was nothing but a continuous, secret hope, never to be realized.
The natural human desire for fame and glory had to be enjoyed vicariously, through identification with big arrows, the names of generals, or headlines like Yanks Launch Offensive. Many other motives, of course, energized infantrymen to endure the primitive conditions of combat. A military historian trying to give a scientific account of them would also have to be a genius in the psychological fourth dimension. This monograph must therefore limit itself to the viewpoint and experience of an amateur observer of human frailty. The desire for prestige is one motivation with which we are concerned in the story of the Maknassy raid.
On Dec 16, 1942, early in the Tunisian Campaign, Love Company, 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, pulled a night attack on Maknassy, a small town about 250 miles south of Tunis, and about 40 miles inland from the coastal route which the Africa Corps used in its withdrawal from El Alamein to Tunis. Not until several months later did this area become a noteworthy battleground.
Later, in Dec 1942, it was a routine patrol country, where the 3/26-IR had been assigned to present a show of force. The rest of the regiment and the HQs of the 1-ID were still back in Oran, about 350 miles to the northwest. At this time, the 3/26 was the main strength of a task force commanded by Col Edson D. Raff (Paratrooper). Whether or not the 3/26 actually contributed to history during this month of Dec 1942 is questionable. But in the minds of the men, their work was important.
Edson Duncan Raff (Nov 15, 1907 – Mar 11, 2003) was a US Army officer and author of a book on paratroopers. He served as Commanding Officer (CO) of the first American Paratrooper unit to jump into combat, the 2/509-PIR, near Oran as part of Operation Torch during World War II. Raff had served as First Capt of Cadets at a small prep school in Winchester, Virginia called the Shenandoah Valley Academy before serving in the army. He graduated from the US Military Academy (USMA) in 1933 as a second lieutenant (Infantry Branch). By the time the USA entered World War II in Dec 1941, Raff had transferred to the army’s fledgling airborne forces. Serving as Commanding Officer of the 2nd Battalion in Col William M. Bud Miley’s 503-PIR. Raff’s battalion (which was later redesigned 509-PIB) was sent to England as an independent unit as part of Operation Roundup, the Allied invasion of German-occupied Europe scheduled for 1942 which, due to lack of resources, was postponed until 1943. Meanwhile, in England, the 509 trained alongside and became closely associated with the British 1st Airborne Division, commanded by Gen Frederick A. M. Browning, the father of the British Airborne Forces. Due to the tough training course, he gave the paratroopers in the 509-PIB (and his stocky physique), Raff was nicknamed ‘Little Caesar’ by his men. He first saw combat in Nov 1942 during Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of French North Africa, as the commander of the 509-PIB.
The main force with Col Raff also jumped early some 35 miles east of the objective airfields. Although he broke several ribs in a hard landing, Col Raff continued to lead his paratroopers toward their objectives, and after a full day and night forced march, a company of weary paratroopers reached the airfield at Tafaraoui on the morning of Nov 9. Both airfields had already been captured by Allied amphibious forces. Thus ended the first and rather disappointing American Airborne combat operation in history. He then spent time as an airborne planner in Gen Omar N. Bradley’s staff and was assigned by Gen Matthew B. Ridgway to lead Task Force Raff, a composite unit of M-4 Sherman tanks and scout cars that landed at Utah Beach on D-Day, to support the 82-A/B. When the CO of the 507-PIR was captured in Normandy, Raff was assigned to take the regiment over on Jun 15, 1944. He led the 507-PIR through the rest of the war, during the Battle of the Bulge and during Operation Varsity in March 1945. As the plane neared the drop zone during Operation Varsity, Raff recalled ‘I was alone standing in the door of the plane looking down at the river passing beneath the plane, smoke partially obscured my view. At that moment, I said a prayer to the infant Jesus, The Little Flower, ‘Little Flower, in this hour show Thy power’. The prayer was given to me by my sister who was a nun. I said the prayer before every jump’. Raff led the regiment in the Western Allied invasion of Germany until the end of World War II in Europe came less than two months later on May 8, 1945. After the war, in 1954, Raff commanded the 77th Special Forces Group, based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and is credited by Lt Gen William P. Yarborough (who had served under Raff with the 509th in North Africa) as the ‘father’ of the then-controversial green beret now routinely worn by US Army Special Forces. Raff retired from the army in 1958. He died on March 11, 2003, at 95 years old.
In their imaginations, it was like life must have been in the badlands of our old southwest. The semi-arid desert steppes, the treeless mountains, and the little French-Arab towns helped to suggest this illusion. To the members of Love Co, at any rate, the Maknassy raid was Cowboy-Indian stuff. This action had a decisive effect on the morale of one rifle company. That is mostly why it is important. The raid sharpened group loyalty within Love Co. Within the battalion, the company gained a reputation and prestige commensurate with that of the other rifle companies. Even the newspapers picked it up. The men acquired, in the wild experience of one night’s action, a feeling of self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-importance which almost gave them the ambition to see more action. Since such positive morale results of infantry combat are rare, it may be of interest to explain how they developed. The Maknassy raid may thereby serve as a psychological case study, as well as a small piece of tactical history.
From Oran to Feriana
Love Co’s peculiar mental condition, which was purged at Maknassy, began at Oran, where the 1-ID went into bivouac after the battle of Nov 8-10, 1942. The 3/26 was guarding the La Senia Airfield. Troops were in comparatively good humor having weathered their first combat. In numberless bull sessions, they rehashed their adventures and swapped rumors. There were arguments as to which company in the battalion had ‘had it toughest’. One day the CC overheard Paul Egan, top sergeant of Love Co, leading an old soldier’s discussion on this topic. The first sergeant of King Co was present and a crowd of men was gathered around an argument.
Egan would not admit that Love Co was not a thousand times better than King Co. As a matter of fact, Egan knew and everyone else in the battalion knew that King Co had done an outstanding job in the two-day battle up on Djebel Murdjadjo. King Co had borne the brunt of the fighting. If any company deserved credit for courage, casualties, and good tactics, it was King Co. A person sensitive to the real feelings of Love Co, for instance, could plainly see that in some future action, Love Co would have to perform some kind of battle exploit if only to provide ammunition for the GI bull sessions. Otherwise, it was reassuring to know that the 1st Infantry Division was together in Oran.
On that higher level, there was a secure sense of prestige. Under the competent leadership of Terry Allen and Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the Division was a proud, battle-tried team. Super-imposed over the finely-spun psychological condition in the 3/26, was this indirect feeling of self-importance derived by identification with a famous parent outfit. The Division had been mentioned on the second page of the New York Times. Love Co had not been mentioned; even King Co had not been recognized. But that was all right. The rest of the Army and the folks at home would know that if the 1-ID took Oran, Pvt Smith and Pvt Jones of Love Co had been chiefly responsible. This larger psychological support was snatched out from under the 3/26 within two weeks after the battle of Oran.
Roused from its bivouac at La Senia, the battalion was dispatched 700 miles into southern Tunisia – airborne. To go by air was a sort of compensation for the loss of confidence in being separated from the Division. The urgency of the order and the novelty of transportation were exciting. Think of the publicity! What would the history books say?
The prospect of air travel had its disturbing side also. Ninety percent of the men had never been up in a plane. None of them had had any airborne training. Further, it was not reassuring to know that the planes would travel unarmed, and only lightly escorted along the Algerian coast, thence into Tunisia. Any furtive inspection of a map could lead you to visualize swarms of Luftwaffe and hordes of German infantry waiting in ambush. Pride in their being chosen to do the unusual and the dangerous, however, overcame any psychological barriers. Item Company led off the battalion order of march from Oran. Love Co went the following day, to be followed by Bn HQs, Mike, and King Cos at one-day intervals. The long flight was made in two hops, via Algiers, thence over the rocky Tell Atlas mountains. C-47 transports loaded 14 men to a plane, carried the battalion without mishap to a natural airfield at Youks Les Bains, near Tebessa.
Several days before Item Co arrived, this airfield had been secured without opposition by Col Raff and two companies of the 509-PIB. Col Raff had then pushed overland to Feriana with one parachute company and Able Co of the 701-TDB. When Love Co arrived at Youks, they were defeated by the news that Item Co, had already moved to Feriana, 50 miles eastward. Item Co together with the tank destroyers had gone on to chase an Italian force out of Gafsa. They had captured Gafsa. That happened on Nov 28, 1942. Love Co did not move on to Feriana for several days. They were ordered to guard the airfield at Youks, from which P-38s and A-20s were already beginning to operate. Meanwhile, HQs Co and Mike Co flew in and passed through Youks to Feriana.
On Dec 4, McLaughlin, the 3/26 S-4, pulled into the Love Co Bivouac at Youks. You missed it, he said. The battalion had one hell of a fight at Faid Pass the last two days. He said that two platoons of Item Co, HQs Co, Mike Co, the Able 701-TDB, a Company of the 509-PIB, and a French company had captured Faid Pass. 121 prisoners had been taken. A lot of men had been killed, 50 casualties of our own altogether. He said that Item Co and the A&P Platoon of HQs Co had been chiefly responsible for the victory. Mike Co mortars and machine guns had done good work, too. Then, to the little group of Love Co men, McLaughlin intoned in that sympathetic, yet a self-important way of the veteran talking to the recruit, You should’a’ve been there. They were Germans, too. It was rough. Thus, within a few short days, Love Co’s stock in self-esteem had taken another slump. When the company arrived in Feriana on December 5, the victorious battalion had returned from Faid Pass, leaving the French colonial troops to organize the defense. Love Co men had to listen patiently to all the details of the battle. It had been a good one, but it is human nature to want to participate equally in any discussion.