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torch, Operation (8 November 1942) and Aftermath

The Allied invasion of North Africa. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed with the British position that the Allies should first concentrate on Germany, the most powerful of the Axis opponents. Indeed, U.S. planners, especially Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, sought the earliest possible invasion of France. They supported gymnast, a British contingency plan based on a cross-Channel invasion, and roundup, a 48-division invasion of France projected to occur by April 1943. However, the failure of the attack on Dieppe, France, on 19 August 1942 (Operation jubilee) led the Americans to concede that a cross-Channel invasion lay many months if not years in the future. Winston L. S. Churchill and British planners, meanwhile, attempted to interest the United States in a more opportunistic approach that would include operations in the Mediterranean Theater.

Roosevelt had promised Soviet leader Josef Stalin that the Western Allies would undertake an invasion by the end of 1942, and he was determined to honor that pledge. But if a cross-Channel invasion was impossible, where might such an assault be mounted? Churchill argued for attacks against what he termed the "soft underbelly of Europe," in the Mediterranean. Even before the Dieppe raid, Roosevelt and Churchill had settled on an invasion of North Africa, supposedly not to the exclusion of roundup.

Gaining control of Vichy-administered Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia would provide bases from which the Allies could conduct both air operations to help protect their Mediterranean shipping and strategic bombing raids against targets in southern Europe. The area would also offer a location from which to mount invasions of such Mediterranean islands as Sicily, Sardinia, and Crete or even mainland Europe in Italy or Greece. Further, an invasion of northwest Africa would provide badly needed combat experience for inexperienced U.S. troops but against a military substantially inferior to the German Wehrmacht.

Roosevelt became the chief proponent of the operation and insisted on it over the objections raised by many of his own service chiefs, including Marshall. The invasion, code-named torch, was timed to coincide with the planned breakout of British Empire forces at El Alamein in Egypt; the Allies hoped to crush Axis troops in a pincer movement between the two forces. On 23 October, British Eighth Army commander General Bernard Montgomery initiated the final contest for control of North Africa in Operation lightfoot, the Battle of El Alamein. Superior British resources carried the day against tenacious Axis resistance, and by 2 November, the Eighth Army had broken through. The army then began a pursuit of German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Axis forces, which made good their escape. Again and again, Axis forces eluded Montgomery's lethargic encirclement attempts.

On 8 November, British and U.S. forces carried out their surprise landings in Morocco and Algeria, the largest amphibious operation in history to that time. The British had favored landings in central North Africa, at Tunis and Bizerte in Tunisia, or at least at nearby B™ne in eastern Algeria, but the Americans were more cautious and won the point. The landings occurred at Casablanca in Morocco and at Oran and Algiers in Algeria. U.S. Army Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower, commanding U.S. troops in Britain, was appointed commander in chief, Allied Expeditionary Force. His deputy was another American, Major General Mark W. Clark. Eisenhower saw to it that both U.S. and British officers were thoroughly integrated within his staff, and British Fleet Admiral Andrew B. Cunningham directed all naval forces.

The most westerly landing, at Casablanca on the Atlantic, assured the Allies a lodgment in North Africa even if the other two landings inside the Mediterranean went awry. Major General George S. Patton commanded the Western Task Force of 38,000 men, escorted by warships led by U.S. Rear Admiral Henry K. Hewitt. The force had steamed all the way from Norfolk, Virginia, one of the longest expeditionary efforts in history.

The other two invasions were mounted from England and went ashore in Algeria. Central Task Force, under U.S. Army Major General Lloyd Fredendall, numbered nearly 41,000 men (37,100 Americans and 3,600 British), supported by British Commodore Thomas H. Troubridge's covering warships. The 55,000-man Eastern Task Force headed for Algiers was largely British in composition (45,000 British troops and only 10,000 Americans), but to give the illusion that it was mostly American, U.S. Major General Charles Ryder had command. Once Algiers was secured, British Lieutenant General Kenneth A. N. Anderson took charge. British Vice Admiral Sir Harold M. Burrough commanded its covering warships.

During the landings, the Allies made every effort to emphasize the U.S. role and downplay British participation. Given the British attack against French ships at Mers-el-Kébir, Algeria, in July 1940 and British operations in Syria, Allied leaders rightly assumed that Americans would receive a far friendlier reception from French forces than would the British. Thus, efforts were made to show the American flag, quite literally, wherever possible.

No one knew the extent to which French troops would resist the invasion. U.S. diplomat Robert Murphy made preliminary contacts with Vichy French officials in North Africa, and on 22 October, General Clark had a secret meeting near Algiers with French Major General Charles Mast, chief of staff of XIX Corps. This meeting did not bring the desired agreement, and for the most part, French troops resisted the landings.

torch began early on the morning of 8 November. The Casablanca operation was widely dispersed, at Safi, Fedala, Mehdia, and Port Lyautey. Although taken by surprise, the French troops fought well. The unfinished French battleship Jean Bart lay at Casablanca. Although she was incapable of movement, her 15-inch guns nonetheless soon began a duel with the U.S. battleship Massachusetts. French naval units, including the cruiser Primauguet, attempted a sortie, but superior U.S. naval strength beat them back. In the battle, four destroyers and eight submarines of the French navy were either sunk or missing, and 490 French fighters were killed and another 969 wounded. The French at Casablanca surrendered on 11 November.

The two Allied landings east and west of Oran encountered heavy French resistance. An attempt by two former U.S. Coast Guard cutters to run into the port failed, and a U.S. airborne battalion, flying all the way from Britain, was only partially successful in securing nearby airfields. At Algiers, the frontal naval assault failed, but the city was soon ringed by Allied troops on the land side.

The Allies secured their objectives before long. Overall casualties were light, and the landings provided the Allies with excellent training for their subsequent invasions of Europe. Although the British were correct in that they could easily have landed farther east, Adolf Hitler now decided to reinforce North Africa. Had these resources been sent to Rommel earlier, the Axis powers might have secured the Suez Canal. Hitler's belated decision only delayed the inevitable and ensured that the ultimate Axis defeat in Tunisia would be more costly.

Despite misgivings, Eisenhower negotiated with the commander of Vichy France's armed forces and former premier Admiral Jean Darlan, who was visiting in Algiers at the time of the landings. On 11 November, Darlan agreed to assist the Allies by ordering a cease-fire in return for heading the administration of French North Africa. Darlan was, however, assassinated on 24 December, allegedly by a monarchist acting alone, a deed that removed a potential embarrassment to the Western governments. The British and French then installed General Henri Giraud, who had escaped from France, as commander of French forces in North Africa, ignoring General Charles de Gaulle. The latter, understandably furious, had not even been informed of the landings beforehand.

On 9 November, Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain's Vichy French government responded to the Allied North African invasions by severing diplomatic relations with the United States. Nonetheless, Hitler ordered German troops into "unoccupied" France. Operation attila had been drawn up by the Germans in 1940. Its main objective was to capture the principal French naval units at Toulon. But on 27 November, French crews frustrated the German attempt and scuttled 77 ships, including 3 battleships.

Once the Allied forces that had landed in North Africa had secured their initial objectives ashore, they proceeded on to accomplish two key objectives: to secure ports in Tunisia in order to block the resupply of Axis units and to build up a force in Morocco to occupy Spanish Morocco if Spain—or the Germans acting through Spain—should attempt to take Gibraltar. As it transpired, the latter was unnecessary, since the landings alone caused Franco to move Spain into a more neutral stance.

Allied forces were unprepared for immediate overland operations but nonetheless were forced into conducting a land campaign by Hitler's prompt reinforcement of North Africa. As early as 9 November, he had dispatched troops to Tunisia to occupy the important airfield at El Aouina. German and Italian units began arriving in North Africa at a rate of about 1,000 men a day.

Patton's force at Casablanca linked up with units moving west from Oran to threaten Spanish Morocco, and the British moved east to secure airfields in eastern Algeria, necessary for providing air support for ground operations beyond the range of Gibraltar. On 12 November, two British parachute companies dropped on B™ne, supported by commandos from the sea. The Souk-el-Arba airfield fell on 16 November. The next day, General Anderson's I Corps drove from Oran and Algiers into Tunisia, with the objective of securing the port of Bizerte.

Although I Corps had moved from B™ne into the mountains only 20 miles southwest of Bizerte, the drive stalled after several weeks. It fell victim to insufficiently aggressive Allied leadership, rainy weather that delayed reinforcements from Algiers some 500 miles to the west, the rapid Axis reinforcement, and aggressive defensive actions by Lieutenant General Walther Nehring, whose counterattacks ended the Allied "race for Tunis." But Nehring, who was pessimistic about Axis chances, soon found himself replaced by General Jürgen von Arnim. Thus, 1942 ended in a temporary stalemate once Rommel's forces successfully linked up with von Arnim's Tunisian defenders. torch, which many claim delayed the Allied goal of a cross-Channel invasion, had nonetheless proven successful. Subsequent Allied amphibious operations in Sicily, Italy, and Normandy benefited immensely from the operation.

Spencer C. Tucker

Further Reading
Atkinson, Rick. An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942–1943. New York: Henry Holt, 2002.; Barnett, Correlli. The Desert Generals. New York: Viking, 1961.; Breuer, William B. Operation Torch: The Allied Gamble to Invade North Africa. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985.; Churchill, Winston S. The Second World War. Vol. 4, The Hinge of Fate. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950.; Howe, George F. The United States Army in World War II: Northwest Africa—Seizing the Initiative in the West. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1957.; Moorehead, Alan. The March to Tunis: The North African War, 1940–1943. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.

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