Operation Torch
British and American forces land in Marocco and Algeris
8 - 10 November 1942
author Paul Boșcu, December 2016
Operation Torch was the name given to the Allied invasion of French North Africa . Operation Torch was the first time the British and Americans had jointly worked on an invasion plan together.
Operation Torch was the name given to the Allied invasion of French North Africa . Operation Torch was the first time the British and Americans had jointly worked on an invasion plan together.

Though American military commanders were confident about a successful landing in France at the time, the British got their way when Roosevelt supported Churchill’s request that the Allies prepare for the French North African option.

From North Africa, the plan was to invade Sicily and then on to mainland Italy and move up the so-called “soft underbelly” of Europe. Victory in the region would also do a great deal to clear the Mediterranean Sea of Axis shipping and leave it more free for the Allies to use.

The Allies planned to invade Morocco and Algeria. Both these countries were under the nominal rule of Vichy France. As the Vichy government in France was seen by the Allies to be in collaboration with Nazi Germany, both North African states were considered to be legitimate targets. There were about 60,000 French troops in Morocco with a small naval fleet based at Casablanca. Rather than fight the French, plans were made to gain the cooperation of the French army. General Eisenhower was given command of Operation Torch and in the planning phase he set up his headquarters in Gibraltar.

An American consul based in Algiers, Robert Daniel Murphy, was tasked with sounding out how cooperative the French army would be. Before the landings a senior American general, Mark Clark, was sent by submarine to Cherchell to meet with senior French army officers based in French North Africa.

The landings started before daybreak. There was no preliminary air or naval bombardment as the Allies hoped that the French based at the three landing zones would not resist the landings. French coastal batteries did fire at transport ships but Allied naval gunfire retaliated. However, French sniper fire proved more difficult to resolve. Carrier-based planes were needed at the landing beaches to deal with the unexpected and unwanted French resistance. The resistance put up by the French was more an inconvenience as opposed to a major military problem.

The landings at all three beaches were highly successful. French resistance had been minimal as were Allied casualties. After consolidating their forces, the Allies moved out into Tunisia. After Montgomery’s success at El Alamein, the Afrika Korps was in retreat. However, the further it moved west from El Alamein, the nearer it got to the recently landed Allied troops.

Though damaged, the Afrika Korps was still a potent fighting force as the Allies found out at Faid Pass and at the Kasserine Pass. However, the might of two advancing Allied armies meant that it was trapped and so the Afrika Korps surrendered. Whether the surrender would have come about so quickly without the success of Operation Torch is open to question.

Stalin’s Russia had been pressing the Allies to start a new front against the Germans in the western sector of the war in Europe. At the time of the Torch landings the British did not feel strong enough to attack Germany via France. But the victory at El Alamein was a great stimulus to the Allies to attack the Axis forces in North Africa.

American strategic thinking before the landings aimed at defeating Nazi Germany before turning to the problems that a flood of Japanese conquests and victories were raising in the Pacific. General George C. Marshall, the U.S. Army’s chief of staff, viewed the strategic problem in simple terms: The United States should concentrate its military might on achieving a successful lodgment on the European continent as soon as possible.

Roosevelt did something that Winston Churchill was never to do during the entire course of World War II. He intervened and overruled his military advisers. Roosevelt gave his generals a direct order to support the British proposal for landings along the coast of French North Africa. The president’s reasoning was largely based on political necessity. If Germany remained the main focus of the American war effort then U.S. troops were going to have to fight against the Germans somewhere in Europe. Given British attitudes, there was no choice but to move against North Africa and thus commit U.S. forces to the battle for control of the Mediterranean.

The plight of the Soviet Army seemed desperate, as Adolf Hitler’s Panzer divisions pushed ever onward toward Stalingrad and the Caucasus. Some American military planners believed that it might be necessary to invade northwestern Europe in 1942 to take the heat off the hard-pressed Soviets. But their preferred date was spring 1943, when American ground forces would be better prepared, trained and equipped to fight the Wehrmacht on the European continent. Whatever the difficulties of such an operation, they believed that American know-how and resources could solve them.

British military leaders, led by the formidable chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Alan Brooke, took a very different approach. They were not at all optimistic about a cross-Channel amphibious operation in 1943, and they were completely against launching such an operation in 1942. Part of their opposition lay in the fact that the United Kingdom would have to bear much of the military burden for such an attempt.

Britain’s military leaders had experienced the vicious fighting against the Germans in World War I that had inflicted such heavy casualties on their forces. Most of them had also confronted the Wehrmacht’s formidable fighting power during the disastrous campaign in France in World War Two, while the experiences of British forces in North Africa and Libya against Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had done nothing to diminish their respect for German military capabilities.

After the war, Brooke put the situation in these terms: ”I found Marshall’s rigid form of strategy very difficult to cope with. He never fully appreciated what operations in France would mean — the different standard of training of German divisions as opposed to the raw American divisions and to most of our new divisions. He could not appreciate the fact that the Germans could reinforce the point of attack some three to four times faster than we could, nor would he understand that until the Mediterranean was open again we should always suffer from a crippling shortage of sea transport.”

The British staunchly opposed any amphibious landing in Europe. Instead, they urged the Americans to consider the possibility of intervening in the Mediterranean to clear Axis military power from the shores of North Africa and open up that great inland sea to the movement of Allied convoys. The result was a deadlock, one that led Marshall to consider for a short period switching the U.S. Army’s emphasis from the European Theater of Operations to the Pacific. However, President Roosevelt refused to hear of any such change in U.S. grand strategy.

The final plan was an ambitious one. The western Allies would transport 65,000 men, commanded by Lt. Gen Dwight D. Eisenhower, from ports in the United States and England, and invade French North African possessions at Casablanca, Oran and Algiers. The Allied move against French North Africa benefited enormously from the fact that the attention of Axis political and military leaders remained focused elsewhere. The Germans were involved in their struggle for Stalingrad and the Caucasus. The situation in Egypt was growing grim as the British built up their forces for a renewed offensive against Rommel’s Afrika Korps.

Montgomery’s Eighth Army attacked the Germans at El Alamein, precipitating a massive battle of attrition that Axis forces had no hope of winning. Not surprisingly, Axis leaders concentrated on what was happening in Egypt’s desert sands. By early November, Rommel’s forces were rapidly retreating back into Libya against Hitler’s express orders.

For the initial landings, the Americans provided the bulk of the forces, in the hope that the French would be less willing to offer resistance to U.S. troops. That also proved to be an idle hope. At the operational level, the Torch landings almost immediately succeeded. The initial Allied hope was that dissident French officers who supported the Allied cause would rise up and seize control of the levers of power. Such hopes, however, proved false. Ironically, the military forces of Vichy France once again, as they had done at Dakar and in Syria, resisted Allied military forces, something they failed to do against invading German forces in Tunisia.

Fortunately for the fate of the Allied invasion, the Germans had never trusted the Vichy leaders and, as a result, had prevented them from modernizing their military forces in North Africa. The result was that French tanks were obsolete. The defenders also possessed insufficient combat aircraft. Nevertheless, the French gave a good account of themselves. In some places it was touch and go, but in the end the French were never in a position to put up sustained resistance against attacking Allied forces.

German and Italian intelligence did detect a major buildup of Allied shipping around Gibraltar. But the Germans dismissed the threat as simply another large supply convoy to reinforce Malta. The Italians were not so sure, but by that point in the war the Germans were paying them little attention.

A diary entry by the Italian foreign minister, Galeazzo Ciano, suggests the extent of the disarray in the Axis camp at the beginning of Torch: ”November 8, 1942: At five-thirty in the morning von Ribbentrop telephoned to inform me of American landings in Algerian and Moroccan ports. He was rather nervous, and wanted to know what we intended to do. I must confess that, having been caught unawares, I was too sleepy to give a very satisfactory answer.”

The key to Torch was a successful amphibious landing. Three landing sites were chosen – Casablanca, Oran and Algiers. The Western Task Force was to land near Casablanca at Safi, Fedala and Mehdia and Major-General George Patton commanded it. 35,000 troops were in this task force. The Central Task Force was to land at Oran. It was commanded by Major-General Lloyd Fredendall. 18,500 troops were in this task force. The Eastern Task Force was to land at Algiers and General Ryder commanded it. 20,000 troops were in this task force

The Vichy French government, an ostensible ally of Germany, had been able to maintain control over its North African colonies of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia after France's surrender. But there were pronounced anti-German feelings within the colonial administration which the Allies were able to exploit to their advantage. As a result, French opposition to the Allied landings was confused, limited and ultimately ineffectual. Once ashore, the Allies suppressed what remained of Vichy French resistance, and an armistice was arranged 2 days after the landings.

On the coast of Morocco, the French failed to put up effective opposition against most of the American landings, but the heavy Atlantic surf more than made up for the weak resistance. The key target for Patton was the capture of Casablanca. This he achieved when he took the city unopposed, just two days after landing.

During the landings at Fedala, the transport Leonard Wood lost 21 of its landing craft in the surf, with heavy loss of life. The transport Thomas Jefferson lost 16 of its 31 landing craft, with three more damaged, in delivering just the first wave of troops. The transport Carroll had the worst experience losing 18 of her 25 landing craft in the first wave and five in the second wave, leaving just two operable boats to move troops and supplies to the beachhead.

Luckily for the Americans, only the landings near Mehdia ran into serious opposition from defending French forces. Only first-class leadership by Maj. Gen. Lucian Truscott, hard fighting by American troops and naval gunfire support finally managed to deliver the airfield near Mehdia into American hands. At that point fighting stopped due to negotiations between French military leaders and the Allies in Algeria.

At Safi the objective was to capture the port so that the american tanks could safely land. The landings began without covering fire in the hopes that the french Vichy troops would not fire on the Allied soldiers. Despite this one french coastal battery opened fire so the Allied warships wore forced to return fire. Because french snipers pinned Allied the troops on the beaches most of the landings fell behind schedule. In the end the french troops at Safi surrendered in the afternoon.

One problem faced at Oran was the fact that the beach had not been suitably investigated by those who wished to land 18,500 men on it and a sizeable amount of equipment. The landing crafts found that the water was unusually shallow and damage was caused to some of the landing craft. US Major General Lloyd Fredendall commanded the Center Task Force, which was tasked to invade Oran. British Commodore Thomas Troubridge acted as the naval commander. The transports of the task force carried one infantry division, one armored division, and one paratrooper regiment.

The invasions took place on four sites, two west of Oran, Arzew to the east of Oran, and the port of Oran itself. Landings at the westernmost beach was delayed by the unexpected presence of a French convoy and the unexpected shallowness of the water that damaged some landing craft.. At Arzew, the US 1st Ranger Battalion captured the coastal battery smoothly. The landing attempt at Oran harbor, proved to be costly. Although the French warships defending the port was driven off, damage to Allied warships caused many casualties. French troops at Oran fought on stubbornly, surrendering only after a naval bombardment by British battleships.

A rising surf began to interfere with landing operations over the course of the day. That evening Allied naval commanders had to suspend landing operations across the beaches. On the second day, the French prepared to launch a counterattack, but Allied air attacks and naval gunfire stopped them dead in their tracks. Despite resistance from the French, American forces were in a position to attack and overwhelm Oran’s defenses two days after the landing, when the armistice between the opposing sides came into effect.

While the landings at Oran were successful, because of French resistance and the greenness of U.S. troops they soon fell behind schedule. The fact that the French had no air support spared the Americans to some extent. By the evening of the landing the 1st Infantry Division had achieved its objectives except in the area of St. Cloud, where French resistance was stubborn. Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., son of the former president, proved to be an inspiring and effective combat leader.

Simultaneous to the amphibious invasion, an airborne assault was also conducted at Oran, targeting at Tafraoui and La Senia airfields 15 and 5 miles south of Oran. This attack conducted by the US 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment represented the first major American airborne operation. The operation was marred by various communications and weather-related problems. Because of the latter, 30 of the 37 transport aircraft experienced so much trouble that they landed in the dry salt lake to deliver their loads of troops rather than having the men jump. Nevertheless, both airfields were captured to prevent French interference from the air.

The third target of Operation Torch was Algiers, which fell under the responsibility of British Lieutenant General Kenneth Anderson's Eastern Task Force. British Vice Admiral Sir Harold Burrough served under him as the naval commander of the fleet of 650 ships, while US Major General Charles Ryder was to be placed in command for the amphibious operation. The 20,000 men sailing with this invasion force were of a mix of British and American servicemen. Above, British aircraft under the command of Air Marshal Sir William Welsh supported the ground and naval operations.

The invasion of Algiers was preceded by the uprising of 400 French Resistance fighters under the leadership of Henri d'Astier de la Vigerie and José Aboulker. The uprising by the resistance fighters, seized control of the telephone exchange, radio station, governor's house, the headquarters of French 19th Corps, and most importantly, all of the coastal artillery batteries. At the governor's house, General Alphonse Juin and Admiral Darlan remained under captivity by the resistance fighters until the fighters were surrounded and defeated by French Gendarmerie military police after daybreak.

The landings of Allied troops were planned to target three separate beaches near Algiers, but in the confusion some of the troops were delivered to the wrong location. Nevertheless, French coastal defense at Algiers proved to be minimal, especially with all the coastal guns under the control of resistance fighters. The only major fighting in the invasion took place in the port of Algiers, where two British destroyers attempted to land US Rangers were met with heavy artillery fire. Only one of the two destroyers was able to disembark passengers, and the 250 Rangers promptly took control of the docks.

Although the Torch landings caught the Germans by surprise, they reacted with the utmost swiftness. Although Hitler and OKH had previously regarded the campaign in the Western Desert as little more than a side show, their attitudes changed dramatically after Torch. Hitler was determined that North Africa must be held at all costs. German reinforcements were rushed to Tunisia as the advance guard of the Fifth Panzer Army, to be commanded by Colonel General Hans von Arnim. As a result, the Allied push on Tunis was thwarted by the arrival of German troops in Tunisia.

More ambiguous was the position of the French in North Africa. After some initial reluctance they were won over to the Allied cause, especially now that the Germans were beginning to look vulnerable. French troops were slowly integrated into the Allied command structure, although some French commanders were unhappy at serving under the British.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower was appointed Supreme Allied Commander, although tactical matters on the ground came under the control of British commanders: General Harold Alexander moved up from Cairo to take charge of the newly created 18th Army Group, while Lieutenant General Sir Kenneth Anderson led the First Army, a multinational force of British, American and French troops. Advancing from the south was Montgomery's Eighth Army, which had forced Rommel's forces through Libya and into southern Tunisia, where they took up new positions along the Mareth Line.

One of the major unexpected benefits from Torch was the fact that military operations in the Mediterranean allowed the British and Americans to establish an effective combined, joint high command. It provided Allied staff officers and senior military leaders the opportunity to work together in evolving common practices, and even a common language for military operations. Eisenhower in particular benefited from the experience of leading a combined force of British and American ground, sea and air forces.

After the successful invasion of Sicily, British and American senior ground and air commanders began the process of transferring from the Mediterranean to London, to begin planning for Operation Overlord. Besides Eisenhower, Bernard Law Montgomery (ground force commander), Omar Bradley (First Army commander), George S. Patton (Third Army commander), Carl ‘Tooey’ Spaatz (chief, Strategic Air Forces, Europe), Arthur Tedder (Eisenhower’s principal deputy), and James H. Doolittle (commander of the Eighth Air Force) all transferred from the Mediterranean, where they had won their spurs, to the Overlord operation.

Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to commit U.S. troops to the seizure of French North Africa proved to be one of the most important of the war. It reflected the actual realities of the strategic situation on the date of the landings. The British were right in that the military forces of the Western powers were simply not yet ready to take on the Wehrmacht on the European continent. North Africa was sufficiently far from Germany that it minimized the potential of Nazi military power.

The unexpected commitment of substantial German forces to Tunisia provided the U.S. Army an excellent opportunity to learn how to fight a formidable opponent far from its homeland while eventually, together with the British, inflicting a major defeat on the Axis. The opening of the Mediterranean, by shortening Allied sea lines of communications, provided enormous relief to the hard-pressed merchant navies on which the projection of Allied military power absolutely depended. This freed up approximately 5 to 6 million tons of shipping for use elsewhere in the world. That alone was an enormous boon to the hard-pressed Allied merchant marine.

After the Sicilian and main Italian landings the balance of power had swung so much in favor of the Americans that they were able to dictate that the main effort would focus on a landing in northwestern Europe. Despite considerable hesitation on the part of senior British leaders, including Churchill, American strategists forced this crucial change in Allied strategy. This change would inevitably lead Anglo-American forces into the conquest of western Germany, an accomplishment that laid the strategic groundwork for the eventual victorious confrontation of the Cold War. Torch had set the stage for all of that.

As chance would have it, the number two man in the Vichy French hierarchy, Admiral FranÇois Darlan, happened to be in North Africa visiting his sick son. Despite his sorry record of collaboration with the Germans, Darlan soon recognized that the Vichy government was in a hopeless situation and that further fighting against the British and Americans would do nothing to advance the long-range interests of France. Moreover, German forces were clearly gathering on the frontiers of Vichy France to occupy the remainder of the country. Darlan proceeded to cut a deal with the Allies that stopped the fighting throughout Algeria and Morocco.

Amidst fighting, Darlan signed an armistice with Eisenhower. On the following day, Darlan distributed a message to all French forces to cease fighting against the Allies. The ease of French leaders being persuaded to remain inactive or to cooperate alarmed Adolf Hitler, who would soon decide to act against Vichy France to prevent such an occurrence should the Allies invade Southern France. The Vichy government, with Philippe Pétain at its head, also immediately moved against Darlan, dismissing him dishonorably. Darlan, embarrassed by to dismissal, felt the need to rescind his order, but he was dissuaded by Clark.

In retrospect, the deal saved the lives of a considerable number of American and British soldiers, while eventually putting the French troops in North Africa at the disposal of the Allied cause. Nevertheless, a huge outcry arose in Britain and the United States about dealing with the Fascist Darlan, an outcry that was only hushed by Darlan’s assassination on Christmas Eve 1942.

While the Allies fought to suppress French defenses, the FÜhrer and his advisers made one of the most disastrous strategic decisions of World War II, further committing forces in North Africa. When the landings took place, the FÜhrer was on a train headed from East Prussia to Munich to give his annual ”Beer Hall” speech, commemorating the failed Nazi putsch of 1923.

The OKW staff, remaining in East Prussia, warned that North Africa could not be held, but as one staff officer noted after the war, that assessment ”passed unnoticed in the general jumble of vague political and strategic ideas based primarily on considerations of prestige.” There was certainly no overall strategic assessment of additional commitments in North Africa. Hitler rushed paratrooper units across the Mediterranean by Junkers Ju-52s, and Regular infantry and armored units soon followed.

At first glance the fact that the Germans were able to grab and then reinforce Tunisia appeared to be a major setback for Allied arms. In the larger sense it was anything but a failure. The six months of fighting in North Africa’s Tunisian desert served as a further warning of the unpreparedness of U.S. troops to engage the Wehrmacht on its home turf of northern Europe. The defeat of U.S. forces at Kasserine Pass by Rommel’s Afrika Korps in February underlined the general and specific weaknesses of U.S. troops and leaders. But one of the marks of U.S. military effectiveness was the learning curve with which troops and commanders adapted.

In Tunisia, unlike the situation in Morocco and Algeria, the Vichy French garrison and governor cooperated with the German occupation force, a group of lightly armed paratroopers. The Wehrmacht then moved heavier infantry and armored forces across the Mediterranean to secure Tunisia and hold the Allied attacks at bay along the coast from Algeria. In doing so, Hitler placed a whole army of Germans and Italians in a trap, but unlike the trap at Stalingrad, it was one of his own making.

The defeat at Kasserine represented the starting point for Marshall’s generals to begin the process of developing ground forces that could stand up to and beat the Wehrmacht on the fields of France. One might also note that the fighting in North Africa proved a godsend in preparing the U.S. Army’s medical services for the complexities of caring for large numbers of wounded under combat conditions.

On the far side of the Mediterranean, with only tenuous supply lines from Italy, the Axis forces were hostages to fate. They confronted a logistical battle they could not hope to win in the face of overwhelming Allied superiority. To exacerbate the difficulties confronting Axis forces, Hitler, infuriated by Rommel’s pessimism that North Africa could not be held, appointed a new commander of German forces in Tunisia. And that commander, Hans-Jurgen von Arnim, a prim, unctuous product of the German general staff, refused to cooperate with Rommel in defending Tunisia.

The initial German successes during the winter in holding their own against the pressure of Anglo-American forces turned into catastrophe by spring. Allied air and naval forces first shut down German sea lines of communication between Sicily and North Africa. Afterwards the Axis partners were reduced to moving supplies and reinforcements across the Mediterranean by air alone. But waiting Allied fighters fought off accompanying Luftwaffe aircraft to slaughter the Ju-52 transports. The end came with the surrender of the remaining German and Italian forces in North Africa.

The loss of the german units in North Africa robbed the German high command of any chance to establish an effective mobile reserve against an Allied descent on Fascist Italy. In the case of the Italians, the defeat in Tunisia destroyed the last effective military forces with which to defend Sicily and the mainland against Allied landings. The fall of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime followed almost immediately upon the heels of that successful campaign.