On November 8, 1942, the military forces of the United States and the United Kingdom launched an amphibious operation against French North Africa, in particular the French-held territories of Algeria and Morocco. That landing, code-named ‘Torch,’ reflected the results of long and contentious arguments between British and American planners about the future course of Allied strategy — arguments that were finally stilled by the intervention of the American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. In both a direct and an indirect sense, Torch’s impact was enormous on the course of Anglo-American strategy during the remainder of the war. It may have been the most important strategic decision that Allied leaders would make. In fact, this amphibious operation inevitably postponed the landing in France until 1944, but at the same time it allowed the United States to complete mobilization of its immense industrial and manpower resources for the titanic air and ground battles that characterized the Allied campaigns of 1944.
American strategic thinking in early 1942 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. In the summer of 1942 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. Moreover, 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 1940 campaign in France, 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.’
Thus, particularly because they would have supplied the bulk of the invading forces, the British staunchly opposed any amphibious landing in 1942. 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. At that point, in the summer of 1942, he did something that British Prime Minister 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, something Roosevelt believed in even more fervently than did his military advisers, 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 Morocco and Algeria and thus commit U.S. forces to the battle for control of the Mediterranean.
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 Algers. 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. Moreover, the situation in Egypt was growing increasingly grim throughout September and into October, as the British built up their forces under Lt. Gen. Bernard Montgomery for a renewed offensive against Rommel’s Afrika Korps. At the end of October, 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.
At the beginning of November, 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 for November 8 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 [German foreign minister Ulrich Jaochim] 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.’
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 in 1940 and in Syria in 1941, resisted Allied military forces — something they failed to do against invading German forces in France in November 1942 and in Tunisia that same month. 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 even by 1940 standards, while the defenders 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.
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. 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. 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: She lost 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. As the official history notes: ‘The situation of [the landing] force at nightfall, 8 November, was insecure and even precarious.’
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 by November 10. At that point fighting stopped due to negotiations between French military leaders and the Allies in Algeria.
The landing forces along the Algerian coast, however, ran into stiffer resistance. 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 November 8 the 1st Infantry Division had achieved its objectives except in the area of St. Cloud, where French resistance was stubborn. As he would do in Normandy, Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., son of the former president, proved to be an inspiring and effective combat leader. Nevertheless, 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 considerable resistance from the French, American forces were in a position to attack and overwhelm Oran’s defenses on November 10, when the armistice between the opposing sides came into effect.
Operations against the port of Algiers represented the most difficult assignment for the attacking Allied forces. Not only did the French have substantial ground forces in the area, they also possessed 52 fighter aircraft and 39 bombers. The port itself was defended by strong coastal artillery positions. Thus, the main Allied attacks came on beaches to the west and east of the city. British Commandos and Regular infantry, as well as the U.S. Army’s 168th Regimental Combat Team (RCT), landed to the west, and the American 39th Combat Team, supported by Commandos, came ashore east of the port.
The Allied attack also included a daring raid on the port itself. Two British destroyers, Broke and Malcolm, carried Royal Navy personnel and the 3rd Battalion, 135th Infantry, from the U.S. 34th Infantry Division. Before either destroyer could breach the harbor’s barrier booms, the French opened fire. Malcolm suffered serious damage and turned back. Broke made it through the barrier and landed her troops on the mole. Within a short time, the landing party had seized the city’s electric power station and petroleum tank farm. But the French responded vigorously, and when the troops from the 168th RCT failed to show up, the American commander was forced to surrender his forces.
The landings in the west were completely successful. By evening the British and American soldiers had achieved all of their objectives, though the pace of their advance had been far slower than planners had expected. Particularly important had been the neutralization of the French airfield at Blida, which removed the air threat, such as it was. The eastern landings also succeeded against mild resistance. By midmorning, American troops had secured the Maison Blanche airfield and Royal Air Force (RAF) Hawker Hurricanes were flying over the city. By night fall, Allied forces from the west were already on the city’s outskirts, while those from the east were approaching the suburbs. The French defenders were in an impossible situation, a fact that led French commanders to agree to a cease-fire.
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. 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. Despite the enormous overstretch of German forces on the Eastern Front — in a matter of weeks the Soviets would launch their Stalingrad counteroffensive — Hitler ordered the seizure of Tunisia. 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 (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or armed forces high command) 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.
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. 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 — a superiority that the breaking of the Wehrmacht’s high-level communications code via Ultra decrypts only served to reinforce. 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, JÜrgen Freiherr von Arnim, a prim, unctuous product of the German general staff, refused to cooperate with Rommel in defending Tunisia.
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 throughout World War II, in contrast to that of their British allies, was the learning curve with which troops and commanders adapted to the actual conditions of combat.
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.
The initial German successes during the winter of 1942-1943 in holding their own against the pressure of Anglo-American forces turned into catastrophe by spring. Aided by Ultra decrypts, Allied air and naval forces first shut down German sea lines of communication between Sicily and North Africa. By April 1943, the Axis partners were reduced to moving supplies and reinforcements across the Mediterranean by air alone. Here again, Ultra revealed their movements, and waiting Allied fighters fought off accompanying Luftwaffe aircraft to slaughter the Ju-52 transports. The end came in early May with the surrender of the remaining German and Italian forces in North Africa. The loss of the former 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 in early July (Operation Husky). The fall of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime followed almost immediately upon the heels of that successful campaign.
So what in the end were the pluses and minuses of Torch? In fact, there were relatively few minuses. On one hand, Marshall was clearly correct that an American intervention in the Mediterranean in November 1942 would make a landing on the coast of France impossible in 1943. On the other hand, the prospects for a successful landing by Allied amphibious forces in 1943 on the heavily defended coast of northern France were dubious at best. However, Torch did make possible the opening of the Allies’ Mediterranean sea lines of communication, which 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, which had not yet begun to recover from the disastrous losses suffered in the great convoy battles of 1942.
One of the major unexpected benefits from Torch was the fact that military operations in the Mediterranean from November 1942 to the fall of 1943 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. Beginning in September 1943, 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 principle 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. Whatever the difficulties that would emerge in the command relationships during the campaigns in northwestern Europe during 1944 and 1945, they were at least manageable. One can only imagine how much more difficult Anglo-American cooperation would have been without that year and a half of seasoning in North Africa and the Mediterranean. That 18 months of fighting, moreover, had a tremendous impact on the capability of the Wehrmacht to repel the invasion. Defeats at Stalingrad, at Kursk and along the Dnieper River in the fall of 1943 were followed by a disastrous series of defeats in the Ukraine over the winter of 1943-1944 that seriously undermined German fighting power.
But it was not just the Reich’s ground forces that were suffering terrible defeats. Over the course of the year from spring 1943 through spring 1944, the combined bomber offensive placed unrelenting pressure on the Luftwaffe and the German air defense system. For a time the Germans gave as good as they got. In two disastrous air raids against Schweinfurt in August and October 1943, the U.S. Eighth Air Force lost 60 bombers shot down in each attack. Crew losses in the Eighth hovered at a rate of over 30 percent each month for the last eight months of 1943. But in January 1944 the tide finally swung in favor of the Americans. The North American P-51 Mustang, with its extraordinary range, provided the great bomber formations with fighter escort all the way to Berlin, and the Luftwaffe suffered a loss rate that eventually led to its collapse. By May 1944, the American air offensive had won general air superiority over the European continent.
Moreover, Allied air forces in spring 1944 possessed capabilities as well as a force structure that allowed them to conduct a massive and effective campaign against the French transportation network. By June 6, 1944, the entire rail network in western and central France had largely broken down, and the Germans had lost the battle of the logistics buildup before the Normandy campaign ever began. Allied air forces had neither the capability nor the force structure to conduct such a campaign in 1943.
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 in fall 1942. The British were right: 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. And 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. Moreover, 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.
By late 1943, the balance of power had swung so much in favor of the Americans that they were able to dictate that the main effort in 1944 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 — a change that 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.
This article was written by Williamson Murray and originally appeared in the November 2002 issue of World War II. For more great articles be sure to pick up your copy of World War II.