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November 1942: Operation Torch

Maj. Gen. Lloyd R. Fredendall's Center Task Force in Oran, Algeria during Operation Torch, November 1942
Maj. Gen. Lloyd R. Fredendall's Center Task Force in Oran, Algeria during Operation Torch, November 1942.

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Background the Allied Invasion of Algeria and Morocco

In the Mediterranean Theater in the summer of 1941, Axis forces held Greece and the island of Crete as well as Sicily, only 90 miles north of the Tunisian coast of Africa. Passage through Gibraltar was possible, but the waters were infested with German submarines. Britain still held the island of Malta, pounded continually by German bombers.

In North Africa, General Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps, allied with the weak Italian army, had pushed the British eastward almost to Alexandria, capturing the Western Desert area of Libya and Egypt. The British Eighth Army was still a viable force in Egypt, but had been on the defensive for some time and would not regain the initiative until late 1942, with the great British victory at El Alamein, immediately prior to the Torch landings.

Strategic discussions between U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill reached an agreement to send American troops to North Africa in late 1942 to bolster British interests in the Mediterranean, and open a second front to take pressure off Russia on the Eastern Front. In return, the British would further American plans to defeat Hitler in Europe by supporting a major cross-Channel attack in 1943 or 1944. On 24 July 1942, after formal approval, American and British Combined Chiefs of Staff in London began planning the insertion of the United States Army into the Mediterranean area, to be called Operation Torch. Lt. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was selected to be Commander in Chief, Allied Force, based in London. On 5 November 1942, Eisenhower moved his headquarters to Gibraltar.

The Plan for Operation Torch

The objective of Operation Torch was to gain complete control of North Africa from French Morocco to Tunisia, trapping Rommel's Afrika Korps between Torch and the British Eighth Army to the east. After defeating Rommel, the Allies would control North Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.

The Operation Torch invasion was the first offensive operation that the United States undertook against Germany during World War II. At the time, it was the largest amphibious operation ever undertaken. Torch was composed of three simultaneous landings against the North African French colonies:

  • Casablanca, Morocco, 190 miles south of Gibraltar on the Atlantic coast (Western Task Force led by Maj. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr.)
  • Oran, Algeria, 280 miles east of Gibraltar (Center Task Force led by Maj. Gen. Lloyd R. Fredendall)
  • Algiers, Algeria, 220 miles east of Oran (Eastern Task Force led by Maj. Gen. Charles W. Ryder)

Because of French animosity toward the British, who clashed with the French at Oran and Dakar in September 1940 and in Syria in June 1941, the three landings were headed by American officers. The Eastern Force was actually commanded by British Lt. General Kenneth Anderson. Naval and air support was provided by both U.S. and British commands, with Western TF composed of American ships while the Center and Eastern TFs relying on the British Navy.

The Operation Torch Landings

A Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat fighter taking off from USS Ranger (CV-4) supporting the Operation Torch invasion of Morocco, 8 November 1942
A Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat fighter taking off from USS Ranger (CV-4) supporting the Operation Torch invasion of Morocco, 8 November 1942.

On 8 November 1942, one hundred twenty-five thousand soldiers, sailors, and airmen from British, American and Free French units invaded French North Africa under Gen. Eisenhower's command.

Western Task Force

Patton's Western Task Force was by far the largest, shipped directly from Hampton Roads, VA to North Africa across the Atlantic under the name Task Force "A," an extremely dangerous route during the height of the Battle of the Atlantic. They arrived unsuspected and undetected.

Patton planned to avoid a direct confrontation at Casablanca by landing at three surrounding points, then converging on the city by land routes. Western TF landings in French Morocco encountered the strongest resistance of any of the landing forces. In the Western TF center, the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division, landing at Fedala near Casablanca, was opposed by French army and navel forces. As it fought its way inland, fire from U.S. Navy ships neutralized the shore batteries and sank several French warships. By 1500 hours, Fedala had fallen. 3ID then closed on Casablanca where it met strong resistance. They had the city encircled and were ready to attack at dawn on 11 November, but the French surrendered in time to call off the attack.

In southern zone of the Western TF area, Army units established a beachhead at Safi, against heavy ground and air resistance. When U.S. carrier planes joined the attack, they were able to breakout and drive northward toward Casablanca, halting only when Casablanca surrendered. In the northern zone of the Western TF area, U.S. Army infantry and armored units captured the Port Lyautey airfield late on 10 November, with the support of naval shelling.

Center and Eastern Task Forces

Center and Eastern Task Forces coming from the United Kingdom in British ships passed through the Straits of Gibraltar. Spies immediately reported the movement to the Germans, who wrongly assumed the ships were on their way eastward to follow up the defeat of Afrika Korps at El Alamein.

The Center Task Force assault troops at Oran, as in French Morocco, were entirely American although carried by British ships. Landing on both sides of Oran, the U.S. Army units met only sporadic resistance as they came ashore. A U.S. parachute battalion was dropped near the airport, infantry advanced toward the city, and armored units linked up with the airborne troops to seize the airfields. The French capitulated at 1230 hours on 10 November.

The Eastern Task Force landing at Algiers encountered the least resistance. Coming ashore on both sides of the city, the Allied force consisted of U.S. Army units, British Commandos and elements of a British Infantry Division. Opposition ended that same day, as orders from Admiral Darlan in Algiers were issued to cease all hostilities in North Africa.

French Resistance to the Invasion of North Africa

The Allies hoped the French in North Africa would receive the landings as liberation from the Nazi grip on their home country and put up only token resistance, if any. French military forces defending northwest Africa were operating under the control of the Vichy government, independent but closely supervised by Germany after the 1940 Blitzkrieg and armistice. Some of these forces were sympathetic to the Allied cause, others were loyal to Vichy.

Although the Allies achieved strategic surprise, the French in almost every instance defended the invasion beaches. However, the French were deeply divided regarding who to support, limiting their effectiveness. Other than the Morocco fighting, French army units in North Africa gave little resistance to the landings. The naval units offered more opposition but halfheartedly. The only determined resistance to the Allied landings in North Africa occurred in Oran Harbor.

Allied diplomatic efforts led by Gen. Mark Clark paralleled the fighting, leading to an 11 November 1942 armistice agreement. Two days later, Admiral Darlan was recognized by the Allies as de facto head of the French Government in North Africa, a move opposed by General Charles de Gaulle, the British-approved leader of the Free French forces, who considered Darlan a traitor. Darlan was assassinated on 24 December, replaced by the more acceptable General Henri Giraud.

Extending Torch to Tunisia

Following the end of fighting in Morocco and Algeria, the end of Operation Torch, the Eastern Task Force advanced eastward toward Tunisia, organized as the British First Army under Lt. General Kenneth Anderson. Far to the east was the British Eighth Army, commanded by Lt. Gen. (later Field Marshal) Bernard L. Montgomery, which was moving westward after its important victory at El Alamein. As expected, Rommel would be caught between.

To counter the Allied advance, the German garrison in Tunisia was massively reinforced and reorganized, unopposed by the French in Tunisia. By 16 November, First Army had advanced 400 miles (640km) from Algiers, and was inside Tunisia only 50 miles (80km) from Tunis. But an Allied attack on 24 November was repulsed, and German counter-offensives on 27 November and 1 December forced a withdrawal. An unsuccessful offensive on 22-24 December demonstrated that First Army could only hold a defensive position while building up its forces, expanded by local French troops as well as American reinforcements arriving from the west.

The aftermath of Torch, the campaign in Tunisia, would not be concluded until May 1943.

Summary and Analysis of Operation Torch

Operation Torch was the first large-scale amphibious landing under hostile fire. Despite resistance by the French, the landings were successful and all of North Africa west of Algiers was in Allied hands within three days.

One hundred twenty-five thousand soldiers, sailors, and airmen participated in the operation, 82,600 of them U.S. Army personnel. Ninety-six percent of the 1,469 casualties were American, with the Army losing 526 killed, 837 wounded, and 41 missing. Casualties varied considerably among the three task forces. Eastern Task Force lost the fewest Americans killed in action, 108, Western Task Force, with four times as many American troops, lost 142 killed; Center Task Force lost almost twice as many killed, 276, inflated by an ill-fated British-sponsored mission at Oran.

Operation Torch was the beginning of the offensive phase of the war against Germany, with Germany generally remaining on the defensive for the rest of the war.

Recommended Books about Operation Torch

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