Remembering Operation Torch: Allied Forces Land in North Africa during World War II

In early November 1942 the United States had been at war against the Axis for almost a year, but had yet to come to grips with German or Italian ground forces. Fierce fighting against the Japanese in the Pacific had dominated the national news and psyche. Yet President Franklin D. Roosevelt had committed with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to a “Germany First” policy, regarding Adolf Hitler as their most dangerous opponent. America’s absence on the battlefield would soon change.

American Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and George C. Marshall favored direct invasion of Europe from Britain in 1942 or 1943. But British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his generals were set against direct invasion of Europe. The Dieppe Raid in August 1942 demonstrated it was extremely unlikely an intact supply port could be captured in occupied France. And Allied intelligence indicated that an invasion of Europe would encounter powerful German defenses and reinforcements. Instead of Europe, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to a combined attack on French northwest Africa, known as Operation Torch. The landings would take place in northwest Africa in Morocco and Algeria, beyond range of most Axis air forces in the central Mediterranean.

They aspired to come in behind Axis forces fighting the British in Egypt, disrupt collaborationist Vichy French control of northwest Africa, open the Mediterranean for Allied shipping, restore French forces to the Allied cause, and take pressure off the embattled Russians. American military leaders had preferred building up for an invasion of France as soon as possible, but Churchill and his staff convinced Roosevelt that this would take too long to prepare. It would be better to take on smaller campaigns sooner, tie down Axis forces the fledgling Americans were ready to handle, and season units for the ultimate climactic campaigns in France and Germany.

Roosevelt and Churchill agreed that Eisenhower would command the operation overall, while British Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham would be its naval commander. After considerable deliberation the Allies settled on landing three corps-sized task forces, one centered on Casablanca, one centered on Oran, and one centered on Algiers. Tunis, an ultimate target, was judged to be too far from Allied bases and too close to Axis sources of air support. The landings were set for November 8, 1942. Two task forces would sail from British ports, and one would cross the Atlantic from Hampton Roads, Virginia.

The Allies went to considerable lengths to persuade the Vichy French defending Morocco and Algeria not to resist, and ultimately to join them. The Axis did not have combat troops in that part of north Africa, relying solely on these pro-Vichy forces to protect the region. In this they had mixed success. The French had about 60,000 troops in Morocco and 50,000 in Algeria, most of whom were native troops commanded by French officers. Many of the French leaders felt honor bound to resist, particularly since the rump state of Vichy France was perilously exposed to German and Italian invasion. Others collaborated with the Allies. All were mindful of the partnerships of World War I, and of the realities of Axis aggression. The native troops were professional soldiers who would obey their officers.

At Algiers a French Resistance coup assisted the Eastern Task Force. The Resistance temporarily seized key facilities, disabled shore batteries, isolated senior Vichy leaders, and sowed confusion. Landings on beaches to the east and west of Algiers encountered little fighting. Indeed, in some places they were actively welcomed. Destroyers attempting to land troops directly onto the docks in Algiers did meet stubborn resistance, and took heavy losses. Nevertheless the Allied advance progressed quickly, and the city was under Allied control by 1800 on November 8.

At Oran the Central Task Force encountered more resistance. A cutter-borne effort to secure the port facilities directly failed. Amphibious landings on beaches to the east and west of Oran got ashore safely, despite disruptions from unexpected sandbars. The 2nd Battalion 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment flew 1,100 miles from Great Britain to assault airfields at La Seina and Tafaraoui. The paratroopers were widely scattered by weather and circumstances but caused distractions, and the airfields were secured nevertheless. The Vichy French naval contingent in Oran attempted a sortie, which was quickly defeated. Resistance ashore was stubborn in places, particularly at the town of St. Cloud, but brief. Oran surrendered on November 9.

The Western Task force bracketed Casablanca with landings at Safi to the south, Fedala to the north, and Port Lyautey even further north of the city. The landing at Safi got a tank battalion ashore quickly, which clattered away to encircle Casablanca from the south. The main landing at Fedala was intermingled and confused, and took some losses, but nevertheless got ashore largely intact. At Port Lyautey the American assault seized the vital airfield after sharp fighting to get off the beaches. The Fedala and Safi forces converged on Casablanca, which they had tightly encircled by November 11.

Vichy French naval elements from Casablanca sortied out under the cover of smoke and coastal artillery to attack the Fedala landing force. This posed a dangerous risk to the exposed transports and landing craft, but was intercepted just in time by U.S. carrier aircraft who were soon joined by the major surface vessels of the covering force. Heavily outgunned, the Vichy fleet was virtually destroyed. Meanwhile German U-Boats approached the American fleet from the north, and sank four troop ships before being driven off.

While fighting still sputtered around Oran and Casablanca, Eisenhower’s representatives in Algiers, led by Maj. Gen. Mark W. Clark, negotiated energetically with the Vichy French military leadership of North Africa. A ceasefire was agreed to on November 11. By November 13, an agreement had been reached that restored northwest Africa to Free French control and brought Vichy forces in Africa into the alliance. Further negotiations followed, but from that point French forces fought alongside their Anglo-American allies. Furious, Hitler invaded Vichy France proper, occupied the whole of France, and dispatched German and Italian forces to Tunisia.

Operation Torch was, in Churchill’s famous phrasing, not the “beginning of the end” but at least the “end of the beginning.”  American and British ground forces were now rolling forward into an inevitable major collision with their German and Italian counterparts. The minor victories in Algeria and Morocco would be followed by a much grander victory in Tunisia. The 300,000 Axis troops lost in Tunisia would complement the losses of Stalingrad as a relief to the Russians. The Free French, now in appreciable numbers, reinforced the Allied cause. The fledgling American forces that would eventually help liberate France and invade Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany had had a taste of combat. Ever more experienced American units would take on an ever-increasing role in defeating Axis tyranny.

Recommended Reading

Atkinson, Rick, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 (New York: Henry Holt, 2002)

Howe, George F., Northwest Africa: Seizing the Initiative in the West (Washington DC: Center of Military History, 1991)

O’Hara, Vincent P., Torch: North Africa and the Allied Path to Victory (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015)