DESERT WAR PART EIGHT: OPERATION TORCH
DATE: NOVEMBER 08 – NOVEMBER 16 1942
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 US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston 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 July 24 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 November 5 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.
Operation Torch 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 comprised of three simultaneous landings against the North African
1. Casablanca, Morocco, 190 miles south of Gibraltar on the Atlantic coast: Western Task Force led by Major General George S. Patton, Jr.
2. Oran, Algeria, 280 miles east of Gibraltar: Center Task Force led by Major General Lloyd R. Fredendall
3. Algiers, Algeria, 220 miles east of Oran: Eastern Task Force led by Major General Charles W. Ryder
Because of French animosity toward the British, who had 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, although the Eastern Task Force was actually commanded by British Lt.
General Kenneth Anderson. Naval and air support was provided by both US and British commands, with Western Task Force supported by
American ships while the Center and Eastern Task Forces relied on the British Navy.
OPERATION TORCH LANDINGS
On November 8 1942, 125,000 soldiers, sailors, and airmen from British, American and Free French units invaded French North Africa
under General Eisenhower's command.
WESTERN TASK FORCE
Patton's Western Task Force was by far the largest of the three task forces. Shipped directly from Hampton Roads, Virginia, to North
Africa across an extremely dangerous route during the height of the Battle of the Atlantic, the convoy arrived unsuspected and
Patton planned to avoid a direct confrontation at Casablanca by landing at three surrounding points, then converging on the city by land
routes. Western Task Force landings in French Morocco encountered the strongest resistance of any of the landing forces. In the
Western Task Force center, the US 3rd Infantry Division, landing at Fedala near Casablanca, was opposed by French army and naval
forces. As it fought its way inland, fire from US Navy ships neutralized the shore batteries and sank several French warships. By 1500
hours on Nov 8, Fedala had fallen. 3rd Infantry Division then closed in on Casablanca where it met with strong resistance. The city was
encircled and an attack was to commence at dawn on November 11, but the French surrendered in time for the assault to be called off.
In the southern zone of the Western Task Force area, Army units established a beachhead at Safi against heavy ground and air
resistance. When US carrier planes joined the attack, the army was able to breakout and drive northward toward Casablanca, halting only
when Casablanca surrendered. In the northern zone of the Western Task Force area, US Army infantry and armored units, with the
support of naval shelling captured the Port Lyautey airfield late on November 10.
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 the 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, US Army units met with only sporadic resistance as they came ashore. The 2nd Battalion of the US 509th Parachute
Infantry Regiment 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 November 10.
The Eastern Task Force landing at Algiers encountered the least resistance. Coming ashore on both sides of the city, the Allied force
consisted of US 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 while others were loyal to the Vichy government.
Although the Allies achieved strategic surprise, in almost every instance the French defended the invasion beaches. However, they were
deeply divided on 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, albeit halfheartedly. The only determined resistance to the
Allied landings in North Africa occurred in Oran Harbor.
Allied diplomatic efforts led by General Mark Clark paralleled the fighting, leading to an armistice agreement November 11 1942. 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 December 24, replaced by the more acceptable General Henri Giraud.
EXTENDING TORCH TO TUNISIA
Following the end of fighting in Morocco and Algeria, 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. General (later Field
Marshal) Bernard Montgomery, which was moving westward after its important victory at El Alamein. As expected, Rommel would be
To counter the Allied advance, the German garrison in Tunisia was massively reinforced and reorganized, unopposed by the French in
Tunisia. By November 16, First Army had advanced 400 miles from Algiers, and was only 50 miles from Tunis. But an Allied attack on
November 24 was repulsed and German counter-offensives on November 27 and December 1 forced a withdrawal. An unsuccessful
offensive between December 22-24 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.
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. 125,000 soldiers, sailors, and airmen
participated in the operation, 82,600 of them US Army personnel. 96 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 with 108 killed in action, while Western Task Force suffered 142 killed. Center Task Force casualties included 276
killed, inflated by an ill-fated British-sponsored mission at Oran.