Operation Torch

Operation Torch was an Allied invasion of French North Africa during the Second World War. The French possessions in the area were ruled by the Vichy French, formally aligned with Germany but of mixed loyalties. Reports indicated that they might support the Allies. American General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied forces in the European Theater, who wrote about Operation Torch in his memoir, Crusade in Europe, directed the operation, and planned a three-pronged attack on Casablanca, Oran and Algiers, then a rapid move on Tunis. The goal of Operation Torch was to open a second front in Europe, as per request of Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet union.
The Western Task Force encountered unexpected resistance and bad weather, but Casablanca, the principal French Atlantic naval base, was captured after a short siege. The Center Task Force suffered some damage to its ships when trying to land in shallow water but the Vichy French ships were sunk or driven off; Oran surrendered after bombardment by British battleships. The Eastern Task Force met less opposition because the French Resistance had staged a coup in Algiers and the Allies were able to push inland and compel surrender on the first day.
The success of Torch caused Admiral François Darlan, commander of the Vichy French forces to order co-operation with the Allies, in return for being retained as High Commissioner, with many other Vichy officials keeping their jobs. Darlan was assassinated soon after and the Free French gradually came to dominate the government. Torch was a compromise operation that met the British objective of securing victory in North Africa while allowing American armed forces the opportunity to engage in the fight against Nazi Germany on a limited scale. It was the first mass involvement of US troops in the European–North African Theatre, and saw the first major airborne assault carried out by the United States.


The Allies planned an Anglo-American invasion of Vichy French North Africa/—Vichy Morocco, Vichy Algeria and Vichy Tunisia, French possessions governed by the Vichy French government. With British forces advancing from Egypt, this would eventually allow the Allies to carry out a pincer operation against Axis forces in North Africa. The Vichy French had around 125,000 soldiers in the territories as well as coastal artillery, 210 operational but out-of-date tanks and about 500 aircraft, half of which were Dewoitine D.520 fighters—equal to many British and U.S. fighters. These forces included 60,000 troops in Morocco, 15,000 in Tunisia, and 50,000 in Algeria, with coastal artillery, and a small number of tanks and aircraft. In addition, there were 10 or so warships and 11 submarines at Casablanca.
The Allies believed that the Vichy French forces would not fight, partly because of information supplied by American Consul Robert Daniel Murphy in Algiers. The French were former members of the Allies and the American troops were instructed not to fire unless they were fired upon.
However, they harbored suspicions that the Vichy French navy would bear a grudge over the British attack on Mers-el-Kebir in 1940. An assessment of the sympathies of the French forces in North Africa was essential, and plans were made to secure their cooperation, rather than resistance. German support for the Vichy French came in the shape of air support. Several Luftwaffe bomber wings undertook anti-shipping strikes against Allied ports in Algiers and along the North African coast.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied forces in Western Europe, was given command of the operation, and he set up his headquarters in Gibraltar. The Allied Naval Commander of the Expeditionary Force would be Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham; his deputy was Vice-Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, who would plan the amphibious landings.
Senior US commanders remained strongly opposed to the landings and after the western Allied Combined Chiefs of Staff met in London on 30 July, 1942 General George Marshall and Admiral Ernest King declined to approve the plan. Marshall and other U.S. generals advocated the invasion of northern Europe later that year, which the British rejected. After Prime Minister Winston Churchill pressed for a landing in French North Africa in 1942, Marshall suggested instead to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the U.S. abandon the Germany first strategy and take the offensive in the Pacific. Roosevelt said it would do nothing to help Russia. With Marshall unable to persuade the British to change their minds, President Roosevelt gave a direct order that Torch was to have precedence over other operations and was to take place at the earliest possible date, one of only two direct orders he gave to military commanders during the war.

Allied plans

Planners identified Oran, Algiers and Casablanca as key targets. Ideally there would also be a landing at Tunis to secure Nazi-occupied Vichy Tunisia and facilitate the rapid interdiction of supplies traveling via Tripoli to Rommel's forces in Libya. However, Tunis was much too close to the Axis airfields in Sicily and Sardinia for any hope of success. A compromise would be to land at Bône in eastern French Algeria, some closer to Tunis than Algiers. Limited resources dictated that the Allies could only make three landings and Eisenhower – who believed that any plan must include landings at Oran and Algiers – had two main options: either the western option, to land at Casablanca, Oran and Algiers and then make as rapid a move as possible to Tunis some east of Algiers once the Vichy opposition was suppressed; or the eastern option, to land at Oran, Algiers and Bône and then advance overland to Casablanca some west of Oran. He favored the eastern option because of the advantages it gave to an early capture of Tunis and also because the Atlantic swells off Casablanca presented considerably greater risks to an amphibious landing there than would be encountered in the Mediterranean.
The Combined Chiefs of Staff, however, were concerned that should Operation Torch precipitate Spain to abandon neutrality and join the Axis, the Straits of Gibraltar could be closed cutting the entire Allied force's lines of communication. They therefore chose the Casablanca option as the less risky since the forces in Vichy Algeria and Vichy Tunisia could be supplied overland from Casablanca in the event of closure of the straits.
Marshall's opposition to Torch delayed the landings by almost a month, and his opposition to landings in Algeria led British military leaders to question his strategic ability; the Royal Navy controlled the Strait of Gibraltar, and Spain was unlikely to intervene as Franco was hedging his bets. The Morocco landings ruled out the early occupation of Tunisia. Eisenhower told Patton that the past six weeks were the most trying of his life. In Eisenhower's acceptance of landings in Algeria and Morocco, he pointed out that the decision removed the early capture of Tunis from the probable to only the remotely possible because of the extra time it would afford the Axis to move forces into Tunisia.

Intelligence gathering

In July 1941, Mieczysław Słowikowski set up "Agency Africa", one of the Second World War's most successful intelligence organizations. His Polish allies in these endeavors included Lt. Col. Gwido Langer and Major Maksymilian Ciężki. The information gathered by the Agency was used by the Americans and British in planning the amphibious November 1942 Operation Torch landings in North Africa.

Preliminary contact with Vichy French

To gauge the feeling of the Vichy French forces, Murphy was appointed to the American consulate in Algeria. His covert mission was to determine the mood of the French forces and to make contact with elements that might support an Allied invasion. He succeeded in contacting several French officers, including General Charles Mast, the French commander-in-chief in Algiers.
These officers were willing to support the Allies but asked for a clandestine conference with a senior Allied General in Algeria. Major General Mark W. Clark—one of Eisenhower's senior commanders—was dispatched to Cherchell in Algeria aboard the British submarine and met with these Vichy French officers on 21 October 1942.
With help from the Resistance, the Allies also succeeded in slipping French General Henri Giraud out of Vichy France on HMS Seraph—passing itself off as an American submarine—intending to offer him the post of commander in chief of French forces in North Africa after the invasion. However, Giraud would take no position lower than commander in chief of all the invading forces, a job already given to Eisenhower. When he was refused, he decided to remain "a spectator in this affair".


The Allies organised three amphibious task forces to simultaneously seize the key ports and airports in Morocco and Algeria, targeting Casablanca, Oran and Algiers. Successful completion of these operations was to be followed by an eastwards advance into Tunisia.
A Western Task Force was composed of American units, with Major General George S. Patton in command and Rear Admiral Henry Kent Hewitt heading the naval operations. This Western Task Force consisted of the U.S. 3rd and 9th Infantry Divisions, and two battalions from the U.S. 2nd Armored Division — 35,000 troops in a convoy of over 100 ships. They were transported directly from the United States in the first of a new series of UG convoys providing logistic support for the North African campaign.
s sent by sea was assembled in just 11 days at RAF North Front, Gibraltar. Many of these Spitfires served with the United States Army Air Forces, including the aircraft in the foreground, EP 365.
The Center Task Force, aimed at Oran, included the U.S. 2nd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, the U.S. 1st Infantry Division, and the U.S. 1st Armored Division—a total of 18,500 troops. They sailed from the United Kingdom and were commanded by Major General Lloyd Fredendall, the naval forces being commanded by Commodore Thomas Troubridge.
Torch was, for propaganda purposes, a landing by U.S. forces, supported by British warships and aircraft, under the belief that this would be more palatable to French public opinion, than an Anglo-American invasion. For the same reason, Churchill suggested that British soldiers might wear U.S. Army uniforms, although there is no evidence that this tactic was implemented. In reality, the Eastern Task Force—aimed at Algiers—was commanded by Lieutenant-General Kenneth Anderson and consisted of a brigade from the British 78th and the U.S. 34th Infantry Divisions, along with two British commando units, together with the RAF Regiment providing 5 squadrons of infantry and 5 Light anti-aircraft flights, totalling 20,000 troops. During the landing phase, ground forces were to be commanded by U.S. Major General Charles W. Ryder, Commanding General of the 34th Division and naval forces were commanded by Royal Navy Vice-Admiral Sir Harold Burrough.
U-boats, operating in the eastern Atlantic area crossed by the invasion convoys, had been drawn away to attack trade convoy SL 125.
Aerial operations were split into two, east of Cape Tenez in Algeria, with British aircraft under Air Marshal Sir William Welsh and west of Cape Tenez, all American aircraft under Major General Jimmy Doolittle, under the direct command of Major General Patton. P-40s of the 33rd Fighter Group were launched from U.S. Navy escort carriers and landed at Port Lyautey on 10 November. Additional air support was provided by the carrier, whose squadrons intercepted Vichy aircraft and bombed hostile ships.


The Western Task Force landed before daybreak on 8 November 1942, at three points in Morocco: Safi, Fedala, and Mehdiya-Port Lyautey. Because it was hoped that the French would not resist, there were no preliminary bombardments. This proved to be a costly error as French defenses took a toll on American landing forces. On the night of 7 November, pro-Allied General Antoine Béthouart attempted a coup d'etat against the French command in Morocco, so that he could surrender to the Allies the next day. His forces surrounded the villa of General Charles Noguès, the Vichy-loyal high commissioner. However, Noguès telephoned loyal forces, who stopped the coup. In addition, the coup attempt alerted Noguès to the impending Allied invasion, and he immediately bolstered French coastal defenses.
At Safi, the objective being capturing the port facilities to land the Western Task Force's medium tanks, the landings were mostly successful. The landings were begun without covering fire, in the hope that the French would not resist at all. However, once French coastal batteries opened fire, Allied warships returned fire. By the time the 3rd Battalion, 67th Armored Regiment arrived, French snipers had pinned the assault troops on Safi's beaches. Most of the landings occurred behind schedule. Carrier aircraft destroyed a French truck convoy bringing reinforcements to the beach defenses. Safi surrendered on the afternoon of 8 November. By 10 November, the remaining defenders were pinned down, and the bulk of Harmon's forces raced to join the siege of Casablanca.
At Port-Lyautey, the landing troops were uncertain of their position, and the second wave was delayed. This gave the French defenders time to organize resistance, and the remaining landings were conducted under artillery bombardment. With the assistance of air support from the carriers, the troops pushed ahead, and the objectives were captured. At Fedala, weather disrupted the landings. The landing beaches again came under French fire after daybreak. Patton landed at 08:00, and the beachheads were secured later in the day. The Americans surrounded the port of Casablanca by 10 November, and the city surrendered an hour before the final assault was due to take place. Casablanca was the principal French Atlantic naval base after German occupation of the European coast. The Naval Battle of Casablanca resulted from a sortie of French cruisers, destroyers, and submarines opposing the landings. A cruiser, six destroyers, and six submarines were destroyed by American gunfire and aircraft. The incomplete French battleship —which was docked and immobile—fired on the landing force with her one working gun turret until disabled by the 16-inch calibre American naval gunfire of USS Massachusetts, the first such heavy-calibre shells fired by the U.S. Navy anywhere in World War II. Two U.S. destroyers were damaged.


The Center Task Force was split between three beaches, two west of Oran and one east. Landings at the westernmost beach were delayed because of a French convoy which appeared while the minesweepers were clearing a path. Some delay and confusion, and damage to landing ships, was caused by the unexpected shallowness of water and sandbars; although periscope observations had been carried out, no reconnaissance parties had landed on the beaches to determine the local maritime conditions. This helped inform subsequent amphibious assaults—such as Operation Overlord—in which considerable weight was given to pre-invasion reconnaissance.
The U.S. 1st Ranger Battalion landed east of Oran and quickly captured the shore battery at Arzew. An attempt was made to land U.S. infantry at the harbour directly, in order to quickly prevent destruction of the port facilities and scuttling of ships. Operation Reservist failed, as the two Banff-class sloops were destroyed by crossfire from the French vessels there. The Vichy French naval fleet broke from the harbor and attacked the Allied invasion fleet but its ships were all sunk or driven ashore. The commander of Reservist, Capt. F. T. Peters, was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for valour in leading the attack through Oran harbour in the face of point blank fire. French batteries and the invasion fleet exchanged fire throughout 8–9 November, with French troops defending Oran and the surrounding area stubbornly; bombardment by the British battleships brought about Oran's surrender on 9 November.

Airborne landings

Torch was the first major airborne assault carried out by the United States. The 2nd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, aboard 39 C-47 Dakotas, flew all the way from Cornwall in England, over Spain, to drop near Oran and capture airfields at Tafraoui and La Sénia, respectively and south of Oran. The operation was marked by communicational and navigational problems owing to the anti-aircraft and beacon ship HMS Alynbank broadcasting on the wrong frequency. Poor weather over Spain and the extreme range caused the formation to scatter and forced 30 of the 37 air transports to land in the dry salt lake to the west of the objective. Of the other aircraft, one pilot became disoriented and landed his plane in Gibraltar. Two others landed in French Morocco and three in Spanish Morocco, where another Dakota dropped its paratroopers by mistake. A total of 67 American troops were interned by Franco's forces until February 1943. Tafraoui and La Sénia were eventually captured but the role played by the airborne forces in Operation Torch was minimal.


Resistance and coup

As agreed at Cherchell, in the early hours of 8 November, the Géo Gras Group, 400 mainly Jewish French Resistance fighters staged a coup in the city of Algiers. Starting at midnight, the force under the command of Henri d'Astier de la Vigerie and José Aboulker seized key targets, including the telephone exchange, radio station, governor's house and the headquarters of the 19th Corps.
Robert Murphy took some men and then drove to the residence of General Alphonse Juin, the senior French Army officer in North Africa. While they surrounded his house Murphy attempted to persuade him to side with the Allies. Juin was treated to a surprise: Admiral François Darlan—the commander of all French forces—was also in Algiers on a private visit. Juin insisted on contacting Darlan and Murphy was unable to persuade either to side with the Allies. In the early morning, the local Gendarmerie arrived and released Juin and Darlan.


On 8 November 1942, the invasion commenced with landings on three beaches—two west of Algiers and one east. Under the command of Major-General Charles W. Ryder, commanding general of the U.S. 34th Infantry Division, the 11th Brigade Group from the British 78th Infantry Division, landed on the right hand beach, the US 168th Regimental Combat Team, from the 34th Infantry Division, supported by 6 Commando and most of 1 Commando on the middle beach while the US 39th Regimental Combat Team, also from the US 34th Infantry Division, supported by the remaining 5 troops from 1 Commando, landed on the left hand beach. The 36th Brigade Group from the British 78th Infantry Division stood by in floating reserve. Though some landings went to the wrong beaches, this was immaterial because of the lack of French opposition. All the coastal batteries had been neutralized by the French Resistance and one French commander defected to the Allies. The only fighting took place in the port of Algiers, where in Operation Terminal, two British destroyers attempted to land a party of US Army Rangers directly onto the dock, to prevent the French destroying the port facilities and scuttling their ships. Heavy artillery fire prevented one destroyer from landing but the other was able to disembark before it too was driven back to sea. The US troops pushed quickly inland and General Juin surrendered the city to the Allies at 18:00.


Political results

It quickly became clear that Giraud lacked the authority to take command of the French forces. He preferred to wait in Gibraltar for the results of the landing. However, Darlan in Algiers had such authority. Eisenhower, with the support of Roosevelt and Churchill, made an agreement with Darlan, recognizing him as French "High Commissioner" in North Africa. In return, Darlan ordered all French forces in North Africa to cease resistance to the Allies and to cooperate instead. The deal was made on 10 November, and French resistance ceased almost at once. The French troops in Vichy North Africa who were not already captured submitted to and eventually joined the Allied forces. Men from French North Africa would see much combat under the Allied banner as part of the French Expeditionary Corps in the Italian campaign, where Maghrebis made up over 60% of the unit's soldiers.
When Adolf Hitler learned of Darlan's deal with the Allies, he immediately ordered the occupation of Vichy France and sent troops to Vichy Tunisia.
The Eisenhower/Darlan agreement meant that the officials appointed by the Vichy regime would remain in power in North Africa. No role was provided for Free France, which was supposed to be France's government-in-exile and had taken charge in other French colonies. That deeply offended Charles de Gaulle, the head of Free France. It also offended much of the British and American public, who regarded all Vichy French as Nazi collaborators and Darlan as one of the worst. Eisenhower insisted, however, that he had no real choice if his forces were to move on against the Axis in Tunisia, rather than fight the French in Algeria and Morocco.
Though de Gaulle had no official power in Vichy North Africa, much of its population now publicly declared Free French allegiance, putting pressure on Darlan. On 24 December, Fernand Bonnier de La Chapelle, a French resistance fighter and anti-fascist monarchist, assassinated Darlan.
Giraud succeeded Darlan but, like him, replaced few of the Vichy officials. He even ordered the arrest of the leaders of the Algiers coup of 8 November, with no opposition from Murphy.
The French North African government gradually became active in the Allied war effort. The limited French troops in French Tunisia did not resist German troops arriving by air; Admiral Esteva, the commander, obeyed orders to that effect from Vichy. The Germans took the airfields there and brought in more troops. The French troops withdrew to the west and, within a few days, began to skirmish against the Germans, encouraged by small American and British detachments who had reached the area. While that was of minimal military effect, it committed the French to the Allied side. Later, all French forces were withdrawn from action and properly reequipped by the Allies.
Giraud supported that but also preferred to maintain the old Vichy administration in North Africa. Under pressure from the Allies and de Gaulle's supporters, the French régime shifted, with Vichy officials gradually replaced and its more offensive decrees rescinded. In June 1943, Giraud and de Gaulle agreed to form the French Committee of National Liberation, with members from both the North African government and from de Gaulle's French National Committee. In November 1943, de Gaulle became head of the CFLN and de jure head of government of France and was recognized by the U.S. and Britain.
In another political outcome of Torch, the previously-Vichyite government of French West Africa joined the Allies. Algiers became the capital of France.

Military consequences


One of the terms of the Second Armistice at Compiègne agreed to by the Germans was that southern France would remain free of German occupation and governed by Vichy. The lack of determined resistance by the Vichy French to the Allied invasions of North Africa and the new policies of de Gaulle in North Africa convinced the Germans that France could not be trusted. Moreover, the Anglo-American presence in French North Africa invalidated the only real rationale for not occupying the whole of Metropolitan France since it was the only practical means to deny the Allies use of the French colonies. The Germans and the Italians immediately occupied southern France, and German troops moved to seize the French fleet in the port of Toulon from 10 November. The naval strength of the Axis in the Mediterranean would have been greatly increased if the Germans had succeeded in seizing the French ships, but every important ship was scuttled at dock by the French Navy before the Germans could take them.

Vichy Tunisia

After the German and Italian occupation of Vichy metropolitan France and their unsuccessful attempt to capture the interned French fleet at Toulon, the French Armée d’Afrique sided with the Allies, providing a third corps for Anderson. Elsewhere, French warships, such as the battleship, rejoined the Allies.
On 9 November, Axis forces started to build up in French Tunisia and were unopposed by the local French forces under General Barré. Wracked with indecision, Barré moved his troops into the hills and formed a defensive line from Teboursouk through Medjez el Bab and ordered that anyone trying to pass through the line would be shot. On 19 November, the German commander, Walter Nehring, demanded passage for his troops across the bridge at Medjez and was refused. The Germans attacked the poorly-equipped French units twice and were driven back. However, the French had taken heavy casualties, and lacking artillery and armour, Barré was forced to withdraw.
After consolidating in Algeria, the Allies struck into Tunisia. Elements of the British First Army, under Lieutenant-General Kenneth Anderson, came to within of Tunis before a counterattack at Djedeida thrust them back. In January 1943, German and Italian troops under Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel, retreating westward from Libya, reached Tunisia.
The British Eighth Army in the east, commanded by Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery, stopped around Tripoli to allow reinforcements to arrive, build up the Allied advantage and repair its port. In the west, the forces of the First Army came under attack at the end of January, were forced back from the Faïd Pass and suffered a reversal at Sidi Bou Zid on 14–15 February. Axis forces pushed on to Sbeitla and then to the Kasserine Pass on 19 February, where the American II Corps retreated in disarray until heavy Allied reinforcements halted the Axis advance on 22 February. Fredendall was replaced by George Patton.
General Sir Harold Alexander arrived in Tunisia in late February to take charge of the new 18th Army Group headquarters, which had been created to take overall control of both the Eighth Army and the Allied forces already fighting in Tunisia. The Axis forces again attacked eastward at Medenine on 6 March but were easily repulsed by the Eighth Army. Rommel advised Hitler to allow a full retreat to a defensible line but was denied, and, on 9 March, Rommel left Tunisia to be replaced by Jürgen von Arnim, who had to spread his forces over of northern Tunisia.
The setbacks at Kasserine forced the Allies to consolidate their forces and develop their lines of communication and administration so that they could support a major attack. The First and Eighth Armies then attacked the Axis in April. Hard fighting followed, but the Allies cut off the Germans and Italians from support by naval and air forces between Tunisia and Sicily. On 6 May, as the culmination of Operation Vulcan, the British took Tunis and American forces reached Bizerte. By 13 May, the Axis forces in Tunisia had surrendered. That opened the way for the Allied invasion of Sicily in July.

Later influence

Despite Operation Torch's role in the war and logistical success, it has been largely overlooked in many popular histories of the war and in general cultural influence. The Economist speculated that to be because French forces were the initial enemies of the landing, making for a difficult fit into the war's overall narrative in general histories.
Operation Torch was the first area of French soil to be liberated.
The operation was America's first armed deployment in the Arab world since the Barbary Wars and, according to The Economist, laid the foundations for America's postwar Middle East policy.

Orders of battle

Western Task Force – Morocco

Vice Admiral H. Kent Hewitt, USN

Major General George S. Patton, USA

Northern Attack Group
Center Attack Group
Southern Attack Group
Commodore Thomas Hope Troubridge, RN

Major General Lloyd R. Fredendall, USA

Approx. 39,000 officers and enlisted
Rear Admiral Sir Harold M. Burrough, RN

Major General Charles W. Ryder, USA

Approx. 33,000 officers and enlisted