Both Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt knew that they had to make some tangible moves against the Germans in 1942. And despite Josef Stalin’s insistence that western allies open a second front, Churchill knew that would end in disaster.
So the powers decided that they’d first pacify North Africa, where the British Eighth Army and the German Afrika Korps had been fighting back and forth since 1940. After much disagreement, it was decided to invade Morocco and Algeria and establish a base where the supply lines for the Germans in the Mediterranean could be cut. This would open as Mr. Churchill called it the “soft underbelly of Europe.” But this first foray for the Americans into the war against Nazi Germany was a victory, not so much militarily but politically as the allies were treading on a slippery slope dealing with the Free French as well as Vichy and the inexperienced Americans.
President Roosevelt had wanted to execute “Operation Sledgehammer”, the joint Allied invasion of Western Europe into France, but Field Marshal Rommel’s attack in Egypt had come with 120 miles of Alexandria. General Marshall and Admiral King of the US had argued that the British didn’t want to invade France or Belgium in either 1942 or 1943. But they were ordered by the President to go along, one of only two times during the war years that he so invoked that privilege.
The Plan: The Allies decided on the operation to be done with three separate task forces. The overall commander was General Eisenhower with his deputy of General Mark Clark. Clark would come ashore by submarine early and in a bit of cloak and dagger, try to convince the French not to fight.
The Western Task Force under General George Patton consisted of the 2nd Armored Division, and the 3rd and 9th Infantry Divisions. Patton’s forces would land in Spanish Morocco at Fedala outside of Casablanca, Safi, and Mehdia outside of Port Lyautey. He’d have 35,000 troops and 100 ships under his command.
The Central Task Force was commanded by General Lloyd Fredendall and consisted of the 1st Armored Division and the 1st Infantry Division as well as the 509th Parachute Infantry. The would land in Western Algeria at Oran and at two landing sites on either side of it. They totaled 18,500 total troops.
The Eastern Task Force was commanded by Lieutenant General Kenneth Anderson but once the troops hit the ground, they’d be led by General Charles Ryder commander of the 34 Infantry Division. They would also have a brigade from the British 78th Division and two British Commando Units (1 and 6 Commando). They totaled 20,000 troops and would land around Algiers.
The Allies organized the 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. This would cut off the German retreat as they were being pushed westward by the British Eighth Army.
The Battle: Patton, never one to mince words told the Naval commanders, that their plans on landing the troops would “break down in the first five minutes,” and then in typical Patton fashion told the navy this: “Never in the history of warfare has a navy landed an army at the planned time and place. But if you land us within fifty miles of Fedala and within one week of D-Day, I’ll go ahead and win.”
His Western task force landed without naval bombardment because it was hoped that the French wouldn’t resist. This decision would prove costly to the Americans. The green American troops were pinned down by a surprisingly light amount of French troops.At Safi, the plan was to land about 50 Sherman tanks there and to block any reinforcements from the strong French garrison at Marrakech. The coastal batteries opened up and the American naval bombardment silenced them. But by the afternoon of November 8th, D-Day, they had control of Safi. Unloading the tanks was a slow process, the American 2nd Armored didn’t finish unloading until the 10th, these were the learning curves that would pay dividends in 1944.
At Port-Lyautey, the landing troops were delayed. This gave the French defenders time to organize resistance, and the remaining landings were conducted under artillery bombardment. However, with the assistance of air support from the carriers, the troops pushed ahead, and the objectives were captured.
After the landings at Fedala, the port of Casablanca was surrounded. It was the principal French Atlantic naval base. The naval engagement 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 Jean Bart—which was docked and immobile—fired on the landing force and the battleship USS Massachusetts with her one working gun turret until she was knocked out of action by the Massachusetts’ 16-inch guns, the first such heavy-caliber shells fired by the U.S. Navy anywhere in World War II. Two U.S. destroyers were damaged.
At Oran in the Central Task Force, the opposition was much tougher but was quickly brought under control due to superior planning on the part of the British Navy and Terry Allen, Commander of the US 1st Infantry Division. Allen’s troops landed on target and on time and they swept aside any resistance and captured the port and city in a double envelopment.
The U.S. 1st Ranger Battalion landed east of Oran and quickly captured the shore battery at Arzew. A bold attempt was made to land U.S. infantry at the harbor directly, in order to quickly prevent the destruction of the port facilities and scuttling of ships. The operation failed, as two sloops were destroyed by crossfire from the French vessels there. The Vichy naval force tried to break out from the harbor and attack the Allied invasion fleet but its ships were all sunk or driven ashore.
Operation Torch was the first major airborne assault carried out by the United States. The 2nd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment flew all the way from Britain, over Spain, intending to drop near Oran and capture airfields at Tafraoui and La Sénia, respectively 15 miles (24 km) and 5 miles (8 km) south of Oran.The operation was hampered by weather, navigational and communication problems. Poor weather caused the formation to scatter and forced thirty of the 37 aircraft to land in the dry salt lake to the west of the objective.The few drops that did occur were wildly scattered. However, the 509th captured both airfields.
One interesting footnote of the airborne operation concerned Pvt John Thomas (Tommy) Mackall. Mackall was assigned to Company E, 2nd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment. During the airborne segment of Operation Torch, he was mortally wounded in an attack by French Vichy aircraft on his aircraft as the aircraft landed near Oran. Seven paratroopers died on the C-47 and several were wounded, including Mackall. He was evacuated by air to a British hospital at Gibraltar where he died on November 12, 1942.
The Special Forces Training Facility in North Carolina now sports Mackall’s name. During WWII Camp Mackall was a huge airborne training base preparing paratroopers for combat duty.
At Algiers, there was a coup staged by nearly 400 members of the Jewish Resistance Fighters kicked off. They seized key targets, including the telephone exchange, radio station, governor’s house and the headquarters of 19th Corps.
The landings took place on three beaches, two west of Algiers and one east. Although some landings of the 34th Infantry Division took place on the wrong beaches, they quickly pushed inland due to the paucity of the French resistance. The coastal artillery batteries had been put out of action by the Jewish Resistance Fighters. On another beach, there was no resistance as the French commander welcomed the Americans as they landed on shore. Two British destroyers boldly raced into the harbor to unload 250 American Rangers who were tasked with seizing the facilities before they could be scuttled. One destroyer unloaded the Rangers, the other was forced back by heavy gunfire. General Juin, Commander of the Vichy French troops, surrendered the city at 1800 hrs on November 8.
The Germans Respond: Due to the lack of Vichy French resistance to the Allies landing in North Africa, the Germans didn’t trust the French any longer. As a result, the Germans overran the remainder of Southern France which had been left under Vichy control after the French surrender of 1940.
The German raced to the port of Toulon where the French had a sizable fleet there, to take control of those ships. But the French scuttled the fleet in the harbor, denying the Germans the use of those, which turned out to be a significant loss.
The Americans and British drive on Tunisia but the Germans, retreating from Montgomery’s Eighth Army, reached there first. Later in the spring of 1943, Rommel would decisively rout the American II Corps under Fredendall at the Kasserine Pass. That would move Eisenhower to replace him with Patton. It wasn’t until mid-May 1943 that the last of the Germans surrendered in Tunisia. The Allies would invade Sicily in mid-July, Churchill’s so-called “soft underbelly” of Europe.
The amphibious landings didn’t go well, but the green Americans would learn the hard lessons that would serve them well before they finally invaded the French coast on June 6, 1944. That experience and the enhanced cooperation with the naval forces would make the largest invasion force in history less than two years later.
Photos Courtesy: Wikipedia