Operation Torch

The world was in a dreadful state in 1942.

During most of 1941, the American public did not want the USA to get involved in another European conflict, so President Roosevelt was unable to help Churchill with his request for troops to fight Hitler's German war machine. But just 4 days at the end of 1941 changed everything.

On the morning of 7th December 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the USA were suddenly at war with Japan. Four days later, Hitler made one of his biggest mistakes by declaring war on America. Winston Churchill wasted no time in boarding a ship to visit Roosevelt in Washington. The Americans didn’t really want to see Churchill at that time, as they were busy trying to organise themselves politically and militarily in response to the threat from Japan. However, Churchill was not a man you could ignore, so was granted a meeting with Roosevelt.

Churchill nurtured his relationship with the President and (fortunately for us) Roosevelt came to like the prime minister and respect his judgement.

By 1942, Hitler's army (along with his friends the Italians) were occupying many countries in Europe, Africa and the middle-east. Their new allies (Japan) had already invaded much of Asia including the Philippines and parts of China. If they could enter India it would not be long before they linked up with Germany.

The Soviet Union was in a desperate situation. The cold winter of 1941 had worked in the Russians favour, but now in the summer of 1942 they were being pushed back once again. Stalin desperately requested Churchill and Roosevelt to open a second front in Europe, in an attempt to draw some of Hitlers forces away from the eastern front, and relieve some of the pressure on the Red Army.

Back in the USA the public wanted revenge on Japan, but Roosevelt didn’t need much convincing by Churchill that the much bigger threat was Germany. Roosevelt had to balance the domestic political pressure against a ‘Germany First’ military direction. In fact it wasn’t just the general public that were calling for Japanese blood, but also most of the senior American military.

Operation Torch: General Montgomery

General Montgomery (N. Africa, Nov 1942)

Churchill wanted a British-America invasion of North Africa to create a second front which would help Stalin’s Red Army (by forcing Hitler to divert resources) and assist Montgomery in his African campaign against Rommel.

The protracted political wrangling and diplomacy required to make that happen took up most of 1942. The North African plan became known as Operation Touch.

Senior US Commanders hated the idea of “Torch” preferring their operation “Sledgehammer” which was a direct invasion of occupied Europe via the English Channel. However, eventually Torch was adopted.

France was a divided country. When Germany marched into France they took direct control of the north and west, while Italy grabbed an area in the south east of the country. Southern France became “Zone Libre” but better known as “Vichy France”. Although now superficially independent, the German/French armistice neutralised Vichy France by the ever present threat of Germany.

The French were occupying their territory in north Africa (Western Morocco, Algeria & Tunisia) with orders from Vichy France to repel any invaders. The French Resistance, and other patriotic groups were active in this region, so Allied agents were trying to recruit their services, and hoped they could create a diversion and assist during the Allied landings.

Operation Touch started on 8th November 1942 with American troops landing on the Atlantic coast of Morocco and the Mediterranean coast at Oran (Algeria), and British/American troops landing at Algiers. It was an American led operation with General Eisenhower in overall command.

Operation Torch Allied Landings 1942

The British role in the invasion was played down because (by this time) the French hated the British, for sinking a large part of their fleet when France fell to Germany.

Due to poor preparation and planning, the landings were shambolic. Troops were ferried from the ships to the beaches via landing craft. On the Atlantic coast, poor navigation and the rough seas resulted in troops being dropped miles from their designated zones, often isolated from other groups.

Even in the relatively calm waters of the Mediterranean, some landing craft lost their way, hit rocks and sank. As the troops were carrying heavy guns and ammunition, they had to be taken right to the beach, so that they could step out into shallow water. One landing craft grounded on a sandbank close to a beach, but as the soldiers got out of the boat and started to make their way towards the beach, they walked into deep water, and many were drowned in the darkness due to the weight of their backpacks. Some survived by dropping their equipment, and then wandered around the beach without their guns, not quite knowing what to do next. But many men at that time could not swim, so if they got into difficulties, they just perished.

However, a certain amount of luck was on their side, and the Allies manage to secure these areas of Morocco and Algiers without too much resistance from the French or local Arab populations. At this stage, Hitler still didn’t see the Allied landings as a major problem, and misread their purpose.

During the first few weeks, a lot of Eisenhower’s time was taken up by disputes with, and between, the French. The French Admiral Darlan was initially given administrative control of the French North African armed forces, only to be assassinated within the first 6 weeks by a young French monarchist.

Eventually Harold MacMillan (a future British Prime Minister) was sent out from England to deal with political distractions. This finally left Eisenhower free to get on with his day job, winning the war.