The Allies planned an Anglo-American invasion of northwestern Africa — Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, territory nominally in the hands of the Vichy French government. The Vichy French had around 125,000 soldiers in the territories as well as coastal artillery, 210 operational but out-of-date tanks and about 500 aircraft, half of which were Dewoitine D.520 fighters — equal to many British and U.S. fighter aircraft. In addition, there were ten 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. However they harboured suspicions that the Vichy French navy would bear a grudge over the British action at 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. The Allies intended to advance rapidly eastwards into Tunisia and attack the German forces in the rear. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was given command of the operation, and he set up his headquarters in Gibraltar. The Allied Naval Commander of the Expeditionary Force would be Sir Andrew Cunningham; his deputy was Vice-Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay; who would plan the landing effort.
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 Emmanuel 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 HMS Seraph, a submarine, and met with these Vichy French officers on 21 October 1942.
The Allies also succeeded, with resistance help, in slipping French General Henri Giraud out of Vichy France on Seraph, 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 planned a three-pronged amphibious landing to seize the key ports and airports of Morocco and Algeria simultaneously, targeting Casablanca, Oran and Algiers. Successful completion of these operations was to be followed by an advance eastwards into Tunisia.
The Western Task Force (aimed at Casablanca) comprised American units, with Major General George Patton in command and Rear Admiral Henry K. Hewitt heading the naval operations. This Western Task Force consisted of the U.S. 2nd Armored Division, the U.S. 3rd and 9th Infantry Divisions—35,000 troops in all. They were transported directly from the United States.
The Center Task Force, aimed at Oran, included the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion, 1st Infantry Division, and the 1st Armored Division 18,500 troops. They sailed from Britain and were commanded by Major-General Lloyd Fredendall, the naval forces being commanded by Commodore Thomas Troubridge.
The Eastern Task force, aimed at Algiers, was commanded by Lieutenant-General Kenneth Anderson and consisted of two brigades from British 78th and the US 34th Infantry Divisions and two British Commando units - 20,000 troops. During the period of the amphibious landings the force was to be commanded by U.S. Major-General Charles W. Ryder, commander of 34th Division, because it was felt that a U.S.-led invasion would be more acceptable to the French defenders than a one led by the British. Naval forces were commanded by Vice-Admiral Sir Harold Burrough.
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 General Patton.
The Western Task Force landed before daybreak on 8 November 1942, at three points: Safi, Morocco (Operation Blackstone), Fedala, Morocco (Operation Brushwood), and Mehdiya-Port Lyautey, Morocco (Operation Goalpost). Because it was hoped that the French would not resist, there was no preliminary bombardment. This proved to be a costly error as French gunnery and shore installations took their toll on American landing forces.
During the previous night, a coup attempt had been made by French General Bethouard, whose forces surrounded the villa of General Auguste Paul Nogues. However, Nogues managed to telephone nearby French forces which prevented his capture. In addition, the coup attempt alerted Nogues to the likelihood of an impending Allied amphibious invasion, and he immediately bolstered French coastal defenses.
At Safi, Morocco, the landings were mostly successful. The landings were initially conducted without covering fire, hoping that the French might not resist at all. However, once the Allied transports were fired on by French coastal batteries, the Allied ships returned fire. By the time Allied commanding General Harmon arrived, French snipers had pinned the assault troops (most of whom were in combat for the first time) on Safi's beaches. Most of the landings occurred behind schedule; air support from the carriers destroyed a French convoy of trucks intended to reinforce the 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.
Around Port-Lyautey, Morocco, 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.
Around Fedala, Morocco (the largest landing with 19,000 men), weather disrupted the landings. The landing beaches again came under French fire after daybreak. U.S. General 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.
A squadron of the French navy at Casablanca, including the unfinished battleship Jean Bart, along with numerous cruisers and destroyers, made a sortie to oppose the landings but was defeated by superior firepower. Two Americans 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 been landed on the beaches to determine local conditions. This was in contrast to later 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. The operation, code named Operation Reservist, failed as the two destroyers were shattered by crossfire from the French vessels there. The French Navy broke from the harbour and attacked the Allied invasion fleet but were sunk or driven ashore.
French batteries and the invasion fleet exchanged fire throughout 8 November and 9 November, with French troops defending Oran and the surrounding area stubbornly. Heavy fire from the British battleships brought about the surrender on 9 November.
Torch marked the first major airborne assault carried out by the United States. The U.S. 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion flew all the way from Britain, over Spain, intending to drop near Oran and capture airfields at Tafarquay and Youk-Les-Bains. The drop was marked by navigational and communication problems with French forces on the ground, and the extreme range caused widespread scattering and forced several aircraft to land in the desert. Nevertheless, both airports were captured.
Resistance and coup
As agreed at Cherchell, starting at midnight and continuing through the early hours of 8 November, as the invasion troops were approaching the shore, a group of 400 French resistance under the command of Henri d'Astier de La Vigerie and José Aboulker staged a coup in the city of Algiers. They seized key targets, including the telephone exchange, radio station, governor's house and the headquarters of 19th Corps.
Robert Murphy then drove to the residence of General Alphonse Juin, the senior French Army officer in North Africa, with some resistance fighters. While the resistance surrounded the house, making Juin effectively a prisoner, Murphy attempted to persuade him to side with the Allies. However he was treated to a surprise: Admiral François Darlan, the commander of all French forces, was 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 Gendarmerie arrived and released Juin and Darlan.
The invasion was led by the U.S. 34th Infantry with one brigade of the British 78th, the other acting as reserve. Major-General Charles W. Ryder, commander of the 34th, was given explicit command of the first wave, since it was believed that the French would react more favourably to an American commander than a British one. The landings were split between three beaches, two west of Algiers and one east. Some landings went to the wrong beaches, but this was immaterial since there was practically no French opposition; coastal batteries had been neutralized by French resistance. One French commander openly welcomed the Allies.
The only fighting took place in the port of Algiers itself, where in Operation Terminal two British destroyers attempted to land a party of U.S. Rangers directly onto the dock, in order to prevent the French destroying port facilities and scuttling ships. Heavy artillery fire prevented one from landing, and drove the other from the docks after a few hours, leaving 250 of the infantry behind.
The landing troops pushed quickly inland; General Juin surrendered the city to the Allies at 18:00.
It quickly became clear that Henri Giraud lacked the authority to take command of the French forces. Moreover, he preferred to wait in Gibraltar for the result of the landing. Eisenhower, with the support of Roosevelt and Churchill, therefore made agreements with Admiral François Darlan that he would be given control if he joined the Allied side. This meant the Vichy regime was maintained in North Africa, with its Hitlerian laws and concentration camps for opponents. Consequently, Charles de Gaulle of the Free French, French Resistance, along with Allied war correspondents, all responded with fury. The problem did not vanish when a local French anti-Nazi, Ferdinand Bonnier de la Chapelle, murdered Darlan on December 24, 1942: Giraud was then installed in his place. He maintained the Vichy regime and arrested the Algiers resistance leaders of 8 November, without any opposition from Murphy.
When Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini found out what Admiral Darlan intended to do, they immediately ordered the occupation of Vichy France and reinforced Axis forces in Africa.
The Darlan-Giraud authority, initially resolutely Vichyist, was gradually forced to take part in the war effort against Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, to democratize, to eliminate its principal head Vichyist rulers, and to eventually merge with the French national Committee of London. Months later, the 'Comité Français de la Libération Nationale' (CFLN) born from this fusion passed under the authority of General de Gaulle (despite opposition from President Roosevelt), becoming the U.S. and British-recognized government of France.
As a result of the German and Italian occupation of Vichy France and their unsuccessful attempt to capture the interned French fleet at Toulon (Operation Lila), the French Armée d'Afrique sided with the Allies, providing a third corps (XIX Corps) for Anderson. Elsewhere, French warships, such as the battleship Richelieu, rejoined the Allies.
On 9 November Axis forces started to build up in Tunisia 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 should 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. Forces in the British 1st Army under Lieutenant General Kenneth Anderson almost reached Tunis before a counterattack at Djedeida thrust them back. In January 1943, German and Italian troops under General Erwin Rommel retreating westwards from Libya reached Tunisia.
The British 8th Army in the East, commanded by General Bernard Montgomery, stopped around Tripoli to allow reinforcements to arrive and build up the Allied advantage. In the West the forces of General Anderson came under attack in February at Faïd Pass on 14 January and at Kasserine Pass on 19 January. The Allied forces retreated in disarray until heavy Allied reinforcements blunted the Axis advance on 22 January.
General Harold Alexander arrived in Tunisia in late February to take charge of the new 15th 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 attacked again in March, eastwards at Medenine on 6 March but were easily repulsed by Eighth Army. Rommel counselled 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 100 miles (160 km) 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 1st Army and the 8th Army 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.
This webpage was updated 30th August 2012
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