It may have been Japan that drew America into the Second World War, but America’s President adopted a policy of “Germany First” early on. At that time, Great Britain stood alone in Western Europe and Russia, though having checked the German advance near Moscow, stood on legs most wobbly, near the brink of collapse.
But in a sense, President Roosevelt had, to this point, not made good on his policy as the main action had indeed been in the Pacific, checking the Japanese in the Coral Sea, defeating them at Midway, and then launching its first offensive action at Guadalcanal in August. However, the Pacific Theater was more easily engaged, as the U.S. Navy already had a presence (albeit weakened) there, so it should never be thought that there was any change in the original plan…”Germany First” was still the order of the day.
So where to strike? The beleaguered Joseph Stalin was calling for a major strike on the coast of Europe to relieve pressure on his property. Churchill agreed. But landing a viable invasion force somewhere in France in 1942 was simply not practical. The U.S. was not prepared with the manpower nor the infrastructure to attack in Western Europe, where German defenses were formidable (and soon to get much stronger).
But North Africa presented a more feasible target for several reasons. First, like the Russian Front, enemy forces sat at the end of a rather long supply chain, so they were more sensitive to heavy attack. Second, control of the Mediterranean Sea and the Suez Canal was very important to Germany, so it’s possible that opening a front there, while maybe not as good as a direct attack in Europe, would still provide relief to the Soviet Union by drawing off forces. Finally, an Allied-control North African coast would provide a terrific launching point for an invasion of Southern Europe.
It was for all of those reasons (and more besides) that, on November 8, 1942, American and British forces landing in North Africa signalled the beginning of Operation Torch. The Western Force landed near Casablanca and Fedala, the Center Force was assigned with Oran and Arzew in northwest Algeria, and the Eastern Force took aim at the capital of Algiers.
Admittedly, the North African theater is one I don’t know that well, but every day is an opportunity to learn. So, over the next few months, we’ll occasionally dive into the desert together and see what we find.
Recommended Reading: An Army at Dawn – Rick Atkinson’s work is immensely readable. I’m working through this book now.