The Allied landings in North Africa on November 8th met with only modest resistance. But performance was so terrible that more than one commander was thankful they didn’t encounter any tougher opposition, or the outcome would have looked more like that of Dieppe a couple of months earlier.
And right away, some readers will say, “Hey, you can’t say that about the U.S. Army. It’s the finest military force in the world, and they won in North Africa!!” Well, you’re right about the eventual outcome (it’s nice that writing about history doesn’t require keeping the end a secret). But, on this occasion, the rest of your statement could be debated.
Remember that Operation Torch was the Army’s first large-scale action “in anger” in World War II. The last time it fought was in France…more than 20 years prior. They were bound to be rusty, and rusty they were. The landings went badly with troops landing everywhere but the intended beach. Initial attacks against Oran and Mehdia weren’t very well planned and less well-executed, and paratroopers were dropped in the wrong places. And initially, they didn’t react well to enemy fire. They were just rookies all the way around.
But, in defense of the landing force, the biggest wildcard was the enemy. It wasn’t the Germans…yet. It was the French, and a good portion of the difficulties could be attributed to the uncertainty of whether they would fight. When Germany took overran France in 1940, they set up Vichy France as a German puppet state, and its forces were, in part, dedicated to defending North Africa. Allied leaders had expended great energy in trying to get the Vichy forces to simply lay down their arms, to the point of spiriting General Mark Clark to the African coast weeks before the invasion to negotiate (a good subject which we’ll cover down the road). But so far, no clear decision had been reached by the French, so the troops hitting the beach and the leaders with them were somewhat tentative at first (should we fire on the French?…should we not?). And, in war, “tentative” is bad. So when the Vichy forces actually did fight, there was some shock and dismay to go with the inexperience.
Still, Allied forces recovered and, after a day or two, began seizing their objectives. Algiers surrendered on the evening of the initial invasion, as would Arzew and its pair of forts. Oran, Mehdia, and St. Cloud would give it up on the 10th. And that left Casablanca, where General Patton had threatened to level the town the next morning if the French didn’t stop fighting. And early on November 11, 1942, the surrender came…but not just for Casablanca. All French forces in North Africa were laying down their arms. Once it was verified that this also included the French navy, the fighting stopped (for the moment) and the U.S., the British, and the French were on the same team again (for the moment).
Recommended Reading: An Army at Dawn