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Posts Tagged ‘Operation Torch’

As another disastrous month at the keyboard winds down – I either need to get it back together or let this proposition go – let’s talk a bit about President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and North Africa.

With the first half of 1942 “in the books”, President Roosevelt found himself in the middle of a debate concerning when and where American soldiers should fight the Germans.  To be sure, we were already doing battle with Japan – the Coral Sea and Midway engagements were recent history and Operation Watchtower (the landings at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands) were just around the corner.  But we had yet to make a concerted effort against the Axis’ primary belligerent.  And the President had already stated his “Germany First” policy, but where to put it into action?

Britain’s Prime Minister had his idea.  North Africa.  Churchill saw a boat-load of advantages to offensive action there, and he was happy to enumerate them.  Occupation of North Africa (particularly Algeria and Tunisia) would trap Rommel’s vaunted Afrika Korps between those forces and the British Eighth Army that was already protecting Egypt and the Suez Canal.  North Africa offered American soldiers a way to “get their feet wet” in a situation less dangerous and difficult than a frontal assault on France.  Removing the German presence from the Mediterranean would allow supplies to be shipped through the Suez Canal, which saved a massively long trip around the southern tip of Africa through German-infested waters.  And it got American soldiers into battle against Germans (thereby relieving the Russians) in 1942, rather than further down the road.  It made sense to Winston Churchill, and he told Roosevelt, saying, “This has all along been in harmony with your ideas.  In fact, it is your commanding idea.  Here is the true second front of 1942.”

Roosevelt’s military commanders most assuredly did not agree.  They saw North Africa as a sideshow.  They didn’t believe an invasion there would pull a single German soldier from the Russian steppes or from the approaches to Stalingrad.  In fact, American commanders believed that action in North Africa was more about protecting Britain’s flagging empire than winning a war against an aggressor, and they wanted none of it.  A frontal assault on Germany’s stronghold in Europe, though not feasible in 1942, certainly made more sense to them.

And in the middle sat Roosevelt.  He took these arguments in and then added his own ideas to the mix.  There was politics.  It was 1942, and mid-term elections were coming.  Early indications showed that a restless populace, eager for action against Germany, could give his party a ballot-box beating in November.  But ultimately, it came down to doing something – anything – to help the Russians in 1942.  Earlier in the year, he had stated “the simple fact that the Russian armies are killing more Axis personnel and destroying more Axis materiel than all the other twenty-five United Nations put together.”

And on July 30, 1942, the President made his decision.  As the sun set on summer-time Washington, D.C., Roosevelt gathered his military commanders and told them North Africa was the target.  A European invasion, while on the cards, would not be happening this year.

The torch of Operaton Torch had been officially lit.

Recommended Reading:  An Army at Dawn

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As General Mark Clark was preparing to depart from his secret rendevous in North Africa, Vichy commander General Charles Mast quietly said to him, “The French navy is not with us.  The army and the air force are.”  So in the early morning hours of November 8, 1942, as Allied forces made ready to disembark, there was a little hope that the French captains manning the wheelhouses in Casablanca had changed their minds in the previous weeks.

They hadn’t.

At just after 7:00am, the main coastal batteries at El Hank let loose on the fleet arrayed before them, straddling the battleship USS Massachusetts.  The French battleship Jean Bart then opened up as well.  Jean Bart (shown above) was France’s most modern battleship, but she was unfinished and unable to leave port, having but one of her two main turrets installed.  But the one functioning had four rifles, each capable of launching a 15-inch shell that could seriously damage (or sink) any ship on the other side.

As U.S. navy spotters saw the flashes of guns firing at them, they excitedly yelled “Batter up!” into their radios.  Hearing the coded reply of “Play ball!”, the fleet responded in kind, unfurling the guns and filling the skies with high-speed metal projectiles.  Jean Bart, immobile at her moorings, was a sitting duck.  The Massachusetts pelted her with 15″ shot, destroying the one active turret and adding holes in at least three different places.  The not-completed French slugger settled where she sat in shallow water.

Shellfire chopped up the docks, the mooring areas, French submarines docked there, and ten merchantmen that could do nothing but absorb incoming fire and sink.  Admiral Gervais de Lafond, commander the 2nd Light Squadron, quickly put his 16-ship force (destroyers and a cruiser) to sea to avoid disaster.  He actually got himself in a reasonable position to do heavy damage to Allied transports as his enemy battled with Jean Bart and the coastal batteries.

But the shells were coming fast, U.S. carrier aircraft were screaming in with guns blazing, and Lafond’s battle force was badly outgunned.  This engagement would not go well for the French as, one by one, Lafond’s destroyers (and eventually the cruiser) were sunk in shallow waters or beached as burning hulks.  Only the destroyer Alcyon was undamaged.  In all, the French lost 16 ships and 8 submarines.  An injured Admiral Lafond watched helplessly as the U.S. fleet (minus the destroyer USS Ludlow, which had taken significant damage and fled the action) continued on.

The Vichy-controlled French fleet in Casablanca could have decided not to fight against a much larger foe.  But, despite the gallantry of the men, the decision to do otherwise was little more than an irritant in the day’s activities.

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It was October 21, 1942.  In Virginia, the mid-afternoon sun shone down on an invasion fleet.  To date, it was largest of its kind ever assembled.  It’s destination?…the coasts of North Africa where Operation Torch would be unleashed.

An ocean away, off the coast of North Africa, it was also October 21, 1942.  But the sun had ceased shining hours before, giving way to a sliver of moon.  Had anyone been in the right place at the right time (near the small fishing port of Cherchel in Algeria), they may have seen another invasion fleet silhouetted against the Mediterranean waters…albeit a much smaller fleet.

In fact, this “pre-invasion” invasion consisted of just one vessel…the submarine HMS Seraph.  And its mission was not to shell or torpedo or blow up anything.  It’s mission was to, as quietly as possible, drop off General Mark Clark (shown on the left).

The biggest question with the upcoming Allied landings was whether or not the armed forces of Vichy France would fight.  Since France had been overrun more than 2 years before, a Nazi-puppet government, overseen by Phillippe Pétain and centered in Vichy, had been in control.  But many generals and officers were still anti-German and looking for a way to turn and fight.  Operation Torch provided that avenue in North Africa.

But those leaders wanted a couple things.  First, they wanted to meet with a high-ranking American officer.  Second, they wanted a Frenchman in command of any invasion force, so French forces wouldn’t be seen again as “surrendering to an enemy”.  And that’s why General Clark was on a submarine, off the coast of Africa, hoping not to get caught.

Over the next 24 hours, he would meet with military leaders on a small farm, narrowly escaping capture by local police forces who were told of suspicious activity at the farm.  In addition, he and the men with him were successful in spiriting General Henri Giraud (shown on the right) back to the Seraph and out of North Africa.

Giraud had been designated to lead all Free French Forces that landed in Operation Torch…which inevitably led to the next problem.  The French General was under the (self-created) impression that he would be in overall command of all the Allied landing forces, which would have been a problem even had that position been available.  It was already taken…by General Dwight Eisenhower, who was certainly not interested in either giving up or sharing his position with a French officer who, while anti-Nazi, was also pro-Vichy and pro-Pétain.

And so, with just a couple days until U.S. forces left their berths in Virginia, and little more than two weeks until those men would land on African soil, the Allied high command already had a difficult diplomatic task ahead of itself.

Recommended Reading: An Army at Dawn

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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

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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.

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