Gibraltar Mediterranean Forward Operating Base November 8, 1942

Within four weeks of the massive German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 (Oper­a­tion Bar­ba­rossa), with Adolf Hitler’s Wehr­macht (German armed forces) easily and quickly advancing on the Soviet capital, Moscow, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin on July 19, 1941, and again in Septem­ber pressed Great Britain and the still-neutral United States to open a second front in Western Europe to relieve German pres­sure on the Soviet Union’s rapidly collapsing western frontier (Germany’s eastern front). The most the U.S., as the emerging “arsenal of demo­cracy,” could do in the circum­stances was for Presi­dent Frank­lin D. Roose­velt to declare the Soviet Union eli­gible for Lend-Lease aid on Novem­ber 7, 1941. Factory flood gates opened to dis­gorge tanks, air­craft, trucks, wea­pons, food, and other war-related material to Stalin and the Red Army, as well as a $50 million credit advanced by the U.S. government.

Since September 1940 British Prime Minis­ter Win­ston Chur­chill was mostly preoc­cu­pied by a cat-and-mouse, ulti­mately success­ful mili­tary cam­paign against Hitler’s Axis ally, Benito Musso­lini, in Italy’s Libyan colony and next-door Egypt. Opening a second major front either in the German-occupied zone of Northern and Western France, increasingly pro­tected by Hitler’s steel-and-concrete Atlan­tic War, or in the so-called “free zone” of Marshal Philippe Pétain’s collab­o­ra­tionist Vichy France, which bordered the French Medi­ter­ranean coast, was not in the realm of possi­bi­li­ties at the moment for either Western demo­cracy. But what about opening an Anglo-Amer­ican front in Vichy France’s pos­ses­sions across the Medi­ter­ranean in North­west Africa espe­cially after Amer­ica for­mally entered the war against the Axis powers in Decem­ber 1941? Was that doable and could success be reason­ably assured if over­whelming air, sea, and land strength was brought to bear on Vichy French defenders?

Allied military and naval planners iden­ti­fied Casa­blanca in French Morocco and Oran and Algiers in French Algeria as amphib­i­ous landing sites (see map below). Ideally the three sites would be followed by a fourth at Tunis to secure French Tuni­sia and facil­i­tate the speedy inter­dic­tion of troops and material to Field Marshal Erwin Rom­mel’s German-Italian Afrika Korps in Libya. In the back­ground was the thought that the landings, code­named Oper­a­tion Torch, might per­suade Pétain to switch alle­giance from the Axis to the Allies. Lt. Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower was placed in over­all com­mand of Torch.

Hastily planned in two months’ time, Torch was the largest, most com­plex, and riski­est mili­tary oper­a­tion yet mounted by the Western powers. Shortly after 1 a.m. on this date, Novem­ber 8, 1942, the Anglo-Amer­icans sprang their three-prong attack. The assault troops of the Western Task Force encoun­tered unex­pected resis­tance on land and sea, but Casa­blanca, the prin­ci­pal Vichy French Atlan­tic naval base, was in Allied hands on Novem­ber 11. The Center Task Force encountered more resis­tance than the Western Task Force had met; never­the­less, on Novem­ber 10 Oran’s com­manders surren­dered the city. At Algiers, the Eastern Task Force met less oppo­si­tion because Free French fighters had neu­tral­ized the coastal bat­teries, so Allied ground forces disem­barking from landing craft were able to push inland and compel the capital’s surrender by 6 p.m. the first day.

On November 11 Adm. Jean François Darlan, commander in chief of Vichy armed forces who by happen­stance was in Algiers during Oper­a­tion Torch, broke with his boss, Marshal Pétain, and signed an armi­stice with the Allies. Two days later the Allies recog­nized Darlan as the head of the French civil govern­ment in North Africa. The balance of mili­tary and polit­i­cal power in North Africa, admit­tedly on the periph­ery of Nazi Europe, now swung in the Allies’ favor, where it would stay until May 1943, when the last Axis troops were expelled from their Tunisian stronghold.

Allied Invasion of Northwest Africa, November 8–16, 1942: First Light in France’s Liberation

Operation Torch invasion map, November 1942

Above: Vichy French protectorate of Morocco and Vichy French Algeria, the objec­tives of Oper­a­tion Torch. Lt. Gen. Eisen­hower (1890–1969) had over­all com­mand of the amphib­ious landings, which involved three task forces, one sailing from the U.S., the other two from England. Commanding the Western Task Force of 33,000 men em­barking from the U.S. (target Casa­blanca) was U.S. Maj. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr. (1885–1945). The Center Task Force of 35,000 men (target Oran, the second largest city in Algeria) was commanded by U.S. Maj. Gen. Lloyd R. Freden­dall (1883–1963). The Eastern Task Force of 39,000 Amer­i­can and British troops (target Algiers, the capital city of Algeria) was under the over­all command of U.S. Maj. Gen. Charles W. “Doc” Ryder. Oper­a­tion Torch landed 107,000 U.S. and British troops at nine beach­heads along the Moroc­can and Algerian coasts, assisted by 350 war­ships, 500 tran­sports, and heavy air cover. Opposing the North African landings were roughly 125,000 Vichy French sol­diers, as well as coastal artil­lery, 210 tanks, and about 500 air­craft. In addi­tion, there were 10 or so war­ships and 11 sub­marines at Morocco. During the eight-day oper­a­tion, Allied forces suffered well over 1,100 dead and twice that number wounded and missing; Vichy casual­ties exceeded 1,350 killed, 2,000 wounded, and 400 missing, though the true figures are likely higher.

Operation Torch: Landing craft, Oran, Algeria, November 8, 1942Operation Torch: Storming unnamed beach, November 8 1942

Left: U.S. troops of the 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division on board a landing craft heading for the beaches at Oran in Algeria during Operation Torch, November 8, 1942.

Right: Allied troops storm an unnamed beach during Operation Torch, November 8, 1942. The Allied amphib­ious landings in Vichy North Africa, supported by air and naval power, were dress rehearsals for Oper­a­tion Over­lord in June 1944 in Western Europe, ringing the death knell of Hitler’s odious Thousand Year Reich.

Operation Torch: Algiers invasion beach, November 8,1942

Above: Soldiers of the U.S. 34th Infantry Division hit one of three beaches near Algiers behind a large Amer­i­can flag (near left edge of photo but diffi­cult to see), Novem­ber 8, 1942. The sol­diers hoped that the Vichy French defenders would not fire on them as they disem­barked from their landing craft and crossed the narrow beach. During the landing ship­board loud­speakers repeatedly blared in French, “Don’t shoot. We are your friends. We are Americans!” Algiers was the first Allied objective in Vichy North Africa to fall.

Operation Torch: The Invasion of French North Africa, November 1942