London, England July 25, 1942

On this date in 1942 U.S. President Franklin D. Roose­velt learned that the Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS), an amal­gam of the high-ranking mili­tary officers of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff (War and Navy Depart­ments) and their British counter­parts, the British Chiefs of Staff Com­mit­tee, had estab­lished the command relation­ships for the upcoming Anglo-American invasion of Vichy French Morocco and Algeria in North­west Africa. (The CCS set the major policy decisions for their two nations subject to the approvals of the U.S. presi­dent and the British prime minister.) The next month, August 8, Roose­velt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed that Maj. Gen. (soon Lt. Gen.) Dwight D. Eisen­hower, who had arrived in England on June 24 to assume com­mand of the Euro­pean Theater of Operat­ions, United States Army (ETOUSA), would command the operation christened Operation Torch.

Torch had a combination of political goals and stra­tegic objec­tives: Extract Vichy France’s North­west African terri­tories from the Axis constel­la­tion by over­whelming the Vichy garri­son (an ethnic mish­mash meagerly equipped) and, to the east, anni­hi­late German and Italian forces in Libya and Egypt. The British-Amer­i­can inva­sion had the poten­tial of detaching and sucking in Axis rein­force­ments from Europe’s Eastern Front. With any luck, the nega­tive conse­quences of the Wehr­macht’s reduc­tion in forces in Eastern Europe should reduce the threat of a Soviet military collapse and withdrawal from the war.

Simultaneous landings near Casablanca (French Morocco, west of Gibral­tar choke point), Algiers (the capital of French Algeria), and Oran (Algeria’s second largest city) occurred on Novem­ber 8, 1942, supported by naval gun­fire and naval air support. By that date Lt. Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery’s British Eighth Army had set Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s mixed Italian-German army fleeing west across the Libyan-Egyptian border (Second Battle of El Alamein, October 23 to Novem­ber 11, 1942) at a huge cost in Axis armor and men. (Rommel would extract his revenge on green, poorly led U.S. soldiers three months later at the Battle of Kas­serine Pass in Western Tunisia, ‎Febru­ary 19–24, 1943, which saw 3,300 casual­ties, close to that number of soldiers missing in action (MIAs), and close to 200 tanks lost; see photo essay below.)

The eight-day Allied operation in Vichy French Northwest Africa ended in favor of the British-American invaders, though not before Adolf Hitler ordered his Wehr­macht to elim­i­nate Vichy control over that part of met­ro­pol­i­tan France governed by Vichy collab­o­rator Marshal Philippe Pétain (Case Anton). German troops also tried cap­turing the mostly immo­bi­lized French fleet at Toulon on the Medi­ter­ranean coast near Marseille. (Under the terms of the June 22, 1940, Armis­tice of Com­piègne the defeated French were allowed to main­tain owner­ship of their naval vessels.) How­ever, the French scuttled vir­tu­ally their entire fleet, rendering it useless to the German and Italian navies.

To the east of Algeria, in Axis-occupied Tunisia and Libya, combat opera­tions con­tinued. Hitler poured air and ground rein­force­ments, as well as tons of supplies, into Tunisia. The Amer­i­cans quickly out­paced the ability of the Germans and Italians to strengthen their over­seas forces. Rommel’s west­ward bee­line across Libya under severe pres­sure from Mont­gomery’s Eighth Army found Axis forces trapped in Tunisia between an invig­or­ated Amer­i­can army under Gen. George S. Patton in the west and along the Medi­ter­ranean coast and the British in the east and south­east. On May 12, 1943, the Italo-German occu­pa­tion of North Africa ended in the humil­i­ating surren­der near Tunis of eight Axis divi­sions and more than 230,000 men. It was the greatest Axis defeat so far but the forerunner of more to come.

The Allied-Axis Battle for Northwest Africa, 1942–1943

Operation Torch invasion map, November 1942

Above: Allied Operation Torch invasion zones in Vichy French North­west Africa (red arrows) and German Wehr­macht rein­force­ments launched the next day, Novem­ber 9, 1942, against Tunisia, a Vichy French protec­tor­ate, from their logis­ti­cal base on the Italian island of Sicily, some 150 miles away (blue arrows). Allied strength on D‑Day was 107,453 troops; by Decem­ber 1, 253,213 troops were ashore. The intent of the Allied com­mand in the months following the Torch landings was to press the German and Italian forces in their Tunisian strong­hold against the Medi­ter­ranean Sea and the Gulf of Tunis on the one side and the British Eighth Army to the south­east on the other and force the enemy’s surrender. It happened but not until May 1943, six months after the original Opera­tion Torch mission had been com­pleted, that the Allies could claim sway over all of North Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.

U.S. II Corps passes through Kasserine Pass, late February 1943 AU.S. II Corps passes through Kasserine Pass, late February 1943 B

Above: In February 1943, elements of Rommel’s Afrika Korps attempted to seize Kas­serine Pass, gate­way to Allied-occupied Algeria, by a sudden, swift attack. A hodge­podge of U.S. and Free French units attempted to hold the pass. German infan­try infil­trated around the defenders by climbing the heights on either side of the 2‑mile-wide pass. Obso­les­cent but still potent Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers, escorted by Messer­schmitt Bf 109 fighters, entered the fray. On Febru­ary 20, 1943, the pass was in German hands. As the Germans con­tinued their effort to push the Amer­i­cans back into Algeria on the morning of Febru­ary 22, they ran into con­cen­trated artillery fire. On Febru­ary 23, the Amer­i­cans cau­tiously advanced east­ward to dis­cover the Germans had with­drawn. Con­cerned that Mont­gomery’s British Eighth Army might attack him in the rear while he was moving west, Rommel aban­doned the battle­field and retired to the east. (On March 9 Rommel was invalided home.) These photos show American units moving through the open pass.

Italian POWs being escorted out of Tunis, May 7, 1943Gromalia POW camp outside Tunis, May 1943

Left: In this photograph Italian prisoners of war are seen being herded out of Tunis as the British V Corps entered the capi­tal on May 7, 1943, the same day Amer­i­can armored and infan­try divi­sions pushed the retreating Germans out of the port city of Bizerte in the north of the coun­try. At 12:30 on May 13, one day after Italian dictator Benito Mus­so­lini had named him Field Marshal, Giovanni Messe, the Gover­nor of now Allied-occupied Libya, surrendered the remainder of the Italian First Army. (Messe avoided the fate of Col. Gen. Hans-Juergen von Arnim, Rommel’s capable but luck­less suc­cessor—namely, prisoner of war in the U.S. state of Missis­sippi—by switching loyal­ties and fighting on the side of the Allies against Mussolini after the Italian armistice in September 1943.)

Right: With the fall of the Tunisian port cities of Tunis and Bizerte, 40 miles apart, the pipe dream of a sea­borne rescue of Axis forces, ready to fight another day, evap­o­rated. In recog­ni­tion thereof, Axis soldiers began sur­rendering in such large num­bers that they clogged roads, impeding the Allies’ mopping-up opera­tions. In the second week of May enemy pri­soners totaled over 275,000, the majority of them German. Many POWs wound up at the Gro­ma­lia camp (shown here), four miles out­side Tunis. When Axis gene­rals began sur­ren­dering on May 9, 1943, the six-month Tunisia Cam­paign entered its final days. Vic­tory in Tunisia did not come cheaply. Of 70,000 Allied casu­al­ties, the U.S. Army lost 2,715 dead, 8,978 wounded, and 6,528 missing. At the same time, how­ever, the Army gained thou­sands of sea­soned offi­cers, non­com­mis­sioned offi­cers, and troops whose experi­ence would prove deci­sive in sub­se­quent cam­paigns. These sea­soned sol­diers would not have long to wait or far to go, for the next test was only two months and roughly 150 miles away, the Italian island of Sicily and Operation Husky.

World War II in North Africa (Skip first 3 minutes)

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