Operation Torch

In July, 1942, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill decided that the Allies should open a Second Front to help the Red Army fighting in the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin favoured an invasion of Europe but Roosevelt and Churchill opted for an invasion of northwest Africa. Given the code-name Operation Torch, General Dwight D. Eisenhower was appointed Allied commander of the invasion.

Over 100,000 Vichy troops were stationed in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. It was hoped that the French troops not to resist the Allied invasion.On 7th November, Eisenhower had a secret meeting with General Henri Giraud in Gibraltar. Eisenhower told Giraud about Operation Torch and persuaded him to become commander of French forces in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia after the invasion of North Africa.

The following day Allied forces landed in Casablanca, Oran and Algiers. The French troops fought back at Oran and General Mark Clark immediately began negotiations with Admiral Jean-Francois Darlan, overall C-in-C of Vichy forces, in an attempt to negotiate a ceasefire.

Adolf Hitler threatened Henri-Philippe Petain that the German Army would invade Vichy if his troops did not resist. When Darlan surrendered on the 11th November, Hitler carried out his threat and occupied the rest of France. French troops in Morocco stopped fighting but some joined the Germans in Tunisia.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower now controversially appointed Jean-Francois Darlan as the political head of the French North Africa. The decision infuriated General Charles De Gaulle and the French Resistance who claimed that Darlan was a fascist and a Nazi collaborator. However, the decision was endorsed by Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt who both agreed with Eisenhower that the deal with Darlan would assist military operations in the area.

Darlan was assassinated by, Ferdinand Bonnier de la Chapelle, an anti-Nazi royalist, on 24th December, 1942. Although he had been trained by the SOE and had been a member of the resistance group led by Emmanuel d'Astier, it is believed he was acting as an individual rather than under the orders of any particular group. Darlan was now replaced by the more acceptable Henri Giraud.

Allied forces led by General Kenneth Anderson advanced into Tunisia and got to within 12 miles of Tunis before being attacked at Djedeida by General Walther Nehring and the Deutsches Afrika Korps.

In January 1943, General Jurgen von Arnium took control of the German forces in Tunisia. Later that month he was joined by General Erwin Rommel and his army in southern Tunisia. Rommel was in retreat from Egypt and was being chased by General Bernard Montgomery and the 8th Army.

Montgomery now spent several weeks in Tripoli building up his supplies. Arnium and Rommel decided to take this opportunity to attack Allied forces led by General Kenneth Anderson at Faid Pass (14th February) and Kasserine Pass (19th February). The Deutsches Afrika Korps then headed for Thala but were forced to retreat after meeting a large Allied force on 22nd February, 1943.

General Harold Alexander was now sent to oversee Allied operations in Tunisia whereas General Erwin Rommel was placed in command of the German forces. On 6th March 1943, Rommel attacked the Allies at Medenine. General Bernard Montgomery and the 8th Army fought off the attack and the Germans were forced to withdraw. Rommel now favoured a full retreat but this was rejected by Adolf Hitler.

On 9th March, Rommel left Tunisia on health grounds and was replaced by General Jurgen von Arnium as commander of the Deutsches Afrika Korps. Arnium now concentrated in defending a 100 mile arc across north-east Tunisia.

By April 1943 the Allies had over 300,000 men in Tunisia. This gave them a 6-to-1 advantage in troops and a 15-to-1 superiority in tanks. The Allied blockade of the Mediterranean also made it difficult for the German Army to be supplied with adequate amounts of fuel, ammunition and food.

The Allies now decided to make another effort to take Tunis. General Omar Bradley, who had replaced General George Patton, as commander of the 2nd Corps, joined General Bernard Montgomery for the offensive. On 23rd April the 300,000 man force advanced along a 40 mile front. At the same time there was a diversionary attack by the 8th Army at Enfidaville.

On 7th May 1943, British forces took Tunis and the US Army captured Bizerte. By 13th May all Axis forces in Tunisia surrendered and over 150,000 were taken prisoner.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Dwight D. Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe (1948)

Fundamentally the expedition was conceived in the hope that the French forces, officials, and population of northwest Africa would permit our entry without fighting and would join with us in the common battle against Germany. However, there was nothing in the political history of the years 1940-42 to indicate that this would occur; it was a hope rather than an expectation. Consequently we had to be prepared to fight against forces which, in all, were estimated to number 200,000. But our governments were clear in their instructions that we were to strive to create an ally in North Africa; we were not to act as if we were conquering a hostile territory unless this attitude should be forced upon us by continued French resistance. Everything that might induce the French forces in Africa to join us was incorporated into our plans, including careful wording of pronouncements and proclamations to be issued coincidentally with the beginning of the invasion.

(2) General Dwight D. Eisenhower, message to General George Marshall (1st September, 1942)

The following are the particular factors that bear directly upon the degree of hazard inherent in this operation:

(a) The sufficiency of carrier-borne air support during initial stages. The operational strength of the French Air Force in Africa is about 500 planes. Neither the bombers nor the fighters are of the most modern type, but the fighters are superior in performance to the naval types on carriers. Consequently, if the French make determined and unified resistance to the initial landing, particularly by concentrating the bulk of their air against either of the major ports, they can seriously interfere with, if not prevent, a landing at that point. The total carrier-borne fighter strength (counting on 100 U.S. fighters on Ranger and auxiliary) will apparently be about 166 planes in actual support of the landings. Only twenty to thirty will be with the naval covering forces to the eastward. These fighters will be under the usual handicaps of carrier-based aircraft when operating against land-based planes.

(b) Efficiency of Gibraltar as an erection point for fighter aircraft to be used after landing fields have been secured. Since Gibraltar is the only port available to Allies in that region, the rapid transfer of fighter craft to captured airdromes will be largely dependent upon our ability to set up at Gibraltar a reasonable number for immediate operations and a flow thereafter of at least thirty planes per day. The vulnerability of Gibraltar, especially to interference by Spanish forces, is obvious. If the Spaniards should take hostile action against us immediately upon the beginning of landing operations, it would be practically impossible to secure any land-based fighter craft for use in northern Africa for a period of some days.

(c) Another critical factor affecting the air will be the state of the weather. It is planned to transfer by flying to captured airdromes in North Africa the American units now in Great Britain except the Spitfire groups. These last will necessarily be shipped and set up at Gibraltar or captured airdromes. A spell of bad weather would so weaken the anticipated air support in the early stages of the operation as to constitute another definite hazard to success.

(d) The character of resistance of the French Army. In the region now are some fourteen French divisions rather poorly equipped but presumably with a fair degree of training and with the benefit of professional leadership. If this Army should act as a unit in contesting the invasion, it could, in view of the slowness with which Allied forces can be accumulated at the two main ports, so delay and hamper operations that the real object of the expedition could not be achieved, namely, the seizing control of the north shore of Africa before it can be substantially reinforced by the Axis.

(e) The attitude of the Spanish Army. While there have been no indications to date that the Spaniards would take sides in the war as a result of this particular operation, this contingency must be looked on as a possibility, particularly if Germany should make a definite move toward entering Spain. In any event, Spain's entry would instantly entail the loss of Gibraltar as a landing field and would prevent our use of the Strait of Gibraltar until effective action could be taken by the Allies. In view of available resources, it would appear doubtful that such effective action is within our capabilities.

(f) The possibility that the German air forces now in western Europe may rapidly enter Spain and operate against our line of communications. This would not be an easy operation for the Germans except with the full acquiescence and support of Spain. Gasoline, bombs, and lubricants do not exist at the Spanish airfields and the transfer to the country of ground and maintenance crews and supplies would require considerable time. Certain facts that bear upon the likelihood of such enemy action are, first, that Germany already has excellent landing fields in Sicily, from which their long-range aircraft can operate without going to the trouble of establishing new bases. Secondly, the advantages to Germany of occupying the Iberian Peninsula in force have always existed. The fact that Germany has made no noticeable move in this direction, even under the conditions lately existing when substantial parts of the British naval strength have been inside the Mediterranean, is at least some evidence that the enemy does not consider this an easy operation.

(3) Jean-Francois Darlan, broadcast (21st November, 1942)

Under German pressure the Marshal has just abandoned exercise of power to the Head of Government only reserving for himself the signing of constitutional laws. This means that the Marshal does not wish decisions that the French Government may be impelled to make in the sole interest of Germany to bear his signature. The Marshal declared yesterday (November 19) that he was the living embodiment of France. This is so and that is why we have pledged ourselves to him.

We have not pledged ourselves to the Head of Government. Our patriotic duty remains unchanged. Liberate the homeland and the Empire and, I should add, liberate the Marshal, the living embodiment of imperial France. In 1940 by signing the armistice at a time when France was invaded and practically disarmed the Marshal prevented France from disappearing as a nation and saved Africa from destruction and occupation. Ever since and until lately France remained alone.

If this policy had not been followed the Germans and Italians would have been in Africa a long time ago not as friends respectful of French sovereignty but as oppressors. Their actions in occupied France serve to prove it. And if this had happened it is probable that allied forces would not be on our side today to help us recover our freedom.

Ever since June 16, 1940, I have been a loyal collaborator of the Marshal who often confided his feelings to me. I know his feelings of affection for the great nation of the U.S. I know that, at the bottom of his heart, what matters most to him is the friendship of the American people. By feeling thus the Marshal is loyal to true French tradition.

Is it after all possible for us to imagine that the victor of Verdun walks hand in hand with the dictators who would deprive France of Alsace Lorraine, Flanders, Savoy, Nice, Corsica, and part of North Africa-with the dictators who keep 1,000,000 of our prisoners in Germany and who starve the country? When he was free to act the Marshal always expressed his confidence to me. He did it again on November 9 before the invasion of the free zone.

It is, therefore, with certainty of being a loyal interpreter of his real feeling that I confirm to you my previous orders to fight at the side of American and allied forces for defense and liberation of our territories and integral restoration of French Sovereignty. I add-in agreement with American authorities-that the African Army will never be placed in the position of fighting against Frenchmen.

(4) Joseph Stalin, message to Franklin D. Roosevelt (13th December 1942)

In view of all sorts of rumours about the attitude of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics towards the use made of Darlan or other men like him, it may not be unnecessary for me to tell you that, in my opinion, as well as that of my colleagues, Eisenhower's policy with regard to Darlan, Boisson, Giraud and others is perfectly correct. I think it is a great achievement that you succeeded in bringing Darlan and others into the orbit of the Allies fighting Hitler.

(5) Harold Alexander, Memoirs: 1940-1945 (1961)

The objectives of the British First Army were the ports of Tunis and Bizerta, some 1,850 miles from Alamein. The landings took place on 8 November; by the end of the month the first dash to capture the ports had expired. Thereafter, for more than four months, the only big movement was the American retreat through the Kasserine Pass in the following February. Throughout these months the Eighth Army was fighting a succession of hard battles through Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. Tripoli itself was captured on 23 January 1943; but the Anglo-American forces were not to enter Tunis and Bizerta until 7th May - and then only with the assistance of two divisions and a Guards brigade from Eighth Army.

(6) Bernard Montgomery, The Memoirs of Field Marshal Montgomery (1958)

The initial attempt of the First Army to break through to Tunis was not successful. It took place on the 23rd April. 5th Corps

attacked on a front of three divisions, each on a front of six miles, and each division with all three infantry brigades up; it was more of a partridge drive than an attack and had no hope of success. 9th Corps with two armoured divisions tried to break through somewhere else. I was in bed at the time with an attack of tonsillitis and influenza, and so I asked Alexander if he would come and see me at my headquarters near Sousse. He arrived on the 30th April. I said it was essential to regroup the two armies, First and Eighth, so that the attack on Tunis could be made with the maximum strength in the most suitable area.

I suggested that I should send First Army the 7th Armoured Division, 4th Indian Division, 201st Guards Brigade, and some extra artillery, together with a very experienced corps commander to handle the attack; I meant Horrocks.

I finally said we really must finish off the war in Africa quickly. We were due to invade Sicily in July and there was much to do before we could tackle that difficult combined operation. Alexander thoroughly agreed.

Horrocks went over to the First Army and staged the corps attack on Tunis on the 6th May; it was made in great strength at the selected point and broke clean through the enemy defences to the west of Tunis. Bizerta and Tunis were captured on the 6th May and the enemy was then hemmed in to the Cap Bon peninsula.

The first troops to enter Tunis were those of our own 7th Armoured Division. They had earned this satisfaction. Organized enemy resistance ended on the 12th May, some 248,000 being taken prisoner.

And so the war in Africa came to a close. It ended in a major disaster for the Germans; all their troops, stores, dumps, heavy weapons, and equipment were captured. From a purely military point of view the holding out in North-Africa once the Mareth Line had been broken through, could never be justified. I suppose Hitler ordered it for political reasons. It is dangerous to undertake tasks which are militarily quite unsound, just for political reasons; it may sometimes be necessary, but they will generally end in disaster.