Operation Torch, the landings in North Africa

VICHY FRANCE

Why would the allies (Great Britain and the USA) attack one of it’s allies ? The United States and France have been allied for hundreds of years, going back to 1778.

After Nazi Germany’s rapid victory over France, three / fifths of France were occupied. The unoccupied part was soon to be a puppet state under fascist rule. Phillippe Pétain became the new Prime Minister of the so called French State (Étât français) also known as Vichy France.

The US did not break relations with Vichy France but considered diplomatic and economic pressure the best way to avoid Vichi France allying with Nazi Germany. Diplomats were sent to North Africa and appeared to be highly successful. American influence in the region greatly expended.

STRATEGY

At the first wartime conference, Arcadia convened December 22, 1941, the US announced a ‘Europe First’ strategy. At first, plans were made for a French North African invasion, which was dubbed ‘Super Gymnast’ (super because of combined British and American forces). Planners hoped for an invitation by French Authorities to land in North Africa but this seemed farfetched. By February 1942, political conditions in North Africa deteriorated and Super Gymnast was shelved.

Pushed by Stalin to open a second front, plans were made for an invasion of the European continent planned for April 1st, 1943, called Operation Roundup. The operation proved unrealistic because of an enormous shortage of supplied so the British pulled their support. US diplomats tried several times to persuade the British but were unsuccessful. The plan was shelved.  In return, the US demanded a revised plan or else they would go ‘all-out in the Pacific’. This was a bluff because the Americans full well knew that no European invasion was possible without the British. Therefore, the US proposed Super-Gymnast as the least objectionable. The British accepted and the North Africa operation was renamed Operation Torch.

It’s objectives were to divert German troops from the Eastern Front, to trap and destroy the Axis Armies (German and Italian) in North Africa and to prevent the French Navy to join the Germans.

TORCH TAKES SHAPE

Monument for Operatin Flagpole

US Army personnel and material were shipped to England in masse by cannibalizing units in the United States. The Americans wanted three landings in the Mediterranean with the most eastern landing at Bône. US staff feared that Franco’s neutral but Nazi-friendly Spain might close the Straights of Gibraltar. After a lot of debate, D-Day was set for November 8th, 1942.  Of fear of French hostility, the landings would appear to be an all American operation.

In an effort to persuade the French to not resist the landings, a genuine cloak-and-dagger mission was launched, Operation Flagpole. Major-General Mark Clark set course for the North African coast in a submarine called HMS Seraph to meet with the French commander-in-chief General Charles Mast. Mast indicated that the French troops might defect to the allies if led by the French General Henri Giraud.

On October 22nd the Western Task Force left the United states while the Center- and Easter Task Force left Britain on October 26nd. On November 5/6, transports passed through Straits of Gibraltar. At the same time, General Giraud was picked up on a beach of unoccupied France. When arriving in Gibraltar., Giraud was informed that he was in command of all French Forces in North Africa. He refused, he wanted command of all allied forces. General Eisenhower (commander of the Operation Torch) refused. Giraud replied ‘Giraud will remain a spectator in this affair’. He was arrested and Mast was informed that Giraud was working with allies.

EASTERN TASK FORCE

American War Memorial & ‘Operation Torch’ tablet. Reclamation Road, Gibraltar

The Eastern task force was to make landings at Algiers. Algiers was defended by 7000 French Troops and another 8000 outside the city. The destroyer Broke was to ram the boom protecting the harbor penetrating the southern basin and unload US troops at the Quai de Dieppe. The Destroyer Malcolm would arrive 15 minutes later. The Americans were to establish a perimeter and securing various facilities along the waterfront. The Algiers mission was given the unfortunate name ‘Operation Terminal’. Algiers Harbor was ringed with coastal artillery batteries. These were to be neutralized by commandos before the landings started.

OPERATION TERMINAL, NOVEMBER 8

Destroyers Broke and Malcolm set course for Algiers at 01:40 hours. Suddenly, Algiers lights vanished, searchlights found the two destroyers and the coast batteries opened fire. Blinded by the nighttime fire, both destroyers missed the harbor entrance. Malcolm was hit and withdrew. Broke was alone but found the harbor entrance, broke through the boom and landed it’s troops at 05:30 hours. The assault troops seized the mole, electric power station and tank farm.

Other batteries were still active, in addition to attack by Luftwaffe and Italian planes, heavy equipment was stuck on the beach. US 34th Infantry Division troops marched ten miles inland to Maison Blance Airfield, which was somewhat defended by tanks but they withdrew quickly. The airfield was secured at 8:30 hours.

The French defenders wished to negotiate a surrender. The allies took control of Algiers at 20:00 hours, relying on French civil assistance and the faith of the French military to abide the truce.

CENTER TASK FORCE

The American War Memorial & Arch, Gibraltar. [Line Wall Road, Gibraltar

Oran was the second largest city and was the target of the center task force. French defenses included a 167000 strong division, 45 fortified coastal guns and about 100 planes at La Seina, Tafaraoui and Arzew airbases

OPERATION RESERVIST, NOVEMBER 8

The raiding vessels were, unlike Terminals destroyers, unarmored sloops. Even worse, Oran’s harbor was a small artificial harbor. Reservist’s main assault force was the 6th Armored Regiment of the 1st Armored Division. Reservist was scheduled for 02:45 hours.

Flagship Walney opened the port charge with Hartland behind her but missed the harbor entrance. The message ‘No shooting thus far; landings unopposed. Don’t start a fight unless you have to’ was sent. On their second attempt, the coast batteries opened fire. Walney penetrated the boom but was fired upon point blank. American and British bodies piled in heaps on deck. Walney was turned into a ghost ship capsizing at 04:45 hours. Hartland suffered the same fate. Only 47 survived but were captured instantly.

OPERATION VILLAIN, NOVEMBER 8

La Senia and Tafaraoui airfields outside Oran were to be captured by M3 Stuarts of Task Force Green. Clark insisted on a parachute drop on the airfields preceding the tanks. The unit chosen was the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Two plans were devised. Plan Peace: the French would not resist and the Airborne troops would land during daylight and take the airfields peacefully. Plan War meant the French did resist and a drop was made by night.

Plan Peace was called but during mid-flight, plan peace was changed to plan War. The planes took of from England, flew 1500 miles around Nazi occupied territory. Due to heavy fog, the plans were hopelessly lost. The troops were scattered all over, some were not even in North Africa but landed in Gibraltar. None reached their objectives.

Beach X

The US !st Armored Division was to land at Beach X. Two task forces were chosen for this operation, Task Forces Green and Red. Task Force Green was to land at Mersa bou Zedjar and it’s task was to secure the airstrip at Lourmel then advance towards either Tafaraoui or La Senia airfields.

20 M3 Stuart light tanks and other vehicles were to land directly on the beach. The first wave abandoned the landings because of landing craft being on fire. Numerous LCM’s beached in the shallows and had to be pulled out by bulldozers. Ten LCM’s were disabled in the process leaving just three operational. Despite these delays, the first column exited the beach at 09:00 hours and was dispatched to capture La Senia airfield.

Beach Y

A part of the US 1st Infantry Division, Brigadier-General Teddy Roosevelt’s unit made their way to the beach at 23:45 hours. An uncharted sandbar plagued Beach Y. The first three LCMs ran aground, the crew disembarked heavy equipment plunging it into the sea. The second wave arrived at the beach at 01:38 hours unopposed. By 05:00 hours 2670 men and 33 vehicles were ashore.

Beach Z

This was the strongest task force to land in Arzew consisting of most if the US 1st Infantry Division and an attached force of Lieutenant-Colonel Willem Darby’s 1st Rangers.

Darby split his battalion in two detachments. The first section secured Fort de la Pointe on the northern side of Arzew. The second detachment landed southeast of Cap Carbon, climbed the cliffs and infiltrated behind the main battery of four 105mm guns at Fort du Nord. At 04:00 hours the battery was captured. After this, the main force of the US 1st Infantry Division landed. Around 06:00 hours, Major-General Terry Allen, commander of the 1st departed for shore. Shortly afterward, US Officers broke into the Arzew town hall and compelled the terrified Vichyite mayor to surrender the town.

A French Foreign Legion Battalion still defended the town, at noon, vicious fire repelled the first American attack. Another attack was launched at 15:30 hours which was also repelled. Reinforced by tanks, the third attack was attempted the next day but also failed. A devastating artillery bombardment was ordered ordered but Major-General Allen belayed that order because of fear for civilian casualties. The town was surrounded as negotiations began for a formal surrender. At 13:30 hours, hostilities seized, ending French resistance.

Western Task Force

The North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial is the only American military cemetery on the African continent

The 33.843 strong all-American western task force was to land on three beach on French Morocco. The main offensive, comprising most of Patton’s infantry, would land 18 miles up the coast at the resort town of Fedala to envelop Casablanca from landwards. Ninety miles north, a separate landing would secure Mehdia-Port Lyautey’s all-weather airfield. The third landing would seize Safi, 140 miles south of Casablanca. Patton’s 55 M4 Sherman’s, too large for existing tank lighters, would unload at Safi’s deep water harbor. The coasts were defended by four Divisions plus coastal and air defenses comprising of 55.000 troops, 120 tanks.

Fedala

The task force arrived off the coast of Fedala at November 7th, late at night. The first waves came ashore on 05:15 hours. Strong waves caused havoc among the landing craft, units were scattered and deposited miles from their actual beach. 160 of 347 landing craft were lost. Despite these difficulties, Fedala was secured at 06:00 hours. Some destroyers kept firing on the coastal batteries but were asked by the troops on the beach to ‘For Christ’s sake quit firing – you are killing our own troops! This is from Army – you are killing townspeople, no opposition ashore. If you quit firing they will surrender’. French forces surrendered at 15:00 hours.

Delayed by the naval battle, Patton hadn’t reached Fedala until 13:20 hrs of D-Day determined to ‘flay the idle, rebuke the incompetent, and drive the timid’. Finding chaos on the landing beaches, he personally ‘motivated’ men to get on with their job.

Safi

Another part of task force 45 set of for Safi, about 220 kilometers from Casablanca. On November 8th at 03:45 hours the task force set off for the landing beaches at Safi. The French defenders attacked the convey with coastal artillery and machine guns. These were quickly silenced by gun’s from the ships. The first waves of infantry and M5 Stuarts (improved versions of the M3 Stuart) arrived at the beaches at 04:00 hrs. By 10:45 hours, all French defenses had been disabled. By afternoon, US troops created a bridgehead for 10 kilometers inland.

Mehdia-Port Lyautey

The part of the task force’s task was to capture the airfield at Port Lyautey which was 7 kilometers inland. After some delays the assault was commenced at 04:30hrs. The first troops landed at 05:40 hrs as the French opened fire which were promptly silenced. At 06:30 hrs French bombers arrived and started strafing the beaches causing the US Transports the withdraw. By 09:00 hrs, 20 Wildcats drove off the French aircraft while shooting down nine. As more troops landed, night came. The next day, November 9th, the French counterattacked multiple times which was repulsed. US troops attacked the airfield multiple times but French resistance was heavy. The French continued to resist during November 10th. Increased naval fire destroyed most of the coastal batteries. At November 11th, the airfield was secured at 8:00 hrs.

Casablanca

French air resistance was heavy over the Casablanca beached. On November 9th French air resistance was broken over the landing beached. By 17:00 hrs, 55% of personnel, 31% of vehicles and just 3% of supplies had landed setting of for Casablanca. US troops arrived at the outskirts of Casablanca around 17:00 hrs. Casablanca being the last French stronghold, Patton was informed by Eisenhower to ‘Dear George: Only tough nut left to
crack is in your hands. Crack it open quickly. Ike’. Annoyed at being second guessed, Patton prepared to ‘bomb the hell out of Casablanca’ the next morning. Casablanca was ordered by Admiral Darlan to terminate hostilities.

Post Invasion

The landings were chaotic, the US Troops inexperienced but were successful non the less. Hitler praised the ‘loyal’ French for fighting the Allies, but his mood darkened by the hour. Darlan ordered a ceasefire without permission from Petain. Petain fired Darlan immediately who tried to reverse the cease fire. Darlan was arrested.

At November 11th at midnight German forces occupied Vichy France while Italian divisions occupied south eastern France and Corsica.

The road to Tunis was now open.

North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial

North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial is a Second World War military war grave cemetery, located in the town of Carthage in Tunisia. The cemetery, the only American one in North Africa and dedicated in 1960, contains 2,841 American war dead and covers 27 acres. More information can be found here

The British Military Cemetery at Medjez el Bab

The Medjez-El-Bab Memorial is a Commonwealth War Graves Commission war memorial in the Medjez-el-Bab War Cemetery near Majaz al Bab, Tunisia. The memorial commemorates 2,525 Commonwealth forces members who died in Tunisia and Algeria during World War II and have no known grave. More information can be found here

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