Operation Torch, 8-11 November 1942

Planning and Build-up
Allied forces
The Battle
Western Task Force
Central Task Force
Eastern Task Force
Aftermath

Operation Torch (8-11 November 1942) was the Allied invasion of Vichy occupied North Africa, and was the first significant land operation carried out by American troops in the war against Germany.

The idea of invading North Africa had first emerged at the Arcadia conference of December 1941-January 1942, but it was unpopular with the American Chiefs of Staff, who preferred a cross-channel invasion later in 1942 (Operation Sledgehammer, for a small scale landing somewhere in northern France late in 1942, would almost certainly have ended in disaster). North Africa came back onto the table when Churchill returned to the United States for a conference in the summer of 1942. At this conference the Americans were forced to agree that there was no prospect of a cross-channel invasion in 1942, and eventually agreed to the invasion of North Africa in order to make sure that US troops were committed to the war against Germany.

Planning and Build-up

Operation Torch was the first stage of Eisenhower's task to secure Allied control of all of North Africa. This must have looked a big task when he received the command on August 1942, coming soon after Rommel's victory at Gazala, the fall of Tobruk and the Axis advance to the Egyptian border. At this stage the only part of North Africa still in Allied hands was Egypt. Rommel and the Italians held all of Libya. Vichy France held French Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Franco's Spain occupied the smaller area of Spanish Morocco. The only other Allied footholds were the British bases at Gibraltar and Malta.

The first stage of the campaign was the occupation of French North Africa. Along most of this long coastline the only suitable places for amphibious landings were the ports. The invasion involved a major naval effort. Two of the three Allied landing forces would sail from Britain, but the westernmost force would sail directly from the United States. It took some time to agree on the targets for the landing. At first the US Chiefs-of-Staff wanted to limited the operation to the Atlantic coast of Morocco, worried that operating inside the Mediterranean was too risky. The British wanted the main effort to be made inside the Mediterranean, with the quick occupation of Tunisia the main target in order to prevent the Germans rushing troops across from Sicily. Eisenhower tended towards the British view – his first plan included an attack on Algiers, as well as the Morocco attack. The eventual compromise was for landings at Casablanca on the Atlantic and Oran and Algiers in the Mediterranean. The idea of a major landing at Bone, further east along the Mediterranean coast, was abandoned. This was probably a mistake – in the immediate aftermath of the landings a small British force, advancing along long supply lines from Algiers, got very close to Bizerta and Tunis before being repulsed, so a much larger force, based at Bone, might well have prevented the German build-up.

Another major problem was that nobody could predict the attitude of the Vichy French garrisons of North Africa. There was a fear that they would be hostile to any British involvement in the attack, especially after the Royal Navy attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir, Oran, in July 1940. The Vichy French had 55,000 troops in Morocco, 50,000 in Algeria and 15,000 in Tunisia as well as 500 aircraft (although the most modern were built in 1940). Part of the Vichy fleet was also based in North Africa.

The situation wasn't helped by the American distrust of General de Gaulle, the leader of the Free French. Instead of trying to work with de Gaulle, they attempted to create an alternative French leadership. They had two figures in mind. The first, and most controversial, was Admiral Jean Darlan, the commander of the Vichy Armed Forces. In October 1942 he visited North Africa, to visit his seriously ill son, and to officially encourage his men to resist any Allied landing, so he was in the right place when the landings took place. He had also hinted in the past that he would be willing to lead opposition to the Germans, but he was also closely tied to the Vichy government and its collaborationist policies, so his claim was badly tainted.

The second figure was General Henri Giraud. He had been imprisoned by the Germans after the fall of France in 1940, but had escaped from a prison near Dresden on 17 April 1942 and escaped to Lyons. From there he made it clear that he was willing to lead any fight against the Germans, although did insist on being appointed commander-in-chief of any Allied forces fighting on French territory. Eisenhower didn't learn of this demand until Giraud joined him at Gibraltar on 7 November, the day before the invasion. Giraud was surprised to discover that the invasion was going in on the very next day, and angry to discover that he wasn't in command (although given that he had expected them to be taking place in December this wasn't a terribly realistic demand). On the following day Giraud was calmed by a promise that he would have command of all French forces in North Africa, but even this didn't work out. During the invasion Admiral Darlan was in North Africa, and he was judged to be a more important figure. Giraud also turned out to be far less popular with most of the French officers in North Africa than the Allies had been led to believe. After Darlan's assassination late in December he proved to be a rather ineffectual leader, and he was soon out manoeuvred by de Gaulle.

Just before the operation General Mark Clark landed at Cherchell, 90 miles from Algiers, where on 22 October he made contact with General Mast, the commander of French forces in Algeria. Mast promised to make sure that there would be no French opposition to the landings. Mast was informed that an invasion was coming, but not given many details. As a result Mast's fellow conspirators were often unable to act in time when the invasion actually took place, but they did try their best, and with some success in Algeria.

Allied forces

General Dwight D. Eisenhower was placed in command of the operation on 13 August 1942, with orders to secure control of all of North Africa. General Mark Clark was appointed as his second in command, in order to make sure that command of the operation would remain in American hands if anything happened to Eisenhower.

Supermarine Seafire
Supermarine Seafire

(Operation Torch)

Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet, served as naval commander for Operation Torch. The fleet included the armoured fleet carriers HMS Victorious and HMS Formidable (carrying Supermarine Seafires), and the older carrier HMS Furious (also carrying the Seafire).

The new US 12th Air Force, under General Doolittle, was created for the campaign in North Africa.

Three task forces were set up for the operation.

The Western Task Force was to land around Casablanca in Morocco. It was commanded by General Patton, and was made of up 35,000 men. Remarkably this task force sailed directly from the United States. Rear Admiral Kent Hewitt commanded this task force. The naval task force included the escort carrier HMS Archer.

The Central Task Force was also American, but this time it came from the United Kingdom. It contained 39,000 men and 180 tanks, and was commanded by General Fredendall. This task force was to land at Oran in western Algeria. The naval aspect of this force was British, and was commanded by Commodore Thomas Troubridge. The naval task force included the escort carriers HMS Biter and HMS Dasher, both carrying Hawker Sea Hurricanes.

The Eastern Task Force was multinational, with an equal number of American and British infantry and a mixed force of Commandos. This force was 33,000 strong (23,000 British and 10,000 American), and was to come from the United Kingdom. The initial landings were to be commanded by the American General Charles W. Ryder, but was under the overall command of the British General Kenneth Anderson. The idea was to downplay the British involvement until the Vichy French had been dealt with. The entirely British Eastern Naval Task Force was commanded by Rear-Admiral Sir Harold Burrough. The naval task force included the older carrier HMS Argus and the escort carrier HMS Avenger, carrying Sea Hurricanes.

D-Day for the invasion was set at 8 November, one month later than the British had originally wanted. Eisenhower had set the later date in order to give his inexperienced troops more time to train, and to make sure that the invasion would go ahead when planned (at this state the starting date for most operations used the codeword 'D-Day' – it was only after the Normandy landings that alternatives had to be found to avoid confusion with the most famous 'D-Day landings').

The Battle

The forces coming from Britain sailed in two convoys. The Slow Convoy left Britain on 22 October, the Fast Convoy on 26 October. They met up at the Straits of Gibraltar on the night of 5 November, where they met up with the British Mediterranean Fleet.

During Operation Torch the three taskforces operated with such wide gaps between them that their efforts can be considered independently.

Western Task Force

Patton split his force into three groups. In the north General Lucian K. Truscott, with the 60th Infantry Regiment (9th Infantry Division) and an armoured task force was to land near Mehdia and then capture Port Lyautey, close to the border with Spanish Morocco, and the location of the only airfield with a concrete runway in Morocco.

In the centre General Jonathan W. Anderson, with the 3rd Infantry Division and an armoured task force was to take Fedala, in the Casablanca area. This was the nearest suitable beach to Casablanca.

In the south  General Ernest A. Harmon, with most of the 2nd Armoured Division (minus the task forces mentioned above) and the 47th Infantry Regiment (9th Infantry Division) was to land at Safi, and guard against any intervention by the French garrison of Marrakech. Safi also had a harbour that could unload medium tanks.

The central and southern forces were then to unite and attack Casablanca from the land.

Patton didn’t have much faith in the abilities of the Navy at this stage, and had told them 'Never in history has the navy landed an army at the planned time and place. But if you land us anywhere within fifty miles of Fedala and within one week of D-Day, I'll go ahead and win' (this claim rather suggests he hadn't studied the amphibious operations of the American Civil war in any great detail..).

The Americans hoped that they wouldn't have to fight at Casablanca, as one of their French allies, General Béthouart, was commander of the troops in the Casablanca area. However they didn't realise that Béthouart was some way down the command structure. Admiral Michelier was the overall commander of all French forces in the Casablanca sector, and General Noguès was the Resident-General and Commander-in-Chief in Morocco. On the evening of 7 November Béthouart received news that the invasion was due, and put his plans into operation. He sent a greeting party to Rabat, 50 miles north of Casablanca, on the assumption that this would be one of the landing beaches (it had no defences and was the seat of government in Morocco). He occupied the army HQ at Rabat and placed the local army commander under guard. He then sent letters to Noguès and Michelier to inform them of the invasion and to suggest that they either issue orders allowing the Americans to land unopposed, or moved their troops out of the way.

After that things began to go wrong. The Americans had decided to land at Mehdia, twenty miles north of Rabat, so the beaches at Rabat remained empty. Noguès didn't want to commit himself until he was sure what was going on. Michelier sent air and submarine patrols out to sea to look for the incoming armada, but rather impressively managed to miss it. Given that the fleet must now have been spread out across a large area of the Atlantic, heading for three invasion beaches, this was quite an achievement. This news convinced Noguès that there was no invasion. When the first reports of landings came in early on 8 November he assumed they were only commando raids, had Béthouart arrested, and ordered his men to resist the landings.

The landings on 8 November were somewhat delayed by problems transferring the troops from their trans-Atlantic transports to the landing craft. Patton landed with the central force, but wasn't able to get ashore until 12.30 (having originally planned to land at 0800).

In the north the Mehdia landings were fairly chaotic, and ran into determined opposition. The airfield at Port Lyautey finally fell into their hands on the evening of 10 November, despite having been one of the targets for D-Day.

In the south the Safi landings went well. Two destroyers, Cole and Bernadou, dashed into the harbour before dawn. Bernadou landed a force of troops at a beach within the harbour, and was followed by the Cole, which landed its troops on the quay. The small garrison of around 1,000 men and 15 old light tanks was quickly overwhelmed (this was the only one of several similar efforts to succeed). By noon the tank transport was unloading the first of her 50 M4 Shermans. However it then took too long to restore order, and the tank column wasn't ready to move until the evening of 10 November.

The Fedala landings began a hour late, at 0500. The heavy surf and a lack of experience caused many problems, and the loss of a large number of landing craft – 18 from the first wave of 25 were wrecked either approaching the beach or once on shore, and nearly half of the impressive 347 landing craft used by the central force were lost on the first day. Luckily for the Americans it took the French some time to react, and by the time resistance began to stiffen up it was daylight. This allow the Allied naval gunners to deal with the coastal defences batteries. The Americans were able to establish themselves on shore, but in something of a muddle. The advance on Casablanca wouldn't begin until the following day.

In the meantime the French fleet based at Casablanca had attempted to interfere with the landings. The French had a sizable flotilla at Casablanca, including one light cruiser, seven destroyers, eight submarines and the incomplete battleship Jean Bart. At 0700 the immobile Jean Bart opened fire with her 15in guns, supported by fire from the coastal defence battery at Cap El Hank. Their target was the Covering Group, made up of the battleship USS Massachusetts, two heavy cruisers (Wichita and Tuscaloosa) and four destroyers, commanded by Rear-Admiral R.L. Giffen. The French scored no hits on the Allied fleet, and their guns were soon silenced by Allied fire, but this attack did provide cover for a sortie by the light cruisers, destroyers and submarines, which were at sea by 0900, heading for the transports at Fedala. Hewitt ordered one heavy cruiser, one light cruiser and two destroyers to intercept this sortie, while the Covering Force attempted to block its retreat. The French managed to escape this trap, and returned to port having lost one destroyer. A second sortie ended less favourably for the French, with one destroyer lost and all but one of the ships damaged. Two of these later sank in the harbour.

On 9 November the American fleet stayed away from Casablanca, preserving its limited supplies of 16in and 8in ammo to deal with a potential attack by the battleship Richelieu, which was based at Dakar. The Jean Bart was damaged, but not knocked out. On 9 November her 90mm guns were used against American troops approaching along the coastal road. Just before noon on 10 November she opened fire with her main guns once again, and fired nine two-gun salvoes at the Augusta, Admiral Hewitt's flagship. The last three straggled the cruiser, which withdrew to sea. The Americans then sent in a dive bomb attack from the carrier USS Ranger, hitting with two 1,000lb bombs that caused extensive damage to the battleship. Somewhat ironically she would later be repaired in America.

On 10 November Eisenhower ordered Patton to take Casablanca as quickly as possible. Patton decided to postpone his attack until daylight on 11 November, partly to allow Anderson's inexperienced troops enough time to prepare and partly to give him time to issue an ultimatum to the defenders. At the same time General Noguès heard that Admiral Darlan had issued an order to stop fighting. Without waiting for that news to be confirmed, he ordered his men to cease active resistance on the afternoon of 10 November, and on the morning of 11 November an armistice was arranged.  

Central Task Force

The Central Task Force landed at three sites close to Oran. It consisted of the 1st Infantry Division (Major General Terry Allen) and half of the 1st Armoured Division.

Two regimental combat teams (16th and 18th Infantry Regiments) from the 1st Infantry Division and a task force from Combat Command B of the 1st Armoured were to land on beaches in the Gulf of Arzeu, twenty-four miles to the east of Oran. This force was supported by two 'Maracaibos', prototypes of the later Landing Ship, Tank.

The third regimental combat team from the 1st Infantry Division, under Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, was to land on beaches at Les Andalouses, fourteen miles to the west of Oran, supported by part of the 1st Armoured.

A taskforce from CCB of the 1st Armoured was to land at Mersa Bou Zedjhar, further to the west.

Armoured columns from Mersa Bou Zedjhar and Arzeu were then to advance inland, capture the airfields south of Oran, and isolate it from the interior. The aim was to prevent the 10,000 troops in the garrison being reinforced by the similar force believed to be in the interior.

A fourth force, 400 American troops on the British cutters HMS Walney and HMS Hartland, was to make a direct assault on Oran harbour, to try and prevent any sabotage of the facilities.

The initial landings went well. The Arzeu landings began at 0100, the other two at 0130. There was very little opposition, and even the coastal batteries were ineffective. The two tank landing craft at Arzeu were able to unload their light tanks by 0800, although the medium tanks had to be unloaded at Arzeu harbour.

The attack on the port of Oran was a costly disaster. The Americans displayed a large US flag in the hope that this would stop the French from opening fire, but that failed. The two ships were blasted by heavy fire, and half of the attacking force was killed. The rest was captured without achieving anything. The French then sent out four warships to try and intervene elsewhere, but this sortie was quickly repulsed by the heavy British naval forces offshore.

Elsewhere the US rangers captured two key shore batteries, allowing the troops to land fairly easily.

The advance from the beaches began well. At 1100 a column coming from Arzeu captured the airfield at Tafaraoui, and this was ready to receive Allied aircraft by noon. However an two pronged attack (from Arzeu and Mersa Bou Zedjhar) on La Sénia airfield failed. Two infantry columns were sent to attack Oran, coming from Arzeu and Les Andalouses also ran into stiff resistances and made little progress.

On 9 November the airfield at La Sénia was captured early in the day, but remained within French artillery range, so couldn't be put into use. The French even counterattacked at Arzeu, and General Fredenhall moved forces from the attack on Oran to deal with this rather over-exaggerated threat.

On 10 November the Americans attacked from three sides. The infantry attacks on the west and east were still unable to make any progress, but the two armoured columns, freed by the capture of the airfields, were able to push north, and reached the city centre before noon. At this point the French surrendered. In three days the Americans had suffered under 400 casualties.

Eastern Task Force

The Eastern Task Force had the easiest job, largely thanks to General Clark and his contact General Mast, the French commander at Algiers. The Allies landed at three beaches. The US forces landed at Cap Matifou, fifteen miles to the east of Algiers and Cap Sidi Ferruch, ten miles to the west, while most of the British troops landed at Castiglione, another ten miles to the west. The British presence was underplayed in the belief that the French would be far more likely to resist a British attack than an American one.

The landings at Castiglione began at 0100. Mast's orders had reached his troops, who were told not to fight. Blida airfield was taken at 0900.

At Cap Matifou, to the east things the landings were a little later, and a little more confused, but once again there was no resistance, and Maison Blanche airfield was captured at 0600. The first resistance came at the coastal battery at Cap Matifou, which surrendered after two bombardments by HMS Bermuda and dive bomb attacks by the Fleet Air Arm. The advance on Algiers was halted by a village strongpoint and three French tanks.

The landings at Cap Sidi Ferruch were rather disorganised. The landing craft ended up scattered along fifteen miles of beaches, with some even ending up at Castiglione. Once again there was no resistance on the beaches, and the Americans were actually greeted by General Mast in person.

An attempt to capture the port of Algiers failed, although at less cost than the assault on Oran. This time the attack was made by the British destroyers HMS Broke and HMS Malcolm, once again flying a large US flag and carrying a battalion of American infantry. Once again the French opened fire, and the Malcolm was forced to withdraw. The Broke made it into the harbour and landed its troops, who established a foothold. However by noon , with ammo running short and no chance of relief, the Americans surrendered. Casualties on both sides were low.

As the Americans got organised and advanced towards Algiers they met increasing levels of resistance. Mast's supporters had managed to keep control of Algiers until 0700, but they had then been arrested by Vichy supporters. Mast's orders not to resist were cancelled and fresh orders to resist were issued. The fighting was sporadic and limited in its intensity, and was soon ended by political developments in Algiers and Vichy France. The fighting at Algiers was ended at 1900 hours  by an armistice that was negotiated by General Ryder and Darlan's representative General Juin. Algiers was handed over to American control at 2000 on 8 November, and control of the harbour on the following morning.

Aftermath

Algiers was the site of the main political negotiations that followed the landings. These began just after midnight on 8 November, when Robert Murphy, the US representative in French North Africa, informed General Juin, the overall French commander in North Africa, that the invasions were about to begin. Murphy hoped that General Giraud's name would help win Juin over, but he was disappointed. Instead Juin insisted that Darlan would have to be consulted. Darlan was summoned to Juin's villa, where he reacted angrily. He then agreed to send a message to Petain asking for authority to deal with the invasion with a free hand. Juin's villa was surrounded by anti-Vichy French forces, but they were then driven off by a force of gardes mobiles, and Murphy was placed under arrest. Juin and Darlan then moved into Algiers, where they helped regain control from Mast's men.

Just before 0800 Darlan sent a second message to Petain, informing him that the situation was getting worse. This produced the required authority to act as Darlan thought best. He used this to order a cease fire in Algiers, and to agree that control of Algiers would be handed to the Americans at 2000 on 8 November, with control of the port to follow at first light on 9 November. 8 November also saw developments in Vichy France. At 0900 the American Chargé d'Affaires delivered a letter from Roosevelt to Petain, urging him to cooperate. Petain's formal response was to declare that France would resist all attacks, but his personal attitude suggested this was just a bluff to try and keep the Germans happy. However Laval, the Vicky foreign minister, had always been more enthusiastic about the German connection. Later on 8 November he accepted an offer of German air support

On 9 November several key figures reached Algiers, starting with Giraud. He met with a rather more hostile reception than he had hoped, and retired to a private home nearby. Later in the day General Mark Clark arrived to begin negotiations with Darlan, while General Kenneth Anderson arrived to take command of the new British 1st Army, which would be responsible for the first advance into Tunisia.

On 10 November Clark, Darlan and Giraud met. Clark demanded that Darlan issue a cease-fire for all of French North Africa. Darlan replied that he would need Petain's approval, and rejected Giraud's authority. After being threatened with arrest, Darkan issued the cease-fire at 1120. Petain was in favour of accepting this cease-fire, but he was overruled by Laval, who by then was on his way to a meeting with Hitler. By early afternoon news that the cease-fire had been rejected reached Algiers. Darlan insisted that he would have to cancel the cease-fire. Clark then placed him under arrest (probably at Darlan's suggestion). Darlan sent a message to Petain announcing that he had annulled his orders and was now a prisoner, but news that the cease-fire had been cancelled wasn't broadcast in North Africa.

On 11 November Petain, influenced by Laval, who was in turn under severe pressure from Hitler, officially transferred all authority in North Africa from Darlan to Noguès in Morocco. Noguès had already agreed an armistice at Casablanca on the previous day, so this didn’t do anything to bolster French resistance. Petain also sent a secret message to Darlan informing him that the refusal to accept the cease-fire had been made under German pressure. However the entire situation was about to be clarified by the Germans, who at midnight on 10-11 November began to occupy Vichy France.

In the meantime affairs in Algiers continued to be rather confused. Early on 11 November Clark asked Darlan to order the French fleet to sail from Toulon to come to North Africa, and to order the Governor of Tunisia to resist the German occupation. Darlan refused, but that morning news of the occupation of Vichy France arrived. During the afternoon Darlan agreed to both demands, but he made the message to Toulon advice and not an order. At the same time Noguès agreed to come to Algiers for a conference on 12 November,.

Early on 12 November General Juin suspended Darlan's order to the Governor of Tunisia, because he had officially been by Nogùes, whose approval would now be needed. Clark forced Juin to un-suspend the order.

On 13 November Darlan's authority was supported by a message from Petain, confirming that he supported cooperation with the Allies, and Darlan's authority, but wasn't able to speak out publically because of German pressure. This finally convinced the French high command in North Africa to come to terms with the Allies. A new setup was agreed, with Darlan as High Commissioner and Commander-in-Chief of Naval Forces, Giraud as Commander-in-Chief of Ground and Air Forces, Juin commander in the Eastern Sector and Noguès as commander in the Western Sector. Eisenhower happily accepted this setup, as it appeared to end the seemingly endless confusion on the French side and offered the promise of active cooperation. The news didn’t go down well in Britain or American, where Darlan had been portrayed as pro-Nazi since 1940. Roosevelt attempted to calm the storm by suggesting that the cooperation with Darlan would be short-lived, something that didn’t go down well with the French in North Africa. Despite his shady reputation, Darlan's support had helped bring the fighting in Algeria and Morocco to a speedy conclusion. However his refusal to issue a clear order to the fleet at Toulon denied the Allies use of the powerful French fleet. Instead of risking the journey to North Africa, the fleet waited at Toulon until it was too late, and on 27 November was scuttled to avoid falling into German hands.

Darlan himself was assassinated on 24 December 1942, by a fanatical young Gaullist. This removed a major embarrassment for the Allies, and briefly brought Giraud to the fore. However he was soon outmanoeuvred by de Gaulle, who had rather more support than the Americans had realised.

When Operation Torch was first being planned, a landing further east at Bizerta in northern Tunisia was suggested by Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham. It was rejected due to a shortage of resources, but the plan was already to head east as quickly as possible. Two further landings were carried out on the Algerian coast east of Algiers. The first (Operation Perpetual) was at Bougie, 100 miles east of Algiers. This was delayed from 9 November to 11 November by bad weather, but the place was then occupied without any problems. Djidjelli, 30 miles further east, was occupied on the follow day, but then came under heavy air attack. Bone was occupied on 11 November, and the British then began their first advance into Tunisia. This fairly small scale advance actually reached very close to Bizerta and Tunis, but the confusion on the French side and Kesselring's rapid actions meant that the German build-up in Tunisia was quicker than the Allies had believed possible. This first Allied advance was repulsed, and a front line was established in northern Tunisia that remained largely static until the final offensives in April-May 1943.

Despite this setback Operation Torch had been a remarkable success. It was the first truly Anglo-American joint operation, with a mixed command structure and neither side seen as senior to the other, and set a pattern that would be followed on Sicily, in Italy and most importantly on D-Day and the invasion of North-Western Europe. 

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (10 May 2017), Operation Torch, 8-11 November 1942 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_torch.html

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