Operation Torch

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Operation Torch (or Operation TORCH) was the successful American invasion of French North Africa in November, 1942 during World War II, Europe. With the British pushing eastward from Egypt, and with Allied control of the sea and air, the Germans and Italians were caught in a vice and finally surrendered in May, 1943. Torch was the first American contact with the Germans, and taught many lessons for the green American commanders, headed by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, especially the optimum use of air power.


Eisenhower commanded "Operation Torch" with the mission to seize North Africa, secure the Mediterranean, cut off Germany's Afrika Corps and associated Italian forces, threaten Italy, and put pressure on Hitler from the south. Torch was not the "second front" that Stalin wanted because it only engaged a small fraction of Hitler's forces. The British 8th Army under General Bernard Montgomery was in Egypt, advancing toward General Erwin Rommel's crack Afrika Korps (and weak Italian forces) in Libya. The Torch plan was to land a second force in the west--in Morocco and Algeria, which were colonies controlled by pro-Nazi Vichy France--and race to Tunis, thereby trapping Rommel.

Eisenhower spent most of his attention on trying to win over the different French political and military cliques, and in coordinating the complex supply lines. The danger that neutral Spain might allow German troops through its territory to cut the Allies off at Gibraltar made Eisenhower highly cautious. The American divisions had no battle experience whatever; at practice landings in Bermuda, three tons of instructions, maps and aerial photographs were consumed in elaborate briefing sessions. The command ship was a French banana boat that had been converted converted in 3 days and lacked adequate communications gear.


U.S. General George Patton had operational command. His 35,000 soldiers sailed 4,000 miles direct from the East Coast then landed on hostile Moroccan beaches; two other landing forces landed in Algeria after embarking in nearby Gibraltar. Spain stayed neutral and the landings went well. The French put up only a token resistance, and soon most Frenchmen in Africa shifted allegiance away from Vichy to the pro-Allied "Free French" movement led by General Charles DeGaulle.

The Germans were surprised--and outnumbered, outgunned, outsupplied and outmaneuvered. But they moved faster than the Allies and they beat Eisenhower to Tunis. Hitler vetoed any escape because he was fiercely opposed to retreats anywhere--a policy that made all his positions rigid, his armies vulnerable. He sent General Juergen Von Arnim with new forces into Vichy-French Tunisia, while Rommel retreated to a strong defensive position called the Mareth Line in the Tunisian hills. The pincer would not close so easily. However the Allies had a 2-1 advantage in infantry, and 9-1 in tanks. Allied logistics worked well, and a naval/air blockade of the coastline cut off 80% of the enemy supplies. The few remaining panzer tanks ran out of gasoline. Under Eisenhower's general supervision, British General Harold Alexander had operational control of the Allied land forces in the west; Alexander made sure that British soldiers did most of the fighting. When the inexperienced Americans were called upon to hold the Kasserine Pass, they were whipped by Rommel's bold use of a few panzers, and lost 200 tanks. Eisenhower then replaced the unaggressive corps commander, MG Lloyd Fredendall, with Patton, his most flamboyant and pugnacious fighter. By May the inexorable pincers had closed; without a great fight Von Arnim surrendered 160,000 Germans and 14 90,000 Italians. Rommel escaped to fight another day.

Hitler, however, was not especially upset. At the cost of only 5% of his army, he had tied down two of his three enemies for six months in a peripheral campaign that allowed his main forces to fight the Soviets. In North Africa, 3,300 Yanks were killed and 10,000 wounded, about a fourth of all Allied casualties. DeGaulle's Free French established their headquarters in North Africa, received tanks, planes and equipment from the U.S., and provided several hundred thousand troops who fought in Italy and France.

Air power

A major lesson learned in Operation Torch was the most effective use of air power as a an offensive weapon.[1] One of Ike's corps commanders, General Lloyd Fredendall, had control of most of the air power and used his planes as a "combat air patrol" that circled endlessly over his front lines ready to defend against Luftwaffe attackers. Like most infantrymen, Fredendall assumed that all assets should be used to assist the ground forces. (More concerned with defense than attack, Fredendall was soon replaced by Patton.) Likewise the Luftwaffe made the mistake of dividing up its air assets, and failed to gain control of the air or to cut Allied supplies. The RAF in North Africa, under General Arthur Tedder, concentrated its air power and defeated the Luftwaffe. The RAF had an excellent training program (using bases in Canada), maintained very high aircrew morale, and inculcated a fighting spirit. Senior officers monitored battles by radar, and directed planes by radio to where they were most needed. The RAF's success convinced Eisenhower that its system maximized the effectiveness of tactical air power; Ike became a true believer. The point was that air power had to be consolidated at the highest level, and had to operate almost autonomously. Brigade, division and corps commanders lost control of air assets (except for a few unarmed little "grasshoppers," used to spot artillery; the AAF wanted no part of that subservient role.) With one airman in overall charge, air assets could be concentrated for maximum offensive capability, not frittered away in ineffective "penny packets." Eisenhower--a tanker in 1918 who had theorized on the best way to concentrate armor--recognized the analogy. Split up among infantry in supporting roles tanks were wasted; concentrated in a powerful force they could dictate the terms of battle.

The fundamental assumption of air power doctrine was that the air war was just as important as the ground war. Indeed, the main function of the sea and ground forces, insisted the air enthusiasts, was to seize forward air bases. Field Manual 100-20, issued in July 1943, became the airman's bible for the rest of the war, and taught the doctrine of equality of air and land warfare. The idea of combined arms operations (air, land, sea) strongly appealed to Eisenhower and MacArthur. Eisenhower invaded only after he was certain of air supremacy, and he made the establishment of forward air bases his first priority. MacArthur's leaps reflected the same doctrine. In each theater the senior ground command post had an attached air command post. Requests from the front lines went all the way to the top, where the air commander decided whether to act, when and how. This slowed down response time--it might take 48 hours to arrange a strike--and involved rejecting numerous requests from the infantry for a little help here, or a little intervention there.


North Africa helped shake down the American command system, made combat veterans out of recent civilians, taught the knack of complex amphibious landings, taught Americans how to use their air power, and reaffirmed the vital importance of logistics. Laymen speak of strategy; generals speak of logistics. The Americans in Tunisia needed 300 tons of supplies a day --a point brought home when the first train to arrive at Beja with vitally needed food brought 18 tons of peanut butter and two cases of pineapple juice. American soldiers had learned the importance of terrain, of combined arms, of aggressive patrolling, of stealth, of massed armor. They now knew what it was like to be bombed, shelled, and machine-gunned and fight on.

The spirit of Allied cooperation was fairly good. Eisenhower said his staffers could call each other bastards, but if they cursed a "British bastard" they would be sent home immediately. Even so one of his top generals, Omar Bradley, thought the British were amateur strategists (because they lacked the sort of staff schools that Bradley himself had commanded at Fort Benning.) Alexander and Montgomery, on the other hand, decided that their Brits were better fighters than the inept GIs, and they themselves were superior practical strategists.

See also


  1. Michael Bechthold, "A Question of Success: Tactical Air Doctrine and Practice in North Africa, 1942-43," The Journal of Military History, Vol. 68, No. 3 (Jul., 2004), pp. 821-85 in JSTOR