"The job I am going on is about as desperate a venture as has ever been undertaken by any force in the world's history." - General S. Patton, Jr. (Gelb, p. 15)
The job that General Patton was talking about was Operation Torch, which was the Allied invasion of North Africa that began in the early hours of November 8, 1942. Plans of the operation began in the spring and summer of 1942 between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The two leaders, however, disagreed on where the operation would commence. Roosevelt, along with General Eisenhower, wanted to open a "second front" to help relieve the Russians who were bitterly defending their homeland against the invading Germans on the Eastern front. Roosevelt wanted a cross-channel invasion of northwest France and strike quickly so as to avoid a long drawn out war with Germany. Churchill, on the contrary, was opposed to a cross-channel invasion because he felt the Germans were too heavily fortified to make a cross-channel invasion successful. Churchill proposed that the Allies take a less direct attack and invade North Africa instead. This, Churchill thought, would put pressure on Rommel and if successful in pushing him out, North Africa would provide a solid base for the Allies to invade southern Europe, possibly southern France or Italy. The two leaders had many arguments over the final plans of the operation, but finally, on July 22, 1942, Roosevelt caved in and Churchill got what he wanted, an invasion of North Africa. As the historian, William Breuer points out in his book, Operation Torch: The Allied Gamble to Invade North Africa, "After four days of intense talks, the British carried the ramparts; on July 22, the Americans ran up the flag of surrender. French Northwest Africa, not northwest France, would be the locale of the Allied blow to relieve the pressure on the Russian army. The Mediterranean operation would be code named Torch... Torch was the brainchild of Winston Churchill and Alan Brooke, and they were delighted over acceptance of their strategic plan." (Brueuer, p. 7).
By the end of the summer, plans were finalized. Preparations of supplies, ships, carriers, ammunition, air power, and men had begun. It was decided that there would be three main landings. One was the city of Algiers, in which the Eastern Task Force would land and secure. The second was the port city of Oran, in which Center Task Force would take. Last, headed by General Patton, was the Western Task Force in which would land in Morocco and secure the city of Casablanca. Patton's Task Force was the only one that left from the United States. The other Task Force's left from England. Patton's would travel across the entire Atlantic in the midst of many lurking German U-boats and land near Casablanca.
The biggest problem facing the Allies, on the other hand, was the French in Northwest Africa. French Northwest Africa was still in colonial possession of the French and many were still loyal to the Vichy French government. It was a very real possibility that the French military in Northwest Africa would resist the Allied invasion. Robert Browning also points out in his article on operation Torch that a very large part of the success of the operation hinged on the French. In his article he stated, "The colonial possessions of France, however, remained free but still semi-loyal to France...their potential opposition to the Allied landing posed a grave threat to the success of the operation."
The Allies tried to get French four-star general Henri Giraud who was in North Africa to make the French military in North Africa to let the invasion commence without any resistance. This proved to be futile because when Giraud met Eisenhower at Torch's headquarters at Gibraltar on November 7, the French general refused to give the order to his military to cease all resistance unless he commanded the invasion. Of coarse Eisenhower was not receptive to that bargain and did not give in to the French general's wish. As H-hour was rapidly approaching, the Allies were still in the dark as to whether or not the French would resist.
For the most part the French in Algiers and Oran capitulated. They showed some pockets of resistance and inflicted some damage, but both cities were captured relatively easily. General Patton's Task Force however, faced stiff resistance by the French who were ordered by Henri Pétain, the puppet Vichy French leader in Southern France, to resist at all costs. Patton's force made three separate landings. One landing was codenamed Operation Blackstone commanded by General Ernest Harmon which would land near the port of Safi, one hundred forty miles southwest of Casablanca. The second landing, Operation Goalpost was commanded by Major General Lucian Truscott Jr., which had the mission of seizing the strategic port Lyautey, sixty miles northeast of Casablanca. The third landing, operation Brushwood in which Patton was commanding, would land at Fedala, a small port eighteen miles northeast of Casablanca.
Operation Blackstone did not start off smoothly. At 12:20 a.m., on November 8th, General Harmon sent a few scouts in a rubber boat to mark the Safi Harbor for the cargo carrier landing crafts to easily find the harbor. The French were already alerted to the attack and began firing on the scouts. Harmon ordered his men to press on in the midst of French machine gun fire. Harmon himself stayed back awaiting to hear the outcome of the landing. At daylight, Harmon had learned the troops had made it to shore. He then went to shore to find his troops taking cover on the beach from French snipers. Most of his troops had never seen combat before and were frightened. Harmon took control of the situation and flushed out the snipers. The resistance was not over, however. Harmon had learned that more than seventy trucks of French soldiers were on their way to help resist the invasion. Harmon had reached the aircraft carrier Santee by radio and within minutes, fighters from the Santee were flying overhead to knock out the French trucks. They were successful and the trucks and soldiers were destroyed. There was more resistance by the French on the beaches, but Harmon and his troops were able to overcome it and secure the port of Safi.
Operation Goalpost, as did Blackstone, did not start out well. General Truscott had the objective to not only seize the port of Lyautey, but also to secure the strategic airport located three miles north of Lyautey. General Truscott had also sent out scouts to look at the beaches for any enemy who might resist. His scouts had flashed him a grave signal. Truscott's worst fear had come true in the early hours of attack--the enemy somehow know about the invasion and were alerted to their coming. As Pierre Comtois points out in his article in World War II magazine, "Truscott wrestled with the knowledge that the most ambitious combined-arms operation in history had been discovered by the enemy in its climatic hour." (Comtois, p.54). Truscott's original plan was to land four battalions at five different points along the shore at precisely 4:00 a.m. Once the troops were ashore, a special unit of seventy five men would detach and secure the airfield. But this plan would be delayed because once they had reached the beach, they were unsure of their precise wherabouts. To make matters worse, the rest of the troop convoys had not arrived at the meeting point, and ship-to-ship radios were not working. Gradually the convoys made it to the rendezvous point but not on time. As a result, Truscott had to delay H-hour by a half an hour. Meanwhile, President Roosevelt was unaware of the delay and at the precise time Truscott's troops were supposed to be hitting the beaches at Lyautey, the president issued a warning over the radio to the French to capitulate. This message fully alerted the French defenders of the impending invasion and they were completely ready for it. On all five points, as the Americans were landing on the beaches, they were hit by artillery and machine gun fire by the French. It went from bad to worse. Many battalions, quads, and platoons missed their planned point of landing, communication was down, important convoys with ammuniction and supplies did not arrive on time and mass confusion occurred. Many of the troops were bogged down right away because of lack of experience. In fact, in the confusion, American antiaircraft guns shot down a British reconossaince plane. Truscott made it to shore and rallied the troops. They gradually secured the beaches but faced the daunting task of attacking the Casbah, a heavily fortified French concrete fortress a little ways inland from the beach. Truscott's troops had to quickly take cover because of French snipers in the fortress. Bogged down, tired, and unsure of success, General Truscott waited outside the fortress for reinforcemens. His reinforcements finally came with the help of Wildcat fighter-bombers that destroyed the Casbah's gates. Truscott's troops stormed the fortress and the remaining two hundred and fifty French soldiers inside surrendered. After the fall of the Casbah, special units were successful in capturing the strategic airfield as well. Port Lyautey had fallen in American hands and Operation Goalpost was successful.
Meanwhile, eighteen miles northeast of Casablanca, Operation Brushwwood, commanded by Major General Jonathan Anderson and overall commanded by General Patton, started off with severe problems as well. Anderson's battalion had lost communication during the landing and the armoured transports were late in coming. The troops quickly became bogged down and 'green' troops were frightened in their first combat situation. French mortar and artillery fire forced American troops to dig foxholes and take cover. After escaping a naval battle offshore, Patton make it to the beach by daybreak on November 8th. Patton was furious at the chaos and disorganization on the beachhead. He quickly took control and by mid afternoon he had established order. The landings were going smoothly, communications had been restored, and the beachhead at Fedala had been secured. As Martin Blumenson pointed out in his book Patton, "Patton's personal effort had 'a touch of magic.'" (Blumenson, p.170). By November 10, Patton had his units encircled around Casablanca and he had planned to attack the city at dawn. An hour before the assault was scheduled to take place however, French leaders in the city ordered a cease fire and surrendered. Patton entered Casablanca without opposition and the city was now in American hands. The Allies also secured Algiers as well as the port of Oran. Operation Torch proved to be an overwhelming success.
In conclusion, Operation Torch gave the Allies many advantages. With General Montgomery and the British to the east of Tunisia and now the U.S. to the west, Torch allowed the Allies to sandwich Rommel in Tunisia. This proved to be vital because the Allies eventually surrounded and defeated Rommel in the battle of Tunisia in the summer of 1943. This in turn gave the Allies a solid base in which they would use later to invade Sicily and Italy. Torch also marked, up that time, the largest amphibious operation in the history of warfare. More importantly, it marked the first big success of the war for the Allies, boosting morale and turning the tide of the war in favor of the Allied powers.
Blumenson, Martin. Patton: The Man Behind the Legend 1885-1945. New York: William Morrow and Company Inc., 1985.
Breuer, William. Operation Torch: The Allied Gamble to Invade North Africa. New York: St. Martins Press, 1985.
Browning, Jr., Robert M. "Operation Torch: The Coast Guard and the Invasion of North Africa," U.S. Coast Guard, July 2000.
Comtois, Pierre. "First Fire of Operation Torch," World War II Magazine. November 1996, Volume II, Issue 4, p. 54.
Gelb, Norman. Desperate Venture: The Story of Operation Torch, The Allied Invasion of North Africa. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1992.