Operation Torch, 80 years later
On November 8, 1942, the Western Allies launched Operation Torch, landing in Vichy-controlled Morocco and Algeria to open a second front in World War II. The torch was a paradoxical act. The Allies won in just one week, but losses were relatively heavy as the action taught harsh lessons before the D-Day landings 18 months later.
french Soldier Louis Laplace described the shock Vichy forces when the Allies landed. “Suddenly the signals went off. I heard them for the first time in North Africa,” says a soldier of the anti-aircraft division of the Vichy troops. “A few minutes later we saw a plane flying low over the water, leaving a curtain of smoke. And then I realized that he is American.”
It british and: Americans had decided on the operation several months ago. Winston Churchill’s defense of the North African landings overcame widespread skepticism in Washington. Franklin D. Roosevelt embraced Churchill’s strategic vision, overriding his military staff.
Roosevelt wanted U.S. troops to be involved in a major operation against fascist Germany to “drown the popular clamor for action at home,” notes Richard Overy, professor of history at the University of Exeter and author of several books on World War II, including “Why did the Allies win?”‘. The US president “was also aware of America’s growing dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and Torch would be a way to get a foothold in an area close to oil,” Overy continued.
Torch was part of the culmination of the long campaign in North Africa, the dominant theater for the Western Allies at this point in the war. Britain won a series of resounding victories over fascist Italy in the desert, but was forced to retreat when Adolf Hitler brought in German troops under General Erwin Rommel to rescue the Italians.
Jah was then executed just before the British completed their remarkable victory at the Battle of El Alamein in Egypt on November 11, when Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s forces defeated Rommel’s Afrika Korps, a turning point for the Western Allies against Nazi Germany.
The Allies relied on local resistance to carry out the landings, however small. In Algeria, they were able to rely on a group of about 400 people Resistors which was formed after the fall of France in May 1940; french black legs In Algeria at the time, it mainly supported Vichy. The vast majority of the resistance group were young Jews who were horrified by the anti-Semitic actions of the Vichy regime. Among them was medical student José Abulker, who became the leader of the network in Algeria.
“A very tough fight”
With major contributions from the monarchist resistance fighter Henri d’Astier de la Vigerie, they provided “tactical information to facilitate the Anglo-American landing,” said French historian Tramor Coumeneur, author of the book. November 8, 1942, Resistance and Allied landings in North Africa (“November 8, 1942: The Resistance and the Allied Landings in North Africa”).
Torch was a massive logistical undertaking, deploying some 107,000 Allied troops (84,000 American and 23,000 British) as well as 110 transport ships. The High Command chose nine landing sites on the coast of North Africa. six in Morocco, three in Algeria.
A resistance of about 400 men in Algeria made it easy to put the Vichy forces out of action. They captured the strategic administrative and military centers of Algiers and arrested key military leaders, including Admiral François Darlan; General Alphonse Jouin, Commander-in-Chief of the Vichy French Army and Vichy forces in North Africa.
But elsewhere things were much more difficult for the Allies. Although resistance was brought down by the Vichy high command, around 500 American and British troops were killed.
“The fight was very hard,” observed Cumenor. Vichy officers benefited from some intelligence regarding the plan to land at Oran. In Morocco and at Oran on the Algerian coast, Vichy forces “were ordered to fight and they did,” says the French historian. By fighting the Allies directly, Vichy removed any hint of ambiguity about his pro-Nazi stance.
“The torch was a rather ill-fated operation, prepared in haste [inexperienced] US troops and very little equipment,” Overy said. “Success depended on Montgomery’s progress […] the desert and the assistance of British air force commanders for the combined and effective use of air power. Finally, German and Italian forces whitewashed British naval and air forces in the Mediterranean, encircling the Axis powers in Tunisia. However, it was a long learning curve for the Americans with no real experience to go on.”
Five days after Montgomery’s forces defeated Rommel in Egypt, the Allies defeated their opponents in Morocco and Algeria on November 16.
The Germans responded to the landings by occupying all of France on 11 November, not just the north and Atlantic coastline. In the south, the so-called Free Zone, administered by Vichy, no longer existed. Then on November 22, the Allies cemented their success in Operation Torch by signing a political and military cooperation agreement with Darlan when he switched sides.
As well as humiliating Vichy, Operation Torch led to a successful Italian campaign by the Western Allies, beginning with the Sicily landings in 1943. “The torch paved the way for the defeat of Benito Mussolini’s regime and the weakening of Axis power in the Mediterranean. Quemeneur remarked.
But unlike the Soviet victory at Stalingrad and the British victory at El Alamein, the Torch was not important enough to be a “pivotal moment” in the fight against Nazi Germany, says French historian Jean-Marie Guillon.
Finally, Nazi Germany was dealt a decisive blow by the Western Allies with the D-Day landings in 1944. “The only way to win the West was to invade Britain and win the Battle of the Atlantic,” Overy said. “Jah contributed very little to it, except to show how flawed the doctrine of amphibious warfare was and the need for very large improvements.”
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