November, 1942: North Africa Invasion Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

On December 11, 1941, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. Thereafter, the United States devoted its chief efforts to defeating its European enemies. Officers of the U.S. Army, however, disagreed with their British counterparts about how this aim should be accomplished. General George C. Marshall, chief of staff of the U.S. Army, wanted to build up air and ground forces in the British Isles and then launch a cross-channel invasion into France, aimed ultimately at Berlin. He hoped to be ready to invade late in 1942 and certainly by early 1943. The British leaders, especially Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill, favored a peripheral strategy designed to wear down Germany and Italy through air attacks and by striking at weak points on the frontiers of their empires. Churchill argued that only when the enemy was exhausted should the Allies cross the English Channel and confront the German army directly.

On December 11, 1941, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. Thereafter, the United States devoted its chief efforts to defeating its European enemies. Officers of the U.S. Army, however, disagreed with their British counterparts about how this aim should be accomplished. General George C. Marshall, chief of staff of the U.S. Army, wanted to build up air and ground forces in the British Isles and then launch a cross-channel invasion into France, aimed ultimately at Berlin. He hoped to be ready to invade late in 1942 and certainly by early 1943. The British leaders, especially Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill, favored a peripheral strategy designed to wear down Germany and Italy through air attacks and by striking at weak points on the frontiers of their empires. Churchill argued that only when the enemy was exhausted should the Allies cross the English Channel and confront the German army directly.

German field marshal Erwin Rommel in Libya. (National Archives)

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Marshall also believed that by concentrating on a cross-channel operation, they could achieve several objectives. First, the operation would satisfy the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin, who was pressuring the Allies for a second front in Europe, which would take pressure off the beleaguered Soviets. Second, such an attack would take the Germans by surprise and stimulate French resistance. In the long run, it was unrealistic to attack the powerful Germans on their home ground without preparation. The dangers of defeat were great, but it was imperative that the United States show its colors somewhere.

Roosevelt insisted that U.S. troops be in action against the Germans somewhere before the end of 1942. Invasion of France was not possible in 1942 because of a lack of landing craft and trained troops to staff them, so the Allies had to find an easier target. Churchill won the argument when the Allies decided that French North Africa was ideal for invasion. There were no German troops in that area, and it was probable that the Vichy French forces (set up as part of the French puppet state after France had surrendered to the Germans in June, 1940) would put up only token resistance against British and U.S. invaders.

At the other end of the North African landmass, the British Eighth Army was fighting General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. An Allied landing in French North Africa would relieve the pressure on the British in Egypt and, it was hoped, make it possible to force the Germans out of North Africa altogether. Allied possession of North Africa would free the Mediterranean Sea for British shipping, so that oil from the Near East and supplies from India could come to the British Isles by the most direct route. Marshall argued that a landing in North Africa would delay an invasion of northern France by two years because of the drain on supplies, but Roosevelt overruled him.

Preparations

The planning for the invasion, called Operation Torch, proved to be difficult. The United States preferred simultaneous landings in Morocco and Algeria, while the British wanted the operation to focus on the Algerian coastline alone. Both sides had good reasons. The United States wanted a foothold in Morocco, near Casablanca, if things went poorly in Algeria. Casablanca also would give the Allies a port that would not be subject to Axis air attacks. On the other hand, the British argued that if the landings did not include eastern Algeria, the Germans and Italians could quickly occupy all of Tunisia, using it as a base for air attacks and for a solid defensive position that would take many Allied lives to reduce.

By the end of August, the plans were in place, and General Dwight D. Eisenhower was firmly entrenched as the overall commander of the operation. In October, 1942, Major General Mark Clark and diplomat Robert Murphy were sent on a secret mission into North Africa to gauge the sentiments of the French forces there. Clark and Murphy ran head-on into French politics in North Africa. One problem was deciding which French general would lead the defection from Vichy and from collaboration with the Axis. It was clear that the maverick French general Charles de Gaulle would be unacceptable to French military leadership in North Africa. Admiral Jean Darlan, commander in chief of Vichy forces, was suspect because of his previous support for Vichy. It was agreed that General Henri-Honoré Giraud would announce the landings and order Vichy troops not to resist the Allies. In another undercover operation, Giraud was brought to Gibraltar to confer with Eisenhower on the eve of the invasion. In the long run, Giraud’s selection did not settle French political problems in North Africa.

First Landings

In the early morning of November 8, 1942, Eisenhower’s troops landed at Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers. General Giraud’s orders not to resist too often were ignored by French officers unaware of Giraud’s new role in French North Africa, and the aged Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain, head of the Vichy government, ordered his forces to resist. Eisenhower, contacting Admiral Darlan, arranged for Darlan to assume control of French North Africa and then order his troops to cease fire preparatory to a later attack on the Germans. The U.S. press criticized Eisenhower for coming to terms with a pro-Fascist, but Churchill and Roosevelt supported him, especially when Eisenhower explained that the deal was necessary to avoid fighting the French and to begin the real job of fighting the Germans.

In November and early December, Eisenhower made a dash for Tunis, hoping to seize that port before the Germans could pour troops into Tunisia. Rain, superior German tank tactics, and German air superiority stalled his offensive before it reached its objective. The British Eighth Army, under General Bernard L. Montgomery, was driving Rommel back. By February, 1943, Rommel had crossed Libya and reached southern Tunisia. He then turned against Eisenhower’s troops and inflicted a sharp blow on them at Kasserine Pass. The Allies, however, were building up their forces, while the Germans received no significant reinforcements. By May 13, the last resistance had ended, and Eisenhower had captured nearly three hundred thousand prisoners in Tunisia.

Despite his lack of combat experience, General Dwight D. Eisenhower was made overall commander of the Allied invasion of North Africa and he was later elevated to supreme commander of all Allied forces in the European theater of the war. (National Archives)

British field marshal Bernard Montgomery. (National Archives)

As Marshall had feared, the large troop commitment to North Africa made a cross-channel invasion in 1943 impossible. Because the troops and landing craft were already in the Mediterranean, they had to be used there. Despite Marshall’s concerns, Operation Torch did have a number of beneficial results. First, it established Eisenhower as a military planner and as an officer who could be diplomat as well as warrior. Second, it gave Eisenhower’s staff valuable training in planning and executing a complex mission that involved air, land, and sea components. Third, Operation Torch and subsequent fighting in North Africa allowed U.S. Army troops to train in realistic conditions. Fourth, Operation Torch was carried out successfully less than one year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, thereby showing the U.S. resilience, resolve, and combat potential.

On July 10, 1943, Anglo-American forces invaded Sicily, and the Allies soon captured the island. The fall of Sicily and the Allied bombing of Rome led to the downfall of the Italian head of government, Benito Mussolini, on July 25, 1943, and ultimately to an Italian surrender. Before the negotiations could be planned, however, the Germans had occupied the country. In September, U.S. troops invaded Italy. The progress of the Allied forces up the peninsula was slow; not until June 4, 1944, did the U.S. Fifth Army liberate Rome. The campaign that began with the invasion of North Africa had accomplished much, principally the freeing of the Mediterranean Sea and the elimination of Italy from the war.

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