The 8th November 2019 marks seventy-seven years since the launch of Operation Torch, the campaign to chase the Axis powers from the African Continent, forcing them to retreat into Southern Europe.
British forces had spent two strenuous years battling Rommel’s Afrika Korps, as well as Italian forces, across the deserts of Libya and Egypt, who were at that time in retreat following defeat at the second battle of El Alamein in Egypt.
In other campaigns, the British had successfully captured Iraq and liberated French Syria in 1941, dealing a crippling blow to Axis influence in the Middle East (although London was much closer to Berlin than Damascus). In addition, the Allies orchestrated a coup in Iran to open up the Persian Corridor in order to provide desperately needed supplies to the Russians.
Since the beginning of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, the Soviet Army faced annihilation after annihilation; at Minsk, Ukraine and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). In under six months, the Germans had managed to march all the way to the gates of Moscow. By 1942 the tide had not yet turned on the Germans in the East, as they were successfully cutting through the South of the Soviet Union like a knife through butter- in order to capture vital oil supplies.
By the time of Operation Torch, the Red Army had retreated to the Caspian Sea, attempting to repel the Germans along the Volga river and the Caucasus Mountains. To relieve his forces, Stalin demanded the Western Allies unlock a second front, with the Allies agreeing – but the question was where?
The western Allies had been scheming. Churchill asserted that Hitler’s ‘Atlantic Wall’, constructed after the fall of Western Europe to prevent an Allied landing, was unbreakable and indeed it was (for now). Instead they chose a much easier target; the cities of Casablanca, Oran and Algiers, all situated on the West African coast.
Rather than facing highly trained divisions of Wehrmacht forces armed with machine guns behind barbed wire and sea mines wrapped around the coast of France, the Allies elected to face the inferior forces of Vichy France in Africa. Even though they pledged loyalty to Hitler and the Nazis, there was some hope that the Vichy French leaders could be persuaded to surrender without a shot being fired, with negotiations between the Allies and Vichy officials already underway when the landings took place. Even if they didn’t yield immediately, the Vichy defences dotted around the African coast appeared laughable three years into a total war.
On the 8th November 1942, American and British forces successfully landed at three points and began the charge inland. Whilst the ideal outcome of an immediate Vichy French surrender did not occur, their forces were swept aside without much difficulty, like particles of dust being swept from the floor. On the 10th November, the Allies had liberated Casablanca and in under a week, had stretched all the way to the Tunisian border.
The Germans and Italians suddenly found themselves cornered by Montgomery’s forces in the East and the fresh-off-the-boat American and British troops in the West. Rommel knew the game was up, but how long could he contain the Allied advancement before the remnants of his army were drowned in the Mediterranean Sea? The Axis powers were rapidly losing land in North Africa, becoming trapped in Tunisia by the New Year.
In battling the Germans in North Africa, the US forces discovered how unprepared they were when facing this formidable foe, causing some US commanders to relinquish their fantasises about the Atlantic Wall crumbling in a 1942 seaborne invasion. Nevertheless, the Anglo-American armies brought about a full surrender of the Afrika Korps on the 7th May 1943, paving the way for an amphibious invasion of Sicily and onto the Italian mainland, in turn forcing the Italians to capitulate.
Operation Torch was America’s first encounter with the Wehrmacht after all; the fighting in North Africa proved to be an adequate training ground for fighting the Nazis in Italy, France, Belgium and eventually, Germany itself. Operation Torch was the spark that generated the engulfing firestorm, wielded by the Allies, to burn the Axis out or use the smoke of battle to suffocate them into submission. Operation Torch paved the way for creating the second front which Stalin craved. Whilst the initial invasion did not succeed in redirecting troops from the East (Hitler had an obsession with Russia stemming from his dreams of Lebensraum), the surrender of Italy finally compelled Hitler to reinforce his Southern front.
Symbolically, Operation Torch was important in that it was the first occurrence in the war where the Allied powers took the fight to the Nazis rather than being on the defensive against Hitler’s Blitzkrieg- the Nazis had an insatiable appetite, treating mainland Europe like an all-you-can-eat-buffet. Anytime the Allies came to the aid of a German target – be it Greece or Norway – the Allies were chased out. Now the Allies were biting back, leading to the Axis being expelled from those occupied territories.
Strategically, Operation Torch was vital for the preparation of D-Day. One of the many logistical problems facing the Allies in 1944 was how to keep the troops supplied with ammunition and food, after a beach head in Normandy had been secured. This issue was spotted during Operation Torch when transport ships, that had been carrying supplies and troops, ran into difficulty in the shallow waters off the coast of Oran. Extensive geographical research conducted on the Normandy coast in the coming years highlighted this, showing failure to overcome this one issue would lead to the inevitable downfall of Operation Overlord.
Would the Western Allies have studied the tides of the Channel so intently if not for realising their error a couple of years back? Probably – but who wants to gamble with history ‘what ifs’? Following Operation Torch, the Nazis were too measuring the tide; the tide of war, and uncovered that the tide was turning against them. In early 1943, the German Army was also beginning to fold in the East (but that is a story for another time).
Photo from history.navy.mil