Once the United States entered World War II in the wake of the 7 December 1941 Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the German declaration of war on 10 December, President Franklin Roosevelt was anxious to begin operations against the Axis powers. At the Atlantic Conference the previous August, he and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed that if and when the United States became engaged in the war, Hitler’s Germany would be the primary enemy, no matter who else became involved. Soviet foreign minister Molotov also urged rapid American action, hoping to get early relief from the Nazi invasion of his country. Roosevelt was anxious to commit troops before the end of 1942, but could not agree with the British on the target. Britain balked at the idea of an early invasion of France, afraid of the consequences if it failed. They preferred an assault on northwestern Africa to aid their campaign against German and Italian troops. Most American planners disagreed with the idea, but when an invasion of France was definitely rejected, they reluctantly accepted. The operation was codenamed Torch.
Before the invasion could begin, two major questions had to be answered. The first: Where should the landings take place? British planners wanted landings that would quickly seize Tunis and Bizerta, the major German supply points in Tunisia; therefore, landings should take place as far east along the Algerian coast as possible. The Americans thought that idea too risky. Without a strong hold on the area around Gibraltar, Spanish air forces or Italian shipping might block that supply route and leave the landing forces cut off. An invasion on the Atlantic coast around Casablanca would provide the safest supply situation, the Americans argued. The main problem with that idea was that Tunis was more than a thousand miles away.
The second question: Would the defending French troops accept the orders of Marshal Petain in Vichy or aid the Free French movement led by Charles de Gaulle in London? The Allied planners did not want to kill French troops if they were going to cooperate, but they did not want to send troops ashore into stiff resistance if they were not. The American diplomatic representative in Algeria sounded out some friendly French officers, who asked for a meeting with a ranking American. General Mark Clark, second in command of the landing operation, went ashore in late September to assist the French with their decision. They would not totally commit to aiding the landings, partly because Clark would give them little or no solid information on when and where they would take place. Thus, when the troops went ashore, they were still unsure of their reception.
The Anglo-American planning staff finally chose to land at multiple sites, ranging from Casablanca on the Atlantic coast to Oran and Algiers along the Mediterranean coast. The French commanders onshore had been told that General Giraud, a well-known officer close to Petain but anti-German, would take command of French forces once the Americans landed. The units that landed on 8 November were either totally American or an Anglo-American mix, as the appearance of British units alone might not be acceptable to the French. The landings met sporadic resistance, but most of it was either token fighting to ensure the safety of officers’ families in France, due to slow communications concerning the landings, or because of the occasional pro-Vichy officer who wanted to fight. The ranking French officer in North Africa, Admiral Darlan, ordered all resistance to cease on 10 November. Darlan was given overall political command of the French forces and Giraud was to command the military, but Giraud took over complete control when Darlan was assassinated on Christmas Eve by an anti-Vichy gunman.
The landings were a complete success. Against scattered opposition, the Americans lost less than 2,000 men killed and wounded, and were in a strong position to begin advancing eastward to support the British, who were now driving German commander Erwin Rommel before them through Libya. The British forces involved in Operation Torch, the First Army, moved along the coast road while the Americans basically paralleled them to the south. Within three days after the original landings, the British captured Bougie (120 miles east of Algiers) and Bone (270 miles east of Algiers). On 17 November the British ran into serious German opposition at Tabarka, halfway from Bone to Tunis. Meanwhile, Rommel was in full retreat from Montgomery’s advance, but that actually helped the Germans by placing them closer to their supply bases, while the British moved farther away from theirs. In January heavy rains fell, which halted the British advance and gave Rommel time to reorganize. Pressed from east and west, he was able to use his interior lines of communication to quickly transfer troops from one front to the other, holding the British at the defensive lines he had built at Mareth while striking a devastating blow to the Americans at Kasserine Pass in mid-February.
It was not enough. The Americans recovered and won a clear victory at El Guettar, and the British flanked the Mareth Line at the end of March. Rommel became ill and left in March for Germany; he did not return. General von Armin, left in command, could do little more than delay the inevitable, and the British capture of Tunis and Bizerta in early May sealed the Germans’ and Italians’ fate. Many of them were able to withdraw from those ports before they fell, but some 250,000 Germans and Italians were taken prisoner, making the total North African loss to the Axis almost one million men over two years.
With all of North Africa in Allied hands, the next step was to decide where to go next. When Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt met in Casablanca in January 1943, they agreed on two things: The Allies would accept only unconditional surrender from the Axis powers, and the next offensive should be the invasion of Sicily. North Africa served only as a supply base for the rest of the war, and reverted to its prewar situation after 1945. France returned to Algeria and tried to reassert its authority after the fiasco with the Vichy government, but the seeds had long since been sown for an independence movement.
References: Brewer, William B., Operation Torch (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985); Gelb, Norman, Desperate Venture: The Story of Operation Torch (London: Hodder & Staughton, 1992); Howe, George E., Northwest Africa: Seizing the Initiative in the West (Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, 1957).