Operation Torch: Striking Back in North Africa

By Donna K. Keesling

“You have embarked for distant places where the war is being fought.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote these words in a letter that was delivered to American soldiers as they prepared to storm the beaches of North Africa in November of 1942. The planned invasion of North Africa, known as Operation Torch, was heralded by the President and the nation as the country finally “striking back” against the Axis alliance during World War II.

In the summer of 1942, the British army suffered a tremendous defeat by the Germans at Tobruk in Libya. When asked “What can we do to help?” by President Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill requested that the United States send Sherman tanks to the Middle East. During this meeting, the two leaders also discussed a project that President Roosevelt had been considering – an invasion of French North Africa as an alternative to an attack on the European Continent. Roosevelt thought that an invasion of North Africa would be America’s first step towards defeating the Nazis.

President Roosevelt’s military advisors, Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Generals George C. Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower, favored a direct invasion of Europe from Great Britain. Ignoring their counsel, on July 30 President Roosevelt declared that an invasion of North Africa should take place at the earliest opportunity. A few weeks later, Dwight Eisenhower was named as commander of the operation.[1]

In 1942, the American public was discouraged by the lack of action in Europe and the troops were growing tired of waiting for their turn in the war. According to Doris Kearns Goodwin, with respect to the invasion of North Africa, Roosevelt was “thinking of the negative effect on the American soldiers and American people if there were no opportunity for U.S. ground troops to be brought into action against Germany in 1942.”[2]

The goals of Operation Torch included: disrupting Vichy French control of northwest Africa, opening the Mediterranean for Allied shipping, restoring French forces to the Allied cause, and taking pressure off the embattled Russians.[3]

The combined Anglo-American fleet for Operation Torch consisted of 350 warships and 500 transports, carrying approximately 107,00 troops. Three task forces were landed on the morning of November 8, 1942 – centered on Algiers, Oran, and Casablanca. The troops were intent on seizing the key ports and airports at these locations.

On the beaches east and west of Algiers, the Allied forces of the Eastern Task Force encountered little resistance. A French Resistance coup assisted by seizing key facilities, disabling shore batteries, and isolating Vichy leaders. There were losses when troops were landed directly on the docks in Algiers, however the Allied forces persisted and gained control of the city by evening. The Central Task Force, landing in Oran, encountered resistance from the Vichy French naval contingent. The next day, November 9, Oran surrendered. In Casablanca, the Allied troops faced greater challenges. The Western Task Force landed from many directions and by November 11 had encircled Casablanca. The Vichy fleet was mostly destroyed, but the American fleet also suffered losses from German U-boats. An agreement was reached by November 13 that “restored northwest Africa to Free French control and brought Vichy forces in Africa into the alliance.”[4]

When Roosevelt received a call on the evening of November 7 that the invasion had started, he announced to his guests at Shangri-la that the troops had landed in North Africa. He went on to say that “casualties are below expectations. We are striking back.”[5]

Although the military action was considered a success, there was political backlash when Admiral Jean-Francois Darlan, a former Nazi collaborator, was asked to take charge and persuade the local French forces to join the Allies. Darlan was denounced by General Charles de Gaulle and others in Europe. After a few days, President Roosevelt stated that the arrangement was only “a temporary expedient justified solely by the stress of battle.”[6]

Operation Torch holds a significant place in World War II history because it was the first major operation carried out by joint forces from the United States and Great Britain. In addition, it was the first significant offensive campaign in which the Americans were “striking back” in the European theater.

[1] Keith Huxen, “The US Invasion of North Africa.” The National WWII Museum New Orleans, January 9, 2018, https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/us-invasion-north-africa.

[2] Doris Kearns Goodwin, No Ordinary Time: Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 349.

[3] “Remembering Operation Torch: Allied Forces Land in North Africa during World War II,” American Battle Monuments Commission, November 8, 2017, https://www.abmc.gov/news-events/news/remembering-operation-torch-allied-forces-land-north-africa-during-world-war-ii.

[4] “Remembering Operation Torch: Allied Forces Land in North Africa during World War II.”

[5] Goodwin, No Ordinary Time, 388.

[6] Goodwin, 388.