NORTH AFRICA - 8th to 12th Nov 1942
Operation Torch - the invasion of North Africa. Churchill and his military advisers where concerned to remove the Vichy French authorities from the territories they controlled on the North African coast before they fell into German hands. Torch was an American led operation under Eisenhower with substantial UK support.
The Allies decided to occupy Vichy French controlled North Africa thus denying the territory to the Axis forces. Churchill and his Combined Operations planners were closely involved with the Americans in working out the details of Operation Torch. There were many differences of opinion about timing, landing locations and the perceived reaction of the Vichy French forces to American as opposed to British forces. Churchill, however, accepted that TORCH was an American run project and he telegraphed President Roosevelt; 'In the whole of TORCH, military and political, I certainly consider myself your lieutenant, asking only to put my viewpoint plainly before you.'
On 1st November 1942, the Naval Commander-in-Chief, the Allied Expeditionary Force, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, Bart, GCB, reached the fortress of Gibraltar in the cruiser Scylla. Fours days later, Cunningham was joined by his Supreme Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had flown from England in a B-17 bomber through fog and rain. The Expeditionary Force headquarters, complete with joint Navy/Air Force operations room, were located in the old tunnels built into the Rock itself. They were airless, dank and dripping but completely immune to any bombardment. Only three days remained until the Allies launched the largest combined amphibious operation in the history of the warfare. Eisenhower considered the operation to be 'an undertaking of a quite desperate nature.'
After he left the Mediterranean Fleet Cunningham proved himself at the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Washington. He handled himself well and won the respect of Admiral Ernest King, probably one of the rudest commanders in the whole war. King was an Anglophobic, an attitude that was prevalent in the United States in the early 1920s.
Cunningham was asked privately by Eisenhower's Chief of Staff if he would be willing to serve as Naval C-in-C. Not wishing to put himself forward for the post he reported this to the First Sea Lord and said he 'would be most willing to serve.' In fact Cunningham had had enough of the committees and cocktail parties of Washington and he yearned to get back to fighting the war. He persuaded The First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, that the proposed three separate Naval C-in-Cs for (1) the battle-fleet (2) the expeditionary force and (3) Gibraltar was unworkable and convinced him to support a single overall Naval C-in-C. It was a key contribution to Eisenhower's novel design for an integrated Allied command structure. On August 14 Cunningham was formally appointed Allied Naval Commander, Expeditionary Force (ANCXF) with Vice-Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay as his Deputy. His Chief of Staff was Commodore R.M. Dick.
Eisenhower himself had never before commanded a major operation of war and was about to receive a baptism of fire. Apart from all the usual operational hazards there were other considerations for him to deal with. Would the Vichy French, whose territories the Allied force would invade, co-operate or resist?.... and what of the neutral Spain immediately north of Gibraltar? If it sided with Germany it could unleash its fury against the exposed airstrip and crowded anchorage at Gibraltar. These were major uncertainties but Eisenhower drew strength from the unflaggingly optimistic Naval C-in-C, Cunningham.
Ramsay had been responsible for the naval side of contingency planning for 'Sledgehammer,' the 1942 plan for limited re-entry to Continental Europe, and he had participated in a two-day tri-service study period on the operational problems of a large-scale opposed landing on the Cotentin peninsula (Normandy). It was Ramsay who took up the awesome responsibility of organising and running the vast naval movements required for TORCH. Cunningham did not finally return from Washington until mid-October apart from a twelve-day visit to England in September.
This time the Navy got it right. Ramsay planned everything while Cunningham gave him direction and the authority required to get things done. Certain prerequisites were laid down. Only troops trained in landings would go ashore. Only sailors trained in operating landing craft would carry the troops and their equipment ashore and only craft suitable for the purpose would be used. The Allies had the equipment, techniques and training to rehearse for the eventual invasion of Europe but this was, for the moment, a distant prospect. Most of the issues had been addressed prior to the war, spurred on by the Japanese invasion of China in 1937. The agency responsible for most of this endeavour was disbanded at the outbreak of the war and, in the haste and muddle of Norway, the rules and operations carefully laid down by the I.S.T.D.C. (Inter-Service Training and Development Centre) were completely ignored and would be again at Dakar. They would however be fully implemented for the first time in TORCH.
In January 1941 a Combined Training Centre was created under Captain J. Hughes-Hallett at Inveraray, Argyll, Scotland and another at Kabrit in Egypt in the canal zone. By February, no fewer than 5000 officers and ratings had been assigned to the manning of landing craft. This new role for the Royal Navy was somewhat disdained by the sea-going Navy who saw it as an undesirable diversion in their traditional career paths. Most were desperate to get back to sea duty. The initial training was hard, rigorous and realistic since it was essential that the landing craft crews were thoroughly proficient before they worked with soldiers on joint exercises. This was essential if the Army was to retain its traditional unquestioning faith in the Royal Navy's seamanship. The naval beach parties were selected and trained particularly carefully for theirs was the job of going ashore with the first assault wave and organizing the orderly flow of men and stores into the beachhead.
In October 1941 Roger Keyes was replaced as the head of Combined Operations by Commodore Lord Louis Mountbatten. By the spring of 1942 Combined Operations had a virtual monopoly in the skills of amphibious command and this, together with Mountbatten's proven ability and diplomatic approach, led to his promotion to Vice-Admiral and to his appointment to the Chiefs of Staff Committee. These changes finally gave the command a seat at the very centre of power. Throughout 1942 the command's resources swelled under a massive expansion programme in preparation for the eventual invasion of Europe. In the spring of that year Mountbatten put into operation the conversion of an Armed Merchant Cruiser to act as a Headquarters ship for the landings. The Bulolo was the first, soon followed by the Largs, a former French Liner. Most of these developments were paralleled in the Untied States. The American's would employ them in both the Pacific and European conflicts although the they did not recognise the need for a headquarters ship until Torch had proved the accuracy of I.S.T.D.C.'s predictions on the need.
Throughout the first three years of the war Britain learned many painful lessons about amphibious landings notably from Dieppe. The plan for the invasion of North Africa identified the first three assault locations as Philippeville and Bone, Casablanca, and Oran and Algiers. However, limited resources and the Americans' inability to supply sufficient ships for the landings, threatened to restrict the assault to Philippeville and Bone in the east of Algeria. Washington however took the view that the landings in Morocco should go ahead at the cost of all others, except Oran. This effectively removed the option of capturing Tunis with the aim of denying it to the Axis forces. Tunis was vital in restricting the Axis supply lines. If it fell to Rommel, the Axis forces would soon out-supply and outgun the Allies on both fronts. On the 5th of September 1941 the final compromise was reached after much negotiation for three landings at Casablanca, Algiers and Oran.
The landing forces were divided into:
All these commanders reported directly to Eisenhower.
The Naval Task forces were:
All three Naval Task Forces were under the direct command of Admiral Cunningham.
The Air operations were divided into two areas:
Final operational orders were issued between the 3rd and 20th October 1942 in eight parts
for the naval operation
To ensure the ships arrived on time in the assembly area at Gibraltar Admiral Ramsay, the author of the plan, issued Ton 2 with carefully calculated tables of convoy routes complete with lettered routing positions.
The first convoys left the Clyde on 2nd October. The first troop convoy left on 22nd October with others following on 26th October and 1st November. The last convoy was due in Gibraltar on the 4th November. The covering warships left their respective bases between the 20th and 30th October. The concern over U boat attacks didn't materialise since their command in Germany failed to realise the significance of the convoys despite spotting two leaving their bases. At this critical time in the Mediterranean U-Boats were engaging a convoy en route from Sierra Leone to Britain... so they too missed the naval build-up.
As some 340 ships converged on Gibraltar the Allies had one last vain attempt to persuade the Vichy French to join the Allies or at least not interfere with the landings. On the 5th November the whole operation hung in the balance as the entire force passed through the Straits of Gibraltar in just 33 hours. This involved the smaller vessels diverting to Gibraltar and refuelling which demanded a flexible and fast refuelling programme.
On 7th November R.A.F. reconnaissance patrols commenced along a line between the east coast of Spain and the Bonifacio Strait (Between Sardinia and Corsica) in order to detect any threatening moves by the Italian fleet; and north and west of Dakar in French West Africa to give early warning of any northward move towards Admiral Hewitt's task force by French warships. All the while Coastal Command aircraft were flying anti-U-boat operations and reconnaissance sorties over Italian and French naval bases.
The Torch landings were opposed by Vichy French forces numbering 120,000 in French North Africa. They were mostly native rank and file with French Officers supported by 500 aircraft and a sizeable Naval fleet at Toulon. Their army and air force both suffered from obsolete equipment but the Navy posed a great threat in the collective mind of the Allied commanders. Its firepower could wreak havoc on any landing it chose to oppose. The Italian fleet also presented a threat but it suffered from low morale, irresolute leadership and a lack of fuel oil. Finally there was the Luftwaffe in Italy and North Africa which had the potential to inflict serious damage. Up to the 7th November the German Naval High Command still believed the TORCH armada was a Malta-bound convoy.
The Allied convoys came together at prearranged locations guided by infra-red signal beams from Royal Navy submarines.
At Algiers, Burrough put ashore the American 34th Infantry Division under Major-General Charles W. Ryder, one brigade of the British 78th Infantry Division, and No 1 and 6 Commandos. A second brigade of 78th Division acted as a floating reserve. The landing operations were directed jointly by Burrough, Ryder and Air Commodore G.M. Evelegh from the headquarters ship Bulolo. The Invasion plan was staged as two landings (A and B) west of Algiers, and one (C) to the east. (Photo courtesy of 'Mac' McCurdy shows a group of Americans attached to No 6 Commando. It was taken in North Africa probably in November or December of ’42. Four of them were volunteers from L Co of the 133rd regiment of the 34th “Red Bull” Infantry Division.)
In the last hour of 7th November, the landing forces were launched from their mother ships, in a moderate swell, a new moon and a westward current of about 4 knots. There were three sectors;
The only fighting took place within the port of Algiers itself when two destroyers attempted to put ashore a party of American infantry to prevent the French from scuttling ships and sabotaging the dock installations. Heavy shells badly damaged one destroyer but the second got through and disembarked her landing party. This destroyer was pounded severely by coastal defence batteries and field artillery for four hours before she was compelled to put to sea leaving 250 Americans on shore. She was sunk the next day under tow. From daylight on the 8th November the four carriers provided air cover over the invasion area while reinforcements swelled the lodgements. The spearheads quickly thrust inland despite resistance by a handful of forts and coastal defence batteries. At 1100 R.A.F. Hurricanes from Gibraltar flew into Maison Blanche airfield after its capture by the Americans. In the afternoon of the 8th General Ryder agreed a local cease-fire with General Juin who represented the absent Admiral Darlan who was in Algiers visiting a sick son.
The Eastern Sector was secured by the end of the day just as German bombers arrived to attack the shipping off the coast.
This badge, together with the Stars and Stripes of the USA was worn by RAF Servicing Commando Unit 3201 when part of Operation Torch near Algiers in North Africa. The American flag, about 3 inches by 5 inches, was worn by British forces to appease the French. The Combined Ops badge was about 2 and a half inches in diameter.
The Oran landings were directed by Commodore T. H. Troubridge, R.N., Major-General Llyod R. Fredenhall and Major-General James Doolittle (Commanding the Allied Western Air Command) on the Largs. The landings were supported by a battleship, three carriers, an anti-aircraft ship and nine destroyers acting as a covering force in the event of Italian Navy interference.
In the early hours of 8th November the weather at Oran was calm with good visibility. However, the westerly winds were having a disconcerting effect on the landings.
Here, as at Algiers, the landings were bloodily repulsed at the centre when HMS Walney and Heartland, flying under dual flags, attempted to land US Rangers in the harbour at Algiers. They broke through the harbour boom at 0310, but the Walney was reduced to a flaming hulk by a French sloop and crossfire from other vessels. She later sank. Heartland was shattered at point-blank range by a French destroyer after which three French destroyers put to sea in an attempt to engage the powerful covering force near the landings. Two of them quickly succumbed to the accurate fire of HMS Aurora. The sloop responsible for the sinking of HMS Walney, attacked the shipping off Y Sector but was sunk by HMS Brilliant. The remaining destroyer sortied out the following day with a second destroyer and were both driven ashore after being engaged by the Aurora and Jamaica.
Throughout the 9th November the French and Allied forces lobbed fire between the taskforce and the coast while French troops stoutly defended the approached to Oran. Aircraft from HMS Furious consisting of Seafires, Albacores and Sea Hurricanes, attacked two airfields destroying 70 aircraft. At noon that day Task Force Red from the Z sector beaches took Tafaraoui and 28 British and American Spitfires flew in shortly afterwards. The French Air Force attacked the last four aircraft with Dewoitine DW 250 fighters, shooting down one Spitfire for the loss of three aircraft. It was not until 1600 that the armour of Task Force Green from X Sector beaches fought through to take the second airfield at La Senia. Meanwhile, the American 1st Infantry was slowed by tough resistance at St Cloud on the road from Arzeu to Oran. It took a bombardment of the coastal batteries by Rodney, Aurora and Jamaica to bring about the final surrender of Oran to the Allies.
The other landings on the coast of Morocco were complicated by heavy Atlantic swells and fierce but short-lived fighting against the French Navy and Army. Casablanca fell early on 11th November. It is important to note that because of the lack of a headquarters ship at Casablanca, General Patton was helplessly carried away because the warship he was on was needed to repel a French naval attack just as he was about to go ashore.
Following the Allied capture of French North Africa a deal was struck with the highly influential Admiral Darlan who was recognized as High Commissioner for North Africa. All French North African territories (except Tunisia) aligned themselves to the Allied side, which included the French Naval base at Dakar and the powerful French Naval squadron stationed there. The terms were criticized in the House of Commons as having truck with a collaborator and thereby betraying the United Nations cause. However Eisenhower saw it only as a secure base to his rear relieving him of the need to provide precious troops for a full occupation of French North Africa.
This defection prompted Hitler to order German troops into the unoccupied zone of France. On 27th November the Germans attempted to seize the French fleet at Toulon, but as Darlan had promised in 1940, the fleet scuttled itself. In all one battleship, two battle-cruisers, four heavy and three light cruisers, 24 destroyers and sixteen submarines were placed beyond use.
The entire campaign to capture primary targets only took three days and was swiftly followed by the dispersal of the Allied fleet as the Royal Navy stripped its assets and redeployed them to the hard-pressed Atlantic convoy routes.
Bone was occupied on the 12th November in a joint operation by the British 3rd Parachute Battalion and the 6th Commando from two destroyers. By this time the Luftwaffe in Tunisia had reached a total of 81 fighters and 28 dive-bombers and there were a handful of parachute troops and panzer-grenadiers on the ground. Shortly afterwards JU-52s began landing troops at the rate of 750 a day and at sea armaments poured in including the formidable Tigers, the dreaded '88' anti-aircraft/anti-tank gun, field artillery and transport poured in despite interference from the Maltese based British aircraft and submarines.
On the 16th November, General Nehring arrived to command the defence of Tunisia. With logistics problems choking the Allied army, under the British General Kenneth Anderson, the Germans gained valuable time. By the 22nd November, Anderson's 1st Army was ready to launch a major assault on Tunis but by then the German/Italian forces were strong enough to defeat it. December rains turned the roads and tracks into a quagmire forcing the postponement of a planned renewed Allied offensive. There was stalemate. On the 8th December General von Arnim replaced Nehring but both sides failed to break the stalemate.
Mk1 and MK2 Landing Craft (known at the time as Lighters) formed the Western Desert Lighter Force operating from the days of Wavell to Operation Torch, along the coast of North Africa as well as elsewhere in the Eastern end of the Mediterranean. A website written by Alan Impey who served on the craft.
Use of Early Radar on Operation Torch Secrets and personal recollections of World War II by Gardner L. Friedlander.
HMS Walney and HMS Hartland a bold attack on the boom defences at Oran.
Commandos 1940 - 1946 by Charles Messenger. Published by W Kimber, London 1985. ISBN 0 7183 0553 1
The Watery Maze by Bernard Fergusson published 1961 by Collins.
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