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Operation Torch - the Invasion of North Africa.

8th to 12th November 1942

Operation Torch was the invasion of west North Africa to prevent the Germans taking control of the territories occupied by the French, then under the control of the Vichy French Government. 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.

[Map courtesy of Google Map Data 2017.]

There were many differences of opinion about timing, landing locations and the perceived reaction of the Vichy French forces to American and British forces. They were likely to react more favourably to the Americans and Churchill readily accepted that Operation Torch would be an American run project, as he confirmed in a message to 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.'

The Main Players

On 1st November 1942, the Naval Commander-in-Chief, Allied Expeditionary Force, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, Bart, GCB, reached the fortress of Gibraltar in the cruiser Scylla. Four 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, was located in old tunnels inside the Rock itself. The accommodation was airless, dank and dripping but completely immune to any bombardment. Only three days remained until the Allies launched the then largest combined amphibious operation in the history of warfare. Eisenhower considered the operation to be 'an undertaking of a quite desperate nature.'

[Photo; Packed Landing Craft Mechanised LCM 73 leaving the troop ship for shore. © IWM (A 12705A).]

After he left the Mediterranean Fleet, Cunningham proved himself at the Combined Chiefs of Staff meetings in Washington. He handled himself well and won the respect of Admiral Ernest King, who's reputation for rudeness was well known. King was an Anglophobic, an attitude of mind 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 Commander in Chief. Not wishing to put himself forward for the post, he reported this to the First Sea Lord, stating that he 'would be most willing to serve.' In fact Cunningham had had enough of the committees and cocktail parties of Washington and 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 RM Dick. 

Eisenhower had no experience of commanding a major operation of war and was about to receive a baptism of fire. There were tricky political considerations to consider in addition to the usual operational hazards. Would the Vichy French, whose territories the Allied force would invade, co-operate or resist? Would neutral Spain, immediately north of Gibraltar, side with Germany and if it did would it unleash its fury on the exposed airstrip and crowded anchorage at Gibraltar? These were troubling, major uncertainties but Eisenhower drew strength from the unflaggingly optimistic Naval C-in-C, Cunningham.

Plans & Preparations

Ramsay had been responsible for the naval side of contingency planning for 'Sledgehammer,' the 1942 plan for a limited invasion of 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).

[Photo; Troops and ammunition for light guns being brought ashore from a landing craft assault (ramped) (LCA 428) on Arzeau beach, Algeria, North Africa, whilst another LCA (LCA 287) approaches the beach. © IWM (A 12671).]

Cunningham did not finally return from Washington until mid-October, apart from a twelve-day visit to England in September. It was, therefore, Ramsay who took on the awesome responsibility of organising and running the vast naval movements required for Operation Torch.

The arrangements worked well. Ramsay planned everything with Cunningham providing direction and the authority required to get things done. Certain prerequisites were laid down. Only troops trained in amphibious 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 designed and developed the equipment, techniques and inter service training 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 preparatory endeavour was the Inter-Service Training and Development Centre (ISTDC). It was disbanded at the outbreak of the war and in the haste and muddle of the early raids on Norway in 1941, the principles and procedures, carefully laid down for combined operations, were completely ignored. The same principles and procedures had also been ignored in 1940, during the debacle of Operation Menace to capture the strategic port of Dakar in Africa. These past mistakes would not be repeated on Operation Torch.

In January 1941, a Combined Training Centre was established at Inveraray, Argyll, Scotland under the command of Captain J Hughes-Hallett and another at Kabrit in Egypt in the canal zone on the Bitter Lakes. By February, 5000 officers and ratings had been assigned to landing craft operations including seamanship. This new role for the Royal Navy was not embraced with any enthusiasm by the sea-going Navy, who viewed it as an unwelcome diversion in their traditional career paths. Most were desperate to get back to sea duty.

[Photo; American troops of the 34th Infantry Division landing on the beaches at Surcouf, twenty miles east of Algiers, 9 November 1942. Operation Torch signalled the American entry into the Mediterranean War. © IWM (NA 30).]

The initial training was rigorous and realistic to ensure the trainees were thoroughly proficient before they worked with soldiers on joint exercises. This was a necessary prerequisite to retain the Army's traditional unquestioning faith in the Royal Navy's seamanship. The naval beach parties were also trained to land with the initial assault troops and to organise the orderly flow of men, tanks, vehicles, armaments and stores across the beachhead in support of the advancing troops.

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, when he was appointment to the Chiefs of Staff Committee. These changes finally gave the Combined Operations Command a seat at the very centre of military power.

Throughout 1942, the Command's resources swelled under a massive expansion programme in preparation for the full scale invasion of Europe. As part of these preparations, in  the spring of that year, an Armed Merchant Cruiser, HMS Bulolo was converted to a Headquarters ship for the landings. It was the first, soon followed by the Largs, a former French Liner.

Most of these developments were paralleled in the United States and the Americans would employ them in both the Pacific and European conflicts, although they remained somewhat sceptical of the ISTDC's views on these matters, until Torch had proved their case.

When it came to amphibious raids and landings, many painful lessons were learned in the early years of the war, most notably from the ill fated raid on 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.

[Map courtesy of Google Map Data 2017.]

Political and military leaders in Washington, however, chose Morocco and Oran. This would leave Tunis vulnerable to occupation by the Axis forces giving them superior capability to supply and equip their armies 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.

Command Structure and Resources

The landing forces commanders, who reported directly to General Eisenhower, comprised:
Western Assault Force; Major-General George S Patton, 35,000 American troops. Objective, Casablanca in French Morocco.
Central Task Force; Major-General Lloyd R Fredendall, 18,500 American troops building up to 39,000. Objective, Oran.
Eastern Task Force; Lieutenant-General KAN Anderson, 20,000 troops in the first wave, half American and half British. Objective, Algiers.

The Naval Task forces commanders, who came under the direct command of Admiral Cunningham, comprised;
Western Naval Task Force; All United States Navy vessels comprising 3 battleships, 5 carriers, 7 cruisers, 38 destroyers, 8 fleet minesweepers, five tankers commanded by Rear Admiral H. Kent Hewitt with an accompanying Assault Force of 91 vessels including 23 'combat loaders' same as LSIs.

[Photo; The chiefs of the four services in conference in the operations room of HMS Bulolo, (L to R) Air Commodore Lawson, Major General C Ryder, Rear Admiral Sir Harold Burrough and Major General V E Evelegh. © IWM (A 12776).]

Central Naval Task Force; Under Commodore T H Troubridge with HMS Largs, 2 carriers, 2 cruisers, 2 anti-aircraft ships, thirteen destroyers, six corvettes, eight minesweepers and various ancillary craft, as well as the landing force.

Eastern Task Force; Under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir Harold Burrough with HMS Bulolo, 2 aircraft carriers, 3 cruisers, 3 anti-aircraft ships, a gun monitor, 13 destroyers, 3 submarines, 3 sloops, seven minesweepers and seven corvettes, as well as the landing forces.

The Air operations were divided into two areas:

Eastern Air Command; Everything east of Cape Tenez in Algeria, with British aircraft commanded by Air Marshal Sir William Welsh operating under the air and naval liaison system.

Western Air Command; Everything west of Cape Tenez in Algeria, with all American aircraft under Major-General James Doolittle, under the direct command of General Patton.

Final operational orders were issued between the 3rd and 20th October 1942, in eight parts, for the naval operation.
Ton 1 - issued 3rd October. Outlined the strategic plan.
Ton 2 - issued 8th October, detailed the routing and scheduling of convoys, escort and task forces outwards from Britain and the forward assembly area on the Bay of Algiers.
Ton 3 - issued 8th October, detailed the tactical instructions for the landings.
Ton 4 - issued 8th October, detailed submarine screens to cover the landings.
Ton 5 - 8, were issued over the remaining period and dealt with various redeployments and convoy arrangements to follow, once the initial lodgements had been won.

The Convoys

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 covering warships left their respective bases between the 20th and 30th October. The last convoy was due in Gibraltar on the 4th November.

[Photo; General view of convoy en route to Gibraltar. © IWM (A 12656).]

Anticipated U boat attacks didn't materialise in the early stages because their command in Germany failed to recognise the significance of the convoys, despite spotting two of them leaving their bases. Allied good fortune continued at this critical time for Operation Torch in the Mediterranean, when U-Boats were engaging a convoy en route from Sierra Leone to Britain in the Atlantic, so they too missed the naval build-up. However, on her third trip from the UK to North Africa, luck ran out for troop ship HMS Strathallan, when she was sunk by U562 on the night of 21/12/42.

As some 340 ships converged on Gibraltar, the Allies made a final attempt to persuade the Vichy French to join the Allies, or at least not to 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, during which the smaller vessels diverted to Gibraltar and refuelling, which demanded a flexible and fast refuelling programme.

On 7th November, RAF 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. Similar patrols were conducted to the 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.

In the event, the Torch landings in French North Africa were opposed by Vichy French forces, numbering 120,000, although the extent of resistance varied greatly in different locations. The opposing forces were mostly native rank and file under the command of French Officers, supported by 500 aircraft and a sizeable Naval fleet at Toulon. Much of the Vichy French army and air force equipment was dated if not obsolete but Allied commanders considered their Navy to be a great threat to the operation. Its firepower could wreak havoc on any landing it chose to oppose. The Italian fleet also presented a real threat but morale was poor and leadership irresolute, exacerbated by a lack of fuel oil. Finally, the Luftwaffe, in Italy and North Africa, had the potential to inflict serious damage at any stage in the operation. 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 GM Evelegh from the headquarters ship HMS Bulolo. The Invasion plan envisaged two landings, A and B, to the west of Algiers and C to the east.

[Photo; A night attack by enemy aircraft is met by a barrage of tracer shells from the guns of the convoy and escorting warships taken from HMS Bulolo off Algiers. © IWM (A 12756)]

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 'A' sector landing went according to plan with 7230 soldiers of the British 11th Infantry Brigade (78th Division) and a reconnaissance squadron. There was no French resistance.

  •  The 'B' sector landing consisted of Regimental Combat Teams of the American 34th Infantry Division and the British No1 and No 6 Commandos, 5420 strong in all, landing on five separate beaches. Some ships were pushed out of position by a force 3 breeze, resulting in modification to the disembarkation procedure. Some landed on the wrong beaches but there were no repercussions, since there was no French resistance; in fact, the French commander openly welcomed the invading forces. Fleet Air Arm aircraft secured the Blida airfields surrender at 0930 hours. 

  •  'C' sector fared the worst. There was fog over the beaches as 6000 soldiers of the 39th Regimental Combat Team of the 34th Infantry Division and five troops of Commandos landed. Thankfully, there was no resistance apart from a few rounds fired from a coastal defence battery, which was quickly silenced by the Commandos.

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.

[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.]

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, RAF Hurricanes from Gibraltar flew into the Maison Blanche airfield, which had been captured 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 his 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, RN, Major-General Llyod R Fredenhall and Major-General James Doolittle, Commanding the Allied Western Air Command on HMS 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.

[Map courtesy of Google Map Data 2017.]

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. 

  •  X Sector, some 30 miles west of Oran, was delayed by a French convoy passing through an area occupied by Allied minesweepers. They were clearing a channel for the landing forces of Task Force Green, comprising 2250 soldiers, tanks and trucks of the American 1st Armoured Division with a navy escort. The landings started at 0130 hours, half an hour behind schedule. The unexpected shallowness of the beach damaged ten of the thirteen assault wave landing craft, leaving only three operational. Despite this setback, over 3000 soldiers along with 458 tanks and trucks came through the 50 yard wide landing beach.

  •  Y Sector was 20 miles closer to Oran. Here, 5262 soldiers of the 26th Regimental Combat Team of the American 1st Infantry Division were put ashore by landing craft in the bay of Les Abdalouses. Technical problems with the disembarkation landers on the Monarch of Bermuda caused delays and on the final approaches the landing crafts' rudders and propellers were damaged as they attempted to bludgeon their way through a shallow sandbank. A northerly swell caused many craft to broach on top of the bar. Had Headquarters allowed beach reconnaissance parties to report in detail on the landing beaches instead of submarine periscope observations, most of the delays would have been avoided. 

  •  East of Oran was Z Sector. The landings here comprised 10,472 soldiers of the 1st US Ranger Battalion, the 16th and 18th Regimental Combat Teams of the 1st Infantry Division and the Western Column of Combat Command B of the 1st Armoured Division. The assault wave went ashore at 0016 hours from 68 landing craft on beaches Green, White and Red, south of Arzeu, a little port beneath a rocky headland overlooked by the Fort de le Pointe.

Here, as at Algiers, the landings were bloodily repulsed at the centre when HMS Walney and HMS Heartland, flying under dual flags, attempted to land US Rangers in the harbour. 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 and sank. Heartland was shattered at point-blank range by a French destroyer, after which three French destroyers attempted to engage the powerful covering force near the landings. Two of them quickly succumbed to the accurate fire of HMS Aurora while the sloop, responsible for the sinking of HMS Walney, attacked shipping off Y Sector but was sunk by HMS Brilliant. The remaining destroyer, accompanied by a  second destroyer were both driven ashore the following day after being engaged by the Aurora and Jamaica.

Throughout the 9th November, the French coastal and Allied seaborne forces exchanged fire while French troops stoutly defended the approaches 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 airfield allowing 28 British and American Spitfires to fly in shortly afterwards.

[Photo; Transports unloading troops and stores at Arzeu, near Oran. © IWM (A 12932).]

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 hours 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 encountered 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. Unfortunately, just as General Paton was about to go ashore to continue his oversight of the operation, the warship which served as his HQ haplessly whisked him away to repel a French naval attack elsewhere.

The Aftermath

Following the Allied capture of French North Africa, a deal was struck with the highly influential Admiral Darlan, who was recognized as French 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 on the Atlantic coast and the powerful French Naval squadron stationed there. There was unease in the House of Commons about any deal with the enemy, however, with a secure power base to his rear, Eisenhower felt there was less need to deploy precious troops in a full scale 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. 

[Map courtesy of Google Map Data 2017.]

The entire campaign to capture primary targets only took three days and was swiftly followed by the dispersal of the Allied flee foe redeployed to the hard-pressed Atlantic convoy routes, in some cases.

Bone was occupied on the 12th November in a joint operation by the British 3rd Parachute Battalion and 6 Commando from two destroyers. By this time the Luftwaffe in Tunisia totalled 81 fighters and 28 dive-bombers with a handful of parachute troops and panzer-grenadiers on the ground. Shortly afterwards, around 750 troops were transported each day to the area on JU-52 aircraft, while at sea, armaments poured in including Tigers tanks, 88 mm anti-aircraft/anti-tank gun, field artillery and transport vehicles, despite efforts by Malta 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 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 resist. 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. 

Further Reading

There are around 300 books listed on our 'Combined Operations Books' page. They, or any other books you know about, can be purchased on-line from the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE). Their search banner link, on our 'Books' page, checks the shelves of thousands of book shops world-wide. Just type in, or copy and paste the title of your choice, or use the 'keyword' box for book suggestions. There's no obligation to buy, no registration and no passwords. Book recommendations are welcome.

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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