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Sunday Book Review: Torch: North African and the Allied Path to Victory

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Vincent O’Hara’s Torch recounts the preparation for and conduct of the Allied Torch landings of November 1942. O’Hara allows that some of the political and strategic criticisms of Operation Torch (that it represented a distraction from the much more important job of confronting Germany directly in northern Europe) are largely correct, but argues that the operation was necessitated by the lack of preparedness on the part of the US Army and US Navy in the Atlantic. Torch won valuable experience for the Americans, and gave the American-British coalition its first real taste of joint warfare. Author of several very readable accounts of maritime warfare in World War II, O’Hara makes a sound contribution to the literature on the war in North Africa.

House Burning Down

O’Hara gives detailed accounts of all of the invasions of Torch, pointing out the significant shortcomings that US forces faced getting ashore.  The Marines- and the expertise in amphibious ops that they had developed during the interwar period- mostly stayed in the Pacific, leaving the European theater to an Army that had not worked out amphibious ops in very much detail.  Similarly, the Atlantic contingent of the USN didn’t have much experience with fire support, or large combined operations.  Moreover, the Americans struggled to sort through command and control procedures with the British, and generally displayed far too much optimism about both their own ability to get ashore, and the expected levels of French resistance.

Why did the French continue to fight, despite overwhelming odds and a difficult political situation? O’Hara gives three reasons. First, many of the French officers and men worried about the consequences for metropolitan France if the colonial forces failed to resist. The Germans had yet to occupy Vichy, and obviously could impose harsh measures on both the occupied and unoccupied parts of France.

Second, the French military was deeply professional, and the word of Petain, both as military commander and political leader, carried a great deal of weight. Few of the French officers had any interest in De Gaulle, or the other French commanders that the Allies had managed to co-opt. Many officers insisted on receiving orders through the chain of command, which is one reason why Admiral Darlan was so important to the Allied invasion.

Finally, French resentment of the British (and to a lesser extent the Americans) ran strong. Much bitterness remained from the German conquest of France, the reduction of Syria, and especially from the surprise attack at Mers el Kebir. This manifested in a belief that Britain was more interested in stealing France’s empire than in winning the war against Germany. The less hostile relationship with the United States helped, but didn’t fully ameliorate the problem.

O’Hara goes into some detail about how Operation Torch affected French politics. Unsurprisingly, notice of the invasion provoked a crisis in France, with Laval heading to Germany in order to appeal to Hitler. Much of the rest of the leadership sat tight, hoping that a German invasion could somehow be prevented. In the end, the French leadership didn’t do much to play its (admittedly poor) hand; Darlan took control of the situation in North Africa, and Petain ordered remaining metropolitan forces to stand down.  The fleet made its symbolic act of resistance by scuttling itself in Toulon; one would imagine that if Churchill hadn’t ordered Mers el Kebir, the situation could have been resolved more amicably.

For their part, the Germans and Italians hoped to turn Torch into an opportunity to leverage the French into joining the war directly on the Axis side. Vichy retained control of a large metropolitan army, and a powerful naval squadron in Toulon. Thousands of French soldiers remained in German POW camps. However, Hitler was unwilling to make the concessions that Laval needed in order to sell the deal to Vichy, which included political autonomy and a guarantee of pre-1914 borders. O’Hara also goes into to some of the logic for the Axis overcommitment to Tunisia; not invading in numbers would have conceded all of North Africa to the Allies in short order, and the Germans saw it as a way of holding significant American forces in the Mediterranean.

Are You Experienced?

O’Hara’s case is that Torch, its immediate impact on the strategic situation aside, represented necessary experiential learning for the Atlantic components of both the Army and the Navy.  Neither service covered itself with glory; the Navy struggled with French coastal defenses, and had a lot of trouble identifying target beaches.  The USN performed adequately against an inferior French force at Casablanca, but it was a far nearer thing than it needed to be, especially given that the French were also rusty.

Torch gave the Army and Navy the opportunity to work out the doctrine and technology, figuring out what worked and didn’t work (why not to load landing boats before lowering them, for example). The performance of US troops ashore in the immediate aftermath of the landings was not fantastic, especially considering that the enthusiasm of the enemy for the fight was limited. Both the Navy and the Army had relatively good doctrine, but hadn’t had the chance to work out the kinks in practice.

Torch also gave the Americans a chance to appreciate that the British sometimes knew what they were talking about.  The British were notably less optimistic about the chances for a bloodless landing, and less sentimental about the resistance of the French.  They also had more experience with major amphibious landings, have recently conducted on in Madagascar.

 

Moon, Turn the Tides… Gently, Gently Away

O’Hara makes a compelling case.  Discussions of Torch often get bogged down in the debate between British and Americans over whether Torch represented a waste of time.  O’Hara makes a convincing argument that US forces were simply unprepared to conduct major ops against the Germans in 1942, and that Torch was necessary to working out the difficulties of joint warfighting (both between the services and alongside the British).  In this his account dovetails nicely with that of Christopher Rein, who tracked the emergence of the US Army Air Force in the same campaign. Indeed, the two books complement each other nicely, as the USAAF plays a relatively small role in Torch, while O’Hara doesn’t cover much of the ground and air fighting beyond the initial invasions.  My only quibble is that the book could have used some additional detailed maps of the landing areas, and of the transit paths of the major assault convoys.  However, this is only a small problem.

 

 

 

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  • Amanda in the South Bay

    Torch was necessary, Italy much less so.
    Also, an invasion of Northwestern France in 1943 means that the Germans, themselves, aren’t nearly as prepared as they are in 1944. The more desirable date for an Allied invasion of France would be in 1943, not 1942.

    • joe from Lowell

      Knocking Italy out of the war and tying down a German army once they had to occupy and defend the country was an important Allied accomplishment.

      But after that, to keep going up that narrow, mountainous spine was nuts.

      • Morat

        So, Sicily, but not Italy? Yeah, seems plausible, particularly if the Sicily landings had been arranged to cut off the island rather than let most of the defenders escape.

        • Richard Hershberger

          Italy did not surrender until the Salerno landings. If its surrender was the point, then Sicily wasn’t enough.

          • Morat

            I stand corrected!

      • guthrie

        The point that several people make is that the allies should have perhaps taken the boot of Italy, as far up as the Germans were willing to concede, and then kept the amphibious landings in reserve, one the Germans knew about and whose reality would keep them from moving too many units from Italy.
        Unfortunately, this part of the war was badly directed, and so once the allies had landed and been bottled up, the Germans moved troops from Italy to Russia and wherever.

  • joe from Lowell

    How long does the book go? Just to the landings?

    • Hogan

      From an Amazon review:

      The book consists of seventeen chapters entitled 1.) Situation, 2.) The Art of Amphibious Warfare, 3.) Decision, 4.) Planning and Preparation, 5.) Opposition, 6,) Mediterranean Convoys, 7.) Algiers, 8.) Oran, 9.) Atlantic Convoy, 10.) Port Lyautey, 11.) Casablanca, 12.) The Naval Battle of Casablanca, 13.) Fall of Casablanca, 14.) Safi, 15.) Axis reaction, 16.) The Allies Move East, and 17.) Final Roundup. The chapters each run about 14 – 20 pages in length.

  • celticdragonchick

    The Mers el Kebir debacle should never have happened, and I am somewhat surprised that some Brit soldiers didn’t end up with a knife in the ribs in French cafes during the run up to Paris.

    • WabacMachinist

      Mers El-Kebir did leave a lasting scar on Anglo-French relations and probably did play a role in the French decision to resist the TORCH landings. But given the situation in mid-1940 Churchill undoubtedly felt that the Germans and more importantly the Americans needed a convincing demonstration of ruthless British resolve. It may have also been the case that some people inside the British government(Halifax, for example)needed a convincing example of Churchill’s ruthless resolve. It’s just too damned bad that some 1200 French sailors had to get killed in the process.

      • joe from Lowell

        Without the British attack on the French fleet, would post-war France have been so oppositional towards NATO?

        Without that attack, would Truman have felt it necessary to back French claims on Indochina in order to keep them in the fold?

      • John F

        It’s just too damned bad that some 1200 French sailors had to get killed in the process.

        Allegedly Darlan’s intermediary an Admriral named Marcel-Bruno Gensoul failed to pass on to Darlan that moving the fleet to US Ports was acceptable to the Brits – possibly important since part of Darlan’s standing orders did in fact involve moving the fleet to US Ports if the Germans/Italians attempted to seize the ships.

        It’s been alleged that he was offended that the Brits would make such an ultimatum in the first place and/or disliked his Brit counterpart and/or had some other reason for wanting the French to tell the Brits to eff off.

        In any event Gensoul survived the war and refused to tell anyone his side of the failed negotiations.

  • My uncle Doug landed in the Torch operation and said everything, everything was screwed up and confused. Nobody knew anything about anything. So I can see how this operation was necessary just to train people.

    He later landed in Sicily, Anzio, and ultimately Normandy. Besides the miracle of him surviving all that as a humble infantry noncom he always believed the North Africa invasion was necessary — they had no idea what they were doing prior to that.

    • WabacMachinist

      My old man was flying an artillery spotter plane over Kasserine Pass and he could testify that there never was such a comprehensive fuck-up in US military history. He was convinced at the time that our side had just lost the war.

      • Morat

        Yeah, although apparently armies with good fundamentals can reform surprisingly quickly if the commanders push it.

        So, generally poor performance through Kasserine, but even a few weeks later, there were signs that the US Army was getting its act together, such as the reasonably competent performance at El Guettar.

        There seems to be a pretty low cap on how good large units can feasibly get, and it doesn’t take all that long to reach it. So six weeks of “combat” that was mostly pursuing fleeing Germans through France was enough to take the 4th Armored Division from well-trained but green to hardened veterans, judging by its performance at Arracourt.

        • Derelict

          One other useful accomplishment of Torch was giving the Army and the Atlantic Navy excuses to clear some of the deadwood out of the officer ranks. Both Army and Navy found that the vast bulk of their warfighting doctrine as developed during peacetime just did not work. Unfortunately, their officer corps of both organizations was stuffed with men who were thoroughly steeped in those doctrines. The few who could abandon what they had trained for and adopt newer tactics were retained; the rest re-assigned or eased out.

          • John F

            Yes, one thing I’ve read over and over again both about the European Campaign and the Pacific Campaign was that whatever the US Military had done inter-war insofar as selecting and promoting officers- there was no relationship between success in peacetime and in war time – it seems that the US Military had no clue how an officer was going to perform in war until bullets started flying.

            General Lloyd Fredendall was a case in point. He was on the short list, George Marshall loved him, He had gone through all the Army’s training and schools, and had done everything you were supposed to do as an Army Commander (except actually lead people in combat), there was never a superior officer he failed to impress.

            And he was a completely incompetent fuck up during Operation Torch from day 1. During the landings he stayed on board ship until after all fighting was over, then he decamped and set up in a luxury hotel- he moved out of the hotel only after he used (wasted) an entire engineering battalion building him a fortified headquarters- 70 miles behind the frontlines. General Bradley visited and called the HQ, “an embarrassment to every American soldier,”

            Prior to Kessarine the British Generals who had contact with Fredendall believed him to be incompetent, the US Generals UNDER Fredendall, well some complained about him, some were left out of staff meetings after arguing with Fredendall. A General Harmon was sent by Eisenhower to report back on what was going on- right around the time that Kasserine happened- he allegedly reported back to Ike that Fredendall was a drunk and a coward. (Bradley’s reports on Fredendall were no kinder). (Patton, a month after taking over from Fredenhall wrote this to his wife, “I cannot see what Fredendall did to justify his existence.”

            Fredendall was relieved from command and shipped back to the US (where he was promoted and publicly viewed as a hero).

            Some very smart and talented men knew Fredendall prior to Torch and were totally 100% wrong regarding his abilities, so much so he almost had Ike’s job.

  • Scott P.

    Finally, French resentment of the British (and to a lesser extent the Americans) ran strong. Much bitterness remained from the German conquest of France, the reduction of Syria, and especially from the surprise attack at Mers el Kebir. This manifested in a belief that Britain was more interested in stealing France’s empire than in winning the war against Germany.

    Can also add the attack on Dakar and the occupation of Madagascar to that list.

  • Warren Terra

    How would you compare this book to Atkinson’s bestseller of a few years ago?

    • Joe Bob the III

      I was wondering the same thing. I am pretty damned proud of myself because I just finished reading Army at Dawn and actually know what this post is talking about.

  • JonH

    I just learned yesterday the (in retrospect obvious) fact that we landed a bunch of 70 ton train locomotives in North Africa, as well as in France on D-Day. And the trains in North Africa were later taken to Italy.

  • Peter T

    North-west Europe in 43 was not a goer. Not enough landing craft, not enough shipping are decisive. In addition, the prospect of conducting a multi-national amphibious operation against a thoroughly professional enemy with an untried army, an un-practiced tactical air force and no opportunity to settle joint doctrine and practice would give even Alexander the Great pause.

    Eisenhower replaced all but one divisional commander after North Africa. The operation also freed up a lot of shipping, netted 300,000 Axis prisoners, destroyed the German air transport fleet and, as noted. allowed the Commonwealth and American forces to iron out the bugs.

    btw, Mer el Kebir was perfectly straightforward. The balance of naval power in the Med was close. French forces could tip it. They were offered the chance to intern in a neutral port and refused. It was never going to happen that the British would risk losing the Med to avoid offending Vichy.

    • celticdragonchick

      The Brits were not going to lose the Med, and the Brit admiral who was negotiating with the French thought that a deal was within reach to move the French assets to the Caribbean. This was a display for Roosevelt that Churchill was showing “ruthlessness”.

    • Derelict

      . . . netted 300,000 Axis prisoners, . . .

      I have a friend who was one of those Axis prisoners. He’ll be 97 next month. He started the war as an artilleryman in the invasion of France. He went on to be part of the invasion of the Balkans and northern Greece, then part of the German invasion of southern Russia. Wounded outside Sebastopol, he went back to Germany to recover, then got shipped to North Africa just in time for El Alamein. (You note the destruction of the German air transport fleet. There was a single massive flight of JU-52s that was intercepted by Allied fighters, with the loss of nearly all of the JU-52. My friend was supposed to be a part of that flight, but his plane broke down. He flew to Tobruk on another JU-52 the next day.)

      As North Africa collapsed, he ended up in western North Africa and was eventually captured by the French. They turned him over to the Brits, who then shipped him to the US. He finished out the war in POW camps in Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana.

      • John F

        I once read that the safest place on earth during WWII for a German male born between 1910-1930 was in a US POW camp….

    • guthrie

      Exactly re. Normandy in 43. Those of you who have played the kind of computer game where you gather resources and built tanks and fighting robots will recall the stage in the game where you have a secure base, and are hastily building vehicles faster than your enemy. For a lot of that time you have enough to reach and damage the enemy base, but it is always better to wait a little longer to make sure you have enough to actually destroy the base, otherwise you can’t be sure of winning.

      So it was in 1943. The resources and skills weren’t there.

  • Richard Hershberger

    O’Hara’s case is that Torch, its immediate impact on the strategic situation aside, represented necessary experiential learning for the Atlantic components of both the Army and the Navy.

    This this thesis in any way remarkable? My impression is that this is the conventional wisdom.

  • Amanda in the South Bay

    comment deleted

  • witlesschum

    The idea of the Germans and Italians trying to get France to join the Axis is fascinating. Suppose Hitler pays that price, I guess you’d get French divisions fighting on the Eastern Front?

    Doesn’t seem like a decisive switch, just something that would make the war somewhat longer.

  • Mike in DC

    Needs more Hendrix song titles.

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