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.