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Operation Torch

Amphibious operations prior to World War II had been limited in scope and had been largely confined to river crossings or small raids on enemy-held shores. From Pearl Harbor through the first half of 1942 the Japanese undertook a series of amphibious operations which included the invasion of the Phillipines, New Britain, the Aleutians, the Malay Peninsula and the East Indies. Landings were almost unopposed and ports were captured intact so that there was little hint of the complexity of future Allied landings against prepared positions.

Amphibious operations on the grand scale of those conducted in Africa, Sicily, and Italy had not been officially anticipated. The situation, both strategically and tactically, shortly after America's entrance into the Second World War soon indicated that landings on a large scale would have to be planned and executed in order to defeat the enemy. The entrance of the United States into the War 7 December 1941 found the principles of amphibious warfare still in their infancy, although the British War Office had developed preliminary techniques and the navies of Great Britain and the Unite States were beginning to procure the first landing craft.

There were two amphibious corps in the United States armed forces at the outbreak of hostilities, one in the Pacific Fleet and one in the Atlantic Fleet. These were combined Army-Marine units controlled by the Navy. The Amphibious Corps of the Pacific Fleet consisted on the 3d Infantry Division and the 2d Marine Division. The Amphibious Corps Atlantic Fleet consisted of the lst Infantry Division and the lst Marine Division. The 9th Infantry Division had also been trained by the Amphibious Corps Atlantic Fleet. These unite represented the sum total of the Amphibious forces of the United States, with the exception of small units of the Fleet Marine Force which had been trained for amphibious raids. It was apparent that the United States did not have sufficient troops trained for the type of operation which was necessary to win the war.

The United States Navy actually inaugurated Allied amphibious warfare 5 August 1942 when it sent Marines ashore on Guadalcanal Island in the Solomons. Then, on 19 August, a small force of British, Canadian, American and French troops stormed ashore at Dieppe, destroyed important enemy installations, and withdrew after suffering heavy casualties. Both Guadalcanal and Dieppe provided important information on landing techniques, but the operations were on too limited a scale to be indicative of the scope of the invasion of the continent.

It was recognized that it would be impracticable to have Marine troops undertake all amphibious operations because the expansion problems of the Marine Corps made it improbable that sufficient Marine troops would be available. The Marines were organized for attacks on limited objectives instead of the extensive operations required as the strategic offensive in the Atlantic and the Southwest Pacific commenced, calling for large ground forces capable of sustained action. The Army, on the other hard, was trained and organized for this type of action and had large numbers of troops available for amphibious training.

There were a number of differences in how the Army and Marines approached amphibious assaults. The Marines called for troops to go ashore with relatively light personal loads. The Army needed well equipped troops for the uncertain assault phase of an operation, and tended to load more equipment on the men. The Marines learned from exercises that dedicated personnel were needed to unload supplies and equipment from landing craft once they reached shore. Marine divisions, therefore, included Pioneer Battalions whose primary job was to manage the beach and prevent landing craft from stacking up while waiting to unload. Army divisions initially lacked organic units for this task. On 15 June 1942, the Army's First Amphibious Brigade and the 531st Engineer Shore Regiment were activated. This brigade was the first unit formed by the army to set up and operate a beachhead, and the shore regiment, its key unit, was to be trained to assume responsibility for all supply and engineering functions in the beach area.

While the Allies agreed in December 1941 on the strategic priority of their war effort - Europe would be liberated before Asia - they deadlocked on a method of achievement. America wanted to strike at Nazi Germany with an amphibious assault from England in 1942 or 1943, thereby forcing the Germans to divert units from the east and easing pressure on the Soviet Union. But believing the American proposal premature, British CCS members favored an Allied thrust into either Norway, where a linkup with Soviet armies could be effected, or northwest Africa in conjunction with a Red Army advance to the west in Europe. In July 1942 President Roosevelt agreed to send American troops to North Africa in late 1942, and Prime Minister Churchill agreed to support a major cross-Channel attack in 1943 or 1944.

Operation TORCH consisted of simultaneous landings at three points: Casablanca, 190 miles south of Gibraltar on the Atlantic coast; Oran, 280 miles east of Gibraltar; and Algiers, 220 miles farther east. The objective of the operation was to gain control of North Africa from the Atlantic to the Red Sea in coordination with Allied units in Egypt. The critical initial phase required simultaneously seizing ports from southern Morocco to the middle of Algeria.

This was the first Army-Navy amphibious operation since the Spanish-American War. By the time serious planning for Torch began in the summer of 1942, the Marines were almost fully committed in southwest Pacific. The amphibious assault phase of Torch was conducted exclusively by Army troops. Amphibious training for the force began in June 1942. Originally it was planned that large scale landings would be rehearsed on the North Carolina coast. But the summer of 1942 was a very dangerous time off the east coast-German U-boats were inflicting heavy losses on coastal shipping. Therefore amphibious training was moved to safer waters in Chesapeake Bay.

The forces sent to North Africa made long distance deployments; the Western Task Force which assaulted Morocco deployed directly from Norfolk, Virginia, to the objective. Escort ships accompanied the convoy several hundred miles eastward until it was considered reasonably safe for the convoy to proceed unescorted from an open ocean point to Africa. On 16 October 1942 a merchant ship on the starboard side of the convoy was torpedoed and began to sink stern first. One minute later another ship on the starboard side was torpedoed, but made it back home under her own power. On 19 October 1942, the convoy arrived at a point several hundred miles off Recife, Brazil, and then continued on to West Africa.

Western Task Force embarked the Army forces in Norfolk, with several ships arriving at the last minute which complicated loading. On October 23 most of Task Force 34 departed from Hampton Roads. To deceive Axis agents or U-boats outside the harbor the task force initially turned southeast, ostensibly to conduct exercises in the Caribbean. Although the transports left from Norfolk, the carrier force and certain surface units came from other east coast ports. Linkups were performed in the mid-Atlantic. The U-boats were preoccupied with a savage battle in the North Atlantic in which convoy SC 107 lost 15 of its 42 ships.

Rather than assaulting Casablanca directly, where an estimated fifty thousand French troops might resist, the Western Task Force would come ashore at three detached sites. Preceded by several battalion landing teams (BLTs, task-organized mixtures of infantry and armor), Patton's armored force would land at Safi, 140 miles south of the city and the best port for tank-bearing boats. Other landing teams would come ashore at Mehdia, 80 miles north of Casablanca. Most of Patton's infantry would land at Fedala, 12 miles north of Casablanca. Western Task Force would have 2 infantry divisions, 1 armored division, 2 separate tank battalions, and sufficient support units to maintain the total force of 34,871 officers and enlisted men. Naval support would come from an American task force of 1 aircraft carrier, 4 escort carriers, 3 battleships, 7 cruisers, and 38 destroyers, in addition to 30 troop transports, plus numerous support vessels such as tankers, tugs, and minesweepers.

Amphibious landings are extremely complicated and take much coordination for sucess. The landings in North Africa were all begun within an hour of each other, were unprecidented in scale and began in total darkness on unfamiliar shores. Therefore to avoid problems and disaster, the organization for the invasion was meticuously planned from the beginning. The transports were loaded and arranged in such a way that the items needed for the initial assault were the most accesible. In total darkness the scout boats went in the water then followed all the other boats with the large tanklighters going into the water last. Within ninety minutes of the first boat touching the water the troops began climbing into the boats. After filling each landing craft they met at a rendezvous some distance from the transports and circled to wait for all the landing craft in the initial waves to proceed to the beach at one time. Just over two hours after the large transports had anchored the first three waves of the assault headed for the departure line where destroyers would follow them in for close support. At the departure line the boats were only fifteen minutes from the beach--the initial operation taking about four hours from start to finish.

The naval convoy halted eight miles offshore Safi half an hour before midnight on 7 November 1942. Debarkation of troops and equipment continued in silence, for the landing was not preceded by a softening-up bombardment. As the boats turned toward shore, the French made known their intentions by firing on the transports. US Navy ships immediately returned fire. By daylight, American troops controlled all port facilities. Due to a lack of specialized tank landing craft (which became common later in the war), heavier medium tanks of the 2d Armored Division would have to be landed on piers, hence the desire to quickly seize the port at Safi.

Charged with taking the Algerian city of Oran, Maj. Gen. Lloyd R. Fredendall's Center Task Force consisted of the 1st Infantry Division with the 1st Ranger Battalion attached and Combat Command B of the 1st Armored Division. Fredendall's troops were to land at three beaches along a fifty-mile stretch of coastline. Once ashore the troops would take roads, villages, and two airfields in the area, converge ten miles inland of Oran, and move on the city from three sides. H-hour for Center Task Force was 0100, 8 November 1942, but a variety of problems delayed most units.

Eastern Task Force dropped anchor off Algiers in the last hours of 7 November 1942. Of the three TORCH task forces, Eastern included the largest British proportion. Not only were naval and air support British; so were 23,000 of the total 33,000 troops. Naval support included a Royal Navy flotilla of 3 aircraft carriers, 4 cruisers, I antiaircraft vessel, 7 destroyers, and 15 transports. Admiral Jean Francois Darlan, commander of all French forces, let the invasion continue until further resistance was hopeless, then allowed a cease-fire at 2000 on 8 November. Most of the fighting was over by 11 November, at which time the Germans took over control of unoccupied France.

Operation TORCH proved to be the turning point in the Allies' war against Germany. After the loss of French Morocco, Germany remained on the defensive for the rest of the war. The capture of North Africa allowed the allies to begin to plan and prepare for than assault on Sicily.

Operation TORCH gave the Allies substantial beachheads in North Africa at rather modest cost, considering the size of forces committed. One hundred twenty-five thousand soldiers, sailors, and airmen participated in the operation, 82,600 of them U.S. Army personnel. Ninety-six percent of the 1,469 casualties were American, with the Army losing 526 killed, 837 wounded, and 41 missing. On the Moroccan and Algerian coasts the United States Army executed operations for which its history offered no preparation: large-scale amphibious landings under hostile fire. While those operations ended in victory, any evaluation of U.S. Army performance must allow for the generally inept resistance offered by French and colonial forces. Most of the Army's problems during TORCH occurred in the ship-to-shore phase of landings, when amphibious forces are most vulnerable.

A more serious problem concerned transport of vehicles to shore. Because vehicles required deeper-draft landing craft than troops, sandbars that light troop-carrying boats overrode became obstacles to heavier tank and truck lighters. Even on beaches without sandbars, lighters frequently bottomed some distance from the shoreline and had to discharge vehicles into several feet of water, disabling electrical systems. Problems such as these provoked a spiral of unloading delays and forced troops ashore into a tactical disadvantage during the crucial early hours of the landings. Reaching shore sooner than tanks and artillery, infantry units on D-day often found themselves attacking French coastal batteries and armored units with little more than rifles and hand grenades.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:36:44 Zulu