Operation Torch

An Uneasy Peace

Prior to Pearl Harbor, there was an uneasy peace between the United States and the eventual WWII primary opponents of Germany and Japan.  President Roosevelt had been overtly with Lend Lease, etc. helping Great Britain hold on against Nazi Germany since the Dunkirk evacuation of May of 1940 (and covertly with public opinion solidly in favor of US neutrality – see the book Roosevelt’s Secret War).  Although the US initially declared war on Japan following the devastation at Pearl Harbor, within days and exercising the obligations of the Tripartite Pact with Japan, Germany declared war on the United States.  A decision was soon made by the US and Great Britain to focus most of the effort to defeat Germany first.  The United States was now involved in a two front World War.  At the beginning of WWII, the relative and inexperienced manpower is displayed on a stained glass window at the D-day Museum in New Orleans, LA. (see below).


As a former Secretary of the Navy, President Roosevelt had already begun rebuilding the US Navy.  However, the US Army was woefully undermanned and under equipped. General Marshall and the US Army leadership had been carefully watching the German blitzkrieg strategy and initiated a massive expansion designed to defeat Axis Italy first and then Axis Germany now well entrenched in Western Europe. The huge “aircraft carrier” of Great Britain which had barely survived the air battle of Britain in the summer of 1940 had to be supplied against the relentless attacks by German U boats in the Atlantic.  As the US Army expanded from a base of a half dozen unready Divisions, transport ship building to get the US Army across the Atlantic grew exponentially. By late 1942, US military spending had expanded from a few percent of GDP to almost 20 percent. (Within two years it would become 30 percent.!)

The North African Landings

By late 1942, the US now had most of a dozen Army Divisions equipped, trained, and with the hundreds of available transport ships to begin the defeat of the European Axis powers. The decision was made to begin in North Africa where the British had already defeated most of the Italian Army but were still fighting the German “Afrika Korps” under Rommel. The much weaker Vichy French were a proxy force that would quickly surrender. The three pronged operation would begin in November 1942 with the newly formed US 5th Army under General Mark Clark.   The Western Force lead by Major General George Patton of about 35,000 men (US 2nd Armored Division (AD), US 3rd Infantry Division (ID), and US 9th ID) would land a Casablanca, Morocco. The US II Corps was the Center Force commanded by Major General Lloyd Fredenhall of about 20,000 men (US 1st ID, the US 1st AD, and the 509 Parachute Regiment) landed at Oran Algeria.  The Eastern Force under the command of British Lt. General Kenneth Anderson of 20,000 troops (British Commandos, the US 34th Division and two brigades the British 78th ID) would land at Tunisia. Many British Troops wore American uniforms to minimize conflict with the Vichy French (following the British destruction of the French Fleet at Mers-el-K’ebir, Algeria).

Attack and Counterattack

By November of 1942, in spite of controlling all of Continental Europe, Germany was stretched very thin with massive operations against the Soviets in East. And with the strong presence of British Navy in the Mediterranean, Rommel’s Afrika Korps had minimum resources and supplies.  Nevertheless, with a smaller force Rommel had skillfully successfully maneuvered against British, retaken Tobruk, and while unable to capture the initial object of the Suez Canal, had for several years frustrated the British 8th Army.  A favorite tactic of Rommel was to feign a retreat and then draw the advancing enemy into a “killing zone”. However, following the success of the 2nd Battle of El Alamein in late 1942, the British 8th Army under General Bernard Montgomery had moved west, retaken Tobruk, and in January 1943 captured the main German supply base of Tripoli. With the American Army approaching the Atlas Mountains to the West, the Germans were squeezed into a retreat to a defensive position in Tunisia. Following a resupply from nearby Sicily, Rommel quickly engaged the new and untested American units in skirmishes for over a month.

In mid-February 1943, Rommel focused several Armored and Infantry divisions on the Kasserine Pass which was defended by the US II Corps (1st AD, 1st ID and elements of the British 5th AD) all under the command of US Major General Lloyd Fredenhall.  Although not successful at breaking through the American lines to capture badly needed supplies, the Germans soundly routed the inexperienced and poorly led US Units. The Allies suffered almost 10,000 casualties including several hundred tanks. Rommel’s smaller force suffered about 2000 casualties and less than 50 tanks.  Major General Fredenhall was swiftly replaced with now Lt. General George Patton. By March 1943, the Allies began strategic counter attacks. These American forces were resupplied and expanded to become the new US 7th Army that would then be under the command of Lt. General George Patton.  Major General Omar Bradley then became commander of the US II Corps. By May of the 1943, after several months of Americans moving from the West and the British 8th Army closing from the East had forced a complete surrender of all German and Italians forces in North Africa (over 250,000 men now out of the war). At the request of Adolf Hitler, General Rommel had been evacuated back to Germany to recover from the harsh effects of several years in the African desert.


The US learned many lessons during the North Africa Campaign. Although initially skeptical, the battle hardened British 8th  Army gained respect for the newly arriving Americans. Ineffective leaders like Fredenhall were quickly replaced. That process becoming a leadership model for the remainder of WWII under Chief of Staff General Marshall in Washington and the European Commander General Eisenhower in England. Men, equipment, and supplies continued to pour in from the factories and shipyards of the United States. Within a few months, the dozen Division US 7th Army and the dozen Division British 8th Army launched “Operation Husky” and the invasion of Sicily across the Mediterranean. In the words of Omar Bradley “ In Africa, we learned to crawl, to walk – then run.” (North Africa, Sicily, and D Day to Germany are well represented in the Movie ”Patton”.