By Vincent P. O’Hara, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD (2015)
Reviewed by John R. Satterfield, DBA
America entered World War II after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The nation focused on war in the Pacific through most of 1942. However, the U.S. had established its “Germany First” strategy by 1940. Defeating the Axis European powers was the Allies’ first priority throughout the conflict, but it took time to ramp up the large-scale operations required to stop Germany. Furthermore, the more experienced British dominated early planning meetings, advocating a peripheral strategy rather than the direct assault that American military leaders favored. This was the framework for Operation Torch, the November 1942 Allied landings in the French North African protectorates of Morocco and Algeria.
Author Vincent P. O’Hara has produced a meticulously researched, comprehensive history of Torch in a densely packed volume. He addresses not only amphibious and naval operations in every aspect of the invasion, but also the political, diplomatic, social, and military doctrinal contexts that led to the strategic decisions, planning and execution of an astonishingly complex campaign. He covers the entire operation from the vantage point of the Allies, the Axis, the French collaborationist Vichy regime and the Free France insurgency. The task is daunting because the scope of the narrative is so broad. A full understanding of the invasion requires extensive explanations of the dynamics leading to deployments, force application and tactics, that O’Hara provides in his encyclopedic book.
Operation Torch was complicated and ambitious from start to finish, especially for untested U.S. Army forces and leaders. The commander, Lt. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, had become a general barely a year before the invasion. Many American invasion units voyaged straight from U.S. training camps.
A combined Allied armada of 850 vessels in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean transported the combined invasion force’s three subordinate commands. The Western Assault Force, under Major Gen. George Patton, hit three ports in and around Casablanca on French Morocco’s Atlantic coast. The Central Task Force, Major Gen. Lloyd Fredenhall commanding, struck Oran, and British Lt. Gen. Kenneth Anderson’s Eastern Task Force attacked Algiers, both in Algeria. American, British, Free French and Allied land, naval and air forces took part in the invasion, an undertaking of unprecedented size and scope at the time, with almost Byzantine complexity that featured daring and usually disastrous raids into ports targeted in the assaults.
After the initial invasions, subsequent attacks took place in Bougie and Bone in eastern Algeria and Bizerte and Tunis in Tunisia, all designed to consolidate Allied control in North Africa. Torch was an operational success, but delays enabled German and Italian forces to mass in opposition to the Allies, forcing much hard fighting and high casualties until final victory in May 1943.
Vichy French forces opposed the landings, especially the Navy in several brave but unsuccessful sorties against the invasion fleets, but also in brief but intense occasional hostility from French land forces, killing about 500 and wounding more than 700 Allied personnel. Numerous logistical difficulties also slowed the operation. Coastal surf was particularly rough, destroying large numbers of valuable landing craft and impeding off-loading of vital supplies after ports were captured.
Political issues also were daunting. American military and diplomatic officials threaded multiple needles while navigating the political interests of several French factions vying for control of North Africa. The U.S. successfully co-opted several Vichy French commanders, helping to undo French unity of command and facilitate a rapid capitulation.
O’Hara also focuses on the strategic implications of Torch. The invasion eliminated France as a potential adversary in alliance with Germany and Italy, effectively ending the pretense of an independent Vichy France. Although the French North African naval and military forces were largely outclassed, consistent resistance from the French army and navy not only against the invasion but also in subsequent Allied European campaigns could have made VE Day far more difficult. At the same time, many scholars argue that diverting resources in North Africa and the Mediterranean may have forestalled the Nazi defeat.
It’s hard to imagine a more complete treatment of Operation Torch. Although not an academic, O’Hara is a formidable scholar who apparently investigated every shred of extant documentation from all belligerents in the campaign. The narrative is probably the most comprehensive treatment of early operations in North Africa during World War II, including Rick Atkinson’s outstanding An Army at Dawn, the first volume in his Liberation Trilogy. About the only complaint any reader could possibly offer is that few micro-level accounts of individual valor appear to add human interest and drama to the story, but including these stories would probably double the length of the book and detract from the continuity of a remarkably complete and still compelling account of one of the events that wrested initiative from the Axis and led to Allied victory in World War II.
Dr. Satterfield teaches military history and writes about weapon systems. He has published two books on the U.S. Navy in World War II.