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North Africa

Introduction to the North African Campaign

When it became evident by mid-1942 that there could be no cross-channel attack in September, American planners acceded to a plan the British had been urging. This was to use the means that would be accumulated in England by the fall of 1942, plus additional forces from the United States, to invade North Africa, where, it was hoped, French forces might lend support to the operation.

The primary objective was to utilize ready Allied forces in an operation commensurate with current capabilities to relieve pressure on the Russians. Other objectives of the operation were to gain French Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia as a base for enlisting the French colonial empire in the war, to assist the British in destroying Axis forces threatening Egypt and Suez, to open the Mediterranean to Allied shipping, to shorten the route to the Far East, and to prepare the way for further operations against the European Axis. The Combined Chiefs of Staff ratified the plan and named General Eisenhower as commander in chief of the Allied Expeditionary Force that was to invade North Africa. Code name for this operation was Torch.

In North Africa the Germans and their Italian allies controlled a narrow strip along the Mediterranean coast between Tunisia and Egypt with an army numbering some 100,000 men under Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.

French forces in North Africa also numbered about 100,000 men plus considerable naval strength. Their position was enigmatic, since the loyalties of the French forces had become split among factions following their defeat in 1940. The need for secrecy in order to achieve strategic surprise hampered an Allied attempt to enlist French support before the landings.

The Allied plan for Torch involved concentric attacks. Gen. Sir Harold R. L. Alexander, British Commander in Chief in the Middle East, was to strike west from Egypt with the British Eighth Army under Lt. Gen. Bernard L. Montgomery, while a combined Anglo-American force was to invade French North Africa and hit the enemy’s rear. General Eisenhower was to command the invasion forces, and the British Eighth Army also was to come under his command when the two forces eventually converged on Tunisia.

The Allies planned three simultaneous landings: one outside the Strait of Gibraltar near Casablanca, Morocco, and two inside the Strait in Algeria near Oran and Algiers. When these landings had been successfully accomplished, additional troops were to land near the eastern border of Algeria and move rapidly into Tunisia, presumably before the Germans could block the move.

The British Eighth Army opened an offensive at El Alamein on 23 October 1942, after having soundly defeated a prior Axis offensive. On 8 November 1942 the U.S. Navy put U.S. Army forces ashore near Casablanca, while the British Navy put other United States forces and contingents of British troops ashore near Oran and Algiers. The total invasion force comprised more than 400 ships, 1,000 planes, and some 107,000 men.

Troops landing at Casablanca consisted of the I Armored Corps of three divisions under Maj. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., shipped directly from the United States, the only instance in World War II in which a force of more than division size was combat-loaded in United States ports for landing directly on a hostile beach. The forces landing near Oran and Algiers included the U.S. II Corps, Maj. Gen. Lloyd W. Fredendall commanding, with elements of three divisions.

During this operation a battalion of paratroopers made the first U.S. combat jump of the war.

The Allies achieved strategic surprise, but the operation was delayed by the French forces, who fought back in every case but one. By 11 November negotiations had succeeded both in ending French resistance and winning French cooperation, and an Allied column headed for Tunisia.

Meanwhile, the Germans had moved into Tunisia in force by water from Sicily, and were able to stop the Allied drive short of the Tunisian capital (Tunis). Eventually the Axis brought in more than 150,000 troops from Sicily. Rommel’s troops, falling back before the British Eighth Army’s drive, established themselves behind the so-called Mareth Line in southeastern Tunisia in contact with the German reinforcements.

Having consolidated a giant beachhead in Tunisia, Rommel assumed the offensive on 14 February 1943. Powerful German armored units moved out from passes in south central Tunisia on the front of the U.S. II Corps, in an attempt to turn the south flank of the British First Army, commanded by Lt. Gen. Kenneth N. A. Anderson, and capture an Allied base of operations around Tebessa.

The Germans defeated the Allies in a series of sharp armored actions, forced a withdrawal of American troops through the Kasserine Pass and the valley beyond, and made a spectacular advance of almost a hundred miles before determined countermeasures by the Allies brought them to a halt, still short of their objectives, on 22 February. Upon the failure of this counteroffensive, the Germans withdrew to their original positions. During the first part of March the Germans attempted two lesser offensives — one against the British First Army and the other against the British Eighth Army — which also failed.

At this point the Allies were able to resume their offensive. The U.S. II Corps, now under Patton, attacked toward the flank and rear of the Mareth Line, while elements of the British Eighth Army outflanked the Axis position and broke through into the eastern coastal region of central Tunisia. Within a month all Axis troops had been compressed into a small bridgehead covering the Cape Bon Peninsula. In the final phase of the operation, Maj. Gen. Omar N. Bradley assumed command of the U.S. II Corps so that Patton could prepare for the invasion of Sicily. A massive Allied attack pushed through Bizerte and Tunis, and the last of some 275,000 Germans and Italians surrendered on the Cape Bon Peninsula on May 12, 1943.

North African Campaign: Features

Patton in North Africa

An excerpt from a new 2004 book called “The Path to Victory: The Mediterranean Theater in World War II” by Douglas Porch. Here Porch describes the flamboyant, controversial George Patton in his mission “to kick II Corps in the butt.”

An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943

An excerpt from a terrific 2002 book by Rick Atkinson. It may be the definitive history of the war in North Africa.

Heroes of the North African Campaign

Fascinating, inspiring stories and details about American heroes of the North African campaign who were recognized with the Congressional Medal of Honor.

[The primary source for this text is the U.S. Army Center for Military History. For a more general overview of the war see the Brief History of WWII e-text.”]

See also: Pacific Theater | European Theater
North Africa | Sicily | Italy | D-Day | Northern France | Southern France
Operation Market-Garden | Battle of the Bulge | Germany