This was the Allied series of amphibious landings in French North Africa (8/16 November 1942).
For some the USSR had been pressing the USA and UK to open a ‘second front’ against Germany in Europe and so compel the Germans to divert formations from the Eastern Front, thereby easing the pressure on the Soviet forces. While the US high command initially favoured the proposed ‘Sledgehammer’ landing in occupied Europe at the earliest possible moment, in line with standard US military doctrine of a direct attack on the primary opponent at the earliest possible moment and by the most direct route, the British high command believed that such a course would end in disaster unless it was prepared more thoroughly and more fully than the Americans at the time seemed to consider. The British therefore proposed an alternative, in the form of an invasion of the Vichy French possessions in North-West Africa. This, the British urged, would clear the Axis forces from North Africa, improve Allied naval control of the Mediterranean, and open the way for an Allied invasion of southern Europe, the ‘soft underbelly’ of the Axis powers, during 1943.
US President Franklin D. Roosevelt suspected that the North-West African operation would inevitably prevent the implementation of any invasion of Europe in 1943, but agreed to support the British point of view, as expressed by Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Evolved from ‘Acrobat’, ‘Gymnast’ and ‘Super Gymnast’, ‘Torch’ had a sound military rationale but was finally planned (largely by the Americans) as a means of getting US ground forces into the war against Germany as rapidly as possible and, assuming the success which the operation indeed enjoyed, of raising the morale of the US population with an operation of major strategic importance and under US leadership. Although US strategic doctrine called for a direct rather than an indirect approach to Germany, designated as the primary opponent by the Allied leaders, it was appreciated in Washington that British reservations about the ‘Round-up’ and ‘Sledgehammer’ direct assaults on the coast of German-occupied Europe meant that no such cross-Channel operations would be undertaken until mid-1943 at the very earliest, so principles were sacrificed for an indirect but more rapidly implemented assault. And though it would have been possible for the USA to provide forces and matériel for the British-led effort in the Western Desert, it was decided instead to open a new theatre which could be commanded by a US officer, in this instance Lieutenant General (from 11 February 1932 General) Dwight D. Eisenhower, commanding the European Theater of Operations, who as the Commander-in-Chief Allied Expeditionary Forces established his headquarters at Gibraltar. With Eisenhower the two most important figures in the Allied Force Headquarters were the deputy commander-in-chief, Major General (from 11 November 1942 Lieutenant General) Mark W. Clark, and the chief-of-staff, Brigadier General (soon Major General) Walter Bedell Smith, all working closely with the Combined Chiefs-of-Staff.
The Allies planned that the Anglo/US invasion of North-West Africa would take place in Morocco and Algeria, territory nominally in the hands of Vichy French government. The Vichy French army had in he theatre 125,000 men (60,000 in Morocco, 50,000 in Algeria and 15,000 in Tunisia) and 210 tanks, most of them obsolete, the French air force in North Africa amounted to some 500 obsolescent aircraft but with numbers of useful Dewoitine D.520 fighters, but the French navy in North and West African ports (Dakar, Casablanca, Oran and Bizerte) was formidable and it had the modern battleships Jean Bart and Richelieu, four cruisers, at least seven destroyers, 11 submarines and significant numbers of smaller craft. While the Allies appreciated that the Vichy French equipment was obsolete, training standards were high and the delivery of Allied weaponry would turn the French formations, many of which were likely to join the Allies, into first-class fighting assets.
Another reason for the choice of a US commander was the possible attitude in North Africa of the Vichy French, among whom distrust of the British was strong, especially after the ‘Catapult’ attack on the French naval forces at Mers el Kébir in July 1940. It was nevertheless hoped that an agreement could be reached with the French before the landings were committed or, failing that, during the initial phases of ‘Torch’, so that a bloodless or comparatively bloodless invasion would be followed by the wholesale adherence to the Allied cause of the substantial French forces in North Africa.
The Allied leaders met in London during July 1942 to thrash out the final problems associated with the committal of US ground forces into action with the Germans, and late in the month Roosevelt authorised ‘Super Gymnast’, henceforth designated ‘Torch’. Partly on the basis of information supplied by Robert D. Murphy, the US consul in Algiers, the Allies believed that the French forces would not offer any resistance. However, the Americans were also aware of the fact that the Vichy French navy might bear a grudge against the British as a result of the action at Mers el Kébir. An assessment of the sympathies of the French forces in North Africa was essential, and plans were made to turn any tendency of the Vichy French forces from resistance to co-operation.
After the landings, which were to be centred on Casablanca on the Atlantic coast and on Algiers and Oran on the Mediterranean coast, it was the intention of the Allies to advance rapidly to the east toward Tunisia and take the German and Italian forces from the rear in the Western Desert. In order to gauge the feeling of the Vichy French leadership and forces in north-West Africa, Murphy was appointed to the US consulate in Algeria with the covert mission of establishing the mood of the Vichy French forces and of making contact with elements which might support an Allied invasion. Murphy succeeded in contacting a number of French officers, including Général de Division Charles Emmanuel Mast, the commander-in-chief in Algiers. These officers were willing to support the Allies, but asked for a clandestine conference with Algeria with a senior Allied general. In 'Flagpole', Clark and other officers were despatched to Cherchell in Algeria by British submarine, and met with the French officers on 21 October.
The Allies also succeeded, with the assistance of the French resistance, in slipping Général d’Armée Henri Honoré Giraud out of Vichy France to Gibraltar by British submarine in ‘Minerva’, the Allied intention being to offer Giraud the position of commander-in-chief of the French forces in North Africa after the invasion. The French commander adamantly refused to travel to North Africa to try to swing the Vichy forces toward the Allied cause unless he was appointed to command the whole of ‘Torch’.
Eisenhower had been entrusted with the overall command of the operation and, as noted above, had established his headquarters in Gibraltar. The Allied Naval Commander of the Expeditionary Force was to be Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, with Vice Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay as his deputy with the responsibility for planning the amphibious landings. The two air commanders were Brigadier General (soon Major General) James H. Doolittle for the Western and Centre Task Forces, and Air Marshal Sir William Welsh for the Eastern Task Force.
The original concept for ‘Torch’ was based on two landings, one by the Americans and the other by the British. The US commander was Major General George S. Patton, while the British commander was at first Lieutenant General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander (soon appointed commander-in-chief Middle East), then Lieutenant General B. L. Montgomery (soon appointed commander-in-chief of the British 8th Army), then Lieutenant General W. H. E. Gott (killed in an air crash) and finally Lieutenant General K. A. N. Anderson.
Once the Allies had come ashore, with the Americans in the van as part of the Allied effort to placate the Vichy French, their forces would be grouped into the Allied 1st Army. Swelled, it was hoped, by an increasing number of re-equipped French troops, this 1st Army was then to dash east toward Tunisia in the hope of forestalling the development of an Axis lodgement in that territory.
In a successful effort to maintain security the Allied forces sailed in small groups from a number of ports on both sides of the Atlantic, the plans still being flexible as a result of a decision to leave it until the last minute for Amiral de la Flotte François Darlan, head of the Vichy French armed forces and the senior representative of the Vichy French regime in North Africa, and Giraud, the highest-ranking pre-war French officer to have escaped from the Germans in 'Minerva' and come over to the Allies, to influence events on the French side.
The basic plan for ‘Torch’ was that Allied forces should seize the French territories of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia in North Africa, though it was appreciated that while landings were practical in Morocco and Algeria, an eastward land advance to Tunisia might well have to be undertaken against Axis forces, for though the terms of France’s June 1940 armistice with Germany and Italy prohibited the presence of Axis forces in French North Africa, there was every reason to believe that the landing of Allied forces in Morocco and Algeria would signal an Axis descent on Tunisia from forward bases in Sicily.
The planners identified Casablanca in Morocco, and Oran and Algiers in Algeria, as key early objectives. Ideally there should also be a landing at Tunis to secure Tunisia and facilitate the rapid interdiction of supplies travelling via Tripoli to the forces of Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel’s Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee in Libya. However, Tunis lay too close to the Axis airfields in Sicily and Sardinia for any realistic hope of success. A compromise would be to land at Bône, some 300 miles (485 km) closer to Tunis than Algiers. Limited logistical resources dictated that the Allies could make only three landings, however, and Eisenhower, who felt that any plan must include landings at Oran and Algiers, had to select between western and eastern options: the western option was to land at Casablanca, Oran and Algiers and then make as rapid an advance as possible to Tunis, some 500 miles (805 km) to the east of Algiers once any Vichy French opposition had been suppressed; and the eastern option was to land at Oran, Algiers and Bône and then advance overland to Casablanca some 500 miles (805 km) to the west of Oran.
Eisenhower preferred the eastern option for the advantages it offered for an early capture of Tunis and also because the Atlantic swells off Casablanca presented considerably greater risks to an amphibious landing than would be encountered in the Mediterranean. However, the Combined Chiefs-of-Staff were concerned that should 'Torch' persuade Spain to abandon its neutrality and join the Axis alliance, the Strait of Gibraltar could be closed, thereby severing the Allied forces' entire line of communications network. The Combined Chiefs-of-Staff therefore selected the western option as being less risky since the forces in Algeria and Tunisia could be supplied, albeit with considerable difficulty, overland from Casablanca should the Strait of Gibraltar be closed to the Allies. In accepting the Combined Chiefs-of-Staff’s decision, Eisenhower pointed out that the decision shifted the early capture of Tunis from the realm of probability to that of remote possibility because of the extra time it would afford the Axis to move sizeable forces into Tunisia.
Despite the length of coastline open to invasion, therefore, the choices available to the Allied planners were complicated by the presence of U-boats in the Atlantic and in the Mediterranean, the presence of substantial numbers of Axis bombers and attack warplanes on Sicilian and Sardinian airfields, the possibility of determined Vichy French resistance, and also the possibility that Spain might intervene on the side of the Axis powers. By September 1942 the planners had come to the decision that there would be three rather than two landings to take the key ports and airports of Morocco and Algeria simultaneously. The primary targets therefore became Casablanca on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, where a group of three landings was to be made, and Oran and Algiers on the western and central parts of Algeria’s Mediterranean coast, where single landings were to be made.
The Western Task Force sailed from US east-coast ports, was directed at Casablanca, and was an all-US force under the command of Patton with Rear Admiral H. Kent Hewitt heading the Task Force 34 naval element 1. The Western Task Force comprised 34,305 troops and 252 tanks (54 medium and 198 light tanks), and was transported primarily in the UGF.1 convoy. The ground forces delivered by the ships of the Western Task Force comprised elements of Major General Ernest N. Harmon’s 2nd Armored Division, Major General Jonathan W. Anderson’s 3rd Division and Major General Manton S. Eddy’s 9th Division.
The Centre Task Force sailed from British ports, was directed at Oran, and was an all-US force under the command of Major General Lloyd R. Fredendall with a British officer, Commodore T. H. Troubridge, heading the Anglo/US naval element. The 18,500-man Centre Task Force comprised elements of Major General Terry de la M. Allen’s 1st Division, half of Major General Orlando Ward’s 1st Armored Division and the 509th Parachute Battalion. The supporting naval force comprised the headquarters ship Largs, escort carriers Biter and Dasher, light cruisers Aurora and Jamaica, light anti-aircraft cruiser Delhi, one auxiliary anti-aircraft ship, 13 destroyers, four sloops, six corvettes, eight minesweepers, eight trawlers, 10 motor launches, two submarines, 19 landing ships and 28 supply transports.
The Eastern Task Force also sailed from British ports, was directed at Algiers, and was an Anglo/US force under the command of Major General Charles W. Ryder (a US officer selected in an effort not to to antagonise the French, but who was to hand over to a British officer, Anderson, at the earliest possible opportunity) with a British officer, Vice Admiral Sir Harold Burrough, heading the British naval element. The 20,000-man Eastern Task Force comprised two brigades of Major General V. Evelegh’s British 78th Division and Nos 1 and 6 Commandos, and a US element comprising part of Ryder’s own 34th Division, one-third of the 9th Division and half of the 1st Armored Division. The supporting naval force comprised the headquarters ship Bulolo, monitor Roberts, three auxiliary anti-aircraft ships, eight destroyers, three sloops, six corvettes, seven minesweepers, eight trawlers, eight motor launches, three submarines, 17 landing ships, 16 supply transports and Rear Admiral C. H. J. Harcourt’s Force 'O' with the elderly carrier Argus, escort carrier Avenger, light cruiser Sheffield, light anti-aircraft cruisers Scylla and Charybdis, and five destroyers.
The operations in the Mediterranean were covered by Vice Admiral Sir Neville Syfret’s Force 'H' with the battleships Duke of York, Nelson and Rodney, battle-cruiser Renown, fleet carriers Victorious, Formidable and Furious, light cruiser Bermuda, light anti-aircraft cruisers Argonaut and Sirius, and 17 destroyers 2.
In the west the major political prize as well as the port through which much of the Allied force could be fed and supplied, was Casablanca, but this was too tough a nut for the transatlantic force to crack, and Patton therefore decided on three smaller landings. The landings of the Western Task Force began before the break of day on 8 November, and in the hope that there would be no French resistance there was no preliminary bombardment. During the previous night an Allied-backed coup attempt had been attempted by the commander of the Vichy French Division de Casablanca, Général de Division Marie Emil Antoine Béthouart, whose forces surrounded the villa of pro-Vichy Général Charles Auguste Paul Noguès. The senior general in Morocco, Noguès called for reinforcements and the coup attempt thus had the effect of putting the Vichy French forces on the alert.
In the south Harmon put ashore at Safi in ‘Blackstone’ some 6,500 men of the 2nd Armored Division and 9th Division. The landings were mostly successful, and were initially conducted without covering fire, again in the hope that the French might not resist. But when the French coastal batteries opened fire on the transports, the supporting ships returned fire. By the time Harmon arrived, French troops had pinned the assault forces, most of whose men were in combat for the first time, on the beaches. Most of the landings occurred behind schedule, and air support from the carriers destroyed a French convoy of trucks intended to reinforce the defences. Safi surrendered on the afternoon of 8 November, and by 9 November the remaining defenders were pinned down and the bulk of Harmon’s force was able move off to join the siege of Casablanca. Harmon’s forces were hotly engaged by Vichy French forces at Bou Guedra before news of the ceasefire reached both sides.
In the centre of the Western Task Force’s sector Anderson put ashore at Fédala in ‘Brushwood’ some 16,000 men of his 3rd Division. Again there was French resistance as the Americans built up their beach-head and then struck south toward Casablanca, and news of the ceasefire reached the Americans as they were about to open their artillery bombardment of the city.
In the north of the Western Task Force’s sector, Major General Lucian K. Truscott landed at Mehdia and Port Lyautey in ‘Goalpost’ some 9,000 men of the 2nd Armored Division and 9th Division. Around Port Lyautey the landing troops were uncertain of their position, and the second wave was delayed. This gave the defenders time to organise resistance, and the remaining landings were completed under artillery bombardment. With the assistance of air support from the carriers, however, the troops pushed ahead and the objectives were captured.
Around Fédala, the site of the largest landing as 19,000 men came ashore there, weather disrupted the landings. The beaches again came under fire after daybreak, Patton landed at 08.00 and the beach-heads were secured by a time later in the day. The Americans surrounded the port of Casablanca by 10 November, and the city surrendered an hour before the final assault was due to take place. Patton entered the city unopposed. With the exception of the coastal batteries, the French resistance in Morocco was generally sporadic. The French navy, which was present in strength at Casablanca and only minutes from the landings, remained in port and was put out of action by shelling.
In the western part of Algeria, round Oran, the landing forces of Fredendall’s Centre Task Force also made three landings (two to the west of Oran and one to the east of the city) using some 22,000 men of the 1st Armored Division and 1st Division. The landing on the westernmost beach was delayed as a French convoy appeared while the minesweepers were clearing a path. Some delay and confusion, and damage to landing ships, was caused by the unexpected shallowness of water and sandbars. Periscope observations had been carried out, but no reconnaissance parties had been landed on the beaches to determine local conditions. The 1st Ranger Battalion landed to the east of Oran, and quickly captured the shore battery at Arzeu. An attempt was made to land US infantry directly at Oran harbour in 'Terminal' (i) to prevent any destruction of the port facilities and the scuttling of ships, but failed as the two destroyers were shattered by crossfire from the French vessels there.
Ships of the Vichy French navy broke from the harbour and attacked the Allied invasion force, but were sunk or driven ashore. French batteries and the warships of the invasion force exchanged fire throughout 8/9 November, with the French undertaking a stubborn defence of Oran and the surrounding area. Heavy fire from British battleships brought about the surrender of the Vichy French on 9 November. Again the French had resisted as the 1st Armored Division moved inland to tackle Oran from the south and as the 1st Division attacked from the east and west, the armistice taking effect at 12.00 on 10 November.
This part of ‘Torch’ also saw the first major airborne assault carried out by men of the US Army. The 2/509th Parachute Infantry arrived from England after overflying neutral Spain, intending to drop near Oran and Constantine to capture the airfields at Tafaraoui (556 men) and Youk les Bains (350 men) respectively. The drops were characterised by navigation problems (only 10 of the 39 Douglas C-47 Skytrain aircraft dropped their paratroopers accurately) and communications problems with the French forces on the ground, however, and the extreme range forced several aircraft to force land in the desert. Nonetheless, and despite the fact that the 2/509th Parachute Infantry was scattered over the area, both airfields were captured.
At the eastern end of the ‘Torch’ operation lay the most important preliminary objective of ‘Torch’, namely the city of Algiers with its port, two airfields and extensive communications, all the objectives of Ryder’s Eastern Task Force. As the landing vessels of the Eastern Task Force were approaching the shore at midnight, as agreed at Cherchell a group of 400 French resistance fighters, under the command of Henri d’Astier de la Vigerie and José Aboulker, staged a coup, in the early hours of 8 November, within the city of Algiers. Key targets were seized, including the telephone exchange, radio station, governor’s house and the headquarters of Général de Corps d’Armée Marie Louis Koëltz’s XIX Corps d’Armée. Then Murphy drove to the residence of Général de Corps d’Armée Alphonse Pierre Juin, commander-in-chief of the Vichy French army and currently the most senior French army officer in North Africa, with a number of resistance fighters. While the resistance fighters surrounded the house, making Juin effectively a prisoner, Murphy attempted to persuade him to side with the Allies. Murphy was in for a surprise, however: Darlan, the commander of all Vichy French forces, was in Algiers on a private visit and Juin insisted on contacting the admiral. Murphy was unable to persuade either man to side with the Allies. In the early morning the Vichy French gendarmerie arrived and released Juin and Darlan. During the day Vichy French troops who might otherwise have been resisting the invasion retook almost all the positions seized during the coup, and the city surrendered to the invaders at 18.00.
The landings were again effected in three main areas, with 7,200 British troops of Brigadier E. E. E. Cass’s 11th Brigade Group responsible for the Blida sector, 4,350 Americans of the 34th Division’s 168th Regimental Combat Team (with some 1,000 British commandos) for the Sidi Ferrouch area just to the west of Algiers, and 5,700 Americans of the 34th Division’s 39th Regimental Combat Team (plus some 200 British commandos) allocated the Cap Matifou sector just to the east of Algiers.
The landing proper was led by the 34th Division with one brigade of the 78th Division, whose other brigade remained afloat as the local reserve. Commanding the 34th Division, Ryder was given explicit command of the first wave as it was believed that the Vichy French would react more favourably to a US than a British commander. The coastal batteries had been neutralised by French resistance fighters, and one French commander openly welcomed the Allies. The British landed without opposition, and the Americans met only limited and generally ineffective short-term resistance.
As part of the Eastern Task Force’s activities, ‘Terminal’ (i) was launched on 8 November in an effort to secure for the Allies the key points of the Algiers waterfront: two British destroyers attempted to land a party of US Rangers directly onto the dock, in order to prevent the French destroying port facilities and scuttling ships, but heavy artillery fire prevented one from landing and drove the other from the docks after a few hours, leaving 250 of the infantry behind. Although the objectives (a fuel depot, a power station, the seaplane base, the port with its jetties and moles, and the port offices) were taken, the assault force had eventually to surrender.
During the afternoon of 8 November Darlan was authorised by the Vichy French government to negotiate a local armistice through the agency of Juin. On 9 November Clark arrived in Algiers and on 10 November arranged a ceasefire for the rest of North Africa.
As the limited fighting of the landing proper died down, it quickly became clear that Giraud lacked the personal authority to take command of the French forces in the manner which the Allies had hoped. With the support of Roosevelt and Churchill, Eisenhower therefore made agreements with Darlan for the latter to be given control of the French if he joined the Allied side. Général de Brigade Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle, the leader of the Free French movement, responded with fury. The problem did not vanish when a local French anti-Nazi, Ferdinand Bonnier de la Chapelle, assassinated Darlan on 24 December, Giraud then being installed in Darlan’s place.
When Adolf Hitler found out what Darlan intended to do, meanwhile, he had immediately ordered the occupation of Vichy France in 'Anton', the seizure of the Vichy French fleet in Toulon in 'Lila' and the reinforcement of the German forces in Africa in 'Braun' (ii).
The leadership of the French in North Africa, initially in the form of Darlan and Giraud, at first remained resolutely Vichyist in its policies, but was gradually forced to take part in the war effort against Nazi Germany, to democratise, to eliminate its principal Vichyist leaders, and eventually to amalgamate with the French National Committee of London. The Comité Français de la Libération Nationale born of this fusion passed in a few months to the authority of de Gaulle despite Roosevelt’s opposition, and became the recognised government of France.
Meanwhile Anderson had arrived in Algiers on 9 November and started the organisation of his Allied 1st Army for the 380-mile (610-km) drive on Tunis and Bizerte, the Allies’ two main targets in Tunisia. The planners were worried, however, by the fact that under the able and energetic leadership of Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Süd’, the Axis powers had started to deliver German and Italian troops into Tunisia from 9 November in 'Braun' (ii). First to arrive were a number of fighters and dive-bombers to protect the Axis beach-head area from the disruptive efforts of Allied forces, and these were followed by Luftwaffe ground personnel to open the Tunisian end of the air bridge to ferry Axis ground forces, which began to arrive from 11 November in the form, under the command of Oberst Hans-Wolfgang Lederer, of the 5th Fallschirmjägerregiment and 104th Panzergrenadierregiment, the Italians following on 12 November with the leading elements of Generale di Divisione Fernando Conte Gelich’s 1a Divisione montagna ‘Superga’. The forces were readily available in the form of the reinforcements standing by in Sicily and southern Italy for movement to Rommel’s Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee in the Western Desert, and by the end of November some 15,000 troops had been airlifted into Tunisia and another 1,900 (plus heavy weapons and supplies) had been delivered by sea.
The headquarters of the initial command formation, Generalleutnant Walther Nehring’s XC Corps, was established on 16 November, Nehring himself arriving one day later, and the Axis powers were then able to expand and consolidate their initial lodgement. The French were initially in two minds about the approach they should adopt to the Axis powers in Tunisia, where the ports and airfields of Tunis and Bizerte had soon been occupied, for their local commander, Général de Corps d’Armée Georges Edmond Lucien Barré, had received no directive from Darlan or from France. So between 8 and 10 November the Vichy French forces in Tunisia left the whole country open to the Germans, withdrawing to the Algerian border. From 14 November Barré received a number of instructions from Juin ordering resistance, but waited until 18 November to begin fighting against the Germans, and quickly received assistance from the advancing British forces.
Even so, it was only in mid-November that a weak cordon was thrown around the area in which the Germans and Italians were establishing their combined air- and beach-heads. By November 1942 the Axis forces had already decided that in the aftermath of their defeat in the 2nd Battle of El Alamein their best opportunity for a sustained defence in North Africa lay not in Libya but farther to the west in Tunisia. This is basically rectangular in shape, with its northern and much of its eastern boundary defined by the Mediterranean. Most of the inland western border with Algeria lay astride the eastern end of the Atlas mountains. This part of the Algerian/Tunisian border was easily defended as there were only a few passes through the two north/south mountain line. In the south a second line of lower mountains limited the approaches to a narrow gap, facing Libya to the east, between these Matmata hills and the coast.
Before World War II the French had constructed, over an area 12.5 miles (20 km) wide and 18.5 miles (30 km) deep, a series of strong defensive works known as the Mareth Line along this plain in order to check any an Italian invasion from Libya. Only northern Tunisia had terrain that favoured the attack: here the Atlas mountains ended near the eastern coast, leaving a large area on the north-western coast unprotected. In overall terms, therefore, Tunisia offered the Axis powers a good and easily defended base of operations. Defensive lines in the north could deal with the Allied forces approaching from the west after ‘Torch’, and the Mareth Line made the continued westward advance of the 8th Army difficult. In between these two regions, there were only a few easily defended passes though the Atlas mountains. Tunisia also possessed two major ports at Tunis and Bizerte, each of them only a few hundred miles from Italian supply bases on Sicily. Supplies could be brought in at night, when the convoys would be shielded largely from the depredations of British air patrols, stay and unload during the day, and then return to Sicily during the following night. The passage from Italy to Libya, by contrast, lasted a full day, and this rendered supply convoys vulnerable to daylight air attacks.
In Hitler’s opinion, the Axis forces could hold Tunisia for many months at the very least, thereby disjointing Allied plans for operations on the mainland of Europe.
By 10 November French opposition to the ‘Torch’ landings in Morocco and Algeria had ended, thereby leaving a military vacuum in Tunisia. Anderson therefore ordered Brigadier A. L. Kent-Lemon’s British 36th Brigade, which had been the floating reserve for the ‘Torch’ landing at Algiers, to be delivered eastward by sea to eastern Algeria and western Tunisia for the occupation of the ports of Bougie, Philippeville and Bône and also of the airfield at Djedjelli before advancing into Tunisia. Allied planning staff had previously ruled out an assault landing in Tunisia for lack of adequate troop numbers and the threat of Axis air power. In the present circumstance, therefore, the 1st Army had to push its limited strength eastward into Tunisia before the Axis powers could build a potent defensive capability.
Despite the fact that they had available only two brigade groups and some additional armour and artillery for an attack into Tunisia, the Allies believed that rapid advance would allow them to take Tunisia, at comparatively little cost, before the Axis powers could organise an effective defensive force. The French authorities in Tunisia were undecided about the side they should support, and therefore denied access to Tunisian airfields to neither side. As early as 9 November there were reports of 40 German aircraft arriving at Tunis, and by 10 November Allied air reconnaissance reported the arrival of 100 aircraft. Two days later there started an airlift to deliver into Tunisia more than 15,000 men and 581 tons of supplies, and by the end of November the 'Braun' (ii) air and sea efforts had delivered three German divisions (including Generalleutnant Wolfgang Fischer’s 10th Panzerdivision) and two Italian divisions.
However, the French commander in Tunisia, Barré, distrusted the Italians and ordered the forces under his command to move into the mountains and establish a defensive line from Téboursouk to Medjez el Bab, and additionally ordered that anyone attempting to cross the line should be shot. There were two eastward roads from Algeria to Tunisia, via Bône on the coast and Constantine farther to the south, and the Allies planned to use both for their capture of Bizerte and Tunis.
On 11 November the 36th Brigade had landed unopposed at Bougie, about one-third of the way from Algiers to Bône, but logistic difficulties meant that the brigade to reach Djedjelli and its important afield by road only on 13 November to open the way for the advance to Tunisia by Evelegh’s 78th Division. The airfield at Bône was occupied on 12 November following a parachute drop by the 3/Parachute, and No. 6 Commando then arrived to seize the port. The 36th Brigade’s advanced guard reached Tebarka and Djebel Abiod on 15 and 18 November respectively, and on the latter date made the 1st Army’s contact with the Axis forces, which had advanced to the west from their initial perimeter near Mateur along the road via Sedjenane to Djebel Abiod.
Farther to the south, part of the US 2/509th Parachute Infantry had on 15 November made an unopposed drop at Youks les Bains, capturing the airfield there, before advancing to take the airfield at Gafsa on 17 November.
On 19 November Nehring demanded passage for his forces across the bridge over the Medjerda river at Medjez el Bab after advancing from St Cyprien, but Barré refused. The Germans attacked twice and were repulsed, but the French had sustained heavy casualties and, lacking armour and artillery, were obliged to withdraw. Despite the fact that some elements of the Armée d’Afrique, such as those controlled by Barré, had now sided with the Allies, the stance of much of the French strength in North Africa had remained uncertain. On 22 November, the French forces in North Africa finally acceded to the Allied camp, allowing the French garrison troops to be used in front-line combat, so increasing Anderson’s strength from two to three corps.
By this time the Axis powers had been able to concentrate a whole corps in Tunisia, and the Axis forces outnumbered their Allied counterparts in most respects. Two Allied brigade groupings (36th Brigade and Cass’s 11th Brigade also of the 78th Division) advanced towards Djebel Abiod and Béja respectively. The Axis air forces were currently in a position of air superiority over Tunisia as they were operating from nearby airfields while the Allied air strength was still operating from more distant bases in Algeria, and used their superiority to harass the two brigade groupings. On 17 November the leading elements of the 36th Brigade on the northern road met a mixed force of 17 tanks and 400 paratroops with self-propelled guns at Djebel Abiod: they knocked out 11 tanks, but their advance was checked as the fighting continued for nine days.
The leading elements of Lieutenant General C. W. Allfrey’s British V Corps, the two Allied columns now concentrated at Djebel Abiod and Béja prepared for an attack on 24 November: the 36th Brigade was to advance from Djebel Abiod toward Mateur and the 11th Brigade was to move down the valley of the Medjerda river to take Medjez el Bab and then advance to Tebourba, Djedeida and Tunis. ‘Blade’ Force, an armoured regimental group, was to advance across country on minor roads in the gap between the two infantry brigades towards Sidi Nsir and make flanking attacks on Tebourba and Djedeida. The northern attack did not take place, however, as very heavy rain had slowed the build-up of the 36th Brigade. In the south the 11th Brigade were halted by stiff resistance at Medjez el Bab. ‘Blade’ Force passed through Sidi Nsir and reached the Chouigui pass to the north of Tebourba. Then part of ‘Blade’ Force infiltrated behind Axis lines to the newly activated air base at Djedeida in the afternoon and destroyed more than 20 Axis aircraft but, lacking infantry support, was not in a position to consolidate its gains and withdrew to Chouigui.
The attack of ‘Blade’ Force caught the Germans off guard, and Nehring decided to pull back from Medjez el Bab and and strengthen his hold on Djedeida, only 18.5 miles (30 km) from Tunis.
The 36th Brigade’s delayed attack finally started on 26 November, but the British force was ambushed on the road between the Djebel Azzaq and the Djebel Ajred, just to the east of Sedjenane, and its leading battalion suffered 149 casualties. Further attacks were driven back from well-sited defences with interlocking fields of fire. A supporting landing by No. 1 Commando sone 14 miles (23 km) to the west of Bizerte on 30 November in an attempt to outflank the Jefna position failed, and the commando had rejoined the 36th Brigade by 3 December. The position remained in German hands until the last days of fighting in Tunisia during May 1943.
Early on 26 November, as the Germans withdrew, the 11th Brigade reached Medjez el Bab without opposition, and by a time late in the same day had taken positions in and around Tebourba, which had also been evacuated by the Germans, preparatory to advancing on Djedeida. However, on 27 November the Germans attacked in strength from the southern flank and the 11th Brigade’s attempt to regain the initiative in the early hours of 28 November, in the form of an attack toward Djedeida airfield with the help of US armour, failed.
On 29 November Combat Command B of Ward’s 1st Armored Division had concentrated for an attack in conjunction with ‘Blade’ Force planned for 2 December. The Allied force was pre-empted by an Axis spoiling attack, led by Fischer’s 10th Panzerdivision, which had only just arrived in Tunisia. By the evening of 2 December ‘Blade’ Force had been pulled back, leaving the 11th Brigade and Combat Command B to deal with the Axis attack. This threatened to cut off the 11th Brigade and break through into the Allied rear, but four days of hard fighting delayed the Axis advance and permitted a controlled withdrawal to the high ground on each side of the river to the west of Tebourba. The Allied force initially withdrew some 6 miles (10 km) to the high ground of ‘Longstop Hill’ (Djebel el Ahmera) and Bou Aoukaz on each side of the river, but fears of flanking attack then led to a further withdrawal to the west so that by the end of 10 December the Allied units held a defensive line just to the east of Medjez el Bab. Here they started a build-up for another attack, which had been readied by a time late in December.
The continued but slow build-up had brought Allied strength to 54,000 British, 73,800 US and 7,000 French troops. A hasty intelligence review showed that there were about 125,000 combat and 70,000 service troops, mostly Italian, in front of them. The main attack began during the afternoon of 22 December, and despite rain and insufficient air cover, progress was made up the lower ridges of the 900-ft (270-m) ‘Longstop Hill’, which controlled the river corridor from Medjez el Bab to Tebourba, and thence to Tunis. After three days of see-saw combat, with ammunition running low and Axis forces now holding adjacent high ground, the ‘Longstop Hill’ position became untenable and the Allies were forced to withdraw to Medjez el Bab. By 26 December the Allies had withdrawn to the line from which they had advanced two weeks earlier, having suffered 20,743 casualties.
The Allied run for Tunis had been stopped, for Anderson had been unable to bring his full strength to bear as a result of logistic inadequacies in his rear and the inability of the divided Allied air command to furnish the right type of air support.
As the fighting subsided, factional in-fighting erupted once more among the French. As noted above, On 24 December Darlan was assassinated and Giraud succeeded him as high commissioner. To the frustration of the Free French, the US government had revealed itself willing to reach an accord with Darlan and the Vichy French. Darlan’s death now appeared to present an opportunity to bring together the French in North Africa and de Gaulle’s Free French movement. de Gaulle and Giraud met late in January 1943, but made little progress in reconciling their differences or the constituencies they represented. It was not until June 1943 that the CFLN was formed under the joint chairmanship of the Giraud and de Gaulle, and then de Gaulle quickly eclipsed Giraud, who openly disliked political responsibility and increasingly subordinated himself to de Gaulle.
There were also problems for the Axis forces in Tunisia. Despite being considered an excellent field commander, Nehring had constantly infuriated his superiors with his outspoken criticism of the way in which the campaign was being run. The Axis solution was to upgrade the XC Corps into the 5th Panzerarmee, command of which was assumed by Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen von Arnim. The new commander arrived in Tunis unannounced on 8 December and assumed control of an army comprising Generalleutnant Friedrich Freiherr von Broich’s Division ‘von Broich’ (from 5 February Oberst Hasso-Eccard Freiherr von Manteuffel’s Division ‘von Manteuffel’) in the Bizerte area, the 10th Panzerdivision in the centre in front of Tunis, and Gelich’s 1a Divisione on the southern flank. Before his departure for Tunisia, von Arnim had been told by Hitler that the 5th Panzerarmee was to be reinforced to three Panzer and three Panzergrenadier divisions under the overall Italian control of the Comando Supremo, though von Arnim was to be answerable directly to Kesselring in the latter’s capacity as the Oberbefelhshaber ‘Süd’.
The Allies had made a major effort to prevent the Axis build-up, committing substantial air and sea forces to the task. However, Tunis and Bizerte were only 120 miles (190 km) from the ports and airfields of western Sicily, 180 miles (290 km) from Palermo and 300 miles (485 km) from Naples, making it very difficult to intercept Axis transports which had the benefit of substantial air cover. Between mid-November and January, 243,000 men and 856,000 tons of supplies and equipment arrived in Tunisia by sea and air.
Eisenhower, meanwhile, transferred further units from Morocco and Algeria eastward into Tunisia. In the north, Anderson’s 1st Army over the next three months received Major General W. E. Clutterbuck’s 1st Division, Major General J. L. I. Hawkesworth’s 4th Division and Major General H. A. Freeman-Attwood’s 46th Division to supplement Major General C. F. Keightley’s 6th Armoured Division and Evelegh’s 78th Division.
By a time late in March a second British headquarters, that of Lieutenant General J. T. Crocker’s IX Corps, had arrived to supplement the V Corps in intermediate-level control of the expanded army.
On the right of the British the basis of a two-division French formation, Koëltz’s XIX Corps d’Armée, was being built, and in the south was Fredendall’s II Corps, eventually to consist of the majority of six divisions (Allen’s 1st Division, Anderson’s 3rd Division, Eddy’s 9th Division, Ryder’s 34th Division, Ward’s 1st Armored Division and Harmon’s 2nd Armored Division).
By this stage Giraud had rejected Eisenhower’s plan to have the French corps under the command of Anderson’s 1st Army, and for the moment the French XIX Corps d’Armée and US II Corps remained under direct command of Allied Force Headquarters.
Another major aspect of the Allied build-up was the construction of new airfields and the improvement of air support capability. The USA also started to develop a complex of logistics bases in Algeria and Tunisia, with the eventual goal of forming a large forward base at Maknassy, on the eastern edge of the Atlas mountains, in excellent position to cut Rommel’s Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee, retreating to the west through Libya toward south-eastern Tunisia, from its lines of supply to Tunis and thus isolate it from the 5th Panzerarmee in the north. On 24 December Eisenhower visited Anderson and was forced to agree that a rapid capture of northern Tunisia was now out of the question.
In January 1943 German troops under Rommel, retreating westward from Libya, reached south-eastern Tunisia. The 8th Army, moving in pursuit of Rommel’s forces from the east, halted around Tripoli to allow reinforcements to arrive and to build up the Allied advantage. In the west Anderson’s forces came under attack on 14 February at Faid Pass and on 19 February at Kasserine Pass. The Allied forces retreated in disarray until heavy reinforcements blunted the German advance on 22 February. Alexander arrived in Tunisia late in February to assume the theatre command role after being elevated to command of the new 18th Army Group on 19 February.
The Germans attacked again in the east at Medenine on 6 March, but were repulsed. Rommel counselled Hitler to allow a full retreat but was denied and on 9 March Rommel left Tunisia to be replaced by von Arnim, who had to spread his forces over 100 miles (160 km) of northern Tunisia.
These setbacks forced the Allies to consolidate their forces and develop their lines of communication and administration so that they could support a major offensive. The 1st and 8th Armies then attacked the Axis forces on two fronts. There followed hard fighting in ‘Vulcan’, but the Allied 'Retribution' naval and 'Flax' air operations cut off the Axis forces from support and evacuation between Tunisia and Sicily. On 6 May the British took Tunis and US forces reached Bizerte, and by 13 May the remaining Axis forces in Tunisia had surrendered.