Compare Operation Torch, the Allied landings in Vichy-French North Africa, with the D-Day landings in Normandy, and it becomes apparent just how half-hearted the defence of that territory was. Some men, of course, were killed, but where were the deadly mines and obstacles? The mass casualties? The fierce counter-attacks? Absent; and with good reason.
Back in France, Germany had only partially taken over the nation, opting to allow a sort of half-way house government that was not entirely subject to German law, the National Assembly government based in Vichy, in Southern France. That area was not occupied by German troops, and in theory war hero Marshal Philippe Pétain, commander-in-chief of the French forces and Prime Minister at the time of the invasion, had control of the area. In reality, many suspected he was merely a figurehead and a puppet of the Germans. Certainly, he helped them to round up and rid France of those considered to be ‘morally decadent’ - in other words, Jewish people, who were sent to death camps.
As Campaigns of World War II: Day by Day, edited by Chris Bishop and Chris McNab, explains, when the Allies invaded North Africa, they entered Vichy-French territory. The local forces had for some time felt torn in their loyalties. To French soldiers, because of his heroics at the Battle of Verdun in World War One, Pétain was a God and somebody they felt great loyalty to; some felt that, by preventing the Germans from invading Vichy, he had scored another victory from France, while others felt that, occupied or not, Southern France was effectively subject to German control. They were not sure which way to turn.
Suspecting this confusion, the Allied leaders had taken pains to try to prepare the ground for the invasion, as far as they dared without risking revealing the invasion strategy. For some time Robert Murphy, the Chief US Diplomat in North Africa, had been sounding out various French military men to test who might be counted on to support the Allied cause in the event of an invasion. Shortly before the landings Major General Mark Clark was smuggled ashore at Algiers by British Commandos in order to speak with General Charles Mast, the commander of the French troops at Algiers, and try to win his trust. In the event, it turned out that the approaches had been almost too subtle, and many of the possible friends approached, including General Mast, were unprepared for the invasion; still the talks had certainly muddied the waters.
The landings occurred early on 8th November 1942, in three separate locations. 102 ships, carrying 35,000 US soldiers, set off from Virginia and crossed the Atlantic to Casablanca, Morocco. 39,000 British soldiers, escorted by the Royal Navy, left the Clyde on 26th October and headed towards Oran, Algeria. Meanwhile, a third mixed task force, carrying 23,000 British soldiers and 10,000 Americans and escorted by 160 Royal Navy ships, travelled from the Clyde to Algiers, capital of Algeria. All three forces landed together on 8th November, 1942.
They met with mixed receptions. The Americans had always got on well with the French, and had expected little or no opposition, so they went in without a clear strategy in mind, and almost lost the beachhead thanks to slow perfusion of troops and moderate French resistance. The British troops were less sure of a welcome, thanks to the historic tensions between the two countries and the fact that the Royal Navy had scuttled the French fleet to prevent it from falling into German hands when the country was taken over. At Algiers they met with less hostility than they expected, so everyone was safely landed by the end of the day, while at Oran the resistance was equally light, but grew as the day went on. Generally, the resistance was light, sporadic and half-hearted. The French still could not quite decide what side they were on, that of their liberators, or that of their hero Pétain. Or were they one and the same?
In the end, it was Adolf Hitler who settled the question. Pétain’s deputy, Admiral Jean Francois Darlan, happened to be in Algiers at the time of the invasion, and Mark Clark partly persuaded him and partly bullied him to order an end to French resistance in North Africa at 11.20 on 10th November. Still, it was an uneasy truce, and a word from Pétain could have reversed their position. However, when word reached Hitler of the successful landings he was livid and decided that the French must be taught a lesson. Consequently, on 11th November he ordered the German soldiers to overrun Southern France. The minds of the French leaders in North Africa were made up. They were no friends of the Germans, and although Pétain was still technically in charge of the region, it now seemed entirely possible that he was no longer the master of his own decisions. Vichy-French North Africa must side with the Allies; the war in Africa would continue until May 1943, but, as Karen Farrington’s Witness to World War II explains, the stage was set for fresh forces to sweep east and corner Rommel’s troops, who had fled El Alamein in Egypt and retreated through Libya as far as Tunisia. Once again, Hitler’s quick temper and lack of tactical thinking had led to Germany’s downfall.