The Second World War spread to Africa on June 10, 1940, when the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini led his ill-prepared nation into the conflict. The British rapidly conquered the Italian colonies of Somaliland, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. In early 1941 they routed an Italian army in Cyrenaica and seemed about to conquer Italy’s last African stronghold, Libya. But in reality the North African campaign had just begun, for in February 1941 there came to the aid of the Italians two German divisions under the command of Lt. Gen. Erwin Rommel. Problems of supply plagued Rommel’s Afrika Korps from the first. British ships and aircraft from Egypt and Malta ravaged the convoys that plied the Mediterranean between Italy and the Libyan ports of Tripoli and Benghazi. Rommel nonetheless prevailed for a year and a half. In mid-1942 he seemed on the verge of conquering Egypt until the British Eighth Army under General Sir Claude Auchinleck stopped him in July at the first battle of El Alamein. A renewed bid for Egypt failed the next month at Alam Halfa. Both sides then began to prepare for a decisive contest in the fall.
As the antagonists faced each other uneasily in the Egyptian desert, an Allied expeditionary force assembled in British and American ports. Its destination was the French colonies of Morocco and Algeria, far to Rommel’s rear. The decision to invade Northwest Africa was the result of a long and somewhat acrimonious debate between the British and their American allies. At the ARCADIA Conference, which had convened in Washington on December 22, 1941, Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt had approved two strategic plans. The first, BOLERO, had called for a marshaling of forces in Great Britain for an invasion of the Continent. The second, SUPER-GYMNAST had envisioned Anglo-American landings in Northwest Africa to destroy Rommel and block a much-feared German move into Spain.’
Washington had soon questioned the feasibility of SUPER-GYMNAST. The Americans argued that the shortage of shipping would so limit the size of the landing force that there was little prospect of success without the support of the French colonial authorities. And it was doubtful, they stressed, that officials of the German-dominated government of Marshal Henri Petain would aid the Allied enterprise. Equally questionable, in the American view, was the assumption that the Spanish would, or could, forestall a German effort to cut the supply lines of the invading force by seizing Gibraltar. That would leave the Allies perilously dependent upon a single railroad line from the distant Atlantic port of Casablanca.
These considerations led the Americans to propose in April 1942 that SUPER-GYMNAST canceled in favor of a maximum effort to invade France in order to relieve German pressure on the Soviet Union. Their plan called for a small invasion in the fall of 1942. This operation, SLEDGEHAMMER, designed only to seize a beachhead. An invasion in overwhelming force, ROUNDUP, was to follow in April 1943. The British agreed to this plan only with serious reservations. In June, Churchill urged that a revised and enlarged SUPER-GYMNAST be substituted for SLEDGEHAMMEHR. He based his plea upon an undeniable fact: The construction of landing craft had lagged so badly that the Allies could land no more than six divisions in France in 1942. Even if so small a force managed to survive, Churchill argued, too few Germans would be drawn from the Eastern Front to help the beleaguered Soviets. Roosevelt, strongly supported by the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, resisted a change of plans. But in July Churchill flatly refused to invade the continent in 1942. From this refusal there could be no appeal, for most of the men for SLEDGEHAMMER would have had to be British. The Americans, anxious to get their army into action and to do something to aid the Soviets, agreed to a rehabilitated SUPER-GYMNAST in 1942, with ROUNDUP to follow in 1943.
TORCH, the invasion of French North Africa, was the Allies’ first major amphibious invasion of the war. It was conceived and executed in very short order. Planning began with Roosevelt’s final approval on July 25, 1942; D-day was November 8. The ultimate objective was Tunisia, the anvil upon which the Eighth Army was to break Rommel. But a prudent regard for German air power dictated that the invaders should not hazard their fleet by landing in Tunisia itself. Fighters from Gibraltar and Malta, the closest Allied bases, could not reach Tunisia; German bombers from Italy, Sicily, and Sardinia could do so easily. Allied planners therefore decided to descend first upon Morocco and Algeria.
On D-day, an entirely American force of 34,000 landed on the Atlantic coast of Morocco and captured Casablanca to guard against a German attack through Spain. A second American force of 31,000 came ashore in western Algeria to take the port of Oran. The easternmost landing was made near Algiers in central Algeria by an Anglo-American force of 31,000 under a British commander, Lt. Gen. K.A.N. Anderson. A few of the approximately 1,700 British and American aircraft committed to TORCH were flown onto improvised fields from Gibraltar and from an American aircraft carrier to protect the landing and to provide cover for the thrust into Tunisia. Efforts to arrange a friendly reception from local French officials loyal to Petain failed. But French resistance was generally half-hearted, and the Allies secured their objectives within a few days. On November 11, 1942, the French colonial authorities signed an armistice agreement with the Allied commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and changed sides.
The movement of convoys toward Africa from England and America had not escaped the attention of the Axis. Mussolini and the German Commander in Chief, South, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, had correctly concluded that the Allies would land in French North Africa. They were unable, however, to effect strong countermeasures. Hitler had tried to conciliate the French since the armistice of 1940. He had left southern France unoccupied and had not sought to introduce German forces into France’s African colonies. He was loathe to depart from this policy on the strength of Mussolini’s speculations. He and Reichsmarschall Hermann Goring, in any case, were of the opinion that the Allies would probably land in southern France. The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), on the other hand, first expected the blow at Dakar in French West Africa and then in Libya. In this last error the OKW was seconded by its Italian counterpart, the Commando Supremo. Although Kesselring was unable to move a German division to Sicily for possible use in North Africa, he did succeed in raising the strength of the Luftwaffe there and on Sardinia to about 400 fighters and bombers. The distance to Algiers was such, however, that the German bombers were unable to operate effectively against the Allied fleet.
Although TORCH achieved strategic surprise, the Germans were quick to respond. On November 9, the day after the invasion, German troops began to arrive in Tunisia from Italy. By the end of the month, aerial convoys of Junkers Ju 52 transport aircraft had ferried in more than 15,000 men. Heavy equipment and an additional 2,000 men arrived by convoy at the principal Tunisian ports of Tunis and Bizerte. On November 14, General Walter Nehring arrived to take command of the rapidly forming German force, the Fifth Panzerarmee. The transfer of 155 aircraft to Tunisia raised German strength in North Africa, Sicily, and Sardinia to nearly 700 combat aircraft by the end of December.