D-Day Before D-Day: The Allied Invasion of North Africa

D-Day Before D-Day: The Allied Invasion of North Africa

Nibbling away at the Nazi empire.

Coming after a series of bitter defeats from France to Norway to Crete, news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II was one of the early high points of Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s leadership years.

Great Britain now had a powerful ally in the struggle against fascism, and ultimate victory was a certainty. “So, we had won after all!” Churchill exulted. “We had won the war.” But the conduct of war is never simple, and the waging of a coalition war is fraught with challenge.

The warrior leader who had inspired his island nation when it alone ensured the survival of Western civilization in 1940 could not foresee in December 1941 just how difficult it would be to coordinate a common strategy for defeating the Axis powers. The trouble had started with the massive German invasion of Russia in June 1941.

 Acting on the principle that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Churchill rallied to the aid of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, dispatching convoys of tanks, trucks, planes, and other essential equipment that Britain could ill afford to spare. But with German troops pushing toward the gates of Moscow, Stalin demanded more on July 19. The Soviet leader was adamant about the opening of a second front to take the pressure off Russia.

With her armed forces depleted after almost two years of war and stretched so thin around the world, Britain was hardly in a condition to plan a second front—an attack across the English Channel against Nazi-occupied Europe—in 1941. When U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed in September 1941 to ship Lend-Lease matériel to Russia, Stalin again called for a second front. And he would heighten his demand during the next three years.

Britain and the United States, which was still neutral but coming to her ally’s side through Roosevelt’s strategic insight, could only hope in 1941 for Russia’s survival while calculating how to distract dictator Adolf Hitler from his eastern campaign and weaken his army at the periphery of the Nazi empire. Planning the locations and intensity of such thrusts in the Mediterranean and the Balkans, for instance, were to preoccupy Churchill for the next three years.

He was already running one such campaign in the Western Desert and had triumphed in another, the destruction of Benito Mussolini’s Italian Fascist empire in East Africa. Britain had failed in a third venture, the intervention in Greece, though she retained the power to strike again. After the ill-fated Anglo-French campaign of 1940, Norway was also a sector constantly on Churchill’s mind. Once America entered the war, the prime minister realized, it could be only a matter of time before they jointly opened a second front to breach the concrete-and-steel Atlantic Wall Hitler was building along the northern coast of France.

Four months before Pearl Harbor, Churchill and Roosevelt had agreed during their first talks in Placentia Bay on a “Germany first” policy, but most Americans, including some of FDR’s top military advisers, regarded Japan as the foe that deserved the more immediate retribution. During the first year of the Pacific War, therefore, Churchill found himself frustrated in an unfamiliar situation. He was no longer fearful of defeat, but he was equally no longer the overlord of his own nation’s strategy.

Because the British Empire could win the war only with the support of America, the awakening “arsenal of democracy,” Churchill, the foremost strategist among World War II national leaders, had no choice but to accommodate the views of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. While its members were eager and impatient, most had little or no combat experience, and few comprehended fully the magnitude of the Nazi threat. Roosevelt was inclined to follow the prime minister’s lead and listen to him, but Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest J. King were not so disposed.

The acerbic King was interested in the Pacific, where the U.S. Navy was heavily committed, to the exclusion of all other theaters, while the impassive Marshall—a first-rate organizer rather than strategist—was committed to Europe. The latter believed that a second front should take the shortest possible route into Germany at the earliest possible date, as Stalin was demanding. Marshall, therefore, became deeply suspicious of all attempts to postpone or divert effort away from this.

Churchill knew that such a venture was both impractical and perilous in 1941 or in 1942, and he shrank from committing too early. “Remember that on my breast there are the medals of the Dardanelles, Antwerp, Dakar, and Greece,” he exclaimed to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden on July 5, 1941, referring to four disastrous amphibious campaigns he had directed in the two world wars. The Allied strategy, Churchill believed and would try to impress on FDR and his generals, should be “Germany first, but not quite yet.”

It was one thing, as Churchill saw it as 1942 drew on, for the U.S. Navy and a few Marine Corps and Army divisions to invade Japanese-held islands in the Pacific and to plan wider amphibious leaps in 1943. But a second front in Europe was something quite different. It would commit the whole of the Anglo-American expeditionary forces—not easily replaced if lost—to an assault on a fortified continent defended by an army of 300 divisions that was backed by the world’s most powerful war-making machine.

In 1941 and on, Churchill found himself treading a narrow and slippery path. On the one hand, he dared not play down Britain’s commitment to a second front lest the Americans conclude that their strength would be better deployed in the Pacific; on the other hand, he could not play up the British commitment lest he got caught up in an American rush to invade the Continent before success could be reasonably guaranteed.

Churchill had nightmares about a bloodbath on the French beaches and insisted that a second front would prevail only if it was launched with overwhelming land, sea, and air strength. But trained manpower, sufficient landing craft, and vital air support were not available in 1941 or 1942. The Allies had to simply build up their strength and consider the possibility of a second front in the spring of 1943.

This was what Churchill had to tell Stalin when he went to Moscow with Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, early in August 1942. The Soviet leader was convinced that Britain and America had connived to let the German and Russian Armies bleed each other into impotence before a Western second front was launched. Churchill tried to pacify him by revealing that the Western Allies would invade North Africa later in 1942, but the crude, ruthless Soviet leader accused the British of cowardice. A furious Churchill responded with a torrent of oratory, although vodka was flowing freely and the mercurial Stalin eventually praised the North Africa plan and the valor of the British.

An assault was made on the coast of France on August 19, 1942, which underscored tragically the wisdom of Churchill’s caution about a cross-Channel invasion. In Operation Jubilee, a “reconnaissance-in-force,” 1,000 British Commandos and 5,000 Canadian troops attacked the fortified port of Dieppe, with disastrous results. Hard lessons were learned for the Normandy invasion two years later, but at the cost of 3,623 men killed, wounded, or captured. Field Marshal Brooke snorted, “It is a lesson to the people who are clamoring for the invasion of France [in 1942].”

The fiasco served to convince the American high command, even General Marshall, that an invasion of France in 1942 was now out of the question. Meanwhile, under Operation Bolero, increasing numbers of U.S. troops had been arriving in England, and Roosevelt wanted to see them committed to action that year. So, after much wrangling and deadlock among FDR, Churchill, and their military chiefs, a compromise was reached: Operation Super-Gymnast (soon renamed Operation Torch for dramatic effect). The invasion of North Africa was seen as a more realistic alternative to an immediate invasion of France.

The risks would be fewer, it would require fewer landing craft, and it would offer a less bloody baptism of fire for the untried American troops involved. The objective of the first Anglo-American offensive in World War II was to overcome Vichy French opposition, gain control of French North Africa, and eventually link up with General Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery’s Eighth Army advancing westward after its climactic victory at El Alamein. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s German-Italian Afrika Korps would be squeezed between the two forces and Allied control of Northwest Africa assured.

Torch was to be primarily an American operation, with the significant British role downplayed because of lingering animosity following the Royal Navy’s bombardment of the French Mediterranean Fleet at Mers-el-Kebir on July 3, 1940, to prevent it from falling into German hands. The operation planners believed that Vichy forces would be less hostile to American invaders than to the British.

Roosevelt and Churchill agreed on August 8, 1942, that Operation Torch—scheduled for November 8—should be led by amiable Lt. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, an obscure but able staff officer who was commanding U.S. troops in England after having served in the war plans division of the War Department. He had no combat experience. Ike’s deputy was the rangy, high-strung Maj. Gen. Mark W. Clark, a World War I infantry veteran, while Brig. Gen. James H. Doolittle, who had led the famous B-25 medium-bomber raid on Japan on April 18, 1942, was the Western air commander. Eisenhower’s other top staffers, all British, included the distinguished Admiral Sir Andrew B. Cunningham, commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet, as Allied naval leader, and abrasive Lt. Gen. Kenneth A.N. Anderson, who would lead the newly formed British First Army. Ike strove to achieve a truly unified command, operating “as though all its members belonged to a single nation.”