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A Place To Be Lousy In
The American army that beat Hitler was thoroughly professional, but it didn’t start out that way. North Africa was where it learned the hard lessons—none harder than the disaster at Kasserine. This was the campaign that taught us how to fight a war.
December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
There was no light. Most of the soldiers in the boats couldn’t see anything, but they knew they must be close because the wind offshore brought the smell of charcoal smoke and dry grass. The first assault troops landed sometime after eight bells. The only sounds they heard were the metallic jingle of their gear and the crunch of their boots on the wet beach. Two shore-based searchlights snapped open to look for aircraft. It took a moment for the enemy to realize that danger was coming at them not from the sky but from the sea. As coastal batteries opened fire, men on the flagship Augusta heard a voice over the loudspeaker call out, “Play ball!”
The big guns of the United States Western Naval Task Force tore apart the dark sky, and the main landing force prepared to go ashore at Fedala, near Casablanca. The landing on North Africa was under way. On November 8, 1942, eleven months after Pearl Harbor, American military forces had finally crossed the Atlantic to seek out the German army and fight it.
In breaching the African coast, American soldiers, who two weeks before had been bivouacked in Norfolk, Virginia, were heading into battle on a continent where neither army wanted to be. A truism of war, however, holds that you don’t always get to fight where you want to. Sometimes the important thing is just to have a fight.
The American landing in North Africa came as a result of a long and snarled skein of events reaching back to 1940. Africa became an official theater of operations on June 28, when Benito Mussolini, thinking he could increase his prestige with an easy desert victory, declared war on Egypt. He dispatched some 250,000 troops to drive to the Suez Canal. The attack was a sound strategic idea, but his ill-trained army was not up to the tactical requirements of the job. Two British divisions under the command of Gen. Sir Richard O’Connor banged the Italians hard at Sidi Baranni, capturing, in Winston Churchill’s phrase, “five acres of officers and two hundred acres of other ranks.” O’Connor pursued the Italian army across the desert until Adolf Hitler, viewing the campaign with contempt and distaste from Berlin, decided it was time to bail out his stumbling ally. He called on Erwin Rommel, a hero of the battle for France who knew tanks as well as anyone in the war, to handle the situation. Under Rommel, the German army became, for a time, the dominant military force in Africa. It also became a target.
Targets were what American military planners were looking for in 1942. President Franklin Roosevelt had committed America to a policy of waging war against Germany first and Japan second, but so far the only American troops to take the offensive were in the Pacific. The pressure for action in the West was great. Russia had been given money and matériel, but Premier Joseph Stalin wanted to see American men fighting on the ground in Europe to divert the German army that was tearing through the Caucasus. The American press, always willing to spill someone else’s blood, added to the din. Life magazine, in July 1942, wrote that in the face of monumental Russian losses, “the war effort of the Anglo-Saxon nations is so far pitifully puny.”
Viewed as part of the pageant of the war, the landings were neatly done; to the men in the boats, it was a desperate business.
Roosevelt became convinced it was imperative that American forces be engaged in the West before the end of 1942. In the first year of American participation in the war, however, logistics shaped policy more than desire. The campaigns against Japanese-held islands in the Pacific, though bloody, were relatively minor actions when compared with the requirements of fighting in the West. Every gallon of aviation gas earmarked for the Atlantic meant one less gallon for the planes flying over Guadalcanal. As Adm. Ernest King, eager to punish Japan for Pearl Harbor, remarked, “I don’t know what the hell this ‘logistics’ is...but I want some of it.”
Army Chief of Staff George Marshall had a plan for carrying the war to Germany. He had two, in fact, but the British didn’t like either one of them. To Marshall, the issue was simple. The United States should build up its forces in Great Britain and strike across the English Channel into continental Europe at the first opportunity. He proposed Sledgehammer, a landing in France that would be something between a large-scale raid and a suicide mission. It was a perilous undertaking, but within Roosevelt’s timetable. Sledgehammer would offer itself as a sacrifice to drain German troops from the Russian front and lure the Luftwaffe into battle with the covering Royal Air Force. A second operation, Roundup, would be a full-scale invasion on the Continent. Roundup could not be launched until 1943.