A Place To Be Lousy In

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The British listened politely and seemed to assent, but from Churchill on down they were quietly appalled that untried American troops would think of going up against the welltrained German army that had thrown the British off the Continent two years before. If Sledgehammer failed, and there seemed no way it could succeed, the operation would be a disaster. In time the British flatly refused to go along with Marshall’s plan. Since Roundup could not be moved ahead, something else was needed to get America into the fighting by 1942. Churchill offered three possibilities: a strike at Norway, a campaign in the Middle East, or a landing in North Africa. Marshall was furious. These peripheral attacks did not strike directly at German strength. They amounted to a picador strategy of pecking away in subsidiary campaigns while the main target went untouched. And opening a secondary offensive meant postponing Roundup for at least a year.

A picador strategy was precisely what the British wanted. They did not wish to engage the German army on the Continent until it had been profusely bled elsewhere. With Sledgehammer dead, Marshall reluctantly accepted an invasion of North Africa as the “least harmful” option, but he went to his grave convinced that turning down Sledgehammer was “the blackest day in history.”

Marshall designated a promising young general with a good record as a staff officer to command the invasion. Dwight Eisenhower first drew up a plan called Gymnast for a small all-American force to land on the Atlantic coast of Africa. This was later expanded to a much larger Anglo-American operation with landings both on the Atlantic and inside the Mediterranean. Churchill personally rechristened the operation Torch. It was going to light the way for the Allied return to Europe.

Torch was enormously complicated. Nothing like it had ever been at tempted in the history of war. Three fleets, two from Great Britain and one from the United States, would traverse the Atlantic Ocean and converge on the North African coast to disgorge an invasion force in the dark. There were perils aplenty. The Western Naval Task Force would be sailing forty-five hundred miles over water that German submarines considered their private hunting ground. No one had any experience conducting a major amphibious landing. American boat crews had rehearsed in the Chesapeake Bay, but that was hardly the same as maneuvering in ocean swells. The nature of the opposition was a mystery. North Africa was held by forces controlled by the French puppet regime in Vichy, which was, in turn, controlled by the Germans. The American diplomat Robert Murphy made a clandestine visit to North Africa to bargain with the French to not oppose the American landings, but it was impossible to know if the deal would hold.

The biggest question mark was the American army. Its men were as untested as its matériel. Only a handful of officers had seen combat before. George Patton, commanding the Casablanca force, had made a name for himself in action during World War I, but Elsenhower had never heard a shot fired away from the rifle range, nor had most of the American generals. They were garrison soldiers who had known only what the British admiral Sir Cyprian Bridge once called “the cancer of the long peace.” Such a period, Bridge said, “fosters faulty methods, pedantic procedures and the spirit of the parade ground, which are usually the first casualties of war.”

The plan itself was held in suspicion by several British officers. Its principal mission was to capture Tunis and slam the door on Rommel’s forces now fighting the British 8th Army in the desert. The British said key targets in Tunisia must be taken in two weekstwenty-six days at the most. The main Allied force landing near Casablanca would be eleven hundred miles away from Tunisia.

 

Judging the efficiency of a military operation is largely a matter of perspective. Viewed as part of the great historical pageant of World War II, the landings were neatly done with all beaches made secure. To the men in the boats, it was a desperate business.

The landing at Port Lyautey to seize the only all-weather airstrip in North Africa was snafu from the start. The troops were delayed getting into their landing craft, and many were taken to the wrong beaches. Once ashore, some of the soldiers, who had never heard naval guns before and could not distinguish between incoming and outgoing fire, bolted and had to be rounded up. By the second day less than half the troops had been landed. The Army commander, Brig. Gen. Lucian Truscott, later called the disembarkation a “hit or miss affair that would have spelled disaster against a well-armed enemy.”

Truscott was troubled to find that only a fraction of his troopers actually fired their weapons, and many soldiers surrendered to the French without a struggle. It took a while for Truscott to realize why his men so lightly gave up their arms. In stateside war-game maneuvers, recruits were taught to obey the umpire. When he said you were “dead,” you were through for the day. Truscott said that instead of teaching men how to fight, peacetime training had taught them how to surrender.