The North African Assault
The North African assault — the first joint endeavor between Great Britain and the United States — was put under the overall military command of Lieutenant General Dwight Eisenhower, who was a relative unknown at the time. Royal Navy Admiral Andrew Browne Cunningham was placed in command of all naval forces, and RAF Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder was put in charge of all air operations.
On October 21, 1942, Major General Mark Clark, one of Eisenhower's deputies, sailed from Gibraltar for a top secret meeting with Robert Murphy, the U.S. consul general in French North Africa, and Vichy representatives in North Africa. Clark's goal: a promise of assistance from the French or, lacking that, at least a promise that they would not interfere with an Allied landing in North Africa. After two days of talks, Clark received a promise of cooperation. In return, the French were promised a month's notice of the pending invasion — though, in fact, U.S. warships were already on their way and were expected to reach North Africa in about two weeks.
The goal of the invasion, which began November 8, was to push German and Italian forces out of North Africa by linking the invasion force with Montgomery's Eighth Army, which in October had broken through Rommel's lines at El Alamein and forced Rommel to retreat westward across Libya. Unfortunately, the Allies' plan hit a snag when their push eastward was slowed to a crawl by a lack of air support and rains that turned the roads into unpassable bogs. The Germans reacted immediately by pouring supplies and troops into Tunisia from Sicily by sea and air, capturing airfields in Tunis and Bizerte.
The airfield at Bone had been taken by British airborne troops by November 12, but Allied forces — many of them inexperienced recruits — moved too slowly to take advantage of the Axis rout in Egypt. The situation greatly angered Eisenhower, who fumed at the missed opportunities.
Allied troops on their way to Tunis, hampered by poor weather and dwindling supplies, were stopped by a smaller German force. By the beginning of the new year, the Axis had created a strong defense in Tunis with combined German-Italian forces numbering more than 100,000.
Churchill and Roosevelt were concluding their Casablanca summit in mid-January just as Montgomery and his Eighth Army was pushing westward after Rommel. Montgomery took Tripoli on January 23 and was eager and ready to drive the Axis out of North Africa.
Rommel Combines His Forces
However, the situation proved more difficult than originally thought. Rommel managed to connect his fabled Afrika Korps with a German Panzer division on the Tunisian front and then launched an offensive against Allied forces to the east. Rommel hoped his new combined army would be able to break through the Allied line and enable him to establish a new supply route at Bone.
The German force was formidable, and the antitank guns were almost invincible. American troops took heavy casualties, including the loss of forty tanks in a single battle. On February 14, the Germans broke out of the Faid area with a double thrust maneuver that effectively split the Allied lines and pushed American troops back to the Kasserine Pass, a two-mile gap in the Dorsal mountains of western Tunisia. It was there that American troops met Rommel's army on February 19. The fighting was heavy, but the U.S. forces were able to hold off the Germans. Rommel received armored reinforcements that night, and the following day — with Rommel in the lead — the Germans attacked again. The Americans fought valiantly, but they were overwhelmed and forced to withdraw. More than 1,000 U.S. soldiers died in the battle, and hundreds were taken prisoner.
From the Kasserine Pass, Rommel advanced toward Tala, 20 miles north, and Tébessa, near Algeria. It was there that Rommel would meet his match. American forces pushed the Germans back at Tébessa, then were joined by Allied forces that sent the Germans into retreat while attacking them from the air. Rommel's troops retreated through the pass and almost certainly could have been taken, but Allied ground forces missed the opportunity by hesitating to pursue them.
Map 5-1 The invasion of North Africa (Operation Torch) led by Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Map courtesy of the National Archives (RG 160, Vol. 1, No. 30)