The Northwest Africa Campaign
Northwest Africa was a strategic goal for both the Allies and the Axis since the fall of France in 1940. Germany's conquest left the French-held territories in North Africa open to occupation, while the British were eager to keep Germany away from French North Africa and its military installations. The British were fearful that Germany and Italy, already in Northeast Africa, would bring reinforcements through Italy.
The campaign offered both political and military benefits. On the home front, Roosevelt believed that military action in Northwest Africa would stimulate morale among Americans while putting U.S. forces into action. It was also a way to placate Stalin, who had been calling for a second front against Germany. At the same time, an invasion of the region would provide a staging ground for action against Italy while putting pressure on Rommel, who was wreaking havoc in the east.
Roosevelt and Churchill first discussed a joint military campaign in French North Africa at the Atlantic Conference in August 1941, when both men acknowledged that U.S. involvement in the war was just a matter of time. During other meetings in December 1941 and January 1942, the two leaders discussed the idea in greater detail, confident that action in Northwest Africa would help put additional pressure on Hitler.
The campaign was slow to start, however, because of international political problems. For example, the United States had established diplomatic ties with the Vichy government in France, but the British refused because they viewed it as a German puppet government. Relations between Great Britain and Free France, led by Charles de Gaulle, had also taken a bruising. The Royal Navy had attacked French warships to keep them from coming under German control — an act that also enraged the Vichy French. As a result, Great Britain could not contemplate acting alone in French North Africa; diplomacy dictated that others also take part.
Figure 5-1 From a Coast Guard-manned sea-horse landing craft, American troops leap forward to storm a North African beach during final amphibious maneuvers.
Photo courtesy of the National Archives (James D. Rose, Jr., ca 1944, 26-G-2326)
The situation changed dramatically in June 1942 when Rommel's Afrika Korps made substantial gains in Libya and left the Eighth Army in temporary disarray. Churchill met with Roosevelt on June 17 to discuss the issue and agreed on a plan to land in North Africa. The plan was code-named Torch.
The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff were uncomfortable with the plan, preferring a larger, more forceful landing in Europe. But they were overruled by Roosevelt, who felt that Operation Torch was a necessary endeavor. Plans for the operation were made during the summer of 1942, as the Soviets continued their push for a second front. Churchill finally told Stalin about Operation Torch in August after Stalin insinuated that the Soviet Union was doing all the fighting against Hitler while the British stood idly by.