Allied landing in North Africa

ADMIRAL MEZEVIRIS

The naval war of the Mediterranean 1939-1945

The allied landing in North Africa

(source: G. Mezeviris  Vice- Admiral R.H.N.,"The Conclusions of

the Naval War of the Mediterranean 1939-1945", Athens 1961)

 

“In order to create a second front as soon as possible, the Americans proposed to establish in 1942 a bridgehead in Western Europe by landing in North France and the following year undertake a large scale operation in that area.  The British on the other hand considered this operation premature and realizing the importance of the Mediterranean for the development of the entire war effort, insisted that the situation in the Mediterranean ought to be cleared first.

 

It was thus agreed to execute a landing in North Africa in the fall of 1942.

 

According to the plan, with the initial landing a bridgehead was to be created in the area of Algeria in Western Mediterranean on one hand and in the Atlantic shore of Morocco, on the other.  Then, by a coordinated exploitation of these bridgeheads control could be secured of the French Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.  The end objective was the annihilation of the Axis armies in North Africa.  

 

Given that there were no enough available forces for simultaneous landings in all the ports of the French North Africa and in order to avoid sending naval forces in the especially dangerous area of Bizerta, it was initially agreed to seize Oran and Algiers on the Mediterranean shore and Casablanca and Safi on the Morocco shore.

 

When the Allies were deciding this operation they were considering it very risky for various reasons.  Among other, the disposable land forces were relatively meager; any delay of the landings due to weather conditions would annihilate the surprise advantage and it was not clear how the French forces in the area would react.   In addition, it is probable that the Allies were not well aware of the Axis weaknesses in the Mediterranean - as we have previously presented [see: “The British counterattack in North Africa”] - and the forceful immobilization of the Italian battle Fleet.

 

In any case, the naval forces assigned to the operation were very powerful and had been distributed in 3 teams.  The first, wholly American, was destined to the landing land in Morocco, disposed 3 battleships, 5 aircraft carriers, 6 cruisers, around 40 destroyers and various other small ships and was scheduled to transport armies of 35,000 men.  The second team that would execute a landing in the area of Oran, was transporting 39,000 men of the American Army that had boarded in England and disposed 1 battleship, 1 aircraft carrier, 2 escort airplane carriers, 1 a/a cruiser, 13 destroyers and other small ships.  Finally, the team that had Algiers as destination, was transporting 33,000 British and American troops from England and disposed 2 aircraft carriers, 3 cruisers, 1 monitor, 3 a/a ships, 13 destroyers and various small ships. In addition to those, there was a covering force in the Mediterranean with 2 battleships, 1 battle cruiser, 2 aircraft carriers, 4 light cruisers and 17 destroyers.

 

Admiral Cunningham took over as Commander in Chief of all the Allied naval forces, under the orders of General Eisenhower, Commander in Chief of the Allied forces of all three Corps.

 

The two teams that had as destination the Mediterranean, crossed the Gibraltar Strait in the night of November 5-6, and the first landings in Algiers and Oran took place in the night of November 7-8, 1942.

 

The two teams that had as destination the Mediterranean, crossed the Gibraltar Strait the night of November 5-6, and the first landings in Algiers and Oran took place on the night of November 7-8, 1942.  Thanks to the measures taken, the two teams reached their destination without being harassed by the enemy.  The most serious danger could come from enemy submarines patrolling in the Atlantic.  The Axis however considered Dakar as most probable landing site and their submarines had gathered in that area.  When it was realized that the landing would take place on the shores of Algeria, some 30 submarines converged in the area but their reaction was insignificant, as was the enemy’s air force.

 

The only short lived opposition that was met was by the French forces, especially the Navy.   It was however a rather nerveless resistance, because the defenders had a tragic problem of conscience concerning their real duty.  Besides, even if the French forces resisted with ardor, they could have inflicted some damages to the Allies but their forces were so inferior that their resistance couldn’t prove efficient.  If it was the Navy that mainly had resisted – with ships and coast gun batteries- it should be attributed to the then recent memories of the sad and very deadly confrontations with the British Navy at Mers-el-Kébir,  Dakar and Syria.

 

Have foreseen this eventuality, the Allies had tried - at least with the first landing wave-  to give the shape of a mainly American operation and a relative land preparation had been made by the Americans. But as it was to be proved in reality, this measure didn’t wasn’t very efficient and the most important resistance was put up in Casablanca, where the operation was purely American.

 

In the area of Algiers, the troops that initially landed in 3 shores didn’t meet any serious resistance, but a certain degree of disorder was observed due to insufficient preparation for amphibious operations.  When 2 destroyers carrying American armies tried to enter in the port to forestall the destruction of its installations, they were violently hit by the naval gun batteries.  One of them was hit in the engine room and had to withdraw without entering in the port.  The other, succeeded entering the port and putting to land the troops that was carrying, but was then seriously hit, departed with difficulty and later sunk.  The troops that landed were taken prisoners.  The gun batteries were finally annihilated in the afternoon, after being bombed from air and sea.

 

The two airports near the city were soon seized and were used by the British airplanes.  The night of November 8, 1942, all French resistance seized following an instruction of the French Commander in Chief Admiral Darlan who was present in Algiers.

 

During the day of November 8, the only resistance of the Axis was the torpedoing by a submarine of a troop transport ship that succeeded to continue its course and an air attack at dusk that caused damages to 1 destroyer and 2 transport ships.

 

In the area of Oran, the Allies landed in 3 points.  In one of them, in the port of Arzew, the surprise was absolute, the ships freely entered port and all resistance seized in the afternoon of November 8.   In the other two shores, landings met no opposition at first, but some resistance was later observed that continued all the next day.

 

The 2 coastguard ships that entered the port of Oran with American troops were sunk and their personnel taken prisoners by the French ships anchored there.  3 French destroyers tried a bold sortie from the port, came upon a British cruiser and some destroyers and were soon sunk.  Another 2 were sunk the following morning by 2 British cruisers.  The Allied troop transport ships were hit from the Mers-el-Kébir fortress that was finally silenced by the guns of the battleship HMS RODNEY.   In the course of November 8, both airfields of the area were seized.  Numerous French airplanes ready to fly were destroyed there by the aircraft carriers’ planes.  In the morning of November 10, motorized units entered the city of Oran and the French surrendered, after having caused significant damages to the port installations and having sunk ships inside the port.

 

In the following days, the ports of Bougie and Bone were seized without resistance.  For the air coverage by fighters of these two landings, the seizure by landing of an air field situated 30 miles east of Bougie had been planned.  However, because of adverse sea conditions, this last landing was only made possible on November 13 and during the two days without air coverage the Axis caused several damages to the Allies.  3 troop transport ships and 1 anti aircraft ship were sunk and the monitor escorting the naval force was hit.

 

The landings in the Atlantic open beaches of Morocco could become more difficult, as they completely depended on the weather conditions.  The weather however helped the Allies and these landings were synchronized with the other.  The reaction of the French naval and air forces in this area was much more intensive.  The French ships fought with determination against much more powerful forces; the battleship JEAN BART, anchored in the naval base, continued firing even after having half-sunk and sitting on the sea bottom.  French loses were heavy.  On the night of November 10, 1942, resistance seized and the landing was completed. The following two days however, Axis submarines sunk 3 troop transport ships and caused damages to 1 destroyer and 1 tanker.

 

During the Atlantic shore landings disorder and confusion was observed, as was the case in the Mediterranean landings, due to lack of previous exercise, and several landing crafts were lost.  The Allies learned quite a lot from this operation that proved useful in the large scale amphibian operations that were later undertaken. 

 

Thanks to Admiral Darlan’s orders, who acted without approval of the Vichy Government that he represented, all French opposition had seized in the whole area in the night of November 10, 1942, and the Allies could, with their rear secured, to continue their advance towards Tunisia.  In addition, when the next day the Germans entered in the free zone of the French Metropolitan land, the French Admiral invited the Toulon Fleet to depart and head towards West Africa.  As it is known, he was not obeyed and very few ships escaped.

 

The initial plan of the Allies assumed fast advance for the seizure of the ports of Bizerta and Tunis.  Thus, according to plan, in spite of lack of sufficient transport means and torrential rains, the 1st British Army moved east but was forced to interrupt its advance some 35 miles west of Bizerta, for lack of sufficient forces for further operations.  The port of Bone that was disposing a good airport was used as advanced base.  This port, situated near the enemy sea supply sources of Bizerta and Tunis, was also appropriate for night operations against the enemy supply lines.

 

It was therefore used as a cruiser and destroyer squadron base that caused important damages to Axis transports.  On the other hand however, the enemy realizing the strategic importance of this base was executing daily air attacks, at least during the month of November when it still disposed air supremacy.  At one such air raid, a British destroyer was critically hit.”