Operation Torch: An Intelligence Nightmare

21 Nov

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With America’s entry into the Second World War following Japan’s attack on the moored, slumbering American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7th, 1941, the United States military, lead by Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, immediately set about designing plans to cope with the war the United States, which up to this point had been almost completely unprepared, was cast into. The United States military had previously designed plans regarding a potential Japanese military effort in Southeast Asia directed against the United States military and naval forces, code named Plan Orange. This plan essentially dictated focusing a defensive effort against the Japanese, primarily by protecting the Panama Canal, which would remain nominally under American control until 2000 (on par with the Torrijos-Carter Treaties of 1977), while also protecting America’s Pacific interests, including Hawaii, from Japanese attack. Thus, the United States would focus the brunt of its military forces against the might of the German military, and, once they had been beaten to the point of surrender, the United States would withdraw these forces for the ultimate offensive effort against the Japanese. Yet, as the war ground on into 1942, Marshall, among a vast swathe of others, realized that it would not be that simple. With the Japanese military landing forces in the Solomon Isles and New Guinea as early as May 1942, and with the entry of Rommel’s Afrika Korps into Libya that February, the United States would be forced to fight a two front war. If the Solomons and New Guinea fell, Australia, the last remaining ally of the United States next to the Kuomintang Chinese under the corrupt and distrustful Chiang kai-Shek, would fall. And if the United States did not deploy troops to Europe, the British and Commonwealth forces defending western Egypt would collapse, yet Rommel had not yet tested the measure of their resolve, and he soon would, at El Alamein. 

In the spring of 1942, the British and American military figureheads, such as Harold Alexander and Dwight Eisenhower, began to conduct meetings in London regarding the defensive posture of the Allied armies in North Africa and the potential for offensive action into Europe, namely around northwestern France. Since America’s entry into the war, its commanders had been focusing the majority of their energy on offensive operations into France, composing such operations as Roundup, Sledgehammer, and Roundhammer, yet due to situations unfurling in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy, each of these would eventually suffer the fate of many other operations, and be forced to gather dust upon the drawing board. It would not be until January 1944 that an Allied invasion of France would be even remotely possible, and even so, it would not be until June of that same year that it could be conducted and executed. After placing an immense amount of pressure on the British Admiralty to execute an offensive operation to test the strength of German shore defenses around the coastal village of Dieppe, six thousand Canadian infantrymen and British Commandos under Lord Louis Mountbatten were decimated on August 19th, 1942, during Operation Jubilee. Jubilee successfully proved with blood-soaked fact that an amphibious landing of France in 1942 was physically impossible with the current state of the Allied armies in Europe, and if it could be done, the Allies would have to pin the German forces down anywhere they could with a strong, orchestrated effort. And so, with that, the Americans knew they would have to focus their energy not on France, but on North Africa, namely around French Morocco and Algeria. 

In late summer 1942, plans code-named Operation Gymnast were drawn up the American strategists in London. The operational details regarded Morocco and Algeria, and opening a potential second front in North Africa to pin Rommel down on two separate, untenable fronts (safe for the fact that American troops had no combat experience). By July 1942, the situation had become dangerously grave in Egypt, with the Afrika Korps pushing the British Eighth Army under General Sir Bernard Montgomery within one hundred miles of Cairo to the diminutive coastal train station known as El Alamein. After the collapse of Neil Ritchie and Claude Autchinleck’s attempts to halt Rommel, Montgomery and Alexander were the last two British generals in Africa capable of halting Rommel’s advance on Cairo, and an immense pressure was forced upon them by this task. If they failed, Rommel could take Suez and push into Palestine and the Middle East, and, if the Soviets were crushed at Stalingrad, Rommel could link up with Erich von Manstein in the Caucasus region in Georgia and Azerbaijan, sealing the fate of the Allies. Every hope rested on the shoulders of Montgomery.

Gymnast had been authored with regard to intelligence supplied to the Americans via Robert Daniel Murphy, the American consul in Algiers, who assured the Americans that if they were to land, the French forces would not open fire. Considering Vichy France’s treaty with Nazi Germany in summer 1940, as well as Britain’s bombing of a French task force at Mers-el-Kebir in July 1940, the Americans were worried that the French would be spiteful against Allied forces landing on French territory. Yet Murphy reassured them that they would hold their fire. To help solidify American strategical opinion regarding the French, General Mark W. Clark was dispatched to discuss the situation with the commander of Vichy French forces in North Africa, General Henri Giraud, aboard the British Royal Navy submarine HMS Seraph. In order to gain information regarding French stance toward American forces, Clark offered Giraud the position of commander of all French forces in North Africa, yet Giraud was greedy, and wanted more. Giraud demanded that Clark give unto him the position of commander of all Allied forces during the landings in North Africa, yet Clark was forced to inform him that that position had already been given to another, Dwight Eisenhower, and that Giraud could either take or leave the position Clark was poised to grant him. In the end, Giraud chose to remain apathetic to the Allied landings, refused the position, and gave Clark a relatively vague response to his questions regarding the landings, which continued to make the intelligence surrounding the landing even more muddy. In early November 1942, with the date of the landing for Gymnast, now renamed Torch, just around the corner, the British under Montgomery successfully dealt a severe blow to the Germans at El Alamein, forcing them into a full-fledged retreat in the direction of Tunisia, and of the American armies poised to land in Morocco and Algeria. And with that, the demise of the Afrika Korps followed suit. 

In the early morning hours of November 8th, 1942, with the Americans under George S. Patton and Lloyd Fredendall preparing to land, a last minute decision to pass out white armbands labelled with the American flag were handed out to the American forces as they began to depart. They were told to slide them onto their arms and that the idea behind them was to ensure that once they landed, the French would recognize them as Americans and hold their fire. Up until the morning of the landings, the Americans still did not know whether or not the French would open or hold their fire as the Americans landed, and, much to their surprise and cementing their fears, the French fired upon the Americans as they came ashore. Yet it would be only a matter of time before the French resistance in Africa collapsed, and the Americans would be forced to fight a much greater, more experienced foe: the Afrika Korps. 

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