Op­er­a­tion Torch: Road to Ber­lin be­gan in Africa

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Austin Bay

Vet­er­ans Day 2012 has me once again re­flect­ing on 1942, the 70th an­niver­sary of the year the tide of bat­tle changed in World War II. A 70th an­niver­sary may not seem par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant un­til we re­al­ize that by the 80th an­niver­sary, the World War II gen­er­a­tion will be gone.

Novem­ber 1942 saw the tide turn in the Euro­pean theater, with the Sec­ond Bat­tle of El Alamein, fought in Egypt from Oct. 23 to Nov. 7, and El Alamein’s strate­gic com­pli­ment, Op­er­a­tion Torch. The Torch land­ings in Morocco and Al­ge­ria be­gan Nov. 8.

That the Euro­pean war’s tide changed in North Africa should sur­prise no one fa­mil­iar with the ge­o­graphic prox­im­ity and colo­nial con­nec­tions. Tu­nisia’s cap­i­tal, Tu­nis, is 260 air miles from Si­cily; Beng­hazi, Libya, 480. In 1939, Egypt was a British client, Libya a colony of Ger­many’s Axis part­ner, Italy, and France con­trolled Tu­nisia, Al­ge­ria and Morocco. These coun­tries line the south­ern shore of the Mediter­ranean Sea and share the same vast out­back, the Sa­hara Desert.

El Alamein pit­ted Bri­tain’s 8th Army against Ger­man Gen. Er­win Rom­mel’s Panz­er­armee Afrika, bet­ter known by its orig­i­nal name, Afrika Korps. Since late 1940, British forces and Axis troops had traded of­fen­sives be­tween the Egyp­tian fron­tier and cen­tral Libya. Afrika Korps ar­rived in spring 1941.

Throughout 1941, the war see­sawed through eastern Libya, with now un­com­fort­ably fa­mil­iar cities like Beng­hazi and To­bruk fo­cal ob­jec­tives. Rom­mel wanted their sea­ports, to shorten his sup­ply line.

He had tar­gets be­yond Libya.

He in­tended to drive his tanks through Egypt and seize the Suez Canal.

Fan­ta­sists in Ber­lin thought Rom­mel might continue on to­ward Iran and its oil fields.

Rom­mel’s 1942 offensive ripped through Libya into Egypt. In July, the British de­fense at First El Alamein pre­vented Afrika Korps from seiz­ing Alexan­dria. A World War I-like stale­mate of mine­fields de­vel­oped. Rom­mel could not flank El Alamein’s bot­tle­neck. The sea an­chored its north flank. The Qat­tara De­pres­sion re­stricted any swing to the south.

In Au­gust, Gen. Bernard Mont­gomery took com­mand of a de­mor­al­ized 8th Army.

As the stale­mate con­tin­ued, Rom­mel’s sup­ply sit­u­a­tion de­te­ri­o­rated. Mont­gomery pre­pared for a de­ci­sive offensive bat­tle.

The Oc­to­ber phases of Sec­ond El Alamein would pin then shat­ter Ital­ian in­fantry; con­fuse then smash Rom­mel’s tanks.

By Nov. 2, British forces had pen­e­trated the Axis lines. Iso­lated units sur­ren­dered.

On Nov. 4, British ar­mor hit open desert.

Rom­mel’s troops be­gan a long re­treat through Libya, with Tu­nisia 1943 their last African stand.

Tu­nisia was where the al­lied strate­gic trap closed on the Axis forces. The An­glo-Amer­i­can forces of Op­er­a­tion Torch had marched east from their Moroc­can and Al­ge­rian in­va­sion beaches. Torch gave the raw Amer­i­can Army hard but use­ful com­bat ex­pe­ri­ence.

An untested gen­eral, Dwight Eisen­hower, com­manded the op­er­a­tion.

A proven warhorse, Ge­orge Patton, com­manded the unit in­vad­ing Morocco.

Torch also demon­strated an im­pres­sive Amer­i­can strate­gic au­dac­ity, one 70 years has re­fined and ex­tended. The troop con­voys car­ry­ing the Moroc­can in­va­sion force as­sem­bled along the U.S. East Coast, and then went non­stop to Africa. Amer­ica had the con­fi­dence, and equip­ment, to launch an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal am­phibi­ous as­sault.

The U.S. at­tack on Al­ge­ria in­cluded a para­chute in­fantry as­sault launched from bases in Bri­tain, 1,600 miles away.

The para­troop­ers’ planes scat­tered en route, their drop went awry, but the failed gam­ble pro­vided an ed­u­ca­tion in com­plex mod­ern com­bat op­er­a­tions.

Win­ston Churchill rec­og­nized Sec­ond El Alamein’s sig­nif­i­cance. Adolf Hitler’s Nazi war ma­chine had been dealt a mil­i­tary de­feat of im­mense con­se­quence. Even­tu­ally, the Axis would quit the con­ti­nent. Their Big Lie pro­pa­gan­dists could not mask a con­ti­nent’s loss.

Churchill un­der­stood Torch’s strate­gic im­pli­ca­tions. More­over, on the Eastern Front, the Rus­sians had the Nazis bogged in a grind­ing bat­tle of at­tri­tion: Stal­in­grad. El Alamein, how­ever, was a vic­tory for his Bri­tain, the na­tion that had stood alone against Hitler. As­sess­ing 8th Army’s Egyp­tian vic­tory, on Nov. 10, 1942, Churchill said, “This is not the end; it is not even the be­gin­ning of the end. But it is, per­haps, the end of the be­gin­ning.”

For Sir Win­ston, the long road to Ber­lin be­gan at El Alamein. Austin Bay is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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