Operation Torch: U.S. forces land in North Africa

American troops manning their landing craft assault from a doorway in the side of the liner REINA DEL PACIFICO. Two of the landing craft are numbered LCA 428 and LCA 447.

American troops on board a landing craft heading for the beaches at Oran in Algeria during Operation ‘Torch’, November 1942.

On 8th November 1942 the first U.S. troops entered hostilities in North Africa with the invasion of French Morocco and Algeria. These were French colonies that remained loyal to the French Vichy regime, which had reached an accommodation with the Nazis. It was hoped that this loyalty could be overcome and that there would be sufficient French officers who would not wish to fight the United States. British forces took a less prominent part in the operation, partly in a move to avoid antagonising French sensibilities following the sinking of the French Fleet at Oran in July 1940..

In the event the operation did encounter some significant French opposition but the resistance was quickly overcome. The Allies now had a position in the rear of Rommel’s forces in Libya which were currently falling back from El Alamein.

Lieutenant Freer Roger was with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and was expecting to take part in the landings:

SUNDAY, 8 NOVEMBER 1942

Before dawn we lay off Algiers, the convoy having turned hard a starboard during the night. We could see the twinkling lights of the city straight ahead. Even as the first ALCS left for the shore we heard President Roosevelt’s speech to the French nation. 

As dawn came up we were close in-shore about four miles west of Algiers, and the first troops were ashore, having met with little or no opposition, except a Commando who had landed off a destroyer in Algiers harbour itself and had been fired upon. However, within a very few hours all resistance had ceased and we heard that Admiral Darlan had been captured by the Americans. 

Within six hours our Spitfires were fying from Maison Blanche aerodrome and that evening, when a flight of 15 Ju 88s came over, ten of them were shot down, with no loss to ourselves. 

Meanwhile, 36 Bde. were floating reserve, and that evening our ship docked at Algiers to unload other units who were going ashore. It was an impressive night watching our MT ships unloading. One American ship was unloading ‘Jeeps’ at the rate of one every 37 secs., and were being driven away by their drivers at top speed. 

That evening the Jerries came over again but were met with such a hail of AA that they veered off and dropped their bombs in the sea. We remained at Algiers all the next day without going ashore, and that evening put to sea again. 

This account features in The Words of War: British Forces’ Personal Letters and Diaries During the Second World War, a collection of memoirs from the Imperial War Museum’s archives.

American troops land on the beaches at Surcouf, twenty miles east of Algiers. Operation Torch signalled the American entry into the Mediterranean War.

Troops making their way inland off the beach after landing at Algiers.

The landing at Oran met with particularly stiff resistance as General Eisenhowers’s report makes clear:

Although our ground forces made land safely, our assault on ORAN harbor came to grief. Before dawn, two former United States cutters, now H.M.S. Walney and Hartland, which were flying both the British and United States ensigns and were carrying two companies of American Rangers and special anti-sabotage parties, headed into ORAN harbor.

They were escorted by Motor Launches 480 and 483, and their mission was to prevent blocking of the port and destruction of harbor facilities. Outside the entrance, the little force waited until an announcement in French was made by loudspeaker from the Walney, and then, with Walney in the lead, and with minelayers laying down a smokescreen, they broke the booms and dashed into the harbor. Here they came under an overwhelming fire from shore batteries and from French warcraft.

The companies of Walney and Hartland behaved with extraordinary courage and perseverance, and the two ships reached their objectives, but they were set ablaze and were disabled. Most of both the crews and the troops were casualties, the two Captains had to abandon ship, and the survivors were made prisoners by the French.

From Eisenhower’s report see Commander in Chief Allied Forces report on Operations

The former USCG cutter Sebago that was transferred to the Royal Navy in 1941 and became HMS Walney.
81 of her crew plus a number of US Rangers on board were killed when she received point blank fire from the French shore batteries and ships at Oran.

It was here that the commander of HMS Walney Captain Frederick “Fritz” Peters, a Canadian serving in the Royal Navy, won both the Victoria Cross and the U.S. Army Distinguished Service Cross. He was the only survivor of a direct hit on the bridge of the Walney which killed the ten men standing beside him and blinded him in one eye. The citation for the DSC states:

Captain Peters distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism against an armed enemy during the attack on that post.

He remained on the bridge in command of his ship in spite of the fact that the protective armor thereon had been blown away by enemy shell fire and was thereby exposed personally to the withering cross fire from shore defenses.

He accomplished the berthing of his ship, then went to the forward deck and assisted by one officer secured the forward mooring lines. He then with utter disregard of his own personal safety went to the quarter-deck and assisted in securing the aft mooring lines so that the troops on board could disembark. At that time the engine room was in flames and very shortly thereafter exploded and the ship turned on its side and sank.

Captain Peters, who was 53 at the time of the action, survived to be taken prisoner by the French. After he was liberated he was flown back to Britain but died as the plane he was travelling on crashed in thick fog when landing at Plymouth on 13 November 1942.

Men of the Royal Air Force Regiment marching inland from the Operation TORCH landing area on the coast of Algeria, to take possession of Maison Blanche airfield.

Operation TORCH: Squadron Leader R “Raz” Berry (third from left), the Commanding Officer of No. 81 Squadron RAF, with some of his pilots at Maison Blanche, Algeria, after flying in from Gibraltar to commence operations on the first day of the invasion.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Douglas Smith October 21, 2014 at 5:18 pm

My father Alfred Thomas Smith a RN Petty Officer, was aboard the HMS Walney when it hit the boom and luckily he was one of the survivors. He was hit by shrapnel in his
back and eye and swam accross Oran Harbour where was captured by Vichy French who removed his eye. He was repatriated by the 7th Calvary and never spoke about
the event although he had nightmares for many years. My parents were presented with a picture of the event drawn by a News of the World artist and is a prized possession of the family.

hariette petersen June 6, 2014 at 3:35 pm

My dad. Paul Hedges, was a man who went back into a burning ship off the coast of Africa to rescue fallen comrades during Operation Torch in World War II. In that crossfire battle, Daddy’s ship of 1200 men came out of the battle with only about 126 survivors. He was one of the POW’s there. He and a handful of men shared a tiny dirt floor cell with a latrine running down the middle of it. They were tossed dogmeat and worm-ladened mush to eat. Daddy and those with him were strong, resilient men. I got to meet one of those men with Daddy when I took him to his house in Indiana in the early 1990’s. It was the first time they saw one another in 50 years. While stationed in Algiers after the war, my dad met the woman who would become my mother.

J Lakewood March 30, 2014 at 3:19 pm

I have a cutting from a london newspaper reporting the death of Acting Able- Seaman Raymond C J Oliver on July 19 1943. He died from shrapnel wounds received while serving in HMS Hartland during the North African landings at Oran. The cutting states that with MMS Walney she rammed the boom at Oran harbour.

David Eaton February 23, 2014 at 4:25 pm

Some years ago I was asked by a friend to research his father’s war record in the RN. He never said anything about his experiences apart from saying that he had seen a lot of dead bodies floating in the water. According to his release papers an 8th Nov 1942 he was a gunner on motor launch ML483 mentioned above which escorted HMS’s Walney and Hartland into Oran. Both ships were sunk with a very heavy loss of life.( I believe in the region of 200 plus) The motor launches afterwards had the job of collecting the bodies from the sea. This is obviously what he was referring to.

peter cannings February 12, 2014 at 9:49 pm

my cousin was raf commando w/op during the opperation torch on the 9th of november,at masion blanch after landing the hurricanes from gibralta and after presumably fueling and arming, later that day 20 or so ju88 were about to bomb around algiers and the hurricanes were scrambled and he mentiones a ginger haired flt commander who was beaten to his aircraft by another pilot and threatening what he would do to them on returning from the battle was proberly forgotten when all 18 ju88s had been destroyed either by them or bofors gun .who was the said commander does anyone know ?and were there 18/20 ju88 downed that day ? ny cousin landed at oran with british commandos and american rangers after sailing from scotland onhe was inno 2 field force in the ship MARON

Tom K November 10, 2013 at 5:10 am

Agree. Little has changed.

Richard Melloh November 8, 2013 at 1:10 pm

If one looks up, Surcouf, Agiers, on Wikapedia, one can see a more current picture taken from almost the exact same place as that in the first landing scene above.

Little has changed.

dolores gorman July 7, 2013 at 2:06 pm

I would like to know more info about the landing at Oran up to Tunesia under General Clark My father was w/103rd AAA guarding the airport against aircraft. Please help direct me to info specific to this landing. Thank you.

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