In the predawn hours of November 8, 1942, the Americans and the British, commanded by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, began their first combined World War II invasion, code-named Operation Torch. Three Allied task forces launched assaults against Vichy French positions across northwestern Africa.
The night before the invasion, the 60th Troop Carrier Group's C-47s loaded with the 503d Parachute Infantry Regiment took off from St. Eval and Predannack in southwestern England, bound for Africa over 1,000 miles away. Trouble lay ahead. Bad weather and equipment problems broke up the formation and forced many aircraft to fly through the Spanish darkness alone. Next morning the C-47s were scattered from Gibraltar to Oran, with three aircraft interned in Spanish Morocco. In a remarkable feat of flying skill, most pilots put their paratroopers within a few miles ofTafaraoui, but U.S. units advancing from the beachhead took the objective before the airborne troops arrived.
On the afternoon of November 8, Twelfth Air Force commander Brig. Gen. James H. Doolittle ordered his 31st Fighter Group's Spitfires into Tafaraoui, where within a few hours they went into action against La Senia. The following day, the last French aircraft roared away from La Senia airfield, leaving behind only a few defenders. Shortly thereafter, the Tafaraoui Spitfires teamed with armored units to force the French to surrender.
Doolittle's airmen also rendered important support during the fight for Oran. Early on November 9, the Spitfires spotted a large column of the French Foreign Legion moving up from Sidi-bel-Abbes and turned it back with a devastating attack. The next day, French forces in Oran surrendered.
The Eastern Task Force, comprising largely British troops and commanded by an American, Maj. Gen. Charles Ryder, captured Algiers and its airfield, Maison Blanche, on November 8. With all three Allied task forces now safely ashore, the initial phase of Opera tion Torch was over. Ahead lay Tunisia and the prize of the campaign - Tunis.
Eisenhower quickly ordered the airborne capture of two forward airfields to extend air support for British and U.S. ground units moving
eastward into Tunisia. On November 12, British parachutists carried by
AAF's 64th Troop Carrier Group overran the
Meanwhile, the enemy's buildup in Tunisia accelerated. Using airlift and sealift, the Germans and Italians brought in tanks, trucks, ammunition, and thousands of men. On November 28, they struck Eisenhower's forces. Over the next five days, Axis troops, tanks, and aircraft pounded the Allies and drove them back almost twenty miles to the west
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Winter rains further complicated Eisenhower's operations, quickly turning his unpaved airfields into seas of mud that bogged down Allied aircraft. The Germans, however, enjoyed modern airfields in Sicily, Sar dinia, and Tunisia. They flew hundreds of bombers and their new fighter, the fast, well-armed FW 190, from all-weather, paved runways. As the winter weather worsened late in December, Eisenhower reluctantly went on the
defensive, leaving Doolittle's B-17s and P-38s to carry the fight to Axis ports, shipping, and airfields.
The original plan for Operation Torch called for the assignment of an
overall air commander, but Eisenhower decided that unified air forces
were not usable. Thus, throughout November and December, American
and British airmen fought separate wars, mainly in support of their respective army ground corps. Because senior army officers insisted that
airmen be under their control to provide local protection and handle local
problems, air power was not used efficiently. Consequently, at the end of
In the weeks ahead, two major tests awaited Eisenhower's forces in
central Tunisia. The first occurred on January 30, 1943, when the Germans launched a strong offensive and drove the Allies back. For five days
they fought a mobile defensive battle, finally reaching stronger positions.
In mid-February, Field Marshal Rommelled a second powerful thrust, ripping through the Kasserine Pass. There the
Meanwhile, at Allied Force Headquarters in Algiers, Eisenhower continued the reorganization of Allied air power and established the Northwest African Air Forces (NAAF) under the command of Lt. Gen. Carl A. Spaatz. Under Tedder's direction as the single theater air commander, the NAAF, which comprised the U.S. Twelfth Air Force and Britain 's Western Desert Air Force, offered unity of command within the theater and greater flexibility in the use of air power. The shock of Rommel's early success at the Kasserine Pass and persistent squabbling over the control of close air support forced Eisenhower to take more drastic action. Before the fighting ended, he created a centralized Allied Air Support Command under Air Vice Marshal Coningham. The aggressive New Zealander transformed tactical aviation in Tunisia. He immediately implemented his philosophy first to destroy the German Luftwaffe, then isolate the battlefield-a system combat-proven by the British Eighth Army in its victory at El Alamein and drive across the Libyan desert.
In March 1943, improving weather, more aircraft, and new airfields led to increased Allied air activity, diminishing complaints from the ground commanders and posing deadly challenges to the Luftwaffe. Alerted by Ultra, the famous Allied codebreaking effort, on April 18, scores of P-40s and Spitfires ambushed a formation of over one hundred German transports and their fighter escort off the Tunisian coast. The Americans struck swiftly. In what became known as the "Palm Sunday Massacre," they shot down nearly half of the enemy formation in a matter of minutes. This success against the Axis air transport system, combined with accelerated attacks over the next few weeks, forced the Germans to abandon daylight supply missions.
Meanwhile, Allied ground units in the west joined with Montgomery's forces from the east, and closed on Axis troops falling back on Bizerte and Tunis. Heavy fighting continued through April, but by early May surviving enemy forces had either surrendered or escaped to Sicily.