North Africa

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 western task force, led by Maj. Gen. George S. Patton and composed of Americans, landed near Casablanca. Meeting stiff resistance, Patton's forces failed initially to capture the crucial airfield at Port
Lyautey. But when that objective finally fell on November 10, P-40 aircraft from XII Air Support Command catapulted off the deck of the carrier USS Chenango and rushed to Port Lyautey. When they discovered a heavily damaged main runway that precluded air operations, some airmen got into the fight as assault infantry and others ran convoys of gasoline.


Maj. Gen. Lloyd FedendallHundreds of miles to the east, Maj. Gen. Lloyd Fredendall's U.S.-dominated center  task force approached Oran. Their daring objectives were to capture the port quickly, it move inland rapidly, and. relieve paratroopers flown in to take vital airfields at La Sella and Tafaraoui.

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.

Maj. Gen. Charles Ryder     General Erwin Rommel 

   Gen. Bernard L. Montgomery

Tunisia In mid-November 1942, as Montgomery pursued Rommel westward across the Libyan desert, Eisenhower learned of a German air craft buildup in Tunisia and Sicily. The reports flooded in: Stuka dive-bombers seen at El Aouina, Tunisia; fighters spotted by aerial reconnaissance at other Tunisian airfields; and German transports seen at Trapani in Sicily. Eisenhower now realized that he faced a fight, not a race, for Tunisia.

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 the AAF's 64th Troop Carrier Group overran the
airfield at Bone, Algeria. Three days later, the 6Oth Troop Carrier Group dropped American paratroops at Youks-les-Bains airfield near the Tunisian border. By the end of November, Allied forces under the command of Lt. Gen. Kenneth Anderson, a Briton, reached Tebourba, just sixteen miles west of Tunis.

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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Crew Brief

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
1942, Eisenhower and his senior leaders decided to consolidate Allied air resources into the Mediterranean Air Command, led by Air Chief Marshal Tedder. This reorganization permitted Tedder to direct scarce resources where they were most needed.

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 Allies--particularly the
U.S. II Corps--suffered a stunning defeat. Several days later, Allied forces counterattacked and pushed the Germans back, thus ending the last serious Axis threat in Africa.

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.

Destroyed German Military Equipment

Destroyed German Military Equipment

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.

Air Vice Marshal Arthur Coningham

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.

Birth of a Doctrine

The centralization of tactical air power in Tunisia under a single air commander was a seminal point in the development of modern air power doctrine. U.S. airmen, long frustrated by an air-ground doctrine that placed air power under the control of ground commanders, eagerly embraced the concepts implemented so successfully by Coningham. In praise of unified air power, Montgomery commented that nothing could be more fatal to successful results than to dissipate the air resources into small packets placed under the command of army formation commanders, with each packet working on its own plan. Influenced by favorable reports from U.S. commanders in Africa, Gen. George C. Marshall, Army chief of staff, supported efforts by his top airman, General Arnold, to push anew American air doctrine. Published in Field Manual 100-20 in July 1943, the new doctrine clearly stated that U.S. air and ground forces were equal and it elevated air superiority as the first requirement of the land battle. The manual, widely viewed as an AAF declaration of independence, gave air commanders broad flexibility in evolving air support systems throughout the remainder of the war. Ensuing campaigns in Sicily and Italy further refined the doctrine's application.