Marines and Operation Torch

EGA BlackOperation Torch was the name assigned to the allied invasion of French North Africa in November 1942.  It is true that during World War II most Marines were assigned to combat duty in the Pacific Ocean Area, but not all.  A few served with distinction in the Atlantic, as well. This is an overview of their contributions in context with the evolving conflict..

The main problem of doing nothing other than watching dictators take over the free world is the time, money, and blood required to take it back.  Doing nothing is what happened in the years leading up to World War II.  In 1935, Italy’s fascist leader Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopia.  Between 1936-39, Spain erupted in a bloody civil war.  Japan invaded China in 1937.  In the mid-1930s, Japanese forces in Manchukuo often clashed with the Soviet Union and Mongolia.  With Japan’s defeat at Khalkin Gol in 1939, the on-going (second) Sino-Japanese War, and Nazi Germany pursuing neutrality with the Soviet Union, Japan’s policy of northward movement was impossible to maintain.  Eventually, Japan and the USSR signed a neutrality pact in April 1941.  It was after this that the Japanese began looking south.

In Europe, Germany and Italy became more aggressive. In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria, which provoked little more than gasps from any other European power.  Thus encouraged, Germany began to press claims on the Sudetenland, an area of Czechoslovakia with a predominantly ethnic German population. Against the wishes of Czechoslovakia, the United Kingdom and France conceded this territory to Germany in the Munich Agreement; Germany promised not to make any further territorial demands. Soon afterward, Germany and Italy forced the Czechs to cede additional territory to Hungary; Poland annexed the Zaoizie region of Czechoslovakia.

On 20 March 1939, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler delivered an ultimatum to Lithuania, forcing more territorial concessions.  In April, Hitler made further demands on the “Free City” of Danzig; the UK and France made assurances of support for Polish independence.  When Italy conquered Albania in April 1939, the British and French offered similar pledges to Romania and Greece.  Undaunted, Germany and Italy formed the “Pact of Steel” alliance.  Germany then denounced the UK and Poland, accusing them of trying to encircle Germany; he promptly canceled the Anglo-German Naval Agreement and German-Polish Non-aggression Pact.

Meanwhile, the UK, France, and the Soviet Union were trying to negotiate an alliance.  When these talks stalled, the USSR signed a non-aggression pact with Germany.  The pact included a secret protocol, each side agreeing to spheres of influence.  Germany would control western Poland and Lithuania, and Russia would control eastern Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Bessarabia [1].  The prospect of a free and independent Poland looked dim in 1939.  It looked even worse on 1 September 1939 when Germany launched its blitzkrieg into Poland.

Germany continued its territorial expansion through 1941; Denmark and Norway fell.  Denmark capitulated in less than five hours; Norway held out for two months.  It was Norway’s collapse that propelled Winston Churchill back to 10 Downing Street on 10 May 1941.

Before Churchill, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin wanted to avoid a war with Germany and seemed willing to do almost anything to achieve “peace in our time” —he became one of world history’s greatest appeasers.  Meanwhile, in the United States, President Franklin Roosevelt campaigned for reelection promising to keep America out of the emerging European War, while at the same time doing everything in his power to circumvent congressional neutrality laws [2].

In April 1941, the US Congress limited the strength of the Marine Corps to 20% of that of the U. S. Navy.  It was a small Marine Corps.  The U. S. Atlantic Fleet consisted of four old battleships (New York, Texas, Arkansas, and Wyoming), one division of heavy cruisers (San Francisco, TuscaloosaQuincy, and Vincennes), the USS Ranger (CV-4), and a squadron of destroyers.  Accordingly, only a handful of Marines were detailed to duty in the Atlantic and these were assigned traditional functions: security of naval installations and service with Marine Detachments afloat —mostly battleships, cruisers, and aircraft carriers.

In May and June 1941, Marine Corps Major Gerald C. Thomas, and Captain James Roosevelt USMC conducted a special diplomatic mission on behalf of President Franklin D. Roosevelt —one that took them from the United States to England, onward to India and Basra, Iraq, where they met with British Brigadier Sir William Slim and then continued by plane and automobile to Suez and Cairo.  During this exhaustive and dangerous trip, these two relatively junior officers received high-ranking briefings from Air Vice-Marshal Theodore Tedder, General Sir Archibald Wavell, King George of Greece, King Peter of Yugoslavia, Sir John McMichael (who served as High Commissioner to Palestine), King Abdul of Iraq, General Charles De Gaulle (in exile), and Lord Mountbatten.

In July 1941, the Marine Corps set up its first embassy detachment in London, England.  The detachment commander was Major Walter I. Jordon, USMC.  From its initial strength of 60 officers and men, the detachment doubled in size in the first six months of service.  Initially headquartered at 20 Grosvenor Square, Marines provided security to the American Embassy and served as armed messengers for senior American diplomats.  After Admiral Harold R. Stark assumed his post as Commander, Naval Forces Europe (COMNAVEUR), the Marine Detachment was realigned to focus on naval rather than diplomatic duties.

President Roosevelt knew early on that ultimately, the United States would become involved in the war (—hence the bolstering of US forces in the United Kingdom—) but he also realized that Congress would never authorize American military intervention in the war without an enemy attack upon the United States [3].  Miraculously, the Japanese attacked Honolulu, Hawaii on 7 December 1941 and launched a full-scale invasion of the Philippine Islands the very next day.

By the end of December 1941, the Pact of Steel (Germany, Italy, and Japan) had managed to swallow up most of the civilized world.  German forces conquered France in only six weeks.  Japan seized China, Indochina, the Dutch East Indies, and all European colonies in Asia extending from Southeast Asia to the Central Pacific.  It was up to the Allied Powers to take it back, but with Russia confined to fighting Germans inside the Soviet Union and Nationalist Chinese confronting the Japanese in China, the allied effort mainly involved the United States and the United Kingdom.  It would take time, enormous sums of money, and buckets of British and American blood.

To achieve victory over Germany and Italy, the British and Americans devised a strategy that involved encircling Germany and strangling the Germans into submission. The first step in this process was the occupation of French North Africa [4]; it would open the Mediterranean to Allied supply convoys and save time by not having to send shipments around the Cape of Good Hope.

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Homer L. Litzenberg

Rear Admiral H. Kent Hewitt was appointed Commander, Amphibious Forces, Atlantic Fleet (Task Force 34) in April 1942.  Two of Admiral Hewitt’s key staff officers were Lieutenant Colonel Homer L. Litzenberg [5], who served as Assistant Operations Officer, and Major Francis Millet Rogers, Assistant Intelligence Officer.  Hewitt and his staff would be responsible for putting together a plan for operations in North Africa.  It was designated Operation Torch.  The Amphibious forces expanded from a force of three transports to 28 troop-carrying ships. The plan called for an invasion force of 37,000 Army troops, 250 tanks, and all necessary combat support equipment.

Admiral Hewitt’s plan called for the creation of sustainable and mutually supporting US landing forces for an invasion of French Morocco on the Atlantic coast of Africa, and simultaneously, for a joint UK/US landing force to seize Algiers/Tunis in the Mediterranean.  Hewitt’s force was prepared to take action against Spanish Morocco and respond to Axis forces in the western desert.  French Morocco was under the control of the Vichy French government, a German ally, headed by Marshal Henri Petain, a hero of France during World War I.  In North Africa, Admiral Jean Darlan commanded the French fleet; given his intense loyalty to Petain, Hewitt and his planning staff expected that Darlan would oppose the allied landing.

Hewitt 001
RAdm H. Kent Hewitt

At this time, there was only a negligible American presence in North Africa, but their efforts included working among the French to ease the way for the expected landing force.  First Lieutenant Pierre J. Ortiz, attached to the US Embassy, Tangiers as a naval attaché was one of the few Americans working behind the scenes to collect intelligence on Axis forces. Prominent among this small number of Americans was Robert Murphy, US Consul to the Vichy government, and his attaché, Colonel William A. Eddy [6], USMC.  Eddy’s assistant, First Lieutenant Franklin Holcomb, USMC, contributed to the success of Torch by finding and smuggling out of Morocco two boatmen from Casablanca who were familiar with the complex hydrographic conditions in North Africa.  Both gentlemen helped to guide the landing force ashore.

Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower [7] was appointed to serve as Commander-in-Chief, Allied Expeditionary Forces early enough to become involved in the planning for Operation Torch.  Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham exercised overall command of the operation. Colonel Eddy traveled from Morocco to brief Eisenhower and his staff on the operation.  He was then sent to Washington to brief the military and naval service chiefs and President Roosevelt.  Eisenhower, who was favorably impressed with Colonel Eddy, appointed him Senior Military Attaché for Africa.

Meanwhile, it was determined that weapons training was needed for navy boat crews.  In September 1942, twenty-five Marine Corps instructors under Lieutenant Colonel Louis C. Plain and Captain William E. Davis set up training camps at the naval base in Rosneath, Scotland.  They were joined by First Lieutenant Fenton J. Mee and fifteen enlisted men.  At the conclusion of training, the officers and men were divided into six-man teams and assigned to six different ships as part of the landing force; the remaining ten Marines returned to their base in Londonderry.

To facilitate the transportation of large numbers of soldiers, ships were gathered from all along the US eastern seaboard.  One hundred ships left for the Mediterranean in late October 1942.  The troops for the North African landing came from Major General George S. Patton’s Western Task Force.  Owing to the presence of French capital ships Richelieu and Jean Bart [8], the task force included USS Massachusetts (BB-59), USS Texas (BB-35), USS New York (BB-34), USS Ranger (CV-4), four escort carriers, USS Wichita (CA-45), USS Tuscaloosa (CA-37), USS Augusta (CA-45), light cruisers USS Savannah, USS Brooklyn, USS PhiladelphiaUSS Cleveland, 38 destroyers, and four submarines.  Marine detachments were assigned to all capital ships and the carrier USS Ranger; beyond their security duties, the detachments were trained to man naval guns and conduct amphibious operations ashore

Unlike its army, the French Navy was full of fight and intended to resist any US/UK intervention.  Vice Admiral Francois Michelier commanded coastal defenses, including artillery and offshore aerial reconnaissance.

To facilitate the scheduled D-Day [9] landing of 8 November 1942, the American convoy cross 4,000 miles through submarine-infested waters, averaging 14 knots per hour. Hewitt planned to land his forces at three locations.  The main effort pressed ashore at Fedala (14-miles north of Casablanca) with secondary landings at Port Lyautey (65-miles north) and at Safi (125-miles south) of Casablanca.  H-hour was delayed for an hour owing to the confusion in the dark of night.  The main opposition to the joint-forces landing came from French shore batteries and strafing by French planes.

As expected, the French Navy mounted an aggressive defense, but after losing several ships to American sea power, ships staying afloat made the profoundly wise decision to withdraw.  Several American ships were lost to French shore battery fires and German submarines.  Once the Americans landed, however, French resistance collapsed within a few hours. Colonel Litzenberg went ashore at Fedala and was temporarily attached to General Patton’s headquarters.  Major Rogers [10], who was fluent in both French and Arabic, also went ashore.  His mission was to make his way through hostile territory,  seek out Admiral Michelier, and negotiate a surrender of all French forces in Morocco.  Within four days, US troops were positioned to attack Casablanca.  Due to Roger’s efforts, Michelier surrendered his command and the assault was canceled.

French troops in North Africa (along with those in French West Africa) who were not already captured eventually joined the allied cause and served as part of the French Expeditionary Corps throughout the rest of World War II.  Initially, Moroccans made up 60% of the French expeditionary forces.  When Adolf Hitler learned that Admirals Michelier and Darlan had surrendered to the allies, he ordered the occupation of Vichy France and dispatched the German Army to Tunisia.  Admiral Darlan was assassinated in December 1942.

As for Marines serving in Europe after 1942, many served with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and British SOE.  One of these men was a famous actor and author.  He and several others played an important role in the pacification of the Balkan states; their tales are hair-raising and amusing.  I’ll have to tell you about them sometime.


[1] A historic region in Eastern Europe bounded by the Dniester River on the east and the Prut River on the west.  About two-thirds of Bessarabia lies within modern-day Moldova. Ukraine’s Budjak region covers the southern coastal region and its Chernivtsi Oblast covering a small area in the north.

[2] The United States Congress adopted several neutrality acts intending to ensure that the US remained disengaged from European conflicts. The Neutrality Acts of 1935, 1936, and 1937 made it illegal for Americans to sell or transport arms and munitions to warring nations.  Roosevelt lobbied Congress to amend the neutrality provisions to allow the provision of arms to allied nations if they paid cash for such goods and assumed responsibility for transporting them on non-US flagged ships.  Accordingly, Congress passed the Neutrality Act of 1939 ending the embargo on a cash and carry basis.  In doing so, Congress began its shift away from isolationism toward interventionism.

[3] Few academics are willing to argue that FDR pushed Japan into making its attack on 7 December 1941.  They cite the absence of any documentation to this effect, and if this is true, then it had to be one of the most amazing coincidences in modern history. Japan had long established a proclivity for surprise attacks: The First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), the invasion of Taiwan (1895), the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), they overstayed their welcome during the Siberian intervention (1918-22), they invaded Manchuria (1931-32), invaded China again (1937-45), and they Invaded French Indochina (1940).  Moreover, following World War I, Japan made no apologies for seizing and retaining control of numerous islands in the western pacific region during the first world war.  Who, with even limited knowledge of these events, could not have predicted Japan’s attack on the United States’ advanced pacific bases?  Roosevelt made no preparation for war in the far east after 1937, even while making every possible provocation for a Japanese attack. If US policy toward Japan could provoke an attack upon American territory, then Roosevelt would have his excuse for US involvement in the European war.

[4] Following Germany’s conquest of France and its later occupation by German and Italian forces, France collaborated with the Pact of Steel under Marshal Philippe Petain, the nominal head of the French government.  The allied effort to invade North Africa pitted British and American forces against Nazi Germany and the so-called Vichy French forces of Marshal Petain.

[5] Litzenberg (1903-1963) joined the USMC in 1922.  He received his commission to Second Lieutenant after a tour of duty in Haiti and served in Nicaragua from 1928-29.  He also served aboard USS Idaho, USS Augusta, USS Arkansas, USS Arizona, and USS New Mexico.  Following his service with the Navy in Europe, Colonel Litzenberg was sent to the Pacific where commanded the 3rd Battalion, 24th Marines, served as Executive Officer, 24thMarines, and served as assistant operations officer of the V Amphibious Corps.  During World War II, he took part in combat at Roi-Namur, Saipan, and Tinian. During the Korean War, Litzenberg commanded the 7th Marine Regiment at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. He retired as a Lieutenant General in 1959 and passed away on 27 Jun 1963.

[6] Colonel Bill Eddy (1896-1962) was a World War I and World War II Marine, university professor, college president (1936-1942), US Minister to Saudi Arabia (1944-1946), and a US intelligence officer (1942-1944).  As a lieutenant, Eddy served in the 6th Marines during World War I.  During World War I, Eddy was awarded the Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Star Medals, and two Purple Heart Medals.  In 1946, Eddy served as Special Assistant to the Secretary of State for Research and Intelligence and was instrumental in the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency.

[7] General Eisenhower never held a combat command until being assigned to command allied combat forces.  It was this lack of experience that led other general officers, who had combat experience, to denigrate him at every opportunity.

[8] Both ships had fifteen-inch guns.  There were also concerns about the possible intervention of German warships.

[9] D-Day was a designation for the date of an important military operation or invasion.  Since the actual date was classified top secret, the use of D-Day was intended to mask the actual date the operation was to begin.

[10] Rogers was awarded the Silver Star Medal by General Patton for his courageous actions.  Promoted to lieutenant colonel, Rogers remained on Admiral Hewitt’s staff for the duration of US Naval operations in the Mediterranean Sea.  After the war, Rogers joined the faculty of Harvard University as a professor of romance languages and dean of the graduate school of arts and sciences.  He retired from Harvard in 1981 and passed away in August 1989.

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Retired Marine, historian, writer.

7 thoughts on “Marines and Operation Torch”

    1. 🙂 … plus FDR fired Richardson – the utmost expert on Japanese naval assets and tactics – when FDR wanted to bring the fleet out to Pearl from San Diego. Richardson’s reasons were indisputable. Toranto should also have set off a bell. It did in Yamamoto’s brilliant military mind.


  1. Another great read. I have no problem believing FDR allowed Japan to attack without any far east preparations by the US. I wonder if he had anything to do with having the Carriers gone at the time or whether that was happenstance.


    1. There is a good explanation. There were only two aircraft carriers at Pearl Harbor, not three: Enterprise and Lexington. Saratoga was at the time of the Japanese attack stationed in San Diego. Enterprise was en route to Pearl Harbor from delivering aircraft to Wake Island when she encountered the same storm that impeded the Japanese carrier fleet, and was thus delayed in arriving at Pearl according to her original ETA on 6 December. Lexington was en route TO Wake Island and had yet to deliver additional aircraft … thus, both of these capital ships missed the party. So, I would say happenstance.


  2. Thanks for the read Mustang….History is such a fascinating subject and it is the little details that often determine the path it takes. I was fortunate to have parents who were great history buffs and often dinner topics. Sad for this generation not to have the experience.

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    1. When I was still in elementary school, I began reading books about America’s early adventurers and this trend eventually morphed into a keen interest in more accurate histories of our nation and its people. As you said, fascinating stuff … and it has remained with me all these years. What I’ve learned is that our country has been blessed with thousands of true heroes, most of whom we never learn about. Thank you for your comment, Bunkerville.

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