'Torch' Explores Little-Known World War II Battle


Vincent O'Hara is the author or co-author of 11 books about military history. Most have been published by the Naval Institute Press, which named him its "Author of the Year" for 2016.

His most recent book is "Torch," about a largely forgotten amphibious assault of French North Africa by American and British troops during World War II. Tuesday marks the 74th anniversary of the campaign, which was designed to help Russia by opening a new front against Germany. Historians still debate whether the assault shortened the war or prolonged it.

Q: Why is Operation Torch worth remembering?

A: It was the very first major offensive taken by the Americans and British working as coalition partners. They had a lot in common, but they had never really had to function as a team before. The British felt like they were the senior partners. They had fought Germans. They knew what it was all about. The Americans thought the British were maybe a little tired and not as effective as they could be, or maybe even a little scared of the Germans.

One of the most important aspects of Torch was that it gave the two nations a way to practice coalition warfare in a setting where if they had been defeated they would not have lost the war. Coming ashore in France in 1942, if they had been repulsed by the Germans that would have been a very serious defeat. Coming ashore in Africa against the French, the stakes were a lot less.

Q: That's one of the things I wanted to ask you -- how the impact of what happened there affected the way the rest of the war unfolded.

A: I make a point in the book that the path to victory had to start on a beach. The Allies had to perfect the art of amphibious warfare, but the experience up to late 1942 had been mostly negative. Coming ashore as an army over a body of water is one of the most complicated military operations. Here in the United States in the 21st Century we have an idea that it's no big deal. You put the Marines in their little boats and send them ashore and victory is assured. The reality is, the very first time the British tried to do this in Norway, trying to defeat the Germans there, they had unsuccessful experiences. They tried to attack the French in Dakar, Africa, in 1940 in September and they were completely defeated. They tried several smaller operations in the Mediterranean and the North Sea and they basically had a record of failure. And look at the Dieppe raid in August 1942 when they tried to land a brigade in France to capture a port. It was a debacle.

Q: Are there lessons that they learned and put into practice for the war's most famous amphibious landing, at Normandy on D-Day in June 1944?

A: First of all, they really learned the importance of training and preparation. You just can't stick soldiers in a boat and send them across. For example, you have to learn how to load the transports -- that the thing you need first goes on top. One of my favorite stories is about an infantry colonel who is climbing down the net (during Torch) to get into the boat and thinking, "God, I should have practiced this." You're doing it on a boat that is rolling in the ocean, and you're loaded down with maybe 70 to 80 pounds of ammunition, weapons and your pack. Not an easy thing to do.

Q: Why do you think Torch isn't better known today?

A: I think the fact that we were acting as aggressors is something we don't really like to think about because it conflicts with our view of our actions in the war. Vichy France was actually a neutral country, and so we basically attacked a neutral country without any warning, just as the Germans attacked Poland or Norway. So that's a little embarrassing. It conflicts with our self-image.

But the biggest reason is because it was overshadowed. There was so much happening at such a rapid pace in the war after Torch that the fact we did things that were unprecedented and were really never repeated throughout the entire war got lost. The fact that we invaded Sicily less than eight months later, the fact that we invaded Normandy less than two years later made us forget Torch. And every subsequent landing had more at stake. If we had failed at Normandy, we would have had to drop an atomic bomb on Berlin probably to win the war.

Q: Why do you like to tell stories like this?

A: I'm a native San Diegan. I grew up here in the 1950s and 1960s. I can remember the very heavy Navy presence in the town. I can remember the mothballed fleet, mile upon mile of old World War II ships anchored at where the 32nd Street naval station is right now. I grew up with my parents and their friends, who were basically participants in the war. It was kind of like a fact of life, and I was just really curious about it.

One of my favorite parts of the book was how in order to prepare for the invasion they had to come up with 60 tons of maps per landing site. So that's 300 tons of maps. I thought to myself, what's the process involved in doing that? Every mapmaker in Britain was taken over by the military to produce these maps. But they were told to take out the North arrows and change the orientation so that if anybody captures the maps, maybe they will be confused. I just think to myself, Wow.

And then, what's at stake? Young men's lives are at stake. Cultures are at stake. I always found it very compelling the actions that are taken when something is at stake. We live in a democratic society, and I think it's important for people to understand what the military is, what it does. One of the worst things that can happen to us as a society is having the military exist in isolation as it does in a lot of Latin American countries, where you have coups and the military feels like it is separate and it has its own agenda. I think it's really important for civilians to know about the military, to take an interest in the military, to let the military know that we're interested, and to keep an eye on things.

Q: Were you ever in the Navy?

A: I never was. I've given speeches in front of rooms full of admirals, full of people in uniforms. I'm very upfront with them. I'm not a veteran; I'm a civilian. But I'm proud of our country, I'm proud of what our country does, and I think it's important that the military listens to people like me. We're all in it together.

"Torch: North Africa and the Allied Path to Victory," by Vincent P. O'Hara, Naval Institute Press, 384 pages. ___

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This article was written by John Wilkens from The San Diego Union-Tribune and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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