by Michael E. Haskew
Operation Torch, a highly complex endeavor scheduled for November 8, 1942, involved Allied forces on land, sea, and air.
Conceived in an effort to open a second front and assist the Soviet Union in its immense struggle with German forces in the East, Torch evolved as a viable alternative to an invasion of Nazi-occupied Northwest Europe, for which the Western Allies were unprepared in 1942. Never before had armed forces planned and executed an offensive on such a grand scale. Troops were to land near three key cities on the North African coast: Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers.
In addition to diverting German resources from the Eastern Front, the ultimate goal of the offensive was to eliminate the Axis presence in North Africa: Allied forces pressed eastward from the Torch foothold, while the British Eighth Army, under General Bernard Law Montgomery, relentlessly pushed the enemy, commanded by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, westward following the great victory at El Alamein on the Egyptian frontier in October 1942.
Aside from the logistical challenges they faced, the most immediate concern for Torch planners was the possibility of resistance from the substantial Vichy French ground and air forces based in North Africa. Nominally under the control of the collaborationist French government that emerged as the Germans overran France and the Low Countries in the spring of 1940, armed opposition from Vichy forces would jeopardize the success of the landings.
On the tactical level, uncertainty as to the Vichy response to the Torch landings prevailed until Allied troops actually set foot on North African soil. Therefore, the complex blueprint for Operation Torch was obliged to recognize the potential threat that more than 500 French aircraft posed to the landings and to the supporting naval vessels off the North African coast.
Plans for airborne troops to participate in operations against Casablanca and Algiers were briefly considered and then dropped. However, in the vicinity of Oran, a major port city on the Algerian coast 230 miles (370km) east of the British bastion at Gibraltar, two Vichy French airfields, Tafaraoui and La Senia, were of particular concern.
These included the only runways in western Algeria that were considered adequate for sustained operations, while Tafaraoui was the only one with a hard surface. Vichy fighter aircraft were within easy striking distance of the Center Task Force, one of three poised to hit the North African beaches, which included 18,500 troops of the U.S. 1st Infantry and 1st Armored Divisions under the command of Major General Lloyd Fredendall.
Tafaraoui was only 15 miles (24km) south of Oran, and La Senia a mere five miles (8km) distant. To secure these airfields, removing the threat of Vichy airstrikes against Oran and facilitating the introduction of reinforcements and supplies, it was decided that the inherent risks of an airborne operation were worth taking. The 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) was placed under Fredendall, and its 2nd Battalion was slated to make the first American combat jump in history.
The 509th had been authorized on March 14, 1941, originally as the 504th Parachute Infantry Battalion, and activated on October 5 of that year at Fort Benning, Georgia. In February 1942, the battalion relocated to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and joined the 503rd Parachute Infantry Battalion to form the newly created 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment.
In June, the 503rd was detached for service in Scotland and became the first American airborne unit to deploy overseas during World War II.
The American paratroopers trained with their counterparts of the British 1st Airborne Division and took on a decidedly British flair in the process. In the course of this training, the regiment participated in the lowest large-scale parachute drop in history, jumping from an altitude of a mere 143 feet (43m).
On November 2, 1942, less than a week prior to Operation Torch, the 503rd was redesignated once again as the 2nd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
Oran and Environs
The occupation of Oran presented its own hazards. Vichy fortifications ringed the cliffs that surrounded the harbor, discouraging an attempt to capture the port city by frontal assault. Instead, amphibious landings at Arzeu, 30 miles (48km) east of the targeted airfields, and Les Andalouses, 35 miles (56km) from La Senia and 45 miles (72km) from Tafaraoui, were planned.
Carrier-based air support would have to be withdrawn within two or three days of the landings, and land-based Allied planes needed airfields before they could deploy to North Africa. The distance from the beaches to Tafaraoui and La Senia gave rise to discussions of a parachute operation to secure the bases until the airborne troops were relieved by the invasion forces advancing overland.
Two months prior to Torch, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean Theater, gave the go-ahead for an airborne assault on Tafaraoui and La Senia. The 2nd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment—the only American unit of its kind then in Europe—was designated for the drop, and its delivery was assigned to the 60th Troop Carrier Group.
The two units had already been training together for about three weeks when these orders were received in early September.
On September 12, a command group called the Parachute Task Force was established with Colonel William C. Bentley in charge. Bentley had served previously as an Army Air Forces’ attaché in Morocco and was familiar with the area to an extent.
A cadre of 77 officers and enlisted personnel formed the command structure of the Parachute Task Force, and Bentley was in command during the preliminary phase and while the paratroopers were in the air.
Lieutenant Colonel Edson D. Raff commanded the 2nd Battalion, 509th, and went directly to General Mark W. Clark, a member of Eisenhower’s staff and a close friend and advisor of the supreme commander, to request that the paratroopers remain under his own direct command once they were on the ground.
Raff was a respected officer, who had trained his men relentlessly and earned the nickname “Little Caesar” both for his hard-nosed approach to command and his stocky build. His perspective was appreciated, and Clark granted the request.
Some concerns were raised during the planning of the airborne operation. Chief among the dissenters was Air Marshal William L. Welsh, the highest-ranking member of the air forces section of Eisenhower’s planning cadre for Torch.
Welsh recommended that the airborne troops should be held back and committed after the Torch landings during the drive to capture Tunisia’s capital city, Tunis. His assertion received only passing consideration, and the preparations went forward.
MICHAEL E. HASKEW is the editor of WWII History Magazine and the former editor of World War II Magazine. He is the author of a number of books, including The Sniper at War, Order of Battle, and The Marines in World War II. Haskew is also the editor of The World War II Desk Reference for the Eisenhower Center for American Studies. He lives in Hixson, Tennessee.