Vincent P. O'Hara. Torch: North Africa and the Allied Path to Victory. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015. Maps. ix + 373 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-61251-823-7.
Reviewed by Christopher Rein (Air University, Air Command and Staff College)
Published on H-War (March, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
The title Torch: North Africa and the Allied Path to Victory suggests a work focused broadly on the diplomatic aspects of the Operation Torch campaign and, militarily, on the British and American efforts in air, on land, and at sea, perhaps even engaging with Douglas Porch’s seminal 2004 work, The Path to Victory: The Mediterranean Theater in World War II, on the theater whose title is echoed in Vincent P. O’Hara’s subtitle. But O’Hara’s background, as one of the preeminent authors of operational naval history in the United States, and the book’s publisher, the Naval Institute Press, say far more about the work’s true focus on military rather than political developments, emphasizing the US Navy’s role over that of the ground and air forces, and a preference for ship-to-ship over amphibious engagements, although the latter receives excellent coverage. The work does not interact significantly with Porch’s earlier work, although O’Hara’s conclusion seems to reinforce Porch’s, even if the two authors disagree on whether the operation could be considered a success or not. As a result, the work, while an excellent and highly detailed operational history narrowly focused on the US Navy’s and Royal Navy’s initial role in the eventual conquest of North Africa, falls well short of Porch’s broader study, which, along with Rick Atkinson’s work (An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 ), shifted interpretations of the theater from a strategic backwater to the decisive proving ground for Western Allies’ eventual victory in World War II.
O’Hara’s highly readable work opens with a broad overview of the strategic and diplomatic situation that led the United States and Great Britain to launch a massive amphibious assault on Vichy France’s North African holdings in November 1942. By exploiting French sources, O’Hara does justice to the political arena befitting the sea service’s long prominence as a diplomatic tool and reinforces the fallacy of simply “wishing away” political considerations when they intrude on military operations. George C. Marshall, the US Army’s chief of staff, opposed the operation throughout its various iterations, believing it to be a diversion from the buildup of forces in both the United Kingdom and the Pacific theater, which placed increasing demands on US resources as the Solomons campaign opened in August 1942. But the British, with their backs to the wall at El Alamein, prevailed upon President Franklin D. Roosevelt to reconsider a Mediterranean option first broached immediately after Pearl Harbor but later tabled as the reality of building up for fighting a global war settled on Washington. In late July 1942, at Winston Churchill’s insistence, Roosevelt approved the project, recognizing the need to provide some concrete assistance to the Soviets then retreating before their fortress of Stalingrad, and to involve American forces in ground combat somewhere with the European Axis, preferably before the mid-term elections held the first week of November. Though the operation narrowly missed this latter goal, it largely achieved the others, adhering the United States to (or ensnaring it in) the Mediterranean for the duration of the war and diverting air, if not ground strength, from the German campaign against the Soviets. O’Hara covers this quickly but in excellent detail in the work’s opening chapters.
He then moves on to a discussion of the rudimentary nature of amphibious doctrine at this stage of the war, preparing the ground for his thesis. Though not explicitly stated, the argument that emerges is that the Western Allies were in no way prepared for a major amphibious operation, as was contemplated to relieve pressure on the Soviets, at this stage of the war. In the landings at Oran, Algiers, and especially Casablanca, O’Hara conclusively demonstrates, amphibious operations were still too hastily conceived and poorly conducted to have had any chance of success against the European continent, even if the coastal defenses were still in a rudimentary stage. Time and again, small French garrisons with limited resources and of questionable motivation inflicted disproportionate losses against Allied landing forces. At Casablanca, the US Navy lost 242 of 378 landing craft in the assault phase, crippling follow-on operations (p. 219). In addition, Axis aircraft and submarines sank over a dozen transports and several warships in the operation (a detailed accounting of which helpfully appears in appendix 4), calling into question the wisdom of executing either Operation Sledgehammer, an emergency landing on the Cotentin Peninsula in 1942, or Operation Roundup, the larger invasion planned for 1943. Forces were still too green, too poorly trained, too short of critical supplies, and facing a far stronger enemy than they would in Normandy in 1944. O’Hara concludes: “a delayed invasion of northwestern Europe was indeed a good thing. The British appreciated better than the Americans how difficult it would be to land an amphibious force—not to mention an Army—against a strong and determined foe. They were probably right that a major landing against France in 1942 had little chance of success and that Roundup in spring 1943 was only marginally more likely to succeed” (p. 288).
But, though Operation Torch saved the Allies from embarking on a disastrously early return to the continent and gave them time to develop the doctrine and build the leaders necessary, O’Hara is still highly critical of “Torch’s failure to achieve its original goal,” the capture of Tunisia and the reopening of the Mediterranean to Allied shipping (p. 285). O’Hara laments that the slow advance into Tunisia stalled a quick Allied victory and lengthened the war, discounting Porch’s view that this might ultimately have worked in the Allies’ favor. By encouraging the Axis to dump forces and supplies into Tunisia, the British and Americans forced them to fight at the end of a logistical shoestring, inflicting a far worse defeat in May 1943 than they could have had the previous December. Porch notes, “by committing to the southern shore of the Mediterranean at the end of a precarious supply line between two advancing Allied pincers, Hitler had, in effect, stuck his head ‘in a bag,’ offering the Allies the opportunity to achieve a stunning strategic coup.” In addition, the highly attritional battle for Tunisia actually hastened the conquest of Sicily, invaded just two months after the capture of Tunis, because Axis forces were too weak in the air and at sea to mount an effective defense. O’Hara spends just one brief chapter discussing the campaign’s results, and most of that focuses on French political intrigue in Tunis and British follow-on landings on the Tunisian coast. And not landing further east than Algiers, which would have been required for an early coup in Tunisia, seems justified by the much-stronger Axis response by aircraft and submarines as the Allies approached bases in Sicily and Sardinia, a fact O’Hara acknowledges as a “sharp lesson, if one was indeed needed, of the danger of risking ships beyond the range of effective fighter cover” (p. 274).
O’Hara is most in his element when relating naval combat. He dubiously describes the engagement between French and American ships off Casablanca, as “the largest surface, air and subsurface naval action fought in the Atlantic Ocean during World War II” (p. 195). This pronouncement diminishes the greater strategic significance of many of the convoy actions in the Atlantic, as well as the Anglo-Italian naval battles (which, technically, took place in the Mediterranean, not the Atlantic), not to mention Operation Neptune, the naval component of D-Day. Still, O’Hara recreates the duel between the American battleship Massachusetts and the French shore batteries and the incomplete French battleship Jean Bart, moored in Casablanca’s harbor, in stunning detail. One can almost smell the cordite as he narrates, almost shot by shot, the naval engagement that wrecked a sortie by French contre-torpilleurs and largely protected the vital transports from air and subsurface threats. The discussion of this engagement, recreated from ship logs and successfully exploiting French and American sources, forms the centerpiece of the book and is expertly aided by O’Hara’s own maps illustrating ship movements at different stages of the battle.
In the end, O’Hara has created an enduring work of military history or, at least, what military history used to be. The program for the 2016 annual meeting of the Society for Military History (SMH), issued shortly after publication of this book, heralded a presidential panel titled “The ‘New’ Military History: Intersections with the History of the Environment, Gender and Race.” O’Hara has little to say on these topics (though he does, without calling attention to it, spend a great deal of time on the weather and hydrography and their effects on the landings) and the work seems almost blissfully unaware of the recent turn in the field. That such works can continue to be written, published, and, presumably, devoured by an adoring public speaks to the growing rift between popular and academic history. The book is unlikely to ever be assigned in an academic setting, outside, perhaps, of a seminar offered in a Professional Military Education (PME) program on naval combat in World War II, but that does not seem to deter the author, or the publisher, in the least. They boldly steam, like the audacious troop-laden destroyers at Oran and Safi, directly into the teeth of the defenses and, just as surprisingly, continue to achieve some success. But it does lead to several larger questions: Could TORCH have been a richer work had it engaged with the broader themes of the “new military history,” or is it better the way it is, an unapologetic “guns and bugles” history that will undoubtedly excite fans of that genre? Should historians who aspire to follow in O’Hara’s wake rightfully expect to be shunned by the academy? And, in a discipline that seems committed to “Crossing Borders (and) Crossing Boundaries” (the theme of the 2016 SMH annual meeting), can these two camps continue to peacefully and successfully coexist under the same broad banner?
. Douglas Porch, The Path to Victory: The Mediterranean Theater in World War II (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), 369.
. Society for Military History, “Preliminary Program,” December 9, 2015, http://imgsvr.eventrebels.com/ERImg/01/38/67/PreliminaryProgram9.12.2015.pdf, accessed January 15, 2016.
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Christopher Rein. Review of O'Hara, Vincent P., Torch: North Africa and the Allied Path to Victory.
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