Operation Torch in Algiers: remembering 8 November

November 8 1942 is the anniversary of an extraordinary wartime event :  overnight, a few hundred poorly-armed resistance fighters – most of them Jewish – managed to wrest control of strategic points in Algiers from Marshall Petain’s Vichy regime. The resistance paved the way for the Allied advance into Algiers. But the operation  almost ended in failure, recounts Didier Nebot, honorary president of MORIAL, the association of Jews from Algeria. (With thanks: Leon)

Virtually ignored by French collective memory, Operation Torch was the decisive turning point of the Second World War. It facilitated  the arrival of the Allies in Algiers on November 8, 1942. It was only possible through the daredevil  acts of fewer than 400 young resistance fighters who, the previous night, took control of the city for 24 hours to allow more than 100,000 American soldiers to disembark without  much affray.  A few days earlier, on the night of October 23 to 24, the representatives of the Algerian resistance had met English and American emissaries, in the greatest secrecy, to plan the details  of the landings on the African coast. The resistance fighters had to neutralize all the strategic points of Algiers for several hours and stop the Vichy leaders from preventing  the Alies from landing with  minimum losses.

On November 7, 1942 the BBC broadcast the following coded message: “Hello Robert… Franklin is coming”.This was the signal. At one in the morning the resistance attacked, although they had very few weapons. A thousand men were expected but  only 377  turned up.

In a very short time they took control of all strategic points in Algiers, capturing the Petainist leaders General Juin and Admiral Darlan.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the Pétainists, the landing had begun on the beaches near Algiers. The weather was very bad, however – many landing craft capsized and a number of American soldiers perished. Traumatized by these losses, General Ryder set out for Algiers after much delay.

Poorly armed resistance fighters were wracked by anxiety. They  had been asked to hold out for only two hours. Indeed,  the surprise effect wore off –  the Vichy troops reacted and set free General Juin and Admiral Darlan, who had been held prisoner at the Villa des Oliviers, on the heights of Algiers.  One by one they won back each place from the insurgents, imagining that it was just a local conspiracy.

Who could have imagined for a single moment that America, still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor, could have  counter-attacked so quickly?

The Pétainist attacks intensified. Vichy still did not understand that the Allies were at the gates of Algiers. The insurgents still had to hold on to allow the Allied troops to completely encircle the city. But they were lightly armed, they were going to be overwhelmed. The positions were becoming indefensible: there were wounded and dead, such as Lieutenant Jean Dreyfus and Captain Pillafort. The Algerian resistance was sinking. How much longer could it hold out? At the port, the fighting was fierce and the resistance had to withdraw, leaving several casualties.

But the miracle took place  – and in the early evening the Allies entered Algiers and Vichy capitulated.

Without the courage and the will of a handful of young people ready to give their lives for freedom, the American landing, in view of the appalling weather conditions, with  many boats having capsized, would probably not have succeeded. It should be noted that of these 377 resistance fighters, 312 were French of the Jewish faith.

The original article in French has links to 30 testimonies written by Algerian Jews.

How Jewish resistance fighters changed the course of WW2


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