The Atlantic is running a 20-part weekly feature on key events in World War II in pictures. The current one is on the campaigns in North Africa including pictures of German, Italian, British, Commonwealth, and American troops. An Australian unit in shown below.
Family legend has it that my father’s combat engineer unit was to have been part of the invasion of North Africa but their ship was diverted to the Caribbean. I don’t know how true that is but he did have the European/African/Middle Eastern Campaign Medal.
As Rick Atkinson writes in the Prologue to his great history of Operation Torch and the American battles in North Africa, An Army at Dawn, this campaign marked the beginning of the United States as a great power.
From a distance of sixty years, we can see that North Africa was a pivot point in American history, the place where the United States began to act like a great power — militarily, diplomatically, strategically, tactically. Along with Stalingrad and Midway, North Africa is where the Axis enemy forever lost the initiative in World War II. It is where Great Britain slipped into the role of junior partner in the Anglo-American alliance, and where the United States first emerged as the dominant force it would remain into the next millennium.
None of it was inevitable — not the individual deaths, nor the ultimate Allied victory, nor eventual American hegemony. History, like particular fates, hung in the balance, waiting to be tipped.
Measured by the proportions of the later war — of Normandy or the Bulge — the first engagements in North Africa were tiny, skirmishes between platoons and companies involving at most a few hundred men. Within six months, the campaign metastasized to battles between army groups comprising hundreds of thousands of soldiers; that scale persisted for the duration. North Africa gave the European war its immense canvas and implied — through 70,000 Allied killed, wounded, and missing — the casualties to come.
No large operation in World War II surpassed the invasion of North Africa in complexity, daring, risk, or — as the official U.S. Army Air Force history concludes — “the degree of strategic surprise achieved.” Moreover, this was the first campaign undertaken by the Anglo-American alliance; North Africa defined the coalition and its strategic course, prescribing how and where the Allies would fight for the rest of the war.