An addition to the Battleship Texas website for the anniversary of Operation ‘Torch’ has gone live, to tell the story of an overlooked interlude in the Second World War.
Operation ‘Torch’, the Allied invasion of French North Africa which took place in the autumn of 1942, represents a significant but controversial occurrence to recall within the current cycle of 80th anniversaries marking events of the Second World War. ‘Torch’ was conceived as a way to prepare the Western allies for the more complex invasion of mainland Europe which was still two years in the future (and also, therefore, to placate Stalin and the hard-pressed Soviet forces demanding a second front against Germany). While the landings in Morocco and Algeria constituted an operational success, their ultimate conclusion in facilitating victory in North Africa and anticipating subsequent landings in Sicily and Italy belied the tactical problems and strategic disagreements besetting the Allies at the time. The fresh Americans could not yet mount the landings in northern France which they considered the most (perhaps only) important objective in the western theatre of the war. The preference of the weary British for securing North Africa and the Suez Canal and defeating Rommel would safeguard Britain and its empire – not an entirely legitimate or laudable objective in the eyes of some American authorities. Although they were perceived as the subordinate partners in the Allied cause, the views of the French were nonetheless crucial in a plan to invade and occupy their territory, albeit under Vichy control. The liberation of mainland France might be two years away, but the brutal British attack on Mers-El-Kebir was only two years ago. For all these reasons, ‘Torch’ still represents a difficult subject, so why, let alone how, should it be remembered?
The museum ship USS Texas is unique: not a word to use lightly, but appropriate in this case, as the first US Navy battleship to be gifted to her namesake state, the last dreadnought left anywhere in the world, and perhaps the only extant ship which served in both World Wars, and in both Atlantic and Pacific theatres in the Second World War. In terms of historical importance and public engagement, the ship is an irreplaceable focal point and pivotal heritage place-maker. Having resided at Houston in the care of the Texas Parks and Wildlife department since 1948, in 2022 the ship was towed to Galveston for an expensive and desperately needed restoration. I was fortunate enough to be able to collaborate with the ship’s curators in 2018 to stage an exhibit on board to mark the First World War centenary, since USS Texas was among the US Navy ships dispatched to the UK to support the British Grand Fleet. Using words and images from the contemporary British magazine The War Illustrated (from an archive held at the University of Sheffield) we were able to tell visitors during the centenary of America’s, the US Navy’s and Texas’s part in bringing the First World War to an end. Using a British source to show present day visitors the importance of a hundred-year-old American ship in a distant, global conflict epitomised the objectives and achievements of the First World War centenary: to recall, reorientate and reappraise our given understandings of the past.
Mounting a similar commemoration of the ship’s role in ‘Torch’ in October 2022 would not be possible, as she was (and still is) closed to the public. The Battleship Texas Foundation, the organisation responsible for the restoration, was nonetheless keen to maintain interest in the ship’s story while plans went ahead for her reopening in 2024. The physical space of the ship was inaccessible, and her future place was undecided as her relocation within the state was being discussed. Assembling a virtual exhibit on the BTF website would keep the museum in the public view and allow the ship to continue to be a regional heritage place-maker. Using the Second World War edition of The War Illustrated again proved appropriate, as this assisted in connecting Texas and ‘Torch’ with better-known aspects of the war in 1942: the continuing Blitz of British cities; the mobilisation of American shipbuilding to overcome the threat of the U-boats; the influx of American personnel to the UK; the beginning of USAAF bomber raids upon Germany from British air bases; and the start of the Solomons campaign in the Pacific.
War Illustrated provided the headlines and iconic images to tell this story. A windfall in the research was a page from the magazine reproducing practical and whimsical advice on cultural differences for Yanks arriving in England and for British personnel training in America. Adding this essential background, and framing ‘Torch’ with events more likely to be familiar to visitors to the site, was important to position the North African landings in the continuum of the conflict.
As with the First World War centenary exhibit, however, transformation was more valuable than just information. ‘Torch’ may be dismissed or overlooked as a sideshow or a mere preliminary to more significant events, but it can be questioned and learned from now, as in 1942. Lessons from the operation – that alliances are difficult to form and harder to maintain, that training is no substitute for experience, that the end is not necessarily predicated on the beginning – belied its planners’ statement that ‘the defeat of the Vichy French is only a means to an end.’ Looking back to ‘Torch’ not only recontextualises USS Texas’s story but the other operations (and even other wars) which the operation previewed. The final completion and availability of our exhibit is, I hope, a renewed means for reframing knowledge of conflict through use of the War Illustrated archive, and a model for working with the Battleship Texas Foundation in future.