1st Engineer Combat Battalion: North Africa

Click here to see the video version of this article (which includes original footage for the campaign).

After the United States entered the Second World War in December 1941, the Americans and British decided to pursue a “Germany First” strategy. American leaders like President Roosevelt and General George C Marshall wanted to open a Second Front and attack German and Italian ground forced by the end of 1942. This, they hoped, would bolster American morale on the homefront and help their Soviet allies by diverting German troops and resources away from Russia.

However, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill convinced his American allies that invading North Africa would be more advantageous. By invading Morocco and Algeria, occupied by Vichy France, American troops could gain much-needed combat experience, help the British reopen its shipping lanes through the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal, and possibly sway Vichy France into the Allies’ camp. In July 1942, the Americans and British began planning the invasion of North Africa, codenamed Operation Torch.

In October 1942, Over 100,000 American and British soldiers boarded ships and embarked for North Africa. [1]

Many invasion troops would have worn M37 Wool uniforms with either M41 Field Jackets or M38 Parsons Jackets, a 10-pocket cartridge belt for rifle ammunition, an M1928 Haversack, an M1VA1 Gas Mask Bag, British Gas Cape, Bandoleers for more rifle ammunition, white arm band for friendly forces identification, and an American flag patch.

American war correspondent Ernie Pyle describes the voyage:

“Our ship carried thousands of officers and men and a number of army nurses. […] The officers and nurses were assigned to the regular cabins used by passengers in peacetime. The soldiers were quartered below decks, in the holds. The ship had once been a refrigerator ship, but all the large produce-carrying compartments had been cleared out, and there the men were packed in. Each compartment was filled w it’s long wooden tables, with benches at each side. The men ate at those tables, and at night slept in white canvas hammocks slung from hooks just above. 

It seemed terribly crowded, and some of the men complained bitterly of the food, and din’t eat for days. […] The worst trouble aboard was a lack of hot water. The water for washing dishes was only tepid, and there was no soap. As a result the dishes got greasy, and some troops got a mild dysentery from it. In our cabins we only had water twice a day—7:00 to 9:00 in the morning and 5:30 to 6:30 in the evening. It was unseated, so we shaved in cold water. The troops took lukewarm salt-water showers, by army orders, every three days.”

“An amazing number of soldiers had no idea where they were bound. […] It wasn’t until the fifth day out, when advice booklets wee distributed on how to conduct themselves in North Africa, that everybody knew where we were bound.” [2]

Some of the equipment American soldiers landing in Algeria might have carried. Note the WWI-era 16’’ bayonet still being used during the first months of the Second World War.

In the early hours of November 8, 1942, American soldiers checked their weapons, put on their equipment, entered landing craft, and prayed that the French wouldn’t open fire.

As their landing craft approached the beaches, soldiers prayed that the French would not put up a fight. Sam Fuller, an infantryman of the First Infantry Division, describes his experience:

“I found myself eyeball to eyeball with my first vision of the horror of war. One of our guys was hit by a mortar charge and blown apart, his head severed from his body. It landed near me. […] I stared, almost hypnotized by the soldier’s head, forgetting where I as. The shell bursts snapped me out of it. To this day, the first face of death is imprinted on my mind like a leaf in a fossil, never to fade away.

Tossing smoke grenades to mask ourselves, our squad advanced, bullets flying. Suddenly a French voice boomed out over a loudspeaker.

“Cessez le feu! Cessez le feu!”

After about thirty seconds of repeating the order to cease fire, the French guns fell silent. Then a group of French soldiers emerged through the smoke and advanced toward the beach carrying white flags. Colonel Gibb, our battalion commander, seized his bullhorn and commanded us to cease fire as well. The assault was over. But we remained in position. We’re they really surrendering, or was it a trap?

“Americans! Stop shooting!” Yelled somebody with a heavy French accent. “We will surrender!”

“Frenchmen,” Colonel Gibb bellowed through his bullhorn, “we do not accept your surrender!”

The white flags froze. We checked our weapons, waiting for the command to resume fire.

“You only surrender to the enemy!” Continued Colonel Gibb. “We are not your enemy! We are Americans, your allies! If you want to live, come and fight on our side! Fight the real enemy! Fight Hitler! Vice la France!”

No one moved. Then the dam burst. With an enthusiastic road, happy French troops swarmed down toward the beach. Voices in French and English were yelling and laughing. We stood up and rushed to meet them. The French embraced us, many with tears in their eyes. They broke out singing La Marseillaise. For crying out loud, we were having a beach party with men who’d been trying to kill us only moments before!” [3]

After quickly overpowering Vichy French forces in Algeria, American troops began moving east, preparing to take on Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. However, they quickly discovered how miserable and uncomfortable life was on the frontlines. As one infantryman wrote after the war:

“One would think of North Africa as always having warm weather, but in winter it can be very wet and bone-chilling cold. It was the dampness that seemed to penetrate the body and make for a miserable existence. We were out in it all the time. There were no buildings of any kind to give shelter. The nights were always cold, even in the summer when the day temperatures reached 100 degrees in the shade. Shade was made by the helmets on our heads. Sometimes, when we were not in direct view of the enemy, we strung up our shelters as protection from the sun. Spring arrives early in this part of the world, and so does the hot weather. With it comes the flies—huge flies that follow the food right into your mouth when you try to eat. Water was always scarce. We got barely enough to drink—seldom any to bathe in our wash our clothes.”

“Tunisia was a hellhole. I lived for six months in a hole two feet wide, six feet long, and as deep as I could get it. Frequently when we were dug in on the side of the hill facing the enemy, we had to stay in our foxholes the entire daylight hours, without so much as putting our heads out of the ground. Observers, in more sheltered positions, would be constantly watching—and in the event of an enemy attack—we would be alerted.”

“Over time we Americans improved as soldiers. We learned and we survived. We learned from our mistakes and how to fight under these bad conditions.” [4]

Indeed, Americans had to learn how to survive fast. Behind the frontlines, the German air force ruled the skies, wreaking havoc, an officer in the First Engineer Combat Battalion, recalled:

“During the entire three weeks we were in the Ousseltia Vally, [German] planes arrived regularly, unchallenged by allied aircraft. […] We could usually chase them off with 50 caliber machine guns, but a lone vehicle or convoy on the road didn’t have a chance. The valley roads were strewn with burned-out vehicle carcasses. […] This was the story all over Tunisia until at least late March. Whenever you ventured out in daylight your eyes combed the skies until you weren’t quite sure whether you were seeing planes or not. It was like being a hunted animal, a squirrel waiting for a hawk to pounce upon it.” [5]

Despite initial success against French and Italian forces, on February 19, 1943, American troops fought their first major battle against German troops and suffered a terrible defeat in the Battle of the Kasserine Pass. 

This battle exposed many of the key weaknesses facing the US Army in 1943. American troops did not have the training, equipment, or leadership needed to resist  a coordinated German attack. One officer from the First Engineers wrote:

“We reached the appointed place where we were to start laying the mines a mile or so further on and got out and walked over part of the area. It was approaching dusk. Rowland turned to Murphy and said, “I want you to lay a standard minefield across the valley.” Murphy turned to Barnum and me and said, “Barnum and Kays, lay a standard minefield.” I didn’t know what a “standard” minefield was; I was sure that Murph didn’t have a clue. […] I pulled out my Field Manual and we read it. […] In the dark we had to explain to the NCOs how to lay out the field, and that was a bit of a hassle. The mines were British, and we had to figure out how to assemble and arm them. [Eventually] we used up our supply of about 2,000 mines by three o’clock in the morning and returned to camp.” [6]

Thankfully, the military quickly addressed this issues and, after a few more months of fierce fighting, were able to force 240,000 German and Italian troops to surrender in May 1943. [7] As Winston Churchill said of the North African campaign on November 10, 1942:  

”“This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”


[1] Evan Mawdsley, World War II: A New History, 299-305; Vincent Jones, Operation Torch: Anglo-American Invasion of North Africa, 6-7; Rick Atkinson, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, 13-14.

[2] Ernie Pyle, Here is Your War: Story of G.I. Joe, 3.

[3] Samuel Fuller, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking, 114.

[4] Demetrius “Pete” Lypka, A Soldier Remembers: A Memoir of Service in the 1st Infantry Division, 1941-1945, 69-73.

[5] William M. Kays, Letters from a Soldier: A Memoir of World War II, 65.

[6] ibid., 67-68.

[7] James Scott Wheeler, The Big Red One: America’s Legendary 1st Infantry Division: Centennial Edition, 1917-2017, 161-165

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