Operation Torch | World War II

Operation Torch | World War II


During World War II, Operation Torch was an Allied incursion of French North Africa. While the French colonies technically joined Germany through Vichy France, the inhabitants had diverse sympathies. According to reports, they may back the Allies. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of Allied forces in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations, strategic a three-pronged attack on Casablanca (Western), Oran (Center), and Algiers (Eastern), followed by a rapid move on Tunis to catch Axis powers in North Africa from the west while Allied forces advanced from the east. After a brief siege, the Western Task Force conquered Casablanca, the leading French Atlantic naval port, despite unexpected resistance and adverse weather. The Center Task Force's ships were damaged when they attempted to land in shallow water, but the French ships were sunk or forced away, and Oran surrendered after being bombarded by British battleships. Despite the Vichy forces' increased attention due to the French Resistance's failed coup attempt in Algiers, the Eastern Task Force encountered less resistance and proceeded inland and force capitulation on the first day.

The success of the torch prompted Admiral François Darlan, leader of the Vichy French troops, to order cooperation with the Allies in exchange for his appointment as High Commissioner and the retention of many other Vichy officials' employment. Soon after, Darlan was slain, and the Free French gradually gained control of the country. The torch was a compromise operation that achieved the British goal of ensuring victory in North Africa while letting American soldiers participate in a limited way in the war against Nazi Germany. The United States sent many troops into the European–North African Theater, and it was also the first time the US launched a big airborne assault.


The Allies, nominally under Vichy French control, planned an Anglo-American incursion of French North Africa/Maghreb, including Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. With British forces moving from Egypt, the Allies would launch a pincer attack against the Axis forces in North Africa. In the territories, the Vichy French had roughly 125,000 soldiers, coastal artillery, 210 functioning but out-of-date tanks, and about 500 aircraft, half of which were Dewoitine D.520 fighters, comparable to many British and American soldiers. In addition, 60,000 men were stationed in Morocco, 15,000 in Tunisia, 50,000 in Algeria, coastal artillery and a few tanks and planes. In addition, Casablanca was home to about ten battleships and eleven submarines.

On the Ground Political Scenario

Because of information provided by American Consul Robert Daniel Murphy in Algiers, the Allies felt the Vichy French army would not fight. The French had previously served with the Allies, and American forces were told not to fire unless attacked. However, they worried that the Vichy French Navy would hold a grudge against the British for their activities in June 1940 to prevent German ships from capturing French ships; the attack on the French Navy in Mers-el-Kébir, near Oran, killed over 1,300 French sailors. Therefore, it was critical to gauge the sentiments of the French forces in North Africa, and strategies were created to secure cooperation rather than resistance. The Germans provided air support to the Vichy French. In addition, several Luftwaffe bomber wings targeted allied ports at Algiers and throughout the North African coast.

Command of Operations

The operation was handed to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who established his headquarters in Gibraltar. Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham was the Allied Naval Commander of the Expeditionary Force, while Vice-Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay was in charge of the amphibious landings.

Strategic Debate Among the Allies

After the western Allied Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS) met in London on July 30, 1942, General George Marshall and Admiral Ernest King declined to approve the idea. Later that year, Marshall and other US generals proposed an invasion of northern Europe, which the British opposed. Following Prime Minister Winston Churchill's request for a landing in French North Africa in 1942, Marshall advised President Franklin D. Roosevelt to forsake Germany first policy and go on the attack in the Pacific. Roosevelt stated that the United States would do nothing to assist the Soviet Union. With Marshall failing to persuade the British to change their minds, President Roosevelt issued one of only two direct instructions to military leaders during the war, ordering the torch to take precedence over all other operations and take place as soon as possible.

Allied military planners had to consider the complex political environment in North Africa and external diplomatic, political elements when preparing. In 1940, the Americans recognized Pétain and the Vichy administration, although the British did not identify and fund General de Gaulle's Free French government-in-exile. Moreover, North Africa was part of France's colonial empire and ostensibly supported Vichy, although popular support was far from universal.

Political events on the ground influenced military considerations in some cases. For example, in North Africa, the French people were separated into three groups:

Gaullists - The French National Committee, which included French exiles who fled metropolitan France rather than capitulate to the Germans, or those who stayed and joined the resistance, was led by Charles de Gaulle. General Leclerc, an adherent, assembled a battle unit in 1943 and conducted attacks along a 1,600-mile (2,600-kilometer) path from Lake Chad to Tripoli before joining General Montgomery's Eighth Army on January 25, 1943. French Liberation Movement-In North Africa, French men created an underground "French Liberation Movement" to liberate France under German observation. General Henri Giraud, who had fled Germany, became the organization's head. However, during the North African campaign, de Gaulle and Giraud's feud prevented the Free French Forces and the French Liberation Movement from uniting (Torch). Pro-Vichy French loyalists – some individuals stayed faithful to Marshal Pétain and believed that collaboration with the Axis powers was the best way to ensure France's future. Pétain's anointed successor was Darlan.

These complications on the ground had to be factored into American strategy when planning the strike. The strategists thought that if the leaders were given Allied military backing, they would take steps to liberate themselves. Thus the US began comprehensive negotiations with the French Liberation Movement in Rabat, led by American Consul General Robert Murphy. Given Britain's diplomatic and financial commitment to De Gaulle, it was evident that discussions with the French Liberation Movement and the invasion would have to be handled by the Americans. However, because of the split loyalties among the organizations, their backing was shaky, and precise plans couldn't be discussed with the French due to the requirement for secrecy.

Allied Plans

The planners identified the plans of the Allies: Oran, Algiers, and Casablanca as primary targets. A landing in Tunis would be ideal for capturing Tunisia and assisting the swift interdiction of supplies heading to Rommel's forces in Libya via Tripoli. On the other hand, Tunis was far too close to the Axis airfields in Sicily and Sardinia to be successful. In eastern Algeria, landing at Bône (Annaba) is 300 miles (480 kilometres) closer to Tunis than Algiers. Due to limited resources, the Allies could only make three landings. Eisenhower—who believed that any strategy must include landings at Oran and Algiers—had two main options: either the western option, which involved landing at Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers and then moving as quickly as possible to Tunis, some 500 miles east of Algiers, once the Vichy resistance was suppressed; or the eastern option, which involved landing at Oran, Algiers, and B He preferred the eastern option because it allowed for a quicker capture of Tunis and because the Atlantic swells off Casablanca posed far more significant risks to an amphibious landing than those encountered in the Mediterranean. The Combined Chiefs of Staff, on the other hand, were afraid that if Operation Torch caused Spain to break neutrality and join the Axis, the Straits of Gibraltar would be blocked, cutting off connection to the entire Allied army. They chose Casablanca as the less risky choice because, in the case of a straits closure, the forces in Tunisia and Algeria could be provided overland from Casablanca (although with great difficulty). Marshall's opposition to the torch and landings in Algeria caused British military officers to doubt his strategic capability; the Royal Navy controlled the Strait of Gibraltar, and Spain was unlikely to participate since Franco was hedging his bets. The landings in Morocco ruled out an early conquest of Tunisia. Eisenhower admitted to Patton that the previous six weeks had been the most difficult of his life. Because of the extra time, it would allow the Axis to send forces into Tunisia. Eisenhower's acceptance of landings in Algeria and Morocco reduced the likelihood of an early capture of Tunisia to only a remote possibility.

Intelligence Gathering

Mieczysaw Sowikowski (codename "Rygor"—Polish for "Rigor") founded "Agency Africa" in July 1941, and it became one of the most successful intelligence agencies of WWII. Lt. Col. Gwido Langer and Major Maksymilian Ciki were among their Polish partners in these endeavours. The Americans and British used the information obtained by the Agency in organizing the amphibious Operation Torch landings in North Africa in November 1942.

Initial Contact with Vichy French

Murphy was assigned to the American consulate in Algeria to measure the mood of the Vichy French military. His undercover goal was to assess the perspective of the French army and make contact with potential allies. He reached numerous French officers, including the French commander-in-chief in Algiers, General Charles Mast. These commanders were willing to help the Allies, but they requested a secret meeting with Algeria's top Allied General. On October 21, 1942, Major General Mark W. Clark, one of Eisenhower's senior commanders, was deployed to Cherchell, Algeria, aboard the British submarine HMS Seraph to meet with these Vichy French leaders. The Allies also managed to smuggle French General Henri Giraud out of Vichy France on the HMS Seraph, which pretended to be an American submarine, to Gibraltar, where Eisenhower had his headquarters, to proposition him the post of commander in chief of French militaries in North Africa after the invasion. On the other hand, Giraud would not accept any rank lesser than commander in chief of all invading forces, a position already held by Eisenhower. He opted to remain a "bystander" in the situation when he was turned down.


The Allies planned three amphibious task forces to simultaneously seize critical ports and airports in Morocco and Algeria, with Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers as targets. In addition, an eastward advance into Tunisia was planned following these operations' successful completion. Major General George S. Patton led a Western Task Force (aimed at Casablanca), with Rear Admiral Henry Kent Hewitt in charge of naval operations. The US 3rd and 9th Infantry Divisions and two battalions from the US 2nd Armored Division made up this Western Task Force, totalling 35,000 troops in a convoy of over 100 ships. They arrived in North Africa through a new series of UG convoys providing logistic support for the fight. In addition, the US 2nd Battalion 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, the US 1st Infantry Division, and the US 1st Armored Division—a total of 18,500 troops—were part of the Center Task Force targeted at Oran. They set out from the United Kingdom, with Major General Lloyd Fredendall in command and Commodore Thomas Troubridge in order of the naval forces.

The torch was a propaganda landing by US Marines, supported by British warships and planes, hoping this would be more acceptable to the French public than an Anglo-American invasion. Churchill advised that British forces wear US Army uniforms for the same reason, though there is no evidence that this approach was used. (During the operation, two British destroyers flew the Stars and Stripes, while Fleet Air Arm planes carried US "star" roundels.) In reality, Lieutenant-General Kenneth Anderson led the Eastern Task Force, which included a brigade from the British 78th and US 34th Infantry Divisions, two British commando units (No. 1 and No. 6 Commandos), and the RAF Regiment, which provided five infantry squadrons and five-light anti-aircraft flights, totalling 20,000 troops. Ground forces were to be led by US Major General Charles W. Ryder, Commanding General (CG) of the 34th Division, and naval forces by Royal Navy Vice-Admiral Sir Harold Burrough during the landing phase. U-boats patrolling the eastern Atlantic area where the invasion convoys passed had been diverted to attack commerce convoy SL 125. Air operations were divided into two commands, with British aircraft flying east of Cape Tenez in Algeria under Air Marshal Sir William Welsh and all American aircraft operating west of Cape Tenez under Major General Jimmy Doolittle. He was under the direct authority of Major General Patton. On November 10, P-40s from the 33rd Fighter Group were launched from escort carriers and landed at Port Lyautey. USS Ranger supplied additional air support, intercepting Vichy planes and bombing hostile ships.


On November 8, 1942, the Western Task Force landed in Morocco at three locations: Fedala (Operation Brushwood, Safi (Operation Blackstone), the largest landing with 19,000 soldiers), and Mehdiya-Port Lyautey (Operation Goalpost). There were no preliminary bombardments since it was hoped that the French would not resist. It was a costly mistake, as French defenders took a toll on the American landing forces. Pro-Allied General Antoine Béthouart staged a coup d'etat against the French command in Morocco on November 7 to surrender to the Allies the next day. The Vichy-loyal high commissioner, General Charles Noguès, surrounded his forces. Noguès, on the other hand, called in loyal forces, who put an end to the attempt. Furthermore, the attempted coup alerted Noguès to the impending Allied invasion, prompting him to strengthen French coastal fortifications.

The landings at Fedala, a small port with a big beach near Casablanca, were hampered by bad weather. After sunrise, French artillery shelled the landing beaches once more. The beachheads were seized later in the day after Patton landed at 08:00. By the 10th of November, the Americans had surrounded Casablanca's port, and the city had surrendered an hour before the last assault. After the German takeover of the European coast, Casablanca became the primary French Atlantic naval base. A sortie of French destroyers,  cruisers, and submarines opposed the landings, resulting in the Naval Battle of Casablanca. American gunfire and aircraft destroyed a cruiser, six destroyers, and six submarines. The docked and immobile French battleship Jean Bart fired on the landing force with her one operational gun turret until it was crippled by USS Massachusetts' 16-inch calibre naval gunfire, the first such heavy-calibre rounds launched by the US Navy anywhere in World War II. However, the Jean Bart was sunk by aircraft bombers because of faulty detonators in many of her 1-ton bands. Two destroyers from the United States were damaged.

The landings at Safi, to take the port facilities to land the Western Task Force's medium tanks, were generally successful. The docks were launched without any cover fire hoping that the French would resist. On the other hand, Allied warships returned fire after French coastal guns opened fire. Moreover, French snipers had pinned the assault forces (most of whom were in the battle for the first time) on Safi's beaches by the 3rd Battalion, 67th Armored Regiment arrived. As a result, the bulk of the landings was delayed. In addition, a French truck convoy transporting reinforcements to the beach fortifications was attacked by carrier aircraft. Finally, on the afternoon of November 8, Safi surrendered. The surviving defenders were pinned down on 10 November, and most of Harmon's forces rushed to join the siege of Casablanca.

The landing forces at Port-Lyautey were unsure of their position. Thus the second wave was delayed. The following landings were done under artillery bombardment, giving the French defenders time to organize resistance. Onboard a US destroyer, a former French pilot of the port guided her up the small river to take over the gun battery, allowing the troops to reach the airbase. The troops moved forward with the help of air support from the carriers, and the objectives were taken.


Three beaches were used by the Center Task Force, two west of Oran and one east. Because a French convoy emerged while the minesweepers created a route, landings on the westernmost beach were delayed. In addition, the unanticipated shallowness of the sea and sandbars caused some delay and confusion, as well as damage to landing ships; despite periscope observations, no scouting parties had landed on the beaches to determine the local maritime circumstances. This informed subsequent amphibious assaults, such as Operation Overlord, in which pre-invasion survey was given a high priority.

The 1st Ranger Battalion from the United States landed east of Oran and immediately took control of the shore battery at Arzew. A direct landing of US forces in the harbour was attempted to prevent the destruction of port facilities and the scuttling of ships. The two Banff-class sloops were demolished by crossfire from the French boats, and Operation Reservist failed. The Vichy French naval fleet sailed out of the harbour to confront the Allied invasion fleet, but all ships were sunk or driven onshore. Captain Frederick Thornton Peters, the commander of the Reservists, received the Victoria Cross for bravery in pressing the attack through Oran harbour in the face of point-blank fire. Throughout the 8–9 November, French fortifications and the invasion fleet exchanged fire, with French troops resolutely defending Oran and the surrounding area; bombardment by British battleships forced Oran's surrender on November 9.

Airborne Landings: The United States' first major airborne attack, torch, was launched. The 2nd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, dropped near Oran and captured airfields at Tafraoui and La Sénia, respectively 15 miles (24 kilometres) and 5 miles (8 kilometres) south of Oran, onboard 39 C-47 Dakotas. Due to the anti-aircraft and beacon ship HMS Alynbank broadcasting on the incorrect frequency. The formation dispersed due to bad weather over Spain and the great range, forcing 30 of the 37 air modes of transport to land in a dry salt lake west of the target. One of the other planes' pilots became disoriented and landed in Gibraltar. Two more landed in French Morocco and three in Spanish Morocco, where another Dakota accidentally dropped its paratroopers. Franco's soldiers detained a total of 67 American troops until February 1943. Although Tafraoui and La Sénia were finally seized, the airborne forces played a minor role in Operation Torch.


Resistance and Overthrow: The 400 predominantly Jewish French Resistance fighters of the Géo Gras Group conducted a coup in Algiers in the early hours of November 8, as planned at Cherchell. The army led by Henri d'Astier de la Vigerie and José Aboulker seized binding sites, including the telephone exchange, radio station, governor's residence, and the 19th Corps headquarters, beginning at midnight. Robert Murphy drove to the home of General Alphonse Juin, the highest French Army officer in North Africa, with a group of soldiers. Murphy sought to persuade Juin to join the Allies as they surrounded his house and held him hostage. Admiral François Darlan, the commander of the French forces, was also in Algiers on a private visit, which surprised Juin. However, Murphy could not persuade Juin or Darlan to support the Allies because Juin insisted on contacting Darlan.

The local gendarmerie arrived early the following day and released Juin and Darlan. Invasion: The invasion began on November 8, 1942, with landings on three beaches: two west of Algiers and one east. The commanding general of the US 34th Infantry Division, Major-General Charles W. Ryder, was responsible for the landing forces. The British 78th Infantry Division's 11th Brigade Group landed on the suitable beach; the US 34th Infantry Division's 168th Regimental Combat Team, supported by 6 Commando and most of 1 Commando, landed on the middle beach; and the US 34th Infantry Division's 39th Regimental Combat Team, supported by the remaining five troops from 1 Commando, landed on the left shore. The British 78th Infantry Division's 36th Brigade Group was in floating reserve. Because there was no French resistance, it didn't matter if some landings went to the incorrect beaches. The French Resistance had neutralized all of the coastal batteries, and one French officer had defected to the Allies. The only fighting occurred in the port of Algiers, as two British warships attempted to drop a group of US Army Rangers right into the dock in Operation Terminal to prevent the French from damaging the port facilities and scuttling their ships. One warship could not dock due to heavy artillery bombardment, but the other was offloaded 250 Rangers before being driven out to sea. General Juin abandoned the city to the Allies at 18:00 after the US troops moved fast inland.


Political Results

Giraud rapidly showed that he lacked the authority to command the French forces. He preferred to wait for the landing results in Gibraltar. Darlan, on the other hand, in Algiers, wielded such power. With Roosevelt and Churchill's help, Eisenhower reached an arrangement with Darlan, designating him as the French "High Commissioner" in North Africa. Darlan, in turn, ordered all French forces in North Africa to stop resisting the Allies and instead collaborate. On November 10th, a settlement was struck, and French resistance ended practically immediately. Those French troops in North Africa who had not been captured surrendered to the Allies and finally joined them. As part of the French Expeditionary Corps (containing 112,000 soldiers in April 1944), men from French North Africa saw many battles under the Allied banner in the Italian campaign, where Maghrebis (mainly Moroccans) made up over 60% of the unit's soldiers.

Adolf Hitler ordered the occupation of Vichy France and dispatched soldiers to Tunisia as soon as he learned of Darlan's arrangement with the Allies. The American press reacted angrily, branding it the "Darlan Deal," implying that Roosevelt had struck a risky deal with Hitler's stooges in France. If the liberation of North Africa had been one of the torch's original goals, it had been abandoned hours later in favour of a safe passage through the continent. When Darlan was slain six weeks later, Giraud took up the position.

The Eisenhower/Darlan pact ensured that the Vichy regime's officials remained in control in North Africa. Free France, which was meant to be France's government-in-exile and had taken control of other French colonies, was given no role. The leader of Free France, Charles de Gaulle, was highly insulted by this. It also upset many British and American citizens, who saw all Vichy French as Nazi sympathizers, with Darlan being one of the worst. Eisenhower contended, however, that if his soldiers were to advance against the Axis in Tunisia rather than combat the French in Algeria and Morocco, he had no practical choice.

Even though de Gaulle had no official control in Vichy North Africa, a large portion of the people had publicly professed their allegiance to the Free French, placing pressure on Darlan. As a result, Darlan was assassinated on December 24 by Fernand Bonnier de La Chapelle, a French resistance fighter and anti-fascist monarchist. (On the site, Bonnier de La Chapelle was apprehended and killed two days later.)

Giraud succeeded Darlan, but a few Vichy officials were replaced like him. With no objection from Murphy, he even ordered the arrest of the leaders of the Algiers coup of November 8th. The French administration in North Africa eventually got involved in the Allied war effort. The few French soldiers in Tunisia could not repel German airborne troops; Admiral Esteva had received orders from Vichy to that effect. The Germans seized the airfields and poured more troops into the area. The French forces withdrew to the west and resumed skirmishing with the Germans within a few days, aided by small American and British detachments that had arrived in the area. While this had a little military impact, it did bind the French to the Allies. All French forces were afterwards removed from combat and reequipped by the Allies.

Giraud agreed but preferred keeping the current Vichy administration in North Africa. The French regime evolved under the strain of the Allies and de Gaulle's allies, with Vichy officials gradually replaced and more inflammatory ordinances annulled. Giraud and de Gaulle agreed in June 1943 to organize the French Committee of National Liberation (CFLN), including members from both the North African administration and de Gaulle's French National Committee. De Gaulle was appointed head of the CFLN and de jure head of the French government in November 1943, and the United States and the United Kingdom recognized him. Another political effect of the torch (and on Darlan's orders) was the joining of the Allies by the previously-Vichyite government of French West Africa.

Military Consequences

Toulon: The Germans pledged to keep southern France free of German control and governed by Vichy under the terms of the Second Armistice at Compiègne. The Vichy French's lack of steadfast resistance to the Allied invasions in North Africa and De Gaulle's new policies in the region convinced the Germans that France could not be trusted. Furthermore, the Anglo-American forces in French North Africa nullified the only legitimate reason for not taking the entire country. It was the only feasible way to prevent the Allies from using the French colonies. The Germans and Italians conquered southern France almost immediately, and German troops began seizing the French fleet in the port of Toulon on November 10th. If the Germans had successfully captured the French ships, the Axis' naval strength in the Mediterranean would have been significantly expanded. Still, the French Navy sank every vital ship in the dock before the Germans could take them.

Tunisia: The French Armée d'Afrique sided with the Allies after the German and Italian seizure of Vichy France and their failed effort to capture the French fleet at Toulon (Operation Lila), supplying Anderson with a third corps (XIX Corps). Like the battleship Richelieu, French vessels rejoined the Allies in other areas. The Axis forces began to build up in French Tunisia on November 9th, unimpeded by the local French forces led by General Barré. Barré, plagued by indecision, sent his troops into the hills and created a defensive line stretching from Teboursouk to Medjez el Bab, ordering that anyone attempting to get through the line be shot. On November 19, German commander Walter Nehring demanded and was denied access for his soldiers across the Medjez bridge. The Germans launched two attacks on the under-equipped French soldiers, both of whom were repulsed. Barré was compelled to withdraw because the French had incurred many casualties and lacked artillery and armour.

The Allies launched the Tunisia Campaign after consolidating in Algeria. The First Army (Lieutenant-General Kenneth Anderson) got as close as 40 miles (64 kilometres) to Tunis before being pushed back by a counterattack at Djedeida. Finally, Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel's German and Italian soldiers reached Tunisia in January 1943 while withdrawing westward from Libya.

The Eighth Army (Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery) was moving from the east when it came to a halt outside Tripoli. At the same time, the port was restored so that reinforcements could be disembarked and the Allied advantage could be built up. The First Army was attacked in the west at the end of January, forced back from the Fad Pass, and suffered a reversal at Sidi Bou Zid on 14–15 February. Axis forces advanced near Sbeitla, where the US II Corps retreated in disorder until Allied reinforcements halted the Axis advance on February 22. George Patton was appointed in place of Fredendall.

Late in February, General Sir Harold Alexander arrived in Tunisia to take command of the new 18th Army Group headquarters, which had been established to manage the Eighth Army and the Allied forces already fighting in Tunisia. At the Battle of Medenine on March 6, the Axis forces advanced eastward but quickly defeated the Eighth Army. Rommel urged Hitler to allow a complete retreat to a defendable line but refused. On March 9th, Rommel left Tunisia to be replaced by Jürgen von Arnim, who had to spread his forces across 100 miles (160 kilometres) of northern Tunisia.

The Allies were forced to consolidate their forces, develop their lines of communication, and improve their administration after the defeat at Kasserine. In April, the First and Eighth Armies attacked once more. The Allies cut off the Italians and Germans from naval and air help between Tunisia and Sicily, resulting in a fierce battle. The British captured Tunis on the 6th of May, and American forces entered Bizerte as part of Operation Vulcan. The Axis forces in Tunisia surrendered on May 13, paving the path for the Allies to invade Sicily in July.

Later Influence

Despite its importance in the war and logistical success, Operation Torch has mainly been neglected in many popular military narratives and cultural influences. The Economist believed that French forces initially opposed the landing, making it challenging to integrate into the war's broader narrative in general histories. According to The Economist, the mission was America's first armed deployment in the Arab world since the Barbary Wars, and it lay the groundwork for America's postwar Middle East policy.

Last updated: 2022-January-11
Tags: History World War II
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