Race For Tunis (November 1942)

Race For Tunis 2 real

TOGETHER WE STAND - James Holland

Race For Tunis

Axis reaction to the Allied landings was swift. On the day of the invasion, Field Marshal Kesselring, German C-in-C South, sent a Luftwaffe liaison officer to Tunisia to pave the way for Axis occupation of French airfields there. The following morning, he spoke in person to Hitler, who gave him a free hand to build up a bridgehead in Tunisia. Wasting not a moment, Kesselring ordered more bomber units to move to Sicily and Sardinia, from where they could attack the newly captured ports in Algeria. In addition, he sent a further two-man team to negotiate with the French authorities in Tunis, along with a parachute regiment, his own HQ Battalion, and a number of Me 109s and Stukas. These landed at El Aouina airfield just outside Tunis, and although the French commander there hastily flew off to Algiers – where he reported that over forty enemy aircraft had now landed unopposed – the French forces there simply sat back and watched. Two days later, German paratroopers took over Bizerte airfield as well.

To his mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden, Hitler hastily summoned Laval, the Vichy French Prime Minister, and Count Ciano, the Italian Foreign Minister, for talks. The Italians were especially concerned about the threat in North Africa and had, in fact, been urging Hitler to build up troops in Tunisia for several months. But until now Hitler had shown little interest in the North African campaign: he regarded it as a distraction from the main focus of his energies, the campaign against Russia. He could no longer view Africa as a colonial sideshow, however: the significance of an Allied conquest of North Africa was glaringly obvious; after all, Sicily was a stone’s throw from northern Tunisia. ‘Italy will become the centre of attack by the Allies,’ noted Ciano glumly on 8 November. Only a few days later, Churchill echoed the Italian minister by claiming that the Mediterranean was the ‘under-belly of the Axis’ from which they could attack in future. Hitler was already anxious about the sticking power of the Italians. Now fully committed in the East to a tougher campaign than he’d originally envisaged, he was aware that the collapse of his principal Axis partner would be a disaster for Germany. With this in mind, he was determined to keep Italy in the fight and to safeguard his continental empire, and so immediately ordered the Axis occupation of Vichy-controlled southern France and Corsica, and the establishment of a bridgehead in Tunisia. This was presented as a fait accompli to Laval. There were other advantages for Hitler in establishing a strong bridgehead in Tunisia. Not only would it offer an alternative supply route for Rommel, but Axis control of the central Mediterranean would force the Allies to continue supplying the Middle and Far East via the Cape. So while the war against Russia was still top of Hitler’s agenda, Tunisia – ‘that cornerstone of our conduct of the war on the southern flank of Europe’ – remained key to the German war effort and he issued orders for it to be held at all costs.

On achieving this task, Kesselring was to focus all his efforts. The Mediterranean had already been reinforced during the past couple of weeks in response to the build-up of Allied activity, but further air units were transferred from every front – even Russia – including large numbers of transport aircraft. Within two weeks of the TORCH landings, there were nearly 11,000 Axis troops in Tunisia, hastily drawn from Sicily and from reserve units in France, which included German paratrooper and Panzer grenadier units as well as the Italian 50th Special Brigade from Tripoli, partially made up of remnants of the battle-hardened Ariete Division. On 16 November, General Nehring, the former commander of the Afrika Korps until wounded at Alam Halfa, arrived to take charge; by 24 November, the 10th Panzer Division had also landed, along with a number of the new Tiger tanks. This enormous 60-ton beast, hot from the German factories, was an awesome machine. Although slow , cumbersome and often suffering too many mechanical breakdowns not to mention wasting too much fuel and required constant tracks and spare parts to replace , it mounted an 88-mm gun in its turret and had body armour that was so thick there was nothing in the US and British armament that could penetrate it.

Fallschrmjager in Tunisia

German paratroopers in Tunisia

It was an astonishingly fast build-up and proved what German and Italian logisticians could achieve when there was proper commitment and shortened lines of communication. It also made life very difficult for the French Governor, Admiral Esteva, who was receiving conflicting orders from Algiers and Vichy, but who was also increasingly surrounded by Axis forces. Esteva opted for neutrality, although the commander of the French Tunisian Division, General Barré, quickly retreated with his troops away from the plains around Tunis and into the hills between Medjez el Bab and Beja, hoping the Allies would hurry to his rescue.However, Allied efforts to persuade the French to resist the Axis forces rushing to Tunisia had not been helped by disunity and shilly-shallying on the part of the French leaders in Algiers. Although the French had followed Darlan’s, rather than Pétain’s, orders and laid down their guns in much of French North Africa, the French admiral was continuing to blow hot and cold. Mark Clark, still valiantly leading the negotiations, felt that Darlan had ‘a disappointing reverence’ for Pétain; the French admiral seemed utterly miserable at his rejection by the Marshal.

As Admiral Andrew Cunningham , Commander of Torch Naval Forces and Royal Navy Mediterranean Fleet had pointed out, it was imperative that the Germans did not get their hands on the French fleet, but when Clark asked Darlan to summon the French Navy in Toulon and Tunis to come over and join the Allies, the admiral told him he did not have the authority. When Clark insisted, Darlan refused. ‘This,’ Clark told him angrily, ‘merely verifies the statement I made when I came here. There is no indication of any desire on your part to assist the Allied cause.’ Later in the day, Darlan changed his mind, and issued the orders as Clark had requested, while General Juin also ordered French forces in Tunisia to fight the Germans. Incredibly, Darlan then changed his mind again, and revoked the order, claiming he wanted to wait for General Noguès to arrive from French Morocco. Both he and Juin claimed it was a matter of military honour and discipline; they weren’t revoking the order, they assured Clark, merely suspending it until Noguès arrived. But the clock was ticking, and the German stranglehold on Tunisia was tightening.

By the following day, 13 November, Noguès had reached Algiers, and in the afternoon so did the Allied C-in-C. Ike, along with ABC and Harry Butcher, safely reached Maison Blanche around noon. Admiral Cunningham , Royal Navy Mediterranean Commander had been looking forward to meeting the French admiral. ‘Darlan is a snake,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘but a useful viper if we can use him.’ Like Ike and Clark, he had no compunction about dealing with Darlan if it ensured peace in French North Africa. Clark still had his doubts that the French would ever reach agreement, but word finally arrived that a solution had been reached between them. In an atmosphere that Admiral Cunningham thought was electric, Darlan announced that he would head the civil and political government of all French North Africa; Noguès would remain Governor of French Morocco; and Giraud would become the C-in-C of all French forces, which he would mobilize to help fight the Axis. Having agreed what was to become known as the ‘Darlan Deal’, Ike returned with ABC and Butch to Gibraltar, while Clark held a press conference. ‘The past four days have been difficult,’ he told reporters. ‘We have had to keep looking back over our shoulder instead of to the front in Tunisia. Now we can proceed in a business-like way.’

But while the Darlan Deal may have cleared the way politically, the Allies were discovering that nothing was happening quite as fast as they would have liked. A number of basic mistakes had been made during the initial landings, which had created crucial delays in unloading. At ‘Y’ Beach in the Oran sector, for example, an unexpected sandbar off the beach had caused a number of vehicles to sink. Elsewhere, flat batteries, missing ignition keys, and even missing drivers had also held up disembarkation of trucks and other vehicles. On British ships, ignition keys had been wired to steering wheels, but, incredibly, this had led to pilfering of toolboxes in the vehicles, the knock-on effects of which would be felt for months.

Moreover, the Allied armed forces were entirely dependent on what was brought from overseas; nothing was available locally and this included, crucially, oil and fuel. Even coal for the single railway running east had to be supplied from across the sea. From Algiers to Tunis was 560 miles of extremely mountainous country. From Casablanca, it was 1500 miles. There were only two main roads – one that weaved its way along the coast, and another around forty miles inland that twisted and turned up and down all the way. Both routes were built along highly mountainous terrain, while the existing French railway was barely functioning. In other words, it was far easier to get troops from Sicily into Tunisia than it was from Algiers. This was what Admiral Cunningham, for one, had feared from the outset, and the protracted settlement with Darlan, which had wasted precious time, had only confirmed his fears. ‘Once more,’ he wrote, ‘I bitterly regretted that bolder measures had not been taken in Operation TORCH, and that we had not landed at Bizerte, as I had suggested.’

The weather also hindered operations, as US Army Air Force Lieutenant Jim Reed discovered when he finally landed at Port Lyautey. Air cover for the landings in French Morocco had been provided by planes of the US Navy, as they were the only aircraft able to rearm and refuel on aircraft carriers. This was why the 33rd Fighter Group on board the USS Chenango did not fly off until the airfield at Port Lyautey had been secured. The first P-40s were catapulted off the deck on 10 November. Jim Reed had been sitting strapped into his plane, Renee, when suddenly the launchings stopped. He couldn’t understand it and began to think the worst until word got through that the halt was because one of the pilots had crashed on landing.

The next day, the aircraft began taking off again. Like for Duke Ellington before him, launching his P-40 Warhawk from a carrier was a new experience for Jim. The day before, he’d noted how nearly every aircraft had initially dipped beneath the end of the Chenango. Lieutenant Jones, the pilot five ahead of him, took off and never reappeared – unable to get out in time, he sank with his plane. When it was his turn, Jim gunned the throttle and with full flaps down, surged forward, hoping for the best. Clearing the deck, he dropped until he was just off the water, but with his engine still racing he slowly but surely began to inch higher into the air. Flying over the shimmering white city of Casablanca, Jim and several others headed up the coast to Port Lyautey, where they were met by scenes of carnage. Wrecked aircraft and bomb craters littered the field. Realizing he was not going to clear the craters, Jim flew round again, but as he touched down he noticed another bomb crater. Breaking hard, he swerved around it but the force caused his plane to tilt to one side, damaging the wing. Jim was feeling bad enough but the Group Commander, Colonel Momyer, gave him an earful. ‘Don’t feel too bad,’ another pilot told him soon after, ‘that SOB tore his all to pieces.’

The 33rd FG lost 17 out of 77 aircraft, thanks to the craters, thick mud, and because they’d been told to keep strict radio silence. As a result, none of the incoming pilots had been warned of what to expect at Port Lyautey. It was hardly an auspicious start.

With the airfields now in Allied hands, the mass of pilots and aircraft clogging up the narrow confines of Gibraltar could start heading over to Algeria. RAF Squadron Leader Tony Bartley had arrived at Gibraltar with his 111 Squadron on 4 November, with speculation still rife about their ultimate destination. Tony was praying it wouldn’t be Malta, which everyone knew was a brutal posting. With several days to idle away, he and a number of other pilots had spent much of their time in the officers’ mess, which was decorated with oak beams like an English country pub and even had ‘The Victory Inn’ painted above the door. He was there when news finally arrived on 8 November of the Allied landings in North Africa. ‘As a score of British and American fighter pilots sat around the Victory Inn bar,’ he wrote, ‘we raised our tankards, and drank to the best kept secret of the war.’

On the 11th, Tony led twelve Spitfires to Maison Blanche. He had been worried about having enough fuel for the journey and sure enough, within sight of Algiers, two of his pilots called up on the R/T and told him they had run out of petrol. ‘Can you make land?’ Tony asked them; they would try, they replied. As he flew over the massed ships in Algiers harbour, another of his pilots called up to say his engine had died; so only nine made it to Maison Blanche. As Tony taxied off the runway, came to a halt and clambered out of his Spitfire, he felt tired, hungry and depressed. A highly experienced fighter pilot, and veteran of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, he had flown operationally almost constantly since the beginning of the war, save for a brief period of test flying, and was frankly exhausted before he had even reached Gibraltar. Now in North Africa, he was filled with bleak forebodings. The airfield itself, like Port Lyautey, was littered with aircraft. Across the far side were some bombed-out hangars. Food was scarce and there was no accommodation. ‘Just scrounge what you can,’ the wing commander told him. Tony’s other pilots had gathered round and heard this news but said nothing, smoking in silence instead. By nightfall the three missing pilots turned up; thankfully, only one was hurt, arriving with a bandaged foot.

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Arriving a day later at Maison Blanche was 21-year-old RAF Flying Officer Bryan Colston – one of the few pilots to be taken all the way to Algiers by ship. He and the rest of 225 Squadron had sailed together from Gourock in Scotland, but on reaching Gibraltar the pilots had all disembarked except Bryan and Squadron Leader Scott, who were to accompany all non-flying officers and the ground crews – some 120 men in all – the rest of the journey across the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, the other pilots were to fly their brand-new Hurricane IIs to Maison Blanche as soon as they were able.

Like many young men of his age, Bryan had understood little about the war before he joined up. His father had served on the Western Front, but afterwards had rarely talked about it, and his experiences certainly made little difference to his son’s attitude to the current conflict. By the autumn of 1940, still only nineteen, Bryan had been working as a pupil surveyor on the construction of an army camp in Devon when one of his colleagues had told him he was planning to become a pilot. It sounded like a good idea to Bryan, so the pair took a train to Exeter and signed up for, and were accepted into, the RAF.

During his training he proved to be an above-average pilot and particularly strong on navigation, so while he was kept on single-seaters, he was eventually sent to 225 Squadron, an army cooperation unit. He had been there nearly a year, mainly flying up and down the south coast of England, when rumours started that they would soon be sent overseas. The prospect rather excited him, and now that they had finally reached Algeria, he felt considerably more chipper about what lay in store than Tony Bartley, although his good humour had certainly been tested by the six-hour, fifteen-mile march to Maison Blanche from the harbour in what had become hot sunshine. When they finally got there, it was dark, and Bryan, too, was exhausted. The following day, the pilots began arriving from Gibraltar. ‘Thus we became a whole squadron again,’ he noted, ‘and ready to do our duty in a far off land.’

That duty was initially to get as close to Tunisia as possible and, in the case of 225 Squadron, begin carrying out tactical reconnaissance sorties to see what the enemy was up to and just how extensively the Axis bridgehead was developing; but first, key airfields and ports in eastern Algeria, close to Tunisia, needed to be taken. This was the first task of Lieutenant-General Kenneth Anderson, as directed by Ike. Although the landings had been almost entirely an American effort, overall command on land had now reverted to Anderson, who had flown to Algiers on 9 November along with Mark Clark. General Patton’s forces were mostly to remain in French Morocco, but the rest – the US 1st Infantry Division and Army Rangers included – were part of US II Corps, now attached to the British First Army. Bryan Colston had first heard of the existence of this new army on the voyage out, when they had been given a booklet called ‘First Army Information Bulletin’. To begin with, he thought it was a printing error, and that they’d meant the Eighth Army. ‘We, officers and men of the First Army,’ wrote General Anderson in the pamphlet, ‘are (with our American allies, and under an American Commander-in-Chief, General Dwight D. Eisenhower) engaged together in a great adventure which, if all goes well, should alter the whole course of the war.’

Kenneth-Anderson

General Kenneth Anderson

US Grant tank in Tunisia

US Grant tanks advancing to Tunisia

But as Anderson was the first to point out, the First Army did not spring from the sea, ‘fully formed like Aphrodite’, but rather grew steadily as fortnightly convoys arrived, and so the initial thrust had to be made by a somewhat cobbled together combined force made up of airborne troops, commandos, and a seriously under-strength 78th British Division, led by Major-General Evelegh. As a result, when Anderson gave the order to advance eastwards on 11 November, he did so with very few troops indeed.

As it was, the only resistance came from the weather and the Germans. Storms had caused a two-day delay to the assault on Bougie, which was not taken by 36th Brigade of 78th Division until 11 November. Djidjelli airfield was taken by British paratroopers from 1st British Airborne Brigade but, due to rough seas, the assault convoy could not get into the port with the supplies and fuel for the air forces. The result was that for nearly two days the ships at Bougie had no air cover and were bombed and attacked mercilessly. U-boats that had headed too far east to intercept the main landing convoys were now perfectly placed to attack, and did so without impunity: four ships were sunk and another severely damaged. Tony Bartley led the first patrol over the port on 13 November and was shocked by what he saw. ‘The sea was streaked with large patches of oil stretching out like the tentacles of an octopus,’ he wrote. ‘The bay resembled Dante’s inferno, and bombed merchant ships lay abandoned at the entrance of the harbour, flames pouring from their hulls.’ Thick, black smoke spiralled hundreds of feet into the air. He saw no sign of the enemy and eventually turned back to Maison Blanche. No sooner had they gone than the Axis bombers returned again.Tony’s 111 Squadron was moved forward to Bône the following day, 14 November. Conditions were worse than at Maison Blanche, with the airfield under near-constant attack and with no radar or any other kind of early-warning system yet in place. For digs, the pilots slept in a ramshackle building near the airfield. It was musty with rotting floorboards and there were no beds, only rough straw mattresses. Since there was no fuel for the cook’s fire, they simply broke up whatever furniture they could find.The next day, Tony spent much his time either flying or trying to organize his squadron, fixing up petrol dumps, a decent dispersal point, and laying telephone lines to the control tower. At one point he looked up and saw one of his pilots trying to land after attacking a Ju 88. He had clearly been hit and just before touching down stalled and crashed, his plane bursting into flames. Tony and several others rushed to free him and managed to get him out only to discover he’d been shot through the top of his skull. It was their first death in North Africa.Bryan Colston’s 225 Squadron had also suffered their first casualty when one of their pilots was accidentally shot down and killed by the Maison Blanche ack-ack gunners. They, too, were soon being moved up to Bône, the first aircraft arriving on 17 November. Bryan landed there two days later, then flew on immediately for a tactical reconnaissance sortie (Tac/R) over Gabes and Sfax, ports on the east coast of Tunisia. The weather had once again turned, however, and he could see almost nothing through the thick cloud and rain.

Race For Tunis 4

Still First Army continued to advance : Further airfields were taken: On 15th November British paratroopers from 1st British Airborne Brigade landed and took Souk el Arba airfield in the north-west of Tunisia and on the 16th , they were relieved by 11th British Brigade, while American airborne forces were also sent to the front: after the fiasco of the invasion at Oran, two battalions of 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment successfully captured Youks les Bains airfield further south on the Algerian border, then two days later, on 17 November, occupied the landing ground at Gafsa as well. But even with these in Allied hands, Bône remained the only all-weather airfield and with the rain continuing, conditions were almost impossible for the fighter squadrons. Moreover, Bône was 120 miles from the edge of the Axis bridgehead, while even Souk el Arba was sixty; in contrast the Axis had all-weather airfields that were only ten miles away from the front. It was a decisive advantage.

Major-General Evelegh’s (commander of 78th British Division) forces were split into three. Along the north Tunisian coast road went 36th Infantry Brigade, aiming for Bizerte, while further south the 11th Infantry Briagde hurried along the road that led to Beja and Medjez el Bab. Following close behind 11th Brigade were Blade Force, an armoured column of Crusaders and Valentine tanks, as well as anti-tank guns and a company of motorized infantry. The first clash with Nehring’s forces occurred in the north on 17 November, when 36th Brigade repulsed German paratroopers at Djebel Abiod, some twenty-five miles inside Tunisia, with heavy losses on both sides. British infantry put out an effective anti tank gun screen and knocked out 11 of 17 German panzers counter attacking on their positions Meanwhile British paratroopers from 1st Parachute Battalion then destroyed a German armoured reconnaissance force near Sidi Nsir the following day , knocking out eight German armored cars and capturing 14 German trucks. However both forces were halted advancing further towards Tunisia meanwhile while dealing with these German forces deployed in Eastern Dorsal. Further fighting took place the next day, when General Barré’s French forces withstood a concerted German attack on their positions west of Medjez el Bab. Reinforced by the British 1st Parachute Battalion, they held out all day, but withdrew west during the night. An ominous feature of the fighting at Medjez had been the heavy enemy aerial attacks and the almost complete lack of any Allied air support. In Tunisia, the tables had been dramatically turned.

The difficult terrain did not help. Tunisia was not a big country. While its southern half dipped into the edge of the Sahara, the north was hilly and very Mediterranean, rather like Sicily, or southern Spain. Along the north-west coast ran dense cork-oak forests, while further inland, rolling ranges of hilly grassland took over. Between these rows of hills ran fertile valleys, which were full of orange and olive groves, wheat fields and vineyards. Nearly two thousand years before, the Medjerda Valley and the plain surrounding Tunis supplied most of the wheat for Ancient Rome. Like Algeria, the coastal cities were mostly filled with French, but inland Arabs made up the majority of the population, their villages a far cry from the cosmopolitan palm-lined boulevards of Tunis, Sfax, and Bizerte. As the war swept their way, the Arabs became bystanders, uncomprehending yet eager to make the most of the rich pickings that accompanied any battle.

From the rolling north sprang two ranges of mountains: the largest, the Grande Dorsale, was Tunisia’s backbone, running diagonally north-east to south-west, while to the east another range, the Eastern Dorsale, barred the way to the coast, running from the north all the way to Maknassy, and then joining another set of jagged peaks that ran east–west from Gafsa. The further south, the harsher the landscape became; the lush vegetation of the north gave way to increasingly unforgiving, craggy mountains, towering pink and orange, and dominating the arid plains beneath them, until, south of Gafsa, the terrain became a series of ‘chotts’, extensive and largely non-traversable salt-marshes. Further south from these lay the edge of the Sahara.

Along the seaward side of the Eastern Dorsale, the land was flat and relentless, from the curve of the Libyan coast right up to Hammamet, just thirty miles south of Tunis. But to reach the hospitable plains, the Allies had to take the hills and mountains first, ranges in which a lone gun, well placed, could wreak havoc. This made Tunisia a difficult country in which to manoeuvre at the best of times, but in winter, when the weather could be cold and wet, it was torturous, as the Allies were already discovering. In the race for Tunis, there was much that was already stacked against them.

Ike in Algiers

Across the sea in Gibraltar, Ike was facing up to the disappointment of the Darlan Deal being very coolly received back in Britain, where, as Harry Butcher put it, Admiral Darlan was seen as a ‘stinking skunk’. Even Churchill was hardly thrilled, and he was sorely grieved that the success at Alamein and of the TORCH landings had become overshadowed by what many of his friends and colleagues – Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden included – viewed as a ‘base and squalid deal’ with one of Britain’s bitterest enemies. Ike patiently explained that the most important thing had been to establish a co-operative regime that would save further Allied bloodshed and enable them to get on with the job in hand as quickly as possible; Admiral Cunningham also made clear his support of the deal, and felt rather sorry for Ike, reassuring him that politicians always wanted it both ways. ‘In my view,’ he wrote later, ‘it was the only possible course, and absolutely right. Darlan was the only man in North Africa who could have stopped the fighting.’

But although Admiral Cunningham’s staunch defence of Ike certainly helped convince the Prime Minister, the outrage only gathered pace in Britain, and there were even rumblings in the USA: the veteran broadcaster Ed Murrow, demanded to know, in a highly charged broadcast, why the Allies were now dealing with traitors. The President stepped in, holding a press conference at which he explained and endorsed Ike’s decision concerning Darlan, although he also suggested the appointment of Darlan was only a temporary measure born of political and military necessity.

While this did much to quell fears in the USA, Darlan was not so happy, likening himself to ‘a lemon which the Americans will drop after they have squeezed it dry’. Nonetheless, on 22 November, the Clark–Darlan deal was finally signed, and the next day Darlan managed to deliver the crucial port of Dakar in French West Africa into the hands of the Allies.

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At Bône, the pilots now had radar of sorts. RAF Flight Officer Tony Bartley had discovered a radar station nearby that had belonged to French civil airways and where the operators were still tracking aircraft movements for their own amusement. In a matter of hours, he had laid a telephone line between the RDF (radio direction finding) station and Bône and installed their own operators.

It didn’t stop the enemy bombers attacking them, however. On the 22nd, Tony had been struggling with a stomach upset and had been taking a brief nap at dispersal when the alarm sounded. He ran to his Spitfire, but as he was strapping on his parachute harness a number of fighter-bombers were already circling towards him and so he dashed for cover under a nearby truck. As explosions began erupting around him, he looked up and saw a Spitfire racing down the runway and take to the air as another bomb exploded just in front of it. The blast hit the aircraft and it crashed to the ground again, skidding straight towards Tony with flames pouring from its punctured petrol tanks. He could only watch in horror as the pilot desperately struggled but failed to get out of the inferno.

When the attackers had gone, Tony scrambled out again and saw the charred ‘scarecrow arm’ of his incinerated comrade; then he realized the truck he’d been hiding under had been repeatedly hit by bullets and cannon fire. His own Spitfire was completely destroyed. He could only marvel at his escape. Later, his two flight commanders, having lost their aircraft trying to land in Algiers, finally arrived with the rearguard of the squadron and a number of spares and supplies. Until then, Tony had been flying every mission asked of the squadron; the past few days had been among the most testing of his entire life. Not only had he been leading the squadron in the air, he had also been looking after all his men and taking care of the squadron administration. Admittedly they had only just arrived and Bône was 300 miles from Algiers, but the ten day-fighter squadrons that were near the front by the end of November were not even placed together in their own wings: 225 Squadron, for example, was part of 322 Wing, but two of its squadrons were based at Djidjelli; 324 Wing, of which Tony Bartley’s 111 Squadron was a part, was now at Souk el Arba with two other Spitfire squadrons, while 111 and 72 Squadrons were kept at Bône. It is no wonder Tony Bartley felt overwhelmed by what was expected of him. Tommy Elmhirst would have been horrified to see such haphazard organization, but the truth was that the brilliant systems put in place by Vice Air Marshalls Mary Conningham and Tommy Elmhirst in Desert Air Force based in Egypt and advancing on Libya , had not been sufficiently noted in Britain and were not adopted in north-west Africa either. Air Marshal Arthur Tedder made a brief visit at the end of the month and was appalled by what he discovered – not only were the conditions and supply situation terrible, but the headquarters of the US Twelfth Air Force and RAF Eastern Air Command were miles apart and hardly co-operating at all.

In Tunisia, the race was still on, although during the last week of November things hardly went to plan. General Evelegh ,commander of 78th British Infantry Division was now attempting a three-pronged attack with insufficient forces and committing the old British mistake of trying to advance on far too wide a front without proper equipment. His two infantry brigades had now been reinforced with detachments of American artillery and tanks, but because they had not trained together in Britain it was the first time these troops had ever operated shoulder to shoulder, and so there was understandable confusion over the differing ways in which British and American troops approached matters.

In the north, 36th Brigade were due to press on towards Bizerte but were halted by German paratroopers who put up very effective though improvised defensive positions at Djebels Azzaq and Ajred, soon nicknamed Green and Bald Hills. Fighting continued for three days, after which 36th Brigade were forced to give up; 11th Brigade also failed to take Medjez el Bab against resolute defence of 90th German Corps under command of General Walter Nehring mainly forming up 10th Panzer Division before Medjez, and the only success was Blade Force, which was pushing forward through the Tine Valley to the north. After overrunning a number of German outposts, an advanced guard of Honeys from the US 1st Armored Regiment reached Djedeida airfield, only twelve miles from Tunis. The American tanks surged forward just as several flights of German JU-87 Stuka dive bomberss were being loaded with bombs. Surprise was total and they managed to destroy twenty aircraft as well as blow up a number of fuel and ammunition dumps before safely withdrawing. Nehring was extremely alarmed by this sudden attack and, believing the Allied armoured forces were much greater than they really were, ordered the evacuation of Medjez so that his troops could be better concentrated to defend Tunis.

This enabled 11th Brigade to move forward again , capturing Medjez el Bab on 28th November. Leaving Barré’s French forces in Medjez, they advanced and took Tebourba, but with Blade Force now alongside them they were simply unable to get any further. Axis resistance led by 10th Panzer Division was fierce. German anti tank guns knocked out several British and American tanks and vehicles , but it was the enemy aerial attacks that really did the damage. Reaching a crescendo during the last days of November, their relentless pounding of the Allied positions by Luftwaffe bombers proved once again that it was almost impossible in modern war to succeed in the face of overwhelming air superiority. On 30 November, Evelegh recommended to Anderson that he should now pause his attack until sufficient reinforcements had arrived. There was little Anderson could do but agree.

race For tunis 3

‘Where are the RAF?’ was a common complaint that filtered through to Squadron Leader Tony Bartley. He remembered the last time he’d heard that, when they’d flown their hearts out above the clouds over Dunkirk and received only bitter resentment for their efforts. When word arrived that General Evelegh was about to begin his all-out attempt to capture Tunis, Tony started mounting standing patrols all day, but with only around a quarter of his squadron serviceable and with a severe shortage of spares and equipment, added to the greater distances they had to travel than their Axis counterparts, it was hard to make much of an impression. Moreover, the Axis had early-warning radar, which, along with their all-weather airfields on the flat plain around Tunis, enabled them to attack with impunity.

On 25 November, Tony watched columns of Allied troops trundling forward beneath him on the road to Medjez el Bab. Late in the afternoon, they spotted a formation of JU-87 Stukas. As soon as the German pilots saw the Spitfires, they began frantic evasive action, but they were easy meat for someone as experienced as Tony. ‘I picked on one of them,’ he noted, ‘who practically turned himself inside out with contortions before I blew his wing off and ashot it down .’ He shot down another Stuka, then headed for home. On the way, he saw a number of German Junkers 88 bombers, and although now out of ammunition, ordered the other pilots to follow him as he dived into the enemy bombers. His ruse worked: the Junkers jettisoned their bombs in panic.

The next day, he watched a number of American B-17s many thousands of feet above him, their white contrails streaming behind them, vivid against the deep blue sky, as they headed for Bizerte. American Flying Fortresses of the 97th and 301st Bomb Groups had been withdrawn from the US Eighth Air Force based in England and sent over to North Africa. Lieutenant Ralph Burbridge was the 22-year-old bombardier of the All American, a B-17 of the 414th Squadron and part of the 97th BG. It had been Fortresses of the 97th that had flown Ike and his staff out to Gibraltar a few weeks before, but the 414th had left Grafton Underwood in England later, not arriving at Maison Blanche until 18 November.

From Missouri in the Midwest, Ralph had joined the air force just before Pearl Harbor. He’d been disappointed not to become a pilot but reckoned so were a lot of other people, so he quickly knuckled down to the task assigned to him – one that carried no small amount of responsibility. And when he wasn’t aiming their bomb load, he was expected to man one of the guns, the noise of which would reverberate deafeningly around the belly of the aircraft. Ralph had taken part in the 97th’s first mission over France – a raid on Rouen on 17 August. A nerve-racking experience, they nonetheless made it back in one piece, although Ralph soon realized just how under-prepared they were for war. ‘We had a cover of Spitfires,’ he says, ‘but otherwise I reckon we’d all have been dead.’ They learned fast, however, and by the time Ralph and his crew left England, they’d chalked up no less than sixteen combat missions. He and his colleagues in the 97th were just about the only American airmen in the theatre with any combat experience at all.

This lack of experience among most of Doolittle’s 12th Air Force was painfully obvious to RAF Flight Officer Tony Bartley. Doolittle had sent a fighter group of P-38 Lightnings to Youk les Bains. On 30 November, 111 Squadron were sharing their patrol line with a number of these twin-engine, twin-fuselage fighters, which had far greater range than the Spitfires but not the manoeuvrability to take on highly experienced Luftwaffe pilots in the latest 109s and new Focke-Wulf 190s. Watching them flying in such close formation reminded him of the air displays he’d seen at Hendon as a child – the kind of flying the RAF had long since given up. Had he been on their radio wavelength he’d have called them up and told them to go home. Then he spotted two German Messerschmitt 109 fighters circling, watching their prey, and selecting their targets. Fortunately for the Lightnings, the German pilots had been so seduced by their easy target that they forgot the most basic rule of all. From above them and out of the sun, Tony led his Spitfires onto them just as they began their dive onto the Americans, and both Messerschmitts were shot down by Spitfires. Turning for home, Tony glanced back at the Lightnings, sailing on in close formation, completely unaware of the fighting behind them or that they had been moments away from death. ‘I made a note to get in touch with their Group Commander as soon as I’d landed and tell him the facts of life,’ noted Tony, then added, ‘but it was comforting to see some American support at last

But no wonder the air operations – and in turn the land operations – were not going to plan. During those early days in Tunisia, the lack of equipment and facilities, the relentless bombing and strafing, and the awful weather meant the pilots were suffering conditions as bad as at any time and in any theatre of the entire war.

Harry Butcher slipped over to Algiers from Gibraltar on 17 November on a house-hunting mission for Ike and Mark Clark. Together with Clark’s aide, they set off in a Jeep and before long Butch noticed two large white villas perched on a hillside that were not on his rental list. Later, they discovered they were both owned by a wealthy pro-German wine merchant and that they hadn’t been requisitioned. ‘So without further ado,’ noted Butch, ‘Headquarters Command filed appropriate papers with the French, we having come as liberators not as conquerors.’ Job done, he returned to Gibraltar.

Five days later, Ike and his staff finally moved to North Africa. The Allied Commander-in-Chief had been itching to get over there for some days, but on his arrival at Tafaraouia, south of Oran, Ike came up against the kind of weather that had been giving his armed forces such trouble. A tail wheel burst on landing and then, having taxied off the landing strip, his plane promptly got stuck in mud. After a half-day delay while the wheel was fixed and their plane towed out of trouble, they flew on to Algiers, where Ike soon discovered there were other problems. The initial advance into Tunisia had been carried out by troops from the Algiers area – the closest to the front. A few days before, Ike had given orders for more US units to be sent up to Tunisia from around Oran, but this had simply not happened. At his office in the Hotel St George he met Brigadier-General Lunsford Oliver, commander of Combat Command ‘B’ (CCB); this was a section of 1st Armored Division and rather similar to a British brigade group. Oliver had returned from a reconnaissance trip to the front and, realizing that the railway network was insufficient to take his troops to the battle area quickly enough, had asked permission to take part of his command on the 700-mile trip by road, in half-track troop carriers. His request had been refused, however, on the grounds that half the life expectancy of the half-tracks would be used in just getting them there.

Ike overruled such objections, although he could not blame the staff officer in question. ‘He had been trained assiduously, through years of peace, in the eternal need for economy,’ wrote Ike. ‘He had not yet accepted the essential harshness of war; he did not realize that the word is synonymous with waste, nor did he understand that every positive action requires expenditure.’ These staff officers would soon catch on, to such a degree that enormous equipment wastage would be watched with mounting envy by their British allies. But as the first weeks of the great adventure came and went, the huge inexperience of both American and British forces was seriously counting against them. And there would be a few more knocks before the harsh lessons of war began to take effect.

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Harsh Realities: December 1942

Admiral Cunningham moved to Algiers with his staff a day after Eisenhower. Like Ike, Cunningham had also sent an advance party to prepare offices and a place to stay, and like both Clark and Eisenhower he set up his HQ in the Hotel St George. But it also turned out that one of his staff had earmarked the very same villas that had been spotted by Harry Butcher. During the intervening days, the staffs of the respective commanders had been having quite a tussle on behalf of their bosses. Fortunately, there was an easy resolution: Ike took one, Cunningham the other, while Clark remained in town, an arrangement that was to benefit both commanders in the weeks and months to come. Commanding magnificent views of Algiers and its harbour, the villas were also luxuriously equipped inside – ‘too velvet-arsed and Rolls Royce’, as Cunningham would say; the owner might have been pro-Nazi, but his taste was exemplary.

Career_of_Admiral_Sir_Andrew_Cunningham_A9760

Admiral Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham , Royal Navy , known as “ABC”

But as Cunningham quickly discovered, Algiers was no bed of roses. Enemy bombers arrived daily, the Allies continued to be short of much equipment and many basic facilities, and unloading from the harbour continued to be slow due to a lack of transport. At Oran, the inner harbour was still blocked with sunken ships, as Admiral Cunningham had seen for himself during a visit in the middle of November. The French fleet had remained stuck in Toulon, much to his annoyance, but when the Germans tried to seize it on 27 November, the French reacted quickly. Most of the ships were promptly scuttled, including a battleship, two battle cruisers, four heavy and three light cruisers; and although the only warships finally to reach Allied ports were three submarines, the Germans were only able to lay their hands on six undamaged destroyers and a submarine.

At least the news from Malta was good. A complete Allied convoy had reached the Malta Grand Harbour. The siege of his beloved island was over. He had also reconstituted a fast anti-shipping force. Force ‘K’ had been most effective during the autumn of 1941, and now a similar cruiser force – Force ‘Q’ , made up by two Royal Navy lightcruisers and three Royal Navy destroyers– was put into action against an Axis convoy sailing to Malta that had been reported, via ULTRA, heading to Tunisia. Steaming towards their quarry, Force ‘Q’ intercepted Axis convoy shortly after midnight on 2 December. ‘For the enemy it was a holocaust,’ wrote Admiral Cunningham. Engaged at point-blank range, four Axis supply ships and three Italian destroyers were sunk by Force Q. ‘It was a ghastly scene of ships exploding and bursting into flame amidst clouds of steam and smoke,’ he added. The following morning, Royal Navy submarines reported that the sea was littered with debris, thick oil, and corpses.
(this was Naval Battle of Skerki Convoy when Axis lost five supply ships and three escort vessels on 2-3 December 1942)

Cunningham might have favoured initial landings at Bizerte, but now that the Axis were in Tunisia in such force, and with so many enemy aircraft operating from Sicily and Sardinia, he realized that any attempts to ferry reinforcements further east than Bône was out of the question. As it was, Bône was receiving a daily pasting, although none so severe as that of 4 December when, at dawn, the port came under especially heavy attack. Unfortunately, the quays and jetties were congested with petrol, ammunition and other supplies, and the place turned into something of an inferno with heavy casualties and loss of ordnance. Nonetheless, because the roads were so bad and the railway so poor, a shuttle service of small boats had to continue ferrying up and down the Algerian coast. The bulk of this work was given to four requisitioned cross-Channel steamers, which valiantly managed to carry no less than 16,000 troops into Bône by 5 December. Sailing by night, and under constant threat of attack from the air and from submarines, their regular voyages were always eventful, but, crucially, always successful too. Their efforts were, Admiral Cunningham noted proudly, ‘an outstanding achievement’.

Royal Navy submariners in Mediterranean Sea were doing less well, however. For some reason, they’d hit a bad patch, yet the need to disrupt the Axis supply routes from Italy was as great now as ever. Far too much was reaching both Tunisia and Rommel’s retreating Panzer Army. One notable exception, however, was Royal Navy submarine HMS Safari, which was almost single-handedly accounting for the Malta based 10th Flotilla’s score. During November, she was on patrol for three whole weeks, and when she and her crew crept back to Malta on 24 November, they did so with a further four more bars stitched on to her Jolly Roger. This included a 3000-ton Italian tanker, which they had been ordered to intercept in the Gulf of Sirte. After covering 500 miles in 51 hours, they eventually caught up with the tanker and chased it back into the tiny Libyan harbour of Ras Ali. The water had been so shallow that they’d been unable to dive, but at night, and in a difficult and rising swell, they had fired a torpedo from over two miles’ distance. The Italian tanker had erupted in a sheet of flames. Over the next few days, they visited Ras Ali again and found it packed with German bargers and landing craft. As well as sinking and damaging a number of lighter vessels they encountered, they also hit a German Panzer that had been down by the pier. HMS Safari claimed to be the only submarine to torpedo a tank on dry land. And their extraordinary success continued. On their next patrol, in December, they arrived back in Malta with a further five bars on the Jolly Roger. During the three months that Safari had been attached to the 10th Submarine Flotilla, her crew had sunk a staggering fifteen Axis vessels. They were the most successful submarine operating in the Mediterranean by a considerable margin.

HMS Safari

HMS Safari Crew

HMS Safari crew

Although Brigadier-General Lunsford Oliver’s Combat Command ‘B’ was now up at the Tunisian front, most of the American troops that had landed at Oran were encamped in row upon row of pup tents, waiting in reserve for their orders to move forward and trying to make the best of things through the mud and rain. Bing Evans and the other Rangers were still at Arzew, guarding gun positions and providing town security, while the Big Red One was similarly given the job of keeping order in Oran. All too often, however, it was the troops that needed the policing. The 18th Infantry had the reputation of being the worst-disciplined outfit in the whole division, and when not on duty most of the GIs would make a beeline for Oran on the hunt for wine. ‘Our commanding officer said he didn’t care what we did as long as we fought,’ says Tom Bowles; he meant on the battlefield, however, not in bars, but drunken GIs frequently ended up brawling. On one occasion, Henry Bowles and his buddy Blake C. Owens had gone into Oran looking for a good time and, having had a few drinks, stumbled into a bar full of legionnaires. As Blake began to get drunk, so he started arguing with some of them; and then fists started flying. It was all Henry could do to get Blake out of there. ‘There were only us two GIs,’ says Henry, ‘but that place was full of the French Foreign Legion.’

Not all the 1st US Infantry Division was stuck in Algiers, however. On 20 November, the US 5th Field Battalion had been one of the artillery units hurriedly sent to the front to bolster the British forces in their attempted final surge towards Tunis. ‘The British needed the heavy stuff,’ says Joe Furayter, a gunner in ‘A’ Battery, ‘and so orders came to pack up and head for Tunis. They said we’d be under British command.’

The 5th Field Artillery were equipped with 155-mm howitzers, although it had taken a few days after the landings for them to be reunited with their guns. Landing at Arzew, they had been waiting for their howitzers when they’d come under French fire. The first guns to arrive were four 105 mms – from an entirely different unit – but their crews didn’t seem to be around, so the 5th were told to take them and to start firing at the French right away. Only after the fall of Oran were they finally given their 155s.

It was Joe’s second time in the army. Born in 1917, he had grown up in Union Town, a mining settlement fifty miles west of Pittsburg. Life was tough; the Depression affected the mining towns of Pennsylvania just as it did most places in the USA; but his family was blighted by tragedy when, in 1934, his father and nineteen-year-old brother were killed in a mining accident. Joe tried to find work and to help his mother, but there was little on offer and so, in 1938, he joined the army.

Back then the artillery still used horse-drawn gun carriages – such was the backwardness of the US Army. Joe left after two years and became a miner like his father; but then, in 1942, he was drafted and joined the 5th Field Artillery. The horses had gone, but they were still using First World War 1918 howitzers, guns that went with them to North Africa. ‘They were good, though,’ says Joe. But they were big – Joe was a loader, one of two men needed just to lift the 95-pound shell into the breech. There were seven men on each gun: two loaders, two to ram the shell into the breech, the powder man and the fuse man; and the gunner corporal, whose job it was to receive the gun programme and to set the sights, elevation, and quadrant.

The British Eighth Army might have been made up of people from around the Dominions, but in many ways the US Army was just as polyglot. Joe’s parents were from Slovakia (they had emigrated to America just before the First World War) and there were large numbers of first- and second-generation Europeans – even Germans – in the US forces in North Africa. In Joe’s gun crew there were also two Spaniards, one of whom could barely speak English. It didn’t bother Joe one jot that they would be serving under British command. ‘We were all one,’ says Joe. ‘No one paid any attention to whether we were British or American.’

In trucks, with the guns towed behind, they hurried through the rain along the torturous road to Tunisia, reporting to General Evelegh at the mountain town of Souk Ahras four days later. How General Evelegh expected to command his forces from a mountain HQ some 120 miles behind the front, with poor access and communications to his forward units, is unclear, but the Americans were told to head on to Beja, where they would find the headquarters of 11th Infantry Brigade. Even this was fifty miles from the forward troops, a fact that no doubt added to the sense of confusion and the breathtaking number of different and muddled orders issued to the 5th Field Battalion.In Beja, they were told to head for positions south-west of Medjez el Bab. Reconnaissance parties then went forward, but soon after the orders changed; they were to go to a different position east of Beja instead. By the time a messenger caught up with the reconnaissance party, they were sixty miles from where they should have been. The following day, the battalion managed to get themselves together again and, on reporting to 78th Division’s command post, were told they would be taking over positions vacated by the British 132nd Field Regiment; then they were told the 132nd would not be leaving after all. The battalion had to hastily reconnoitre new positions, but by now it was dark. The following day, 27 November, they were given yet another position, this time north-east of Tebourba, while on the 28th they were told to reconnoitre a further area north of Djedeida, seven miles beyond Tebourba. En route to this latest location, the battalion reconnaissance party reached Tebourba. It was the middle of the night and the town was coming under heavy aerial bombardment. Furthermore, the Americans were told that the enemy now held the east-west road between Tebourba and Djedeida. Not unnaturally, the Americans wondered whether they were still expected to go forward. Yes, they were told, and right away. Taking this news on the chin, the battalion reconnaissance party set out once more. It was now 11 p.m.; the rest of the battalion was to follow two hours later.

Just as the main party of the battalion was about to set out, an officer arrived saying the CRA (Commander Royal Artillery) had now cancelled the move north of Djedeida after all. Urgent messages were then sent by radio recalling the reconnaissance party, but it was already too late. Although a few men made it back by 4.30 a.m., the majority of the forward party – including the battalion commander, Colonel Stout, and commanders of HQ, ‘B’ and ‘D’ Batteries – had run into a large enemy formation just west of Djedeida and had either been killed or taken prisoner. With the battalion’s command ripped away before they’d fired a single shell at the Germans, the battalion executive, Major Robert Tyson, hastily took over and reorganized his men, promoting several officers to take over the affected batteries. By 5 p.m. that day, 29 November, the American gunners were finally given orders to position themselves in support of 11th Brigade, around Tebourba. Before dawn the following morning, ‘A’ and ‘B’ Batteries pulled into an olive orchard near El Bathan, south of Tebourba and near to where a bridge crossed the River Medjerda. There they began digging furiously – foxholes for the men and ammunition pits for their shells. The Americans were struggling: on unfamiliar terrain, and with a chronic shortage of supplies, their lack of experience was showing itself all too clearly.

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Field-Marshal Kesselring had arrived in Tunisia with Hitler’s latest directive to throw the Allies back into Algeria. Critical of Nehring’s earlier caution, Kesselring now ordered him to counter-attack with the 10th Panzer Division and retake Medjez el Bab. Joe Furaytor and ‘A’ Battery of the 5th Field Artillery Battalion were covering the East Surreys to the south-east of Tebourba when at dawn on 1 December German tanks appeared west of Djedeida, in front of the ridge where the Hampshires were dug in. Although about three miles to the south-west, ‘A’ Battery soon began throwing volley after volley of indirect fire towards the advancing Panzers. The attack was repulsed, but shortly afterwards the men below heard an increasingly loud drone. In moments, tiny dark shapes in the sky had grown until they were peeling off and screaming down towards the Allied positions. It was the first of many Stuka raids that day.

Before he reached North Africa, Joe had had little idea of what to expect. Fighting the French had given him a taste of what it was like being under fire, but coming under attack from the Germans was something else altogether. As the Stukas started diving one after the other, Joe and his crew ran for the cover of their foxholes. ‘It was very frightening,’ admits Joe. ‘That bomb looked like a little black object but you’d swear it was going to come down on your head.’ Once the Stukas had gone, they crept back to man their guns, only to find themselves coming under heavy counter-battery fire. Shells whistled loudly overhead then exploded, sending fountains of mud and stone high into the sky. Mortar shells also began dropping around them. Shards of shrapnel burst the gun’s tyres and clanged against the gun shield. Both ‘A’ and ‘B’ Batteries took several casualties. When Joe saw his first dead comrade, he thought to himself, ‘You’re a soldier, this is what happens in war.’ He tried to be practical. ‘I accepted the fact,’ he says, ‘and I accepted that it could happen to me too.’

It was becoming horribly clear that they were being attacked from all sides. The Germans had advanced that morning in four different groups in a clinical encircling operation. Blade Force to the northeast of Tebourba had taken the brunt of two of these armoured thrusts and retreated in some disorder. Panzers pushed on, some almost to within reach of the Tebourba Gap, the narrows between two long ridges of hills through which the River Medjerda and the main road to Medjez ran. From the south-east, another German group moved towards the Surreys and the guns of ‘A’ and ‘B’ batteries. Joe and his crew fired volley after volley, empty shell cases building up around them, the big gun thundering then jolting backwards with every recoil.

By mid-morning, they were already running low on ammunition. They had a number of .50 calibre machine guns, however – powerful enough to force the dive-bombers to fly higher and effective against the Germans now advancing directly in front of them, most of whom appeared to be infantry. With this in mind, orders were given for gun crews to be split and the machine guns set up on the flanks of their positions. Joe hurried off with one of the .50 calibres and found he was only twenty yards away from a British machine-gun team of the 1st East Surreys. ‘We talked to each other and exchanged rations,’ he says. ‘They had field glasses and as soon as they saw any of the enemy coming in my direction, they’d motion to me and I’d cock my gun ready to fire.’

Stuka attacks arrived almost hourly, while fighters sped over and strafed their positions with relentless ease. By evening the 5th Field Battalion had knocked out a number of enemy tanks and, together with the East Surreys, had seen off three companies of German paratroopers and destroyed several mortars. But despite their efforts, the enemy was closing its net around Tebourba. Then news arrived that another German force had bypassed them and had now cut the Medjez-Tebourba road from the south. They had not heard from the British CRA for forty-eight hours and were now almost out of ammunition; despite sending urgent radio messages for more, they had received no reply.

After consulting with the Surreys, it was decided that they should try and make a break for it and withdraw along the Medjerda River towards Medjez. Captain Rawie, the commander of ‘A’ Battery, called his men together. ‘I’m speaking to you like men, not boys,’ he told them. ‘You’re soldiers and we’re at war. We are surrounded. We can’t get out.’ Then turning to Joe’s gun corporal, he said, ‘How many rounds have you got left?’

‘One round,’ came the reply.

‘OK,’ said Rawie, ‘save it. Spike the gun and then tonight when I give the order, blow it up and torch the trucks and then everyone take off on your own. If you make it out, one day we might meet up again. God bless and God speed.’

A nerve-racking wait followed. All the while, the Germans continued to shell their positions, so Joe and a number of others took cover at a nearby farm. The rain was pouring down and their woollen greatcoats were soaked and weighed a ton. Thick mud covered the ground. Finding some haystacks, they tried to keep dry by hiding in the straw but they were bitten to pieces by bugs and ants and emerged looking like they’d caught measles. ‘You can’t believe how horrible it was,’ says Joe.

They were finally given orders to move out at around two in the morning. Despite Captain Rawie’s dramatic speech, it was decided to try and take the guns and trucks after all. Creeping away towards the Tebourba Gap, past burning tanks and with the rain falling once again, they drove within a couple of hundred yards of a German leaguer, but by moving as slowly as possible and not changing gear, the enemy never heard them. For the 5th Field Battalion, the Battle of Tebourba was over.

Muddled planning and confusion had also threatened the British 2nd Parachute Battalion’s first operation in North Africa. On the morning of 28 November, Lieutenant-Colonel Frost was briefed to take the battalion and capture an enemy airfield at Pont du Fahs, some forty miles south of Tunis, the following day. Having destroyed any enemy aircraft they could find, they were then to move to another airstrip at Depienne, twelve miles away; having knocked out all the aircraft there, they were then to cover another twelve miles and repeat the performance at Oudna. Mission accomplished, they were to link up with the forward units of 78th Division as they advanced towards Tunis. Frost was keen as mustard to get into action, but this seemed like quite a big task. They were not going in with any transport, so would have to rely entirely on their legs or captured vehicles, and they would have to carry enough ammunition, food, radios, batteries and other supplies for at least five days. There was little information on offer about the local inhabitants or the likely opposition, but, nonetheless, Frost felt sure they were equal to the task – there was talk of a combined thrust towards Tunis and he had visions of himself and his troops arriving ‘primus in Carthago’, glorious heroes all.

Over six hundred of them, including a troop of para sappers, were to be flown by American Dakotas the following day. The Dakotas normally lived at Blida and so were going to fly to Maison Blanche first thing in the morning. Frost was told the number of aircraft available and how and where they would line up ready for loading, and so made loading plans accordingly; but when, early the next day, the battalion moved up to the airfield, he discovered that not only were the aircraft lined up completely differently from how he’d been told, their numbering system was also totally at odds with what they’d been expecting, making it impossible to know which lot of men and supply containers were supposed to go where. It was also raining, so the trucks that had taken the troops to the aircraft were now getting stuck in mud. To make matters worse, Frost was then informed that there were no enemy aircraft at either Pont du Fahs or Depienne, which meant a last-minute change of plan. He decided they should now make the drop over Depienne, proceed to Oudna, then make their way to St Cyprien to link up with the First Army. Time was now running short and it was not possible either to brief all the pilots or his men properly or sufficiently study a new drop zone.

Despite this, they took off as planned in forty-four Dakotas. The sky was clear and cloudless as they flew over the mountains but it was an uncomfortable journey. Through the windows, Frost watched other planes lurching up and down from the turbulence. Ever since arriving two weeks before, Frost had been itching to be given something worthwhile to do. A week before he’d gone on a reconnaissance flight over Sousse – there’d been talk of an Allied landing there using troops from Malta and with the Paras in support – and although there had been considerable risk from enemy fighters, it had been Americans who’d shot at them as they’d tried to land for refuelling. Nothing had come of the plan, however, which was doubly frustrating for Frost because the 1st and 3rd Battalions had already had plenty to do, as had the American paratroopers.

John_Frost

Lt. Col. John Frost , later Arnhem bridge hero in Operation Market Garden

Few men relished soldiering as much as Colonel Frost. Of stocky build and sporting a dark moustache, Frost was just thirty years old and had only taken over as battalion commander en route to Africa, when the existing CO had become too ill to carry on. He had, however, already shown himself to be an exceptional commander of men, and was one of the very few in the Parachute Brigade who had proved himself in combat before reaching North Africa.

In November 1942, parachuting was still in its infancy. The Germans had used airborne troops to great effect during the 1940 blitzkrieg, but at that time Britain, typically, had no equivalent. It was left largely to Churchill to ensure that the army embraced the use of airborne forces, demanding a corps of at least 5,000 men. The commandos began the process, but by the time of the first British airborne operation – an attack on an aqueduct in southern Italy in February 1941 – 2 (Parachute) Commando was still only 500 men strong. Frost joined in September that year, when the 1st Parachute Brigade was being formed, and took part in its first operation, leading ‘C’ Company of the 2nd Battalion into France to capture a vital radar installation at Bruneval, a mission that was highly successful. North Africa, however, was the first major deployment of the brigade and there was much still to be learned.

The Americans, as with all aspects of their armed forces, were also slow starters. They had begun testing the viability of parachute infantry units in 1940, although it took the success of the German airborne invasion of Crete in May 1941 to really kick-start their development work. By the end of the year, there were four parachute battalions, of which the 503rd, so disastrously scattered over North Africa on 8 November, was one. Now, however, the moulding of parachute units into highly specialized fighting troops was under way: spurred on by the success of the Bruneval Raid, the US Army had, in August, formed, and was now training, two brand-new divisions, the 82nd and 101st Airborne.

After flying over the mountains, the Dakotas taking the 2nd Parachute Battalion deep into Tunisia dropped low over the plains. Frost stood by the door as they swept over Pont du Fahs, their original drop zone; then shortly after, over Depienne, he jumped, landing safely on the smooth, flat ground. Having gathered his parachute, he made for a small mound at the edge of the drop zone and sounded a few notes of his hunting horn. A keen huntsman, the horn had been a leaving gift at the end of his time commanding the Iraqi Levies. He had been Master of the Royal Exodus Hunt, which, though they had chased jackals rather than foxes, had been in every other respect just like any hunt in England, right down to the hounds and hunting pink.

Slowly his men began to assemble. They and their containers had been scattered over a wide area of around one and a half miles and there was a large watercourse bisecting the drop zone, so it took a while. Six men had been injured and one killed. A number of Tunisians had also appeared and had begun trying to loot the containers, although after a few shots were fired nearby they soon scuttled off again. The Paras were still gathering themselves together when a troop of British reconnaissance cars suddenly appeared – auguring well for their planned link with the First Army the following day. The injured could not go on, but nor could they be left in the hands of the locals, who were known to act like piranhas given the opportunity, and so Frost left a platoon of ‘C’ Company to try and get them to safety.

Just after midnight, the rest set off for Oudna, travelling by foot on rough tracks over hilly country. There was no question of a supply drop during the operation, so they had to take everything with them. Although they had failed to find any vehicles, they had managed to buy a few carts; even so, each man was carrying around nine stone – just under 60 kilos – of kit. Despite this, and despite the rough and frequently steep going, they covered twelve miles by around 4.30 a.m., at which point Frost called the battalion to rest. Although it had been warm the previous day, at night the temperature dropped alarmingly and under a clear sky it was now freezing cold. The Paras wore different clothing to the rest of the army: cotton ‘airborne smocks’ and jumping trousers, less heavy than the thick serge of the regulars – good for jumping and moving in, but not so good when trying to sleep in sub-zero temperatures. Frost lay huddled next to his second-in-command, Philip Teichman, and covered with maps for extra warmth.

They set off again at around eight in the morning, their progress watched by locals all the way. More carts were bought and by eleven they were overlooking Oudna airfield, with Tunis glimmering in the distance. Of the aircraft they were to destroy there was little sign, and it soon became clear that the enemy were not using the airstrip at all. About a mile away they saw some armoured cars and, assuming they must be advance units of the Allies, began waving the yellow silk triangles they had been given as recognition symbols. Getting no response, Frost sent his men down onto the airfield. A few Germans were manning the place but they were quickly killed or captured, and by four the airfield and its immediate vicinity was in the Paras’ hands. Shortly after, however, Frost heard the distinct and ominous rumble of heavy engines being revved up and the tell-tale squeaking of tank tracks, followed by the sharp report of high-velocity guns, and the angry ripping of unfamiliar machine guns. With the arrival of five Panzers, a number of Me 109s appeared, weaving and diving and strafing the Paras’ positions at will. Frost watched them swoop past, machine guns peppering the ground, then climb up and bank ready for another run, only for more aircraft to zoom over them from a different direction. Now hidden among the scrub surrounding the airfield, they used their hard-learned concealment training to good effect and not one man was hit by enemy aircraft, even when Stukas arrived a couple of hours later.

‘Now as the whole object of the mission had been to destroy aircraft etc on Oudna,’ noted Frost, ‘and as there were no aircraft to destroy, I made plans for moving westward to link up with the 1st Army.’ At dusk, with the Panzers having now retired and the Stukas having flown off, they began withdrawing to the higher ground where they’d paused earlier that morning. Frost was worried, however. In addition to those left at Depienne, he’d lost a few more men in the fighting that afternoon. The rest were exhausted, morale had taken a serious dip, and much of their ammunition had been used up. Moreover, they now faced another freezing cold night in which it was difficult, if not impossible, to sleep. He had to hope that the following morning they would be able to beat off the inevitable counter-attack, and then safely and quickly link up with the rest of First Army.

On the morning of 1 December, Colonel John Frost had received the bad news via radio that the First Army’s advance on Tunis had been postponed. In a trice, all hopes of a quick link with the First Army were dashed. His situation was now dire. As the previous day’s excitements had demonstrated, they were deep in enemy territory, which was swarming with Panzers and troops, while above them the skies were owned by Messerschmitts and Stukas. Tunis, that glittering prize, might only have been a few miles away, but Tebourba or Medjez – which, as far as he knew, were still held by Allied troops – were between thirty and forty.

He’d prepared a small ambush at the bottom of the slopes where they had lain up for the night. Unfortunately, an enemy armoured column appeared just as a number of the men had slipped out from their positions to fill up water bottles from a nearby well. An Italian armoured car drove up to them, and although the Paras shot an officer and lobbed a Gammon bomb at the vehicle, it missed, and the car was able to get away. Hastily bringing their mortars to bear, the Paras drove off the column, but an hour later another larger force began approaching their positions. The leading armoured car was showing two yellow triangles and, thinking it must be friendly, one of the Para NCOs walked towards it waving his own silk triangle and was promptly taken prisoner. Shortly after, he was sent back again with a warning that they were now surrounded and a demand that they all come out with their hands up. ‘This was a terrible shock,’ Frost admitted, but he refused to throw in the towel, instead ordering his men to climb further into the hills; if they could just hold on until nightfall, he thought they might be able to take a chance and dash through the enemy lines. The wounded, however, had to stay where they were. It was a horrible decision to make, but with a heavy heart Frost ordered one of the battalion doctors to stay behind in the knowledge that, at best, he and the wounded would be captured.As they began to move, the Germans shelled them without mercy, the blasts flinging lethal splinters from the rocky ground. Frost saw one man have his face almost completely sliced from his head. He also watched a terrified donkey scuttle off, carrying the battalion bagpipes. Yet, despite mounting losses, by early afternoon they were in better positions with clear views all around them and able to watch as lorries rumbled up to the lower slopes and numbers of infantry jumped out. As these troops began climbing up towards the besieged Paras, Panzers and artillery continued to hurl up shell after shell. Frost watched the enemy troops with horrified awe. The speed with which they set up mortars and machine guns, and began spitting out accurate bursts of deadly fire was high class – and better than anything his own men could achieve. As the afternoon wore on, he began seriously to wonder how much longer they could hold out. Nearby, Ronald Gordon, the medical officer, was covered in blood from tending the injured but had nothing left with which to staunch wounds. And just when Frost thought things could not possibly get worse, the 109s showed up. Pressing himself to the ground, he waited for the inevitable roar of aero-engines and cannon fire, but to his enormous relief the Messerschmitts opened up on their own troops instead, presumably the only men they could see. Once again, skilled use of camouflage and concealment had saved the Paras’ bacon; and with dusk now falling, the attacks finally began to die out.

Frost knew they had to get away that night, and decided their best chance of success would be if he split the battalion into company groups and for them then to rendezvous in the morning on a hill overlooking Massicault, where they could lie up during the day should the town be in enemy hands. He reckoned he had already lost about 150 men but, once again, was not prepared to leave the wounded to fend for themselves and at the mercy of marauding locals. In what was another agonizing decision, he ordered a platoon to stay behind, with orders to try and take the wounded to some nearby farms. They were then to attempt to link up with the reconnaissance party they’d seen on the first day. This, however, was a vain hope, as they were all aware. For the fit, prison camps were the best they could realistically hope for. For the wounded – without medical aid and with temperatures dropping fast – just surviving the night was a lot to expect.

With their radio batteries now dead, Frost blew his horn to give the signal for the companies to start moving off. The march was terrible, over heavily churned-up ground, and they were soon walking with enormous clods of mud on their boots. They rested ten minutes in every hour. Many of the men, now at the limits of exhaustion, would then drop to the ground and could only be roused again by using force. Some were lost in the darkness and never seen again, including Philip Teichman, a trusted friend of Frost’s, as well as his second-in-command.

Before dawn, with a high moon lighting their way, Frost realized they were not going to make Massicault, so paused to take stock. It was essential that they found somewhere to lie up for the day, and fortunately they soon discovered the ideal place: a settlement, corralled by thick cactus bushes as effective as any roll of wire. The locals were found to be friendly and helpful, and HQ and ‘B’ Companies moved in. Later that morning one of the locals brought word that there were some other British in another farm half a mile away – this was the remainder of ‘A’ Company, who were told to join the rest at ‘Cactus Farm’ as quickly as they could. Of ‘C’ Company, there was no sign.

By late morning the first enemy troops had caught up with them, and as the day wore on the enemy continued to bring up more and more reinforcements until the farm was entirely surrounded. They began desultory mortar firing, but for some reason seemed reluctant to launch an all-out attack. Frost again hoped they might be able to slip away once night fell; they no longer had enough ammunition to fight another battle. Then, as mortar shells exploded nearby, Ronald Gordon suddenly said, ‘Good heavens, it’s my birthday. What a hell of a day to have as a birthday.’‘If you survive this one you should have many happy returns,’ Frost told him. After a quick whip-round they were able to give him three sticky pieces of chocolate for a present.5 As daylight began to slip away, and as the Germans finally looked as though they were about to mount an assault, Frost blew his hunting horn and the Paras made their escape charge, firing their last rounds of ammunition as they went. They were almost completely successful. Darkness and the confusion caused to the enemy by their night-time dash had saved them, and once in the hills the Paras were able to rally to their commander’s horn.The plan to reach Massicault was abandoned. At dawn, as they reached some high ground, they could see Medjez in the far distance. Frost decided to lead them straight there instead. On they marched all day, and in the early afternoon met an American armoured car not far from the town. After five days, they had finally linked up with the First Army.

The courage and fortitude of the Paras were extraordinary. With almost no sleep, and with sub-zero temperatures and insufficient supplies, they had fought their way through three days of battle, travelling over sixty miles of frequently rough and arduous terrain; that any of them had made it to safety was something of a miracle, and also says much about Frost’s leadership. As it was, 266 men were lost, and all for nothing. The entire operation had been doomed from the start. ‘My main reaction to having my battalion cut to pieces on such a useless venture was astonishment,’ wrote Frost later. It had been mounted on extremely flimsy information; intelligence more should and could have been sought beforehand. Nor had any effort of any kind been made to try and rescue them. ‘It was,’ says Frost, ‘perhaps the most disgracefully mounted operation of the war.’

Another fifty men would reach Allied lines by 11 December – a small comfort. But the operation demonstrated once again that while individual men and units could, and did, operate with enormous skill and resilience, at the higher levels, the Allied commanders were found seriously wanting.

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I’ll always remember him reminding Anthony Hopkins that he was “running too fast” when under gunfire. :joy:

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Things had not been going well on the main front either. As the 5th Field Artillery Battalion was escaping southwards towards Medjez, Brigadier-General Oliver’s Combat Command ‘B’ from 1st US Armored Division was squeaking and rumbling hurriedly in the opposite direction. During the morning they were due to take over from the battered remnants of Blade Force. The infantry of 11th Brigade were still holding on to Tebourba, despite heavy losses the previous day, and despite the premature exit of the American gunners. Although they had retreated to a hill closer to Tebourba, the heroic Hampshires managed to keep the German thrust from the west at bay for a second day. Several Allied counter-attacks failed miserably, however. It was the same story of old: both British and American tanks, advancing into the open, and without coordinated artillery support, were cut to pieces by the concealed German tanks and anti-tank guns. The lessons learned in the Desert War had not filtered through. Had the Allied guns and armour dug in and stood their ground they might have saved many lives and much equipment, but by the end of 2 December, there was no longer any real chance of maintaining their current positions around the town. Overnight, 10th Panzer Division was reinforced by a crack Panzer grenadier regiment that had arrived at Tunis the previous day, and on the morning of 3 December, the Surreys and Hampshires finally began withdrawing to the Tebourba Gap. The Hampshires were down to about 200 men, the Surreys 340, and although they tried to save their heavier equipment, they were forced to abandon most of it. While the remnants of 11th Brigade plugged the Tebourba Gap, Brigadier-General Oliver was left to pool all the remaining armour and organize the defence of the hills overlooking the Medjerda Valley and the all-important road to Medjez el Bab. But by retreating, Tunis – a goal so tantalizingly near – now seemed impossibly far away.

Ike was faced with a difficult bit of explaining to the Combined Chiefs. The success of the landings now seemed an age away, and the campaign was stuck knee deep in Tunisian mud. The conditions and the problems with the lines of supply meant there could be no renewed attack on Tunis until they had had a chance to regroup – he and Anderson had set a tentative date of 9 December, although he warned the Chiefs that much depended on the weather. In the six days’ pause, he hoped to build up greater reserves at the front, straighten out the congested condition of the railway, and secure two further landing strips as close to the front as possible.

‘In [the] pell mell race for Tunisia,’ Ike told the Combined Chiefs on 3 December, ‘we have gone beyond the sustainable limit of air capabilities in support of ground forces. Result is that although air forces have been working at maximum pace, without even minimum repair and supply and maintenance facilities, the scale of possible air support is not sufficient to keep down the hostile strafing and dive bombing that is largely responsible for breaking up all attempted advances by air.’ He was right to emphasize the importance of air power, but might have added that suspect tactics and insufficient communications systems had also played their part. The Allied commander was finding himself in almost precisely the same predicament as Rommel at Alam Halfa. It was the Allies’ turn to have over-extended lines of supply and little air cover, and, like Rommel, Ike blamed the overwhelming superiority of the enemy air forces for his failure.

‘A dismal beginning to the Christmas month,’ wrote RAF Flight Officer Tony Bartley in his diary. Bône looked like a scrapyard. Contorted burnt-out wrecks of aircraft were everywhere, including that of a Wellington bomber that had been unable to find the runway and had crashed. They were vivid reminders of the danger and violence of their current situation.

On 3 December, the serviceable planes of 111 Squadron were patrolling over the battlefield when two Me 109s dived down through a gap in the cloud base and then zoomed up again. Smelling a trap, Tony told the other pilots to stay where they were while he climbed to have a look. Sure enough, above the cloud Tony spotted around twenty enemy fighters poised to pounce, and so quickly shot back into the cloud again.

The following day, they were told to move forward to Souk el Arba, where 225 Squadron were now based. Set on a low, flat oval plateau and surrounded by mountains, the airfield was even more miserable than when Bryan Colston and his colleagues had turned up – what Tony Bartley called ‘nothing more than a cultivated field’. Bomb craters and wrecked aircraft gave the place an air of unwelcome familiarity. Apart from one battered square white house and 225 Squadron’s tents, there were no facilities. It had stopped raining, so they ate their evening meal sitting on sandbags around a packing case for a table. As the stars began to come out, so the temperature dropped. Over a final cigarette before turning in, Tony asked the CO of 225 Squadron how they’d been doing. ‘He did not answer for quite a while,’ noted Tony, but when he did, confessed they’d been having a pretty rough time. They’d lost a lot of pilots – two more that day.

But everyone was struggling, the bombers included. Before the campaign, the Allies had thought it unlikely that they would ever come up against the new Focke-Wulf 190 in Tunisia. Sadly for them, this was not the case. Vastly superior in every respect to anything the Allies could offer – even the Spitfire Mark V – in the hands of combat-hardened pilots it was lethal. And many of the Axis pilots were extremely experienced. Veterans of the Eastern Front, Malta, and the Western Desert had all been rushed to Tunisia. On 4 December, twelve twin-engined RAF Bisley bombers took off from Souk el Arba – without a fighter escort – to bomb an Axis airfield near Tunis. One returned home with engine trouble and crash-landed, but as the rest approached the target they were attacked by between fifty and sixty Me 109s and FW 190s. Not one of the bombers made it home.

The day before, Ralph Burbridge and the crew of the All American had flown with the rest of the group over Bizerte. Although flying at 20,000 feet they had come under heavy attack by German fighters. Their escorts, P-38 Lightnings, had taken the brunt of the attack and nine were shot down. The following day, General Doolittle visited Ike and complained to him about the problems he faced: the Axis had radar, while his airfields did not; levels of maintenance were still poor; and the distances to the targets were too great.

‘Those are your troubles?’ snapped Ike. ‘Go and cure them. Don’t you think I’ve got a lot of troubles too?’

To make matters worse, on 9th December , the Germans launched another attack against the American and British forces along the hills above the Medjerda Valley. Instead of trying to force their way through the Tebourba Gap, the Axis came around the back. By the time the Americans realized what was happening it was too late and the opportunity to pour fire into the Axis flanks had gone. When General Oliver’s tanks did finally go forward, they once again did so without artillery support and the enemy anti-tank guns had their usual field day. ‘The day’s lessons were deeply disturbing,’ noted the division’s battle history. ‘The enemy’s armament and tactics had been extremely effective. American armament and tactics had failed.’

Ike had been thinking about further retreat even before this latest blow, and had said as much to Harry Butcher as they’d shaved earlier that morning. Meanwhile, arriving at the front was Lieutenant-General Charles Allfrey and his headquarters staff of V Corps, into which Evelegh’s 78th Division was now being absorbed. Although the Allies still held the Medjerda Valley, after taking one look at the situation, Allfrey realized that to attack again in three days’ time was out of the question. He also advised withdrawing to a more defensible line and abandoning Medjez. This appreciation was relayed to Ike later that day via Anderson, but after French protests it was agreed that the Allies should withdraw to positions around Djebel el Almara, soon to be renamed Longstop Hill.

The withdrawal to Longstop, due to take place over two nights on 10/11 and 11/12 December, was another fiasco. Rain began falling heavily again on the 7th and the Medjerda Valley turned into a quagmire of thick, glutinous, yellow-grey mud. Before the retreat had begun, the Germans attacked once more. Enemy Panzers to the south of the hills had tried to outflank the French guarding the bridge into Medjez, but had become bogged down. Seeing this, Oliver had sent some light tanks to try and pick them off, but although the Panzers’ manoeuvrability had been affected their firepower had not. Nineteen Honeys were knocked out.

That night, Oliver decided to try and complete his withdrawal in one, rather than two, nights. They were to drop from their high positions into the Medjerda Valley and cross a bridge. British troops were to cover them as they did so. The first tanks reached the bridge only to discover no sign of any troops there at all. For some reason, they then turned north-east and ran into several German outposts. Sporadic firing helped start a rumour among the rest of Combat Command ‘B’ that the bridge was now in enemy hands, and so instead of waiting for confirmation the American armour turned south along a track on the banks of the Medjerda. Wheels and tracks soon began spinning deeper and deeper into the mud. They were digging their own graves. Stuck fast, most had to be abandoned and the men and crews were forced to walk the remaining ten miles or so to Medjez on foot.

While the US Rangers and 1st Infantry Division continued to camp out near Oran and Arzew, British arrivals into Algiers were hastily sent up to the front. The Guards Brigade had reached North Africa on 22 November and, after getting soaked for several days and then taking part in a wreath-laying parade at the city’s war memorial – attended by Ike, ABC, Darlan, and Giraud – they began the arduous road trip to Tunisia, reaching Beja on 6 December. Four days later, they moved up to positions in the hills south-east of Medjez el Bab.

Battalion liaison officer for the 3rd Grenadier Guards was Lieutenant Nigel Nicolson, just six weeks short of his twenty-sixth birthday and rather excited to be finally taking an active part in the war. It had been a long time coming. He had joined up in 1939, and after passing out of Sandhurst one of his first tasks had been to take a half-company of reinforcements to France, but he’d been sent straight back again and had remained at Wellington Barracks in London throughout the blitzkrieg. In over three years of war, the closest he’d come to any fighting was watching the aerial battles from his parents’ house at Sissinghurst, in Kent, during the Battle of Britain. For much of the rest of the time he’d been stuck in Scotland training. This had often struck him as odd: he knew troops were always needed in the Middle East, particularly the better units like the Guards Brigade. There’d often been talk of action – raids on Norway, the Azores, even Alderney – but, much to his frustration, nothing had ever come of such plans.He’d found the prospect of war exhilarating. It promised to give him a sense of worth and purpose that had been missing in his life. After Eton and Oxford, Nigel had spent a year doing voluntary social work in Newcastle, but he’d never had a job as such, had never been really needed. With the war, there was at last something useful for him to do. Just by wearing a uniform and being in the Guards, he’d felt a little heroic. This had bolstered his confidence and, he believed, made him more attractive to girls. But as the war progressed, the stakes became higher: with everyone in uniform, it was seeing some action that counted, not being stuck in an icy Scottish glen. The fact that he might get himself killed never really crossed his mind.

His motivations had thus been entirely self-interested. ‘The idea that I might be fighting for King and Country, or to overcome an evil system hardly occurred to me,’ he admits. And he felt this way despite having a writer for a mother and a father who was a junior minister in Churchill’s government. He’d originally wanted to join the RAF, but in early 1939 there had been no great demand for pilots and he was turned down. Instead, he joined the Officers Cadet Reserve, which bound him to apply for a commission in the Grenadier Guards should war break out.

The Guards regiments were among the elite infantry units in the British Army, and it had taken Nigel some time to get used to the rarefied and polished standards expected of an officer. Between Nigel and his men, however, there remained a gulf that was impossible to cross. He had spent a privileged, sheltered life, and was inexperienced in the ways of the world and how to deal with men from a different class. ‘They were street-wise, brought up in a much rougher, tougher life,’ explains Nigel. ‘I made the mistake of wanting them to like me, but I should have wanted them to respect me.’

This was a problem common to many young officers who suddenly found themselves charged with leading men about whom they knew or understood little. By virtue of class, many were given commissions without demonstrating any kind of natural leadership skills, and found themselves completely out of their depth. Very early in his career with the Guards, Nigel suffered minor mockery from his men, but nothing worse. In the Gordon Highlanders, however, Johnny Bain witnessed outright dissent. He and one of his colleagues, a man named Private Fenton, had been digging a slit-trench when a young lieutenant who had only recently joined the battalion ordered them both to move forward. They were coming under quite heavy fire at the time and, to Johnny’s amazement, Fenton simply said, ‘Not on your life!’ The officer accused him of cowardice, to which Fenton said, ‘Fuck off, you stupid little prick!’ The officer left them, humiliated, but later the same day, Johnny saw him talking to Fenton again.

‘What did he say?’ Johnny asked afterwards.

‘He was apologizing,’ Fenton told him. The officer had realized he’d asked them to do something he shouldn’t and told Fenton he’d been wrong to call him a coward. ‘Which I think was very admirable,’ says Johnny. ‘Rare too, that kind of humility.’

Most officers, however, were given a certain respect purely because they were of a different class. This deference lessened as the war progressed, partly because war inevitably broke down social barriers and partly because more and more men were promoted through the ranks. But while British officers ultimately either succeeded or failed because of the example they showed, class offered no head start for American officers, who were not singled out because of where they went to school. Rather – in the case of the army at any rate – they were selected because they’d been in the Reserve Officer Training Corps before the war, or because they’d shown particular aptitude during training. In other words, because they’d already shown some inkling of possessing leadership qualities before they were put before the board. Nor were they necessarily better educated than their charges: only around 51 per cent of officers commissioned during the war had gone through one or more years of college. It wasn’t a foolproof system by any means, but certainly the social barriers that played such a part in many British regiments were almost non-existent within the US Army. For much of his time training in Scotland, Nigel Nicolson had commanded a platoon of thirty-five men, but he had always coveted the job of battalion intelligence officer and so was delighted to have been given the post shortly before leaving for North Africa. Crucially, it did not carry the negative stigma of being a staff officer, because he would always remain at the front with the battalion, yet he felt he was far better suited for the tasks involved than being a platoon commander. Under him were a sergeant and six other men, whom he immediately began to train, teaching them how to interpret maps and aerial photographs as well as Morse and semaphore, and how to mark up minefields. He also taught them interrogation techniques, how to gather information from civilians, weapon recognition, and how to write messages and reports. They had practised these skills on a bemused Highland population. Now it was time to do it for real.

‘Thank goodness you’ve arrived,’ the staff officer had told them at Beja, and hastily sent them forward to Medjez. A few hours after they’d moved into their new positions, Nigel spotted his first Germans of the war. Four or five tanks, ‘crawling like beetles’, suddenly appeared across the plain in front of them. As soon as they saw the Grenadiers, they opened fire and Nigel watched as sudden shots of flame sprang from their gun barrels and shells whistled towards them. With no tanks of their own, the Grenadiers hastily replied with mortars and machine guns, but their mortar officer was killed. ‘It was very alarming,’ admits Nigel. ‘To have someone shooting at you and seeing people killed. I was scared stiff.’

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Both sides had now temporarily run out of steam, although the Axis air forces continued to bomb and strafe without respite. On 12 December, Ike reported to the Chiefs of Staff, confessing that another pause was needed before the offensive resumed, but that a further, all-out attempt to take Tunis would be launched soon. 1st US Armored Division Combat Command ‘B’ had been so badly mauled that it was to be withdrawn from the battle area and replaced with 18th US Regimental Combat Team, who were to be moved up to Algiers as soon as the 97th Bomb Group had finished using their transport for a move of their own. The American bomber crews were being sent from Tafaraoui to Biskra, a flat, palm-lined town sitting in the desert beneath the Atlas Mountains, and a much better place from which to fly bombing operations. It was also closer to Tunisia. Ralph Burbridge and the other officers were quartered in hotels in the nearby town. Compared with Tafaraoui, the conditions were hugely improved; not only did it rain less, there were also fewer attacks by the Luftwaffe.

Then the rained stopped for a few days – ‘The weather is good, except for occasional showers,’ wrote Nigel Nicolson in a letter to his parents – and suddenly hopes rose that perhaps they would reach Tunis by Christmas after all. And by 19 December, the British 78th Infantry and 6th Armored Divisions were at almost full strength – some 20,000 men – supported by nearly 11,000 US troops and 30,000 – albeit poorly equipped – French.

But the Axis had also been further reinforced. In the middle of the month, General Jurgen von Arnim arrived from the Eastern Front to take command of what had become the Fifth Panzer Army in Tunisia. He now had nearly 40,000 troops at his disposal, the majority of which were German, as well as air superiority and generally better equipment than anything in the American or British armoury. Despite this, the Allies remained confident. General Allfrey’s plan was to advance south of the Medjerda Valley, along the Medjez-Massicault–Tunis road. Before the main assault, however, he considered it essential they take Longstop Hill, now in German hands and providing them with an excellent artillery observation post.

Longstop was not a particularly high hill and was dwarfed by a far more imposing range to the north. But lying five miles northwest of Medjez on the northern side of the Medjerda Valley, its position was certainly a dominating one, with far-reaching views to Medjez and to the south: precisely where Allfrey intended to launch his assault on Christmas Eve. From there, the Germans would be able to shell the Allied advance, disrupt supply lines, and even use it as a footing from which to launch counter-attacks. It had to be taken.

The Bowles twins were now bivouacked near Teboursouk, a village south-west of Medjez, but it wasn’t the 2nd Battalion that would support the Coldstream Guards in capturing Longstop: that task had been given to the 1st Battalion, who began moving up to Medjez on the night of 21/22 December. Instead, the 2nd Battalion readied themselves for Allfrey’s main assault.

As the Coldstreams moved up to attack, the rain began falling once more. The men vainly tried covering themselves with ground-sheets but soon they were drenched to the skin, their woollen battle-blouses and trousers weighing heavily against them. Mortars and shellfire were already pouring down on them as they began their advance up the hill. For most of the men it was their first time in battle and as they scrambled up the slippery slope, mortar shells continued to burst around them, while arcs of machine-gun tracer streamed down from the ridges above.

Despite the heavy defence, the Coldstreams managed to seize the heights as planned. They were then to hand over to the Americans of the 18th US Infantry, who were to occupy and hold the positions. The changeover was not smooth. The 1/18th were late reaching Longstop and the Coldstreams had already moved out by the time they too were scrambling up its western slopes. The guides who had been left to show them their positions were unsure about where they were, and as daylight arrived it became clear that there was still a lot of hill ahead of them. From the Allied line of attack, the first summit appeared to be the highest and only one. But in fact, Longstop had no less than five ridges, as the hapless men of the 1/18th discovered – and the last three were still very much in enemy hands.

In their first encounter with the Germans, the Americans were treated to the kind of counter-attack that had bedevilled British forces for so long. Early in the day, Company ‘A’, along with an anti-tank platoon, were completely surrounded and all but one officer and thirteen men were killed or captured. Telephone lines had been cut and many of the battalion’s radio sets, sodden with rain, no longer worked. Nonetheless, with help from the artillery, the Americans fought back.

Overnight, the Coldstreams slogged up the hill again to reinforce the Americans, but it wasn’t until after dark on Christmas Eve that they attacked the German positions again. Supported by American mortars and machine guns, they successfully took the last but one ridge. By the following morning, Christmas Day, the Americans had been further reinforced with a company of French infantry, but as the inevitable and heavy German counter-attack began, both they and the Coldstreams began to withdraw – the alternative was to face annihilation. Unfortunately, the message that they were pulling out never reached the Americans. Already severely mauled, the 1/18th were now exposed, outgunned and outnumbered, and being blasted to smithereens. By 9 a.m., runners were frantically scurrying across their positions with the order to retreat. The battle for Long-stop had failed, with the 1/18th Infantry losing 356 men. As the bedraggled remnants trudged back through the rain, the Germans – atop what they renamed Christmas Hill – began shelling Medjez.

‘Ike is knee-deep in Frogs,’ noted Harry Butcher in his dairy. Giraud was being difficult, demanding greater military control than the Allies would grant him in a million years, while both Clark and Ike were beginning to suspect Nogués was a ‘bad egg’ and needed removing. A change of scene was needed, so while the tragedy of Longstop was being played out, General Eisenhower, with Butch in tow, went up to the front to escape the politics and to see for himself how his Allied forces were doing. The bad weather made it unsafe to fly, so they set off by road early on the 23rd, and by afternoon on Christmas Eve had reached Souk el Khemis, twenty miles south-west of Beja. A short way further on, as they went to visit American troops and inspect the lie of the land, Ike watched troops and trucks struggling through the mud and rain. Then one incident caught his eye. About thirty feet off the road, in a field that at first appeared to be full of winter wheat, a motorcycle had become bogged down. Four men were trying to pull it out, but in doing so only managed to slither into the mire themselves. This pathetic scene, as much as anything he witnessed that day, made Ike realize the hopelessness of their planned attack. Back at V Corps HQ in Souk el Khemis, Anderson told the Allied commander what Ike already knew: that the attack should be postponed. Locals, he said, had told him that the rains usually got worse in January and February, not better. Anderson suggested a postponement of at least six weeks. Eisenhower agreed. ‘This was a bitter disappointment to Ike,’ noted Butch.

There was also the problem of command. Giraud was steadfast in refusing to allow any troops to serve under the British and was pressing Ike to make him overall commander in the field. Anderson offered to resign – and was, wrote Butch, ‘most sporting in his efforts to find a solution’. Ike refused the offer, but suggested that perhaps he himself should take over personal command at the front with Anderson keeping command of First Army in the north, Juin commanding the French in the centre of the line, and Major-General Lloyd Fredendall the Americans in the south. But as Harry Butcher put it, Ike already had ‘a million and one things to do as theatre commander’ without the additional burden of commanding his forces in the field.15 Nothing had been resolved when a call arrived from Clark telling Ike to get back to Algiers right away. Darlan had been shot and killed. By driving all night, they reached Algiers by 6 p.m., by which time Darlan’s assassin, a youthful anti-fascist monarchist named Bonnier de la Chapelle, had already been tried and executed by firing squad.

On the last day of 1942, Harry Butcher recorded that ‘the Darlan thing passed over very quietly’. At his funeral, Giraud knelt at the bier and shed a tear, having ‘reluctantly’ taken over as leader of French North Africa. Ike, it was confirmed, would move his Advance Command Post to Constantine in the New Year, with Anderson still in charge of the First Army and with Clark commanding the French and Americans. ‘Haven’t recorded the really amazing news,’ Butch added. ‘The fact is that Washington and London are coming to see us. The President, the Prime Minister, General Marshall, Admiral King, and various bigwigs are going to pow-wow at a place already recommended after investigation near Casablanca some time in January.’ This was to be the Casablanca Conference, and with Ike’s forces stuck in a muddy winter stalemate, there was much to discuss.

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CHAPTER 19

Pause for Thought: January 1943

Every man has a limit to how much combat he can take. Discipline and the even greater fear of letting down one’s mates often help prolong a man’s fighting capacity; but sustained exposure to maiming, death, and destruction, combined with physical fatigue, will inevitably take its toll eventually. Every man has a courage quota. For some, these reserves are considerable; for others, they are less. Rest and recuperation are often enough to stock up the deficit, but the warning signs that a man is running low have to be acted on quickly. A sympathetic and observant medical officer could save a man’s life, but while mental and physical exhaustion were considerably better understood than during the First World War, a number of men were pushed too far, usually with tragic and far-reaching consequences.

RAF Squadron Leader Tony Bartley had been flying operationally for almost three years, with only a short break as a test pilot for Supermarine, the designers of the Spitfire. He’d been tired before he’d reached North Africa, but the mud, rain, lack of facilities, and the additional responsibility that resulted, had begun to get to him. For solace he had turned to drink. He had always drunk a lot. During the Battle of Britain, particularly, when alcohol was still readily available, some squadrons had a drink culture, others did not. Tony was with 92 Squadron and the pilots had played and drunk hard throughout that summer. There was little joie de vivre about his drinking now, however. On one occasion in early December, the rain had prevented them flying, so Tony and a couple of the boys had gone off on an expedition to a vineyard. There they had come across some Americans who had been badly shot up the day before and, having travelled through the night, were now trying to set up a bivouac. The British pilots stopped, and the Americans complained that they had never once seen any friendly aircraft above them and that they had been strafed throughout the day. They were not impressed to discover that Tony and his fellow pilots were out hunting for booze. ‘It was a depressing encounter,’ noted Tony, ‘and we returned to our airfield with heavy hearts and a huge barrel of wine.’

Tony was drunk most nights, and if there was no flying due to bad weather he would often take a bottle of whisky and head to a hotel in the hills. On Christmas Eve he was warned by the medical officer that he needed a break. Tony responded to the doctor’s advice by taking a number of his pilots out on another bender. He was drinking to extremes, but it was his only means of relaxation and escape. Although all of his pilots were feeling the strain, Tony had been flying longer than any of them, and the cumulative effect had begun to catch up on him. ‘I felt more tired this Christmas than I thought any man could ever feel,’ he noted. His reserves had almost run dry.

Inevitably, matters soon came to a head. On 28 December, Tony once again led the squadron and they intercepted a formation of Me 109s and Ju 88s. Diving in behind the Messerschmitts, Tony drew up behind their leader and blew him up with one short burst of cannon fire, before turning on the wingman and setting him on fire. Later, as he circled to land again, he watched four aircraft crash on landing due to the state of the airfield. It was the final straw. On landing, he grabbed a bottle of whisky, drank half of it, then rang the air controller and told him to tell the group captain that he would accept no further responsibility for his pilots if they were forced to operate from a place where they had become sitting ducks. Soon after, Jimmy Baraldi, one of his flight commanders, found him and Tony confessed that he’d finally shot his bolt. He could still fly and hunt and kill all right, but it was everything else. ‘Jimmy told me that I’d made the attack [that afternoon] like a man possessed,’ he noted, ‘and was heading for the biggest nervous breakdown ever.’

Jimmy was absolutely right and he made Tony take the group captain’s offer of some leave in Algiers. It wasn’t enough to restore his spirits, however. Tony rejoined the squadron a week later. Within a few days he was leading them against some FW 190s, but then something snapped and he suddenly no longer knew where he was or what he was doing. Somehow, he made it back, but he now knew he was finished. The squadron doctor took him to see the group captain the next morning. On the way, they passed two burning ambulances. Pulling off to see if there was anything they could do to help, they skidded on the blood. But it was too late – the occupants were all dead. They drove on to Souk el Arba and there the group captain agreed to let Tony go. Later, back with the squadron, Tony told the pilots he was no longer fit to lead them and that he was going back to England. ‘They sang, “For he’s a jolly good fellow”, and we all got good and drunk’ noted Tony. Then he wrote his last sortie up in his logbook. It had been his 365th combat mission.

Twenty-year-old RAF Pilot Officer Christopher Lee (later turned out to be famousa British actor who played Saruman in Lord of the Rings and Count Dooku in Star Wars) , who had joined 260 Squadron in January as intelligence officer, quickly noticed that the pilots reacted very differently to combat flying. ‘Some seemed to be totally unaffected,’ he says. ‘There was a Scot in the squadron who never showed the slightest emotion. It was as though he’d been out for a walk. But there was a Canadian who had a thing about anti-aircraft fire. The others pulled his leg all the time.’ He could usually tell when people were affected by particular sorties, however, and realized that fear was no respecter of rank. ‘I’d see wing commanders coming back looking shaken,’ he says.

RAF Flight Officer Billy Drake had to sack several pilots who had lost their nerve. This was termed LMF – Lacking Moral Fibre. ‘I had no compunction about it whatsoever,’ he says. ‘We had a fair idea of how far we could go on, and that we were under a considerable amount of strain.’ If someone started to look washed out, Billy would give him a rest, but if that didn’t do the trick, he would be quickly sent back to Cairo. ‘Particularly in the desert we relied on each other so much that we couldn’t afford to have a weak link,’ he explains.Tommy Thompson seemed to have particularly deep reserves of courage, having flown operationally for the best part of two years, including his ten-month stint on Malta. He was still flying most nights with 73 Squadron, although, as he’d discovered during his brief stint as an instructor, it was pilots from his own side who could be the most dangerous. In early December, he had just landed when he saw another plane heading straight for him, about to take off. Tommy braced himself for what seemed to be an inevitable collision, but in the nick of time the approaching Hurricane lifted off the ground, clipping Tommy’s propeller and roaring over just inches from his head. It was, he noted in his logbook, ‘a very shaky do for me!’

But Tommy and his fellow flight commanders were becoming increasingly concerned about their CO, who had begun returning from night intruder sorties with wild claims about having shot up lorries and transport on the road, claims not substantiated by other pilots who would return from the same area having seen nothing. So they decided one of them should follow the CO on his next intruder sortie. Tossing a coin for it, Tommy lost. As they’d suspected, he flew nowhere near any enemy targets. ‘He went out to sea at two hundred feet below radar,’ says Tommy, ‘circled for about three quarters of an hour, then fired his guns and headed back. He never spotted me because I was right under his tail.’

Tommy landed just ahead of him and was in the intelligence tent when the CO came in to give his report. As usual, he claimed to have shot up a number of enemy vehicles.‘If that report goes to headquarters, I’m going with it,’ Tommy told him.‘Why’s that?’ said the CO.‘Because I’ve been sitting under your tail all evening and you haven’t even been over enemy territory.’ The CO tore up his report and stormed out, but a few days later it was Tommy who was posted, not the CO. ‘I was sacked,’ he says, a blemish that remained on his record. Fortunately for Tommy, he was posted to a Spitfire squadron and soon after that to Helwan as a Spitfire test pilot.

The tensions were also growing between Mary Coningham and General Montgomery in advancing Allied front , and now Mary was without his trusted number two and chief of administration. In the first week of December, Tommy Elmhirst received word that he was being recalled to London after two ‘enthralling’ years in the Middle East. Before he went, however, he drew up the administrative plan for the next five hundred miles’ advance to Tripoli. The cause of Mary’s frustration was Monty’s refusal to take any risks with his troops and his unwillingness to help the Desert Air Force sufficiently with supplies and fuel. Mary had feared that the Panzer Army would simply slip away from the El Agheila position before Eighth Army could begin their frontal assault. This was precisely what happened, with Rommel once again ignoring Hitler’s demand to fight to the last man. But Monty was in no hurry, preferring to bring his army steadily ever closer to Tunisia in strength, and having properly cleared the array of mines and booby traps Axis forces always left in their wake and even more importantly , waiting to make a big supply logistics buikld up for extended operations since he was 800 miles or so away from his nearest supply base in Alexandria and and very limited one in Tobruk.

Even so, the forward fighter squadrons had remained busy whenever the weather allowed, and they still found themselves running into formations of enemy aircraft. On one occasion in December, Billy Drake had been leading a mixed force of 112 Squadron pilots and Americans of 66 Squadron on a bombing raid when they’d been attacked by a number of Messerchmitt 109s and Italian Macchi fighters. Billy shot down one of each before finding himself being pursued by seven Messerschmitts, and wondering whether his career was about to come to a violent end. Cloud cover saved him, but when he emerged he was attacked again and had to use every trick in his repertoire to dodge and weave and get himself out of trouble. By the time the skies cleared, he realized he was almost out of fuel and had to force-land with his wheels up among some forward reconnaissance troops of the 11th Hussars.

Once the enemy retreated from El Agheila, air operations lessened significantly, a cause of considerable frustration to the pilots of 112 Squadron, who had now officially shot down 199 enemy aircraft since joining the Desert Air Force. Although there were almost daily bombing raids, their 200th victim eluded them, and instead they had to take solace from their sporting prowess: during a football match with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, they won 7–0, then later beat the Royal Engineers 5–0. They even won a game of baseball against the 57th Fighter Group. But to Billy’s great disappointment, the squadron had still not claimed its 200th aerial victory when, on 16 January, his time with the squadron came to an end. Since arriving in May the previous year, he had shot down seventeen enemy aircraft and two shared, a record that had been bettered only by his predecessor. For the time being, his fighter days were over. For the next few months, Billy’s huge experience would be put to use helping to train the new pilots arriving in the Middle East and giving them an introduction to the very different demands of operational flying in North Africa.

The journalist Ernie Pyle had arrived in North Africa towards the end of November, pining for his former wife Jerry, whom he had determined to remarry. He felt no particular enthusiasm for this new assignment, and while the other journalists set off for the front, Ernie decided to stay put in Oran and continue what he’d begun in England: writing stories about the American boys and girls who made up this new adventure.

At the beginning of January, however, he took a trip down to Biskra to see how the bomber crews of the 97th were getting on. Biskra, he wrote, was Africa as we have pictured it back home’, with sand and date palms, skies of endless blue and nights of a million twinkling stars. And although it did sometimes rain there, that was pretty rare. ‘Soldiers who have lived knee-deep in the perpetual winter mud of the coastal belt call this the best place in Africa.’

Apart from his time in London during the Blitz, this was the closest Ernie had yet been to any action, and three hours after his arrival in Biskra he witnessed his first enemy air raid. Since there was no air-raid siren, the alarm was called by ringing a dinner bell hung from a palm, augmented by a system of sentries firing shots into the air. He was struck by the randomness of the destruction caused – one man had the sights of his rifle knocked out by a bullet, another discovered his water bottle had been holed.Ernie watched his first bombing raid take to the skies on 12 January. Aircraft of the 414th and 341st Squadrons – Ralph Burbridge and the crew of the All American included – flew off to attack the enemy airfield of Castel Benito near Tripoli, their second mission in support of the Eighth rather than the First Army. By late afternoon the bombers began returning. ‘The sun was lazy, the air was warm,’ noted Ernie, ‘and a faint haze of propeller dust hung over the field, giving it softness.’ A red flare was fired by one of the approaching Fortresses. As it landed and came to a halt, Ernie hurried over and watched as the crew lowered their dead pilot through the hatch. No one said very much, but the crew looked grave. Ernie, who had not seen a dead man before, noticed how white the lifeless man’s hands were. ‘Everybody knew the pilot,’ he wrote. ‘He was so young a couple of hours ago. The war came inside us then, and we felt it deeply.’

All the bombers had made it home bar one. Other returning crews said they’d seen the Thunderbird in trouble, losing altitude and lagging behind just after leaving the target. Since then, hours had passed, and the worst had been assumed – and accepted. As dusk settled, Ernie had gone up to the control tower to watch the sunset and to see whether there was any news on an incoming raid – the Germans liked to attack at the end of the day. Suddenly, far off in the distance, they saw a red flare flicker into the sky. ‘Then we saw the plane – just a tiny black speck,’ wrote Ernie. It was flying low and slow – so slow it appeared to be barely moving. ‘At that moment I felt something close to human love for that faithful battered machine,’ he continued, ‘that far dark speck struggling towards us with such pathetic slowness.’ Inexorably, it closed ever nearer until it reached the edge of the airfield, skimming over the tops of the parked aircraft and eventually touching down. ‘And as the plane rolled on down the runway, the thousands of men around the vast field suddenly realized that they were weak and that they could hear their hearts pounding … Our ten dead men were back from the grave.’8

nother who made a miraculous return from bombing Castel Benito was the South African pilot officer , Cobber Weinronk. The bombers had gradually caught up with the rest of the Desert Air Force and had begun regular raids once more. Sunday, 17 January, had started badly for Cobber when he heard that his trusted top-gunner, Tommy, had been taken off and replaced by a ‘sprog’ who had yet to fly a mission. Cobber wasn’t happy about this at all – it was bad luck to change a crew member just before a raid, and usually such superstitions were accepted and observed. For example, one pilot who hadn’t been able to find his mascot had been immediately taken off a raid by the CO until it had been found, so Cobber felt he was being hard done by, especially as Castel Benito was notoriously well defended and Cobber wanted the best crew available.Just before he was due to take off later that evening, Cobber was reprieved. The new gunner hadn’t arrived, so Tommy flew after all and they took off as planned at around 7.40 p.m. Since this was a night raid, the bombers were not expected to fly in close formations of eighteen aircraft, but rather operated individually. In the past, Cobber had tended to fly the bomb run between ten and twelve thousand feet, but this time he thought he’d be clever and avoid the heavy ack-ack, and so flew in at 4000 feet with only the light flak to contend with.As they approached the enemy airfield, Cobber’s navigator helped direct him over the target and then called ‘Bombs away.’ But as Cobber leaned forward to pull the lever to close the bomb-bay doors they were suddenly hit by flak, shards hitting him in the face, left hand, and arm. Blood gushed over him. He felt faint and nauseous and thought that he was about to die. ‘Bale out, bale out!’ he shouted to the rest of his crew. He didn’t see how he could make it, and didn’t want them going down with him. His crew – men he’d flown with since arriving in the desert – jumped, and he was left on his own, the Boston already spiralling downwards and rapidly losing height. A mental image of his mother opening the telegram entered his mind. Perhaps he should try and bale out too, but his arm was too weak and he was unable to get the pilot’s door open. Then right over Castel Benito, it somehow occurred to him to put on his landing lights. Immediately the ack-ack stopped. They must have thought he was one of their own.Now just four hundred feet off the ground, Cobber managed to pull out of the spin and open his side window. The cool air revived him somewhat and he decided he had to try and get as far from Castel Benito as he could. Making for the coast, his wounds began to hurt badly, but the nausea had worn off. Still bleeding badly, he passed a familiar marker. Soon after, he found himself approaching his own airfield.With his wheels jammed, he planned to belly-land, but as he dropped and approached the landing strip he forgot that, with the wheels retracted, he would stall at a lower speed. As the airfield drew closer, he switched off the engine and petrol flow and waited. Normally, they touched down after the third flare, but the sixth had passed and he was still airborne. Pushing the stick gently forward he finally felt the belly of his Boston start scraping and grinding along the ground until eventually it came to a halt.

Medics rushed over to him and he was taken to see the MO, where he was given a couple of double Scotches and his wounds tended. One piece of shrapnel had hit his hand, breaking the ring his father had given him before he’d died. Cobber couldn’t help thinking about his crew. ‘I’m satisfied that I did the right thing and brought my plane home,’ he noted in his diary, ‘but wonder what the powers that be will feel about it.’ For the time being, however, he was left to recover from his wounds, injuries that were bad enough to bring about an end to his time in North Africa. A couple of weeks later he flew to Heliopolis. After a brief period in a convalescent home, followed by leave in Palestine, Cobber was sent back home to South Africa.

When Christopher Lee took over as intelligence officer of 260 Squadron in January, he did so after the squadron’s much-loved IO had been promoted and moved to 239 Wing. His was a hard act to follow for the six-foot-four, dark-haired, twenty-year-old, only just promoted to pilot officer.‘Put one foot wrong, my son, and you’re out!’ the CO told Christopher, and then added, ‘Right, let’s go and get pissed.’9 In the officers’ mess, he was introduced as the new ‘Spy’ and promptly put through the squadron initiation ceremony, which involved being debagged, having his shirt-tails set on fire, and being plied with an unspeakable number of drinks.As Christopher soon found out, the squadron pilots were a typically eclectic bunch: there were South Africans, Canadians, Aussies, New Zealanders, and British among their number; even an American, known as ‘Ah Phuckett-ah’ because of his habit of saying, ‘Agh, agh, fuck it!’ every time his stammer got in the way of his telling a story. The Aussies seemed particularly to take to Christopher; his father had been the first British officer to lead Australians in the last war, a fact that one of the adjutants remembered. ‘It made a hell of a difference,’ he admits.

He also quickly discovered that a great deal of authority and responsibility came with his new job. It was his task to keep all the pilots up to date about where the ‘bomb line’ was and to make sure they attacked neither too far forward, nor too far back. As the front was moving so rapidly, this was no easy task. He also fed information and intelligence to them, kept them up to date with what else was going on, and interviewed each pilot after every sortie; it was up to him to analyse the information they supplied and pass it on. ‘The responsibility was such,’ says Christopher, ‘that if I made mistakes people died.’The circumstances in which he found himself in the Western Desert were unusual. When he’d initially joined the RAF, he’d been sent to Rhodesia to become a pilot, but just before he’d been due to go solo he’d been on a training session and flying at around 5000 feet when he’d been struck by an intense headache and blurring in his left eye. On landing, he’d been sent immediately to see the medical officer. It seemed there was something wrong with his optic nerve. There was no more precise diagnosis, but after a few days he was told he would not become a pilot after all.The RAF was clearly unsure what to do with him, so he was sent from one to base to another with little to do until he eventually applied for some intelligence work. To his great surprise he was seconded to the Rhodesian Police and made a warder at Salisbury Prison. He’d been there several months when he was sent to Durban and promoted to Leading Aircraftman (LAC) and eventually put on a boat to the Middle East. Reaching Port Said, Christopher was taken to a staging camp in the Canal Zone, arriving in the middle of an intense sandstorm. He had loathed the camp, where two NCOs in particular made the new arrivals’ life a misery, forcing them to drill out in the intense summer heat. Christopher was singled out for having been to an English public school and given a host of impossible and menial tasks. ‘It was extremely unpleasant,’ he admits, although before long he was posted to the RAF base at Ismailia, where he finally began carrying out intelligence work for Administrative and Special Duties.It was whilst at Ismailia – and having survived being stabbed in the neck by an Arab – that Christopher was attached to 231 Wing of Wellington bombers. Among a number of tasks, he would sometimes fly with the Wellingtons on their ‘milk runs’, dropping propaganda leaflets out over Benghazi. ‘I can’t imagine what good it did, but it was nice to be doing something different,’ he admits. And he was still with the wing when the Battle of Alamein began. Even from the squadron landing grounds he could hear the barrage and see the whole sky lit up.His arrival with 260 Squadron coincided with renewed move forward along the coast. It seemed that no sooner had he set up his trailer than the squadron was off again. Occasionally he travelled by plane, but usually it was by 15-cwt truck, rattling along with the advance party to the next stop and hoping they didn’t hit a mine or run into an Axis booby trap.

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Also recently arrived in North Africa was Ernie Pyle’s fellow journalist, Alan Moorehead. After his trip to America he had returned to Britain and had been initially surprised to discover the country bearing up well after more than three years of war. In London the buses and Underground appeared to be working with breezy efficiency, the people he met seemed cheerful and determined, while the military build-up struck him as truly astonishing. Britain was far from on her knees. And yet not all was as it seemed. Gradually, he began to discern an underlying frustration, similar to that felt in America. People he spoke to as he travelled around could not understand why the Allies had been dealing with Darlan, nor could they understand what was happening in North Africa. If such a large army had landed there, why was it being held up by a few Germans in a tiny corner of Tunisia? His voyage of political discovery in America and Britain had depressed him, but he hoped that by returning to the war in North Africa once more he might find the answers to many of his questions. On the train from London, he changed back into his army uniform for the first time in four months. ‘It suddenly felt very warm and reassuring,’ he wrote.

When Alan did finally arrive at the front in the first week of 1943, a number of his questions were soon answered. ‘It is no exaggeration at all to say that the average citizen in New York and London had not the remotest idea of what the fighting was like,’ he wrote later, ‘of who was doing it, of what weapons were being used, of the numbers engaged on both sides, of what local objectives were being sought or of the prospects for the future.’ Moreover, as he pointed out, in the States it was widely believed (thanks to the initial landings) that the majority of troops doing the fighting were American, when in fact it was largely a British operation. In most people’s minds back home, the idea that Tunisia could be anything other than flat, sandy desert was a hard concept to grasp. That their boys were struggling through hills, mountains, and thick syrupy mud in driving and frequently freezing rain, was incomprehensible.

It took him a while to get used to this new battlefield too. In the desert, with its vast space and huge distances, the enemy had always seemed to him someone remote, ‘a red line on the map, a cloud of dust across the desert horizon’. No man’s land might be as much as twenty miles wide. He’d never really seen a battle as such, only bits of a battle – ‘all the rest vanished under clouds of smoke and dust’. In Tunisia, however, he could lift his binoculars and see German soldiers moving about. Here, one looked down on positions, or even up to them, the combatants seemingly on top of one another. Alan was struck by the sense of congestion at the front, and the fact that every yard of it was dangerous: landmines and booby traps were everywhere. From behind rocky crags, snipers shot; and zooming down the valley roads were the cursed enemy fighters, stifling these vital supply routes so that all driving had to be done at night with no headlights.

And there was the mud. Even a car can turn a dirt track into a quagmire in no time at all, but with trucks, tanks, half-tracks and the weight of an entire army, any kind of vegetation vanished amidst the folds of sticky, knee-deep mud. ‘This perishing cold, this all-invading mud and this lack of hot food could exhaust and kill a man just as thoroughly as bullets,’ noted Alan.

By Christmas, Lieutenant Nigel Nicolson had not taken off his clothes once in the fortnight since his arrival at ‘Grenadier Hill’, a few miles south-east of Medjez. He was, he wrote to his mother, absolutely filthy. ‘It is a pleasure not to have to be tidy, but when I have no buttons left on my trousers, and only have dirty ditch water to wash in, because the clean water is too valuable, things are a bit squalid even for me.’

Conditions were far from ideal even in Arzew. ‘It’s really pouring down rain,’ wrote US Army Nurse Margaret Hornback in a letter to her friend, Stout. ‘It sounds on the tent like it used to on the tin roof of our old house.’ Outside the rows of tents, the ground around had turned to mud. Someone had said it combined the worst features of chocolate pudding and fly-paper. Margaret thought that was a pretty good analogy. Earlier in the day a general had paid a call and all he’d said was, ‘Mud, mud, mud.’

After treating the wounded from the landings, life in the surgery unit had quietened down, so Margaret had been working on the wards of the old hospital instead. She’d been enjoying it, but her generally sunny outlook had taken a hit. At the beginning of December, she’d been told that Dick, her boyfriend from the journey over, was badly ill with pneumonia. Then just before Christmas, she’d received the news that he’d died. It hit her hard – his death seemed so particularly futile and it upset her greatly to think of him dying in a far-off land with no one he knew around him, not even other men from his company. ‘Seems the time was so short,’ she wrote, ‘and as I look back, we made so little of it.’

They were not to stay in Arzew for long, however. With the recent fighting in Tunisia, they were needed closer to the front and so on 15 January they began the move to Constantine. Only a day after their arrival, they moved again, this time to a camp among the wooded hills north of Tebessa. For Margaret, the quiet days of walking the wards were over. Wounded began flooding in – Allied, German, and Italian. As she quickly discovered, the enemy were young men just like their own. ‘They say if they could go home and tell their own people how they were treated here,’ she wrote to Stout, ‘the war would be over sooner.’ They were now operating entirely in tents. Margaret shared hers with another nurse. It was next to the operation tent, so they could be on call constantly. Facilities were basic, to put it mildly. All the surgery linen had to be washed by hand and then dried on lines strung between the tents. Since it seemed to be always either raining or dusty, it was next to impossible to get anything properly clean. Furthermore, the floor of the operating tent was just dirt – another hazard of being a mobile hospital.

At least the nurses now had the occasional shower, although it was not perhaps quite what they’d been used to. Out in the open, it was protected on three sides by sheets of metal and guarded by French soldiers. The fourth side was covered with blankets. The nurses would strip in what Margaret called a ‘refreshingly cool atmosphere’. Then they stood under the showerhead, which was regulated by an Arab who understood no English. Waiting there naked and shivering expectantly, a flood of boiling water would suddenly burst over them. Screaming so loudly that even the Arab could understand, the water was hastily turned off. Quickly lathering themselves, they then waited for more water – which, when it arrived, was as icy as it had formerly been hot. ‘It’s amazing the lengths one will go to get clean,’ noted Margaret.

Arriving into the messy and complicated stalemate now developing in Tunisia were more and more troops. Lieutenant David Brown and the men of the 17th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery had had a more exciting journey than most. Having safely crept through the Straits of Gibraltar, they were well inside the Mediterranean when their ship was struck in the middle of the night by a torpedo, although fortunately not critically. Nonetheless, eight men were killed and a number more wounded, and the ship, under heavy escort, had to make straight for Bougie, rather than Bône. ‘It was a bit queer after we’d been hit,’ wrote David in a letter to his wife, ‘waiting at boat stations for more to come. Our chaps are pretty good. Quite phlegmatic and bored about the whole thing – just annoyed at losing sleep.’ On arrival at Bougie they were hurriedly disembarked and headed for a transit camp nearby. There they had their first taste of North African rain, but David was so excited to have arrived on land that he wasn’t too bothered about getting soaked.

Early on Christmas Day, they boarded another ship and set sail for Bône. The passage was a rough one, but did not have to be endured for long. They reached Bône later that evening and, after only a few days, were sent up the line to Medjez. At 2 a.m. on 6 January, the regiment took over positions from 12 RHA and David found himself in action for the first time.

Twenty-six years old and standing over six feet tall with brown hair and pale grey-blue eyes, David cut a striking figure. Like most of the new officers and troops that were now arriving, he was not a career soldier by any stretch of the imagination. Training in England had depressed him. He’d hated the atmosphere, which he thought was too like public school, even though he’d been to Rugby, one of the best-known public schools in England. ‘All frightfully hearty,’ he wrote, ‘with pipe and moustaches and all mad keen.’ The amount of work and study was also more than he’d anticipated, and although he wanted to do his bit and fight the Germans, he wished he didn’t have to wear his brains out first. But most of all, he was homesick, and missed his actress wife and young daughter dreadfully. ‘I feel such miles away from you, darling,’ he wrote.

Curiously, his homesickness lessened the further he was from home, largely because he was busy all the time and fascinated by the situation in which he found himself. Like most people, he was considerably more interested in the practical side of soldiering than the endless drill and study of artillery manuals. After three days at the front, he had acclimatized well. Based at the 13th Battery’s command post (CP), his new home was a foxhole in a shallow wadi. ‘We are like moles,’ he wrote, ‘all tunnelling madly.’ Rather like the Western Front in the First World War, the men on both sides were burrowing into the ground and hoping to avoid the desultory shellfire that continued day and night. In this war, however, there was also the constant threat of aerial attacks. ‘One’s pleasures are few,’ wrote David, ‘the next meal, sleep, and a smoke.’ He was supposed to have given up smoking – but life was too short, he told his wife, and when tired, he found a smoke a comfort.

On 9 January, the regiment spent the day fixing gun positions and working out the arcs of their indirect fire. In the evening, David along with two other officers had to reconnoitre an observation post (OP) on motorbikes, but had some hairy moments when they became stuck in mud. A few rifle bullets whizzed by, but they were pretty sure they were being fired on by their own side. It rained all day, and despite wearing his black mac from home – ‘the best 37/6 worth I ever bought’ – he and the men were all soaked through, with water filling their slit-trenches and with no prospect of getting dry again. The novelty of being in Africa was already wearing thin. ‘I don’t think the trenches in the last war were anything on this,’ wrote David.

Also now in North Africa was Sergeant Bucky Walters of the 135th US Infantry Regiment. The regiment reached Oran, rather than Bône, on 2 January with little idea of what was going on or where they were headed. No sooner had they docked than Bucky looked up and watched a dogfight in the skies above. Two Allied aircraft hurtled into the side of the nearby hills. He felt apprehensive, but also felt himself to be protected by a sensation of numbness. Nor was the 34th US Division going to the front just yet. Despite being the first to reach Britain, and despite having undergone constant training ever since, it was felt that they needed even more training before being sent to Tunisia. So while newly arriving British units were hurried east almost the moment they arrived, Bucky and his colleagues in the 135th were sent to Tlemcen in Western Algeria to carry out yet more training and manoeuvres. This was all well and good, but in all this time Bucky had still barely even seen a tank. If they weren’t going to be trained properly, then they might as well have been sent to the front right away. As most of the First Army were discovering, experience was the best training of all.

One thing the 18th Infantry Regiment had learned from Longstop was that the 37-mm anti-tank gun was totally useless in modern warfare. As Henry Bowles points out, the 37 mm was what they’d trained with and landed with and so, naturally, the troops using them had not thought twice about trying to knock out heavy guns and tanks with them. When this didn’t work, it must have been something of a shock. It is hard to understand why no one had thought to warn them they would be no good against the Panzers.

The 18th Regimental Combat Team had been kept in the Medjez sector. On 30 December, they became attached to the British 6th Armoured Division. Conscious that feelings between British and Americans might be somewhat tense after the disaster at Longstop, Colonel Greer, the commanding officer of the 18th, made strenuous efforts to show appreciation and friendship towards Major-General Charles Keightly, CO of the 6th Armoured. This was exactly the kind of goodwill that would have been applauded by Ike, and indeed it worked wonders, for Keightly was of a similar mind and promised to send Greer some 6-pounders and a number of anti-tank mines to help protect the 18th’s new positions. Furthermore, Keightly promised to resolve any shortcomings affecting the regiment as soon as he could and to ‘do all in my power to get them put right’. Meanwhile, the Bowles twins found themselves taking up positions in the front line in Tunisia for the first time. While the 1st Battalion had been withdrawn from the front line to lick its wounds and gather strength once more, the 2nd was sent south-east of Medjez to relieve a British battalion. On 28 December they moved into positions near Grenadier Hill, overlooking the Medjerda Valley and a crossroads known as Peter’s Corner.

It was a strange time for the Americans. Under British command, they were given British rations and, when they needed new clothing, British kit too. Pretty soon all Tom Bowles was left with was his GI helmet; the rest was all British Army serge. He was even given a new pair of British hobnail boots. ‘I didn’t have a problem with it,’ says Tom. ‘The British were good fighters.’ Henry agrees. The only major difference as far they were concerned was the standard of food. ‘The volume was somewhat less than American rations were, you know,’ says Henry, although he loved the tea. ‘You had the tea, powdered milk and sugar and all you had to add was hot water,’ he says. ‘That tea they had really was beautiful.’

Like everyone else, they dug in, got soaked, went out on patrols, and made their acquaintance with the Stuka and various Axis fighter planes. Soon their positions were linked by a complex network of zig-zagging trenches not dissimilar to those of the Western Front in the previous war. By this time, a number of other – mostly British – units had been brought under Colonel Greer’s command, including 16th/5th Royal Lancers, a squadron of the 2nd Lothian Horse, the 17th/21st Lancers, and also Colonel John Frost’s 2nd Parachute Battalion. It wasn’t just the British who were doing all the commanding. Still, this had been a blow for Frost, not because he was under the command of the Americans, but because the rest of the Parachute Brigade had been withdrawn to prepare for another operation. Still badly under strength after the failed Oudna Raid, the 2nd Para Battalion had been left behind.

The lull in the fighting at least gave many of the green troops now in Tunisia a chance to learn something about being combat troops without having to take part in an all-out assault. Valuable lessons about mines, patrolling, and digging proper defences made all the difference in the world. Desultory shell, mortar, and aerial attacks also gave them important experience of being under fire. This was particularly valuable for the 18th Infantry and other American units now in the front line, who had reached North Africa having had no training with live ammunition and little concept of what awaited them.

The inadequacy of American training was, in many ways, understandable: the Americans had far fewer instructors with any experience, they were mobilizing more men at greater speed than the British, and for much of their time had had insufficient equipment with which to train. In sharp contrast, however, British training was now much improved, partly because they were beginning to take note of the lessons learned in the Western Desert, and partly thanks to the battle school system developed by General Alexander and others. Lieutenant Peter Moore was a subaltern with the 2/5th Leicestershire Regiment, a standard infantry unit, which by 1943 was made up principally of wartime volunteers and conscripts. They were not in any way elite troops like the Paras, nor from the top drawer of infantry regiments like the Guards Brigade. Yet both at his OCTU (Officer Cadet Training Unit) and subsequently with the regiment, Peter had carried out a number of all-arms and even inter-service exercises. During the previous summer, for example, he had taken part in a large training exercise in Scotland in which one side launched a seaborne assault while the other defended, and which involved infantry, tanks, and artillery. Earlier on, whilst still at OCTU, he had watched a demonstration of a blitzkrieg-style attack along the sand dunes of the Lancashire coast. ‘It was extremely effective,’ says Peter. ‘A company of infantry was supported by artillery, mortars, waves of fighter-bombers and tanks in attacking a high point in the dunes. Live ammunition was used by everyone. The noise was frightening and it was one of the best preparations for battle that I experienced.’ Once, he was even made to eat lunch in an abattoir to get used to seeing and smelling blood.

This disparity in training had been borne out in the recent fighting. It was one of the reasons why British generals were sending their own troops straight to the front whilst Bucky Walters’ 135th Infantry was held back. What is harder to understand is why British and American training in Britain was not integrated in any way. The Bowles twins, for example, never once trained alongside the British, even though they were living alongside one another the entire time they were at Tidworth.

No one, however, could doubt the bravery of the vast majority of Americans, nor their willingness to learn, a fact reflected in the sheer number of ‘Combat Lessons Learned’ memos that litter the records of the American units in North Africa. Unfortunately, there were a few more hard knocks to be taken in the weeks to come, setbacks that could and should have been avoided.

Peter Moore had turned twenty-one just a few days before setting sail for North Africa. Dark-haired, with a kind and good-humoured face, he was, like David Brown, someone who would never have joined the army had it not been for the war. At school, despite loving all sports, he’d hated the obligatory cadet corps and had originally intended to pursue a career in agriculture, like his father, and to spend his life outdoors and in the countryside. He’d even spent a term at university studying agricultural science, before dropping out in order to try and join the RAF.

Poor eyesight had thwarted his plans, however, and so, having turned nineteen and now subject to being called up, he put his name down for the Leicesters, the regiment his father had served with in the First World War and to which he had been recalled again. After a brief period of basic training in the ranks, Peter was put forward for officer training, passing out in the summer of 1942 and finding himself a platoon commander in ‘B’ Company.

He’d known they would be going overseas the moment it was announced that they were to parade before the King. It was well known that George VI liked to see every battalion before it was shipped abroad. Peter had been shocked by how ill the King had looked. His face had been rouged to give him colour, but it had been a poor disguise. ‘It was terribly moving,’ wrote Peter, ‘and we all realized the enormous sense of duty of this man, insisting on wishing his subjects well before they departed for battle.’ They had boarded their ship at Liverpool on Christmas Eve. Peter couldn’t help remembering the last time he’d been along the waterfront there, in April 1939, when as a seventeen-year-old he was on his way back from a walking holiday in the Lake District. Now he was going to war.

They reached Algiers on 3 January. At once Peter was struck by the exotic smell of oranges and donkey bedding, and by the sight of little Arab boys running alongside them shouting, ‘Hey, Tommy, jig-jig, m’amselle, dix francs!’ They’d all been warned about the dangers of VD and Peter, for one, was only too happy to resist the temptations of any jig-jig.

The battalion set off by train to the front on 10 January, a journey that would take two days. As they paused at a railway station along the way, Peter began thinking about his home and family. This made him feel momentarily homesick and depressed, and for the first time he began to think about his own mortality. So much uncertainty lay ahead of him at the end of the journey and he prayed that he would not let himself or anyone else down.

At the border railway station, they loaded themselves onto trucks and began the night-time journey to the front. Peter sat with the driver, an old hand who enjoyed telling new arrivals horror stories about travelling along what had already been dubbed ‘Messerschmitt Alley’. It seemed that two ME 109s regularly patrolled the route and were known as Gert and Daisy after two popular cockney comediennes. The truck had no lights except for a small one at the rear, hung in such a way that it could only be seen at ground level. There was no sign of Gert or Daisy, however, and having safely negotiated Messerschmitt Alley, they then began climbing a mountain pass from which there was always a sheer drop on one or other side of the road. It was a nerve-racking experience. As Peter’s driver desperately tried to keep up with the lorry in front, so he sped up, faster and faster, hurtling round corners with alarming abandon.

By first light the ordeal was over, and the truck pulled off the road into a cork-oak forest where the battalion was to concentrate before making its final move forward. The day was spent getting rid of excess kit and cleaning weapons, and then it was time to get into their trucks again and head off. They halted at Alouna Station in the north of the country near Sedjenane. The station building had already been flattened. In the distance, Peter saw artillery fire flashing in the night. In the faint light, he could make out the grim outlines of Sugar Loaf, Green, and Baldy Hills, where the 36th Brigade had been halted nearly two months before. Leading his platoon to its designated area, Peter ordered the men to start digging in on the reverse slope of a slightly raised piece of ground. They had to work fast: each two-man slit-trench was to be six feet deep, six feet long, and three feet wide. It was cold and wet, the soil was heavy, thick clay and Peter could hear enemy reconnaissance aircraft buzzing overhead. By morning, he was exhausted, sodden, and covered in mud.

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Admiral Cunningham had begun 1942 feeling very bleak about the future, but a year on he thought there was cause for much optimism. He sensed their fortunes in the Mediterranean were on the turn. Even so, the first day of the new year had brought particularly heavy attacks on Bône, with over a hundred enemy aircraft bombing the port. Two merchantmen were hit and caught fire while the cruiser HMS Ajax, only recently arrived after a refit to join Force ‘Q’, was also hit and badly damaged, and a further ship, a minesweeper, was sunk. With enemy air raids on Bône continuing with almost daily regularity, doubts were soon raised about the wisdom of keeping Force ‘Q’ based at Bône. ‘But I had to harden my heart,’ noted ABC, and he insisted they stick it out rather than succumb to the enemy’s game. While Force ‘Q’ was operating from Bône, the reconstituted Force ‘K’ was once again based at Malta. More submarines had also joined the 10th Flotilla, but now that major Axis shipping routes were operating further west between southern Italy and Tunisia it was decided to bring the 8th Submarine Flotilla from Gibraltar to Algiers, from where they could better attack enemy shipping.

After their triumphant patrol in December, HMS Safari and her crew were posted back to the 8th Flotilla, reaching Algiers at the end of the first week in January. Although sorry to have to say goodbye to some of his friends, Ronnie Ward was delighted to leave Malta, with its terrible bomb damage and lack of amenities, drink, and food. There had been little transport available on Malta, but at Algiers they were met by an amphibious Jeep, one of two gifted by General Mark Clark, then whisked off to a party where there was not only champagne but also a number of girls, the like of which they had not seen since leaving Gibraltar the previous summer. And best of all, they were given a rest house just outside Algiers where the officers could relax and recharge their batteries. ‘Algiers was heaven,’ says Ronnie. ‘The villa was a lovely place. There was a beach and swimming and a kind of pub nearby – altogether it was bliss.’

The 8th Flotilla operated mainly to the west and north of Sicily, and this was where Safari was sent on its first patrol operating from Algiers. Yet again, they were successful: two schooners sunk on 30 January, followed by a tanker and a steamer three days later. When it came to sinking enemy ships, Safari was in a league of her own.

Also now based in Algeria was the 10th MTB Flotilla, at Bône. Like Ronnie Ward, Lieutenant Charles Coles was only too happy with his change of address. They had been coast-hugging all the way from Alexandria, often level-pegging with Eighth Army. One time they had stopped for the night at a small fishing village and found the Italians had only just left – there was warm food still on the mess tables. They had then initially made for Malta, due to become an MTB base once more, but after a few days on the island were ordered to move on to Bône. The final run around the Cap Bon peninsula had been a little hair-raising, but by travelling at night and lying up in sheltered positions during the day they had avoided detection and made it safely to their new base, where they were to concentrate on anti-submarine patrols.

Shortly after his arrival, Charles was given a couple of days’ leave and so, borrowing an army Jeep, went off with a friend to explore the local countryside. He was surprised by how green and cultivated the landscape was around Bône. ‘Quite unlike the desert coast,’ says Charles. ‘Citrus trees everywhere.’ They stopped outside the gates of a very modern-looking farm and vineyard. Chickens were running about everywhere and, not having seen any eggs for several months, Charles – who spoke French fluently – felt bold enough to ask the owner whether he might buy some for his crew. Initially, the smartly dressed landowner was reluctant – everything was rationed and controlled, he explained. However, after chatting some more the Frenchman invited them both in for some lunch. ‘It was a wonderful meal,’ says Charles. And when they left, they did so armed with no less than sixty eggs and a case of excellent wine.

Over lunch, the Frenchman – Monsieur Béghain – told them that he had a yacht in the harbour at Bône, which, for security reasons, he was not allowed to visit. Charles offered to send over some of his crew to pump out the bilges and generally see that it was still in one piece. M. Béghain accepted the offer gratefully and later confided that he had been the principal local intelligence agent for the British before the invasion. ‘They’re an odd lot, your intelligence people,’ he told them. ‘I asked SOE for a radio operator and they sent me a Pole who didn’t speak French.’ He then told them about another agent – his best, he said – who’d been operating in Bône but who had been since put in prison by the Allies. Even worse, they had now taken on a pro-German character and sent him as a liaison officer to AFHQ in Algiers. Béghain had been to the ‘authorities’ but had got nowhere. Perhaps Charles could put in a word with the right people? Charles explained that he was not in intelligence and was only very junior, but promised to do what he could.

It so happened that, a few weeks later, Charles had some more time off while his MTB was being repaired and so was able to accept an invitation from M. Béghain to a wild boar hunt west of Bône, near the front. It turned out to be a highly memorable occasion, not least because of the déjeuner de chasse, a picnic breakfast of real coffee, chilled white wine, ham, fresh bread and fruit. Charles had barely ever tasted such food before, and certainly not since the beginning of the war. He soon discovered that most of the other guests were senior French colonial politicians, all anxious to explain to him the difficulties they were having with the Allied security services. But he thoroughly enjoyed the hunting. ‘It was unbelievably exciting,’ he admits. Acting as beaters were colonial troops, mostly dressed in long-tailed blue tunics and bright red pantaloons, while not far away the continual sound of battle could be heard. To his great delight, Charles even managed to shoot and kill a boar, which he then took back with him. ‘I cut up this hairy, muscular wild boar on the dockside and distributed pieces among the crews,’ says Charles. It was the best meat they’d had in ages.

General Eisenhower and Harry Butcher flew to Casablanca on 15 January. It was another hairy flight. En route, one of their Fortress’s engines started playing up and both men watched uneasily the oil spewing out and over the wing. They were told to put on parachutes, and although they were saved the drama of jumping, by the time they finally came in to land a second engine was on its last gasp.Another who was glad to reach Casablanca safely was Alan Moorehead. He had not initially been called back to Algiers, but desperate to know what was going on he had followed anyway, only to find himself boarding another plane along with a number of fellow journalists. None of them had much idea of where they were heading, or why, but were certainly perplexed by the American pilot’s insistence on flying over the coastline of Spanish Morocco, especially once bursts of flak began rocking the aircraft. But to Alan’s amazement, instead of taking immediate evasive action, the pilot began circling lower and lower as though about to land. Suddenly bullets started peppering the sky around them and hitting the aircraft. Alan stumbled along to the cockpit, but his shouts could not be heard. Meanwhile, one his colleagues, a Canadian journalist called Edward Baudry, had his temple blown off by a bullet and blood and brains began spilling down the side of his face. One of the crew was also hit, and with what seemed like painful slowness the pilot finally turned out towards sea, bullets following after them.

They eventually landed at Port Lyautey – where the confused pilot had originally thought himself to be. Edward Baudry was taken off and then they continued to Casablanca, which, Alan noted, ‘was in the midst of a witch’s brew of rumour and intrigue’. Only once at their hotel were they told by a stern American general that ‘the biggest assemblage of high dignitaries ever gathered together since the war began’ was taking place. Sworn to secrecy, they were warned not to even talk about it in their rooms for fear that they were being bugged. These ‘high dignitaries’ included the President and Prime Minister, as well as the Combined Chiefs of Staff. The purpose of the conference was a face-to-face discussion about future Allied strategy. Once again, the Americans found themselves outmanoeuvred by the British, who had come far better prepared to fight their corner. After eighteen meetings at the conference, the net strategic outcome was the abandonment of a cross-Channel invasion in 1943 and an agreement that an assault on Sicily – now codenamed HUSKY – should be next on the list once North Africa was finally in Allied hands. Another important decision, and one that was made a proclamation at Roosevelt’s insistence, was that the only terms the Allies would accept from Germany, Italy, and Japan were ‘unconditional surrender’.

In between these debates, there were also discussions about the current situation which for Ike became increasingly uncomfortable. Over the past couple of weeks, he had begun to implement his command changes, including the establishment of his new forward command post at Constantine. Recognizing that he still had to juggle command of his forces in Tunisia and the tasks of running AFHQ in Algiers, he appointed Brigadier-General Lucian Truscott to act in his absence at Constantine. Clearly Ike was going to be spreading himself too thinly, and in any case Constantine was still 200 miles from the front. Nor could he turn to Clark, who had taken over the evolving US Fifth Army, formed from the vast number of troops assembling in French Morocco and Western Algeria. This had left a vacancy for the command of US 2nd Corps, which Ike was now moving up towards the central Tunisian border.Ike had recently chosen Major-General Lloyd R. Fredendall, who had commanded the American landings at Oran and who, since then, had been acting as military governor of the area. It was to be one of the worst decisions Ike made during the entire campaign. Ike had not known Fredendall before the war, but he had been strongly recommended by Marshall, and that was good enough. Moreover, Ike had been impressed with the way Fredendall had handled the landings at Oran. Since then, however, Fredendall had done little to recommend himself. In particular, he had issued building contracts and appointments to well known Vichyites, something that had caused something of a stir. This was picked up on by Ernie Pyle after a tip-off from an American counter-intelligence officer in Oran, and he had not only written about it but had managed to get it past the censors. ‘Our fundamental policy,’ he reported, ‘still is one of soft-gloving snakes in our midst … We have left in office most of the small-fry officials put there by the Germans before we came. We are permitting Fascist societies to continue to exist.’20 This column became a news story in itself – not that Fredendall cared. When an American diplomat complained about these appointments, Fredendall gave him short shrift. ‘Lay off that stuff!’ he was told. ‘What the hell do you know about it?’

Loud and outspoken, Fredendall bullied his staff and was prone to jumping to conclusions from which he would not be swayed: he knew best. He was also rather too fond of a drink, had a bad habit of sending messages in a code known only to himself, and was openly critical of anyone he decided he didn’t like. He was furthermore pathologically and quite openly Anglophobic. All in all, not the attributes needed for close co-operation with the French and British forces now in Tunisia.

Fredendall had taken over command of II Corps at the beginning of January and, together with Ike, had come up with a plan to cut a swathe across central Tunisia, then capture the ports of Gabes and Sfax and so cut the Axis forces in half, preventing Rommel from joining forces with von Arnim. Operation SATIN was to be an American show, although French forces and the 1st Parachute Brigade (less Frost’s 2nd Battalion) would also be placed at Fredendall’s disposal. It was to be launched at the end of the month.Ike enthusiastically presented this idea – along with his other command changes – during his day-long appearance at the Casablanca Conference. The operation had grown since its initial conception: the final plans demanded 38,000 troops and a mind-boggling amount of supplies that the current system could not possibly deliver. The Combined Chiefs were not impressed, pointing out that Rommel now had 80,000 troops and von Arnim 65,000. Rather than split the two forces, a more likely scenario was that 2nd US Corps would be swallowed whole. Brooke also revealed that ULTRA had discovered signs that Rommel was already sending the much-strengthened 21st Panzer up into Tunisia. With this bombshell, SATIN was promptly scrapped.

The following morning, Ike confessed to Harry Butcher that he had been ‘more-or-less bawled at’ by Marshall for his poor presentation. Butch, who’d spent the previous day on Patton’s advice being Ike’s eyes and ears at the conference, talking to as many people as he could, had also become aware of malign rumours doing the rounds. ‘I had heard a lot from the so-called lower levels,’ he noted, ‘but it seemed to me clear that the absence of clear-cut words of thanks from the President or the Prime Minister showed they had their noses to the political winds, and weren’t going to be caught holding the bag for a general who had made an unpopular decision and hadn’t yet got Tunisia.’ He quite openly warned Ike that his head was now in the noose.

That same morning, Butch had met the President as FDR sat in bed eating his breakfast. What was supposed to be a brief introduction became a proper conversation, much to Butch’s delight. ‘The President said he was something of a father confessor to all the boys,’ recorded Butch, ‘and hoped to help Ike out of some of his political troubles while here.’ FDR had also had a conversation with Ike the previous evening. Deciding he should be nothing but frank with the President, Ike told him that he realized it was the role of generals sometimes to carry the can and offered to resign. But FDR was not going to fire him. Instead he asked him to name a date when the campaign might be over.‘May 15,’ Ike blurted.

A few days later, back in Algiers, General Alexander confessed that when pressed over the same date, he’d suggested May 30. The conference had gone much better for the British commanders, and Alex in particular. He’d been called to give an account of the developments in Libya and had impressed everyone, but most notably the President. Appearing tanned, healthy and in desert garb of shorts and open shirt, he appeared every inch the fighting commander. And he brought good news, announcing that Tripoli was expected to be in Allied hands in the very near future. Both Churchill and Brooke were delighted. ‘His unspoken confidence was contagious,’ noted the Prime Minister. The contrast with the tired and jittery Eisenhower could not have been more obvious. The different showings by the two men and the contrasting successes of the two areas of command gave Brooke the point of manoeuvre he needed to persuade the Americans to accept further changes. As far as Brooke was concerned, it was obvious that Eisenhower was simply carrying too much responsibility and had neither the tactical nor strategic experience required for such a position. Firm, centralized command was needed, not just to coordinate the American, British and French forces in Tunisia, but soon the Eighth Army as well. So he suggested Eisenhower be promoted further and that Alex should become Ike’s deputy and overall commander of Allied ground forces. At Alex’s suggestion, these would be renamed Eighteenth Army Group, because this combined the numbers of both armies. ‘We were pushing Eisenhower up into the stratosphere and rarefied atmosphere of a Supreme Commander,’ noted Brooke, ‘where he would be free to devote his time to the political and inter-Allied problems, whilst we inserted under him one of our own commanders to deal with the military situations and to restore the necessary drive and co-ordination which had been so seriously lacking of late!’

The British had their way with another important appointment too: Tedder was to become overall Allied air commander in the Mediterranean. There was also good news for ABC, who was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet, the highest rank in the Royal Navy, and shortly after reappointed as C-in-C Mediterranean Fleet. When it eventually came to HUSKY, British commanders would hold the plum jobs.There was one last extraordinary episode to be played out at Casablanca. Alan Moorehead had been kicking his heels with the other reporters when they were taken to Anfa Camp a short way outside the city and to the villa where the conference had been taking place. After waiting for a couple of hours, they were led up the road to meet the Prime Minister and President. While Alan and the other journalists squatted in a semi-circle on damp grass, FDR and Churchill sat on two chairs, with Giraud and General de Gaulle on either side of the President. Behind them stood diplomats and ministers. The sun shone and Churchill lowered his dark hat over his forehead. For both Frenchmen, this was torturous. De Gaulle was still smarting from the Allies’ snub of leaving him out of the TORCH operations, while for Giraud, de Gaulle was nothing more than a dangerous upstart.

Roosevelt beamed, while Giraud and de Gaulle looked uneasy. Then Roosevelt urged the two generals to stand and shake hands. ‘It was all rather embarrassing,’ wrote Alan, ‘like the first rehearsal of an amateur play.’

Giraud and de Gaulle then trooped off, leaving the PM and President. Beckoning the reporters to close in around them, the leaders happily talked of the success of the conference. ‘The scene was irresistibly like a Sunday-school treat with the children gathered at the feet of their two schoolmistresses,’ wrote Alan. But he was all too aware of the great significance of the conference, and particularly Roosevelt’s presence there in Casablanca. The Allies would be concentrating their efforts in the Mediterranean for the time being. ‘Returning on our plane to the front,’ noted Alan, ‘we knew that every effort was now going to be put into the Tunisian war, and that the Germans were going to suffer such a blitz as they had not yet seen outside Russia.’

But not quite yet. Before this new resolve and all its accompanying changes could be put into action, General Ike and his Allied forces were to face one more devastating setback.

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CHAPTER 20

Conflicting Personalities: 18 January–13 February 1943

On 23 January, the last day of the Casablanca Conference, a message arrived from Alex announcing that Tripoli had fallen. Rommel had abandoned the port and Eighth Army had walked in unopposed, providing the Allied troops with another massive opportunity to increase their personal war booty. At Stalingrad, the Russians were also now just days away from an astonishing victory. Things were looking up.

Despite an uncomfortable day at Casablanca, Ike had returned to AFHQ with a weight lifted from his shoulders. The new command arrangement pleased him, as had the President’s vote of confidence. Even so, Alex and Tedder were not to take on their new roles until February or until such time as the campaign in Libya had been effectively wrapped up. In the meantime, Ike hurried straight on to Constantine, where he called together his senior commanders to report on the new developments. With SATIN scrapped, he ordered Frendendall to use 2nd US Corps to conduct raids and take important vantage points, but stressed that their role was to be essentially defensive until Eighth Army had reached the Mareth Line. This was the next Axis defensive position after Tripoli and lay some twenty-five miles beyond the Tunisian border. He also told Anderson that he wanted to keep as much of II Corps as possible together as a mobile reserve; it was not to be used to plug any more gaps in the line. He then turned to General Juin. ‘Do you approve of this plan?’ he asked.

‘Yes,’ Juin replied, ‘but the Germans will not remain inactive.’ For the French, any enemy thrusts in their sector could have serious consequences. They were still pitifully short of equipment – much more was needed of everything, Juin told him, from guns to radios. Ike assured him that the Allies had pledged to ‘scrape the bottom of the barrel’ in their efforts to provide his troops with better equipment. This was good news, Juin replied, but until it arrived his forces were going to need help, especially in the Fondouk area, where there were two passes through the Eastern Dorsale.

This rather thorny issue had not been resolved by the time Ike hurried back to Algiers, where Marshall and Admiral King were waiting to see him on their return from Casablanca. Marshall, in particular, was anxious to see for himself the difficulties facing his protégé. He was certainly not impressed with the rear-area service and supply units, which he thought were chaotic and being managed with a breathtaking lack of discipline. After instantly firing a number a senior officers, he decided the time had come to give Ike a major talking to about the nature of command. ‘Eisenhower,’ Marshall told him, ‘there is one thing that you must understand clearly. Retention under your command of any American officer means to me that you are satisfied with his performance. Any man you deem unsatisfactory, you must re-assign or send him home!’ In other words, he needed to be tougher. Marshall also suggested he appoint a few officers that he knew and trusted to help him out. Ike leapt at the suggestion, quickly producing a list, top of which was his old West Point classmate, Major-General Omar N. Bradley. True to his word, Marshall had Bradley sent over at the end of February.

Despite this lecture, Harry Butcher felt Marshall’s whole attitude to Ike was that of a father to a son. Certainly the chief had been shocked by how ill Ike had looked. Taking Butch aside, he said, ‘He may think he has had troubles so far, including Darlan, but he will have so many before this war is over that Darlan will be nothing. You must look after him. He is too valuable an officer to overwork himself.’

Since the beginning of the year, the front line had run from the north coast to Medjez, then to Bou Arada and all along the edge of the Eastern Dorsale, leaving the Axis in control of the long stretch of plains that ran from Tunis to the border with Libya. Although the Eastern Dorsale was not as high as the Grande Dorsale – the highest peaks were only some three thousand feet high – an advancing army could only really get across it through its four passes at Pichon and Fondouk, Faid and Maknassy. These were not narrow gorges with towering rock faces either side, but rather stretched several miles wide, the mountains on either side rising gently away from them. The Faid Pass, for example, was over five miles in width, and led the way to a vast open area of arid scrub, criss-crossed by winding and often steep-sided wadis and broken up by long prominent mountain-like ridges that emerged from the plains around them.

These passes through the Eastern Dorsale were held by units of the French 19th Corps. Watching these were Italian troops supported by German artillery and Panzer detachments. Kesselring had quite rightly worked out that they would never lose Tunisia so long as they held the passes, and so ordered von Arnim to mount a series of attacks to take control of them and the Allied positions all along the Eastern Dorsale. These were launched on 18 January, with a diversionary attack by 10th Panzer Division in the north at Bou Arada. Juin’s prediction had been spot on.

Bou Arada was where 17th Field Regiment was now based. Lieutenant David Brown was at the 13 Battery observation post when at first light he spotted around twenty-five enemy tanks approaching. The regiment, with its 25-pounders dug well in, had clearly not been detected and when the German tanks were just 800 yards distant, the British guns opened fire and knocked out seven German panzers in just a few moments, while the remaining Panzers began frantically positioning themselves into better cover. The regiment continued to pound away throughout the morning, with piles of shell cases mounting beside them. But having pinpointed the British guns, the Germans were not slow to begin counter-battery fire. ‘We had a hell of a battle,’ wrote David to his wife. ‘I hope never to be in quite such a tight spot again.’ The Panzers began withdrawing just after two that afternoon, but later the regimental HQ was dive-bombed by fourteen Stukas. Even so, David was finding front-line action considerably more exhilarating than he’d imagined. Shooting up the enemy, he told his wife, was ‘the grandest sport in the world – you know how I love aiming at things, well, when the thing you are aiming at is a salvo of shells, and at the old Hun too, it’s damn good fun’. The pining and terrible homesickness he’d felt during the bleak days of training seemed to have all but vanished.

Mines, mud, and the good shooting of the British artillery ensured that 10th Panzer’s attack did not get very far; but further south, Axis infantry and a number of the dreaded Tiger tanks burst through into the Ousseltia Valley. The French, with their outmoded rifles and pop guns, were not so much forced back as completely overrun – 3.500 French troops were captured, the equivalent of seven battalions.

Anderson believed the only way to stop the rot was to send British and American reinforcements, although it meant going against Ike’s wishes. Ordering most of the British 36th Brigade to hurry to the rescue of the French, he also asked Frendendall to send Combat Command ‘B’ to help plug the gaps. Now in command of CCB was Brigadier-General Paul Robinett, who taken over after Oliver had been promoted and sent back home. His order from Fredendall was typically bizarre: ‘Move your command, ie, the walking boys, pop guns, Baker’s outfit and the outfit which is the reverse of Baker’s outfit, and the big fellows to “M”, which is due north of where you are now, as soon as possible. Have your boss report to the French gentleman whose name begins with “J” at a place which begins with “D”, which is five grid squares to the left of “M”.’

Once Robinett had finally deciphered this he set off for the Ousseltia Valley and, along with 36th Brigade, was able to stem the Axis advance, even though the CCB commander was struggling with yet more bizarrely coded messages from Fredendall – messages that ran completely counter to those issued by the French.

On 24 January, and with his limited objectives taken, von Arnim called off the offensive and his forces withdrew to their new positions. The speed with which the French had succumbed had been alarming. As Juin had forewarned, the French could no longer be expected to hold a stretch of the front. Retraining and re-equipping was now desperately needed. For this to happen, however, wholesale changes to troop deployments needed to be made, which Ike ordered Anderson to oversee in an ‘executive capacity’. This way, he hoped he would not offend French sensibilities.

Among those ordered to plug the gaps were Colonel John Frost’s 2nd Parachute Battalion, which, since their escape from Oudna, had been used as infantry around Medjez el Bab. On 4 February, they were suddenly moved to the Ousseltia Valley. With almost no support, they were expected to defend a stretch of the front littered with booby traps, mines, and rotting corpses from the recent fighting. Opposite them, they were told, were reportedly ten infantry battalions and a hundred tanks. It was bitterly cold, there was little cover, and on his first morning Frost woke up to discover he was literally frozen to the ground. Three days later they were moved again to near Bou Arada. This time they were given nearly three miles to defend. ‘Bearing in mind that by normal reckoning, a battalion front should not have been much more than a thousand yards,’ noted Frost, ‘it will be seen that our elongated front was much greater than was really desirable.’

Quite. This desperate attempt to plug a front line that was now far longer than was manageable not only dissipated Allied strength but also meant further splitting up divisions, brigades, and regimental combat teams. Even the French began to see that their stance over Anderson was proving counter-productive, and so finally allowed Eisenhower to persuade them to accept Anderson’s command. After all, Ike reassured them, Anderson was subordinate to him, and so any order the British general gave was really an order from him. With this now resolved, Ike was able to direct Anderson to take command of all Allied forces on the Tunisian front on the understanding that he promise to be polite and helpful to Juin and to be mindful of French honour at all times. Anderson, not the most naturally charming man in the world, promised he would try his best.

But by now units were hopelessly mixed up, and for the time being at any rate there was little chance of unravelling them into some kind of uniformity and cohesion. Had the British and Americans trained more together before leaving the UK, this might have been less of a problem; but because they hadn’t, it took a while before an American battalion understood the British way of doing things and vice versa. This confusion was obviously even worse when British and American units suddenly found themselves alongside the French. Such differences mattered less when the line was more or less static, but it was asking for trouble in the middle of a battle, as had happened to Joe Furayter and the 5th Field Battalion when they had joined the British at Tebourba the previous November.

For the most part, the men couldn’t have cared less who they were in the line with. The Bowles twins had no objection whatsoever to fighting alongside the British, nor to even wearing British kit. Nor did Joe Furayter. Of course they were proud to be a part of the Big Red One, but if the division happened to be split up, it was no skin off their noses. The idea that this badly affected morale was misguided on the part of the commanders – most GIs and junior officers accepted their lot with stoic fortitude and even at the best of times knew little about what was going on much beyond twenty yards either side of them.

But this didn’t mean that carving up divisions was a good idea. It was impossible for a commander and his staff to oversee the development, deployment, and further training of a division if it was divided up and sent to the four winds. Commanders like to command, not be left in the rear with nothing but a divisional HQ. Just as Francis Tuker had hated to see his 4th Indian Division split up into penny packets, so the American commanders – new to war and desperate to prove themselves – were distraught at having their divisions torn up and sent hither and thither. This was pretty much the fate of Major-General Terry de la Mesa Allen, the tough and uncompromising commander of the Big Red One, who by Christmas was ‘down to a couple of battalions and Joe Penici, the orderly who presses his pants’. His mood was not improved when he read a ‘Summary of Operations’ report by Colonel Stewart-Brown, the Coldstream battalion commander at Longstop, in which he concluded, ‘I have nothing whatsoever to say against the Americans myself, except that they were unfitted and unprepared for the task that they were asked to perform, which would have been difficult for any battalion.’ This was true: they were not experienced enough to take on the full force of a German counter-attack. But then again, few new Allied troops were, while their equipment – particularly the 37-mm anti-tank gun – had been hopelessly inadequate for the task. The rain, the lack of proper intelligence, and the novelty of fighting alongside British and French units had added to their difficulties. Longstop had been a hellish initiation. But to Allen this was a gross insult and, having concluded a report of his own, in which, unsurprisingly, the British fared less well, he went to confront General Allfrey of the British V Corps. Allfrey just shrugged and denied having seen or heard about Stewart-Brown’s report, but the seeds of mistrust had already been sown.

The character of General Anderson did not help. Terse, dour, and rather humourless, he conformed almost to a T to most Americans’ preconceived notions of what British generals were like. This notion that all Brits were cold and condescending was, to some extent, ingrained in the minds of many Americans long before they ever came into contact with any of their new allies, and so it often took little to have those preconceptions confirmed. In history lessons they were taught about the War of Independence and the subsequent War of 1812, in which Britain was the old enemy. Harry Butcher admitted that he had arrived in England with many of the inborn prejudices common to any American raised and educated in the Midwest. ‘American officers and men who became acquainted with the British in England before TORCH had found that the lessons all Americans learn in their history books aren’t true of the present day,’ he noted. ‘Believe it or not, the British are really not red-coated devils.’
But Anderson had had little chance to get to know many of the American commanders he would be working with before reaching North Africa. Nor did he possess the kind of easygoing warmth or diplomatic skills to deal with men like Fredendall, who was gathering an increasingly large chip on his shoulder about the way the Americans were being pushed around by the condescending Brits.

This kind of negativity was not felt in the same way by the British – if there was an ‘old enemy’ it was the French – although most British assumed that Americans were brash and loud in the same way that Americans thought that all British people were aloof and cold. Of course there would always be conflicts of personality, but for the most part, once Americans and British got to know one another, they got on just fine. But that certain American commanders felt resentment at being given too little to do, and at having their forces divided and placed under British command, is entirely understandable, just as it is also understandable that a number of British commanders looked down their noses at their American counterparts for being too inexperienced and too outspoken. It’s just that it didn’t help.

Neither did the apparent lack of Allied air cover, still a common grouse up and down the line. Yet more and more aircraft were reaching the forward airfields, including the 33rd Fighter Group. Lieutenant Jim Reed and the rest of the 59th Fighter Squadron were the last of the three squadrons in the group to be sent forward. They finally left Casablanca on 8 January, after long weeks of little activity.

Since touching down in North Africa some seven weeks before, they had had a frustrating time, with little to do other than occasional patrols. The real trouble had begun when they were joined by the Lafayette Escadrill Squadron. These French pilots had lost most of their aircraft during the landings, and although the Americans didn’t mind letting them use their P-40s occasionally they strongly objected when they were told to hand them over for good just before Christmas. Jim watched sadly as his plane was repainted – Renee and the white American stars disappearing with the swish of a brush and replaced with French roundels. Nor was it just the aircraft they had to hand over: they were also told to give the French pilots their radio mikes, oxygen masks, and even their pistols.

Bored and frustrated, the boys of the 59th kicked their heels and wondered what the hell was going on. For want of something to do, Jim grew a moustache and then a beard, so earning himself the nickname ‘Walrus’, which was added to the growing list of nicknames painted on their flight shack. The days passed slowly, the pilots tiring of hanging around the airfield, tormenting local Arabs, and playing endless games of cards.

When they did finally move forward, there were just five P-40s between thirty-four pilots, so most, Jim included, were unable to fly themselves there. ‘We sure did hate to ride to the front fighter fields in C-47 transports instead of our P-40s,’ he noted. Their new airfield was Thelepte, near Feriana in Tunisia, from where the 58th FS had been operating for several weeks. Although in the Western Desert aircraft could simply land anywhere and establish a new landing ground, this was not the case in Tunisia, where airfields had to be properly constructed. Thelepte was vast – aircraft could take off in any direction – but the contrast between this forward base and the easy luxury of Casablanca could not have been more marked. On their arrival Jim and the other pilots were told to start digging holes to live in, although tools with which to do this were scarce. Jim and three other pilots – Skippy White, Elton Posey, and Robert Smith – decided to share a hole, digging a trench four feet deep and somewhat smaller than two double beds, with an entry way halfway along. Over the top at ground level they stretched their pup tents flat as a cover. There was no other sign of life around them other than patches of vetch. Water had to be brought up daily. Each man was given a canteen and one helmet full of water per day. Hygiene was to be put on the back burner.

After an uncomfortable night sleeping head to toe in his heavy winter flying gear, Jim poked his head up out of his dugout at first light to see four ME 109s attacking their airfield patrol flight. This, he discovered, was regular as clockwork. A few days later, the airfield was attacked four times: early in the morning by two lots of 109s, then by more fighter-bombers a couple of hours later, and finally by ten Ju 88s in the middle of the afternoon. With only four aircraft at their disposal (the fifth was with the maintenance team), the 59th were hastily scrambled to take on the Ju 88s. Jim was not flying, but it was a great day for the squadron as the four pilots managed to shoot down eight of the German bombers, while the neighbouring French squadron claimed the last two. ‘This was a real morale builder,’ noted Jim, whose dugout mate, Lieutenant Smith, had been one of the triumphant pilots.

But this was a rare high point in an otherwise difficult time. There was little attempt to take the fight to the enemy; they were always responding to enemy air attacks, flying patrols, or escorting light bombers, and only strafing targets of opportunity. More aircraft did gradually arrive, but the pilots found themselves outnumbered on most missions, while on the ground the men were continually strafed and bombed. It was, Jim admits, ‘a very rough time’. He himself was grounded for several weeks with an infected thumb, but by the time the squadron was given a two-week rest period on 8 February, Jim had lost all three of his ‘room’ mates. Skippy White had been forced to bale out behind enemy lines, Robert Smith had been killed, and Elton Posey had come down in the middle of a tank battle, although he did make it back a few days later. ‘My home in the ground was very lonely during these times,’ wrote Jim.

Some hundred and fifty miles further north, and suffering similar conditions, were the men of RAF 225 Squadron. The mud had made operations at Souk el Arba impossible, so the engineers created another airfield for them at Souk el Khemis, a dozen miles away, with different landing strips all named after London railway stations. The RAF pilots dug their own sleeping holes and latrines, just as Jim Reed and the Americans had done. ‘Everyone mucked in,’ says Bryan Colston, who by this stage was quite used to sleeping on a wooden camp bed below ground and eating nothing but ‘compo’ rations. ‘They were brilliant,’ he says of these packed meals. ‘They came in a wooden box with practically everything you wanted in them: a few cigarettes, Horlicks tablets, lavatory paper, tinned beans, bully beef and McConnochies.’

Bryan was by now ‘A’ Flight commander, and carrying out a variety of roles. The RAF in North Africa was beginning to take a leaf out of the Desert Air Force’s ability to multi-task, and had started strapping bombs underneath their fighters when going out on Tac/Rs, as well as performing other tasks. At the end of December, for example, the squadron had been asked to carry out a low-level attack around Pont du Fahs – no aerial reconnaissance was needed – and so Bryan had set off once more with Ken Neill, his Kiwi wingman, and one other pilot, Sergeant Ash. Escorted by a flight of Spitfires, they reached their targets just as some Ju 88s and escorting ME 109s were bombing the French. Within seconds a dogfight had developed, with aircraft turning and swirling around the sky. Bryan managed to fire a long burst at a Junkers, his Hurricane shuddering with the recoil. Bullets struck the bomber’s wing, but Bryan had to break off to attack the tanks below. Swooping down towards them, he pressed down his thumb to fire only to discover his ammunition had run out. ‘I got some terrific flak up my bottom,’ he noted in his diary, but managed to fly through to safety, only to find himself being pursued by a ME 109. Quickly breaking away out of the mêlée, he shook off his pursuer and headed for home.

Reaching Souk el Khemis with Ken Neill and Sergeant Ash alongside him once more, they saw enemy aircraft attacking the airfield, but with no ammunition left there was little they could do. Realizing that safety was the better form of valour, they circled low over some nearby hills until the attackers had gone before finally coming back in to land.

It was increasingly obvious, however, that what they needed was Spitfires. ‘We knew we were so vulnerable,’ says Bryan of the obsolete Hurricanes, ‘and the Spitfire escorts didn’t like it because we were so much slower than them, so they had to fly slower too.’ But in the second half of January, six Spitfire Mark Vs did reach the squadron and were given to Bryan’s ‘A’ Flight. Because of the shortage of time and fuel, the pilots were only allowed forty-five minutes in which to adjust to their new aircraft, even though not one of them had ever flown a Spitfire before. Twelve hours after receiving them, Bryan took off on a Tac/R with F/O Blackshaw, new to the squadron. They were to be escorted by 111 Squadron, but it was dusk and the light was particularly bad, so the mission was aborted. The Treble One Spitfires landed first, so by the time it was Bryan and Blackshaw’s turn to land the sky was almost pitch black. On what was only their second ever flight in Spitfires, they now had to land with a narrower undercarriage than they were used to on a sandy landing strip in the dark and with no flare path. When they both touched down safely, it was with a sense of enormous relief.

With new airfields and gradually increasing numbers of aircraft, crews, and supplies reaching the front, and, crucially, the gaining of combat experience among the Americans in particular, the Allied air situation was slowly improving. Having two separate air commands with an imaginary dividing line was obviously pointless now that all the fighting was in Tunisia. Tedder had been pushing for a unified Mediterranean air command, but in November what Eisenhower needed was a senior staff officer to help him organize his air forces in Algeria and Tunisia and to do so right away. With this in mind, Major-General Carl ‘Tooey’ Spaatz arrived to join Ike in Algiers. Commander of the US Eighth Air Force in the UK, he had more experience of working with the British than most, having witnessed the Battle of Britain as the United States’ ‘official observer’. He wasted no time in making a number of changes, most notably insisting to Anderson that First Army end its effective control of the Allied air forces, a state of affairs that had led to blatant misuse of what limited air capabilities they had. It had been an army officer, for example, who had ordered the unescorted Bisley bombers to make their doomed attack at the beginning of December, despite protestations from the RAF wing commander.

With Spaatz taking firmer control of the helm, he was able to establish the Allied Air Force at the beginning of January. It was a stop-gap, and nothing more, but it brought all Allied bombers – regardless of nationality – under the umbrella of the US Twelfth Air Force, while all fighter units and certain light bomber units came under the control of the RAF Eastern Air Command. This was at least a step in the right direction.

Tedder’s dream of a unified Mediterranean air command was finally agreed at the Casablanca Conference. Covering Algeria and Tunisia would be the Northwest Africa Air Forces (NAAF), commanded by Tooey Spaatz and further divided into various commands including Coastal and Training. The Strategic Air Command – the bomber force – was to be headed by Doolittle; but by far the biggest command was to be Air Support Tunisia, consisting of the majority of fighters and medium bombers already operating in Tunisia as well as the Desert Air Force. There was only one person who could conceivably command this new force: Mary Coningham.

Mary’s new deputy was to be Brigadier-General Larry Kuter. Since helping to write the AWPD-1 paper, outlining America’s basic plan for a strategic air offensive, Larry had been busy and at the very heart of the USAAF’s planning for the future. After seven months working alongside General Hap Arnold as Deputy Chief of the Air Staff, he had been posted to Britain to command the 1st Bombardment Wing of the Eighth Air Force, but at the beginning of January he had been called upon by Tooey Spaatz to be his Chief of Staff in North Africa.

He’d only been at Spaatz’s forward base at Constantine a few days when he discovered there were serious strains between army and air forces, particularly between the US fighter groups and II Corps. When the commander of the two fighter groups of the 12th Air Support Command (ASC) at Thelepte became ill, Spaatz sent Larry down to take over. He was appalled to discover that the US fighters were still flying purely at the behest of the army. ‘Fredendall had them parcelled out here and there,’ noted Larry, ‘flying umbrellas and other piecemeal defensive chores.’ After meeting with the 2nd US Corps commander he began to understand why Craig was so ill. ‘Talking to Fredendall might make any airman delirious,’ he commented.

On 21 January, Ike gave Larry temporary command of the embryonic Allied Air Support Tunisia until such time as Mary Coningham could take over. This comprised the 12th ASC and the RAF 242 Group of front-line fighters and medium bombers. It so happened that Larry was not only fully up to speed with Mary’s ideas on the use of air power in support of ground forces, but in complete agreement. He was also increasingly aware that there would no easy converts among the various army commanders battling it out in Tunisia. Fredendall was not alone in his misguided view of the use of air support. This had been amply demonstrated at one of Anderson’s planning conferences for Operation SATIN. At the meeting Larry had outlined his ideas, suggesting that the priority was to gain air superiority by concentrating on bombing and strafing Axis airfields, and pointing out that his aircraft could carry out reconnaissance work while they were about it. This plan was dismissed out of hand by the ground commanders. Fighters, they insisted, should continue to be used for standing patrols – umbrellas – during daylight hours. Larry was told quite emphatically that the ground troops could not withstand even one attack by the German Stuka and tank combination. The blitzkrieg was judged invincible. ‘It appeared to me,’ noted Larry, ‘that our troops had fallen victim to some very effective propaganda.’ As he now realized, they faced a battle not only against the Axis air forces but also against the rigid mindset of the majority of the army commanders.

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Arriving at the front at much the same time as Larry Kuter was 33-year-old Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton Howze, the staff officer in charge of operational planning (G-3) for ‘Old Ironsides’, the 1st Armored Division. With the exception of those lost during the assault on Oran harbour, Combat Command ‘B’ had been the only section of the 1st Armored to take part in the landings. The rest had languished in Britain, where they had been since their arrival the previous summer, until finally setting sail for North Africa in December.

The son of a major-general, Hamilton had entered West Point at eighteen and been commissioned as a second lieutenant in the cavalry on his graduation four years later. Throughout the 1930s, the life of a cavalryman was spent on horseback and it wasn’t until after Pearl Harbor, when he was still a captain, that he managed to get transferred into an armoured unit, and only in April 1942 that he joined the 1st Armored, soon after becoming G-3. With the massive pace of mobilization, professional officers suddenly found that after long years of no promotion they were being accelerated through the ranks; and so it was that when the division was shipped overseas, Hamilton wore the silver oak leaf of a lieutenant-colonel.

He’d been surprised when he’d learned that the Allies were going to invade north-west Africa. As far as he’d been concerned, they’d come to Britain to prepare for the invasion of Europe, and when 1st Armored finally reached central Tunisia under the command of II Corps he was concerned that they were ill prepared for fighting in semi-desert conditions. In fact, he was worried about their state of training full stop.

The journey from England by ship and across land had been a torturous one. On reaching Algiers, they were told they should have landed further west at Oran. So back they went, only to move eastwards again towards Tunisia. By the time Hamilton and his commanding officer, Major-General Orlando ‘Pinky’ Ward, reported to Fredendall at II Corps HQ, the remainder of the division had done almost no training or military exercises in over ten weeks. What little they had learned in Britain was already being forgotten. It is hard to imagine how armoured troops could have been less prepared for fighting the Panzers.

By the third week of January, both Pinky Ward and Hamilton had considerable cause for concern. Combat Command ‘B’, having operated independently of the division since the landings, had become battle hardened compared with the rest of the division. ‘It sort of put us and the rest of the division headquarters at a disadvantage to have our subordinate command wise in the ways of battle,’ admitted Hamilton – especially when the commander of CCB was someone as ambitious and cocksure as Robinett. Another and more serious difficulty, however, lay with Fredendall, who had already made it very clear that he no time at all for Pinky Ward.

Action was not long in coming. Fredendall announced plans to capture Maknassy, and to do this had ordered Ward to split up his division further into little more than the bad old British-style Jock Columns. In addition to Combat Command ‘B’ (CCB), there was now CCA, CCC, and CCD, principally armour but with various field artillery and infantry battalions swiped from both the 1st and 34th Infantry Divisions. ‘To our very great disappointment,’ noted Hamilton, ‘we remained split into widely separated parts.’16 CCB remained detached in the north, nominally under French control, while Fredendall issued detailed orders to the other three combat command teams, relegating Ward to little more than that of a message carrier.

On 23 January, he called for Ward and told him he wanted him to ‘knock the shit out of the Italians at Station Sened’,17 a small enemy outpost between Gafsa and Maknassy lying in a gap between the jagged ridge of mountains that separated the two towns. This was to blood some of the troops before the main assault began. Ward pointed out that this would give their hand away and show the Axis they were intending to thrust towards Maknassy, but Fredendall brushed aside such fears. The raid went ahead as planned the following day, with CCC capturing over a hundred Italian prisoners. But as Ward had warned, the Axis responded swiftly by sending reinforcements to Sened.

Fredendall still insisted on a further attack on Sened and Maknassy, even though in the following days intelligence suggested the Axis was planning to take the Faid Pass. When the French appealed to him for reinforcements in the Faid area, he refused, telling them that by attacking Maknassy he would draw enemy troops away from the pass. This never happened because the Germans attacked first – during the early hours of 30 January, when the reconstituted 21st Panzer, sent up from the Mareth Line, swarmed over the Faid Pass and threatened to envelop the French garrison there with horrible ease.

The French immediately appealed to CCA, now based at Sbeitla, who passed on the request to Ward, sixty miles away at Gafsa, who passed on the request to Fredendall in his command post at Tebessa, who passed on the request to Anderson. Anderson agreed, but when Fredendall issued his orders to CCA – some five hours after the original request from the French – he told them to move forward but without weakening their defences at Sbeitla. This was clearly an impossible task, but the CCA commander interpreted this as an order to split his force: half stayed put at Sbeitla, while the rest eventually got going towards Faid, harassed all the way by enemy aircraft. They eventually reached the Faid area late on the 30th, but rather than get stuck in right away they settled down for the night. By the time they attacked the following morning, thinly spread on two fronts and with two battalions of infantry supporting the tanks, the Axis had consolidated their positions and the Americans walked straight into the inevitable German anti-tank screen. Nine tanks were lost and a large number of infantry, who became jittery and disorientated in the face of Axis firepower and repeated aerial attacks. They tried again the following day, but once more the infantry got the jitters and lost any semblance of cohesion. In the meantime, a further thousand French troops had been taken prisoner. Indecision and desperate inexperience had cost the Allies the last of the passes along the Eastern Dorsale.

Despite the sucessful Axis attack, Fredendall was still determined to press ahead with his push towards Maknassy, an utterly pointless thrust in the present circumstances, including capturing, rather than just raiding, the newly reinforced Sened Station. However, the news from CCA caused him to rethink, and instead of attacking Sened Station with both CCC and CCD, he decided to send the former towards Faid to attack any enemy that might be either pushing south-west from Sidi Bou Zid or northwards from Maknassy, and to let CCD attack Sened on their own. This was a terrible command decision: CCC was now doing neither one thing nor the other. So crucial was the Faid Pass, CCC should have been sent to help CCA with all haste, but by having it dithering in the plains south of Sidi Bou Zid it was achieving nothing, and consigning CCD to an even tougher battle at Sened Station.

Unsurprisingly, CCD’s attack was a fiasco. Sened Station was only taken after two days of intense and costly fighting. Throughout this debacle, Pinky Ward was left as little more than a bystander, while Fredendall continued to command Ward’s division in detail – and despite having not once ventured up to the front line. Incredibly, he had not even set foot in Tunisia, remaining resolutely at his HQ in Speedy Valley near Tebessa. ‘Never have so few been commanded from so far by so many,’ Ward confided to his diary

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While the Old Ironsides were waking up to the harsh realities of modern warfare, the bomber offensive was continuing. Another of Tooey Spaatz’s changes had been to insist that his heavy bombers attacked Axis ports rather than willy-nilly targets dotted all over the Tunisian front. On Monday, 1 February, at around ten minutes to eleven in the morning, B-17 All American of the 97th BG took off from Biskra. Pilot Lieutenant Ken Briggs pulled back on the control column as the bomber climbed steadily into the sky then circled as it formed up firstly with the other bombers from the 97th, then with the other groups that were joining them, until there were no less than fifty aircraft in all droning through the clear blue sky towards Bizerte. Major Coulter, the squadron commander, was leading. The All American was flying on his right wing.

Lieutenant Ralph Burbridge always felt apprehensive as they took off; they all did. ‘No one felt too brave when you started a mission,’ he admits, although the intense camaraderie among the crew helped. ‘It was just like family – there really was a bond there,’ he adds. They had been to Bizerte before. The flight would take around two hours. Although bombadier, Ralph also manned the .30 calibre machine gun protruding from the nose of the Fortress, and during the trip took the opportunity to test his gun, firing a few rounds harmlessly into the air. The whole sky appeared to be full of bombers, steadfastly heading on their way, white contrails streaming behind them.

It was 1.40 p.m. when the almost circular Lac de Bizerte came into view. Beyond was the wide arc of the coastline; below was Bizerte, its jetties and wharves jutting out into the sea. Almost immediately, they saw groups of 109s climb into the sky, just as they’d done for the past six weeks. In the All American no one spoke, each member of the crew concentrating intensely on the task expected of him. Ralph was manning his machine gun, waiting for a target to slip into range.

Now GermanME 109 fighters were upon them, diving out of the sun, machine guns and cannon spitting fire. Their own machine guns began to reply, reverberating and clattering through the B-17 as they did so. A couple of 109s spiralled earthwards, black smoke trailing behind, but four of the Fortresses had been hit and were struggling to keep in formation, their only real hope of survival.

As the formation began the bomb run, the 109s left them alone, not daring to venture into the flak that would open up any moment. Instead, they circled high against the sun, waiting for another chance to attack once the bombers turned for home. Ralph took up his position over the bombsight, peering down waiting for the target to appear. Thick black bursts of smoke peppered the sky as Ken Briggs ordered the bomb-bay doors to be opened. This was always the worst part of any mission: they had to fly absolutely straight and level and with the fused bombs exposed to the tiny shards of shrapnel from bursting ack-ack fire. On they went, the Fortress jolting from the endless flak, until at last Ralph saw the target line up. Pressing down his thumb on the button, he called out ‘Bombs away’ on the intercom.

With the bomb bay empty and with half their fuel now spent, the Fortress rose higher into the sky, then weaved from side to side, making the anti-aircraft gunners’ task ever more difficult. But they still had to face the fighters again. Ralph had moved to take position by his .30 calibre. Away from the rest of the attackers were two ME 109s, climbing high into the sun; then they dived from twelve o’clock high, seemingly straight for the All American. As Ralph poured bullets towards them, he watched the Messerschmitts hurtling ever closer, their own lines of tracer spewing from their noses and wings.

The first 109 drew towards them and half-rolled just as Major Coulter’s plane started pouring smoke and begin spiralling uncontrollably towards the ground. The second fighter was riddled with bullets but instead of turning away seemed to be heading straight into the All American. Ken Briggs rammed the control column forward in an effort to take evasive action. The Messerschmitt passed straight over his head, the Fortress jolting slightly.

‘Pilot from top turret!’ came an urgent voice over the intercom. ‘Pilot from top turret!’

‘Come in, top turret, what’s the matter with you?’ replied Lieutenant Briggs.

‘Sir, we’ve received some damage in the tail section. I think you should have a look.’

Both Briggs and the co-pilot, Lieutenant Engle, found the Fortress was still flying okay, but the trim was not working and the plane wanted to climb. But by throttling back the engines they discovered they could keep her fairly steady, so Briggs handed over to Engle and went back to see what had happened. He was stunned by what he saw: nearly three-quarters of the fuselage had been sliced in half. Jagged metal and wires were flapping in the air. Part of the wing of the Messerschmitt was still embedded in the tail of the plane.

When Ralph heard the skipper call everyone into the radio room, he clambered up from the nose to join the rest of the crew. Once gathered, Briggs told them they had a choice: either they bale out now, over enemy territory, or they could stay and hope the Fortress would keep intact. Briggs had already decided to keep going, and Ralph and the rest of the crew agreed to stay too, although they were all sent to an emergency exit ready to jump should they have to. ‘It was terrifying, though,’ admits Ralph, ‘wondering whether we were ever going to get back.’

But the trusty Fortress held fast and, still leading the formation, they were the first to reach Biskra. Firing three emergency flares, they circled while the rest of the bombers landed; then, with the runways cleared, they decided to try and get her down. Miraculously, she made it, her tail scraping along the ground, until finally they came to a halt. ‘No business, Doc,’ Lieutenant Briggs called from the cockpit as the ambulance hurried to them. Not a single member of the crew had been injured. As one of the 97th staff noted, ‘A Fortress really can take a beating and still fly.’ A crew member of another Fortress took a photograph of the crippled All American as they flew back to Biskra, a picture that made the front page of the forces newspaper, Stars and Stripes. ‘UNKINDEST CUT OF ALL, BUT BOMBER BEATS RAP’, ran the headline. ‘Boeing officials looked at the plane as it landed and said it was “aerodynamically impossible to fly”

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The bombers had also returned believing they had successfully hit their target. One ship was seen to have been hit, while bomb blasts were also observed around the harbour installations. Even so, the Axis was managing to unload between forty and fifty thousand tons of supplies every month at Tunis and Bizerte. Since their goal was 60,000 tons per month at these two ports, the Allies were clearly not taking a great enough toll. In fact, overall, 75 per cent of Axis shipping was getting through, a figure that Ike knew was too high.

As ULTRA revealed, the combination of short shipping and air routes from Italy meant that the Axis was able to continue building up strength. Promised divisions from the Eastern Front had not been forthcoming; but by 13 February, von Arnim’s Fifth Panzer Army had 105,000 troops and over two hundred tanks, including eleven Tigers. Even so, the intelligence staffs at AFHQ in Algiers concluded that the current Axis supply situation allowed for only limited objectives and that a large-scale attack was unlikely. This was a fairly reasonable conclusion and one that was broadly accurate – on 7 February, for example, von Arnim warned the German High Command that his army was unfit for major offensive operations.

Enigma traffic was not as clear at the beginning of February as it had been, but in any case the intelligence staffs dealing with ULTRA decrypts still had to tally them with other intelligence gathered by a combination of aerial reconnaissance, POW interrogation, reports from agents, and ground observation. The process of marshalling this information was not helped by the muddled nature of the Allied command; even so, it was clear the Axis were planning something for the middle of February, and from ULTRA decrypts of 1 February this appeared to be an attack involving von Arnim’s 10th Panzer Division and Rommel’s 21st through the Fondouk–Ousseltia area.

Rommel’s star had waned considerably in recent months, however, and there is no doubt that he was held in far higher esteem by the Allies than by the German and Italian High Commands. Even Hitler was disillusioned with his former favourite. At the end of November, Rommel had visited Hitler and told him that if the supply situation was not radically improved, North Africa would have to be abandoned. This did not go down at all well, and Rommel was treated to a full-blown tirade, with Hitler reminding him that a sizeable bridgehead had to be maintained ‘for political reasons’.

However, to the methodical, solid wall of Monty’s Eighth Army, Rommel simply had no answer. Successive defensive positions were abandoned, leaving Eighth Army to untangle the latest web of mines and booby traps: El Agheila, then the Buyarat Line, then Tripoli itself. For some time, Rommel had been pressing for a retreat into Tunisia, where his German–Italian Panzer Army could link with Fifth Panzer Army. The Italians, to whom Rommel had always been answerable – on paper at any rate – did not see the military sense in this, only the disappearance of their last African conquest. ‘Resist [in Tripoli] to the last,’ Mussolini had told him. ‘I repeat: resist to the last.’

Eighth Army had reached just short of Tripoli by 19 January, and Monty began preparing an encircling manoeuvre, the tactic he adopted whenever the Panzer Army halted. Rommel again felt that the best option was to retreat into Tunisia and so called a summit with Kesselring and the Commando Supremo, demanding a definite ruling on whether he could abandon Tripoli. The Italians would not give him one – they needed to check with Il Duce first. Mussolini’s answer the following day was predictable: they must stay and fight. But two days later, with Eighth Army’s encircling movement already underway, Rommel decided to make his own decision and ordered Tripoli to be abandoned, telling Cavallero, the Italian Chief of Staff, ‘You can either hold on to Tripoli a few more days and lose the army, or lose Tripoli a few days earlier and save the army for Tunis. Make up your mind.’

Anything that could not be taken with them was, as far as possible, destroyed. The port installations were also mined and blown up, and the usual box of booby-trap tricks left for the new incumbents. And by leaving Tripoli, Rommel had given himself a breather. Monty needed to reorganize and regroup once more, to bring the long trail of his forces up together, and to clear and reopen the port.

Nonetheless, Rommel paid the price for disobeying his superiors. He’d been ill for some time. The violent headaches and ‘nervous exhaustion’ were taking their toll. At 5.59 a.m. on 26 January, he left Libya for the last time and crossed into Tunisia. Six hours later, he received a message from the Commando Supremo informing him that he was to be relieved of his command due to his ongoing sickness. The only caveat was that he could decide the timing of his departure.

Why Rommel failed to leave immediately is not entirely clear, but it appears that the chance for an all-out attack on the Americans and the opportunity to leave Africa with his reputation bolstered, if not restored, was too good a chance to miss, and so he began suggesting that his own Panzer army, as well as von Arnim’s, should launch a combined attack on Gafsa. If they hit the Americans sufficiently hard, then the Axis might be able to deal with Eighth Army along the Mareth Line without interference. This idea had been rejected, but on 8 February a more limited attack on Gafsa was proposed. The following day, however, Rommel met with both von Arnim and Kesselring. The Axis had their own personality issues: von Arnim and Rommel loathed one another; but at this meeting they did manage to agree on a policy for attack, one that was readily encouraged by the ever-optimistic Kesselring.

The last word from ULTRA related to the decisions of 2 February, but a week later those plans were completely out of date. Between them, Rommel and von Arnim had decided on a joint attack after all, although both would maintain their separate commands. The aim was to cripple the Americans, enabling Rommel to then deal with Eighth Army without interference. Despite Kesselring’s belief that they could push the Allies back as far as Tunisia, neither Rommel nor von Arnim shared this view. Operation Frühlingswind was to be a limited action after all.

The 48th Evacuation Hospital operated a leapfrogging system not dissimilar to the one used by Tommy Elmhirst for the Desert Air Force. The idea was that one unit went forward and took in the wounded closest to the action, then, when it was full, it would begin to evacuate the patients while the other unit leapfrogged and began the process all over again. Now, however, both units were in the front line: the 1st Unit at Thala, and the 2nd at Feriana.

The 2nd Unit had moved on 27 January into an old French barracks block, one storey high and with holes in the roof and windows that had long ago forgotten what it was like to be filled with tiles or glass. The corpsmen attached to the unit had filled in the holes with canvas and bits of cardboard, but with the weather as it was, any kind of building, whatever the state of disrepair, was preferable to operating out of a tent.

The nurses, as ever, had to live in pup tents outside, but Margaret Hornback was getting used to this new kind of lifestyle. They were now as near to the front line as they’d ever been and uncomfortably close to the airfield at Thelepte, a magnet for enemy air attacks. With this in mind, they decided they should make themselves a giant cross that they could then place on the ground to show that they were a hospital.

Painstakingly, the nurses sewed together fifty-four white sheets into a giant cross and then laid it out three hundred yards in front of the barrack block. In no time an American air force officer had hurried over and demanded to know what the hell they thought they were playing at. The nurses explained.

‘That flag there you’re bragging about,’ snarled the officer, ‘is not a Red Cross flag. When a white flag is put out on the ground like that it means the surrounding area is an airfield under construction.’

The nurses soon had this confirmed, but to make the kind of flag they needed would require another forty sheets and a hundred yards of unbleached muslin, and once again it would all have to be sewed by hand, at night, and whenever there was a lull. They stuck to their task, however, everyone pitching in, and it was soon finished. The corpsmen painted on a large red cross and then they laid it out and prayed it would not blow away. ‘If anything happens to that cross,’ one of the nurses commented, ‘I’ll take a chance on the bombs before I help make another.’

Margaret was still working as a nurse in the operating room and they soon found themselves pretty busy. The hospital could hold a maximum of two hundred patients. Those not too badly wounded were debrided – any infected tissue was removed – then were hurriedly shipped to an evacuation hospital further back, while the surgical team dealt with the most serious cases. These included an Italian soldier with a gangrenous leg – their first such case. Shortly after, another case arrived, this time a GI. Because of the risk of contamination to the operating room, both amputations had to be carried out in specially pitched tents outside the barracks.

The weather continued to be miserable. ‘We had a tiny fall of snow today – our first,’ wrote Margaret on 6 February. ‘The wind seems awfully cold.’ Not only that, it sent flurries of sand swirling around the hospital. ‘There’s always an inch of sand over everything, even if you’ve just cleaned,’ noted Margaret. One night there was a particularly bad storm, and the wind howled so strongly that the cook tent blew away and the wards were filled with sand that had been blown through gaps in the roof and walls. The amputees’ tents stood firm, however, but while the Italian was recovering well, the GI was losing his battle. Hour by hour the stench got worse, until it became almost unbearable. The nurses did what they could, but the day after the storm the American boy died.

Harry Butcher accompanied Ike to his meeting with Anderson on 1 February, which was held around the bonnet of a car on a windy day at Tulergma airfield, near Constantine. Anderson pointed out that their line was becoming worryingly thin now that the French had been all but pulled out. They were supposed to be preparing for an offensive in the north, but instead were struggling just to hold the line and respond to Axis thrusts. So Anderson suggested they should make Fredendall call a halt to his Maknassy drive and bring 2nd US Corps back into a mobile reserve.

Ike agreed – clearly there was no point frittering away American forces with futile aggressive operations that seemed to cost them dear and gain little. ‘Hereafter,’ noted Butch the following day, ‘they are to hit only when they know that they have heavy superiority.’

At varying times, both Anderson and Ike had talked of the need to pull back to the Grande Dorsale. This would have shortened the length of the front, brought them closer to their airfields and supply lines, and given them the passes through the mountains to form strong defensive positions. Here, they could have built up their strength with far greater ease. Neither, however, seems to have quite had the courage of his convictions, presumably fearing the loss of face and confidence this might cause. Instead, Ike ordered Anderson ‘not to leave the French unsupported in isolated positions and to concentrate his mobile forces in the south so that he may counter any enemy move immediately’. The problem was that Anderson couldn’t really support the French and keep his forces concentrated, and so 1st US Armored remained divided into the four different Combat Commands, and, for the most part, in the plains. Anderson was facing the same quandary as Ritchie at Gazala, and responding in exactly the same way: trying to cover the entire front, and in so doing splitting his forces into more and more penny packets – penny packets that could all too easily be gobbled up one by one by a more concentrated Axis force.

Among those now bivouacked in pup tents outside Gafsa were the US Army Rangers. Since the opening few days of the invasion, the Rangers had found themselves left behind in Algeria – where they had carried out further training and guarded Arzew. Since they were undoubtedly the best-trained US infantry unit in the invasion force, the decision to keep them in reserve was a somewhat odd one, but Fredendall certainly had plans for them now. Despite orders to go on the defensive, 2nd US Corps commander could not shake off his obsession with Sened, which was now back in Italian hands, and so on 9 February Fredendall told Colonel Darby that he wanted the Rangers to raid the outpost, with the aim of causing as much havoc and destruction as possible and capturing some prisoners.

At midnight on 10 February, three Companies, ‘E’, ‘F’ and Bing Evans’s ‘A’, with the headquarters mortar company in support, loaded onto trucks and began the winding journey up into the jagged mountains to the south of Sened Station. Twelve miles from Sened, the trucks came to a halt and the men clambered out. The plan was to walk cross country to within about four miles of the Italian outpost, lie up for the day, then attack under the cover of darkness.

The Rangers had practised this exact kind of operation time and time again. Bing Evans felt apprehensive, yet confident. Each man carried nothing other than his rifle, grenades, ammunition, first aid, and a small amount of rations, whilst on the back of each man’s helmet was a strip of white tape to make it easier for the man behind to see the one in front in the dark. Reaching their lying-up position without any difficulty, they spent the following day carefully watching the outpost. It lay on a long ridge, overlooking the railway station. There was a barracks block and various gun positions, but no gates or perimeter wire. The Rangers would be able to walk straight on in.

As darkness fell, they blackened their faces, checked their rifles, and then at around 11 p.m., as the moon dropped, moved a mile further forward then out into position, each company spreading out in a long line abreast so that they could attack simultaneously and give the impression of being in far greater numbers than the 180-man force they really were. ‘A’ Company was on the left of the line. Bing Evans had ditched his helmet in favour of his light wool cap. Underfoot, the ground was stony – each step had to be taken carefully – and the smell of sage wood wafted strongly on the cold night air.

The orders were not to fire until they were right in among them; they did not want to give the game away, and even if the Italians did open fire, in the darkness they knew their aim would almost certainly be high. Sure enough, when they were around a hundred yards from the outpost, an Italian sentry began to fire – and fire high. Moments later, the Rangers were upon them. One group of Rangers ran straight into the barracks block, where sleepy disorientated Italians were just beginning to wake up. With their commando knives, the Rangers cut the Italians’ throats.

Outside, flares were arcing into the sky. Suddenly, the place was lit up and Bing Evans turned and saw an Italian emerge from the shadows and rush towards him. ‘He was intent on killing me,’ says Bing, ‘and I looked into his eyes and saw they were big and frightened and bewildered and I just couldn’t pull the trigger on my .45. I froze.’ Then a shot was fired and the Italian slumped in front of him. Bing turned and saw Tommy Sullivan. He’d saved his life.

The mayhem continued, then, under cover of their mortars, they slipped away again into the darkness. One Ranger had been decapitated by a shell, but the rest managed to get away, including twenty wounded. With them were eleven prisoners. The damage they’d inflicted on the Italians was considerable: at least seventy-five dead, several guns destroyed, and long-lasting psychological harm. ‘Our job was to make the enemy uneasy and wary,’ says Bing. ‘There’s a difference fighting a cocky enemy and one that’s apprehensive.’

It was now about two in the morning and it was essential they got back to their positions before daybreak. Their task was made harder by the need to carry many of the wounded; but as Bing points out, adrenalin and the thought of being caught out in the cold drove them on. ‘We didn’t think about being tired,’ he says.

They all made it safely back. On finally reaching their bivouac, Bing suddenly felt exhausted and drained of emotion. They’d had two nights without sleep, had walked twenty-four miles over rough terrain, and been involved in an intense hand-to-hand action with the enemy. But the Rangers had proved that among 2nd US Corps there were some troops who were now not only well trained but combat experienced too.

Headquarters of the 1st US Armored Division was now in a large prickly-pear cactus patch just west of Sbeitla, a town still dominated by the ruins of the ancient Roman city. ‘This was not quite as undignified and impracticable as it sounds,’ commented Hamilton Howze. ‘The plants were some ten feet high, providing considerable cover in the bare, flat terrain.’ They even offered some protection against aerial attacks. Axis domination of the air had come as something of a shock to Hamilton, and his confidence had not been improved when he’d visited the 33rd Fighter Group at Thelepte. On the bulletin wall in the mess was a brightly coloured advert for an American aircraft manufacturer that had been cut out from a magazine. The strapline ran: ‘Who’s Afaid of the Big Bad Focke Wulf?’ Someone had written ‘Sign Below’. Every pilot had added his name.

Hamilton could understand why the new boys had found coming under aerial attack so alarming. He’d been frightened himself the first time, desperately flinging himself flat into a tyre rut, even though it was only an inch or two deep. But he had also realized that, in most cases, the damage caused by Stukas, in particular, seemed far worse than it actually was. The British had produced a booklet called How To Be Bombed, which whilst never denying the terrifying effect of bombing and strafing, listed many statistics to reassure the reader that the odds of surviving an aerial attack were actually pretty good. ‘In my job as G-3,’ noted Hamilton, ‘I took pains to get one of those booklets for issue to each man in the division.’

He was well aware that the division was not sufficiently trained and that they had not performed well in the recent fighting, but he also had great faith in Ward and felt that with encouragement and the opportunity to command his men properly, his boss would soon turn things around. And at least their men had now been blooded. Fredendall did not share Hamilton’s faith in Ward, however. Relations between the two had further broken down. Any suggestion Ward made, Fredendall immediately dismissed: when Ward asked for some aerial reconnaissance, the II Corps commander told him to mind his own business. ‘He is a spherical SOB, no doubt,’ noted Ward. ‘Two faced at that.’

‘Fredendall’s judgement was made on very infrequent visits of his staff officers to the forward area, and no visits at all by himself,’ noted Hamilton Howze. Instead, Fredendall continued to stay put in his command post at Speedy Valley, situated deep in a narrow gorge in the rock that could only be accessed by a single-lane track. Not content with the natural cover this offered, the II Corps commander had organized over two hundred engineers to excavate two tunnels deep into the walls of the ravine. For several weeks, his staff worked to the accompaniment of pneumatic drills as his underground headquarters painstakingly took shape. Speedy Valley was eighty miles from the front and only very rarely visited by enemy aircraft. That such a bunker was taking precautions to ridiculous extremes, or that the engineer battalion employed to build it might have been better used elsewhere, does not appear to have entered Frendendall’s increasingly wayward mind.

Pinky Ward’s frustration increased. Combat Command ‘B’ remained attached to the British with CCD in reserve, while Fredendall’s tight control over the rest of the division continued. He did eventually visit Ward at the command post near Sbeitla on 10 February, but this appears to have had little impact on his decision-making. On 2 February, Anderson had ordered Fredendall to keep a ‘small force’ in the Faid area to back up the remaining French – another half-hearted measure, but one that was based on Anderson’s belief that any future Axis attack through the pass would be merely a diversionary, small-scale thrust. But rather than leave Ward, as divisional commander, to make his own dispositions, Fredendall gave him a directive for the use of CCA and CCC that was so specific and so rigid as to make Ward almost irrelevant; he had become a supernumerary. In particular, Fredendall singled out two hills either side of the Faid Pass as the key features for the defence of the area to the west of the pass. On the Djebel Ksaira he placed one battalion of infantry, while on the Djebel Lessouda he positioned a further infantry battalion as well as a single battery of artillery and a few tanks. The two hills were ten miles apart, too far to be mutually supporting. As a result, the forces placed on them could not avoid operating in isolation of one another. A mobile reserve was also to be kept in the vicinity of Sidi Bou Zid, but this was now of insufficient size to be able to offer much resistance. Combat Command ‘C’, meanwhile, was to remain deployed further north, protecting the Fondouk area. Even a small Axis force of all arms would have little difficulty picking off these penny packets one by one.

Hamilton Howze was outraged, as was Ward, seeing this directive as not only deliberately insulting, but military madness, revealing just how little Fredendall knew about mobile warfare or understood about the terrain in which he expected them to fight. By contrast, Fredendall completely ignored the French forces of the Constantine Division, which came under his command. Also hopelessly split up, they were scattered throughout the area: some occupied positions near Sbeitla, another group was at Fondouk, while others were still stationed at Gafsa and Feriana. General Welvert, the French commander, tried to make suggestions, pointing out that, should they need to withdraw, his troops would need transportation. But such concerns appear to have fallen on deaf ears.

Ike also failed to show the courage of his convictions over Fredendall, who was by now a complete liability, as the Allied C-in-C was well aware. He’d already sent a warning note to Fredendall telling him not to stay in his command post. ‘Speed in execution, particularly when we are reacting to any move of the enemy’s, is of transcendent importance,’ he wrote. ‘Ability to move rapidly is largely dependent upon an intimate knowledge of the ground and conditions along the front.’ Then came the warning, echoing Marshall’s words to him a week before: ‘Generals are expendable just as is any other item in the army.’ There was no need for a warning, however. Fredendall should have been fired without one. This letter appears to have stirred Fredendall into visiting Ward’s Cactus Patch, but little more, as Ike discovered during his visit to the front on 13 February.

These had been strange and trying times for the Allied commander. He was desperate to get at the enemy, to launch the offensive and snatch Tunis, but what could he do? ‘I don’t suppose people at home can understand why things aren’t moving quicker,’ Lieutenant David Brown had written in a letter to his wife. ‘But if they were here, and realized conditions generally, among them the very big transport difficulties, they would appreciate the situation.’ He was echoing Ike’s thoughts exactly, but few in American or Britain did understand. The Daily Oklahoman had claimed that ‘Mud is a silly alibi.’ In England there were reports that there was increasing bitterness between British and American troops. Elsewhere in the press there was much speculation that Ike was about to be fired. Furthermore, his initial relief about the new command structure agreed at Casablanca had been dampened by a directive from the Combined Chiefs that specified the duties expected of Alex and Tedder when they took on their new roles. Ike saw this directive as a direct challenge to his authority. As Supreme Commander (as he was about to become), he and he alone, he believed, should be issuing his subordinates with their orders.

Then on 12 February he’d arrived back at the villa in Algiers only for Harry Butcher to offer him his congratulations.

‘What for?’ he asked.

‘On being a full general,’ Butch replied. He then explained how he’d heard the news on the grapevine. Following up the story, he had discovered it was true. ‘Goddammit,’ said Ike, ‘that’s a hell of a way to treat a fellow. I’m made a full general, the tops of my profession, and I’m not told officially!’ Shortly after, his wife Mamie phoned. It was true – Marshall had told her himself.

Now, on Saturday, 13 February, he was back near the front as a four-star general, and approaching II Corps HQ for the first time. He heard the din of hammers and drills coming from Fredendall’s command post long before his car actually reached the entrance. Truscott had warned his boss, but the sheer scale of the complex and the amount of time being wasted on its construction shocked Ike deeply. Approaching a young engineer, Ike asked if he’d helped prepare the front-line defences first before working on these bunkers. ‘Oh, the divisions have their engineers for that!’ came the reply. With a sinking heart, Ike then continued with an all-night inspection of the front lines. He found minefields that hadn’t been planted, forward positions inadequately prepared, and 1st US Armored Division still spread out in small groups. Worse was to come. Robinett, the CCB commander, was visiting Ward at the Cactus Patch when Ike arrived. Robinett told him that his reconnaissance parties had repeatedly ventured through the Fondouk area and found no evidence of any Axis military build-up. He had, he told Ike, reported this several times to his British superiors.

Ike left the Cactus Patch and drove on with Pinky Ward to Sidi Bou Zid to see the CCA command post. Just before midnight, he got out and strode off into the dark on his own, then paused a moment in the cold, still night. The biting winds and snow flurries of the previous few days had died down. Above him, the sky was clear and twinkling with stars, while the light from the moon outlined the shadows of the Djebel Lessouda to his left and the Djebel Ksaira to his right. Up ahead loomed the Faid Pass, that vital link to the plains beyond – the plains that held the key to victory in Tunisia.

Ike’s small inspection party began heading back before dawn. There had been little to cheer the Allied C-in-C and he determined to get changes made without delay. After being held up Sbeitla, and again when his driver fell asleep at the wheel and ran them into a ditch, they eventually managed to get going again and reach Speedy Valley. But by the time they arrived, Ike learned that the Axis had already begun their attack through the Faid Pass. For the moment, it was too late to make any changes.

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CHAPTER 21

Rommel Strikes Back 14–22 February 1943

At 5 a.m., on St Valentine’s Day 1943, von Arnim’s 10th Panzer Division began clanking and rattling through the Faid Pass. The wind was blowing again, whipping up sand in the early light of dawn, and visibility was bad. Tanks from a company of the American 1st Armored Regiment rumbled out at dawn as normal to establish a defensive screen in front of the pass, only to come face to face with the German Panzers, who had rolled over poorly laid rows of mines without any trouble at all. The leading American tank was hit almost immediately, and with it the radio link to the artillery dug in on the Djebel Lessouda. Brushing aside the American armour, 10th Panzer split, beginning its envelopment of the djebel. The first most of the infantry knew about what was going on was when, just after 7 a.m., Panzers appeared below them and Stukas and fighter-bombers above. In moments, both tanks and aircraft were pounding the stunned Americans in a masterclass of armour and air co-operation.

More aerial attacks followed throughout the morning, including one on the battalion of fifty-one Shermans sent forward by CCA to counter-attack. But while 10th Panzer had come through the pass, 21st Panzer had swept up through Maknassy and the Maizila Pass, twenty miles to the south, reaching Sidi Bou Zid by early afternoon. Smoke and dust from bombs dropped by the Stukas and fighter-bombers added to the American confusion. Shermans were blowing up into raging infernos of angry flames one after the other as they came into range of the 88 mms. An American artillery battalion, equipped with First World War 155-mm Howitzers discovered, as the Notts Hussars had done back at Gazala nine months before, that these were hopeless as anti-tank guns; and, like the Hussars, in very little time there was nothing left. The battalion was simply blown away. By five o’clock, the two prongs of the German forces had linked up two miles west of Sidi Bou Zid, ensnaring anything left in between. The troops on Djebel Lessouda were trapped. So too were the men on Djebel Ksaira. Of the fifty-one Shermans that had attempted a counter-attack, just seven remained.

Only piecemeal news from the fighting reached the Cactus Patch, but Ward was already bitterly regretting not withdrawing from the area much earlier. With the remains of CCA streaming back from Sidi Bou Zid, Ward asked Fredendall for urgent reinforcements. The II Corps commander immediately asked Anderson to release CCB. A situation report (sitrep) issued at 4.20 p.m. had warned ‘enemy tk strength SIDI BOU ZID now 70–90. Additional 30 tks moving NW’. This should have made it pretty clear this was no sideshow, but at First Army HQ they had placed too much faith in ULTRA and persisted with their theory that the main Axis assault would come through Fondouk. Consequently, they refused Fredendall’s request, allowing just one battalion from the 1st Armored to be released and hurriedly sent down towards Sbeitla.

Even with this extra battalion and with CC C of 1st US Armored Division, which had also been sent south, Ward was still wondering how he was going to be able to defend Sbeitla from two highly seasoned Panzer divisions when worse news arrived. At around 8 p.m., Fredendall had received a message from Anderson telling him to concentrate on ‘clearing up the situation [at Sidi Bou Zid] and destroying the enemy’. In other words, he was expecting Ward to launch a counter-attack. Without checking the viability of this order, Fredendall merely repeated Anderson’s request to Ward verbatim. Hamilton Howze could not believe what he was hearing. ‘This was insanity,’ he noted. As Fredendall – and Anderson for that matter – knew, the best they could manage by the following day was a cobbled-together force of CC C and one further tank battalion. Lying in wait for them were not only nigh on a hundred tanks, but also the accompanying artillery and anti-tanks guns. ‘General Ward didn’t like it and neither did I.’ But neither man had the courage to contest it further, something that Hamilton regretted ever after, ‘even at the cost of my commission’.2*

To the west, Private Ray Saidel had spent St Valentine’s Day driving his truck to a depot in Clairefontaine, an eighty-mile round trip from Tebessa. Most driving was done at night, at breakneck speeds and with no lights, ferrying ammunition, fuel and troops to 2nd US Corps bases at Feriana, Gafsa, and Sbeitla, but this had been a day trip. It had been good to see where he was going for a change.

No sooner had Ray arrived back at the 1st Provisional Truck Company HQ than he was told to turn around, fill up with gas, pick up some extra fuel cans and pull into line to head down to Gafsa right away. His dog tags were checked and he was told to take a rifle and some ammunition. He couldn’t think what was going on; to the best of his knowledge, the front had been quiet for days.

Ray had only been in Tunisia a few weeks, one of a number of replacements earmarked for the 1st Armored Division. Landing at Oran, they had been taken to the Replacement Depot, then the following day 120 of them had been called out and told that they were to take sixty trucks up to the front. Although during his training he’d driven Jeeps, half-tracks and even tanks, he’d never had a go in a truck before. It took him a while to get the hang of the heavy steering and deep clutch, so there was a fair amount of gear crunching until he eventually began to master the art of double de-clutching such a large vehicle. The drive was made trickier thanks to the heavy cargo of tank tracks, which on the winding mountainous roads tended to make the truck swerve. Still, the 700-mile, six-day journey to the front gave him the perfect opportunity to adjust to his new role.

From Manchester, New Hampshire, on the East Coast of the United States, Ray was the eldest of three, although by the time he reached North Africa he was still only eighteen. His father was Lithuanian and had arrived in America when he was just twelve years old. Ray’s mother was half-Lithuanian and half-Irish, so Ray happily conformed to the polyglot origins of many of those serving in the armed forces. A precocious kid, he had become politically active at a very young age. As a Jew, and with a left-wing uncle, Ray developed a vehement hatred of fascism and Nazism. ‘The biggest disappointment in my life at the time was not being old enough to go to Spain,’ he admits. At high school he had organized political demonstrations and petitions and this had continued when he’d begun university. Word had preceded him, and he was immediately asked to join the Student Defence Committee. But when America entered the war, Ray had no hesitation in volunteering right away and was one of the very few to do so for moral and political reasons. ‘I just felt we had to beat these people,’ he explains. ‘I had no doubts at all.’

While at university, he’d joined the ROTC – ‘practically every young guy there was in the ROTC’ – and so during his initial training he was soon singled out and brought before the board with a view to becoming an officer. He passed no problem, but hit a brick wall when it came to the security check. His politics at school and college had been noted and he was refused entry to Officer Candidates School and sent back to the ranks. ‘I was probably very fortunate,’ he says. ‘Survival rates for young tank officers were not good.’

Now he was part of a convoy heading towards Gafsa. As the light began to fade, the column of trucks trundled through the winding passes to the east of Tebessa and then over the Grande Dorsale until they dropped into the plains around Feriana. Although they’d made the trip before, they had never done so with empty trucks; and although they were familiar with the route, the lead truck managed to take a wrong turn so that they were heading towards Sbeitla, in the opposite direction from Gafsa. By the time they realized their mistake and had turned the trucks around again, they were nearly three hours behind schedule. The officer in charge, Lieutenant Hurwitz, could not be found, but they continued on their way regardless. When they finally turned onto the Gafsa road, they noticed large numbers of troops and vehicles moving past them back towards Feriana. To begin with, Ray assumed they must be part of a large troop movement, but as the road became more and more congested with trucks and half-tracks crammed with French and American troops, he began to realize something more sinister was going on. ‘I’d seen the movies of the retreat in France,’ he says, ‘and what I saw here was the same.’ Soldiers were clutching onto the fenders, roofs, bonnets – anyway they could get a ride. Those without a ride were tramping along the road. It was a particularly dark night and Ray was worried he was going to hit someone, but he discovered that by having the windshield down, his left hand holding open the door, and with one foot on the running board and the other on the throttle, he could just about see enough to be able to keep going. ‘The stream of humanity passing our window was like looking at a horrible motion picture,’ noted Ray.

The terrible congestion was delaying them even more, so having battled their way for twenty miles the leader halted to talk things over. They were by now hours late. They reckoned at least a division had already passed them, together with stragglers and civilians. Several trucks had also recently gone by them with just a handful of soldiers aboard. Certainly, their convoy was the only one heading towards, rather than away from, Gafsa. For a moment, they couldn’t decided whether to keep going or turn around, but in the end agreed they should keep going; that was their order, after all. With the road finally beginning to clear, the convoy headed off again. It was then that Ray hit a mule cart. It had been in the middle of the road and before he knew what was happening Ray had smashed straight into it and a French soldier was flung onto his bonnet and bounced off again. ‘I didn’t stop,’ admits Ray. ‘I couldn’t. It was pitch dark and I had most of the convoy behind me, all hurtling at top speed.’

They eventually approached Gafsa in the early hours of the morning. Fires were burning in the town and occasional explosions rang out, with bursts of light showing vividly in the night. One mile short of the town, they were stopped by a military policeman who wanted to know what the hell they thought they were doing. Didn’t they know the Germans were about a mile the far side of town and trying to outflank them? ‘There’s Kraut tanks only two hundred yards away,’ he told them. ‘We’re trying to mine the road, so get the hell out of here before you’re all trapped.’ Ray could now hear them, the rumble of diesel engines and squeaking of tank tracks. These were the forward elements of Rommel’s Afrika Korps who had moved up from the Mareth Line and had begun their march towards Gafsa just a few hours before.

Hurriedly, they turned around. Ray had been one behind the leader, but now was second from last as the convoy took off again. Travelling at top speed – about 60 mph – and hunched over the wheel, Ray strained through his glasses at the dark road ahead. He was driving more by intuition than any real knowledge of the road. They were only fifteen miles from Gafsa when the first thin streak of dawn appeared on the horizon. Daylight meant Stukas and strafing Messerschmitts, a terrifying prospect. They knew they now faced a terrible race against time.

Driving round a bend, Ray was distracted by an infantry patrol at the side of the road. Swerving, he hit an abandoned truck loaded with furniture and other belongings and went into a ditch. He managed to reverse out and told the patrol to jump aboard – but they refused. These were Rangers, ordered to bring up the rear of the retreat. Further up the road were some Senegalese troops from the abandoned truck, and although he could speak neither French nor Arabic Ray managed to persuade them to jump aboard. Unfortunately, the crash had badly affected the steering and his truck was now veering hideously to the right. This rapidly grew worse until he could no longer drive it at all. Ray was only too thankful that there was still one truck behind him. Hailing it, the truck stopped. They were about to blow up the wrecked lorry with a thermite grenade when Lieutenant Hurwitz appeared in a Jeep. ‘Don’t!’ he yelled at them. ‘We’ll recapture this ground tomorrow.’

Grabbing his rifle and a blanket, Ray scrambled into the back of the last truck, along with the Senegalese, and off they sped again. At Thelepte they were bombed and strafed by German aircraft, but managed to keep going unscathed towards the comparative safety of the mountains, finally reaching Tebessa just after noon. They had lost thirteen of the thirty trucks, and killed a number of French troops and Arab civilians on the road – Ray had not been the only one. ‘It was chaos,’ he says.

Meanwhile, Ward’s meagre armoured force was preparing to ride into the valley of death. Finally assembled and ready at midday, they began moving across the plain towards Sidi Bou Zid, thirteen miles away. The ground was largely flat and sandy and interspersed with thick vetch and cactus. Despite coming under repeated aerial attack, the bulk of the column pushed forward without too much difficulty, passing through the first wadi and the village of Sadaguia and across another wadi a short distance further on. They began to come under fire but were warned that an Allied air strike would shortly arrive, and so they slowed their pace. But the promised strike never materialized. In the meantime, the Americans had managed to knock out four 88 mm guns and were making good progress towards the third wadi, just four miles west of Sidi Bou Zid. This ditch, although only around ten feet deep, was nonetheless impassable except at a few points. The leading formation of tanks had begun funnelling itself towards the main crossing when the enemy guns started firing with greater intensity. Now strung out in a long line, they were sitting ducks. Stukas appeared, screaming down on top of them and sending up mountains of dust, dirt and sand and adding to the suddenly mounting sense of confusion. As the dust began to settle the Americans saw to their their horror that Panzers were now rattling towards them from the north. Turning to face this assault, they then discovered that they were being attacked from the south as well. Mayhem and panic struck the column as they realized they’d been drawn into a carefully prepared trap. All semblance of order and cohesion evaporated as tanks and half-tracks desperately tried to fight their way out. Flames and pitch-black smoke began billowing into the sky as the Shermans brewed up. Crews leapt from their tanks, some already ablaze, others running for their lives only to be cut down by machine-gun fire. It was another annihilation. Mission completed, the Panzers then sat back and waited for their next orders.

Survivors scrambled back on foot, saved only by the smoke and dust that screened the battlefield. Around two hundred men managed to escape from Djebel Lessouda during the night, but the rest were captured, as were nearly all those on Djebel Ksaira. Tanks continued to burn as darkness fell, and although much of the artillery made it safely out of the carnage, the plain fact was that the 1st US Armored Division had suffered the worst two days in its history: 98 tanks, 57 half-tracks, 29 guns, and 500 men had been lost. A hundred of its tank crews, together since the beginning of the war, had been blown away in one of the harshest lessons of war.

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Anderson, meanwhile, had by now accepted that the Axis advance through Sidi Bou Zid and Gafsa was indeed the main enemy assault and had begun to realize that he should have withdrawn to the Grande Dorsale at the beginning of the month when he’d had the chance. Late on the 15th, he suggested a wholesale withdrawal towards the mountains, although he hoped to be able to hang on to Feriana, Kasserine, and Sbeitla. Ike agreed, and the order was issued at five that afternoon. Reporting later to Marshall, Ike tried to paint as positive a picture as he could and assured him, ‘I expect to strain every nerve to hold the line covering Feriana–Sbeitla.’

But Feriana was already being evacuated at almost the moment he issued his new orders. Margaret Hornback and the other nurses and staff at the 48th Evacuation Hospital had spent two days watching anxiously as more and more of their army seemed to be retreating. After the brief lull of the previous few days, their little hospital was once again heaving. Then at half past eight on the 15th, orders came for them to leave as well. By midnight they were packed and ready to go, every single tent taken down, every piece of equipment loaded, and every single patient lifted into trucks and ambulances. Margaret and the other thirty nurses piled into two 2½-ton trucks and began the tortuous night-time journey over the narrow mountain road that would take them to Algeria.

Several hundred miles away, important events were also unfolding, although of a less dramatic or violent nature. While Montgomery regrouped at Tripoli, he decided to hold a conference of Allied commanders at which they could discuss and share ideas and lessons learned from the recent fighting. It was not a bad idea. Attempts by the planners and commanders of TORCH to learn from those in the Middle East had been conspicuously absent, and it was about time ideas were disseminated more freely across the various Allied commands.

Monty had also been busy writing pamphlets for his generals and for anyone else whom he felt could benefit from his winning ways. On 15 February, the opening day of the conference, he sent General Brooke a copy of High Command at War. ‘This, and the previous one on “Conduct of Battle”,’ he assured Brooke modestly, ‘give the answer as to how we have won our battles in the Eighth Army.’ The turnout at Tripoli, all things considered, was impressive, with a number of generals flying in from Britain. Bedell-Smith, Ike’s COS, was there, as was Patton, who noted ruefully that he was probably the oldest and, as a mere major-general, the lowliest in rank. Alex and Tedder were also in attendance, but Monty was disappointed by the poor showing from Tunisia. ‘I had hoped to get over here Anderson, Allfrey, the British Div Comds, and some American div. Comds,’ he told Brooke. That they might have had their hands full staving off the Axis assault does not seem to have crossed his mind.

On the first day Monty led the discussions, in which he gave a long talk about the various obstacles he had faced since the beginning of the Battle of Alamein and how he had overcome them. But he concluded by talking about the use of coordinated air power, the subject that had been top of the agenda in his pamphlet High Command in War. For all Monty’s bragging, and despite the spat with Coningham (relations between army commander and DAF commander was detorienting due to ego reasons more than anything else), he had, to his credit, never denied the important part the Allied air forces had played in his ground victory. Larry Kuter had discovered this a couple of weeks before. At the end of January he had met Tedder and Mary in Algiers as they travelled en route to England for a fortnight’s leave. Mary had impressed him with his enthusiasm and obvious charisma and with his brief discourse on the use of air power, with which he heartily concurred. Mary had also told him that he was not going to offer ‘air support’ to anyone and so was renaming their new command the Northwest African Tactical Air Force. Both he and Tedder had also suggested to Larry that he visit Monty and the new C-in-C of the Desert Air Force, Air Vice-Marshal Harry Broadhurst. This he did right away. ‘My visit was revealing and reassuring,’ he noted. ‘In private, Monty spent a couple of hours with me extolling the concept. They had proved the soundness of their tactical air force doctrine.’

Now, at Tripoli, Mary was given a platform by Monty from which he could properly articulate these ideas into a semi-formal creed. ‘The doctrine that we have evolved by trial in war over a period of many months,’ Mary began, ‘could, I think, be stated in its simplest form as follows: the Soldier commands the land forces, the Airman commands the air forces; both commanders work together and operate their respective forces in accordance with a combined Army-Air plan, the whole operations being directed by the Army Commander.’ As he pointed out, the army fought on the ground along a front that could be divided into many sectors. But the air front was indivisible. The army had one battle to fight: the land battle. But the air had two: first it had to beat the enemy in the air, then it could go into battle against the enemy land forces ‘with maximum possible hitting power’. They lived in a technical age, he told them, and there was much for every soldier, sailor, and airman to learn about their professions. ‘In plain language,’ he continued, ‘no soldier is competent to operate the Air, just as no airman is competent to operate the Army.’ (though Conningham himself also interfering army operations also which caused the worsening relations between him and Monty)

Mutual support, he told them, was the key. ‘Sedada is a good example of the standard that we have reached,’ he said, mentioning a site halfway between Benghazi and Tripoli and one which the previous December had been earmarked as a possible landing ground. Advance units of the 7th British Armoured Division had arrived there one evening and by the following morning had cleared a landing strip, equipped it with anti-tank guns, motor transport, and fuel; soon after, two fighter squadrons had landed. From there, they bombed targets just forty miles east of Tripoli. By the time they had landed again, more fuel, ammunition, and maintenance teams had also flown in. These transport planes could then be used to fly wounded soldiers back to hospitals in the rear – 5,800 such cases had been given air passage in this way during the past three months. ‘You can imagine the effect on the morale of the Army,’ Mary added, ‘when it is known that badly wounded cases, if trundled over the desert, very often die.’ With this, Sam Bradshaw would have heartily agreed.

He also pointed out that another reason the air commanders should make the decision on what and where to bomb was that they often had a better appreciation of the targets on offer. He gave an example: an army unit at the front reports a concentration of two hundred enemy vehicles and armour, but their request for an air attack is turned down. Perhaps fifteen miles away, however, an even bigger concentration of enemy armour is discovered, which, from experience, they know might well affect the whole course of the battle some time later. ‘The smaller formations of the Army must understand that penny packets of air are a luxury which can only be afforded at certain times, and that judgement on the question of targets is the result of agreement between the Army and Air Commanders, and in accordance with the Army Commander’s broad directive on priority.’

Experience, as Mary and Monty both pointed out, had proved the rightness of this doctrine, yet Patton, for one, remained unimpressed and unconvinced. In the US Army, the Air Corps – now the Air Force – was part of the army, rather than a separate service, and was there to support the needs of the ground forces first and foremost. While most British commanders in Tunisia grudgingly accepted the independence of what Mary called a ‘tactical air force’, most American commanders vehemently disagreed. Ike endorsed the policy, but, Larry Kuter believed, was not convinced. Winning the hearts and minds of such men would be an enormous task, as both Tooey Spaatz and Larry were aware. Frustrating though it was, Spaatz told Kuter to bide his time, to try and keep his air forces together, and to wait until the arrival of Alex and Mary and others in Tunisia. Then the battle to change the entire concept of air power into what Larry felt certain was a winning formula could begin.

Briefly, the Axis offensive paused. They had not expected such sweeping successes. On the evening of 15 February, von Arnim told Rommel that he would not be returning 21st Panzer to him as planned, because Gafsa had already been taken. Instead, he was going to mop up around Sidi Bou Zid on the 16th and then move on Sbeitla and northwards to Fondouk the day after that. For his part, Rommel had spent the day, not with his advancing Panzers, but at the Mareth Line instead. For a while, he seemed to be struck by a rare bout of indecision, telling his Afrika Korps that he might have to send some of the attached Italian troops back to shore up his southern defences. Conscious that the clock was ticking, he was expecting Eighth Army to march forward any moment.

But as he set out towards Gafsa early on the morning of Monday 16th, he saw a road full of his own trucks, troops, and tanks and his confidence soared once more. With the cheers of his troops ringing in his ears, a far more ambitious plan began to take shape in his mind. Rather than pulling back part of the Afrika Korps, he would reinforce it and push on to Feriana. Then he could either fork left towards Tebessa or head north to Kasserine and link up with von Arnim.

The following day, the 17th, his forces surged on down the Gafsa–Feriana road. By the afternoon they had reached and taken Feriana and were marching on towards the airfield at Thelepte. Jim Reed and the 59th Squadron were still out of the line resting, but the remaining fighters there had hurriedly taken off, while the ground crews set the fuel dumps ablaze and then hastily jumped into their trucks and headed for the safety of the mountains. The Rangers were the last men to leave Thelepte, and looked on in disgust at the sight of thirty-four unserviceable aircraft burning, the columns of smoke billowing into the air. With the Axis tanks hard on their heels, they then headed off to make a stand up at the Dernaia Pass on the road to Tebessa.

Meanwhile, at the Cactus Patch, Ward had at long last been reinforced with CCB, which had in turn been reinforced with a British tank battalion. By 16 February, they had reached Sbeitla, and were bracing themselves to take on von Arnim’s forces any moment. Earlier in the afternoon, the remnants of CCA had also fallen back to the town; 10th Panzers’ pause at Sidi Bou Zid had given them a much-needed respite.

It was not until after dark that evening that the Panzers began probing their way towards the town, although this was still a day before they’d initially planned. CCA were refuelling at supply dumps when the first tank shells screamed overhead and began landing on their command post. Hamilton Howze was still at 1st US Armored’s command post when he heard the sound of shells exploding. Then, shortly after, he heard further, even louder, explosions and saw the sky burning fiercely. CCA were already beginning to withdraw in panic and had begun the demolition of their supply dumps. ‘It looked and sounded as though the whole damned world was blowing up,’ noted Hamilton. With information hard to obtain, Ward called through to Fredendall and warned him that they were unlikely to be able to hold on to the town. After a heated argument between the 2nd US Corps commander and Anderson, they agreed to allow 1st Armored to withdraw after eleven the following morning. The situation was not as bad as it first appeared, however. Robinett, with his now seasoned troops, had told his men to hold firm and, soon after, the Panzers had called off their attack.

During the night some semblance of order had been restored to CCA, and in fact the Panzers did not attack again until noon the following day. They had been distracted by attempts by the stranded US infantry to escape from Djebel Ksaira. When they did move forward, they were met by Robinett’s well dug-in force, who managed to hold out until after five that evening. Having expected the worse, the Allies were only too relieved to discover that someone, at last, was standing up to the mighty German assault.

Nor did the Panzers pursue the retreating Americans with any great vigour. After blowing the water mains, destroying bridges, and mining the roads, the American forces were able to make good their escape. The French in the area had withdrawn earlier in the morning and now, as darkness fell once more, the remnants of CCA headed towards Sbiba, while CCB, along with Pinky Ward, Hamilton Howze, and the headquarters of 1st US Armored, made their way to Kasserine and then on through the Kasserine Pass. It was now up to others to stem the Axis advance.

By now, Anderson had begun issuing movement orders to many of his front-line troops, hurrying them down to block three passes through the Grande Dorsale: at Kasserine, Thala, and Sbiba. On the morning of the 17th, much of the British 6th Division was told to get moving and to take up positions in the pass to the south of Sbiba. This included the Guards Brigade. Nigel Nicolson had now been promoted to brigade intelligence officer and to the rank of captain – ‘In a way flattering,’ he wrote to his parents, ‘but in a way it takes one down in the estimation of one’s friends – for one is irretrievably a Staff Officer.’ In order to excuse the greater luxury he now enjoyed, he was determined to work his socks off.

Also joining the Guards at Sbiba was the 18th US RCT (Regimental Combat Team). By the time of the launch of the German offensive, the 18th RCT had spent forty-eight days in the Medjez sector, entirely under British control, and without any relief whatsoever. Not one unit had been taken out of the line. At the beginning of February, they’d been transferred to the 78th British Division, but on moving to Sbiba the Americans once again came under the control of the British 6th Armoured. With the Guards taking up positions astride the Sbiba–Sbeitla road, facing south, the 18th RCT were to dig in a short way behind and to the east in support, all three battalions strung out in a line across the valley.

The Americans reached their positions in the early hours of Thursday, 18 February, and immediately set to work digging their foxholes. At Company ‘G’s lines, Tom Bowles began hacking and shovelling furiously. Like all the men, he now knew how important it was to be properly dug in before the Stukas and Messerschmitts paid them their first compliments of the day. Then the mortars had to be set up and ammunition brought forward. There was no time to waste at all. At Colonel Sternberg’s battalion command post, Henry Bowles was also busy. As a wireman in HQ Company, his task was to lay down the telephone lines between battalion headquarters and the various company HQs before he could start thinking about his own safety. This meant teaming up with a buddy and scurrying across the entire battalion positions in the dark, on unfamiliar ground, with a large reel of wire. Since battalion HQ was at least half a mile behind the forward companies, this meant he and his buddy had to cover a fair amount of ground. It was not easy.

Joining the 18th were two regiments from the 34th US Division, including Sergeant Bucky Walters’ 135th Regiment. They had finally reached the front on 8 February and over two successive nights took over positions that had been held by the French. Bucky had made the journey from Algiers sitting in a Jeep with the company captain and the Heavy Weapons Company following behind with their 37-mm pop guns and a few 50 mms as well. As they’d arrived in Tunisia for the first time, they had been welcomed by enemy fighter planes swooping low and strafing them. ‘We started to have our first test of what it was like being in the infantry,’ says Bucky. It had both snowed and rained as they’d trundled through the Atlas Mountains, and he’d spent most of the journey feeling bitterly cold. ‘We didn’t have the proper clothing either so suffered a bit,’ he admits. Like most troops who’d passed that way before him, Bucky was discovering North Africa was quite different from the place of his imagination.

Once at Pichon, they gained their first introduction to mud. ‘The trench foot started right off,’ says Bucky. ‘We had shoes and leggings. The shoes would get soaking wet, and there was no way of drying them.’ Most of the French had gone by St Valentine’s Day, but a unit of French irregulars had stayed behind. These were Moroccan Berber-speaking natives, mountain troops known as Goums. Soon after his arrival, Bucky and a number of others in the company were taken out on a night patrol by one of the outgoing French officers. Leading them over particularly rough countryside, they eventually halted in a cave where a number of Goums were sheltering with their horses. Bucky was shocked. ‘There was no sign of any rifle or pistol,’ he says, ‘just knives.’ And around their necks were strange-looking necklaces – made of ears. ‘They used to cut off the left ear of the German they’d killed,’ says Bucky, ‘and they kept them round their neck.’

On 17 February, they had come under attack from 10th Panzer, which had been sent up towards Fondouk and Pichon by von Arnim. The American artillery had fired without let-up and held the Panzers at bay, but at seven in the evening the first of the American units was told to pull back towards Sbiba, some thirty miles away. Bucky and his battalion were not given the order to go until six the following morning. There was almost no transport available, so most of the men had to travel on foot. Once again, it was the gunners who saved the infantry as they fell back. ‘We were being harried all the way,’ says Bucky, ‘but our artillery was holding them off. They were leapfrogging backwards and they saved us over and over.’ As they slogged back in retreat, there was little chance for a rest, but with the rumble of tanks in the distance they hardly needed urging on. By 11 p.m. that night, they were finally digging in at their new positions alongside the 18th US Infantry, but for Bucky it had been a numbing first taste of combat. ‘That retreat,’ he says, ‘was a terrible nightmare.’

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Also on the move were the 2/5th Leicesters battalion of 26th British Armored Brigade. Orders to head south and link up with the 26th Armoured Brigade were only received at one in the morning on 18 February, but they were told to get going right away. The first trucks were underway at around five thirty, but they faced a long journey over rough and muddy roads in broad daylight, a potentially extremely dangerous undertaking. Fortunately for Lieutenant Peter Moore and the other men of the battalion, the journey was uneventful. Rain followed them most of the way, but for once no one grumbled: the low cloud and mist kept the Stukas and enemy fighters at bay. They reached Thala, another mountain-pass town some twenty miles west of Sbiba, at around eight that night, but were then told they would be moving further south to reinforce the Americans at the Kasserine Pass. ‘We waited interminably through the night,’ noted Peter Moore, but by morning the news was not good. In fact, it was very grave indeed.

After capturing Thelepte, Rommel had continued on towards Kasserine but instead of finding von Arnim’s forces, the road had been empty. Then news arrived that 10th Panzer was now up near Fondouk, in the opposite direction. Rommel was furious. He sensed a crushing victory was there for the taking, but needed another Panzer division. By midday on the 18th, he’d formulated a plan to drive on Tebessa. There they would find all the supplies they needed to keep going and strike deep into the Allied rear. He knew it was an all or nothing gamble, and contacted von Arnim demanding personal control of 10th and 21st Panzer immediately. Von Arnim refused, so Rommel appealed to Kesselring and the Commando Supremo in Rome. Two hours later Kesselring gave him the provisional go-ahead. ‘I feel like an old cavalry horse that has suddenly heard the bugles sound again,’ Rommel commented that evening.

To Rommel’s great chagrin, however, the eventual reply from the Commando Supremo was a compromise: Rommel was handed command of 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions but ordered to head northwards to Le Kef first, not Tebessa. This suggested a further drive towards the coast. ‘This was an appalling and unbelievable piece of short-sightedness,’ railed Rommel, who knew that by driving north, rather than west, his forces were more likely to run into Allied reinforcements.

But orders were orders and, for once, Rommel obeyed. Rather than take the road for Tebessa, where the Rangers were dug in and waiting, the Afrika Korps was sent towards the Kasserine Pass, while 21st Panzer headed for Sbiba, and 10th Panzer Division, recalled from Fondouk, awaited developments at Sbeitla.

Although Pinky Ward was desperately regrouping his shattered 1st US Armored Division at Tebessa, there had been neither the time nor troops available properly to defend the Kasserine Pass, a mile-wide valley that separated the Grande Dorsale from the open plains of the Foussana Basin beyond. Through it ran a road, a railway, and the River Hatab. At the top of the pass the road forked – right to Thala, left to Tebessa. Holding it on the morning of 19 February were the 26th Infantry Regiment of the Big Red One (1st US Infantry Division) and a combat engineer regiment. Neither had much in the way of heavy firepower and had to rely on the all-but-useless 37-mm anti-tank gun and mortars. Nor had they had much combat experience or the kind of training necessary to take on the Afrika Korps.

As it turned out, the Americans did rather better than might have been expected, and although they were pushed back, the attackers were unable to force their way through the pass. Rommel had launched his assault on two fronts, however, and while the Afrika Korps was attacking at the Kasserine Pass, 21st Panzer Division moved up towards Sbiba. Dug in against them was a more formidable and by now combat-hardened force: the 1st British Guards Brigade, three battalions of the US 34th Division, the US 18th RCT, a further British cavalry regiment, and British 2nd Hampshire Battalion. Since their arrival, the 18th and the Guards Brigade, in particular, had dug themselves into a strong defensive position, with a highly effective minefield laid in depth in front of them lined with thick entanglements of wire.

It was raining hard when, at 10 a.m., enemy tanks began approaching the line in front of the Coldstream Guards. An hour later, infantry were spotted clambering out of their trucks further down the road, then more Panzers appeared. By 1.30 p.m., there were twenty-four of them – including five Tigers – but they were struggling through the Allied minefields and unable to find the weak spot in the line. During the morning they tried the Guards’ positions, but after losing a number of tanks, turned their attentions in the afternoon to the 2nd Battalion of the 18th US Infantry. More and more Panzers kept appearing until, just before five o’clock, as many as thirty were bearing down on the 1st and 2nd Battalion positions, closing to within 600 yards of the Americans. Company ‘G’ found themselves as the main line of resistance (MLR). Tom Bowles’s mortar team fired shell after shell at the Panzers, which were making no greater progress against the 18th US Infantry than they had against the Guards. No amount of fire from the enemy tanks could budge the resolute GIs. Henry Bowles and his wiring buddy were scuttling to and fro mending damaged telephone wires, concentrating on the job in hand, and trying not to think about the enemy shells pounding their lines. Behind, the British 17-pounder guns, linked to the American positions, gave them unwavering support.

Together, the Allies were holding the line in an action that showed how much both units – British and American – had progressed since the humiliation of Longstop. There was now no confusion between the battalion commanders. The lines of defence had been properly prepared, and each man knew exactly what he had to do. Suddenly the mighty German Panzers did not look quite so formidable after all.

The 18th US RCT never wavered. By dusk, 21st Panzer Division began rumbling back into the encroaching darkness. Seven tanks were left in front of the 18th Infantry’s positions. Later, under cover of darkness, a patrol from Company ‘G’ broke cover and, armed with bazookas, finished off the four tanks lying disabled directly in front of them. Had Ike seen their performance that day, he would have been rightly proud.

The excellent Allied defence at Sbiba persuaded Rommel on that rain-sodden day to abandon any further attempt to try and force his way along this route. Instead, he planned to resume his offensive the following day through the Kasserine Pass. And this time he had more success. The Americans had made a heroic stand, and the 10th Rifle Brigade fought an important delaying action, but by mid-afternoon on 20 February the Axis had broken through into the Foussana Basin. There, their forces split, with the Italian Centauro Armoured Division pushing towards Tebessa, while 10th Panzer Division , having joined the Afrika Korps the previous day, began moving up the road to Thala. As the Panzers advanced, so the 10th Rifle Brigade had continued with their fighting withdrawal, falling back towards the 26th British Armoured Brigade, now some miles south of the Leicesters and blocking the road to Thala.

Having spent the previous day awaiting firm orders, the 2/5th Leicesters had finally moved to their forward positions late on the 20th, only to be told to withdraw to a new line just a few miles south of Thala. At first light on the 21st, they found themselves getting out of their trucks once more and moving onto a number of small hillocks that overlooked the valley road. Peter Moore’s ‘B’ Company were to take up positions on a knoll behind ‘A’ Company while, on the other side of the road, ‘C’ Company was to dig in behind ‘D’ Company. Supporting them were several Royal Artillery detachments and a couple of sections of mortars. It was raining hard and bitterly cold. They’d had almost no sleep for two nights and Peter’s woollen greatcoat felt damp and heavy. Nor was he exactly sure what was going on. The previous morning, news had filtered through that the enemy was pushing through the Kasserine Pass, but whether the reinforcements that had been sent down to help had stopped the Axis advance was not clear.

Meanwhile, Peter and his platoon did their best to dig in, but up on their knoll the ground was hard and stony and the soil thin. ‘There was no question of digging the normal two-man, six-foot-deep slit-trench of the training manuals,’ noted Peter, especially when their only means of doing so was with the standard issue entrenching tool, which consisted of a six-inch pick and nine-inch shovel. While he hacked away at the rock, Peter listened to the dull, continuous thud of artillery fire in the distance, which, as the day progressed, grew ever closer. Aircraft were also active. Ahead of them, Stukas were screaming as they dived over the battle. ‘No orders came,’ noted Peter. ‘We spent the whole of that day digging, watching and waiting.’

What Peter had been listening to was the battle unfolding between the British and Axis armour further on down the road. Tenth Panzer Division had resumed their advance that morning and had then clashed with the 26th British Armoured Brigade. Slowly but surely, the British armour was pushed back, ridge by ridge. By the middle of the afternoon, vehicles of all kinds began to stream past the Leicesters’ positions, nose to tail and in no kind of order. The Leicesters watched anxiously, listening to the sound of gunfire inching ever nearer. The ground had now begun to quiver as shells exploded, and suddenly the rapid chatter of machine guns could be heard. Peter began to feel increasingly vulnerable. There were no deep minefields in front of them, nor any form of anti-tank defences. And they were lying in slit-trenches that were still far too shallow – Peter had managed to carve himself a hole only a couple of feet deep and six feet long. None of his men had fared much better. Moreover, they all knew about the German technique of driving a tank over a trench then spinning it round to crush the poor soldiers below.

Sherman tanks were now joining the exodus, as the British armour withdrew through the Leicesters’ positions. An American Jeep with two men towing a 37-mm gun pulled over on the road below Peter’s position. ‘Are you stopping?’ asked one of the Yanks.

‘Yes,’ Peter’s men told him.

‘Then I guess we had better stop too,’ he replied and the two of them quickly set up their gun directly in front of Peter’s platoon.

As dusk began to settle, a Sherman approached ‘A’ Company. When it was right upon them a German, rather than an Allied trooper, shouted from the turret, ‘Surrender! The Panzers are here!’ He was promptly shot through the head and the captured Sherman retreated. Shortly after, however, three Mark IV panzers advanced and opened fire, hitting the mortar ammunition truck and setting it ablaze. Mortar bombs exploded and screamed from the fire, but two of the Panzers were then hit by anti tank guns of Leichsters in turn. The third hastily disappeared back into the darkness.

Hurrying towards Sbiba were more reinforcements, including the artillery of the 9th US Infantry Division, having travelled from Oran at breakneck speed. Also now approaching Thala was a long column of trucks carrying the Guards Brigade from Sbiba. A few miles short of the town, Captain Nigel Nicolson watched an isolated American troop carrier approach their convoy of trucks. ‘He’s right behind us!’ yelled one of the GIs as they passed. As they entered the town, Stukas swirled overhead and bombed the place. Nigel was looking after the American war correspondent Virginia Cowles and noticed that everyone but her ducked as the first bombs landed. Then the brigade moved to the south of the town, started digging in, and began waiting for the inevitable creak and clank of approaching panzers.

First, though, the enemy had to get past the Leicesters and their supporting artillery. For half an hour after the first Panzers had approached, the Leicesters waited apprehensively. There was no movement from down the road and their positions became shrouded in an eerie stillness. Perhaps, Peter, wondered, they had beaten them off for the night, but then he heard the sinister squeaking of tank tracks from somewhere in the inky black night ahead of them. ‘There are few sounds more blood-chilling,’ wrote Peter, ‘than that of unseen enemy tanks edging forward in the darkness.’ Suddenly, revving engines filled the night air, and then there were voices too – German voices – and not just from ahead but from their flanks as well. Very lights shot into the air like fireworks, showering their positions in phosphorescent light. And then the Germans opened fire, shells from the Panzers whistling through the air and mingling with the chatter of machine guns. Tracer seemed to be coming from all angles as the Leicesters desperately fired back. Behind them, the Allied guns sent out their salvoes in return. Shells screamed, machine guns coughed and sputtered, men shouted. The noise was absolutely deafening. Peter was surprised by how much the Germans used flares. He could see the enemy weaving and moving forward. A German tank clattered forward to almost directly in front of Peter’s position and then was hit and set on fire. ‘One of the German crew started to scream,’ says Peter, ‘and he screamed and screamed for at least a quarter of an hour.’ He also heard the death cries of the Americans as their 37 mm was overrun. Despite the din, the anguish of dying men rose above the sound of bullets, shells, and mortar fire.

Peter’s small piece of high ground was now being raked with machine-gun fire. He had not only lost contact with the rest of the company but with his entire platoon as well. His platoon Bren had stopped firing, and so had their rifle. Ahead of him, ‘A’ and ‘D’ companies had clearly been overrun. Peter felt pinned to the ground: bullets cracked just over his head, while shells and mortars continued to explode terrifyingly close around him. He could not tell exactly what was happening but was aware from shouts and continuing fire that the enemy was moving on around him. His brain felt numbed, incapable of terror, as though he were watching with a kind of strange detachment. He was struck by the sheer professionalism of the Germans, and as their awesome firepower continued around him, he couldn’t help thinking about the Home Guard back in Britain. They wouldn’t stand a chance.

Then almost as quickly as the firing had begun, it stopped. Gingerly, Peter peered up from his slit-trench. In front of him, the German tank was still burning, but he could not see or hear any sign of the rest of his platoon. Then he heard German voices nearby. He’d been told that Germans would fire into slit trenches and so he waited, convinced they would soon discover him and then shoot him dead.

But nothing happened, and so he eventually raised his head again. Just five yards away, a small group of German soldiers was sitting smoking, so Peter feigned death and waited some more, hoping they would move away. Only they didn’t; they stayed where they were, so Peter decided he would have to try and creep away. As quietly as he could, he slowly slipped off his much-loved greatcoat then his webbing. The slightest noise would have spelled disaster, but not once did the soldiers turn around; and so, inch by inch, Peter wriggled and wormed his way towards some open ground to his left, fully expecting to be discovered and shot at any moment. Eventually, he reached the cover of a hill and, gently getting to his feet, slipped away into the night.

Behind him, lorries and tanks burned, glowing brightly. The moon had now risen and he could soon see quite clearly. Climbing up the hill and away from the scene of battle, he reached a plateau and ran into a herd of goats and their Arab owner. Offering him a cigarette, Peter tried to ask him the way to Thala. For a few minutes, they sat together in the still, moonlit night, smoking. ‘I thought of the extraordinary contrast with the inferno I had just experienced a mile or so away,’ noted Peter. ‘It could have happened on a different planet.’

He continued walking, down a steep valley and up the other side, across farmland, until eventually he drew near to Thala. By noon the following day, he had found the main Kasserine-Thala road, north of their old positions. Groups of British soldiers were taking cover from aerial attacks among the high cactus hedges that ran alongside, but someone told him that the Leicesters were only a short way further down the road. Ten minutes later, he found the rest of ‘B’ Company, and there he discovered that of the four battalion companies, ‘B’ had fared the best. And despite his earlier fears, most of his platoon had also managed to get away safely.

The Germans had also suffered, particularly from the artillery behind the forward infantry positions. One battery of British 25-pounders had knocked out no less than six Panzers and, having overrun the Leicesters’ positions, the Germans had gone no further when tanks of Lothian battalion from 26th British Armored Brigade was called back from Tebessa and reinforced the defences. After losing nine more tanks to defences of Lothians , Germans had eventually withdrawn. When a small counter-attack had been launched early in the morning by 26th Armored Brigade , it had met only the rearguard of the retreating 10th Panzer Division.

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The Axis advance had finally run out of steam. Robinett had further enhanced the reputation of his CCB by successfully seeing off the Italian assault towards Tebessa on 21st February. While Peter Moore picked his way towards safety on the morning of the 22nd, Rommel drove up the road towards Thala. After consulting with his commanders he concluded that the Allies had grown too strong for his attack to be maintained. A series severe air attacks by USAAF heavy bombers on Kasserine Pass reinforced his reluctance to continue the stalled advance. At around one o’clock that afternoon, he met Kesselring and together they agreed to call off the entire offensive and to withdraw in stages. Kesselring then offered him the chance to command the army group that was being formed from the two Panzer Armies. ‘Apparently, as a result of the Kasserine offensive, I had ceased to be persona non grata,’ noted Rommel. He accepted warily, although he still intended to return to Germany in the near future for medical treatment. Of first importance, however, was his need to get back to the Mareth Line, where he planned to take on the Eighth Army one more time.

At Thala, news began to filter through that the Germans had gone. It had been a bitter night for the Leicesters, their first battle since the evacuation from Dunkirk back in 1940. What had struck Peter Moore was how confused and chaotic it had been. At OCTU (officers training), he’d learned elaborate command procedures for action, and yet had not uttered one of those orders. Moreover, right up until the moment the captured Sherman had appeared, he’d been thinking they were getting ready for a counter-attack. The assault by the Panzer division, which earlier in the day had been personally led by Rommel, had come as a complete shock. Over three hundred men – nearly half the battalion – had been either killed, wounded, or captured.

Later during the day, the battalion padre, along with several officers and a pioneer platoon to bury the dead, gingerly returned to the battle-scarred knolls only to find scavenging locals scurrying away as they approached. Most of the dead had already been stripped of their clothing. One discovery struck a deep chord with Peter Moore. Among those killed the previous night was Jim Pickard, a friend who had joined the 2/5th Battalion the same day as Peter. He had been stripped, his little finger cut off and his signet ring stolen.

All along the new front line, the Allies slowly discovered that the enemy had gone. As usual, however, the Axis had protected its withdrawal with extensive booby traps and mines. Captain Nigel Nicolson from Guards Brigade had cautiously taken war correspondent Virginia Cowles forward and past the site of the Leicesters’ stand. At one point, on either side of the road were the two halves of a British soldier, ripped apart by an exploding mine.

Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton Howze trailed British tank units as they began moving back up the road towards Kasserine. Reaching a crossroads, his Jeep was stopped by a British military policeman who told him he could go no further because the road ahead was heavily mined.

‘How do you know?’ Hamilton asked.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘if you look, you’ll see a little pile of dead Arabs and camels in the road. That shows it’s mined.

‘What about the area to the right of the road,’ suggested Hamilton.

‘Look to the right,’ said the MP politely, ‘and you’ll see more dead Arabs and camels.’

‘Well, how about to the left?’

‘I’ll let you know presently,’ the MP told him. ‘I see another party of Arabs and camels coming up now.’

A devil’s garden of mines had also been left by 21st Panzer Division as they’d retreated from Sbiba back towards Sbeitla. Sergeant Bucky Walters had gone forward on a patrol soon after the Germans had withdrawn. Fortunately for him, they had driven out in two Jeeps, and Bucky was following the first. He watched it drive down into a hollow, then there was an explosion. The Jeep had hit a mine. One of the officers had been wearing his helmet with his chin strap down and the blast had knocked back his helmet and as it had jerked backwards, the strap had ripped his face clean off. ‘So from that point on,’ says Bucky, ‘we never wore our chin straps down.’ As Eighth Army had been discovering every time they restarted their pursuit of the Panzer Army after their victory at Second Battle of Alamein, so First Army , the Allies in Tunisia were now learning that it paid to proceed with caution.

No sooner had the Axis called off their offensive than the rain that had made life a misery for all the combatants finally stopped. The bad weather had hampered air operations on both sides, although, once again, the Axis, with their superior numbers and all-weather airfields, had dominated. Bryan Colston and the pilots of 225 Squadron had been grounded throughout much of the past week. On 22 February, they had tried to move to Tebessa in support of the Americans there, but rainstorms had forced them back. Finally, however, on the following day, they had managed to get airborne. Leading a large formation of twenty-four Spitfires and ten Hurri-bombers, Bryan attacked the retreating Panzer Army in the Kasserine Pass. Although a number of their aircraft were hit by flak, Bryan personally managed to hit three trucks and cratered the road. The efforts of the fighters were supported by heavy bombing raids. Ralph Burbridge and his crew, in their new Fortress, also pounded the pass. Rommel later said these attacks were ‘of a weight and concentration hardly surpassed by those we had suffered at Alamein’. It probably would not have surprised him to know that the architect of the air offensive at Alamein, Air Marshal Sir Arthur “Mary” Coningham, was now in charge in Tunisia.

The Kasserine Pass was reoccupied on 24 February, the Allies feeling their way back up along the mine-infested roads and tracks and battling over destroyed bridges. The Allies had suffered a humiliating defeat but, in terms of casualties, the Axis losses had been as bad, and were felt more keenly. Even so, over six thousand Americans had been killed and wounded in the fighting, and a further three thousand and six hundred taken prisoner. The biggest casualty had been 1st US Armored Division, which had lost around half its number.

Back home in the USA, the news of the defeat was received with stunned shock. ‘You folks at home must be disappointed at what happened to our American troops in Tunisia,’ wrote Ernie Pyle. ‘So are we over here. Our predicament is damned humiliating … we’ve lost a great deal of equipment, many American lives, and valuable time and territory – to say nothing of face.’ Yet, he assured them, there was still not the slightest doubt that they would fling the Axis out of Tunisia. It was, he added, also important to put things in perspective. ‘One thing you folks at home must realize is that this Tunisian business is mainly a British show. Our part in it is small. Consequently our defeat is not as disastrous to the whole picture as it would have been if we had been bearing the major portion of the task.’

This was true enough, but it didn’t stop the soul-searching, or the recriminations, which had begun even before the offensive was over. ‘The defeat has made all hands realize the toughness of the enemy and the need of battle experience,’ noted Harry Butcher on 20 February. Certainly it was true that the biggest casualties had been among the least experienced troops, and there is no doubt that combat experience was the best teacher. Nonetheless, the inadequate nature of American training prior to reaching North Africa had been ruthlessly exposed by the Germans.

But the ‘greenness’ of American troops was only a part of it. Not even seasoned troops would have fared much better at Sidi Bou Zid, when the American armour was pitched against the prepared defensive positions of a force considerably larger than itself. ‘One good man simply can’t whip two good men,’ noted Ernie Pyle. The real problem lay not so much with the troops, but with the commanders.Throughout the battle, Lloyd Fredendall , 2nd Corps commander had continued to make a complete hash of his command, issuing orders without any real appreciation of what was happening. He had been quick to move out of the still incomplete bunkers at Speedy Valley and further back, into a mansion owned by a Vichy businessman, and there had continued to act in an increasingly erratic and bizarre way. On one occasion, an artillery officer had been ordered to see him and had arrived as quickly as he could, straight from the front and covered in mud. But Fredendall had kept him waiting until he’d finished his dinner of beef and ice cream. The 2nd US Corps commander had also continued to completely ignore Ward. On 20 February, for example, he bypassed the divisional commander and ordered Robinett to counter-attack with CCB towards the Kasserine Pass, an order that would have seen an armoured column head once more into the waiting jaws of a larger enemy force; even after Sidi Bou Zid, Fredendall hadn’t learned. After an impromptu meeting with Robinett, he appeared to have a change of heart, but by that time had already to succumbed to defeatism, telling Robinett, ‘There is no use, Robbie, they have broken through and you can’t stop them.’

At this point, the Allied command structure had begun to disintegrate rapidly. Anderson had become convinced that Fredendall was incapable of sorting things out, and so had ordered another British commander, Brigadier Nicholson, to the front to help take control, even though his Chief of Staff, Brigadier McNabb, was already forward with the troops and liaising with Robinett. Then Major-General Ernest Harmon, commander of 2nd US Armored Division in Morocco, also arrived to lend a hand. Fredendall had tried to have Ward sacked, and Ike initially agreed, ordering Harmon up to the front to take over. But while Harmon had been flying east, Ike changed his mind, having heard from Truscott that Ward had done well at Sbeitla. Instead, Eisenhower told Fredendall that Harmon should be regarded as his deputy and ‘a useful senior assistant’. On arriving at Fredendall’s new mansion, Harmon had been told to take over tactical command of 2nd US Corps and to use Ward’s staff. An already confused command structure was now an appalling tangle.

In the meantime, Robinett quietly circumnavigated most of these senior commanders and, after consulting with Brigadier Dunphie of the 26th British Armoured Brigade and Brigadier McNabb, drew up plans for a coordinated defensive stance – plans that would soon pay off. That they were able to cut through this jumbled chain of command and stream of orders and counter-orders and actually successfully hold the Axis onslaught at bay was a credit to men like Robinett and Dunphie, and the troops under their command.‘There are two things we must learn,’ wrote Ernie Pyle. ‘We must spread ourselves thicker on the front lines, and we must streamline our commands for quick and positive action in emergencies.’ He may not have been a fighting man, but there was certainly much to be said for his prognosis. What the Allies needed was firm and vigorous leadership. Fortunately, they were about to get it.

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CHAPTER 22

Alex and Mary Take Control: 22 February–20 March 1943

General Alexander arrived in Algiers on Wednesday, 17 February, around the same time as Rommel’s Panzers were storming onto the airfield at Thelepte. After a brief chat with Ike the following morning, he hurried to the front, anxious to check out the lie of the land as quickly as possible. In pouring rain, he and his small party landed at Tulergma airfield near Constantine; then, after briefly setting up his first North African Tactical Headquarters, he headed off to inspect the front. It was bitterly cold and he still only had his desert uniform, although fortunately they had also brought with them their ‘goonskins’ – heavy sheepskin-lined jackets rather like the RAF Irvin. With his jacket and his high peaked cap and plastic eye-shields, Alex looked more like a German officer than a British one. Still, his appearance was certainly distinctive: he looked every inch the fighting general.

And well he might. He was, after all, by some margin the most experienced general in North Africa. He had witnessed war – both success and defeat, triumphant advances and ignominious retreats – at all levels. Under turbulent skies and through the mud and rain, he motored from one headquarters to another. There he spoke with the commanders and their staffs and in between watched the streams of troops and vehicles crowding many of the roads. He had seen such chaos before and knew that here in Tunisia their armies had lost confidence and were coming apart at the seams. ‘The general situation is far from satisfactory,’ he wrote to Brooke on the 19th. ‘British, American and French units are all mixed up on the front, especially in the south. Formations have been split up. There is no policy and no plan of campaign. The air is much the same. This is the result of no firm direction or centralised control from above … We have quite definitely lost the initiative.’

That same day, he wired Ike proposing to take over right away, a day earlier than planned. Ike agreed immediately and so, without further ado, Alex issued orders – as he had on taking command in Egypt – that there would be no more withdrawals, with certain key positions to be held at all costs. Anderson was ordered to concentrate his armour at Thala, and Alex also asked Monty to move some of his forces up to the Mareth Line as soon as he possibly could to exert pressure on the Axis, a plan that worked with almost immediate effect and which helped persuade Rommel that his forces were needed once more in the south.

‘Well done – I am greatly relieved,’ he told Monty on the 22nd, then added, ‘I have seen enough in the short time available to be very shocked.’

In his address at Tripoli, Mary Coningham had pointed out that ‘the fighting efficiency of a service is based upon leadership, training and equipment’. Well, Alex had few concerns over the standard of equipment, but plenty about the quality of leadership and training, particularly with regard to the Americans. Fredendall’s HQ had horrified him. No one seemed to have any real appreciation of what was going on or to be doing his job properly. He thought Fredendall’s COS was ‘dithery’, while the 2nd US Corps commander impressed him even less, appearing ‘utterly shaken’ and with no ideas about how to improve the situation. It was unfortunate that his first view of American troops was of those retreating from the Kasserine Pass, but to him these men appeared terribly under-prepared for war, and this had a profound affect on his view of their fighting potential. They were, he told Brooke, ‘so badly trained. This is the case from top to bottom, and of course entirely inexperienced.’ Had he known the truth about the training of Ward’s 1st US Armored Division, he would have been absolutely appalled. The pity, though, was that these first glimpses did not demonstrate the American ability to learn quickly. Had he seen the 18th US Infantry RCT in action at Sbiba, for example, his view might have been entirely different, and considerably more optimistic. As Admiral Cunningham pointed out, ‘They were at much the same stage as were the British a year after they had entered the war, young, inexperienced, and apt to be thrown off their balance the first time they went into action.’ But he, too, already knew enough about the Americans to realize they would soon catch up.

Alex’s initial impressions were reinforced by a report conducted soon after by staff at 18th Army Group HQ. Between 22 and 25 February, they toured the front much as Alex had done. They agreed that CCB was a good outfit; 2nd US Corps HQ, on the other hand, ‘was the least impressive HQ we visited, in every way’. Conversely, Pinky Ward’s HQ ‘was much more impressive; being well laid out in a good covered site. The operations appeared to be completely under control and the HQ working smoothly.’ This was as much to do with Hamilton Howze and the rest of the senior staff as it was with Ward. The British 26th Armoured Brigade exuded calm control, they reported, but the team had felt uneasy at the large number of closely concentrated vehicles, making easy targets for any aerial attack. This was a fault that Alex had also noticed all along the front.

Like Alex, the team did not visit the troops of either the 34th or 1st Infantry. Again, this was a shame. They might have drawn different conclusions. They did talk to a number of troops involved in the fighting at the Kasserine Pass, however. From their statements, it became clear that in that battle insufficient mines had been laid and inadequately covered, anti-tank guns had opened fire at too great a range, and troops had not been properly dug in. Security was generally terrible. Even Monty confirmed this. ‘I have been listening on my “J” to all American chat on the air during the battle,’ he told Alex. ‘It is all in clear, without any attempt to disguise it or to use simple codes.’

But, the team reported, morale remained good among most troops, including the Americans. ‘They appeared to be more critical of their leaders than we normally are, and to realize the mistakes which had been made. It has been something of a shock to them to find that lavish equipment alone is not enough to win a battle.’ This was an opinion echoed by none other than Ernie Pyle. ‘We have got it into our heads that production alone will win the war,’ he wrote. He even wondered whether the Kasserine setback might not have been a bad thing in the long run. ‘It is all right to have a good opinion of yourself, but we Americans are so smug with our cockiness. We somehow feel that just because we’re Americans we can whip our weight in wildcats.’ Nonetheless, most of the US officers the team spoke with showed admirable honesty and humility, expressing their wish to profit from the recent fighting and openly admitting their lack of experience. ‘Yes! Such a spirit is most praiseworthy,’ scribbled Alex. ‘It is up to us to help them.’

Alex sent this report to Brooke, noting that the shortcomings described were ‘all the obvious weaknesses which will appear when untrained and inexperienced troops take the field for the first time’. There was now much work to be done if he was to fulfil his earlier prediction of an Allied victory in North Africa in May. He set to work immediately. On his first day in the job, he announced that American, British, and French forces were to be organized into their own sectors, and all battalions and regiments returned to the command of their own divisions. Static troops were to hold the line, while any armoured and motorized troops were to be withdrawn and grouped into mobile reserves. There would be re-equipment and intensive training for all, and as soon as possible. Meeting with Ike on 22 February, he suggested they should try and benefit from the vast experience of Eighth Army, and so proposed sending battle-hardened soldiers to join 2nd US Corps as liaison officers. The Americans were also to be given British 6-pounder anti-tank guns to replace their useless 37 mms. Lastly, there was to be no more failure. Any future offensive operations had to be guaranteed of success.

It was this final assertion that dictated his plan for the defeat of the Axis armies in North Africa. It seemed to him that there were several clear factors that should affect his decision-making. The first was that Axis troops were still pouring into Tunisia at a rate of a thousand a day. Enemy forces would continue to rise unabated unless the supply line between Tunisia and Sicily could be cut. Admiral Cunningham’s naval forces in the Mediterranean, especially the submarines, were once again doing well, but Alex knew that to affect Axis supply lines really seriously they needed to gain air superiority, which at present they most certainly did not have. This could only be achieved by taking enough airfields close to the Tunisia–Sicily air bridge – in other words, along the coastal plains on the far side of the Eastern Dorsale, south of Enfidaville and north of Gabes. There were only two realistic means of reaching these plains in force: through the Gabes Gap to the south, or through the Fondouk Pass in the middle. The latter he dismissed as too risky; it held many of the same risks of Operation SATIN. Rather than take the chance of being enveloped by two Panzer Armies, he decided to crush the two of them together into a vice in the Tunis bridgehead. Eighth Army was the most experienced, battle-hardened, and confident of his forces. It made perfect sense to launch the next Allied offensive with the best team available. That meant Eighth Army.

‘The campaign would be divided into two phases,’ he wrote. ‘In the first, the main objective would be to get Eighth Army north of the Gabes Gap where it would gain contact with First Army and gain freedom of manoeuvre to develop its superiority in mobility and firepower … In the second phase, the efforts of both Armies would be directed towards securing airfields which would enable us to develop the ever-growing strength of our Anglo-American air forces. When we had achieved that, we should be able to co-ordinate to the full the striking power of all three services in drawing a tight net round the enemy’s position.’

It was to Larry Kuter’s great relief that Alex, like Monty, appeared not only to recognize the importance of air power and of gaining air superiority, but also fully supported the tactical air doctrine. This made a refreshing change from the majority of ground commanders he’d come across since arriving in North Africa. As if to underline this point, Alex insisted on having his tactical HQ next door to that of Mary and Larry at NATAF, initially in Constantine, but from mid-March at an encampment among scattered olive trees in the hills fifty miles further south at Ain Beida. Both Alex and Mary had their caravans brought up, while the rest of the staff – Larry included – made their homes in tents. In addition to a bed and locker, Larry also had a desk and telephone in his. At the centre of the encampment was a large khaki camouflaged marquee. This was their operations centre and was dominated a large, waist-high horizontal map. This marquee, noted, Larry, ‘was the heart of ground-air co-operation and collaboration’.

Larry had been at Forward HQ on 18 February when, at 9 a.m., he had received a message warning him that the newly promoted Air Marshal Coningham would be arriving to take over command of the Northwest African Tactical Air Force (NATAF) in fifteen minutes’ time. ‘He came in full of steam,’ Larry noted, and promptly issued an order prohibiting any further defensive umbrellas unless by written authority of NATAF. Copies were sent straight away to all the ground commanders and to higher levels. When Larry suggested they send an officer to First Army HQ to discuss the coordination of airfield construction and future ground operations, Mary replied, ‘To hell with that. We’ll set up the airfields and 1st Army will conform to our plan.’

Mary had then disappeared back to Algiers to collect the rest of his staff, including Tommy Elmhirst, who had still been in the UK and worrying about what his next posting might be when Mary had rung him out of the blue asking him to be his chief of administration at NATAF. ‘Nothing could have pleased me more,’ noted Tommy. He and George Beamish, once again Mary’s Senior Air Staff Officer (SASO), had reached the front on 19 February and were told in typical Coningham style that their task at NATAF was to ‘Set up HQ, take over command of all forward air forces, both British and American, fuse them, reorganize them and get command of the air over Tunisia. Then help the soldiers to run the Germans out of Africa before May.’ Simple.

Immediately, both 18th Army Group and NATAF commanders began messing together. To begin with, Tommy had detected an air of despondency, prompted by the huge task ahead and the critical battle situation. The only exceptions had been Mary and Alex, who never once showed anything other than good humour and confidence. Alex cheerily told them that whenever he started a new job, it was always in the middle of a retreat. ‘He was quite imperturbable,’ noted Tommy, ‘and a very pleasant and cheerful mess mate – more than I could ever say of Monty.’

Mary’s old desert routine was soon re-established. Every morning at 8 a.m. there were ‘Morning Prayers’, at which his senior staff would meet to talk through anything that needed discussing. In the evening, before joining Alex and his staff for dinner, there would be a drink in Mary’s caravan. This way, everyone was kept fully up to speed, whilst at the same time forging a strong sense of teamwork and friendship. Tommy immediately found himself working harder than he’d ever done in his life. The administrative side of NATAF was in a hopeless mess. ‘The only thing that was really first class was the fighting spirit of both British and American aircrews,’ wrote Tommy. "All they needed was to be organized and directed.’ By working from 8 a.m. until midnight every day, within two weeks the squadrons had been moved into wings, a day-bomber group had been formed, new airfields had either been built or were under construction, ancillary units had been moved forward to where they would be of most use to the fighting units, lines of supply had been straightened, fuel and ammunition dumps had been established, and spares had been brought up from Algiers. He also discovered that American flying efficiency was being held back by a shortage of lorries, meaning that supplies were not coming forward quickly enough. Soon after Ike and Bedell-Smith visited their HQ; over lunch Tommy was able to collar ‘Beetle’ about the matter. ‘The Air Corps [sic] got their lorries within the week,’ noted Tommy. Another time, Mary was at Thelepte talking with one of the senior American officers there. It was cold and damp, and the American apologized for not being able to offer Tommy a drink but explained that it was forbidden. A couple of days later, Tommy sent him a bottle of rum. ‘Thereafter,’ he noted, ‘our friendship and cooperation prospered exceedingly.’

Life was certainly improving for the 33rd Fighter Group. Jim Reed and the 59th Fighter Squadron were finally given new P-40s. Jim wasted no time in painting Irene II on the engine cowling. They’d all been given the latest P-40L version, lighter and faster, but with only four machine guns rather than six. They soon added two more and at the end of February moved up to a new airfield at Berteaux in Algeria, close to the Tunisian border. Every single pilot in the 33rd now had his own aircraft, a first since arriving in North Africa. From now on, they would rarely find themselves outnumbered by the enemy.

Jim’s own plane had needed a bit of work on it, so had joined the rest of the group a few days later, but he soon managed to get his new P-40 just as he wanted. ‘She’s doing all right now,’ he wrote to his girlfriend, ‘even if the score is still even. She usually does as she is directed, because she knows who’s boss.’ By the beginning of March they were training for the new roles required of them: the regime at NATAF no longer wanted fighters who could only fight other fighters. They needed their pilots to multi-task, to escort the bombers on missions over Axis airfields and to dive-bomb as well. The 33rd practised hard, dropping single 500-pound bombs and fragmenting cluster bombs, and flying with various bomber formations. They were also beginning to change the way they flew together, both as squadrons and as a 36-plane fighter group. Before, they’d always flown in the by now outmoded vic – or ‘V’ – formation. Now they decided to fly line abreast, in a long stretched-out line, so there was no longer any need for the vulnerable tail-end Charlie. To fend off enemy attacks they worked out a system similar to that developed by Billy Drake at 112 Squadron, whereby a number of aircraft would be detailed to deal with attackers while the rest continued with their escort duty. Whatever the size of the formation, whether it be in squadron or group strength, the aircraft would be staggered in height. If flying in a three-squadron formation, the lead squadron would be in the centre, while the other two would be slightly behind, with one a bit higher and the other slightly lower. The difference in height meant that all aircraft could easily turn together, simply by the two outside squadrons swapping places. ‘This formation proved very successful for the 33rd Fighter Group,’ noted Jim.

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