The Bloody Road to Tunis and Destruction of Axis Forces in North Africa - David Rolf

Chapter 1

Fight Like Hell‘

This is the greatest setback for German arms since 1918. The Americans will take Rommel in the rear, and we shall be expelled from Africa.’

General von Wulish, head of the German Armistice Commission, to General Auguste Nogùes, Resident-General of French Morocco at Rabat, shortly after sunrise on 8 November 1942.

The American colonel’s last-minute instructions had been brief and to the point: I want you men to hit that dock hard,’ he said, ‘then light out like stripy-arsed baboons up the wharf until you can get some cover. Then fight like hell.’

Among the detachment of the 135th Regimental Combat Team (RCT) landing from HMS Broke at Algiers harbour in the early hours of 8 November 1942, was Pfc Harold Cullum. Brought all the way from Pennsylvania and among the first to get ashore, his baptism of fire was violently cut short by two bullets, the first of which blasted a hole in his stomach and the second in his arm. Sprinkling sulphanilamide powder onto the gaping wound where chunks of clothing and equipment had been driven deep into the flesh, he wrapped his shattered arm in a field dressing and, when the recall whistle blew, attempted to crawl back to his ship. Eventually taken prisoner, he ended up in a French hospital where expert attention saved his life.

Yet it was French gunfire which had wounded him in the first place. The British and Americans, in the massive gamble that they had code-named Operation Torch, had brought more than 107,000 men across the oceans to the shores of North Africa in two mighty armadas, and in three simultaneous landings placed them ashore at Algiers, Oran and Casablanca.

At Casablanca and Oran, the French resisted this invasion of their colonial territory: ill-fated attacks on Algiers and Oran harbours were bloodily repulsed; and parachute drops by Colonel William C. Bentley’s 2nd Battalion, 503rd US Parachute Infantry Regiment, to secure airfields at Tafaraoui and La Senia, south of Oran, turned into near-disaster. Nevertheless, the scale and speed of the Allied invasion ensured the narrow success of their great venture, though much remained to be done to bring together warring French factions. One was led by General Henri Giraud, who had escaped from German prison camps in two world wars, and claimed imperiously that he could rally all the French in North Africa to the Allied side – the other by Amiral de la Flotte Jean François Darlan.

Operation Torch came into being principally because the two most powerful men in the Alliance, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Britain’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, wanted it. Churchill had clear, long-term, objectives which he put forward with his customary vigour. An assault in North Africa would remove the Germans and Italians from the region, help to secure critical British supply lines through the Mediterranean and build a base from which Allied troops could springboard their way into southern Europe. Roosevelt, who had promised Stalin that a ‘Second Front’ against Nazi Germany would be opened in 1942, had been caught on the point of this guarantee. Unwilling to abandon the British in their hour of need, for once during the war the President overrode the advice of his own Joint Chiefs of Staff, settling for an assault in the Mediterranean which Churchill and the British Chiefs of Staff Committee had called for time and again.

In the Mediterranean, Germany was locked in a struggle not of her own making. Against the unanimous opposition of his generals, Benito Mussolini committed his forces to a desert war in September 1940, despite the unpreparedness of the army, which had few motorised vehicles, modern artillery or tanks, and a limited industrial power-base incapable of remedying these deficiencies or provisioning his troops. The arrival of German forces in North Africa in the spring of 1941 was conclusive proof of the failure of Mussolini’s hopes of a cheap triumph. They arrived not to pursue a particular military objective, nor as part of a broad strategic plan, but simply to support the Italians, check the British advance to Tripoli and possibly regain Cyrenaica.

The German forces in Africa were placed under control of Comando Supremo (Italian Supreme Command) while Hitler’s headquarters, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW or High Command of the Armed Forces), initially limited itself to advice and supplies. As German involvement increased, however, Feldmarschall der Luftwaffe Albrecht Kesselring left von Bock’s Army Group Centre on the Eastern Front and flew to Rome in November 1941 where he was appointed Oberbefehlshaber Süd (OB Süd or C-in-C South).

Kesselring was ideally suited to his task. Known as ‘Smiling Albert’ from his habitual grin and highly optimistic temperament, he had been Chief of Staff of the Luftwaffe in 1936–37. In creating a close working relationship with the heads of the Italian armed forces he came across an old friend, General Rinso Corso Fougier, of Superareo (Italian Air Force High Command), who, according to Mussolini’s son-in-law and foreign minister, Count Galeazzo Ciano, was ‘a real pilot, not a balloon officer.’ The other Italian armed forces’ chiefs were Marshal Ugo Cavallero, Chief of the General Staff, and Admiral Arturo Riccardi of the Supermarina (Naval High Command). A man of immense organizational and administrative abilities, Cavallero was undoubtedly pro-German; indeed, he co-operated to such an extent that his own position became endangered. He was replaced by General Vittorio Ambrosio in February 1943, which ‘produced joy among Italians and dissatisfaction among the Germans.’

In the struggle for North Africa only the Luftwaffe was clearly and unequivocally under OB Süd control. Other than this, there were overlapping German-Italian commands which resulted in Kesselring taking orders from the OKW in some matters and from Comando Supremo in others. Only his strong personality held the ramshackle organization together and resolved some of the tensions arising from these confused relationships. His HQ moved from Taormina in Sicily to Frascati near Rome in October 1942, so that by his presence Kesselring could exert a stronger influence on Comando Supremo over German supply problems.

Kesselring’s ambiguous command relationships were compounded by the lack of consistent leadership from inside OKW, as Hitler increasingly overrode his General Staff’s advice and insisted on more and more ‘Führer decisions’ in the face of setbacks in Russia and elsewhere. The invasion of North Africa therefore hit the German High Command at a critical moment.

The first danger was averted by General Walter Warlimont, Deputy Chief of the OKW Operations Staff, and Kesselring, whose frantic staff work ensured that Hitler’s initial response to the landings was speedily translated into the formation of a bridgehead in Tunis and occupation of Vichy France. At 0700 hours on 11 November 1942, ten divisions of the German First Army and Army Group Felber crossed the demarcation line between German-occupied northern France and the unoccupied territory to the south which had been governed until then by the puppet Vichy regime. At the same time, two Italian divisions from Sardinia landed on Corsica and units of the Italian Fourth Army marched into the French Riviera. To the surprise of Hitler’s HQ, there was virtually no resistance.

In Algiers the French were shocked by the pitiless way in which the Führer discarded the armistice of 1940. Even so, they could not reconcile their differences. Admiral Darlan ordered the French commanders in Tunisia to resist the Germans, countermanded his order and then reinstated it. At Allied Force Headquarters (AFHQ), Gibraltar, the Commander-in-Chief, Lieutenant-General Dwight D. Eisenhower, raged over the venomous squabbling and was in such a fury ‘that I sometimes wish I could do a little throat-cutting myself.’

Eisenhower’s appointment as C-in-C had been a surprising one. He had graduated from West Point in 1915, without particular distinction, and was posted to the 19th US Infantry Regiment at Fort Sam Houston on the outskirts of San Antonio. Despite strenuous efforts, he failed to be listed for overseas duty when America entered the Great War in 1917 and remained labelled as no more than a useful trainer of troops and desk officer: ‘I had missed the boat,’ he later remarked.

During the inter-war period he served under various powerful leaders in an effort to avoid a career dead-end, imbibing much of the politics and bureaucratic niceties characterising the higher forms of military life. Only later, under the tutelage of Roosevelt’s US Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, did his career really blossom. Marshall brought Eisenhower to the War Department in December 1941, and thereafter there remained a close personal link between the two. Eisenhower was always the junior in rank, but became the best-known US military leader of the war, satisfying the public’s craving for an all-American war hero. In the autumn of 1942, however, the new C-in-C was virtually unknown outside military circles. He had no combat experience and was viewed with baffled scepticism by the British who could not understand how a man could be produced from comparative obscurity to hold the highest command.

Eisenhower proved to be dutiful to a marked degree, with great application to the task in hand, a keen eye for detail and a ruthless streak which implied superlative determination. He could also be impatient and brutally abrupt with those whom he discarded. His public character, however, was entirely different. It was that of a friendly and relaxed small-town American, his speech peppered with homespun phrases reflecting his roots deep in his native Abilene soil. Eisenhower was adept moreover at promoting this image to the British and American publicity machines which were more than happy to play along. He was in addition a peerless chairman of inter-Allied committees, arbitrating smoothly between rival plans. No visionary, nevertheless he saw clearly that it was vital for American and British staffs, and the troops they ultimately commanded, to work together at all levels.

Eisenhower’s deputy, Major-General Mark W. Clark, had to bear the brunt of French wrangling at Algiers. Long-limbed, beak-nosed and intensely, disagreeably ambitious, he eventually lost his temper and threatened the squabbling leaders with immediate custody and the establishment of military government. This settled matters and when Eisenhower arrived he had only to endorse the agreement which had been reached. Having now definitely joined the Allied side, Admiral Darlan was to head the civil and political government of North Africa, Giraud to be C-in-C of all French forces and General Alphonse Juin to command a reinforced French volunteer army fighting alongside the Allies; Noguès (French Morocco) and Chatel (Algeria) would retain their Resident-General posts.

Meanwhile, at OB Süd HQ it was not yet clear whether the German High Command planned to hold Tunisia at all costs or simply carry out a limited engagement in order to defend Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel’s lines of communication in the Western Desert and prevent a disastrous collapse of Italian morale. The Allies for their part intended to squeeze Rommel’s forces in a trap between Eighth Army, now advancing from Egypt through Tripolitania, and First Army operating from Tunisia.

From the outset, however, Allied planning had been characterised by indecision; the Americans, anxious about possible hostile reactions from the Spanish dictator, General Francisco Franco, worried about opposition from Vichy France and fearful of a German move against Gibraltar which might close the Strait and cause havoc for the Allies, proposed to consolidate their positions in French Morocco for about three months before advancing eastwards.

British planners went for a bolder design. They had insisted on a deep strike into the Mediterranean itself, at Algiers, and, in conjunction with the Eighth Army sweeping in from the west, a swift move on Tunis before the enemy could effect a bridgehead there. Indeed, Lieutenant-General Kenneth Anderson, given the task of pushing eastwards once the Allies landed in North Africa, wanted an early attack on Tunis and even suggested that US aircraft land there on the morning of the Torch assault – though even if the bluff worked the crews would, in all probability, be taken prisoner. As the British correctly predicted, once firmly established, with their shorter lines of communication and land-based air power, the Axis forces would be difficult to prise out.

Early on the morning of 9 November 1942, two German officers, Hauptmann Schürmeyer and Hauptmann Behlau, arrived in Tunis. Under the pretext of helping the French resist the Allied invasion they discussed defence of the city with the Resident-General in Tunisia, Vice-Admiral Jean-Pierre Estèva – ‘an old gentleman with a white goatee’ – the Commandant Supérieur des Troupes de Tunisie, General Georges Barré, and the local French air force commander, General Péquin. They had been ordered by the head of the Vichy Government, Pierre Laval, to co-operate with the Germans.

While these discussions were taking place, Kesselring ordered one of Göring’s intimate friends and a former fighter pilot in the First World War, Generaloberst Bruno Loezer, commanding Fliegerkorps II from Taormina in Sicily, to fly fighters and Stukas across and seize the airfield at El Aouina (Tunis). Accordingly he sent elements of the 53rd Fighter Squadron and transport aircraft, carrying supplies of fuel, oil and light flak guns. Colonel Geradot, the commander of the airfield, narrowly escaped and hastened by air to the British First Army’s command post, established that day at the Hotel Albert in Algiers. He brought discomfiting news that 40 German bombers already sat on the tarmac at Tunis.

The fiction that these forces were being invited to aid the French was maintained by sending Oberstleutnant Harlinghausen of Fliegerkorps II to Tunis to see Estèva. Believing the French offered no opposition, he alerted OB Süd and, next day, a fighter group of Me-109s and Kesselring’s Wachkompanie (personal HQ Company) carried in gliders towed behind Ju-88 bombers, were on their way from Sicily. As each aircraft taxied to a halt at Tunis, it was covered by the guns of a French armoured reconnaissance car. For a while, matters were in the balance until transport planes brought in the 5th Fallschirmjäger (Parachute) Regiment. Scrambling out, a company set up its anti-tank weapons and machine-guns and trained them on the armoured cars. The French withdrew to the outer perimeter and an uneasy peace settled over the airfield.During this time, Loezer was again telephoned by Kesselring who told him that Barré and Estèva were communicating with the Allies via a cable linking Tunis to Malta and by a secret radio operating on the roof of the US Consulate. Loezer was told to see that no further messages were transmitted. Arriving at Tunis, Loezer found the troops who had just flown in still organizing themselves. The resident German Armistice Commissioner warned Loezer that the situation was exceedingly delicate and it was with ‘mixed feelings’ that Loezer passed through French troops on his way into the city. ‘The men made a good soldierly impression,’ he wrote. ‘I saw no officers. Machine guns and anti-tank weapons were trained on the airfield.’ He was met by Barré’s representative, frostily polite, who could give no assurances about French co-operation. Estèva was more encouraging, assuring Loezer he had received instructions from Vichy and would do everything to help, on the understanding that the Germans were to be restricted to airfields at Tunis and Bizerte (Bizerta). French forces had orders to shoot if they strayed elsewhere.

Loezer, satisfied with what he had seen and heard, made his way back to the airfield. Not a man moved to detain him though this would have been simple enough, as he observed: ‘There can be little doubt that the small air forces with their planes on the ground would have been easy prey for the French troops in readiness there if they had attacked in this situation.’

The same was true at Bizerte airfield, occupied on 11 November, without a shot being fired, by a single Ju-88 and two sections of the Ahrendt parachute engineering column. Again the French stood off and allowed the Germans to reinforce their bridgehead.

‘The French behaviour is inexplicable,’ complained Brigadier Haydon vice chief of the Combined Operations staff at Gibraltar, ‘The Germans, Italians and Japs appear welcome in any French possession ! We who were their Allies and who are fighting for their ends as well as our own, are resisted at every turn. It is high time they were called upon to declare themselves one way or another.’ But the chronic indecision which beset the French leaders ensured this would not happen. ‘I thought there would be some gesture of opposition, at least for the honour of the flag,’ commented a surprised Ciano. Its absence provided a window of opportunity for the Germans in Tunisia, which they were quick to exploit, in turn condemning the Allies to a costly and extended campaign.


Chapter 2

In London, Churchill was impatient. Now that Rommel was on the defensive – ‘Alex and Monty are hunting him hard,’ he told Eisenhower on 13 November – he was anxious to push on. ‘I am sure,’ he added, ‘…that intense efforts should be made to secure the mastery in the tip of Tunis and the capture of Tripoli.’ Determined to prevent this scenario, Kesselring had other ideas.

In order to buy time, he ordered negotiations with Estèva to be prolonged as long as possible while reinforcements, under Oberst Lederer, were poured in to establish a bridgehead. On 12 November, 500 men were airlifted into Tunisia with 74 tons of stores and the first sea transports with ships, 17 tanks, and motor vehicles arrived. Another 600 men were flown in the next day, when Kesselring was confidently expecting the use of Gabès and Sfax airfields, 150 miles south of Tunis, and 3,000 had arrived by the 15th; they were provisioned with 170 tons of petrol and promised supplies and arms originally meant for Rommel. In fact, all air transport space had been diverted from the German-Italian Army to Tunisia for nearly a week.

General Barré agreed to the occupation of the French garrisons at Tunis and Bizerte but the Germans soon realised he was playing a waiting game and had not committed his Tunis Division to either side. Harlinghausen became suspicious that he might go over to the Allies and ordered Leutnant Baitinger to occupy all public buildings and block the western approach roads to Tunis on the night of 13/14 November, despite Estèva’s protests.

Sanitätsgefreiter (Medical Lance-Corporal) Viktor Fink, crossing Tunis alone to see that part of this order was carried out, felt distinctly uneasy: ‘I must have presented a strange sight to the people,’ he said, ‘with my uniform and machine gun.’ The tram conductor seems to have been impressed and let him travel without a ticket.

Had General der Panzertruppe Walther Nehring arrived a week earlier, Barré’s support might have been secured. When the new field commander for Tunisia was sent by Hitler to replace Lederer and form a deep bridgehead, he discovered an alarming state of affairs at his newly-formed 90th German Army Corps. Nevertheless, the Allies had already forfeited the element of surprise gained by Operation Torch and were to suffer grievous disappointments as a result.


Chapter 3

‘Why don’t the French start tossing the Huns out?’
Captain Harry C. Butcher, entry in his diary for 12 November 1942.

Race For Tunis 2 real

Mussolini’s flamboyant but empty gesture in sending his troops into Tunisia ‘struck OB Süd like a bomb,’ said the Luftflotte 2 Chief of Staff, Paul Deichmann. The Germans had told the Vichy French that the Italians would not be permitted to send troops to Tunisia but on the morning of 10 November Mussolini had begun such a move by dispatching a flight of fighters. Nothing could have been better calculated to drive Frenchmen into the arms of the Allies than the arrival of Italians in fighter aircraft and torpedo boats. Kesselring was aghast and protested vigorously to Comando Supremo, which replied that units were on their way and could not be stopped, though it was later established that the fighter group did not take off from Sardinia until two hours after Kesselring’s protest was received.

After the Italians arrived, the French broke off negotiations and Barré moved his forces westward into the mountains, establishing his HQ at Béja and maintaining contact with the Germans without actively opposing them. Although the Italians were later recalled by Cavallero, Kesselring remained convinced that the French would have rallied to the German cause had it not been for their presence.

Fifty years old, experienced in desert warfare as commander of the DAK from February 1942 until wounded at the Battle of Alam Haifa in August, Walther Nehring had been convalescing at Wünsdorf near Berlin. Still suffering from a festering laceration in his arm, he was anxious to return to Rommel’s HQ and, while en route at Rome, was surprised to be ordered at once to Tunis.

To seal off the approaches to Tunis Nehring had only the 5th Fallschirmjäger Regiment, the 11th Fallschirmjäger Pionier Bataillon (Parachute Engineer Battalion) under the command of Major Rudolph Witzig – neither of them yet motorised – one Marschbataillon (personnel replacement transfer battalion) equipped only with small arms, an artillery battery with four 88mm guns, and a Panzerspähkompanie (armoured reconnaissance company) under Oberleutnant (Lieutenant) Kahle.

At Bizerte the Italians had two battalions of Marines (about 800 men) and, around Mateur, the beginnings of the Italian Superga Division which had disembarked on 15 November with 557 vehicles. But there was no German command system, no fully operational motorised unit combining the various arms, no signals unit – use had to be made of the highly unreliable French telephone network until late in November – no medical unit and virtually no vehicles; even Nehring had to hire a French taxi-cab for use as his staff car. On an early reconnaissance he was, ‘deeply impressed [by the difficulties], although hardly cheered’, by what he saw.

In mid-November, by sea and air, part of the battle weary Hermann Göring Division arrived after a difficult passage from Cognac, soon to be followed by 10th Panzer from Marseilles and Weber’s newly-formed 334th Division.

Their task was formidable: they had to, ‘master the almost hopeless situation,’ wrote Oberstleutnant Bürker, a senior staff officer with 10th Panzer Division, ‘and to use all of their determination to go into action and all of their abilities in order to prevent the enemy from quickly taking possession in Tunisia.’

Nehring acted quickly to establish his close-in defences with two separate bridgeheads: one based on Tunis, guarded by the 5th Fallschirmjäger Regiment under Harlinghausen, until Oberstleutnant Walter Koch replaced him, the other on Bizerte, commanded by Oberstleutnant Stolz, who was eventually replaced by Oberst Fritz Freiherr von Broich. However, as early as 26 November, Allied wireless intercepts discovered that Nehring was bemoaning his lack of forces to defend both and wondering which he should hold, ‘since neither of them can achieve much.’

Stukas, reconnaissance aircraft and fighter-bombers were organized into No. 1, Air Force Command under Generalmajor Kosch. Luftwaffe ground elements were placed under the control of Generalmajor Koechy and a seasoned officer, Generalmajor Neuffer, took charge of anti-aircraft artillery units which gradually came to exceed divisional strength.

Kesselring was forced to adopt a purely defensive strategy in order to keep open a line of retreat into Tunisia for the German-Italian Panzerarmee. Unable to defend the country for any length of time if fighting took place at the very gates of Tunis and Bizerte, his major interest lay between Tunis and old French fortifications of the Mareth Line, in the south, to which Rommel would eventually be driven. The northern third of the area was highly populated, with a well-developed road and rail system radiating from Tunis. The centre was less important, cut off from desert plains by ridges with few passes and, therefore, relatively easy to defend. Conditions in the southern third were similar, with unexplored terrain and desert making any Allied advance difficult.

Kesselring assumed, rightly, that Anglo-American troops, unaccustomed to combat and desert conditions, would not be committed in the distant southern sector of the front. With the exception of some fighter aircraft, no German forces were assigned to the southern half of Tunisia until such time as Rommel retreated there. In the central zone stood the Superga Division and first elements of the Italian 30th Corps.

A desirable western defence line would have extended from Bône on the coast, via Tébessa and Gafsa, to Kebili in the south, with Tozeur as a defensible outpost. Though his long-term aim was to stabilise this front, within his limited means Kesselring could only push his troops westwards as far as a line from Djebel (mountain) Abiod southwards through Béja to Sbeïtla and Gafsa and invest this as the main line of resistance. At least it had the advantage of being located far enough from the coast to absorb enemy attacks, for the hinterland was rugged and could be strongly fortified by the time the Allies were in a position to attack.

AFHQ knew that German opposition immediately after the invasion was weak, amounting to no more than small parties equipped with a few armoured cars, motorcycles, anti-tank guns and engineers sent forward to block the line of advance. But they had their own problems, not least in the country through which General Anderson hoped to push his First Army.

This was extraordinarily difficult and quite unlike the desert in which Eighth Army was chasing Rommel. In the sector north of the Medjerda River, high, irregular hill ranges dominate the landscape. On their bleak shoulders, cork forests and thick scrub, at times breast high, often made the going tricky. From Souk Ahras, the Medjerda winds to its mouth between Tunis and Bizerte through a valley that sometimes narrows into a gorge and at other times is up to ten miles wide. Here, extensively cultivated ground consisted of clay soil which turned quickly into a thick, clinging, glutinous mass after rain, smearing boots and clothing and completely clogging wheeled and tracked transport. To complicate matters, valley areas were frequently intersected by deep-cut wadis (gorges) which proved to be natural tank obstacles, whether dry or turned suddenly to raging torrents after rain. Tracks turned into quagmires and the few roads inevitably converged into dangerous defiles. Bridges were usually unsafe for heavy military loads and easily mined. The winter was the local rainy season and during the Allied campaign unusually heavy rains persisted into April, later than normal, severely hampering any movement.

South and south-east of the Medjerda Valley is the Tunis Plain, lying inside a perimeter bounded roughly by the towns and villages on a line Tébourba-east of Medjez el Bab–Goubellat–Bou Arada–Pont du Fahs. On the west and east of this area was some 250 square miles of mountains and hills, irregular, flint-capped and often covered with low scrub. On their commanding, windswept escarpments a few defenders, properly dispersed and well dug-in, could observe the tank ‘runs’ and cover them with mines and anti-tank guns.

For about 120 miles from Pichon to Maknassy run the Eastern Dorsale mountains which then turn south-west until, some 20 miles south of El Guettar, they join the line of great Chotts or salt lakes. The Mareth Line closed the gap between these ‘lakes’ and the coast. Further west is the higher Western Dorsale range, running from the dominating peak of Djebel Zaghouan in the north all the way beyond Fériana, in the south. Protected by these natural obstacles, the heartland of Tunisia could not be entered lightly; any attempt to force a way through by road was likely to be very costly since passes were few and well covered.

Between the Eastern Dorsale and the sea lies the coastal plain, about 180 miles long, narrow in hilly country to the north around Enfidaville and thereafter broadening out for some 70 miles south of Kairouan and narrowing again to the Mareth position. To the south the land was largely barren and undulating desert, but further north, especially about Sousse and Sfax, a random pattern of olive groves covered much of the landscape. These features provided useful cover for tank laagers but in wet weather it was not unusual to find a unit totally immobilised by muddy ground, and gunners and tank commanders were effectively blind in such a shelter. A major road ran along the coast but vehicles moved at their peril when forced into predictable routes which picked their way beside the numerous salt lakes.

Tunisia constricted the use of tanks to an area south of Fériana-Sbeitla-Pichon, on the Kairouan and Goubellat Plains and in the Medjez Valley. Unless supported by successful offensives elsewhere, an armoured thrust could not be decisive except in the Medjez Valley because, , actions north of Kairouan were bound to run up against mountainous country between Enfidaville and the Eastern Dorsale, while an offensive northeast from the region of Bou Arada and east from Djebel Rihane was barred from Tunis by the range of hills which effectively blocked the way between Bir Meherga-Ain el Asker and Ksar Tyr. ‘Terrain serves to some extent as an equalizer,’ observed Kesselring.

On 10 November Anderson received Eisenhower’s orders to initiate the eastward advance with his pitifully small forces. Anderson’s willingness to do so, even before the Allies knew how Barré’s French troops would react at Sétif, Constantine, and other points on the way, earned him Eisenhower’s unswerving admiration: ‘You were about the only senior officer of my acquaintanceship who would have accepted [this],’ he said.

Anderson’s acerbic nature did nothing to ease troubled Anglo-American relationships. ‘[He] seems earnest but dumb,’ was Patton’s succinct and rather accurate assessment. Liddell Hart heard the same criticism from Major-General Hobart who said that Anderson must have developed since his days as a student at the Quetta Staff College in the 1920s when Hobart was Commandant there, though it was, ‘questionable whether he had the capacity to develop much.’ Additionally, several Army Council members had serious doubts about whether he had the right qualities for a field commander, ‘but they hoped that he might suffice.’

Intending a series of movements by land and sea to take the ports of Bougie, Philippeville, Bône and La Calle, First Army would then start inland to take Sétif and Constantine.13 Directed to begin First Army’s advance eastwards, the commander of 78th Division, Major-General Vyvyan Evelegh, had initiated Operation Perpetual and despatched Eastern Task Force’s floating reserve, 36th Infantry Brigade, commanded by Brigadier A.L. Kent-Lemon, for Bougie which lay 120 miles away along the coast. On the evening of the 10th they sailed assault stowed, accompanied by every available tank landing craft after bad weather had delayed their departure, safely escorted by the Royal Navy. Simultaneously a small mobile armoured column from 5th Northamptons, together with a squadron of 56th Reconnaissance Regiment, commanded by Major Hart and therefore known as Hart Force, set out by road from Algiers to clear a route for the brigade. They reached Djebel Abiod on the night of 15/16 November.

On the way to Djidjelli, 35 miles east of Bougie, was another transport, the Awatea, with commandos, RAF personnel, their stores and petrol aboard. They were to capture the nearby airfield from where air cover was to be provided but heavy surf ruined the plan and the Awatea returned just as the first British troops were wading ashore in high seas at Bougie. Air cover was from the carrier HMS Argus, which soon withdrew, and by fighters from Algiers, and this limited support left the berthed vessels sitting targets for the Luftwaffe.

During the afternoon and evening of 11 November, waves of German bombers pressed home their attacks and returned to strike Bougie at first light next day. Three ships were hit that first afternoon including the SS Cathay, while she was in deep water and unloading. Major Feggetter, a surgeon with the RAMG from the 69th British General Hospital, watched in horror as a bomb landed in a lighter alongside the ship, killing and wounding many troops; one man was seen to have both his legs blown off and set swimming frantically, using only his arms and supported by his life jacket, until he could be fished out. When 36th Brigade assembled ashore it was equipped on an assault scale designed for operations at a range of only ten miles or so from its maintenance area. This greatly restricted its scope as did the loss of much of its transport which was either sunk in Bougie harbour or not unloaded and returned to Algiers.

The Luftwaffe attacks did not slacken off until 13 November, when No. 154 Squadron RAF became operational from Djidjelli. Flying into the airfield the previous day, the squadron was met by a party which had made its way overland from Bougie. However, lack of fuel restricted operations to one patrol of six aircraft at first, and they only became airborne after draining the rest of the squadron’s tanks.

Some 300 miles east of Algiers, No. 6 Commando together with some of Lieutenant-Colonel William O. Darby’s 1st US Rangers and two companies of infantry, were rushed to Bone before the Germans arrived and put ashore from the destroyers HMS Wheatland and Lammerton on 12 November. They sailed into the harbour lined up on deck and singing the Marseillaise. The French remained polite rather than friendly.

Almost at the same time, over 300 men of 3rd Battalion, 1st British Parachute Brigade, flown out from England in American C-47s of 64th Troop Carrier Command to replace the Americans squandered in the disastrous attack on Tafarouia, were dropped on the airfield at Duzerville, six miles south-east of Bone. Information of a planned German attack on the airfield had come in the previous day when Ultra code-breaking revealed orders from Kesselring. They narrowly forestalled a fleet of troop-carrying Ju-52s on its way from Kairouan which turned back only when the German Fallschirmjäger spotted the billowing silks of the 3rd Battalion.

That evening, the Germans turned their attention from the naval transports and heavily bombed the airfield at Duzerville. It looked at one stage as if the troops would be forced to withdraw, despite the stiff fight they put up with Oerlikon guns taken from damaged ships in the harbour. The return of the C-47s ferrying in much needed anti-aircraft guns and supplies of fuel for the fighter aircraft, and the appearance of Spitfires over the airfield, settled matters.

A second airborne operation to broaden the basis of air operations, by seizing airfields inland, was mounted by survivors of Lieutenant-Colonel Edson Raffs 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion. From Maison Blanche, at Algiers, they flew in 20 C-47s on 15 November, accompanied by a single Spitfire, to the Tunisian border. Among them was Jack Thompson of the Chicago Tribune, the first American civilian to jump in combat with US troops. ‘Hey Jack, it don’t mean a thing if you don’t pull that string,’ shouted one seasoned parachutist. ‘Hey Sarge, ain’t Jack’s chute the one you caught them silk worms in?’18 questioned another.

Raff’s men dropped near the village of Youks les Bains, ten miles from Tébessa. Welcomed by Colonel Berges, Commander of the French 3e Zouaves, they dug in at the airfield and occupied another just outside the village from where they managed to bring down a marauding Ju-88, looking for an easy kill. ‘We’re going right into Gafsa after the bastards,’ said Raff. Commandeering transport, they pushed south-east all the way to the town without support or any certainty of supplies.

From here, the paratroopers were forced to withdraw as the jaws of a pincer movement of Italian tanks closed in from Sened and Kebili. US tank destroyers, sent by Eisenhower, had not yet arrived. Before pulling back northwards to Fériana, though, the paratroops left their calling card, setting fire to a fuel dump.

Thwarted by bad weather the previous day, men of the British 1st Parachute Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel James Hill, dropped over Souk el Arba airfield, 90 miles inland from Tunis in the Medjerda valley on 16 September. They had orders to seize the important communications centre of Béja, 30 miles away, harry the enemy and bring in the French on the Allied side.

Over 500 landed safely though one man was burned to death when he fell onto some power lines. Disguising their lack of numbers by an elaborate parade, they began the journey towards Béja, quickly enlivened when one sergeant inadvertently discharged a number of rounds from his Sten gun into the legs of the nearest soldiers. ‘Not a great start,’ commented Colour Sergeant Seal.

Since the French might, after all, oppose Anderson’s forces, it had been decided beforehand to set up an armoured regimental group, drawn from 6th Armoured Division and built around the 17th/21st Lancers. This was called Blade Force, taking its name from 78th British Infantry Division’s battleaxe insignia. Its task was to blaze an inland route as far as Souk Ahras and finally concentrate around the rest of 6th British Armoured Division, coming up behind.

On 13 November Colonel R.A. Hull, Blade Force Commander, received orders to move east as soon as possible and, ‘to get as near Tunis as we could – if not right into it.’ Hull sent on a fast column of armoured cars, anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns towards Souk Ahras while the men of a squadron of the 17th/21st Lancers were packed like sardines and despatched by rail, with their tanks to follow after. ‘Next stop Waterloo,’ they shouted at every halt.

Three days later the leading columns bumped into the rear of 132nd Field Regiment RA which cleared off the road to let Blade Force through amid cries of ‘armour for Tunis!’ Reaching Constantine just before nightfall, it got to Souk Ahras 24 hours later, to be re-joined by the 17th/21st Lancers. By any standards, this was a remarkable feat of organization and improvisation: the column had travelled from Algiers to the Tunisian border, covering 385 miles in only 47 hours with negligible vehicle breakdowns. Heavy rain that night, a foretaste of what was to come, did not dampen their spirits; ‘we felt quite pleased with ourselves,’ said Major (later Brigadier) Buttenshaw.

On the afternoon of the 16th, for the first time in North Africa, German infantry were fired upon by French troops, while moving on Béja. Subsequently, a strong patrol from 1st Parachute Batallion under Major Cleasby-Thompson was sent to ambush a German column near Sidi N’Sir, the last French outpost on the Mateur road before Tunis. Early on the morning of 18 November they severely mauled the Germans with Hawkins ‘75’ grenades strung across the road on which the heavy armoured cars blew up. As their crews scrambled out they were shot down by the paratroopers who followed up with Gammon bombs.

Having knocked out six German vehicles and killed or captured a fair number of troops, the 1st Battalion paraded its spoils before the French populace at Béja. Then, with German pressure increasing on Barré’s troops, it was put on immediate notice to move to the key communications centre of Medjez el Bab, accompanied by leading elements of the newly-arrived Blade Force.

Blade Force had arrived in its forward area long before it was expected and ahead of the time when 6th Armoured Division could catch up in the general area east of Bone. Meanwhile, as 78th British Division’s 36th Brigade advanced along the coastal road, Blade Force remained committed to an inland route towards Tunis, taking it over the river bridge at Medjez el Bab, 120 miles further east. The bridge was vital to any future advance since only there could tanks be sent through the mountains onto the Tunisian plain.

General Juin, commanding the French forces fighting on the Allied side, came to ask for every last man and as much equipment as possible to be sent to Medjez to help the gallant French defenders there. ‘Of course,’ noted Buttenshaw, ‘although he did not say so it was the moral effect as much as the material effect which was really wanted.’

The news on the night of 17/18 November, that the French were under threat from Kampfgruppe Koch (Oberstleutnant Koch’s 5th Parachute Regiment) at Medjez el Bab, brought armoured cars of B Squadron Derbyshire Yeomanry hurrying to their aid. Koch’s men were a formidable bunch. Hardly any of the rank and file soldiers were over 20 years of age but their officers had been battle-hardened in the famous Meindle Assault Parachute Regiment, which had won its spurs at Liége and Crete.

Linking up with 1st British Parachute Battalion and then moving forward from Béja, the Yeomanry discovered the French situated on the west bank of the Medjerda river and an inconsiderable number of Germans sitting tight on the other side; neither, however, had thought to blow the bridge. Both sides were still talking to each other, the Germans trying to persuade Barré to allow their limited force to move forward, and the French for their part seeking to delay the expected onslaught.The next morning, 19 November, Barré’s men fired on four German reconnaissance aircraft and refused either to join Nehring’s troops or retreat, under the excuse that the advancing Allies made it impossible for them to move. Kesselring, having given Barré one last ultimatum and receiving no answer, ordered the Stukadive bombers into action: ‘In war it is futile to bargain with unreliable auxiliaries,’ he observed.

Urgent requests to the Allied command from Giraud, Juin and General Louis-Marie Koeltz, commander of the Algiers and Constantine Divisions, for more tanks and fighter aircraft met with Anderson’s thinly disguised irritation: ‘It was explained to the French that, while everything would be done to assist, tanks could NOT be committed before they were concentrated in strength and fighters were at present based at Bône, which was too distant for effective fighter support.’

Nevertheless, backed by a company of 1st Paras, the French fought with exemplary courage, stopping the enemy assault and driving the attackers back over the Medjerda bridge. Koch’s men went berserk, several times forcing their way back into Medjez – the railway station changed hands twice in the fighting – until finally they were driven off.

Arriving a little late at the war, 175th US Field Artillery Battalion came charging to the scene and swept straight onto a forward slope in full view of the German positions. They immediately began firing at the only target visible, a church spire in the distance. ‘They did not hit it,’ recorded Buttenshaw rather dismissively, ‘… but they undoubtedly felt better and it helped them to settle down.’ Extricated by Colonel Hill’s paratroopers, their commanding officer explained their enthusiasm by saying that on the way into action his gun teams had realised they could be the first Americans to open fire in the war.

With the greater part of Blade Force now deployed and in action but with the arrival of 6th Armoured still awaited, a plan to attack from Medjez with a US M3 Lee battalion and march directly on Tunis was briefly considered, but this was abandoned because Blade Force had insufficient infantry. ‘It was very exasperating,’ recorded Buttenshaw, ‘to be so near and yet so far but wise counsel prevailed.’


Chapter 4

Fiddling with Details

‘Where is this bloody Air Force of ours? Why do we see nothing but Heinies?’

Widespread complaint among infantrymen in Tunisia, November 1942.

Before arriving in North Africa General Anderson had planned, under the ‘very best conditions’, to get his 78th Division into a position where it could move forward from the La Calle-Souk Ahras-Divivier region and send advanced columns to Tunis and Bizerte by D+21 (29 November). This was dependent on French co-operation or passivity and on seizing coastal airfields from which fighter aircraft could operate not later than the sixth day ashore. Anderson’s plans were flexible but lacked imagination and a ruthless determination to concentrate his limited forces. He failed completely to impress on Evelegh the necessity of driving forward on Tunis and Bizerte before the Germans could establish a bridgehead.

Prior to the convoys sailing, Anderson had accepted that the equivalent of only four British divisions could be landed rather than the six requested. These had been spread out from Safi to Algiers but a series of quick airborne strikes, ahead of rapidly advancing Allied armour, might have won the race for Tunis. The commander of 1st British Parachute Brigade thought that Anderson simply did not understand such operations; ‘… he was a crusty old boy who didn’t know anything about parachute troops and didn’t like what he had heard about them. I think he was pleased to get rid of us.’ The US Army was also ‘incredibly naïve’ in its lack of detailed planning, proper training and equipment for the exploitation east, complained Major Yarborough of the 509th Parachute Infantry. Few had looked beyond the initial gains or considered an orderly procession of air drops picking out objectives ahead of the ground troops.

Early in the Tunisian campaign, Brooke was showing signs of frustration at First Army’s slow progress: ‘News from Tunisia rather sticky;’ he wrote on 19 November, ‘only hope Anderson is pushing on sufficiently fast.’5 Faced with a journey through mountainous terrain of over 400 miles, its progress was hindered by the fact that for two weeks all available forces were split into a series of probing and only loosely-related advances.

Race For Tunis 4

The first major clash of armour came on 17 November when a defensive force, comprised of part of the 6th Royal West Kents, two troops of Royal Artillery and part of 5th Northamptons, was guarding a bridge and road intersection at Djebel Abiod, having been sent from Tabarka the previous night. Here, at the northernmost point of Kesselring’s developing main line of resistance, they met head on Gruppe Witzig6 advancing from Mateur with the intention of driving them back to Bone. After a furious three-hour firefight in which the Germans used their tanks as mobile pillboxes, attempting to blast the enemy off the pass, Germans withdrew, leaving behind eleven of their panzers destroyed and suffering one man killed and 20 wounded. The British lost much more; four 2-pounders, four 25-pounders and most of their carriers and other vehicles.

Everywhere in their advance the Allies were pushing against stiffening Axis resistance. The 1st Parachute Brigade and the French withdrew from Medjez el Bab to Béja on 20 November. Lack of air cover in their forward areas was daily becoming more evident in the scores of blackened and burned-out vehicles littering the roadsides. The US Twelfth Air Force was beginning a rapid build-up in Algeria but Major-General James Doolittle – hero of the famous raid over Tokyo on 18 April 1942 – had still to gather his scattered ground echelons and few forward airfields were established. Between Casablanca and the Tunisian border only four hard-surfaced runways were usable and most units were located in western Algeria, not even in the active theatre of war.

From their fragile reserves and other battlefronts, the Germans hurriedly flew in bombers, fighters and transport planes to airfields on Sicily, Sardinia, and southern Italy, from where troops and weapons were to be ferried to Tunisia in an attempt to choke off the Allied advance. Aircrew in these units seldom survived unharmed for more than a few weeks. ‘Our wing’s operational strength,’ said one bomber group commander, ‘was often less than 30 aircraft, and the crews of these lasted for less than 12 missions.’

Such a rate of attrition could not be sustained indefinitely despite a rapid reinforcement of Fliegerkorps II. In theory, Bruno Loezer’s HQ at Taormina was allotted around 700 aircraft – bombers, fighters, reconnaissance and close-combat (Nahkampferbände) units – for the defence of the Mediterranean. But the actual number of aircraft and crews available was often far less, either through technical difficulties in transporting torpedo aircraft from northern Norway, or because of poor supply conditions which restricted activities to the use of light, single-engine formations in Africa.

Numerically strong but technically inferior to its German counterpart, the Italian air force suffered catastrophic losses over Malta and was forced to discontinue daylight bombing raids after the Torch landings. The Italians were also unable to use more than one in ten of their night bombers because crews were inadequately trained. Of their two Mediterranean groups (Squadra in Italian parlance, but each composed of about 200 aircraft), one squadra was equipped with obsolete types of little operational value and was employed mainly in support of the German-Italian Panzerarmee. The other was used to protect the Italian mainland.

Despite these difficulties, there existed for some time a fine balance between Allied and Axis forces because the twin-engined bombers of both sides had exactly the same defects: neither could operate without fighter cover. Within their ‘magic circle’ of operations, Spitfires operated with some success but could not match the range of the American P-38 Lightnings at Youks les Bains and both were outnumbered by German Me-109s and Fw-190s.

Given time, the Allies could exert a decisive influence through the American B-17 four-engined heavy bomber but for the time being the Germans held the Tunisian plains where large areas were easily turned into landing grounds. From there, lightweight Ju-87s operated just beyond the range of Allied artillery and were on call to give ground support within five minutes.

On the night of 20 November, a strike force of over 60 Ju-87s and Ju-88s bombed Algiers and destroyed Spitfires, Beaufighters, P-38s, Eisenhower’s B-17 command plane – which he had sent forward to participate in bombing operations – and an entire RAF photographic reconnaissance unit at Maison Blanche airfield. As a parting gift, the Germans scattered thousands of razor-sharp pyramidal spikes, wrecking several Allied fighters when they blew out their tyres on trying to land, and many small booby traps resembling fountain pens, pocket wallets and watches.

This was the culmination of a series of night attacks mounted from Sardinia. The raiders were free to come and go virtually as they pleased since no Allied fighters had been equipped with night interception radar equipment. The tangled remains of smashed aircraft persuaded the Allies to remove their remaining B-17s out of harm’s way back to Tafarouia, where the mud was reported, two days later, to be ‘deep and gooey.’ It was precisely at this juncture that Anderson flew back from his command post to Algiers on 22 November to see Eisenhower, who arrived after some delay the next day, about the strain on his resources and administration imposed by the advance. They agreed that there must be a ‘short pause’ until Combat Command B (CC B) from Major-General Orlando Ward’s 1st US Armored Division, further elements of 78th British Division and 6th British Armoured Division could arrive, after which the advance was to be resumed.

The breathing space allowed 78th British Division to assemble in its forward positions. A three-pronged attack, with 36th Brigade Group in the north, Blade Force in the centre, and 11th Brigade Group in the south, would press in upon the enemy, hemming him into Bizerte and Tunis and surrounding him in these pockets.

Blade Force received orders to advance west of the Medjerda River (to have gone east would have depended on taking the bridge at Medjez el Bab, still in enemy hands) and concentrated in an area east of Béja during the afternoon of 24 November. After getting strafed on the way, it waited in readiness to move onwards towards Sidi N’Sir in conjunction with Stuart tanks of 1st Armored.

Nearly 700 miles away was the bulk of Brigadier-General Oliver’s CC B at Oran, about to be brought up with the reluctant approval of the US II Corps Commander, Major-General Lloyd R. Fredendall.Some tanks were sent in convoy to Algiers, shipped from there to Bone, and took to the road again for the battle area, wearing out their tracks in the process. Other elements, including some tracked vehicles, were shipped to the east on railway flat cars and a number of half-tracks were driven to Souk el Arba after the personal intervention of Eisenhower and his naval aide, Captain Harry C. Butcher, greatly speeded up the process.

Unfortunately, Eisenhower was out of touch with the true state of affairs at the front. ‘With communications so bad,’ remarked Haydon, ‘[the] C-in-C should call Task Force Commanders together and put them in [the] picture since [they] can have only [a] very hazy idea of what is happening.’ On his way to Algiers at last on the 23rd, Eisenhower’s Fortress burst a tyre while landing at Tafarouia and slid off the runway into the sticky mud. Slow to grasp that Anderson’s move on Tunis was badly stalled, the C-in-C immediately blamed the British for the loss of momentum. It was time, thought Butcher, for his boss to ‘take [the] British by the horns,’ and make them see sense.

Amid mutual recriminations, Brigadier Ian Jacob, on a visit to AFHQ as one of Lieutenant-General ‘Pug’ Ismay’s deputies, criticised the C-in-C’s failure to deal with Clark’s baleful influence. He ‘has all along been the evil genius of the Force [AFHQ],’ commented Jacob, and thought that Eisenhower should have blunted Clark’s ambition to assume Anderson’s command. ‘General Eisenhower is far too easily swayed and diverted to be a great commander in chief.’

Before the Torch landings, very little thought had been given to the question of co-operating with the French during the push into Tunisia. Only three among the American senior staff in North Africa had any grasp of their language and even when Colonel William S. Biddle arrived at AFHQ, on 6 November, in response to Clark’s urgent request for a senior liaison officer, his French was decidedly rusty.

The great majority of French infantry was native and varied in combat effectiveness. They were commanded by a totally French officer force and a sprinkling of French NCOs who were well trained, but everywhere poorly equipped. The French Army Detachment (DAF), commanded by Juin, was organized into Barré’s Troops of Tunisia (CSTT) in the north and 19th French Army Corps, under Koeltz, in the centre of the line.Giraud, as C-in-C, was never, neither formally nor in practice, under Allied command and began to assert his independence almost immediately. Thus, there were two commanders at the front; Anderson, responsible to Eisenhower and Juin reporting to Giraud. At Algiers, Eisenhower and Giraud acted as co-equals and completed an unhappy set-up in which there was no unity of command at either level.

The fundamental reason for this uneasy compromise lay in Giraud’s deep suspicions of the British and his low opinion of their military ability. He absolutely refused to place any French troops under British control and thus Anderson and Juin had to be treated as co-equals and a boundary line determined between them, which was drawn on a line, Souk Ahras–Le Kef–Zaghouan. Anderson was most unhappy at this arrangement.

Eisenhower’s intention, when he got to Algiers, was to relieve all French forces operating in 78th Division’s area, thereby disentangling them from First Army formations, and concentrate them under Barré to protect Anderson’s right flank. While an agreement was reached by 23 November it was tactically and logistically most unsatisfactory for there was only a single line of ammunition supply. However, due to Giraud’s intransigence this compromise was as Eisenhower confessed, ‘the best that could be achieved at the moment…’

On the same day that the G-in-G called a temporary halt to First Army’s advance, a conference took place in the shadow of the Arco dei Fileni, the monumental desert gate dividing Gyrenaica from Tripolitania, known to Eighth Army men as ‘Marble Arch.’ There, on 24 November, Bastico and Cavallero at last agreed to Rommel’s repeated requests to meet and discuss Mussolini’s preposterous order, agreed by Hitler, for the Mersa Brega position (known to the Allies as El Agheila) to be held at all costs.

Already, the vanguard of Rommel’s defeated army had retreated along 650 miles of the Via Balbia, the coast road in Cyrenaica, leaving whole Italian divisions to fend for themselves. At Halfaya, long-time resentments flared into violence when both sides fired on each other as the Germans made off in all available motorised transport. So intense had been the scramble to get away that 600 ‘Green Devils’ of the Ramcke Parachute Brigade were left behind. In a remarkable display of discipline and fortitude, these steel-hard troops covered over 200 miles of burning desert, seized a column of British trucks, lived off captured supplies and returned to quarrel furiously with Rommel for abandoning them.

At the Arco dei Fileni meeting, Kesselring tried vainly to mediate between Rommel, Cavallero and Bastico. The Italian General Staff was increasingly desperate to delay the enemy’s advance and Kesselring agreed that North Africa should be held as long as humanly possible, in order to keep war away from the southern boundaries of the Reich and Italy. This view was shared both by Comando Supremo and the OKW, though not by Rommel. ‘I am convinced that Rommel did not fundamentally intend to defend South and Central Italy decisively,’ wrote Kesselring, ‘His aim was the defence of the Alps, as a result of which… the whole war would have ended in late 1943 or early [in] 1944.’

Under enormous political and strategic pressures, Kesselring demanded a slow and measured withdrawal towards the Tunisian border. In the meantime, any delay imposed on Montgomery was to be used in building up the Axis’ front through supply bases at Tunis and Bizerte. Rommel was not deceived: ‘the enemy puts his pencil through all our supply calculations,’ he wrote. Kesselring knew, however, that while his constant requests to Comando Supremo for supplies of all kinds were answered only by unkept promises, once Rommel’s troops entered fortress Tunisia, OKW and Comando Supremo would consider his demands fulfilled. The conclusion was inescapable: so long as Rommel struggled in the Western Desert, at least some attention would be given to provisioning Tunisia. Close to despair after the inconclusive meeting with Kesselring, Bastico and Cavallero, his army struggling along on 50 tons of supplies a day instead of 400, Rommel received an order from Mussolini to launch an attack as soon as possible against the British from the Mersa Brega position. Unable to make Rome see sense, he decided to fly unbidden to Hitler and request the evacuation of North Africa.

The meeting was a fiasco. In a paroxysm of fury, the Führer shouted that the Panzerarmee had needlessly retreated and thrown away its weapons. His staff, many of whom, according to Rommel, had never heard a shot fired in anger, prudently nodded their agreement. Angry and defeated, Rommel left with orders to hold the Mersa Brega position at all costs though on his return journey he managed to get Mussolini’s permission for Italian infantry units to be sent to the Buerat Line further west. But a withdrawal into Tunisia as far as Gabès, where a decent defensive position was already available, was absolutely ruled out by Kesselring.

On the day that Rommel flew to see the Führer, Anderson’s foremost spearheads reached the outskirts of Djedeïda, less than 16 miles from Tunis. Light forces of Montgomery’s 7th Armoured Division having advanced through Egypt into Libya, covering 600 miles in 15 days, were on the approach road to El Agheila/Mersa Brega. General Marshall’s optimistic forecast that the Allies might be in Tunis within three weeks seemed about to come true.


Chapter 5

We’ll Just Murder Them

A modem battle is not at all what most people imagine it to be. There actually is no front line.’ Signal Corps’ officer and Hollywood boss Colonel Darryl F. Zanuck in his diary, 25 November 1942.

Deciding to concentrate on taking the Cyrenaican airfields – a sensible precaution – Montgomery did not accept the challenge of sending units flying across the desert south of Djebel Akhdar through Msus to sever the coast road along which the Panzerarmee was withdrawing, at Beda Fomm or Agedabia. A force of 28 Shermans from 1st Armoured Division was rushed forward from near Solium on 17 November, but this move, which could have been planned well in advance, came too late to isolate Rommel’s forces.By 23 November all Rommel’s units had retreated inside the Mersa Brega position and Montgomery was facing the task of forcing it with a slow and calculated build-up. There was time, meanwhile, for him to visit GHQ at Cairo and for some of his soldiers to get away on leave and taste the city’s dubious delights. ‘There was quite a bit of stealing,’ recalled A.H. McGee, ‘because we’d got so many deserters about in Cairo that they were giving these wogs money to go and knock us blokes about and pinch our paybooks – we nicknamed them the free Britishers – [then they] could go up and draw our pay on our books.’12 Soldiers whipped horse-drawn gharis (carriages) in frantic races through the narrow streets while the regular drivers sat quaking in the back.13Montgomery thought he would be able to start his offensive about the middle of December 1942. In the lull which now descended on the desert battlefield, he questioned the wisdom of using Eighth Army to take the next major objective, Tripoli, 760 miles by road beyond Benghazi, and whether this might not be more easily accomplished by First Army.For a time, Churchill was undecided – as was GHQ Middle East – but once Hitler had decided to create a German bridgehead in Tunisia the possibility of Anderson breaking through from the west became exceedingly remote and, in Montgomery’s words, with First Army being ‘seen off by the enemy, Eighth Army would have to advance to Tripoli – and beyond. Gradually, this trickled down to the rank and file, now in confident mood: Harry Mitchell heard that First Army had landed in Tunisia: ‘now it’s a race to Tripoli between us and the First Army, it seemed it was about equal distance to go; [so we thought]… the Eighth Army will get up there, we’ll just murder them by the time we get… there.’ The ‘Desert Rats’ would shortly discover this was greatly over-optimistic.As Rommel’s troops settled in their position at Mersa Brega, they heard enviously stories of new heavy tanks arriving in Tunisia, of the Nebelwerfer or multiple mortar launcher, and the Giganten, massive transport gliders capable of carrying a light tank or 250 men, diverted from the Panzerarmee to aid Nehring’s forces.

Such reinforcements made First Army’s task all the harder but Anderson had high expectations of his resumed attack on the night of 24/25 November: ‘My intention is to start advancing tonight towards first objective, Tébourba and Mateur, thence road northward,’ he signalled to AFHQ, requesting a maximum Allied bombing effort against Bizerte and Tunis.15 At 0700 hours on the 25th, Blade Force began moving towards Sidi N’Sir in three columns with over 100 US Stuart tanks on its right, 17/21st Lancers in the centre and the Force’s HQ with wheeled vehicles by road on the left, intent on patrolling the region round Tébourba and Djedeïda. Soon the carriers with the HQ group had to come onto the road as mud balled up under their sand shields, cutting their engines.

First ground contact was made at about 1300 hours when B Squadron of 1st Derbyshire Yeomanry reported it was engaging the enemy. In a copy-book attack a number of Germans were killed and 150 Italians taken prisoner who were, recounted Major Buttenshaw, ‘almost more of a nuisance as POW than as active enemy as our Armoured Force has precious few infantry for guarding prisoners.’

Blade Force now split, part of it moving north-eastward on Mateur while the remainder, including Lieutenant-Colonel Waters’s 1st Battalion, 1st US Armored Regiment, continued eastward in its light M3 (Stuart) tanks, accompanied by scout cars. One company pushed on over the Chouïgui Pass, onto the coastal plain north of Tébourba, crossing the Tine River and punching aside Feldwebel (Company Sergeant-Major) Hämmerlein’s weakened armoured reconnaissance company. By-passing the village, another column rumbled over the El Bathan bridge and breasted a ridge. Spread out before them in the late afternoon sun lay Djedeïda landing ground, guarded only by a light flak battery but shortly to be reinforced by Oberst Walter Barenthin’s Fallschirmjäger Regiment – an élite unit composed mainly of fighter pilot candidates debarred from flying duties by virtue of eye or other minor physical defects.17 German aircraft from the landing strip had been dive-bombing and strafing Blade Force all day.

There followed one of the weirdest encounters of the campaign as tanks pumped armour-piercing shells from their 37mm guns into parked aircraft. Some tried to take off and collided with each other while all around hangars and other buildings went up in flames. Before long, five Me-109s and 15 Stukas on the airfield were burning furiously. ‘This cheered us up a lot,’ commented Buttenshaw. American losses were relatively light: the rest withdrew to bivouac with other elements of the battalion near Chouïgui village.

On the day after their success at Djedeïda airfield Waters’s tanks met an enemy detachment, consisting of a Kompanie from each of the 11th Parachute Engineer Battalion, 3rd Tunis Field Battalion and 190th Panzer Battalion, rolling from Mateur towards Tébourba. This force included a number of Panzerkampfwagen IV (PzKpfw IV or Mark IV) tanks, which the Americans had never seen before, carrying the long-barrelled high-velocity 75mm gun. They were accompanied by several older and smaller PzKpfw Ills, though these had been upgraded by being fitted with spaced armour.

The first armoured clash between Americans and Germans in World War II began on the edge of an olive grove, at a range of about 1,000 yards, when three half-track-mounted 75mm howitzers of Lieutenant Ray Wacker’s assault-gun platoon scored direct hits on the enemy tanks but did little damage. The Panzers replied with flat-trajectory armour-piercing ammunition sent screaming amongst the half-tracks, which Wacker prudently withdrew to safety, while Major Siglin’s 1st Platoon attacked from the flank in their Stuarts.

Six of the Stuarts were hit and burned fiercely. Siglin was killed, though grievous losses had been inflicted on the better-armed Germans. At least six Mk IVs and several Mk III panzers had been disabled, their tracks shot off or engine compartments perforated; none had ‘brewed up’, however. Shells had bounced off the enemy like so many ping-pong balls. This puzzled the Americans, but unknown to the tank crews, their armour-piercing shot still lay at the docks. They had been firing practice ammunition.

While the American tanks were within striking distance of Tébourba, and virtually roaming at will among the enemy’s rear outposts, the southern prong of Evelegh’s attack consisting of 11th Infantry Brigade Group, commanded by Brigadier E.E. Gass, reinforced by 2nd Battalion, 13th US Armored Regiment and 56th Reconnaissance Regiment, had fallen behind schedule and become pinned down on the bare and level plain near Medjez el Bab. ‘As it got light,’ recorded Major Knoche, ‘we could make out a lot of enemy tanks… we opened fire, and gave the inexperienced Americans a painful lesson. Their return fire was very inaccurate, in fact [they were] just firing away in all directions. Even so they did cause quite a few casualties, which we could ill afford.’ By their determined resistance, the Germans’ screening forces prevented the Allied tanks breaking through on the road south to Goubellat and Bou Arada.

During the night of 25/26 November, Kampfgruppe Koch, anticipating a further American thrust towards the east which would render occupation of Medjez meaningless, withdrew from the village after inflicting heavy casualties on 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers. They had attempted to cross the River Medjerda by moonlight, faltered under heavy machine-gun fire and been cut to pieces by a deadly fusillade from Koch’s men on the far bank at daybreak.

When the stone bridge was at last open, M3 Lee tanks of 2nd Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment wound their way carefully over with 1st East Surreys in support. They discovered the Germans had withdrawn their forces beyond Tébourba towards the inner defences around Tunis, though a company of Barenthin’s troops had, for some reason, not received the order to pull back and remained hidden in the town. An indication of other Allied problems, however, was that, as late as 23 November, many of the 2nd Battalion tanks had been immobilised through lack of grease for their bearings.

Also crossing the bridge should have been Company C of 701st Tank Destroyer Battalion. In an incident which was to become hideously familiar they had been badly shot up by American P-38s which poured cannon fire into their own troops and vehicles from a height of only 50 feet. Not one round was fired back before the aircraft made off, leaving five dead, 16 wounded, towering black clouds of smoke rising from nine fiercely burning vehicles, and seven SP (self-propelled) 37mm guns out of action. It required a major effort to repair the column, at a time when every bit of Allied firepower was needed, and to get it rolling forward again within 48 hours.

By daylight on 27 November the East Surreys held El Bathan and, accompanied by Lee tanks from 13th US Armored Regiment, were also in the town of Tébourba. They successfully defended it against a German counter-attack, mounted by two columns of motorized infantry and tanks, before 5th Northamptons and Blade Force arrived. But the hold-up at Medjez el Bab made them too late to take advantage of 1st Armored Battalion’s exploits.

The following day was critical in the struggle to reach Tunis and Bizerte. Climbing the heights of Djebel Maiana that morning British and American officers could see, shining and dancing in the distance, the white buildings and minarets of Tunis and the black lines of railway and roads, snaking across the meandering River Medjerda, others disappearing between ridges near Djedeïda. Hopes were high that a last push might see them in the city – perhaps even by nightfall.

In the north, while prodding laboriously past mines and booby-traps along the coastal road, one prong of Evelegh’s attack was blunted by Kampfgruppe Witzig, reinforced by newly arrived elements of 10th Panzer Division. Oberst Barenthin, in charge of the sector around Mateur, had secured his right flank with Witzig’s men taking the heights west of Djefna. This was a wise decision because he had only a thin line of defence and distrusted the fighting abilities of the two battalions of Italian infantry and one artillery battery defending Mateur itself.

As units of the 8th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (part of 36th Infantry Brigade) passed between two prominent points, Bald and Green Hill – so named by the battalion’s CO because, unusually, the one on the southern side of the road was free of vegetation at the top – Witzig’s men were waiting, killing 30, wounding 50 more and taking 86 POW, besides destroying 10 Bren Gun carriers. To Barenthin’s great surprise, the British began digging in: ‘They were doing this quite openly,’ he said. Another attempt next day to storm the hills and force open the road was beaten back by Witzig’s men after hours of bitter fighting. Renewing the advance seemed impossible after this and 36th Brigade finally withdrew to the area of Sedjenane, leaving the Germans in command of the secondary route to Bizerte.

The main Allied thrust, by 11th Infantry Brigade, came in the centre, from the direction of Tébourba with troops of the 5th Northamptons riding into battle on Lee tanks of 2nd Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment. Hauptmann Welte’s 3/52 Flak Battery was well concealed and repulsed them with such effective anti-tank and machine-gun fire that the wounded had to be left in the open until nightfall when they were brought in by the light of the burning tanks. Overall, the operation had been too weak, lacked surprise and failed to co-ordinate tanks and infantry.

The attack was renewed by Brigadier Gass on the following morning (29 November) using the 5th Northamptons and 12 M3 medium tanks. Again they were turned back by very heavy anti-tank and machine-gun fire. When the armour pulled out it was repeatedly dive-bombed and shelled and most of the infantry forced to withdraw nearer to Tébourba, although a defensive line on a ridge close to Djedeïda held until the Hampshire Regiment’s 2nd Battalion relieved the battered Northamptons after dark.

The bulk of 11th Brigade was now stuck fast slightly north-east of Tébourba although the Germans, too, were at full stretch. When Lieutenant-Colonel Waters’ tanks debauched onto the Tunisian plain from the Chouïgui Pass they were stopped by two 88mm guns of 20th Flak Division, deployed on the road to Tunis. The famous ‘88’ was a fearsome weapon. ‘We used to stand in awe of the[m],’ said David Brown, ‘… and you only had to mention there were a few about… and there was a bit of a flap on; they were good guns, there’s no doubt about that.’

Nehring had only one battery of four. Contrary to all normal requirements, rules and experience, they had to be used separately on main roads as anti-tank weapons. It was, commented Nehring, ‘an unparalleled situation calling for stopgap and emergency measures,’ and he personally organized the siting of each gun in order to stiffen the backbone of his defences.

On 29 November there arrived strong elements of 10th Panzer under Generalleutnant Wolfgang Fischer, followed by a consignment of guns and four new Tiger tanks, shipped from Fallingbostel by Major Lüder, commanding Panzer-abteilung 501, accompanied by his brilliant company commander, Hauptmann Baron von Nolde. The Tigers, Hitler had assured Kesselring, would be ‘decisive’ in the campaign for Tunisia.

The PzKpfw VI or Tiger was a formidable fighting vehicle weighing nearly 60 tons. It moved on massively wide tracks and was protected by mighty armour four inches thick at the front. Carrying a lethal punch from its 88mm gun, it nevertheless suffered badly from teething troubles and lacked the reliability of other German tanks so that disaffected crews nicknamed it ‘the furniture van.’ These shortcomings were soon in evidence for, on arrival at Tunis, one Tiger immediately squatted immovably on the quayside and a second broke down on the road outside the city. Engines, radio apparatus and gears all caused trouble and the Tiger was a notorious guzzler of precious fuel, consuming some 50 gallons every 60 miles.

Nevertheless, they gave much confidence to the infantry barring the Allied advance from the direction of Tébourba though Nehring was quite astonished at Hitler’s reckless over-estimation of the Tiger’s effectiveness on the outcome of the campaign, committed as they were to a front of over 300 miles. Moreover, alarming – and highly exaggerated – reports were now coming in from Arabs who swore that 1,000 enemy parachutists were dropping north of Zaghouan and 2,000 troops landing at Gap Serrat.

Despite Evelegh’s decision to call a temporary halt in the trek eastwards until more air support was made available, about 500 members of the British 2nd Parachute Battalion, commanded by Colonel John Frost, clambered into American C-47s of 62nd and 64th Troop Carrier Groups at Maison Blanche. They dropped near Depienne, at 1450 hours on 29 November, with orders to destroy enemy aircraft, thought to be holding up First Army’s advance, and shoot up anything at Oudna, 12 miles away – after commandeering their own transport. This last detail was symptomatic of the whole enterprise, planned with a cavalier disregard for the difficulties involved.

Depienne airstrip was found to be unoccupied; next morning the paratroopers made their way on foot to Oudna where they encountered not German aircraft on the tarmac but four enemy tanks, together with elements of 1st Company, 5th Fallschirmjäger Regiment, and Hämmerlein’s armoured reconnaissance company. Supported by Me-109s they forced Frost’s men to withdraw to higher ground.

After a fitful night’s sleep in the freezing cold, Frost’s men were up early to plan an ambush. But Hämmerlein’s forces, used by Nehring as the ‘fire-brigade’ of the Tunisian bridgehead, together with elements of the Italian Superga Division, arrived sooner than expected. Help appeared to be at hand for the outnumbered paratroopers when there were reports of armour coming up behind them, supposedly bearing First Army’s yellow triangle recognition signal.

Alas, the reports were false for the tanks turned out to be commanded by Oberleutnant Jahn, who was shot dead in the ensuing violence which also killed or wounded many of the stubborn ‘Red Devils,’ including B Company’s CO, Major Cleaver. In the meantime, Frost had managed to contact First Army and was told that no tanks could get beyond Tébourba. Consequently, he and his men were forced to withdraw southwards, towards the Sidi bou Hadjeba ridges, leaving behind their wounded and sent on their way by an enemy bombardment. Exploding shells ripped razor sharp slivers from the bare rocks which slashed into the hurrying men; one poor soul had his face sliced almost from his head and was desperately holding it together with his hands.

Frost’s survivors were assaulted by enemy infantry and pounded by armour and artillery all day. Among them worked the medical officer, covered in blood from the injured, with nothing to staunch the wounds. Yet, just when matters appeared hopeless, the Luftwaffe mistook the yellow triangles for First Army’s identification and bombed their own tanks and armour to oblivion.After a German attack the next day, led by Leutnant Johann Ismer who was killed, a handful of paratroopers struggling towards Medjez 24 hours later were picked up by an American reconnaissance group. A few more were brought in but B Company had been surrounded and taken prisoner and C Company completely decimated on the ridges of Sidi bou Hadjeba.

Only 160 men remained of 2nd Battalion after this disaster; after one night’s rest they were sent to guard the airfield at Medjez. Digging in near the railway station they became caught up in Nehring’s counter-attack that was soon to follow and, not fully aware of what was happening, fought a ferocious rearguard action. Brigade HQ demonstrated little understanding or sympathy for the battalion, whose magnificent fighting qualities had been expended in a particularly ill-conceived and ultimately futile operation which outraged Frost. Even Nehring was at a loss to understand its purpose: ‘it was too small an action to be readily explained.’

The same could be said of the landing by ten troops, six British and four American, of 1st Commando on the coast west of Bizerte, near Sidi el Moudjad, in the early hours of 1 December, which was intended to turn Kampfgruppe Witzigs right flank and harry its withdrawal. The beach selected was not easy; men had to wade ashore up to their armpits in water and five donkeys swam energetically ashore only to be found useless because of the nature of the terrain.

Dividing their forces at dawn, the commandos advanced five miles inland to two road junctions on the Bizerte-Mateur road; one group held their junction for 72 hours and the other for 24 hours. During this time, they dominated the area, stopping the enemy moving westward for it was impossible for armour to travel off-road because of the thick heather-like scrub, often over seven feet high.

Reports to Nehring of this operation were greatly delayed by the inadequate French telephone service. On hearing of it, he immediately dispatched troops – only just disembarked in Tunisia – across the wooded mountains to meet this latest challenge. Three times Arab informers gave away the commandos’ positions, while for their part the ‘Green Berets’ confirmed reports coming in to First Army that German patrols were operating out of Mateur in Arab dress.

In three days the commandos lost 134 men, including troop commanders Captain Harold Morgan and Captain John Bradford who led their men to within four miles of Bizerte. The survivors were eventually forced to retreat to Sedjenane after failing to establish radio contact with brigade HQ and running out of supplies. Beyond confirming their ability to survive and fight courageously under the most adverse situations, which was already well known, little was gained from this exploit. Since 36th Brigade Group’s advance had run out of steam well short of Mateur when the operation went ahead, it is difficult to see quite what could have been achieved.

On 27 November 1942, Eisenhower and Clark at last set out for the front in a semi-armoured Cadillac, protected from aerial attack by guns mounted on two scout cars, though their elevation was ‘disquietingly low.’

Anderson’s right flank was flung just east of Tébourba and his light reconnaissance forces stretched out to the south-east. The left of his main force was at Mateur while Blade Force was operating in support of two Brigade Groups. Soon to arrive, but not yet in line, was 1st Guards Brigade (78th Division) with Brigadier-General Lunsford Oliver’s CC B from 1st Armored Division also pushing into forward areas.

In the south, 2nd Luftwaffewachkompanie (Air Force Guard Company) under Oberleutnant Kempa had occupied the airfield at Gabès on 17 November without major French opposition. Four days later they were reinforced by Italian troops arriving after a long overland march from Tripoli. Nehring’s constant worry was that the Allies might break through to this important port and strategic centre, selected as the junction between the Tunis bridgehead and the Panzerarmee, cutting off the whole Tunisian promontory and exploiting the Mareth fortifications to which Rommel’s men were retreating. He therefore stiffened the Italian forces in this region with patrols while simultaneously dispatching German demolition teams who parachuted into Gafsa and straddled the roads between Gafsa and Tébessa, in order to impede any Allied thrust to the coast.

With the object of securing the road from Tripoli, German and Italian units occupied the coastal cities of Sousse and Sfax. They were commanded by Nehring to mount an ‘aggressive defence’ and push out towards the west in order to keep the Allied forces at bay. In this they were only partly successful because of the low quality of some troops involved, though the Sousse battalion advanced past Kairouan and fought superior enemy forces to a standstill on the hills to the west of the city.

Dismayed by what he had seen on his tour of the front, Eisenhower was only too aware of how thinly First Army’s forces were spread out. In the south, only Edson Raff’s miniature blitz army was bustling about and making itself a general nuisance to the enemy. Eisenhower had instantly promoted this ‘energetic, resourceful officer’ to colonel and held him in high regard.

On 28 November Raff was resupplied and reinforced with a battalion of the 26th US Infantry, a company of Algerian Tirailleurs, a British anti-mine engineer detachment and a company of tank destroyers. Three days later he sent a light platoon from Fériana through Kasserine to enemy country beyond Sbeïtla, with the object of attacking a German-Italian force at Faïd, the last natural barrier on the road from Tébessa to Sfax.

Faïd Pass, just to the east of the village, was full of the enemy; they were to be attacked from the rear, across their line of retreat, while Lieutenant Roworth, RE, and his squad went ahead to check for mines. ‘How the hell do you know Roworth,’ asked Yarborough when the road was reported as clear, ‘you don’t have any such thing as a mine detector with you, do you?’ ‘I smell ’em out Major,’ was the reply. Yarborough was inclined to think this was true.

Four P-38 Lightnings, diving low and machine-gunning, heralded the start of Raff’s attack. As they turned back to base in came the tank destroyers, followed by Algerian Tirailleurs but it took two days’ hard fighting to occupy the pass and a pounding from the Luftwaffe before it was held.

Elsewhere, there was little success. Observing that the only forward formations capable of giving ‘an umbrella to our foot troops’ were the British Spitfires flying off Souk el Arba with about 40 P-38s and a squadron of A-20 Havocs operational from Youks les Bains, Eisenhower complained to Marshall of ‘real difficulty.’31 In a gesture to help Anderson, the C-in-C personally placed the aircraft at Souk el Arba at the complete disposal of First Army which in turn assigned them to 78th Division.

There was no lack of effort on the part of Eastern Air Command (the RAF formation supporting First Army) and the US Twelfth Air Force: in the last week of November they flew nearly 1,900 sorties and lost at least 52 aircraft against the Luftwaffe’s 1,084 sorties and 63 losses. But their offensive against landing grounds and transport aircraft was achieved only at the expense of neglecting the enemy’s supply lines and shipping in ports. The air effort was also largely invisible to Anderson’s hard-pressed infantry who were sheltering from incessant air attacks in their most vulnerable and far-flung positions.

Blade Force, stuck near Chouïgui on the afternoon of 27 November, was attacked by Ju-88s when practically devoid of any natural cover. ‘What there was,’ recorded Haydon, ‘was allotted to the soft-skinned vehicles, otherwise we relied on good dispersion. Provided they had handy slit trenches personnel were quite safe but there was a steady drain on… vehicles at this time.’ Forty-eight hours later, the Germans struck in force and blitzed Blade Force all day. In retaliation, plans were laid to attack the Axis airfields on 30 November, which was changed to an assault by US Stuart tanks and then finally cancelled because Djedeïda still had not fallen.

Despite impressing, ‘every kind of scrawny vehicle that can run,’ First Army was short of supplies, low on maintenance and could not stem the enemy’s rate of reinforcement. Eisenhower was ready to blame everyone but himself: Anderson was, ‘apparently imbued with the will to win, but blows hot and cold by turns, in his estimates and resulting demands’; Air Marshal Sir William Welsh, C-in-C Eastern Air Command, was, ‘a sound statistical planner but rather devoid of imagination and… lacking in drive,’ while Doolittle, ‘is a curious mixture.’ Only the Naval C-in-C Mediterranean, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, ‘a joy to have around,’ and Lunsford E. Oliver had been effective.

Mindful of the factors telling against him, Anderson informed Eisenhower that, unless he could mount an attack soon, he would have to withdraw his forces to an area with greater air-cover and build up his units for a major offensive. A flowing tide of men from 5th Fallschirmjäger Regiment, moving steadily along the road towards Medjez el Bab late on the afternoon of 30 November, swamped his slow deliberations. The German counter-attack had begun.


Chapter 6

A Nasty Setback

‘I hope the type of piddling and disconnected action which you have evidently been subjected to will soon be stopped and I pray for an American Army.’

Major-General Ward to Major-General Oliver, 14 December 1942.

Oberstleutnant Koch knew exactly what was expected of him in leading the attack which Kesselring had ordered. Unhappy with the way in which Nehring had allowed his units to be pushed back towards Tunis and Bizerte, the Generalfeldmarschall visited him on 28 November, urging a much more positive view of what could be done.

Nehring’s initial response was to place a soldier of great competence and vigour, Generalleutnant Fischer, in charge of the attack, scheduled to jump off on 1 December. Fischer immediately diverted substantial parts of his newly arrived 10th Panzer from support of Kampfgruppe Witzig and sent them instead to reinforce the front around Tébourba. Every available man and machine was flung into the assault; only 30 men remained in Tunis to keep watch on the city’s 220,000 inhabitants.

Koch’s 3rd Battalion advanced from Tunis towards Massicault, on the road to Medjez and pierced the Derbyshire Yeomanry’s first line of defence. When the paratroops became pinned down, artillery was called up to take out the British machine-gun and mortar positions.

At the same time, the larger part of 5th Fallschirmjäger Regiment swung northwards towards El Bathan with the intention of blocking the road from Medjez to Tébourba and then turning west beyond El Bathan, thus encircling the enemy and cutting off his line of retreat. Oberfeldwebel Ahrendt led his Pionier platoon deep into hostile territory to blow up the single road bridge two miles west of El Bathan, in order to prevent the bulk of Cass’s 11th Infantry Brigade Group and elements of 1st US Armored Division from bringing up supplies or withdrawing. All night and throughout the next day, Ahrendt’s men fought off savage attacks as the British tried to re-open the vital route.

Closing in from the south-east, a leading company of paratroopers under Leutnant Kautz found a rough path leading towards El Bathan and unexpectedly found themselves harrying the East Surreys from the rear. They were soon spotted and bombarded by American artillery and mortars but were greatly encouraged to see the flicker of machine-gun fire to the east where advance units of 86th Panzer Grenadier Regiment (10th Panzer Division) had made contact with the enemy.

Koch’s men advanced in open order; storming the village, they drove the East Surreys remorselessly back until the whole Allied defence line cracked. British and American staff cars, tanks, artillery and signals units streamed south-west, towards Medjez el Bab, pursued by Oberleutnant Wohler’s 12th Company in the vanguard of 10th Panzer Division. The fearless Leutnant Kautz was not among them. A tank shell had exploded, killing him instantly and so severely wounding the men nearest him, Jäger Bohly and Gefreiter Vogel, that they died next day. At Medjez el Bab the Panzers were stopped with unexpected ferocity by survivors of the British 2nd Parachute Battalion who delayed their advance long enough to prevent complete encirclement of the troops at Tébourba.

It was on Tébourba that the main weight of Generalleutnant Fischer’s armoured drive to the west was unloaded. While Koch’s regiment put pressure on the Allies’ southern flank, parts of 10th Panzer Division attacked from the north and north-east and the Tiger battalion, together with two Marsch battalions, struck from Djedeïda.

In the Chouïgui Pass – at the northern end of the Tébourba salient – Blade Force, with Waters’s 1st Battalion and the Derbyshire Yeomanry’s armoured cars, felt the first impact of Battle Groups Lüder and Hudel as they attacked with 60 Mk IIIs and IVs panzers. The defenders were driven south-eastward into olive groves near Tébourba but steady shooting by British artillery slowed up the German advance while the 17/21st Lancers were hurriedly called from the Tébourba Gap to support. However, because the Lancers were carrying out maintenance and repairs to their shockingly unreliable Crusader tanks, they were unable to re-join Blade Force in time and had five of their tanks destroyed into the bargain.

As artillery, infantry and other units streamed back through the Tébourba Gap, 2nd Hampshires were battling to hold the ridge in front of Djedeïda against another enemy advance which had developed during the afternoon of 1 December. On taking over from the Northamptons, Lieutenant-Colonel Lee had been worried that he was given permission neither to attack and hold Chouïgui village, nor to fall back on a common front with the East Surreys.

Group Djedeïda attacked head-on. Made up from Tunis Marsch battalions, their weak performance incensed Fischer who was forced personally to lead some companies, platoons and even squads: ‘it is impossible to fight successfully with such troops,’ he complained to Nehring. An officer, who lurked under cover for hours’ with his men, was relieved on the spot and Fischer demanded that he be court-martialled.

Despite their attackers’ lack of aggression the Hampshires were up against hopeless odds, repeatedly forced into costly counter-attacks in order to hold ridge positions. With Tébourba threatened by encirclement and El Bathan falling to Koch’s paratroopers, they were in imminent danger of being cut off. Indeed, their position was worse than that of Blade Force which had been driven back on Tébourba but had denied the town to the enemy by accurate artillery fire.

In bitter fighting next day (2 December) 2nd Hampshires held Group Djedeïda on their eastern ridge line – but only at heavy cost. As Fischer’s tanks began to infiltrate their forward positions they began to pull back under cover of darkness to an area between the Medjerda River and the East Surreys’ positions. Meanwhile, Tébourba was nearly surrounded by German armour and the salient pounded by Stukas, though they were forced to remain high by Blade Force’s good use of light anti-aircraft guns which also deterred ground troops from pressing home attacks on its exposed positions.

Heroic efforts by part of 2nd Battalion, 13th US Armored Regiment, ordered to attack south of Tébourba, also prevented the enemy from destroying some of Blade Force’s attached units, though the cost was high, as M3 Lee commander Lieutenant Philip Walker later recounted. During the engagement a nearby detonation shattered his tank’s 37mm sight, blinding and wounding the gunner: ‘He told Sergeant Evans to take his place, then felt for and put in a new sight himself,’ noted Walker. ‘We continued, firing now at Jerry tanks at 1,000 yards range… Our tank was hit and flamed up. Gave the order to abandon tank. Ran back about 70 or 80 yards to the draw, by which we had advanced. Discovered Sergeant Evans was groaning and burning. Dragged him out… Gave [him] a shot of morphine. He was conscious and uncomplaining. Put one of his eyes back into its socket and bandaged it… I was burned on my right leg and left arm but O.K.’ In this short firefight, lasting 15–20 minutes, eight M3s ‘brewed up’ and the average loss was one killed and two wounded in each.

Brigadier Gass’s tanks were frittered away in such desperate engagements by pitting them against superior German armour. Ominously, Anderson reported that his army and air force units were stretched to their limits, communications were, at best, precarious and no reserve supplies had been brought forward. The arrival next day of two companies of 10th Panzer’s 86th Grenadier Regiment, flown in from Italy to reinforce Group Djedeïda, together with first-class air support, decisively tipped the scales.

A fierce attack against the East Surreys dislodged them from Point 186, the highest part of Djebel Maiana, from where Americans and British had looked down on Tunis only five days earlier, and nearly cut off remnants of the 2nd Hampshires. Seeing German infantry taking positions on the hill they counterattacked from an outlying peak and when this petered out, Major H.W. Le Patourel led four volunteers who bombed and shot their way deep into the enemy’s positions. He was very naturally assumed to be dead and awarded a posthumous Victoria Gross; only much later was it discovered he had been taken prisoner and, happily, recovered from his wounds.

A counter-attack by the East Surreys in the afternoon narrowly failed to recover their abandoned guns and Lieutenant-Colonel Wilberforce was forced reluctantly to withdraw under cover of darkness along a steep and narrow track running by the edge of the Medjerda River since his retreat had been blocked by German armour. They soon came under fire; the first vehicle to blow up was a 3-ton ammunition lorry before a carrier was hit, losing a track and resisting every effort to move it. Eventually, it had to be abandoned and with it all the following vehicles.

A few guns and vehicles, some infantry and the crews of the abandoned vehicles were saved. Behind them, Tébourba lay wreathed in a pall of smoke while white Verey lights and streaks of tracer bullets revealed how the Germans were mopping up the few survivors. ‘It was,’ said one man, ‘like Dunkirk all over again.’

This withdrawal exposed the Hampshire’s left flank to attack. Completely encircled, they drew in around their battalion HQ. Lieutenant-Colonel Lee ordered 200 survivors to break out of the surrounding ring of German troops and head for Medjez el Bab. Four days later only four officers and 120 men reassembled. The battalion had virtually been annihilated.

General Evelegh’s decision to vacate Tébourba and pull back 11th Brigade, stiffened with Oliver’s CC B and 2nd Battalion, the Coldstream Guards (1st Guards Brigade commanded by Brigadier Copland-Griffiths), had become inevitable with the loss of Point 186, which gave the enemy an invaluable observation platform over the village and surrounding countryside.

Before the retreat could get under way a strong attack on 6 December by elements of 10th Panzer Division developed from the direction of Massicault towards Medjez el Bab. Their way was barred by CC B’s tanks, but unfortunately the company commanders of Lieutenant-Colonel Hyman Bruss’s 2nd Battalion, 13th Armoured Regiment, counter-attacked without decent reconnaissance and failed to co-ordinate with mutually supporting weapons or concentrate their forces. They ran onto highly accurate anti-tank fire, predictably suffering heavy losses. The subsequent retreat of Evelegh’s units under constant gunfire and aerial attack, through the Tébourba Gap and up the Medjerda Valley, was arduous. Much materiel had to be abandoned.

Blade Force, put into reserve after its relief by US armour, was called upon to protect this withdrawal from an attack expected from the direction of Béja. For several days the weather was appalling; one sweep by 17/21st Lancers reported that enemy tanks had been spotted but a patrol sent out to investigate returned with the news that the ‘tanks’ were Arab huts. Patrol members, ‘failed to report whether they were Mark III or IV panzers,’ commented Buttenshaw

.To Nehring, the outcome of the struggle for Tébourba was ‘a song of praise to German valour and German endurance under the most difficult circumstances with emergency equipment.’ Many wounded had to be left in agony on the battlefield because there were too few medical troops and losses were so severe. Among them was Oberfeldwebel Ahrendt, who had so skilfully led the attack at the Medjerda bridge. He was killed on 3 December by artillery fire and was posthumously awarded the Knight’s Cross. Dead, too, was brilliant tank commander Hauptmann von Nolde after a shell took off both his legs as he tried to pass instructions to Hauptmann Deichmann, in turn felled by a sniper’s bullet at the hatch of his Tiger during furious battles in the olive groves north of Djedeïda.

As for Cass’s 11th Brigade, in four days it had exhausted its fighting value, losing 55 tanks and some 300 motor vehicles; more grievous still, over 1,000 men had been captured. The Surreys and Northamptons were each down to about 330 all ranks, the Lancashire Fusiliers, sent up with the Coldstream Guards, reduced to 450 men and the Hampshires almost wiped out. In the air losses had also been severe, especially on 4 December when nine Bisley light bombers of RAF No. 18 Squadron, led by Wing-Commander Malcolm, were caught in the late afternoon on little less than a suicide mission. Sent without Spitfire escort on a low level attack against a landing ground ten miles north of Chouïgui, they were bounced by 60 Me-109s which shot them down, killing six complete crews. Almost the last was Malcolm, awarded a posthumous VC for his outstanding bravery.

‘It is obvious we have lost the race for Tunis,’ noted Butcher on 6 December, though Anderson reported only that his forces had suffered, ‘a nasty setback.’ Cataloguing a list of Anglo-American failures and protracted enemy dive-bombing, he told Eisenhower that, above all, ‘a sense of careless “dash”’ had arisen after the long advance into Tunisia during which a series of successful minor skirmishes had encouraged a casual attitude. ‘There were many gallant deeds in the fighting and there is no loss of spirit. But 11 Bde must have a rest before continuing: indeed all are tired.’ The reverse at Tébourba, had made a planned major attack on 9 December entirely out of the question although this was kept secret from the newly-activated V Corps, commanded by Lieutenant-General C.W. Allfrey with his HQ at Souk el Khemis, to whom written directions had been issued.

Re-grouping his forces, Nehring planned to start a new assault on 10 December south of the Medjerda River, in a south-westerly direction on the line Medjez-Goubellat, while von Broich’s forces near Mateur were reinforced and held the line without attempting to move westwards into the difficult mountainous area confronting them. In the south, the Italian Superga and Imperiali Divisions were strengthened with fresh reserves and committed step by step further south-west, improving the road link with Tripoli.

Before Nehring could execute his plan he was suddenly overtaken by a major shake-up of the German command in Tunisia. Kesselring was behind it, not through any severe disagreement with his young General der Panzertruppe over the desirability of spreading Axis positions outwards to a line Bone to Kebili, but rather from a lack of faith in his ability to see this through. On 3 December 1942, Generaloberst Jürgen von Arnim was called from the Russian Front to a conference at Rastenburg where Hitler ordered him straight to North Africa. ‘I have decided that our forces are too weak,’ he said, ‘and will create out of three tank divisions and three motorised divisions a new Panzerarmee, which you will command.’

An old friend, Generalleutnant Heinz Ziegler had already been told he was to be von Arnim’s chief of staff, carrying full powers to take decisions when his superior was away touring the front. Given new forces promised by Keitel, both von Arnim and Ziegler were confident they could advance out of the Tunis-Bizerte area, reach the mountains on the Tunisian-Algerian border, capture Bone and Philippeville harbours and move on to take the Algerian ports further west. In order to go as far as Oran, Ziegler counted on a rising of the Arab population, forcing the enemy either to re-embark or be taken prisoner. Both made the same demands for this ambitious programme: a guarantee of constant supplies and the capture of Malta.

The new commander of Fifth Panzer Army was a tall and severe 53-year-old veteran who had commanded 39th Panzer Korps at Rzhev. The call to serve in North Africa came as a complete surprise – and nearly as much to Nehring who knew he was to be sent to a command on the Eastern Front only 48 hours before von Arnim turned up at his headquarters.

Never given a clear objective, one of von Arnim’s first problems was the impossibility of fulfilling a stream of contradictory orders issued by Hitler, Kesselring, Bastico, Cavallero, the OKW staff and Mussolini. Still, when he and Ziegler landed at El Aouina on 8 December 1942, it struck Nehring – generally pessimistic about the likely long-term outcome of the fighting in North Africa – that both were ‘optimistic and eager for action.’ They were quickly put in the military picture by Nehring’s chief of staff, the capable Oberst Pomtow, and briefed by Gesandter (Ambassador) Rahn on the complicated political situation. ‘Whatever happens, I need peace and order behind me and the fighting forces,’ replied von Arnim, ‘and somehow we have to get all these different political and national factions under one hat.’

To complicate matters the French garrison of 12,000 men at Bizerte had been disarmed in a lightning action on 7 December, much against the wishes of Nehring and Kesselring since the local commander, Admiral Derrien, had remained loyal to the German cause even during the fighting round Mateur and the crisis at Tébourba. But a direct order from the Führer, delivered to Tunis by Generalleutnant Alfred Gause, could not be ignored. ‘There was,’ reported Nehring thankfully, ‘no friction.’

Safe in the knowledge that his base areas were secure, von Arnim gave orders for the advance to be resumed on Medjez el Bab, which Eisenhower had personally ordered Anderson to hold, much against the latter’s wishes. The C-in-C was particularly scathing about recent events: ‘I think the best way to describe our operations to date,’ wrote Eisenhower, ‘is that they have violated every recognized principle of war, are in conflict with all operational and logistic methods laid down in textbooks, and will be condemned in their entirety… for the next twenty-five years.’

At 0830 hours on 10 December, 86th Panzer Grenadier Regiment attacked in two columns, each consisting of a company of tanks and two of infantry moving along the Medjerda. A deserter, found drunkenly weaving about on a bicycle along the Furna to Medjez el Bab road the previous day, had told some startled Americans about a much stronger force, with artillery, concentrating near Massicault. Led by Major Huedel, with up to 35 tanks including one Tiger, this force was looping through Massicault and Furna to break into Medjez from the south, where it ran into Waters’s battalion, about ten miles from Medjez.

Despite prior knowledge, Waters was caught unprepared by the speed and precision of Huedel’s attack. His battalion was soon split and lost five Stuart tanks, which prised open the route to Medjez. Although hindered by the accurate shooting of a French battery, Huedel’s tanks outfought the Americans who were mercilessly machine-gunned as they scrambled from their burning Stuarts. The survivors sheltered in a steep-sided wadi, including one man nursing nothing worse than a damaged arm despite having been squashed into deep mud beneath the tracks of a Mk IV panzer.

By evening, a decision had been taken to withdraw CC B’s bludgeoned armour from Medjez el Bab while protecting the bridgehead against any enemy thrust which might develop from the direction of Tébourba. Directed by the senior battalion commander, Lieutenant-Colonel John R. McGinness, a long column of vehicles, guns and tanks crawled along a narrow paved road to cross the Medjerda River on the Bordj Toum bridge, slightly north-east of Medjez. A rumour spread that enemy artillery and mortars made this impossible and faced with a difficult situation, McGinness panicked. He consequently ordered the column to reverse and sent it on a dirt track alongside the river to cross the bridge at the village.

In one of the most costly and humiliating episodes in the history of 1st US Armored Division, the column very quickly became mired in deep, viscous, mud. Before long the order was given to abandon vehicles and make for Medjez on foot. Left behind were 18 tanks, 41 guns, 132 half-track and wheeled vehicles and 19 trailers.15 All had been brought thousands of miles at great cost; they remained gently rusting in their muddy graves until the Germans destroyed many of the entrapped hulks. Oliver immediately relieved McGinness of his command. ‘I never felt so bad in my life,’ wrote Oliver. ‘The only comfort I could draw from this blunder was the fact that we still had our men, all of them having marched to safety.’

On the verge of relieving all concerned of their commands, Eisenhower realised the Americans had suffered a ‘crippling loss.’ The only positive news came from Blade Force which ran into three companies of German glider school students, decked out as assault troops. Over 100 Germans were killed and additional 50 or so taken prisoner. Afterwards Blade Force withdrew without incident to Teboursouk where it was absorbed into 6th British Armoured Division. ‘On several occasions we had been within an ace of capturing Tunis,’ commented Major Buttenshaw, ‘but we never had enough infantry available to hold it.’‘We just tried to do too much with too little, and too late,’ agreed Waters, ‘We just couldn’t do it.’

Despite these setbacks, Eisenhower was determined not to give up the attempt to take Tunis by Christmas and pen in the enemy around Bizerte. The respite, however, enabled von Arnim to expand the bridgehead from Nehring’s original defence areas into one seamless system, with the von Broich Division in the north, 10th Panzer Division in the centre, the Italian 1st (Superga) Division in the south and east and, in the extreme south, the Italian 50th Special Brigade – ‘a sure indication that the Germans expect no serious attack in this area,’ noted CC B HQ. By 16 December, AFHQ (Allied Force HQ), estimated that the Axis could deploy about 25,000 combat troops and 80 tanks, supported by 10,000 service personnel. Against this, since Torch the Allies had deployed 20,000 British and 11,800 US combat troops, besides being able to call on 35,000 poorly equipped French soldiers, but were inferior in air and firepower, their preponderance in tanks and artillery being offset by superior German types and performance.

While the build-up for a new Allied attack progressed, Patton flew in from French Morocco to First Army HQ at Ain Senour – ‘Jane’s Ass’ to the British – to discover why American tank losses were so heavy. While at the front he visited Waters’ battalion, which had lost two-thirds of its tanks, and found Waters himself with a bullet hole through his clothing. At Medjez el Bab he heard that the Hampshires had fought to the last against superior forces: ‘when the tanks came at them,’ he recorded, ‘the men got in their slit trenches, and the Germans then ran up and down lengthwise and squashed them in the trenches.’ Such an experience appeared to have broken the brigade commander; Patton found him ‘trembling all over. He told me this was due to fatigue. From the smell of his breath I could see that it was due to something else.’

Returning to Algiers on 13 December, Patton found Eisenhower and Clark trying to decide what to do next. ‘Neither had been to the front,’ he wrote, ‘so showed great lack of decision. They are on [the] way out, I think. [They] have no knowledge of men or war. Too damned slick, especially Clark.’

Within a few days Eisenhower, writing of ‘tremendous’ difficulties and risks, nevertheless insisted that, given ‘a spell of good weather, we can do the job,’ and crack open the Tunisian bridgehead despite the fact that the only glimmer of positive news came from the southern part of the front. At Fériana, north-west of Gafsa, Lieutenant-Colonel Bowen, commanding 3rd Battalion, 26th US Infantry Regiment, sent out raids under cover of darkness and scored a solid success at Maknassy on the night of 17/18 December, when his men swooped on the town and shot up a company of Italians. But Edson Raffs paratroopers were stealing the limelight: ‘Serving under Raff who actually directly commanded only 80 paratroopers is a bit awkward as my command is over 900,’ Bowen complained, ‘… it irritates every one of my men to be adding to the fame of this upstart unit which hasn’t been in action against the enemy yet! It’s an awkward set-up.’ Patton, however, was not impressed by Eisenhower’s optimism; he remained convinced that the Allies possessed too little firepower to sustain offensive operations.

Two days before the new attack Major-General Ward (1st Armored) visited Anderson to discuss tactics. Neither could agree on even the most fundamental issues and Ward was greatly angered by Anderson’s failure to acknowledge his troops’ role during the recent fighting in preventing the annihilation of 78th Division. Nor was he impressed with Anderson’s personality: ‘The impression was that it was a privilege to serve with him under his command. I hope that I will not have to do it.’

On the night of 22/23 December, men of the 2nd Coldstream Guards lined up in pouring rain to march on Djebel el Ahmera (‘the red mountain’), aptly named Longstop Hill by the Allies, nearly seven miles north-east of Medjez el Bab. Their task was to capture this important peak, which limited their view down the Medjerda Valley, as a preliminary move before the main drive on Tunis. The Guards were to hand over to 1st Battalion, 18th RGT (Major-General Terry de la Mesa Allen’s 1st US Infantry Division) who would then attempt to re-capture Bou Aoukaz, given up when Allied forces were pulled back through the Tébourba Gap.

As shells from supporting field and medium guns sought out the positions of the 754th German Infantry Regiment, the Goldstreamers battled over a series of false crests and stormed through a hail of machine-gun bullets and grenades to what they took to be the final outcrop of rock, outfighting the inexperienced German defenders, who had exhausted their ammunition and sought to defend their positions with the bayonet. Some weary hours later, the Guards were relieved by the 18th RGT which arrived late but was assured that only mopping up of a few German outposts was left.

When dawn broke, the Americans, who had not been entrusted with the original attack because of doubts about their battle worthiness, realized they occupied only part of the hill and were separated from the Germans on an adjacent peak, called Djebel el Rhar. At about noon von Arnim and Ziegler toured the front, handing out decorations and personally encouraging the troops. Oberst Rudolph Lang, who had been put in charge of the defences on 17 December, had no doubts that his men, cold, wet, and tired as they were, could be counted upon for another effort.

A savage counter-attack from Djebel el Rhar by Lang’s 1st Battalion, 69th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, drove the 18th RGT off its perch on Point 290. Lying up and saturated by the non-stop rain beyond Medjez and east of the Medjerda River, the Coldstreamers were ordered to re-take Longstop. Amid grumbles about incompetent Americans, they marched 12 miles back the way they had so recently come. Arriving in darkness, still buffeted by a tearing wind and the unceasing downpour, on Christmas Eve they attacked again. Having reached their former positions they tried to storm Djebel el Rahr but were driven back by overwhelming German firepower. A company of Algerian Tirailleurs, sent up to help and placed on Longstop’s northern spur, was decimated by German armour.

A further attack by a Panzer group led by Oberst Hofmann eventually displaced the attackers from what the Germans called the Weihnachtsberg (Christmas Hill), despite determined resistance from American troops. The Coldstreamers, almost isolated by now, came back down under cover provided by two companies from 3rd Battalion, Grenadier Guards. Retiring to Medjez, they were found to have lost 178 officers and men. The 18th US Reghimental Combat Group suffered an even greater mauling; nine officers and 347 men had been killed or taken prisoner.

Isolated by these setbacks were 5th Northamptons, who had set off into mist-shrouded hills to seize back the Tébourba Gap. When the attacks on Longstop were driven off Allfrey ordered a halt to further attacks for 48 hours. Increasingly desperate attempts were made by patrol and from the air to contact the Northamptons but a fall by one of their pack-mules had destroyed the crucial radio set and they had no means of knowing why the Americans were not advancing from Longstop as expected. On Christmas Eve, as sounds of gunfire grew no nearer, Lieutenant-Colonel Cook sensibly withdrew his men, who survived a wild skirmish with the enemy on the way back before staggering into a company of Surreys sent out to find them two days later.

In the meantime, while visiting Allfrey’s HQ on Christmas Eve, Eisenhower saw four soldiers struggling, without success, to extricate a motor-cycle which had become bogged down off the road in sticky, cloying mud. As much as anything this incident convinced him that an attack put in under such atrocious conditions had no chance of success. The push for Tunis was postponed until further notice.

Anderson confessed to being Very disappointed’ by this turn of events though a young soldier, lying wounded in a German military hospital in Tunis, was cheerfully optimistic when he told von Arnim that it was futile to send him to an Italian prisoner of war camp because the British would be in the city by Christmas. ‘I do not think your people will arrive that quickly,’ retorted von Arnim. At least one thing the bloody fighting around Longstop Hill ensured was that his confident prediction came true.


Chapter 7

Battering Our Brains Out

"The critical fuel situation does not permit even minor operations at the moment.’Extract from the War Diary of Generalleutnant Walter Warlimont, Deputy Chief of the Operations Section of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, 9 January 1943.

The assassination in Algiers of Admiral Darlan on Christmas Eve, 1942, faced Mark Clark with two immediate problems: who was to take Darlan’s place as head of the French in North Africa and how to forestall any related mischief-making by the Axis authorities, leaving French politics as undisturbed as possible. As an immediate precaution, all Allied troops in Algiers were placed on alert.

An urgent message to Eisenhower brought him hurrying back to the city, which he reached after a non-stop drive late on Christmas Day. Immediately he, ‘gave some discreet pushing’, and with President Roosevelt’s agreement, Giraud was persuaded to accept the appointment as French High Commissioner in North Africa.

Darlan’s death was, wrote Clark, ‘like the lancing of a troublesome boil’4 because the Americans had compelling reasons for getting rid of him and the British even better ones: ‘It may raise big complications,’ noted Anderson, ‘but personally I think it is for the best.’ In return, Darlan had had few illusions about the Allies, believing the British would soon remove him and set up de Gaulle.

Most of the leading Allied figures turned out in full uniform to pay their last respects to Darlan. Admiral Cunningham was standing next to Eisenhower, as Giraud knelt by the bier and ‘shed a tear.’ Then it was the C-in-C’s turn. ‘Everyone was making [the] sign of the cross,’ said Cunningham, ‘dipping a branch of cedar in holy water, and sprinkling a little holy water on the coffin. I punched Ike and said, “Go ahead.” He said “I can’t do it.” Finally he doused the branch in the water, refused to make the sign of the cross, and then splashed enough water to drown the man in the coffin.’

Darlan’s permanent removal from the North African scene and the speedy despatch of his killer – a local 20-year-old named Fernand Bonnier – were the only morsels of good news for the Allies that bleak December.8 A series of military setbacks, culminating in the brutal fighting on Longstop Hill, again brought out much of the latent ill feeling between the Allies. At AFHQ (Allied Force HQ) , American and British staffs were divided in their use of a supposedly common language: ‘I had a hell of a time understanding McCreery [Alexander’s Chief of Staff] for the first time,’ said Lieutenant-General Bradley, after he arrived in North Africa in February 1943, complaining that his countrymen were treated as ‘country cousins.’

For their part, the British lost no time in venting their grievances and assuming an air of habitual superiority. ‘The U.S. Army is a mutual admiration society,’ recorded Brigadier Jacob, ‘and any failings in this theatre can be comfortably blamed on the British.’ In London, Brooke noted the ‘pretty shattering’ report by Jacob on Eisenhower’s cluttered headquarters and ‘amateur’ staff work. ‘I do not like the Tunisian situation at all,’ he added.

Neither did Churchill. The delay called by Eisenhower in the north, ‘makes me anxious about the condition of the First British Army,’ he told the C-in-C.12 Brigadier-General Paul M. Robinett (who took over 1st Armored’s CC B from Lunsford Oliver in January 1943) wanted ‘all our means and resources’ to be utilised in a major push on Tunis and an end to widespread attacks which dissipated scarce resources, otherwise ‘only a miracle’ could bring a speedy and conclusive result.13 Doolittle, convinced that his airmen held the key to success, suggested: ‘Let’s stop our wishful thinking, abandon our present 100% bitched up organization, stop trying to win the Tunisian War in a day and through forward planning, sound organization and an appreciation of what air power, when properly utilized, can do, put the God Damn thing on ice.’

In the long term, the Allies could expect to win the battle of supplies but there were many immediate difficulties and disasters to be overcome. ‘Rumours persist that Strathallan has been sunk, 400 sisters being rescued but their personal kit and some mail has gone down,’ recorded Lieutenant-Colonel Shirley Smith, a British medical officer, on 24 December.

The 17th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, was on the way to Bone shortly before Christmas aboard the Cameronia when the ship was hit by an aerial torpedo, as Lieutenant Royle, one of the artillery officers, recorded: ‘all of a sudden there was a dull explosion and the whole ship shuddered.’ Twenty were killed and 30 injured. Shadowed by a Royal Navy destroyer, the Cameronia disembarked her troops at Bougie in pouring rain. ‘The main road was running with muddy water and once you turned off it you slithered and squelched in inches of mud,’ explained Royle. After several days in a muddy field under canvas – ‘I just couldn’t believe that the men were expected to sleep in such conditions but there was nowhere else,’ – he reached Bone on Christmas night. ‘We… sat on the deck in the warm evening listening to Xmas music over the radio and thinking of home,’ noted Signalman Parker. Bone was deserted after dark and, ‘even the brothel did its business in daylight’, because every night enemy raiders returned despite a massive defensive barrage.

Early in January 1943, as 17th Field Regiment joined 6th British Armoured Division in bitter cold and heavy rain, Eisenhower’s new initiative was to put in a strong mobile guard on the vast front extending from Pont du Fahs to Gafsa. Brooke was most unimpressed, complaining about, ‘a ridiculous plan put up by Eisenhower for prosecution of the war in Tunisia,’ adding, ‘This is a dog’s life!’

At Eisenhower’s advanced AFHQ, newly opened at Constantine under Brigadier-General Lucian K. Truscott, plans were laid for the capture of Sfax or Gabès by co-ordinating the activities of First Army and the French and US II Corps. Operation Satin was designed to cut Rommel’s line of communication, choke off his supplies, and so force him either to surrender to Eighth Army or hurry back into Tunisia. Consequently, von Arnim’s forces would probably be forced to shift south in his support, so freeing Anderson and Juin in the north to put pressure on Tunis and Bizerte.Much of the early drive for this operation came from Mark Clark, who sought some way of extricating American units from Anderson’s control. An independent sphere of operations for US troops in central and southern Tunisia, under his own command, offered a means of getting what he wanted and also opened up the attractive prospect of encouraging Giraud’s persistent refusal to allow Frenchmen to serve under First Army.

Clark got his own way but lasted only two days as commander of the southern Tunisian front. Eisenhower knew of Clark’s unscrupulous manoeuvring and tipped off Marshall who cabled his confirmation, on the last day of 1942, of Clark’s appointment as commander of the US Fifth Army. This had been created at the beginning of December to prepare for emergency action in rear areas and for a future invasion of the continent. Clark was to return to Oran and the field command in southern Tunisia was to be taken by a subordinate – eventually Fredendall. ‘Through this action Ike rose greatly in my estimation,’ noted Brooke.

In planning ‘to deliver a healthy kick’ to Rommel’s rear, Clark had wanted the US II Corps concentrated in the Tébessa-Kasserine area. On New Year’s Day 1943 Fredendall received orders to move the corps from the north. At its heart were strengthened elements of 1st US Armored Division, including CC B, transferred from First Army. The intention was to strike from Sbeïtla through the Eastern Dorsale towards Sfax, while General Koeltz’s French 19th Corps attacked further north, through the Fondouk Pass, which would give essential cover to any American manoeuvre on the coastal plain. The orders were imprecise and often vague.

‘I am sending a letter to General Nehring [sic] this afternoon,’ ‘Pinky’ Ward (1st Armored) exasperatedly informed Brigadier-General Oliver, ‘with an air-mail return stamp, requesting from him some information as to what he thinks so few, commanded by so many, are going to do. He probably has a much better idea than some subordinates.’

Beyond the lack of information given to those in the field there lay the mammoth logistical and practical problem of getting supplies forward beyond the railheads of Sbeïtla and Fériana. From there, every item would have to be trucked over 150 miles eastwards. Early in January, the difficulties had hardly been addressed – let alone solved. Anderson, unhappy at CC B passing out of his command, nevertheless informed Eisenhower that First Army would do, ‘every single thing we can to help on the southern attack.’ However, he was finding it necessary to ‘wet-nurse’ the newly-raised Corps Franc units which Giraud was ‘hounding’ into action in the north.

There lay Evelegh’s 78th Infantry Division, opposed by the Von Broich Division; southwards, concentrated on Medjez el Bab, was Weber’s 334th Division with von Arnim’s main spearhead, Fischer’s 10th Panzer Division, in reserve; at Bou Arada was Keightley’s 6th Armoured Division, opposed by the Hermann Göring Division. In effect, the British had five infantry brigades loosely strung in a 70-mile arc, opposed by two concentrated masses of German troops. Koeltz’s 19th French Corps lightly held the front line against the Eastern Dorsale as far as Fondouk and II Corps was in position around Tébessa. Further south still, General Joseph Welvert’s Constantine Division had troops forward at the Faïd Pass and Gafsa.

Fifteen miles south of Tébessa, ‘as high and cold as a snake,’ recorded Captain James Webb of the II Corps’ staff, Fredendall set up his command post in a narrow, precipitous ravine, launching a major engineering operation which, said Webb, ‘resembled the digging of the New York Subway.’ As American units arrived they were stationed along the Western Dorsale, or on the plain below the mountain ranges. Most scattered elements of the 1st US Infantry Division had been collected together and sent to join the French along a 30-mile wide sector of their front that included the flat, open Ousseltia Valley. ‘Daylight movement of combat vehicles in the Valley brought almost immediate strafing. Two German planes particularly, nick-named “Ike” and “Mike” by the soldiers were very annoying in their strafing and diving tactics. Even a lone jeep was a fair target for [them]….’

Further north in the British sector, Brigadier Russell’s 38th Irish Brigade – the ‘Wild Geese’ – had been engaged since the beginning of the year in sharp skirmishes around Bou Arada, 25 miles south of Medjez el Bab. So slender were their resources that companies had to fight in the sleet and cold as individual battle groups. An officer and two men were shot dead after wandering into their own lookouts and every man in a US signal detachment was killed after blundering into a Faughs’ (Royal Irish Fusiliers) outpost. ‘Think nothing of it, brother,’ said the US regimental CO when told of the tragedy, ‘it happens every night.’

North-east of Bou Arada was a small mound, nicknamed ‘Two Tree Hill’ by the troops, from which a daily picket and scout car overlooked the flat landscape and, in the distance, the coast itself. The Germans eventually took the hill with the idea of pinching out the town. When the 2nd London Irish Rifles were sent in they failed to retake it and the whole brigade could do no more than stabilise the front as far as ‘Grandstand Hill,’ east of Bou Arada, and the Goubellat road.

On 14 January, 6th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers were impulsively committed after a night of heavy rain and attacked while under fire from their front and both flanks in an attempt to fling the enemy back from the sector. Higher command staff work was abysmal: ‘they jolly well knew the facts all right but couldn’t get the message across to the old man [Anderson],’ commented one of the Faughs’ officers. In the evening the ‘Skins’ returned, minus 100 men and some of their best officers. The same day, 17th Field Regiment RA arrived in support of the Irish Fusiliers on Grandstand Hill. They were on a high state of alert with the gun crews hardly leaving their gun pits nor staff their command post. ‘They say that warfare is 90% boredom and 10% terror,’ noted Lieutenant Royle, one of the artillery officers, ‘and so it was proving to be.’

Major-General Keightley and V Corps’ artillery commander, Brigadier Ambrose Platt, detested Anderson’s new plan to commit the French in an assault on Fondouk, while the Irish Brigade jumped off against 10th Panzer Division on 17 January. By procrastinating, they probably saved First Army from disaster since the Allies were sent reeling by a sudden German attack the following day. It was now realised how fortunate the Inniskillings had been in failing to take Two Tree Hill. Success would have left them so far forward they would have been beyond support and nothing could have saved them.

Operation Eilbote I (‘Express Messenger’) was ordered by Kesselring to prevent a thrust by the Allies through Kairouan to the coast and intended to roll up the Allied forces in the Eastern Dorsale from north to south. Using elements of 334th German Infantry and 10th Panzer Divisions, together with Panzerabteilung 501, the Germans struck at the juncture of British 5th Corps and French 19th Corps, where the Allied front was at its weakest.

The opening, diversionary, attack was put in on 18 January by Fischer’s 10th Panzers at Bou Arada. On Grandstand Hill the Stürmregiment Hermann Göring, attached to 10th Panzers, ran headlong into the Inniskillings. Following confused and bloody fighting, stretcher bearers from both sides met on the battlefield to find out where their men were lying. One Irish officer, shot through the temple and blinded, was discovered after wandering helplessly from the scene.

On the northern outskirts of Bou Arada, 7th Panzer Regiment collided with 17th Field Regiment. Lieutenant Brown, one of the artillery officers, seemed almost cavalier about it all soon afterwards: ‘I have been up in the OP [Observation Post] and shot up the foe from there. Its the grandest sport in the world… when the thing you are aiming is a salvo of shells, and at the old Hun too, its damn good fun. How they scuttle too.’ He had to admit, however, that it had been ‘a hell of a battle.’

Arriving just as the two sides clashed was the bulk of 2nd Lothians and Border Horse who were committed immediately to meet the German thrust. Along the road from El Aroussa their tanks approached ever nearer a low grey cloud hanging heavily ahead. ‘That,’ remarked a tank commander, ‘is what is officially known as the smoke of battle,’ describing the murk created by a mixture of bursting shells, ignited haystacks, burning tanks and occasional smoke bombs. That evening, British sappers went out to blow up German tanks trapped in the all-enveloping mud. Some still had their engines ticking over.

While the British stood fast, the French, lacking adequate anti-tank weapons, fell back under the impact of battle groups from Weber’s 334th German Division, which rolled along the Eastern Dorsale and broke through with armoured and motorized columns, south of Pont du Fahs, into the Robaa and Ousseltia Valleys. Brigadier Kent-Lemon’s 36th Brigade had to be rushed up to Robaa and CC B, now commanded by Robinett after Oliver was promoted, together with parts of Allen’s 1st and Major-General Charles W. Ryder’s 34th Infantry Divisions were sent in to bolster up the struggling French.

In five days of fighting, the Germans claimed over 4,000 prisoners and to have destroyed or captured 24 tanks, 52 guns and 228 vehicles. They broke off what was only ever meant to be a limited attack and settled on a much improved defensive line, stretching from about Djebel Mansour in the north, via Djebel bou Kril and Djebel bou Dabouss to Djebel Rihane in the south.

Anderson ordered Fredendall to cover Maktar with Robinett’s CC B, in case the enemy pushed through the Fondouk Pass, and sent Brigadier-General Raymond E. McQuillin’s CC A to Sbeïtla to support Welvert’s troops. But Fredendall also had his eye on Maknassy, at the far southern end of the Eastern Dorsale, which was in Italian hands. To capture this prize, he ordered Ward to improvise two new combat groups, CC C, under Colonel Robert Stack, and CC D, commanded by Colonel Robert Maraist.

In order to blood CC C with an easy small-scale success, Fredendall sent Stack on a hit-and-run raid on Sened Station, despite strong protests from Ward and Welvert that this would reveal the direction of the coming main effort on Maknassy. Fredendall ignored them. Stack’s force set out from Gafsa on 24 January, protected by Allied air cover, and in an action which lasted barely more than three hours, took nearly 100 Italian prisoners and left about as many dead and wounded behind. Just as Ward anticipated, however, the Germans sent a stronger force to hold Sened and were alerted to the possibility of an Allied move towards Maknassy rather than through El Guettar.

Guessing that an attack on Maknassy would take the heat off the French at the Faïd Pass, Stack’s forces were then ordered to approach from the northwest via the village of Sidi bou Zid, while Maraist was to retake Sened and move rapidly east to capture the main objective.

A second German operation, Eilbote II, which was to have pushed onwards to Pichon, petered out because there were insufficient assault troops to carry this attack. However, on 30 January, two battle groups from a rested and re-equipped 21st Panzer Division, which Rommel had transferred from Beurat, suddenly moved on the Faïd Pass, just 24 hours before Stack’s and Maraist’s attack on Maknassy was to take place. Despite costly losses against a determined defence action: ‘the whole day passes in fierce fighting in a hail of bombs and in a storm of bullets from American strafing ’planes,’ recorded a German Gefreiter – the French garrison was surrounded and the village of Faïd taken by Germans.

Their increasingly urgent requests for reinforcements reached McQuillin’s HQ at Sbeïtla and were relayed to Fredendall, who refused to take the sensible option of cancelling the attack on Maknassy and concentrating 1st US Armored Division to deal with the Germans at Faïd. Consequently, while CC C moved towards Sidi bou Zid from Gafsa, with the intention of interrupting any enemy force shifting northward from Maknassy or of helping stop the enemy’s principal assault on Faïd, CC D went on to attack Sened.

Splitting 1st US Armored Division caused confusion and near disaster. Stack’s men hovered between two objectives and hardly engaged the enemy at all. Maraist got to Sened alright but ran into a powerful German and Italian defence. Troops moving up to attack positions were caught by German Ju-88 bombers: ‘It was the most terrible thing I had ever seen,’ commented one officer, ‘not the bodies and parts of bodies near smoking vehicles, some sitting, some scattered, some blue from the powder burns – it was the expressions on the faces of those that wondered listlessly around the wreckage not knowing where to go or what to do, saying “This can’t happen to us.”’

Artillery concentrations on the village eventually cleared the way for a final infantry-tank attack and, at nightfall on 1 February, Sened fell to CC D after fierce fighting, though a 34th US Infantry Division battalion coming into support was led past the American outposts by mistake and lost most of its men as they marched straight into enemy hands.

Fredendall ordered Maraist to put his infantry on the heights east of Sened Station early next morning: ‘Use your tanks and shove,’ he said, ‘Too much time has been wasted already.’ It was mid-afternoon before the infantry were in position and they had hardly settled when an enemy armoured attack had to be repelled with artillery support. By now, some of the troops were showing distinct signs of nervousness at German Stuka dive-bombing and, when some field artillery was moved, it seems to have been interpreted as the signal for retreat. In the deepening gloom the road westwards was soon jammed with vehicles fleeing to the rear. Worse followed when, on the following day, 15 B-25s accidentally bombed Sened: ‘our slit trenches became suddenly very populated,’ commented one man on the receiving end.

In the meantime, McQuillin had failed miserably to retake the village of Faïd. Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton H. Howze (Ward’s G.3) considered the divisional commander should have got rid of McQuillin because he was a ‘dummy,’ and, though pleasant, ‘just as wooden as could be’, as did Lieutenant-Colonel Simons, another 1st US Armored Division officer, who thought the broad-shouldered excavalryman brave but, ‘in many ways a genuine blockhead.’ Tardy in the extreme, McQuillin took a whole day to send help to the French, and when his troops arrived on 31 January, they were badly mauled by a well-concealed enemy defensive screen. They fared no better next day when his infantry melted away in the face of determined enemy resistance. The French were left to fight their own way out and over 1,000 eventually ended up in captivity.

The result of these various actions along the Eastern Dorsale was an undoubted victory for von Arnim. Maknassy, Faïd village and the Fäid Pass itself remained in German hands: ‘My nightmare is over,’ Arnim told one of his staff officers. 1st US Armored retired to lick its wounds, thinly scattered, with only Combat Commands A and C left under Ward’s direct control from his command post just west of Sbeïtla. CC A held Sidi bou Zid and the surrounding hills, to prevent the enemy debouching from the Faïd Pass, as CC C moved to Hadjeb el Aioun, mid-way between Fondouk and Faïd. CC B was taken into First Army reserve and positioned in the Forest of Kesra near Maktar, ready to meet any enemy thrust through Fondouk, while CC D was in II Corps’ reserve at Bou Chebka.

Committed once again in the north as January drew to an end, the London Irish were ordered to take Hill 286 on a low profiled ridge dominating the Allies’ supply road stretching from Bou Arada south of Grandstand Hill. After the attack had gone in the Germans hit back with a spectacular night counter-attack, 7th Panzer Regiment’s commanders riding into battle on top of their tanks, armed with flare pistols and guided by star shells lighting up the night sky.

Charging along the ridge from end to end, followed by Hermann Göring Panzer Division Jägers picking off any survivors, they shattered the London Irish who poured down from the heights. Anti-tank mines had been laid to stop any such performance; the Irish had forgotten to arm them. Retiring from Hill 286 on the 28th the Germans completed a classic action that effectively ruined an Irish infantry battalion.

Elsewhere, the folly of attempting to take and hold inessential high ground was recognised in time. The French high command abandoned the idea of sending the 1st US Infantry to capture Djebel bou Dabouss, the commanding hill mass northeast of Ousseltia, when it became clear that reverses elsewhere in southern Tunisia would compel the Allied forces to withdraw from positions east of the Ousseltia Valley. ‘Consequently it seemed futile to waste lives and material in capturing this position. In [American] football parlance taking this hill mass would have been “battering our brains out to gain a yard and a half in the middle of the field.’”

When Eisenhower asked about the possibility of Eighth Army action in support of Operation Satin, Alexander’s reply had been non-committal. If the enemy tried to disengage at Beurat, Eighth Army would attempt to follow up as soon as possible, whereas if Rommel halted he would be attacked without delay. ‘It is hoped that subsequent attacks will take Tripoli in one bound,’ wrote Alexander, ‘In either case it is impossible for us from this end to prevent the enemy detaching some parts of his force to meet your attacks although every effort will be made to keep up maximum pressure on the enemy.’

Eisenhower’s strategy relied, not unreasonably, on a respectable rate of progress by Eighth Army in its pursuit of Rommel but Montgomery was still 500 miles away in the Sirte Desert. The Desert Rats could render no assistance should US II Corps troops, having broken through to the coast, be turned upon by the enemy from two sides. This was certainly not a risk which Eisenhower’s superiors at home were prepared to take. Soon he was to discover the full implications of this as he slipped towards the nadir of his command in Tunisia.


Chapter 8

Such is the Life of Generals

‘If the story books tell of the African deserts, put a question mark on their inner cover. I have never worn so many clothes as at present. We have also encountered considerable rain and mud.’

Brigadier-General Paul M. Robinett to a personal correspondent, Edward Fitzgerald, 30 January 1943.

Two weeks into 1943, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill met at Casablanca to discuss in detail Allied objectives. Debate over future grand strategy overshadowed the plans for clearing Tunisia and defeating Rommel but the pressure of fighting two wars – one political, the other military – was taking its toll on Eisenhower. Confined to bed for several days with a severe head cold and ‘general grippy condition,’ he was summoned to Casablanca by General Marshall.

There he explained to ‘Air Commodore Frankland’ and ‘Admiral Q,’ as the Prime Minister and President were universally referred to throughout the conference, the setbacks suffered in Tunisia and the political mess involving censorship and collaboration with such undesirables as the anti-Semite, Marcel Peyrouton. Many newspaper correspondents were furious at the continuation under Giraud of the late Admiral Darlan’s policies, especially the absence of political freedom in French North Africa, anti-Jewish measures and the detaining of thousands of political prisoners in stinking, squalid camps where they were categorized into Jews, Communists or refugees from Franco’s Spain. Was this, they asked, what the Allies were fighting to uphold?

Eisenhower justified all his actions by military expediency and, while insisting that any setbacks so far had been his fault, pointed out that 1st US Armored Division was being held in reserve to counter any attack against his drive on Sfax and that it was better to suffer some losses than allow his troops in the north to rot in the mud. As for the French, many were unreliable because they had families who were in the recently German-occupied south of France. The gravity of their position had been underlined when 132 men deserted from one battalion alone. Problems of leadership arose since Barré and Juin were co-operating but Giraud, who ‘might be a good Divisional commander,’ was giving them no scope for independent action. He was, ‘dictatorial by nature and seemed to suffer from megalomania,’ Eisenhower told the Combined Chiefs of Staff, and seemed Very sensitive and always ready to take offence.’

There was a coolness towards Eisenhower from the top brass, reflected in their decision on 16 January to scrap his plans for Operation Satin. The ‘absence of clear-cut words of thanks’, convinced Butcher that the President and Prime Minister, ‘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. I told him his neck is in the noose,’ added Butcher, ‘and he knows it. But such is the life of generals.’ More than once at this time, it crossed Eisenhower’s mind to ask to be relieved of his command. A pessimistic estimate prepared for him by Truscott, on 24 January, reported enfeebled French morale. ‘I have the definite feeling that the French can no longer be counted on for much and that in important sectors they must be heavily supported and, to the extent possible, immediately rearmed.’

In an effort to gain some kind of understanding, Colonel William Biddle was sent from II Corps as liaison officer to Juin’s HQ. He was expected to form a judgement at any time on the combat value of French troops: ‘job no sinecure,’ he wrote, ‘Will demand all my ingenuity, and will require my capitalizing on good will which I’ve built up with [the] French.’
Determined to tackle the parlous state of American preparedness for the battles ahead, Eisenhower was alarmed at the inability of Americans to apply their training to battle conditions and ‘innumerable instances’ of poor discipline. Insisting that matters must be put right, he wanted men who were hard, ‘capable of marching distances of up to twenty-five miles a day without a halt, going without sleep, subsisting on short rations.’ Their officers, especially the younger ones who were reluctant to admonish or reprimand subordinates, had to impose discipline and obey orders.,

General Marshall noticed the same slackness and disregard for authority when visiting North Africa at the end of January. Coming across a tank destroyer battalion encamped on a hillside he was deeply shocked by a, ‘lack of disciplinary leadership and training that was glaring and meant that it was not useable [sic] for battle against the Germans… The men were all right,’ he added, but ‘the training was seriously wrong.’ Infuriated by this ‘bad business,’ Marshall fired off several angry letters but experienced officers were spread very thinly indeed, often due, in Marshall’s opinion, to the gross overstaffing of US headquarters all over the world. The quality of manpower had declined visibly towards the end of 1942 as the air forces had made tremendous inroads on the number of college graduates, resulting in only 15–20 per cent of each intake entering army officer candidate schools.

At Casablanca, Churchill and Roosevelt insisted that de Gaulle, who could not command the allegiance of French Army officers in North Africa, attend the Anfa Hotel in the hope that he might be brought to work with Giraud, who had little administrative ability. On the final day they agreed to a joint communiqué which, at least, was what Harold Macmillan called, ‘the beginning, though only just the beginning, of the loosening out of a complicated situation between the various French peoples.’,

As Eighth Army approached Tunisia, a new structure agreed at the conference co-ordinated its actions with those of First Army, and with US II Corps and French 19th Corps. Logic dictated that overall control should be handed to the Americans but the British Chiefs of Staff, unhappy with Eisenhower’s performance to date, produced a scheme in which Alexander was to be brought from the Middle East and appointed as Deputy C-in-C to Eisenhower.

Alexander’s command was the group of armies on the Tunisian front (eventually 18th Army Group – that is First and Eighth Armies, together with all American and French land forces) while Eisenhower, in Brooke’s words, was pushed, ‘up into the stratosphere and rarified atmosphere of a Supreme Commander, 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 situation and to restore the necessary drive and co-ordination which had been so seriously lacking.’ The Americans were flattered and pleased by this plan for they had expected the British to demand Eisenhower’s demotion to serve under Alexander. Now they were being offered the very opposite. Marshall and his colleagues fell for this apparent act of generosity and, as Brooke happily admitted, ‘did not at the time fully appreciate the underlying intentions.’ They were beguiled by the fact that, once Eighth Army crossed the Tunisian frontier, Eisenhower would exercise supreme command on paper over the group of armies fighting there, together with French forces under Juin and US Fifth Army in Morocco, which seemed a big enough job for anyone.,

In addition, a new and cohesive air umbrella over the whole of the Mediterranean was set up, on 17 February, in which the Air C-in-C, RAF Air Marshall Arthur Tedder, was placed directly under Eisenhower’s command, although Admiral Cunningham for one was not sure about his abilities: ‘[He is] nice enough but never knows what his staff is doing.’ Reporting directly to Tedder were Major-General Carl A. (‘Tooey’) Spaatz commanding a new formation known as US Northwest African Air Forces, RAF Air Chief Marshal Sir Sholto Douglas, AOC Middle East and the AOC Malta, RAF Air Vice-Marshal Sir Keith Park.

Yet the C-in-C was not even equal in rank to some of his subordinates; but as Marshall explained to Roosevelt at Casablanca, it was simply not practicable to give Eisenhower a fourth star while his army was still mired in the mud. If anything, the President was even more astringent, replying that, ‘he would not promote Eisenhower until there was some damn good reason for doing it, that he was going to make it a rule that promotions should go to people who had done some fighting, that while Eisenhower had done a good job, he hasn’t knocked the Germans out of Tunisia.’,

At this low point in his fortunes, even Berlin radio forecast that Eisenhower would be transferred back to London and Alexander take over in North Africa. It came at a time when critics both in Washington and London were snarling at his heels and calling for his replacement; he was, noted the faithful Butcher, ‘the centre of controversy.’ Marshall, however, never wavered in his support and backed him to the hilt, as did the highly respected Admiral Andrew Cunningham with whom Eisenhower developed a close friendship. Always dressed in freshly laundered full ‘whites’, Sir Andrew was a marvellous, if somewhat eccentric host. It was his influence with Churchill and Roosevelt which helped secure for Eisenhower the coveted fourth star and rank of full general as early as 15 February. Lord Ampthill, a Royal Navy staff officer, observing Admiral Andrew Cunningham (known as ABC from his initials) at close quarters, thought that, ‘ABC did as much or more than anyone else to give Ike confidence, and also to blend the Br. and U.S. staffs into a reasonably smoothly working Allied Force Head Quarters… His name worked magic with Americans, British and the French…’

The date fixed at Casablanca for Operation Husky (the invasion of Sicily) during the favourable moon period in July, put Eisenhower under pressure because it was absolutely necessary to get Tunisia wrapped up well before then. Just before the assembled dignitaries left Casablanca came welcome news. Early on the morning of 23 January a squadron of the 11th Hussars from Montgomery’s Eighth Army , had entered Tripoli, hard on the heels of the retreating Germans. ‘TRIPOLI is OURS!!,’ exulted Signalman Beaumont of 7th Medium Regiment, RA, ‘after 2 yrs desert and dust – and at last a little green and some trees.’ It was a triumph, of sorts, for Montgomery’s troops, though they would have little time to savour it.

There were no victories now for the German troops from fragmanted remains of Panzer Army Afrika , falling back fast from Libya towards the Tunisian border. On the last day of 1942, Rommel had received permission from Mussolini to retreat from the Beurat position. ‘We carried on to a place some km beyond Tripoli,’ noted a German Gefreiter in his diary, ‘Bombing attacks day and night.’ Amidst unceasing RAF air attacks on 24 January he observed: ‘All our forces from Libya are flooding back towards Tunisia. The road is blocked with traffic.’

At the beginning of 1943, there were in excess of 100,000 Axis troops in Tunisia and about 50,000 in Rommel’s Panzer Army Afrika. To keep only the German part of the Panzer Army retreating from Libya to Tunisia in being required somewhere between 17,000 and 23,000 tons of essential supplies each month instead of the 5,871 tons it was actually receiving. Everywhere the situation was the same, whether it was fuel, ammunition or food. From the start of 1943 the bread ration for every man had to be reduced, from 500 to 375 grams per day. The situation was, explained a report with much understatement, ‘not particularly rosy.’

Apart from a small US naval contingent, Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 15, all offensive seaborne operations throughout the whole of the Mediterranean after the Torch landings until Operation Husky fell to the Royal Navy which caused havoc along the enemy’s main supply route. This ran from Sicilian ports to Tunis and Bizerte by way of an open sea passage of about 100 miles which involved some ten hours’ sailing. So great was the Axis’ need for supplies that they risked attacks by day and night until, late on 1 December 1942, Allied air reconnaissance alerted a British submarine patrol and Force Q, commanded by Rear-Admiral G.H.J. Harcourt, to an enemy convoy hurrying toward the North African coast.

Three British cruisers and two destroyers pounced on this Axis convoy at point-blank range just after midnight of 2-3 December 1942. All five Axis transport ships and three Italian destroyers in the convoy were sunk or set on fire and destroyed amidst scenes of dreadful carnage. (Naval Battle of Skerki Bank) When morning crept above the horizon, the sea was seen to be littered with debris. Tossed amongst the thick oil staining the surface of the water were dozens of corpses, still afloat in their lifebelts.

In contrast, by clearing ports as fast as possible and pushing through convoys with air cover and naval escorts against savage attacks, the Allies put over eight million tons of supplies ashore in North Africa between the Torch landings and March 1943, losing only 2.4 per cent to enemy action in the process. ‘Keep hammering away at the damned submarine !,’ Eisenhower instructed Spaatz.

Despite Admiral Dönitz’s warnings that the coastal waters of the Mediterranean were too shallow for ideal operations and that the surface and air defences ranged against his U-boats were too powerful, the German Naval High Command ordered him to attack follow-up landings after Torch and subsequent Allied supply convoys.

After some initial successes in November and December 1942, 14 German and Italian submarines were soon lost in the central and western Mediterranean. Appalled that this extravagant sideshow was seriously impeding operations in the Atlantic and, sensing a major defeat, Dönitz requested permission to call it off but it was not until 23 December that this was agreed. Despite German U-boats sinking nearly half a million tons of merchant shipping in the Mediterranean all were eventually destroyed. The Italians could offer little assistance because, lacking maritime aircraft, they were forced to use their submarines as reconnaissance vessels. They were never able to destroy the British convoy system, despite the most severe losses.

At the other hand Royal Navy 8th Submarine Flotilla (Captain Fawkes) at Algiers and 10th Flotilla (Captain Phillips) from Malta, raided constantly against Axis supply vessels in the dangerous Sicilian Channel. Yet, despite the Mediterranean’s many minefields and their primitive fire control systems, reliable torpedoes and a high standard of marksmanship among the 32 British submarines helped account for an impressive tonnage of shipping in the last two months of 1942.

During January 1943, the Axis lost about a quarter of their transhipped supplies and in the next month, for every submarine on patrol, three ships went to the bottom. Seventy-two, totalling 221,000 tons, were sunk in five months while seven British submarines were lost, including the redoubtable Turbulent whose captain, Commander J.W. Linton, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross to go with his DSO and DSC.

After the mauling by Force Q in Naval Battle of Skerki Bank , most Axis personnel sent to Africa were brought in by a massive, hastily arranged airlift; this began in November and reached its peak during the early months of 1943. Directing the operation from Rome was Generalleutnant Ulrich Buchholz, appointed Lufttransportführer Mittelmeer (Air Transport Commander, Mediterranean) in December 1942, with three Geschwaderen (Groups) under his command, one in Sicily and two in mainland Italy.

Transport flights of 100 aircraft commonly set out at dawn, landing at Tunisian airfields before 0700 hours to avoid attack. A second flight would approach Farina or Cap Bon shortly after noon in staggered formation, separating to land, either at field runways southeast of Tunis or at Bizerte. In the evening Geschwader S would send in another wing (Gruppe) which often remained overnight.

Retaining any sort of defensive formation demanded an exceptionally high flight performance, especially since fighter protection was available only from Sicily to the Tunisian coast. Between Naples and Trapani, transports of Geschwader N had to avoid RAF and USAAF interception by flying at a height of 50 metres (150ft), out of touch with each other apart from messages from the leading aircraft of the wing’s wedge formation. Even when they eventually met their fighter cover there were further problems; the fighters’ speed had to be adjusted to that of the slowest Ju-52, about 180–190km/h (110–120mph).

To incorporate Ju-52s and giant six-motored Me-323s in the same flight was very difficult because the latter became spectacularly unstable if throttled back, under full load, below their cruising speed of 220–230km/h (135–145mph). Consequently, as the formations approached Tunisia, they were often strung out over miles of sky and, more often than not, their fighter cover had failed to arrive, though Buchholz could recall no occasion on which a transport turned back on account of this. Even when fighters were present, this protection usually consisted of fewer than a dozen medium and long-range aircraft which simply could not cover the vast arc through which a transport formation became dispersed.

The inevitable result was that the courage, nerve, determination and sacrifice of the transport pilots was not enough. They suffered terrible casualties between November 1942, and April 1943, in ferrying an average 585 tonnes (575 Imperial tons) of supplies daily into Tunisia together with thousands upon thousands of troops. ‘Untiring in their flights… often under severest enemy interference,’ wrote Buchholz, ‘and with only negligible support from our own pursuit planes, they have completed their mission…carrying it out to the bitter end.’

This perilous supply situation inflamed the already tortuous relationships between the Axis partners and in conference at Rastenburg on 19 December 1942, Hitler agreed with Cavallero and Ciano that the Tunisian supreme command should come into line with that in Libya and pass to Comando Supremo. By this arrangement Hitler placed von Arnim’s Fifth Panzer Army under Italian control though, angry at the supply situation, he had no intention of giving them any real influence in its command. This move was calculated in part to remove difficulties between Rommel and von Arnim. Neither seemed to know much about the other’s plans and dispositions. During protracted meetings with Goring and Hitler on 11/12 January, Kesselring proposed that Rommel be put in command of an army group headquarters when he reached Tunisia, hoping that, ‘this promotion would arouse his ambitions and improve his performance.’ To make this politically acceptable this had to be under Italian command – Comando Supremo – though Kesselring hoped secretly that the day would be far off when this happened. At a second Italo-German conference this was agreed.

The upshot was that, late in January, Mussolini named General Giovanni Messe to command the Italian First Army when it came into being. Determined and ruthless in his priorities, Kesselring did his best to hinder this by installing the whole of his German operations staff during the same month into Comando Supremo headquarters which led to much friction between the two sides.

Unlike the Allied integrated air command, Germans and Italians remained rigidly independent of each other, apart from a few special operations. After RAF Desert Air Force fighter-bombers drove the enemy from his last air bases at Zuara, in Tripolitania, on 24 January, nearly 400 German and Italian aircraft had to be based in Tunisia. They were controlled from Fliegerkorps Tunis or from Comando Aeronautica Tunisia.

On the last day of 1942, British Imperial Chief of Staff General Alan Brooke cabled Montgomery telling him that, due to the slow progress of the Allies in Tunisia, his troops might well have to operate west of Tripoli. This meant moving everything over 800 miles of road from the port of Benghazi, which Rommel had abandoned on 19 November, until Tripoli could be properly opened up. In order to remain active, an infantry division needed 300 tons of supplies a day, and an armoured division 400 tons; in each case half the total was accounted for by fuel. If Eighth Army had also to feed a starving populace at Tripoli matters would be very difficult: ‘50,000 thousand screaming women would be a proper party,’ wrote General Montgomery, Eighth Army commander ‘however, we would handle it somehow.’

If Tripoli was not reached within ten days of the opening assault at Beurat, his troops would have to retreat again. Operation Fire-Eater was programmed to take the Beurat position and rush forward with such impetus that Rommel would have no time to settle in the Tarhuna-Homs position, 200 miles further west, and be pushed out of Tripoli itself.

Montgomery wanted Benghazi working at full pressure until the end of January but a severe gale on the January 3rd lashed the harbour and caused extensive damage. More delay in unloading was caused by further storms; Lieutenant-General Brian Horrocks’ 10th Corps had to be ‘grounded’ and its vehicles driven day and night, bringing up supplies for other units from Tobruk to Benghazi and roadheads further westward.

Before Operation Fire-Eater began on 15 January, Montgomery knew beyond doubt from Enigma intercepts the true nature of Rommel’s difficulties. With only 36 German and 57 Italian tanks, and supply trucks sometimes stranded without fuel for days at a time, he could not put up a protracted defence in Tripolitania. Meanwhile, Mussolini raged at, ‘that madman Rommel, who thinks of nothing but retreating in [to] Tunisia’ and Kesselring was puzzled as to why Rommel had not slashed at Montgomery while the Eighth Army was assembling its forces before the Beurat Line. Opportunities must surely have been missed: ‘the Rommel I knew in the old days would not have passed [them] up…’

But these were not ‘the old days’ and Rommel had to organize an orderly withdrawal, which might be dangerously – perhaps fatally – hampered by the presence of his Italian troops, who had no real stomach for the battles ahead. They included so called ‘shock troops’ of the Tunisian Battalion, all of them volunteers in fact with only a fortnight’s training, whom General Bagnini thought were a greater danger to their own side than the enemy. As for the Italian artillery, it had been a ‘total disaster’ until put into action under German direction, when it had proved ‘surprisingly’ successful. Italian infantry units had to be stiffened by German support; they then fought with far greater steel in their souls.

Early in January 1943 Rommel heard that Mussolini had agreed that his nonmotorised Italian divisions should be sent back to the Tarhuna-Homs Line because once the British attacked at Beurat, it would be too late to remove them. The Eighth Army was to be delayed before Tripoli for somewhere between three and six weeks on the Tarhuna-Homs position. Here, Comando Supremo assured him, was a line ideally protected by mountains over 700 metres (2,300ft) high which the enemy could not outflank.

Realising that Mussolini had no grasp of the situation, Rommel issued orders that his Afrika Korps was only to hold the Beurat position until the enemy was in such strength that they could attack or outflank the defenders, and that under no circumstances were his troops to allow themselves to be encircled. As soon as the code ‘Movement Red,’ was transmitted, they were to fall back in the direction of Sedada.

In order to forestall an Allied attack at the Gabès defile – lying half way between Tripoli and Tunis – which could divide the Axis armies, he suggested that one or two divisions be sent back to guard it. With Kesselring’s agreement 21st Panzer Division, leaving its tanks and weapons behind for other units to use, began withdrawing towards the Tunisian border (where it would re-equip) on 13 January. The choice of this division was, thought Kesselring, probably dictated by strained relations between Rommel and the divisional commander, Generalmajor Hans-Georg Hildebrandt.

In the meantime, Montgomery methodically built up his forces in front of Beurat, bringing up 450 tanks to set against Rommel’s puny reserves, but refused to use French troops other than for guarding airfields. Apart from coping with this mundane task they were ‘quite useless,’ while French infantry brigades, ‘merely let you down. A very essential part of my doctrine is that there shall be no failures; if I tackle anything it must succeed; I train the troops in the technique I am going to use in the next battle, and I do not crack off until I am ready.’

By the time he was ready to ‘crack off against the Beurat line, 23rd Armoured Brigade was in the centre flanking the 51st Highland Division – nicknamed the ‘Highland Decorators’ from their habit of painting their ‘HD’ sign on anything and everything, whether it moved or not. The armoured brigade was to face up to Rommel’s troops and force a withdrawal before the Highlanders were fully committed in their approach up the axis of the coast road. On the far left, 7th Armoured Division and 2nd New Zealand Division, under 30th Corps’ commander, General Oliver Leese, were to sweep forward and threaten to outflank the enemy.

Eighth Army’s assault was preceded by substantial bombing raids from Spitfire and Hurricane fighter-escorted RAF Wellingtons , Bostons, Baltimores and American crewed Mitchells of the Desert Air Force which hit the enemy’s forward landing grounds and motor transport. By night, Bostons did further damage to landing grounds and Wellington bombers of 205 Group, aided by flare-dropping Albacores, attacked roads and traffic.

Steadily and unspectacularly, Montgomery’s troops pushed forward to the Beurat line. As they did so, Rommel’s forces began to slip away, frustrating plans to bottle them up and destroy them. British units then began advancing strongly against 90th German Light and 15th Panzer Divisions which, losing touch with each other, provoked a sudden crisis in the German command, although 90th Light Division drove out the 51st Highlanders from their own rearguard positions which had been penetrated. Low on fuel, Rommel’s units found themselves unable to sustain their rearguard action in open countryside, despite knocking out 20 enemy tanks, and were forced to retreat on 17 January to the Homs-Tarhuna line.

Montgomery now sent his tanks in a wide flanking movement from the southeast by road towards Tarhuna and on to Castel Benito from the direction of Beni Ulid. On 19 January, Major-General John Harding’s 7th Armoured and Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division began their move against Rommel’s southern group just as the Desert Fox arrived at the advanced headquarters of General de Stefanis, commanding 20th Italian Army Corps, north-west of Tarhuna. While there he spotted enemy tanks only six miles away moving on the Djebel Garian mountain range to the south. If the column carried on he foresaw there would be little to prevent it coming in behind the Panzer Army and wreaking havoc by nightfall.

Part of 164th German Light Division and elements of the Ramcke Parachute Brigade, together with a reconnaissance group were hurriedly dispatched to stiffen 15th Panzer Division. The whole of Rommel’s artillery laid down a heavy carpet of fire on the approaching tank column which was hit by every available aircraft that the Luftwaffe could get off the ground.

Arriving back at his own HQ, Rommel told his relieved staff that Montgomery had been unable to resist a flanking movement without engaging the German artillery at the same time. But Rommel had grossly miscalculated the strength of the outflanking attack on Garian. What was apparently an armoured division was no more than 4th Light Armoured Brigade (which had no heavy tanks at all by 20 January) and Rommel’s defences were thrown off balance as he committed most of his heavy forces to meet it. This left Freyberg’s New Zealand Division, running with only 14 tanks, to bypass Tarhuna to the west and reach Azizia on 22 January, while 7th Armoured Division, with only 30 tanks, smashed its way into Tarhuna, after a massive artillery bombardment ordered on the 19th by the young and highly energetic Harding, who, in Montgomery’s words, was ‘a fine natural leader.’

Unfortunately, Harding was badly injured on 19 January when a German shell almost blew off one of his hands. Leese’s attack slowed almost to a walk but Montgomery immediately sent another young soldier, Brigadier ‘Pip’ Roberts from 22nd Armoured Brigade, to take temporary command whereupon 7th Armoured resumed its rapid advance.

While the mass of German defenders was drawn from the coastal road towards events further west, 51st Highland Division was driven furiously by Montgomery towards Homs. Personally directing operations, he led 22nd Armoured Brigade on a route from the west which cut across that of the advancing Highlanders.

Anxious to capture Tripoli without delay, Montgomery was particularly hard on the Highlanders who were short of shells, transport and petrol, much to their commander, Major-General Wimberley’s, disgust. Nevertheless, having whipped on his leading formations, Wimberley attacked the main Homs defence position at dawn on 20 January and, when that advance was held up, ordered an outflanking march by the seashore to come in behind 90th German Light Division. When the defenders withdrew some miles to the west, he sent in his leading battalion of Seaforth Highlanders by moonlight.

Montgomery now had Tripoli threatened along the coastal axis as well as by Leese’s outflanking movement. Rommel had already abandoned the Tarhuna position on the night of 19 January, upon learning that an enemy column was within 30 miles of Garian, having cut the main Tarhuna-Garian highway. Mussolini immediately accused him of shifting his forces westwards too impulsively, thereby disobeying instructions to hold the Tarhuna-Homs line for at least three weeks.


During a tempestuous meeting on the afternoon of 20 January, Rommel told Cavallero, Kesselring and Bastico he had never accepted the time limits imposed on him for holding the Tarhuna-Homs position, which he now thought wholly untenable. ‘You can either hold on to Tripoli for 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,’ Rommel stormed at his furious superiors.

The crucial decision had already been made. That morning, gigantic explosions had been heard from the direction of city. At the harbour, German demolition experts were destroying dock installations; further inland the airport was systematically demolished. Still convinced that the New Zealanders’ thrust in the west threatened to encircle his troops, Rommel ordered a fighting rearguard from the 90th German Light Division to abandon Tripoli shortly after midnight on 23 January. Precious ammunition was destroyed and such food stocks as could not be evacuated were distributed to the civilian population. So serious was Rommel’s supply situation that his retreating troops could fall back only 60 miles towards the Tunisian border, when all mobility would have to cease as they ran out of fuel.

‘A very wonderful day,’ General Oliver Leese , 30th Corps commander , wrote to his wife on 23 January. After three hundred miles of ‘the most frightful going’, Montgomery, driving along the coast axis, and Leese, swinging around from the west, met at the city which had been captured after so many miles of desert slogging. ‘The town still has many Wo… and Wo…s,’ Leese noted, ‘We’ve been through it with Armoured Gars and Tanks.’

The entry of B Squadron, 11th Hussars, into the city, followed closely by companies of 1st Battalion, Gordon Highlanders, who rode in the twilight of predawn on a squadron of tanks from 50th Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, was the signal for a day of celebration and reflection but Montgomery was determined that his troops would not be seduced by the fleshpots on offer. ‘Much fighting lies ahead and I cannot have my Army getting “soft” and deteriorating in any way. I have forbidden the use of houses, buildings, etc., for HQ and troops. The Army will live in the fields,’ he ordered, ‘and in the desert, and will retain its hardness and its efficiency.’49 He immediately set an example by locating his HQ about four miles outside the city.

General Leese, however, knew when to be realistic. After only a few days, numerous brothels – separate for officers and men – were doing a roaring trade, averaging three minutes per visit. ‘We have got a partial check on drink and I am having all the tarts inspected and policing the brothels – the latter in the teeth of the doctors and Church,’ he observed, and was quite unrepentant about this policy : ‘as there are no more Boches in Tripoli one might as well fight them!!!’50 For most of Eighth Army, however, Tripoli was only barely glimpsed as they sped beyond its walls. ‘We have passed Tripoli now,’ wrote Signalman Beaumont on 24 January, ‘thought we might have had a rest, but if we have him [Rommel] beat I suppose it’s best to follow up.’

The Desert Fox’s downward spiral of depression and frustration, compounded by nervous strain, is clearly recorded in a letter to his wife on 25 January: ‘I simply can’t tell you how hard it is for me to undergo this retreat and all that goes with it. Day and night I’m tormented by the thought that things might go really wrong here in Africa. I’m so depressed that I can hardly do my work… K[esselring]… is full of optimism. Maybe he sees in me the reason why the army has not made a longer stand.’

Private Crimp, an Eighth Army infantryman from 51st Highland Division, was more concerned by events in the north: ‘There, however, things don’t look so good. The British 1st Army and American 2nd Corps (green troops, I suppose) after struggling desperately all through the winter, are now tied down in the mountains. Jerry, on the other hand, having saved Tunis and pushed out a tough defence of the city, is said to be actually bringing large reinforcements over from Italy. (Doesn’t the bastard know when he’s bloody well whacked?) So we shall be up there soon, dead cert.’

Certainly, the Eighth Army was going to Tunisia. Equally without doubt, some of them would be dead before its vanguard ever reached the border.


Chapter 9

Promises of More Hard Fighting

‘I’m sick and tired of this bloody desert and the sooner I get out of it the better I shall like it. I think I’ve done more than my share in this war, and it’s about time somebody took my place.’Bombardier J.E. Brooks, 64 Medium Regiment, HA, in a letter home, 12 February 1943.

The entry into Tripoli had been a tremendous achievement but was imbued with a sense of anti-climax. Suddenly, far from the dream of a ship to take them home, Eighth Army veterans realized there was much more fighting to be done. Before a triumphal parade on 4 February there was endless spit and polish, heartily resented by most of those involved. ‘Inspected today by Corps Commander – C-in-C coming tomorrow – all guns lined up together,’ noted Signalman Beaumont, ‘glad to get it over.’ Lieutenant McCallum, a Scottish infantry officer, hated the enforced preparations: ‘It would be ludicrous to pretend that the honour of a visit from the Premier had any appeal to the soldiers of the 51st Highland division. The idea of a ceremonial parade was galling in the hours of meticulous preparation and rehearsal that it required.’

Sublimely indifferent, Churchill was in his element on the reviewing stand on 4 February, with Montgomery beside him, as he watched the greater part of 51st Highland Division swing past to the tunes of 80 massed pipers and drummers. On foot came famous Scottish regiments: Seaforths, Black Watch, Argylls, Camerons and Gordons. Atop Mussolini’s triumphal arch, silhouetted against the sky, a lone kilted soldier stood motionless as the troops marched past. It was pure theatre and the Prime Minister, tears in his eyes, loved every minute of it.

After lunch, Churchill went on to visit 8,000 men of the New Zealand 2nd Division. Before the assembled troops he was characteristically upbeat but warned them of the impending struggle: ‘The enemy has been driven out of Egypt; out of Cyrenaica; out of Tripolitania. He is now coming towards the end of his means of running, and in the corner of Tunisia a decisive battle has presently to be fought.’ Lieutenant-General Freyberg comander of 2nd New Zealand Division thought the event, ‘the most impressive and moving parade of my career,’ but others, such as Second Lieutenant Boord, were not impressed. ‘We were all keyed up to hear what the PM had to say, hoping we would hear something of our future once the Tunisian campaign is completed,’ he wrote home, ‘but we were disappointed. Beyond congratulations and promises of more hard fighting we heard nothing.’

Preparations for that eventuality were already under way. ‘Today we have settled in earnest to plan our next battle,’ wrote General Oliver Leese , commander of 30th Corps. ‘It is a big task. We must and will achieve. We have some 500 miles to Tunis while the 1st Army at one time only had 20 miles. It’s a good bet we will get there first.’

Between Benghazi and Tripoli, the Germans had killed or wounded over 1,000 of their pursuers on mines. At one crossroads Major Rainier, an Eighth Army engineer staff officer, came across a New Zealander who had just stepped on an S-mine. A crimson stream gushed from a hole the size of a man’s hand in his chest, while beside him knelt a colleague, trying desperately to staunch the flow with a wad of cotton. Further on a truck passed him: ‘Blood was running through the cracks in the floorboards and splashing on the shiny surface of the road like red paint. In that lorry were the remains of eleven South African sappers who had just been caught by an S-mine.’

But there was no let up on Rommel’s men hurrying westward from Tripoli, despite the delaying tactics of German sappers of Panzer Pionier Bataillon 200 and a Luftwaffe Feldbrigade who sowed nearly 200 Hungarian and German Teller mines in a random pattern along the 58 kilometres (36 miles) of road between Zuara and the Tunisian border. For good measure they also blew 19 bridges and constructed various anti-tank obstacles.

In the vanguard of the advance, men of the Queen’s Royal Regiment (7th Armoured Division) moved forward on foot and 12th Lancers (1st Armoured) were often forced to clamber down from their armoured cars and accompany them; they were slowed on 25 January by sand dunes, which made it impossible for the tanks to outflank the German positions, while delayed-action mines in the Tarhuna Pass interrupted the supply columns on which they depended.

On 13 February elements of 15th Panzer Division – the last of Rommel’s forces engaged in continuous rearguard action – crossed the Tunisian border. Two days later they reached the old French defensive fortifications lying between the Matmata Hills and the sea, some 80 miles inside Tunisia itself, known as the Mareth Line and selected by Comando Supremo.

The position was formidable. From the Matmata Hills in the west, many wadis ran across the low-lying sandy plain towards the sea, about 22 miles away. The most important of these were the Wadi Zeuss and, over three miles behind it, the Wadi Zigzaou. Between these natural obstacles there were pre-war French fortifications and the Germans had turned these into even stronger field-works, mainly nests of pill boxes, some of them capable of holding half a battalion, with the main defences resting on the Wadi Zigzaou, which had been deepened and widened particularly where it neared the sea. About 19 miles of the front were covered with wire obstacles and approximately 100,000 anti-tank and 70,000 anti-personnel mines had been laid.

Rommel knew that the position could be outflanked by a determined onslaught and Montgomery was aware of this from a French officer formerly of a Tunisian rifle battalion, Captain Paul Mezan, who had helped plan and build the Mareth Line. In the name of de Gaulle, he had requisitioned an ancient black taxi which he used as his caravan, office and fighting vehicle and put himself at the disposal of 50th Division. He knew the location intimately and the best crossing places over the Wadi Zigzaou.11 More news of the enemy’s defensive preparations came from other sympathetic French officers, photographic reconnaissance carried out day after day by RAF aircraft, and from the activities of the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG).

During Eighth Army’s advance towards Tripoli, LRDG patrols had been busy keeping watch on the coast road, sending back information about Rommel’s retreating forces and harrying his rearguards. At the same time, a Rhodesian half-patrol of the LRDG, led by Lieutenant Jim Henry, provided a radio link with Eighth Army while accompanying General Leclerc’s Free French Forces on the first part of their historic 1,600-mile march across the desolate wastes from Chad in French Equatorial Africa to Tripoli. On reaching Montgomery’s HQ, they were incorporated into Eighth Army as Force L, which Leclerc subsequently commanded with distinction.


General Phillipe Leclerc

Patrols of the LRDG carried out the ‘careful and detailed reconnaissance’ ordered by Montgomery, for the production of ‘going maps’ in case Eighth Army had to by-pass the Mareth Lane to the south and swing inwards towards Gabès. This was risky work; one patrol north of Scimered lost four trucks with their passengers, and another officer was killed when his vehicle hit a land mine in Hon on 15 January. Their task was further complicated by the activities of 1st Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) which ‘beat up’ roads and, noted the LRDG’s Intelligence and Topographical Officer, stirred enemy patrols to furious activity.

When Eighth Army was making its push for Tripoli, a group of David Stirling’s SAS had put on a demonstration of strength on the west side of the city in order to alarm the enemy and persuade them to withdraw before demolishing port installations. This was mostly unsuccessful; the harbour entrance had been completely blocked and there had been much destruction, some due to the earlier intensive Allied bombing. Great efforts were made to clear the port and German reconnaissance reports on 1 February recorded that the Allies were unloading supplies with small vessels. Churchill was there to see the first large merchant ships enter the harbour three days later.

An SAS officer, Captain Jordan, with a group of three French patrols, was also ordered to disrupt Rommel’s supply lines stretching from Sfax and Gabès while another group closed up to the Mareth Line and observed the enemy’s defensive preparations. Stirling himself was to lead a further group through southern Tunisia, reconnoitre a path for Freyberg’s New Zealanders around the Mareth Line and link up with First Army. Much later, he admitted that this particularly hazardous venture was part of his plan to claim brigade status for the SAS by becoming the first fighting force to establish contact between First and Eighth Armies.

With Eighth Army HQ urging the necessity of speed, Stirling consolidated all patrols into two larger groups. However, both groups were subsequently captured in the Gabès Gap, stretching 18 miles between the sea and the Ghott lakes north of El Hamma. This passage, dominated by the Wadi Akarit at its northern end, offered the only direct route through to the Tunisian coastal sector but was crawling with enemy troops. The loss to the SAS of its dynamic head was certainly a calamity, such was his leadership and popularity.

‘The capture of Lieutenant [sic] David Stirling, Commander 1st SAS Regiment at Oudref 17 kilometres north-west of Gabès,’ noted a German tactical report on 10 February, ‘gives us an important insight into the organization of the disruption and sabotage ability of the Eighth Army.’ Before being sent to a POW camp in Italy, Stirling supposedly disclosed details of his last raid and the coded signals by which his men recognised one another. Furthermore, the Germans believed they had discovered how the SAS was set up within Eighth Army and the organization of its raiding forces. They realized that, while SAS operations would continue, without Stirling’s leadership the raids would not carry the same punch (for sometime at least. Later SAS returned backk with a vengeance in Sicily and Itaian Campaigns and France and Low Countries in 1943-1945), though a few survivors, one set led by a brilliant Rhodesian from the LRDG who had transferred to the SAS, Lt. Mike Sadler, and the other by Lieutenant Martin, of the Free French Forces attached to the SAS, did get through to Allied lines and were the first Eighth Army men to link up with First Army.

Sadler’s group looked so villainous after their trek that they were put under armed guard by the Americans and only cleared by intelligence after they had been taken to Gafsa. Later, they accompanied Freyberg’s New Zealanders on their sweep around the Mareth Line, covering the same ground they had reconnoitred previously under such difficult conditions. ‘It was good to know,’ said Sadler, ‘that the original journey had not been in vain.’

Sadler 1

Lt. Mike Sadler , when he contacted with 2nd US Corps

On 12 January 1943, a LRDG patrol led by a New Zealander, Captain Nick Wilder, beat Stirling’s men by a short head to be the first Eighth Army troops to cross the border into Tunisia. In conjunction with the Indian Long Range Squadron, each of the LRDG’s ten patrols was responsible for reconnoitring an area approaching the Mareth Line, and in the Matmata Hills to the west. It was there that Wilder discovered a route (naturally known later as ‘Wilder’s Gap’) northwest into the Dahar plain by which a force could outflank the Mareth Line.

A following patrol, under Lieutenant Tinker, accompanied by Lieutenant-Colonel Vladimir Peniakoff’s No 1 Demolition Squadron, the smallest independent unit in the British Army – known as ‘Popski’s Private Army’ (PPA) – set out on 18 January and managed to penetrate right through the Tebaga Gap and beyond, ending up within 25 miles of Gabès, confirming that a strong force of all arms could indeed be put through Wilder’s Gap into the Dahar and then through the Tebaga Gap.

By 3 March 1943 all the topographical reconnaissance patrols, which relied on brilliant feats of navigation by the LRDG, SAS and PPA, were complete, and, as the LRDG’s commanding officer somewhat wistfully remarked, ‘The country north of Tripoli, over which the 8th Army proposed to advance, was of a much too inclosed nature for the operation of L.R.D.G. patrols.’ Eight days later, the LRDG ceased to be under Eighth Army command.

During the first week in February, light elements of Montgomery’s forces approached the Tunisian border. Behind them came the whole might of Eighth Army, including the 11th Hussars who spotted a signboard reading, ‘Goodbye and Keep Smiling signed Ramcke.’ If the Ramcke paratroopers were still in good heart there was also certainly no weakness of morale among their pursuers. In one place where a tank had halted, Godfrey Talbot of the BBC saw where a soldier artist had traced a huge advertisement for his favourite Lancashire beer in the sand. Later, he was approached in a particularly isolated spot by an elderly Bedouin begging tea; around his shoulders hung a once-white towel with the bold inscription, ‘Nottingham Baths, 1938.’

Far ahead on the inland route, in pouring rain and high winds, the armoured cars of 12th Royal Lancers advanced past frequent minefields and badly cratered ground towards Pisidia on the Tunisian frontier. Here, the coastal road was so destroyed they were forced to detour southwards and entered the salt pans of Sebkret et Tadet. By 7 February they had reached a narrow mud causeway, southwest of Zeltene at Oglat el Haj Sayid, the only frontier crossing between the salt marshes and the sea, dominated by at least 30 German tanks.

The bad weather, revealed in a letter home by General Oliver Leese , 30th Corps commander as ‘blowing like hell and showery,’ continued relentlessly. Godfrey Talbot described it in one of his broadcasts as ‘breezy,’ which exasperated the general beyond measure: ‘He’s a very silly man though I’ve never seen him,’ wrote Leese. ‘I keep well away from all the Press. They twist everything anyone does or says to suit their own desire for sensation though they tell me The Times, [Daily] Telegraph and New York Times people are better.’

Talbot’s ‘breezy’ weather filled bomb craters on both sides of the causeway with rainwater and reduced it to an impassable morass. Lieutenant-Colonel Hunter (Commander, Royal Engineers, 7th Armoured Division) had the task of throwing a causeway across the mud to take the whole of the division’s wheeled transport.

The first ‘regular’ Eighth Army men to cross into Tunisia consisted of a small detachment from 1st Battalion, The Buffs (Royal East Kent Regiment) on foot, followed closely by men of the 5th Royal Horse Artillery and Staffordshire Yeomanry, whose tanks towed across vehicles of the 12th Lancers and other units. While they established and held a bridgehead, in 48 hours of unremitting toil interrupted regularly by German dive-bombing, Hunter’s sappers built a wooden structure strong enough to support the rest of the advancing forces.

Across it drove part of 8th Armoured Brigade (a combination of 1st The Buffs and Sherwood Rangers) together with 69th Medium Regiment, RA, and 131st Queen’s (Lorried Infantry) Brigade from 7th Armoured Division, now while 153rd Brigade of 51st Highland Division moved quickly along the coast road to counter stiffening enemy resistance.

As the Highlanders marched past the solitary border stone on 14 February to the triumphant skirl of the pipes, army photographers recorded the occasion but the event was marred when a truck blew up on a mine. Only a few days later an RAF staff officer, Flight Lieutenant Chadwick, nearly had his name added to the casualty list when his vehicle exploded almost at the same place: ‘[I had] several very stiff drinks and went to bed, glad to be able to do so.’ The ever-present dangers meant the loss of good friends: ‘since leaving Tripoli we had an indifferent few days, but things just went on the same and you didn’t… mention them again.’

On 15 February Ben Gardane fell to the British and within 48 hours 8th Armoured, down to only 12 active tanks, was replaced by 22nd Armoured Brigade, led by scout cars from 4th County of London Yeomanry (‘the Sharpshooters’). At the same time, the Highlanders bivouacked outside the village to the sound of distant gunfire but were delighted to find a well which for once did not contain a putrefying corpse – a common tactic used to deny the enemy fresh water.


Back in Tripoli, Montgomery held a ‘study week’, on 14–17 February, to which he invited senior officers from England, Tunisia (including the Americans), Syria and Iraq. Besides lectures and discussions there was a demonstration by troops from 51st Highland of mine-clearing techniques, one of a night attack by 7th Armoured Division and another by the New Zealanders of movement and deployment in the desert.

Privately, Patton thought Montgomery’s talk was ‘very well done,’ as was the use of Scorpions (Valentine flail tanks) and mine-detectors by the Highlanders. ‘The four days of lectures and demonstrations were most instructive… I learned a great deal,’ he told Marshall. That he had attended at all was a measure of his genuine interest in the art of soldiering. Later though he claimed that he did not learn anything in these lectures he did not know already. Others might have benefited but failed to turn up. Montgomery was very disappointed at the turnout, especially in the absence of anyone of substance from Tunisia; no British or American divisional commanders made an appearance, sending instead their staff officers.


During ten days in the first half of February 1943, Generalleutnant Warlimont, Deputy Chief of Staff at OKW, visited Tunisia to review the chaotic command situation. His visit took him by way of Kesselring’s HQ, and Comando Supremo in Rome to talks with von Arnim and Heinz Ziegler, at Tunis. After visiting various units and discussions with Rommel he returned to East Prussia on 15 February and the next day was summoned to the Führer’s HQ to attend the usual midday conference.

Unlike Kesselring’s baselessly over optimistic evaluation, presented to the Führer at a conference held in Berlin and East Prussia on 11/12 January, Warlimont’s was deeply pessimistic about the long-term situation in North Africa. To any rational strategist his revelations gave real cause for concern. Within the operational reserve of 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions, Warlimont discovered only the latter had been refitted and equipped while 90th Light was down to 2,400 men. Rommel had likened the German situation to a house of cards; adequate forces to resist a serious attack were nowhere available and artillery, ammunition, supplies of every kind and transportation space all suffered from critical shortages. Under such conditions, said Warlimont, ‘the conduct of any offensive action by the German forces must be regarded as extremely hazardous and utterly audacious.’

It was on such offensive action, however, that von Arnim and Rommel had already embarked. Kesselring calculated that, with Eighth Army’s forces deployed and scattered in depth on the limited road net, which prevented Montgomery’s units advancing parallel to one another, the southern sector would remain quiet for several weeks before a major assault was made on the Mareth Line. In the west, extension of the Allied lines to Faïd completed their strategic concentration and along its entire length their front line was occupied.

Assuming, correctly, that this activity had not gone entirely smoothly, Kesselring planned to attack the two fronts in succession with the idea of delaying enemy attacks by weeks or months. In the south, a series of good defensive lines could be secured, anchored on both flanks and rearguards left behind. But in the west, the Allied line still pinned von Arnim’s troops uncomfortably near the coast. A series of frontal attacks was to be staged along its length to keep the enemy off balance and push parts of the line further west from where future assaults could be mounted.

Kesselring’s plan was approved by Comando Supremo and the OKW. Four days after von Arnim had revealed his intention, on 24 January, to mount an attack on Faïd in order to deter any American movement on Sfax or Gabès (Eisenhower’s ill fated Operation Satin), Comando Supremo ordered him to send two armoured formations to capture the Faïd area, destroy the Americans at Tébessa and occupy the Gafsa basin. At the best of times the commander of Fifth Panzer Army cut a stiffly patrician figure; his reply was glacial. The operation against Faïd was already in hand, he loftily informed the Italians, while two armoured divisions were insufficient to mount an attack on Tébessa and, in any event, were unavailable because 10th Panzer was needed in his northern sector and 21st Panzer was not yet at battle readiness.

As for the commander of 10th Panzer Division, Generalleutnant Wolfgang Fischer, he would never again lead his men in battle; on 5 February he drove into an inadequately marked Italian minefield west of Kairouan. His driver and aide were killed outright and his chief of staff, Oberstleutnant Bürker, badly wounded. The blast also tore off Fischer’s legs and his left arm. In his death throes he called for pen and paper and wrote to his wife. His last words were, ‘It will soon be over.’ He was immediately replaced by von Broich, promoted Generalmajor accompanied by a new operations staff officer Oberstleutnant Graf von Stauffenberg, an outstanding organizer and later involved in the ‘July Plot’ against Hitler.

Discord within the Axis command worsened when Rommel, convinced that the Allies would strike from Gafsa towards the coast, proposed a spoiling attack to be carried out by a battlegroup from Fifth Panzer Army and another from the German-Italian Panzerarmee under a single commander. His plan also involved the transfer of mobile troops from von Arnim’s 10th and 21st Panzer to the south since he could not release his own 15th Panzer Division.

Von Arnim viewed Rommel as a lucky and self-advertising upstart while Rommel had slight regard for the Prussian soldier-aristocrat who, ‘had little or no battle experience with our western enemies and hence had no means of knowing anything of their weaknesses of command.’ Matters were not helped by a series of directives from Ambrosio, who had taken over from Cavallero at Comando Supremo and displayed, thought Kesselring, ‘an unfriendly, even hostile attitude.’ These called for attacks involving mobile troops drawn from both armies, though neither commander was willing to provide them.

In an attempt to resolve these difficulties, Kesselring met von Arnim, Rommel and Messe on 9 February. Unknown to them, Anderson had ordered that Gafsa was not to be held at all costs but they knew of the consequences of his decision for some American units had already been reported as pulling out. Consequently, von Arnim was to mount an attack within a few days in the Sidi bou Zid area; afterwards 21st Panzer Division was to help Rommel attack Gafsa and turn north, hitting the Americans before they could recover their balance. In private, Kesselring told Rommel, who was pessimistic about the chances of a successful assault, that if the way was opened to Tébessa he could expect overall command of the final thrust and for any greater operations which might follow.

Rommel’s directive, issued the next day for Operation Morgenluft (‘Morning Air’), planned to destroy enemy units in their assembly areas, form a special Deutsche Afrika Korps Kampfgruppe (Battlegroup) commanded by Generalmajor Freiherr Kurt von Liebenstein, take the heights north of Gafsa and obliterate enemy positions in Tozeur and Metlaoui. But his mind was already looking to wider possibilities: with the help of 21st Panzer, still expected from von Arnim, a continuation of the campaign ‘according to the developing situation’ was mentioned.

At the same time he was sensibly cautious, insisting that he would take no risks since a reverse would have ‘a catastrophic effect’ at the Mareth Line, ‘there being no more reserves at the army’s disposal,’ and intent on using von Arnim’s 10th Panzer Division since his own 15th Panzer was needed to hold Montgomery in check. Again von Arnim refused, claiming that he needed all his forces for a more limited attack code-named Frühlingswind (‘Spring Breeze’).

This operation was to be mounted by Ziegler with Oberst Pomtow leading the assault, spearheaded by the Tigers of 1 Company, Panzerabteilung 501 (attached to 10th Panzer). They were to break out of the Faïd Pass and enter Sidi bou Zid from several directions; meanwhile, other elements were to encircle most of the 1st US Armored Division and annihilate it.

In the south, Rommel received news of strong Allied reconnaissance forces moving out from Gafsa and, worried by the possibility of losing his Italian line of defence south-west of El Guettar, postponed his attack from 13 to 18 February. He proposed to spring from heavily camouflaged assembly areas and drive swiftly along the road from Gabès towards Gafsa. In the meantime, confident in his own plans, von Arnim omitted to tell either Kesselring or Comando Supremo that Ziegler’s attack was due to open in the early hours of 14 February.

In charge of intelligence analysis at AFHQ was a British officer, Brigadier Eric Mockler Ferryman. One US intelligence officer who knew him well thought him ‘a splendid person; Galahad type; not ruthless enough to please some people [he] took full responsibility for mistakes of his subordinates.’ Others, like Montgomery were not so impressed, assessing him as, ‘a pure theorist’, without practical experience.

Anderson thought the Germans would strike in the north, against Pont du Fahs. From past experience, Mockler-Ferryman was aware that the Germans’ precarious supply situation, rate of reinforcement and absence of information about a more serious offensive, did not necessarily rule out such a possibility. But his usual avenues of information were blocked off in the early part of February 1943 when command changes at Comando Supremo seriously upset readings of the enemy’s routine signals. The difficulty of deciphering Enigma intercepts at this time was further compounded by changes in the Allied command structure which impeded field intelligence staffs in their work of collecting and coordinating material from air reconnaissance, POW interrogation, agents’ reports and Y service radio eavesdropping.

In effect, Mockler-Ferryman was working almost in the dark when he informed Anderson that a limited German offensive would be launched in the Ousseltia Valley region, at Fondouk Pass through the Eastern Dorsale. Such Enigma evidence as did become available, and on which he relied to a considerable extent about Operations Morgenluft and Frühlingswind, was almost wholly misleading and became entangled with information about another proposed operation, appropriately codenamed Kuckucksei (‘Cuckoo’s egg’), which they superseded.

Since Anderson was not to know that warnings of an attack from the direction of Fondouk were based on an excessive reliance on Ultra and misplaced confidence in other unreliable evidence, he was somewhat surprised but unshaken when visiting Tébessa on 13 February to be confronted with evidence of a different kind from Colonel ‘Monk’ Dickson, Fredendall’s Intelligence officer at 2nd US Corps HQ. Basing his estimate on battlefield intelligence – interrogation of POWs, observation of the enemy’s artillery command surveying for targets, and air reconnaissance – the German attack, he reported, would come further south at Faïd or, more probably, Gafsa. After questioning him closely Anderson remarked, ‘Well young man, I can’t shake you,’ but told Fredendall later that his staff officer was a ‘pessimist’ and ‘alarmist.’

After less than four weeks the attempt to make national commands directly responsible to Eisenhower had failed. Given command of all armies on the Tunisian front, Anderson tried to organize the British, French and Americans into three sectors, with a corps commander in executive charge of all troops in each of them. Matters did not run smoothly and he had, by 7 February, to address the problem of commanders meddling in each other’s sectors while expressing deep concern about, ‘the lack of close co-operation in some instances between British and French, or American and French… [which] must be overcome.’

The beating administered to French units at the Fäid Pass during the last days of January forced Eisenhower to issue Anderson with modified instructions. In an effort to squeeze the French out of the front line, elements of the 1st US Infantry Division were scattered thinly in the Ousseltia Valley. The southern flank of the French 19th Corps was covered by the 34th US Infantry Division and 1st US Armored Division , but they fared little better. Near Pichon was 135th RCT, while Anderson kept Robinett’s CC B east of Maktar. Stack’s Combat Command C was at Hadjeb el Aïoun, roughly midway between Pichon and Sidi bou Zid, and McQuillin’s CC A somewhat dispersed near Sidi bou Zid, reinforced by 168th RCT (less 1st Battalion); these units were controlled by 2nsd US Corps through Headquarters, 1st US Armored Division.

Major-General Ward, at his HQ, in a large cactus patch slightly west of Sbeïtla, controlled very little of 1st US Armored, and what he did was subject to the most detailed dispositions from Fredendall, acting on recommendations made by one of his assistant operations staff officers, Lieutenant-Colonel ‘Red’ Akers, who had visited McQuillin’s HQ. Fredendall’s directive, issued on 11 February, ordered Ward to contain the enemy at the Faïd Pass but, against all US military doctrine which normally gave the local commander much freedom of action, was unusually detailed in its exact placing of Ward’s units and ended with a postscript written in Fredendall’s own hand: ‘I want a very strong active defense and not just a passive one… The enemy must be harassed at every opportunity. Reconnaissance must never be relaxed – especially at night. Positions must be wired and mined now.’

Relations between Ward and Fredendall were rapidly worsening: ‘F[redendall] and his staff continue to command this div[ision] in detail,’ complained Ward privately. ‘Even arranging platoons. Get no missions. Fed up.’ A few days later, Fredendall told him to mind his own business after a request for photoreconnaissance. Ward was enraged: ‘He is a spherical SOB [son-of-a-bitch]. Two-faced at that.’ Fredendall’s tendency to hit the bottle also deeply offended Ward; on one visit to 2nd US Corps HQ he came across a paralytic Fredendall, surrounded by his cowering corps staff, unable to give orders: ‘a drunk, a coward, and incompetent,’ was how Ward summed him up. Others severely criticised included Anderson, merely ‘a juggler of red arrows’ (on situation maps) without any real fighting experience. Some of Ward’s own senior officers, hearing him sound off openly about the British, found it surprising and ill-advised, especially as word had filtered down from Eisenhower that such sentiments would not be tolerated.

Ward also had difficulty handling the activities of Brigadier-General Robinett who was ‘not only smart but… a pretty dominant sort of guy.’ Determined to act as a semi-autonomous commander, Robinett was often criticised over his style of operations. Lieutenant-Colonel Simons thought he was a martinet, ‘[he] has a small man complex… a mean and difficult man,’ while Truscott later wrote of him as ‘conceited’ and one author termed him ‘cocky.’ Robinett was swift to reply: ‘Self confidence can be confused with conceit or cockiness. The point of view of the observer determines that.

Troubled by the bewildering jumble of his command, Eisenhower decided to visit the front on 12 February. His main concern was how to meet von Arnim’s attack which Mockler-Ferryman had told him would come through Fondouk and the thinness of the American line guarding the Allies’ prime airfield at Thélepte, south of the village of Kasserine and just east of the Western Dorsale.

Guarded by a specially trained mechanized cavalry platoon, Eisenhower arrived at 2nd US Corps HQ where he discovered Fredendall’s tunnelling efforts. Having warned against, ‘our generals staying too close to their command posts’, he was greatly annoyed and after Anderson had outlined his troop dispositions even more so: ‘I had no idea at all that you had scattered the Americans in this fashion,’ he snapped. ‘The American people will take a good deal from me. But they won’t take this even from me when they learn how you’ve scattered these troops of ours under British and French command.’ With this, Eisenhower started out on an all-night inspection of the front, accompanied by ‘Red’ Akers.

He saw men of 1st Armored, 1st US Infantry and 34th US Infantry Divisions, not yet battle-hardened, and spoke to their officers who had failed to grasp elementary tactical lessons of preparing defensive positions and mine-laying. Even more worrying was the dispersed nature of 1st Armored. Fredendall had ordered Ward to place defensive forces on two hills, just west of Faïd, which dominated the road to Sbeïtla. To the north, around and on Djebel Lessouda, sat Lieutenant-Colonel Waters’s tanks, infantry and artillery, and in the south, on Djebel Ksaïra and on a smaller hill, Djebel Garet Hadid, Colonel Drake’s 168th RCT (Regimental Combat Team), including untrained infantry, many of whom had arrived only days earlier and allegedly had never handled a bayonet or entrenching tool or even fired a rifle. Below them and to the west was a mobile armoured reserve force of 40 Sherman tanks commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Hightower, who was to launch a counter-attack from Sidi bou Zid while Waters blocked any German attack through the Faïd Pass and Drake cut off enemy units moving up from Maknassy through the Maizila Pass in the south. Quite what Hightower should do if both passes came under attack had not been considered.

At 1st Armored’s HQ Eisenhower talked at length with Ward, Robinett – who had come down from the north on his own initiative – and Schwartz, commander of French troops in the Sbeïtla area. Robinett brought further disturbing news. His reconnaissance troops had been right along the Eastern Dorsale in the French sector and witnessed no signs of an impending enemy attack through the Fondouk Pass.

Determined to bring to the C-in-C’s attention other discrepancies, Robinett questioned the positioning of American troops on Djebels Lessouda and Ksaïra who might disastrously be cut off from CC A, straddling the wide gap between the two hills on the plain below. The same point was made when Eisenhower got to McQuillin’s command post at Sbeïtla.

After pinning a Silver Star on Colonel Drake for his bravery in the recent operations around Sened Station, Eisenhower stepped out of his sedan; leaving behind his driver, Kay Summersby, he walked a short distance across the sands. Ahead, he could make out a black mountain mass, cut cleanly by the Faïd Pass. After a few moments for reflection Eisenhower turned away, as unaware as Anderson and Fredendall where the main thrust would come. At that very moment, only a few miles away on the other side, Ziegler’s forces were moving to their assault positions.

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Battle of Sidi Bou Zid , 14-15 February 1943

Chapter 10

I Know Panic When I See It

‘Dabney, open up the bottle. Let’s have a drink.’

Major-General Fredendall to his chief of staff at the height of the Kasserine Pass crisis, February 1943.

Before dawn broke on St Valentine’s Day, 14 February 1943, the defenders on Lessouda and Ksaïra heard the unmistakable sounds of approaching armour. All along the Allied front a message had been flashed from First Army HQ warning of an immediate German attack. This was based on Enigma decrypts showing that Fifth Panzer Army was about to open its offensive, but Anderson still firmly believed this would come at Fondouk with a diversionary move virtually anywhere. However, as the sun rose in a great ball of fire above the Faïd Pass, gigantic Tigers, supported by lorried infantry and anti-tank guns came nosing through a violent sandstorm, firing and then deploying. Operation Frühlingswind was under way.

Troops of 7th Panzer Regiment and 86th Panzer Grenadier Regiment (10th Panzer Division), comprising Group Gerhardt, moved to encircle Djebel Lessouda from the north while others, with Tigers, headed south-west. Waters’s small tank force sent to block the northern advance was brushed aside while German aircraft, in what was to be the first of day-long raids, devastated Sidi bou Zid. Hardly any American air defence had got off the ground.

Before 1000 hours, Waters was completely surrounded and Louis V. Hightower’s tanks were sent in to ‘clear up the situation.’ They met Group Gerhardt as another German tank force, Group Reimann, was cutting past Lessouda on its southern side in a drive from Faïd straight for Sidi bou Zid. Greatly outnumbered and outranged by the Germans, Hightower radioed McQuillin that he could put in no more than a delaying attack. In the meantime, Group Gerhardt had paused after encircling Djebel Lessouda and waited near the Faïd-Sbeïtla road hoping for sight of mobile elements of 21st Panzer, with 91 tanks, which had travelled northwards along the Eastern Dorsale. After disgorging from the Maizila Pass, Group Schütte drove northwards from Maknassy to outflank Sidi bou Zid and Group Stenckhoff moved west and then north-east to attack the village from the rear. McQuillin telephoned Ward for help but Ward thought only a local attack might be in progress. Nevertheless, Lieutenant-Colonel Kern was sent with 1st Battalion, 6th Armoured Infantry, and a company of Stuart tanks, to take up a blocking position along a defensive line running through an intersection on the Faïd-Sbeïtla highway, known thereafter as ‘Kern’s Crossroads’.

By mid-morning, Hightower’s tanks were heavily engaged in stubborn resistance in the north as Schütte and Stenckhoff began their moves from the south. Drake reported that he had counted 83 German tanks around Djebel Lessouda and that men were abandoning their artillery positions and deserting the battlefield in panic. ‘You don’t know what you’re saying,’ McQuillin told him curtly. ‘They’re only shifting positions.’Shifting positions, hell,’ Drake radioed. ‘I know panic when I see it.’

At noon the enemy was right on top of CC A Command Post, forcing McQuillin to shift several times south-westwards, harassed by German dive-bombing and slowed by much sediment and water which had mysteriously appeared in the fuel tanks of his thin-skinned armoured vehicles.

Schütte’s tank force had been delayed by soft sand on its drive from the Maizila Pass. Ziegler therefore, ordered Groups Reimann and Gerhardt to carry out the attack on Sidi bou Zid from the north-east while Group Stenckhoff moved up during the afternoon, troubled by enemy mobile patrols but able to make contact eventually with 10th Panzer Division. On Djebels Lessouda, Ksaïra and Garet Hadid, the defenders were totally marooned in a sea of German troops, but under orders from higher authority Ward refused to order their retreat – though promising a counter-attack next day to relieve them.

By late afternoon much of McQuillin’s CC A had been badly mauled. Had it not been for Hightower’s stubborn resistance even more of 1st Armored might have been overrun for, abandoned on the plain between Faïd and Kern’s Crossroads, were wrecked and burning field and anti-tank guns, 59 half-tracks, over 20 trucks and 44 tanks.

One of these tanks was Sergeant Basker Bennet’s Sherman. He had been in the thick of the fighting with 1st Armored Regiment in front of the Faïd Pass until two 75mm shells winged their way through the turret and set his tank on fire. ‘I called down to the driver and radio man but they must have been hit because they didn’t answer,’ said Bennet. ‘The tank was burning badly now so I jumped out with the remainder of the crew.’ Crouching in a ditch the survivors watched the stricken vehicle trundle on with its dead for hundreds of yards before burning out completely. After hiding for several hours as the battle raged about them, Bennet and his men were forced to surrender when a German tank threatened to crush them in their trench. ‘Where is your carrier?’ asked the tank commander, in excellent English. Pointing to the burned-out wreck, they explained what had happened. To their immense surprise they were directed back to their own lines; ‘We took off quickly’, added Bennet.

Through the heat and smoke as he retreated from Sidi bou Zid in a general exodus across the desert, Sergeant Clarence W. Coley, another of Hightower’s men, could see half-tracks, Jeeps, motorcycles and trucks, all moving in the same general direction. By the time they reached safety Hightower was left with just seven serviceable tanks.

On his way back to Algiers, Eisenhower learned of the Faïd Pass attack at Fredendall’s HQ. There he was assured that it was limited in extent, involved only 21st Panzer and could comfortably be handled by CC A. With no apparent cause for alarm, he only heard of the disaster at Sidi bou Zid late in the afternoon of St Valentine’s Day when he arrived at Constantine.

Anderson, still not ready to disregard Mockler-Ferryman’s firm prediction of a more northerly attack and having no Enigma information that 10th Panzer – with its 111 medium tanks and a dozen Tigers – had been committed, refused to release Robinett’s CC B for it to move south and bolster Ward’s severely damaged forces. Any case Ward did not request them and himself remained, ‘calm and level-headed and optimistic,’ according to his aide, Captain Ernest G. Hatfield on 15 February: ‘Germans really got us bad yesterday but we hope to retaliate today. Three more days like yesterday and they can scratch the 1st A D off the books.’

During the evening of 14/15 February, Ward began preparations for a counterattack to relieve Waters and Drake and asked Fredendall for assistance. He ordered Colonel Stack’s CC C southwards after dark to Kern’s Crossroads where it was joined by Lieutenant-Colonel Alger’s 2nd Battalion, 1st Armored Regiment, which had been with CC B under First Army command.

Alger had 54 brand new Shermans, supported by tank destroyers, armoured infantry and field artillery but his mission was far beyond the means available. His battalion had no battle experience and only a very hazy idea of what lay ahead of it; even the maps available were of the wrong scale. Lying in wait were over 100 German tanks, carefully deployed by Ziegler, led by capable and experienced commanders who knew exactly how to ambush the inexperienced Americans. Anti-tank guns had been set up in cactus patches beyond Sidi bou Zid, among houses in the town and behind hedges. As Robinett remarked, the attackers were, ‘like lambs… entering an unknown and difficult terrain infested with wolves familiar with the area.’

In the early hours of 15 February, Alger’s battalion set off across the plain towards Djebels Ksaïra and Lessouda. One tank destroyer platoon was dive-bombed and brought to a halt but the rest carried on until they reached the second of several steep-sided and damp wadis. Bunching together on a single crossing the leading tanks hesitated under accurate gunfire and air attacks and ran straight into the German ambush. Having observed the axis of Alger’s advance, the Germans had sent part of their armour to the north-east of Sidi bou Zid and another to the south-west: as the pincers closed intensive fire poured into the Shermans from the flanks, penetrating their thinner side armour. Caught in the trap the battalion was scattered and reduced to a series of wrecked and fiercely burning hulks. Realizing that Alger was never going to reach Djebel Ksaïra by nightfall, Stack informed Ward and soon after radioed Alger to ask how he was doing. ‘Still pretty busy,’ was the unflustered reply.

By 1540 hours the armoured infantry had been forced to make a run for safety in order to avoid German tanks coming up rapidly from the south. The 68th Field Artillery Battalion, after being surrounded, managed to march westward and reached safety after dark. Pounded by artillery and dive-bombers the remains of Alger’s battalion, without Alger himself who had been taken prisoner, struggled back towards their rallying area at Kern’s Crossroads. Only four of the new Shermans returned with a few dismounted crews. Fifty tanks were lost. Two months later when the area was re-captured, it was seen that all but one, which had broken down, had been badly holed.8 The battalion had virtually been annihilated, with 15 officers and 298 men listed as missing in action.

Late that evening Ward still had little idea what had happened: ‘We might have walloped them or they might have walloped us,’ he radioed Fredendall. By the light of burning vehicles, Germans were out on the battlefield, salvaging what they could. ‘Plenty of booty,’ reported one soldier, ‘No sleep all night. I was on guard over prisoners of war and helped to load wounded Americans onto ambulances.’ German casualties had been relatively light – 100 men, up to 20 Mk IV tanks and five 88mm guns, together with various other artillery pieces and trucks. To Ziegler’s men went the honours and a set of captured documents giving in full the US order of battle. For 1st US Armored the action had been a catastrophe; in 48 hours the best part of two tank battalions and much divisional artillery had been destroyed; and those troops stuck on the hills around Sidi bou Zid still awaited their grim fate.

When Hightower’s tanks had been mostly destroyed on the open plain the previous day, Lieutenant-Colonel Waters sent his driver to inform Major Robert R. Moore, commander of 2nd Battalion, 168th Infantry (34th US Infantry Division), of his intention to withdraw. Before long, the driver was back, ashen faced, in great pain, with a gaping hole in his chest. He had been shot by a jittery American patrol. Waters was later captured by a German patrol, probably brought in by Arabs; they were methodically stripping the body of his driver as he was marched to a mobile HQ. He was sent eventually to Oflag VIIB at Eichstätt in Germany where the guards kept a close eye on Patton’s son-in-law.

Orders to bring out the entrapped Americans were dropped by aircraft on Djebel Lessouda where command had devolved upon Major Moore. He was faced with the difficult task of getting nearly 650 men (the rest of the battalion were with Drake on Djebel Ksaïra) and a number of prisoners across the enemy-infested plain to Kern’s Crossroads. Early on the morning of 16 February, he reached there hugging his sleeping bag having carried it all the way: ‘The Germans could have my tin hat,’ he said, ‘but I wasn’t going to give them my English fleabag.’ Gradually, nearly 300 men arrived, some still guarding their prisoners.

The troops isolated on Djebel Ksaïra and Garet Hadid had a longer line of retreat which took them close to Sidi bou Zid. Orders to withdraw were sent by radio and airdropped on the night of 16/17 February. They had been relentlessly pounded by German attacks and were completely out of food and short of water. When daybreak came the enemy spotted them on the open plain, well short of the protecting slopes of Djebel el Hamra. Encircling the exhausted men with armoured and motorized troops, the Germans cut them to pieces with heavy machine-gun fire. The 1,400 or so who survived were driven into large cactus patches and the great majority captured. Amongst the prisoners was Colonel Drake, who ended up at Eichstätt with Waters and Lieutenant-Colonel Alger.

As the scale of the German attack in the south gradually became clear, Anderson was fearful that the whole of his forces might be outflanked. Unable to concentrate an adequate blocking force forward of Sbiba and Sbeïtla he decided, on the evening of 15 February, with Eisenhower’s approval, to pull back in 24 hours time and establish a new line for II Corps to hold on the Western Dorsale, running from Sbiba south to Sbeïtla and then south-west through Kasserine to Fériana.

Orders were also issued for the evacuation of Gafsa, in order to shorten the most southerly part of the Allied front. The Americans pulled out hurriedly on the night of 15/16 February in drenching rain amidst crowds of bedraggled and frightened civilians who clogged the narrow road to Fériana, 40 miles to the northwest. Several prostitutes, known as the ‘Gafsa girls,’ were among the evacuees. One officer, ‘credited with the rescue, received high praise from all sides for this supreme devotion to duty,’ noted Captain Webb, who added, ‘The girls themselves made no comment.’

Hard on the heels of 1st US Ranger Battalion as it fled, elements of Grenadier Regiment Afrika and the Italian Centauro Division occupied the town without a shot being fired. Meanwhile, infected by the mood of defeatism and despair, American troops had begun demolitions at Fériana where a mixed force under Colonel Alexander N. Stark prepared to regain Gafsa when the enemy had been dealt a decisive blow elsewhere.

A key objective of Operation Morgenluft had been achieved before DAICs Group Liebenstein had even been able to mount its attack. This persuaded Rommel to send reconnaissance troops to strike at Fériana and Thélepte airfields, which Eisenhower admitted were ‘impressive in extent’ and of great value to the Allies. At the same time Rommel sent his Kampfstaffel south-west, to Metlaoui, with instructions to blow up a railway tunnel and take the village. There they discovered hidden American stores of precious fuel and railway trucks.

Rommel had urged von Arnim to follow up the success at Sidi bou Zid by capturing Sbeïtla, where engineers had blown up a huge ammunition dump before leaving, but Ziegler’s troops paused on the morning of 16 February while Kesselring’s permission was sought for their advance. This allowed time for Robinett’s CC B (which First Army had released) to reach the remote wind-swept, arid plain on which Sbeïtla stood.

In the north, 21st Panzer still lay under von Arnim’s command; since Gafsa had fallen he assumed Rommel had no need of its support. Furthermore, he had dissipated his forces by despatching 10th Panzer on a wild goose chase after Koeltz’s 19th French Corps, which had been given permission by Anderson to withdraw from the Eastern Dorsale and retire to Sbiba. Unable to cut them off, the Panzers found themselves pursuing shadows in the scrubland around Fondouk and Pichon.

Not until the night of 16/17 February did von Arnim resume his attack when, under a pale moon rimmed with frost, three parallel columns of Group Gerhardt and Group Pfeiffer (21st Panzer) advanced on CC A which had just taken up positions at the edge of extensive olive groves, three miles east of Sbeïtla, after falling back from near Kern’s Crossroads. As the Germans manoeuvred to attack, they set off a barrage of rocket flares and rifle fire at extreme range, worrying the inexperienced Americans and igniting supply dumps near McQuillin’s CP. Some troops stampeded and scattered a group of minelayers from CC B holding positions to the south and south-east of the town.

There followed a wild flight to the rear as soldiers and vehicles stampeded in an irresistible panicking mass, hastened by the sounds of gunfire and explosions as engineers burned all fuel, oil, rations and ammunition. At around 2030 hours, a colossal explosion announced that the pump house on the aqueduct to Sfax had been demolished; this was mistaken for evidence of increased enemy activity which strained to breaking point the nerves of the exhausted, confused soldiers.

A few units did stand and fight, including tanks commanded by Hightower and Lieutenant-Colonel Crosby (CO of 3rd Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment). Together with elements of CC A artillery they fought off the German attack but, thinking his defence line had been pierced, Ward contacted I2nd US Corps. Anderson became thoroughly alarmed and authorized the evacuation of both Sbeïtla and Fériana on the morning of the 17th. Ironically enough, just as Ward was radioing the bad news to 2nd US Corps HQ, Ziegler – who displayed a fumbling, tentative handling of armour throughout the operation – was informing von Arnim that Sbeïtla was heavily defended and was consequently told to wait until morning before attacking the town.

When dawn broke the retreat westwards had not subsided and there were numerous violations of radio security as many troop dispositions and intentions were radioed in clear. CC B’s tanks, camouflaged with wet clay smeared on their plates, had orders to hold their position as long as possible to cover this retreat while, further north, a reorganized CC C shielded the town which was shaken periodically by inexpert demolitions, unplanned and uncoordinated.

On the morning of the same day, Hauptmann Meyer’s 2nd Battalion of Special Group 288 led the advance of von Liebenstein’s Kampfgruppe along the tarred road leading from Gafsa to Fériana which was to be evacuated by the Americans as the Allied line swung westwards on its southern hinge. In the lead was Oberleutnant Schmidt’s company accompanied by heavy Panzerjäger (‘tank hunters’ – self-propelled anti-tank guns) and engineers with mine detectors. Although shelled by artillery and, despite the miserable weather, dive-bombed by units of the US 12th Air Support Command, they reached Fériana just as the last Americans were withdrawing.

From out of the houses poured men, women and children; they were, wrote Schmidt, ‘waving and shouting in the false jubilation which these people always accorded any apparently victorious troops.’ At the Thélepte airfields they discovered the smashed remains of 34 unserviceable US aircraft which the Americans had been unable to fly out and a towering cloud of smoke billowing from 60,000 gallons of fuel and burning airport facilities. Tacked on a dugout door was a newspaper map of the latest Russian offensive. The effect was lost on von Liebenstein who had been wounded by a mine at Fériana; command of the Afrika Korps Kampfgruppe had that morning been turned over to Generalmajor Karl Bülowius.

Further north at Sbeïtla, CC B under Robinett began a methodical and skilful withdrawal at 1530 hours, using three routes south of the town. There was sharp fighting for 2nd Battalion, 13th Armoured Regiment, which lost ten tanks including that of its commander, Colonel Gardiner, who was wounded and his driver killed. Eventually, what remained of 1st US Armored reached the village of Kasserine, passed north-westward through the Kasserine Pass and stopped southeast of Tébessa, blocking the road from Fériana. There, concealed in a wooded area, the division began to recuperate from its staggering losses of the past four days: 2,500 casualties, 112 medium tanks, ten tank destroyers, 16 self-propelled 105s and five 75mm howitzers as well as 280 other vehicles. 1st Armored had been reduced, on its own estimation, to not more than 50 per cent combat efficiency.

Rommel now half-embraced the distinct possibility of a huge strategic surprise – though always with one eye on Montgomery’s advance to the Mareth Line – which involved a concerted attack by forces formerly engaged in Frühlingswind and Morgenluft through the Western Dorsale and on to the great Allied centre of Tébessa. From there the way would be clear for a drive northwards, deep into the rear of First Army as far as Bone, forcing the Allies on to the defensive, delaying their preparations for offensive operations and forcing them to think of abandoning Tunisia altogether.

Some steadying influence in the Allied ranks was badly needed. On 16 February a ‘Most Secret’ message was flashed from Brooke to Alexander: ‘Eisenhower making urgent enquiries whether you arrive Algiers as expected 17 Feb. Consider your presence to give confidence most important.’ On taking up his command two days later Alexander thought the general situation, ‘far from satisfactory. British, American and French units,’ he explained to Brooke, ‘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 centralized control from above… We have quite definitely lost the initiative.

To exploit his temporary advantage Rommel requested support for the thrust on Tébessa but von Arnim replied firmly that 21st and 10th Panzer Divisions were occupied in the Sbeïtla and Fondouk areas. Due to a desperate lack of ammunition and fuel, no troops could go forward of the Eastern Dorsale unless they depended on captured supplies because deliveries promised from Italy were so uncertain. Nevertheless, on learning of the Allied withdrawal Rommel signalled to Comando Supremo and Kesselring his intention to make for Tébessa with 10th and 21st Panzer under his own command. That message was not decrypted by Allied intelligence until the afternoon of the 19th.

In the very early hours of that day, however, Rommel was ordered to undertake a softer tactical option. While von Arnim was to carry out holding attacks in the north, Comando Supremo rather ambivalently ordered Rommel to strike at Thala and thence to Le Kef, though it did not specifically limit him to this move. This ‘appalling and unbelievable piece of shortsightedness,’ caused by a want of boldness and ‘lack of guts,’ raged Rommel, threatened to undo the greater strategic enveloping movement and run his thrust line too close to the Allied front, exposing it to their reserves. Knowing that only by retaining an element of surprise could he break up the Americans’ assembly areas, he decided to move at once on Thala.

Sending a message to von Arnim requesting armoured units be placed formally under his control – von Arnim refused claiming, untruthfully, that many tanks were under repair and kept the Tigers for himself – Rommel ordered 21st Panzer to advance through the Western Dorsale at Sbiba on to Ksour while 10th Panzer concentrated at Sbeïtla, ready to support the success of either 21st Panzer or DAK Kampfgruppe, which was to take the Kasserine Pass, 25 miles south-east of Sbiba. Meanwhile, during this time of Axis indecision, Anderson had ordered his troops to hold Tébessa, the plain between Le Kef and Thala, the Sbiba Pass and all the main exits westwards into Algeria from Tunisia. Alexander, newly arrived, agreed.

In the Sbiba area – nominally under command of Koeltz’s 19th French Corps but actually under control of First Army – was much of Keightley’s 6th British Armoured Division together with 1st Guards Brigade from 78th British Division, 18th RCT from Allen’s 1st US Infantry Division, three battalions of 34th US Infantry Division, three American field artillery battalions, parts of the 72nd and 93rd Anti-Tank Regiments (RA) and, in the north, the French Light Armoured Brigade under Saint-Didier and a small unit, Detachment Guinet.Fifty-five miles away, 1st US Armored around Tébessa was re-organizing and bracing itself for further action. ‘Pinky’ Ward was co-ordinating his plans with General Welvert to defend the passes at Dernaïa, Bou Chebka and El Ma el Abiod. Artillery support was to be given to the defenders of the Kasserine Pass, where Lieutenant-Colonel Moore commanded 26th RCT, elements of the 19th Combat Engineer Regiment, 33rd Field Artillery Battalion, 805th Tank Destroyer Battalion and a battery of 75mm guns from the French 67th African Artillery.

At Thala, where a threat might develop towards Le Kef from the Kasserine Pass, Brigadier Charles Dunphie’s 26th Armoured Brigade (less 16th/5th Lancers held in support of the Guards at Sbiba) awaited the hurried arrival of 2/5th Leicestershire Regiment (139th Brigade) which had only just landed in North Africa. The 2nd Lothians were ordered to Thala which involved an unremitting 35 hours of continuous driving shared between the crew members.

By infilling, patching and intermingling of units Anderson strove to meet the coming onslaught. The cost was a blurred command structure, confused responsibilities, and a deluge of adjustments virtually overwhelming Fredendall’s CP, which had been moved from its rock-hewn safety in ‘Speedy Valley’ to La Konif. On the other hand, when Rommel put in a probing reconnaissance at the Kasserine Pass on the evening of 18 February, which alerted Fredendall to an imminent attack, he had little idea of the opposing forces. Some locations, like that of 6th British Armoured Division at Sbiba, had been established by radio intercepts; the whereabouts of much of 1st US Armored together with parts of 1st and 34th US Infantry Divisions were roughly known but the exact position of their various elements could not be ascertained.

Perturbed by these reconnaissance activities, Fredendall telephoned Colonel Stark: ‘I want you to go to Kasserine Pass right away and pull a Stonewall Jackson. Take over up there.’ Stark was amazed: ‘You mean tonight General?’ ‘Yes immediately.’ In fog and swamping rain, Stark relieved Moore at the pass, 2,000 feet above the Sbeïtla plain, dominated on the right by Djebel Semmama (4,447ft) and on the left by the highest peak in Tunisia, Djebel Chambi (5,064ft). A metalled road from Kasserine, some five miles away, bisected the pass, emerging on the western side to cross the huge basin of scrub, cactus and low outcrops of rock whose clay soils became gluey in wet weather, known as the Bled Foussana, and so northwards to Thala. A southern unmetalled branch ran off from a fork just east of the narrows to Djebel el Hamra where a trail led towards Tébessa. Both main road and railway crossed the Hatab River, no more than a stream in the bed of the pass, on a bridge which Moore’s engineers had already destroyed.

A triple belt of mines was laid across both roads, shortly after they forked and more demolitions in the narrows of the pass were intended to stop enemy armour at the eastern end, which Moore planned to discourage still further by using his own artillery. Much of his infantry was astride the road to Thala and his engineers, desperately short on combat experience, blocked the minor road; 2,000 more troops held a thin line astride the two roads extending three miles across the Bled Foussana, covering the exit from the pass whose heights on both sides were defended only by patrols.

When leading troops of the famed Aufklärungsabteilung 3 (Reconnaissance Battalion 3) from the DAK Kampfgruppe first appeared, not all defensive measures had been completed and the general plan, to compress the attackers into a narrow channel and destroy them there, was not understood by many of Moore’s troops. So green were the engineers that their first sight of the enemy, on the afternoon of 18 February, set some off in panic to the rear from where they had to be rounded up and returned to their posts.


kasserine pass sbiba gap


It was on Sbiba as well as Kasserine that Rommel’s double-handed attack fell during the morning of the 19th. Generalmajor Hildebrandt’s 21st Panzer was committed towards Sbiba but was badly delayed by waterlogged roads and mines. Indeed, so bad was the weather that neither side could fly air support, which was marginally to Rommel’s advantage for his men had to advance with little cover. Running into rather more determined opposition than expected, Hildebrandt’s tanks were shelled unmercifully by defenders who occupied the high ground, despite having their dispositions given away by Arabs. An outflanking move eastwards was rebuffed by infantry of 34th US Division, though 16th/5th Lancers in support lost four tanks.Around the Kasserine Pass, Stark’s undermanned defences held out as well. The Germans’ 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion suddenly attempted a breakthrough at daybreak but the defenders had been alerted by British intelligence officers attached to 2nd US Corps. They flung back the attack and so Bülowius committed Gruppe Menton, made up from two battalions of the Panzer Grenadier Regiment Afrika, to work its way along both sides of the road through the pass.

Above them, two companies from Special Group 288 were detailed to gain the dominating heights. Led by Oberleutnants Schmidt and Bucholz, these veterans scaled soaring cliff faces and ridges, skilfully avoiding American artillery and small arms fire. Far below, however, Oberst Menton had underestimated both the Americans and the particular demands of mountain warfare by confining the main body of his troops to the bed of the pass. His attack collapsed.

On his way to Sbiba, Rommel arrived at DAK (Deutsche Afrikakorps) Kampfgruppe HQ at 1300 hours and ordered Bülowius to put in an outflanking attack. In mid-afternoon, a powerful force of infantry and tanks ran into American minefields on their northern approach and were then hit by shells, anti-tank rounds and machine-gun fire. Another effort from the west failed when American engineers fought back and knocked out five tanks. Meanwhile Hildebrandt was urged to punch a narrow corridor through the Allied defences, but accurate shooting by British 6-pounder anti-tank guns left 12 German tanks smouldering, while 25-pounders shot up the self-propelled guns behind, hurling them from their mountings and killing their crews. It was not until darkness fell that 21st Panzer got to the outskirts of Sbiba at last, only then to be pulled back to a defensive line about seven miles south of the town.

Kesselring arrived at von Arnim’s HQ to find out exactly what had happened in Operation Frühlingswind, suspecting that 10th Panzer Division had not been released, in turn limiting Rommel’s scope for movement. Rejecting von Arnim’s alternative proposals for an attack on Le Kef he radioed urgently to Rommel, ordering him to disregard Comando Supremo and make for the important nerve centre of Tébessa which could be by-passed in an enveloping attack. The next day he flew to the forward HQ of Kampfgruppe DAK north-west of Kasserine amidst a blanket of fog and swirling sandstorms.

Hearing the sounds of the Kasserine battle from 35 miles away at Thala, the commander of 26th British Armoured Brigade, Brigadier Dunphie, hurried to see Stark who seemed confident that the German attack could be held. Dunphie was alarmed at what he took to be the imminent breakdown of Stark’s defences and told Anderson that a counter-attack should be mounted but, with few reserves other than two poorly armed regiments of tanks, Anderson instead sent his Brigadier General Staff, Colin McNabb – killed two months later in the struggle for Longstop Hill – to review the situation.

Everything seemed quiet enough but, concealed by the night of 19/20 February, Bülowius’ troops had encircled and captured one pocket of American defenders and scared off a company of engineers who, not for the first time, broke in panic. Knowing nothing of these developments, there seemed to McNabb no cause for immediate alarm. Fredendall sent Stark the 3rd Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry and, while retaining Dunphie’s 26th British Armoured Brigade as insurance against any attack at Thala, allowed him to send forward a small detachment commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Gore of 10th Rifle Brigade and known naturally as ‘Gore Force,’ which took up a position towards the pass that same night.

No one knew who exactly commanded which forces. Increasingly angry with the hapless Ward, Fredendall telephoned Truscott to insist on something drastic being done; 1st US Armored was, ‘in a state of utter confusion’, and he doubted if the ‘present incumbent can cut the mustard.’ He also reported to Eisenhower that Ward, ‘appears tired and worried and has informed me that to bring new tanks in would be the same as turning them over to the Germans.’ Under these circumstances he needed someone ‘with two fists immediately,’ and suggested Truscott.

Events were now moving even further beyond Ward’s control. Robinett received orders directly from 2nd US Corps – thereby gratuitously by-passing Ward – on 20 February to move his CC B from El Ma el Abiod Pass through Thala towards Kasserine in order to relieve Stark. This added to Ward’s worries for, as well as Fredendall’s hostility towards him, he now believed that Robinett, too, was trying to stab him in the back and have him removed from his command. Here was a sure recipe for disaster.

With both points of his attack stalled, Rommel had decided to focus the weight of his assault on the Kasserine Pass and, through the mist and dampness of 20 February, 20th Panzer Grenadiers and crack Italian mountain troops of the 5th Bersaglieri Battalion (Centauro Division) attacked fiercely at 0830 hours under cover of a huge artillery barrage. For the first time, the troops of Gore Force heard the terrifying howl of the German Nebelwerfers, multi-barrelled rocket launchers capable of firing six heavy high explosive shells in 90 seconds. Nevertheless, even as Stark’s control disintegrated, Gore Force was successful in slowing the German attack along the Thala side of the pass.

Again in touch with von Broich, Rommel was furious at the delay in committing 10th Panzer which had been brought up. But 19th US Engineers on the Tébessa side of Kasserine Pass were in serious trouble: ‘Enemy overrunning our CP,’ radioed Moore at noon. Increasing pressure from two battalions of 10th Panzer, now committed behind 21st Panzer and the Bersaglieri, eventually unhinged the American defence which fell to pieces. At the head of 1st Battalion, 8th Panzer Regiment, Hauptmann Hans-Günter Stotten broke through the pass towards Djebel el Hamra, where CC B was arriving from its position in reserve at El Ma el Abiod.

Near Haidra, 20 miles north-east of Tébessa, Robinett met Fredendall, who had driven back from the Kasserine Pass, unsure and gloomily pessimistic: ‘There is no use Robbie,’ he said, ‘they have broken through and you can’t stop them.’ Robinett’s reply was typically pugnacious: ‘Well, God damn it, general, we’ll go down and try.’ Fredendall seemed relieved that someone was going to make a stand: ‘If you stop them this time, Robbie, I’ll make you a Field Marshal.’ Robinett said, ‘I took this remark more as a gesture of confidence in me and my command than anything else,’ adding, ‘It was just as well I did.’ Robinett now commanded all forces south of the Hatab River, while Dunphie (commander of 26th British Armored Brigade) controlled those to the north. It would be Dunhapie’s British brigade that would fac e the weight of 10th Panzer Divisions attack next.

To its eternal credit a stand was being made by Gore Force from 26th British Artmored Brigade which withdrew slowly towards Thala, fighting all the way. Superbly marshalled by Major A.N. Beilby, who was killed later in the day, the seven Valentine and four Crusader tanks of C Squadron, 2nd Lothians, heavily outranged but hull down in wadis, withstood the German self-propelled guns all afternoon. After all the tanks had been destroyed, the surviving crew members withdrew through the 17th/21st Lancers, covered by six American Lee tanks. Four of these were set alight and in the fiery glare from their blazing hulks all the British 6-pounder guns were wrecked, though the 25-pounders managed to escape.

The shattered remnants of Stark Force had already broken off hostilities and got away in small groups towards Djebel el Hamra. Completely unblooded previously in combat, they had managed to hold Rommel’s veterans for 72 hours but, unable to account for nearly 400 men and with another 100 wounded, they had had enough. At Stark’s CP, Major Conway witnessed their collapse: ‘That night, rain, cold and all, they just streamed back along the road there in the dark and I talked to several and asked them, “What’s going on?” And they didn’t know where they were going, they knew… [only] – to the rear. They lightened their loads is what they called it – they got rid of them.’

Eventually they were stopped and turned round by Stark’s own efforts or by Robinett’s CC B making its way to the front but with the pass now in German hands the situation was critical – would Rommel now make for Tébessa or Thala? About to pay the price of the original blunder was the unfortunate Mockler-Ferryman. That same day, General Paget (C-in-C Home Forces) set out from London for Eisenhower’s HQ to handle, ‘the replacement of Mock in such a manner that he will not be discredited… However, Ike insists we need a G-2 who is never satisfied with his information,’ noted Butcher, ‘who procures it with spies, reconnaissance, and any means available.’ In March, Brigadier Kenneth Strong from UK arrived to take over.

Allied intelligence officers were tolerably certain that Rommel would strike for Thala and confirmation of this was received at midnight on 20/21 February from a decrypt of an intercepted Comando Supremo order. Poised to advance from the Kasserine Pass, Rommel was nervous of a counter-attack and uncharacteristically hesitant which gave the Allies a few welcome hours of breathing space during which the untrained 2/5th Leicesters were trucked in to hold a final defensive line four miles south of Thala. Seeing them digging in after being on the move for 48 hours one of Eisenhower’s staff, Major Conway, who had no idea just how raw they were, was impressed: ‘I talked to some of the Britishers… just digging there, the shells are flying and all that, and all they are doing is spitting on their hands and using the pick and shovel. The whole damn battalion just digging in. We , Americans hadn’t thought of that… or at least they didn’t demonstrate they had.’

Hurrying from Morocco was the 9th US Division’s artillery, driving over 800 miles in four days; further reinforcements were struggling over appalling roads from Sbiba – where Hildebrandt’s Panzers had failed again to break through determined American defences – but as a result of the deepening crisis at Kasserine, the whole Allied command organization was becoming ever more cumbersome. 1st US Armored HQ believed that Robinett had been given control of all forces at the pass. However, Fredendall had also ordered Terry Allen to assume control of the entire area south of Foussana, from Djebel Chambi to El Ma el Abiod. In the meantime, Brigadier Dunphie had also been ordered with 26th British Armored Brigade to combine the action of his own 26th Armoured Brigade, CC B and the remains of Stark force, although he had neither the staff nor signals organisation to do so.

Anderson, thoroughly alarmed by the evening of the 20th, decided to by-pass Fredendall, who seemed increasingly out of touch, and appointed Brigadier Cameron Nicholson to command the entire Allied effort north-west of the pass, under the name ‘Nick Force.’ This was a curious decision. Nicholson, unhurried and courteous, was older and second-in-command to Keightley (6th British Armoured) who would have been the natural choice. Nicholson’s own 2i/c was Colonel Dick Hull, former commander of Blade Force. There were now so many overlapping responsibilities that the Allied command structure was in severe danger of overload.

Knowing the strength of the enemy’s forces from papers captured the previous day and reasoning that a double thrust from the Kasserine Pass would divide and weaken the opposition, Rommel took a crucial decision on the 21st to split his attack; von Broich’s 10th Panzer was to advance on Thala and Bülowius’ Kampfgruppe on Djebel el Hamra – leading to Tébessa – while Hildebrandt’s Panzers remained on the defensive to prevent Allied troops reinforcing from the north.

At a commanders’ conference held by McNabb late the previous day it was decided that Robinett would cover the passes to Tébessa and Haidra (though the boundary between his area of command and that of Terry Allen to the south was vague) while the road across the ridges to Thala was to be held by Dunphie; the Hatab River defined their adjacent areas. A single push on either axis by Rommel’s forces could thereby be attacked from either flank.

The advance on Thala and Djebel el Hamra dissipated Rommel’s strength though far away to the north, around Béja, British troops were thoroughly shaken by the sight of Jeeps hastening through from Kasserine, their windscreens smeared and clotted with blood. As one officer remarked, on that ‘Panic Sunday,’ while German reconnaissance units probed the American and British defences, ‘Oflag [POW] bags [were] being packed.’ Through the rising mist of early morning, Kampfgruppe DAK led again by two battalions of Special Group 288, pushed along a track leading to the summit pass of Djebel Hamra. This time they met their match in Robinett’s CC B. Tanks and self-propelled 105s slowed the advance: ‘the day grew wilder,’ remarked Oberleutnant Schmidt, ‘shells seemed to rain on us from all directions.’ Under cover of darkness they were forced to withdraw. Robinett, confident, experienced and never short of ideas, had given 1st US Armored its first real taste of success.

On the other prong of German attack to Thala , 10th Panzer drove 26th British Armoured Brigade back in grim fighting, ridge by ridge. To the east of the Thala road, the heavily outgunned Lothians and opposite them 17th/21st Lancers in their Valentines and a few Crusaders, fought to stem the German tide. Several times, when the attack seemed to be stalled, Rommel was in the thick of things, directing von Broich to send in his lorry-borne troops behind the tanks. Badly mauled, what remained of the two armoured regiments was ordered to withdraw through a gap in the Leicesters’ defensive line. They were followed on foot by surviving crews from blazing tanks while the wounded and dying were brought out on Bren Gun carriers and scout cars.

In front of Thala the remaining tanks were just settling into a laager, though there had been no time to close a defensive minefield laid across the road, when the Leicesters spotted a British tank approaching. Suddenly, it slewed across their trenches and began firing. Behind were others; the Germans had infiltrated the defences, using a captured Valentine.

Many of the Leicesters stood no chance at all as the Panzers swept on until a fuel dump at the side of the road went up in flames, revealing them to the tanks of 17th/21st Lancers. For several hours the armoured duel between British and German tanks , guns and infantry swayed back and forth across the final ridge before Thala. By about 2000 hours, the Germans had lost 15 tanks – plus the rogue Valentine – and withdrew to re-group and resume the attack next morning. They had inflicted grievous damage, taking 571 prisoners and destroying 38 British tanks as well as 28 artillery pieces.

The exhausted defenders were reinforced just in time by Brigadier-General S. LeRoy Irwin who arrived in the early evening with 9th US Division’s artillery. Drunk with fatigue, Irwin met Brigadier Jack Parham, the Brigadier RAoyal Artillery from First Army, and in rain, fog and darkness they carefully sited 48 American howitzers. In front of them was a thin screen of Leicesters, numbering about 100 men, together with early infantry arrivals from 2nd Hampshires and 16th/5th Lancers with Sherman tanks, some still hurrying from Sbiba. Less than a mile away assembled 2,500 men with 50 tanks, 30 guns and other weapons, determined to annihilate them.

‘I’m sorry,’ said Lieutenant-Colonel French-Blake of the Lothians to his assembled tank crews in the small hours of 22nd February, ‘but we’ve got to go out on a forlorn hope.’ With his remaining ten tanks, he had been ordered by Dunphie to take a hill overlooking the British position. At 0500 hours they started out in chilling rain but seven immediately ran full tilt over a ridge directly into the waiting Germans and were destroyed in vicious fighting. Their unintended sacrifice though , served a huge benefit to Allied cause , bluffed the Germans into thinking that a much bigger counter-attack was about to begin. This was reinforced by the roar of Irwin’s guns, firing at daybreak. Instead of ordering his 10th Panzers to issue the coup de grace, von Broich paused while his own 88s laid down a terrific barrage, pinning the remnants of Nick Force in their trenches for six hours.

While von Broich hesitated undecided in front of Thala, Bülowius had ordered his men westward towards Djebel el Hamra Pass, ready for a dawn infantry attack. In heavy rainstorms they lost their way while trying to get around Robinett’s extreme southern flank and ended up advancing on a camel track into the Bou Chebka Pass, seven miles from their destination which landed them in the Foussana Valley.

In the confused fighting that followed elements of Kampfgruppe DAK, some in captured French and American uniforms, attempted to close on Djebel el Hamra with 25 tanks and assault guns. They were stopped by determined opposition from a heavily reinforced 16th US Infantry Regiment (1st US Infantry) and just as they prepared to withdraw in the late afternoon through Bou Chebka Pass, were hit by a counter-attack. Pounded by 1st Infantry’s guns and, from the north-east, the combined firepower of Robinett’s CC B, Axis discipline disintegrated. Hundreds of men fled pell mell into the gathering darkness, leaving behind many vehicles intact. Rommel ordered the Kampfgruppe DAK to be recalled though success had been nearly within Bülowius’ grasp: ‘It was “touch and go” for a short time’, admitted 1st US Infantry HQ.


Rommel had been visibly depressed by the failure of von Broich’s attempt to break through to Thala as well as the setback at Bou Chebka. Burdened by intelligence reports that Allied resistance north-west of Kasserine was stiffening, he calculated that the odds stacked against him were far too high.

During the afternoon of the 22nd, as low cloud cover dispersed, RAF Spitfires escorted Allied fighter-bombers in attacks on German armoured vehicles and motor transport approaching Thala while American B-17 heavy bombers, operating from the overcrowded single steel plank runway at Youks les Bains, and P-40 Airacobras strafed enemy traffic in the Kasserine Pass. Orders were issued to Kampfgruppe DAK that the position in front of Thala must be held to the last bullet and there was to be no retreat without specific orders. But as he set off back to Frascati, Kesselring ordered von Arnim to meet him at Bizerte airport where he demanded furiously why Rommel’s requests for reinforcements had not been met and elements of Ziegler’s Kampfgruppe moved north instead of reinforcing the DAK’s right wing. Evidence of continuing antagonism between his commanders confirmed Kesselring’s decision to call off the Kasserine Pass offensive.

On the same evening, Bülowius received orders to pull out, followed by von Broich, while Hildebrandt remained near Sbiba and got ready to retreat. Early next morning came an official directive from Comando Supremo: the bulk of Kamfgruppe DAK was to go to First Italian Army (AOK 1), formerly the German-Italian Panzer Army, re-named on 20 February, when General Messe had reluctantly taken command at Rommel’s insistence. 10th Panzer Division was to guard the Kasserine Pass during the withdrawal and then itself retire to join 21st Panzer at Sbeïtla, after it had pulled out from Sbiba. Both armoured divisions were then to make their way back through the Faïd Pass, whereupon the 10th Panzer would turn north to Pichon and the 21st south to Sfax.

As his forces retreated, Rommel received a directive on the evening of the 23rd appointing him Oberbefehlshaber (C-in-C) of Heeresgruppe Afrika (Army Group Africa), combining Fifth Panzer Army (von Arnim) and First Italian Army (Messe). Very late in the day Comando Supremo was insisting on a unified command. ‘I’ve moved up a step in command and have given up my army as a result,’ he wrote to his wife, ‘Bayerlein remains my Chief of Staff. Whether it’s a permanent solution is doubtful.’

Meanwhile, the Allies had also been trying to disentangle their command structure. Back in Morocco at Mamora – ‘Boring Acres’ to the troops – with 2nd US Armored Division in reserve, Major-General Ernest N. Harmon, known to his men as ‘the poor man’s George Patton’ because of his crude language, had heard ‘sketchy reports’ of the deteriorating situation at Kasserine. On 20 February, he was called by AFHQ, for ‘limited field duty’ and was surprised when Eisenhower revealed news of dissension between Fredendall and Ward, that Robinett was disloyal to Ward, and that 1st US Armored Division was rated non-combat-worthy by the British.

Eisenhower then ordered him to take over command of either 2nd US Corps or 1st USArmored. ‘Well, make up your mind, Ike, I can’t do both,’ exclaimed Harmon. Eisenhower thereupon told him to act as deputy corps commander, help Fredendall restore the situation and then report directly back as to whether he should relieve Ward or Fredendall. Driven next day (22 February) to Constantine and on to Tébessa he met a panic-stricken mass of Jeeps, trucks and vehicles of all kinds streaming away from the front. Reaching Fredendall’s HQ he was shocked by his first words*. ‘We have been waiting for you to arrive… Shall we move the command post?’* Harmon took an instant decision: ‘Hell no!,’ he said. ‘All right,’ retorted Fredendall turning to the others, ‘that settles that. We stay.’

Handed typewritten orders by Fredendall, Harmon discovered he had been given battlefield command of 1st US Armored and 6th British Armoured Divisions. His first task was to visit his divisional commanders. Ward took his demotion well, after Harmon had told him: ‘I’m about a thousand files behind you [junior in terms of service] but these are my orders and that’s how it is.’ Captain Hatfield, one of Ward’s aides, was bitter, however: ‘Fredendall just won’t give my general a command,’ adding, ‘We licked [the] Germans yesterday and they withdrew through [the] pass. No one can take credit for that except Gen[eral] Ward.

Sympathetic and tactful, Harmon was entirely proper in his conduct of a tricky situation. Ward issued a special message to his troops: ‘All units will be alerted at dawn for movement in any direction except to the rear.’ In the meantime, Harmon went on to see Brigadier ‘Cam’ Nicholson, dirty and unshaven after several days and nights without sleep. ‘We gave them a …… bloody nose yesterday and we are damned ready to given them another one this morning,’ he said. Harmon liked this English brigadier; ‘he and I were going to get along together just fine.’ Harmon had arrived too late to influence the Kasserine Pass operations but was responsible for following up the retreating enemy. He adopted what was essentially the ‘Howze Plan,’ established on the night of 19/20 February, for Dunphie’s and Robinett’s forces to counter-attack together.

Only gradually on the morning of 23 February did it dawn upon the beleaguered defenders that the Germans had pulled out. At Djebel el Hamra, CC B could find no targets, and near Bou Chebka Terry Allen’s men reported they were out of touch with the enemy. Conscious of 34th US Infantry Division’s losses – 50 killed, 200 wounded, 250 missing in action – Major-General Ryder ordered patrols forward at Sbiba before cautiously ordering a pursuit the next day.

On the road to Thala Nicholson ordered all guns to cease firing that afternoon. Reconnaissance patrols advanced three miles without opposition, passing the spot where Nick Force had made its final stand. Two wrecked Bren Gun carriers lay nose on to a German tank with its turret blown off, shattered and burnt-out enemy tanks were surrounded by shell-cases, tins of food, scattered papers, bits of equipment, mess tins, knives and forks. A dead Arab in his snow-white burnous lay where he had been caught in the crossfire. Beside one tank was a tall, blond German, blue eyes wide in the surprise of sudden death. In his pocket was a letter from the Ruhr, posted only five days earlier. A grave was being dug and an Army chaplain was pulling a surplice over his uniform, ready to read the burial service.

As soon as he realized the battle was over, Harmon went to see Fredendall and discovered him lying drunk in bed, having partied too well on whisky, but for others there was no time for celebration. They were picking their way through hundreds of mines and booby traps towards the Kasserine Pass in a vain pursuit. One haunting image was burned ineradicably into Nigel Nicolson’s mind – a British soldier blown apart by a mine, his body lying divided on either side of the road.

The Germans suffered 201 men killed, 536 wounded and 252 missing and had lost numerous guns, half-tracks, tanks and vehicles. They claimed over 4,000 prisoners, many vehicles, much ammunition and equipment. The Americans, particularly, had suffered a body blow from which it would take time to recover. Over 20 per cent of 2nd US Corps was wasted; of 30,000 Americans involved about 300 were killed in action, some 3,000 wounded and nearly 3,500 posted as missing.

More than this, the enemy had thrown the Allies off balance and, as Alexander admitted, prolonged the war in Tunisia by several months. Time, lives and equipment had been lost. Some 3,400 men, mostly volunteers and all but 400 of them infantrymen, had to be sent from the 3rd US Infantry and 2nd US Armored Divisions to replace troops lost at Kasserine. By the time the Germans pulled back through the pass, a major Allied inquest had begun.


Chapter 11

A Complete Dog’s Breakfast

Thud, In the Mud.Thank Gud,Another dud.

The poet Richard Spender’s last piece, written while retreating with the 2nd Parachute Battalion from the Tamera Valley on St Patricks Day 1943, just 11 days before he was killed.

The battle of Kasserine Pass confirmed that the M3 Light (Stuart) tank was useful only for reconnaissance and the M3 Gun Motor Carriage – an old 75mm mounted on a half-track as a makeshift ‘tank-destroyer’ – was nothing less than a death trap. Asked if machine-gun fire was stopped by these vulnerable ‘Purple Heart Boxes,’ one soldier replied: ‘Oh yes, Sir, the bullets usually penetrate one side and rattle about a bit.’

Fredendall’s strategy and Stark’s original dispositions had been faulty. Open space might have been traded for defensible terrain but Fredendall dispersed his units where they could be cut off and defeated in detail. Either the Faïd Pass should have been sealed or a swift retreat to Sbeïtla and Kasserine ordered, thereby extending the enemy’s supply lines and making him vulnerable to swift counter-attacks. Stark deployed his troops as if stopping a cattle stampede across the flat plain of the Foussana Valley, where there was no cover, and allowed the enemy to climb the shoulders of the pass and gain a decisive advantage. Stark was later sent home on rotation to become a Brigadier-General – a deplorable policy, thought Bradley.

In November 1944 Fredendall showed his fiercest critic all the orders issued by First Army for defence in the American sector. ‘It interested me,’ wrote Ward, ‘as I had blamed him for the very meticulous and detailed way in which he handled each of my battalions. I now find that General Anderson of the British Army was responsible. The placing of our troops so off-centre and so exposed like a sore thumb at Sidi bou Zid and Bizzerti [sic] was Anderson’s decision. Fredendall recommended otherwise.’

Nine years later, Ward was still of this opinion: ‘I now even have sympathy for the Corps Commander [Fredendall],’ he told Robinett but added, ‘He had a most difficult task and I might add was not too well suited to accomplish it.’ In return, Robinett believed that Fredendall was not entirely to blame for Kasserine. ‘He was merely a compliant subordinate caught in the web of faulty Allied command arrangements. I was well aware of the situation some time before he came into the picture. I agree, however, that he was not the man for the job.’ The row rumbled on as Fredendall bitterly attacked Anderson: ‘[he] scattered my command from hell to breakfast over my 150 mile wide front. By direct orders he placed every one of my units, even down to battalions and companies. He never permitted me to collect my armor into a powerful mobile striking force.’ Furthermore, nothing was ever done about Anderson, ‘who had powerful supporters in Eisenhower’s H.Q., where British influence was paramount.’ (after Tunisian Campaign was over Anderson was never employed in any field command so Fredenhall overracts here)

Eisenhower wisely refused to comment on allegations in the American press but ‘Monk’ Dickson, in 1948 a Philadelphia warehouseman but formerly Fredendall’s G.2, had no hesitation: ‘Anderson has General Fredendall tied up in knots,’ he commented. ‘In my opinion the disaster at Kasserine is 100 per cent Anderson’s job.’ Colonel Dickson had every reason to be bitter; correctly anticipating where the Germans would strike he had been snubbed by Anderson. Only a few people emerged from the unhappy episode with reputations enhanced. 1st Armored’s CC B was competently and aggressively handled; Robinett claimed to the end of his life that only he blunted the German attack on the road to Tébessa, thereby forcing von Broich’s men to bide their time before Thala. Rommel himself confirmed that failure to clear the Americans off the Hamra plateau by DAK Kampfgruppe prevented 10th Panzer from freeing his western flank and Fredendall admitted that, ‘General Robinett certainly saved our bacon with his tanks.’

Ward remained unconvinced by Robinett’s self-promotion. In fact the arrival of Irwin’s artillery at Thala, the desperate defence by the Lothians’ and Lancers’ tanks and quiet but steadfast leadership by Dunphie and Nicholson from 26th British Armored Brigade were equally important if not more. Not least, too, was Rommel’s own inclination to break off the operation at the earliest possible moment. If Eisenhower intended Harmon to sort out problems between Fredendall and Ward he should either have been sent earlier, before the storm broke, or later when the Germans were back beyond the Western Dorsale. Coming late on the scene, he had little influence on the Kasserine Pass battle but was unduly blamed for the slow follow-up as the enemy retreated.

Although Eisenhower had assured Fredendall on the evening of 22 February that he was perfectly safe in taking any reasonable risk in launching properly supported local counter-attacks, 2nd US Corps failed to realise for 24 hours that Rommel had begun a total withdrawal. Not until the 25th was any action taken and by then it was too late; the quarry had escaped.

Following instructions issued by Comando Supremo, 10th Panzer moved to an area around Sidi bou Zid and 21st Panzer to Sbeïtla and the northwest. Kampfgruppe DAK retreated to Gafsa and was dissolved, its components reverting to their normal units on the Mareth front.

The Allied advance towards the Kasserine Pass by 16th US Infantry Regiment, supported by a battalion of medium tanks, 804th Tank Destroyer Battalion and two companies of 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion, was slow and cumbersome when speed was vital; German intercepts revealed their pursuers were badly hampered by mines. The man on the spot, Harmon, had not had time to get to know all that was going on. Only 12th US Air Support Command’s Fortresses harassed the retreating enemy with severe air attacks and strafing; in the space of 15 minutes on the 23rd, 104 hostile aircraft were counted by the Panzers who had never witnessed such intense concentrations before.

Fredendall was unaware that RAF Bisleys had carried out night attacks on 23/24 February and failed to tell Robinett of the continuing aerial bombardment. ‘This emphasizes [the] necessity for the Corps Commander passing on to his lower echelons the air attacks that are going on,’ remarked Spaatz, ‘since Robinett may have pushed forward more vigorously had he known of the attacks going on on the other side of the [Kasserine] Pass.’ Following his refusal to relieve Ward of his command and falling foul of Fredendall because of it, Harmon arrived back at AFHQ on 28 February amid scenes of jubilation. ‘Well, what do you think of Fredendall?,’ asked Eisenhower. ‘He’s no damned good,’ replied Harmon, ‘You ought to get rid of him.’,
After the enemy withdrew from Kasserine Churchill demanded a searching inquiry into what had gone wrong. Under Anderson’s command the Americans had been, ‘spread about by him or someone over a large, loosely held line in bits and pieces… there was no proper spirit or knowledge of what was going on in the First Army.’ Since ‘Boniface’ (Churchill’s code for Enigma intelligence) had given ample warning of Rommel’s attack, why had a sensible withdrawal not been effected? Now the situation had been restored, ‘incompetence or inadequacy’ was not to be overlooked. Until he had Alexander’s report, added the Prime Minister, his confidence in Anderson was suspended.

Alexander replied that his best officers had been sent to give urgent instruction to the Americans, ‘in battle techniques and training for war.’ He went on: ‘I am frankly shocked at whole situation as I found it. Although Anderson should have been quicker to realize true state of affairs… he was only put in command of the whole front on January 24th [sic]. Real fault has been lack of direction from above from very beginning resulting in no policy and no plan. Am doubtful if Anderson is big enough for the job although he has some good qualities.’

On the same day, writing to Brooke that the French were, ‘good chaps and willing to fight,’ he complained about the Americans, ‘so badly trained – this is the case from top to bottom, and of course entirely inexperienced.’ While Alexander’s arrival produced a calming influence on the more hysterical elements during the Kasserine Pass crisis, his patronising view of American capabilities caused much offence – not least to Marshall – which was hardly surprising given his comments on the state of 2nd US Corps in April. The troops were, ‘very nice… fine looking men if on the soft and fat side. They have excellent equipment and weapons too,’ he observed, but this was futile because, ‘they simply do not know their job as soldiers, and this is the case from the highest to the lowest, from the general to the private soldier.’ Telling Brooke that the problem was, Very serious indeed’, he warned that, ‘unless we can do something about it, the American Army… will be quite useless and play no useful part whatsoever.’

Even when Americans were bearing the brunt of the fighting later in Sicily and Italy, Alexander refused to change his opinions. Before long, he had Ward relieved of his command of 1st US Armored Division and yet did nothing about Anderson who had dispersed its units into ‘penny packets’ and had clearly forfeited its respect. Despite telling Brooke that command of an army was beyond the man’s capabilities: ‘He is a good plain cook and not of the calibre we must now look for in our army commanders’, Alexander avoided a final decision. Instead, he tried to shift it onto the CIGS who was quite unsure as to whether Alexander was recommending the replacement of Anderson or not. Unwilling to grasp the nettle, Alexander temporised and allowed Anderson to stay by default till end of Tunisian Campaign while others lost their commands though main operational and field command of First Army went more and more on Alexander and his 18th Army Group HQ. After Tunisian Campaign Anderson was quitely sent back to UK and never got any active field command ever again.

"The Pass is ours,’ Ward informed Fredendall on 25 February. A preliminary artillery bombardment by American 155mm guns fell on nothing but undefended rock and the Kasserine Pass was retaken by elements of 26th British Armoured Brigade, CC B of 1st US Armored Division and troops from 16th US Infantry Regiment. By nightfall American forces were in the villages of Kasserine and Fériana. ‘In my opinion, wrote Major Gardiner, GO of 2nd Battalion 13th Armored Regiment, ‘what really caused the Germans to pull back through the Pass, once they found the way blocked, was not the pressure we put on them but the realization that the Eighth Army was about to resume its drive and the holding of Kasserine was of no particular value with them.

Before the crisis broke Montgomery had confidently, ‘fixed up a plan of campaign to finish off the N. African War.’ It was ‘quite simple,’ he told Brooke*, ‘and everything is really based on getting Eighth Army north of the GABES gap and out into the open; I will then roll the whole show up from the south, moving north with my right on the sea.’* With First Army withdrawing from Gafsa, however, Alexander was unfortunately saddled with, ‘a complete dog’s breakfast in Tunisia and… an absence of good chaps over there.’

At the height of the Kasserine emergency, Alexander urgently ordered Montgomery to exert force on the Mareth Line in order to divert Rommel’s attention. Monty subsequently made much of this: ‘I speeded up events and by the 26th February it was clear that our pressure had caused Rommel to break off his attack against the Americans.’ Such a claim was patently untrue and dismissed by his chief of staff, de Guingand – not that Montgomery took much notice. Alexander’s directive was sent shortly before midnight on the 21st; discouraged by the severe check to his offensive before Thala and Djebel el Hamra Pass on the 22nd, Rommel called off his assault. However, not until the 24th was Leese writing about, ‘driving against the Mareth Line so as to help the Americans and our 1st Army. We are very nearly in close contact with it and are now starting to try and drive in his covering troops.’ This was at least 48 hours too late to have created significant pressure.

Having been warned explicitly by Alexander not to over-extend elements of Eighth Army, Montgomery proceeded to do exactly that, for the whole of 10th Corps was at Benghazi, 1,000 miles away, and the nearest division which could be brought up as reinforcement to the lead units was the New Zealand, back at Tripoli. These were anxious times: ‘There is no doubt that between 28 Feb[ruary] and 3 March I was definitely “unbalanced”,’ recalled Montgomery. Leese had little confidence in approaching the Mareth Line: ‘… our left flank was completely exposed to the German threat from the mountains.’ But after much feverish activity he was convinced on 2 March that Rommel had, ‘missed his great chance and now we are calm, confident and ready.’

During the time when his forces were most exposed to attack, Montgomery rushed up 2nd British Armoured Brigade’s tanks from Tripoli to Ben Gardane. Also hurrying forward was 23rd British Armoured Brigade with units of 50th British Infantry Division, 201st Guards Brigade and 2nd New Zealand Division which drove up from Tripoli nonstop in 36 hours.

By morning on 4 March, Montgomery had established a powerful force at Medenine, an undistinguished collection of white houses and mud huts, about 20 miles south of the Mareth Line. Under command he had 51st Highland, 7th Armoured and 2nd New Zealand Divisions, all 30th Corps artillery, nearly 400 tanks, 350 field guns and 470 6-pounder anti-tank guns.

‘It’s a very big thing and please God we have made the right decision to stand and fight here,’ noted Leese on 5 March. But there was no other place to stand and fight unless Montgomery had withdrawn again beyond Tripoli. He had no intention of doing so and was supremely confident: ‘I am in fact sitting “very pretty”, and Rommel can go to hell’, wrote Montgomery. ‘If he attacks me tomorrow (as he looks like doing) he will get an extremely bloody nose; in fact it is exactly what I would like him to do.’ Rommel was about to oblige.


While the withdrawal from Kasserine was taking place von Arnim flew to Rome, without Rommel’s approval. There, he obtained Kesselring’s permission to mount a new major offensive by Fifth Panzer Army in the northern third of Tunisia, from the coast to the Bou Arada valley. Operation Ochsenkopf (‘Oxhead’), scheduled to begin on 26 February, was planned in the belief that the Allies had been badly unbalanced through having to move their forces from the north during the recent crisis. When told of this Rommel was dumbfounded at the ‘nincompoops’ of Comando Supremo. Ambrosio, however, was equally astonished when he heard about it because von Arnim had already called off a spoiling attack in the Medjez el Bab area for want of sufficient forces.

Operation Ochsenkopf s principal aim was to advance towards Béja from Mateur through Sidi Nsir with an armoured battlegroup of 77 tanks (including 14 Tigers) commanded by Oberst Rudolph Lang, part of Generalmajor Weber’s Korpsgruppe. The rest of Weber’s forces including Oberst Audorfs 754th Grenadier Regiment, composed of older men and some wounded from the Eastern Front, together with units of Hermann Göring Division and others from 10th Panzer Division which had not taken part in Operation Frühlingswind, were to support in the centre and south. Two battlegroups would encircle and destroy the British at Medjez el Bab and a third entrap the enemy in the Bou Arada Valley by means of a pincer movement before advancing to Gafour. In the north Oberst Hasso von Manteuffel, commanding the former von Broich Division, was to mount a secondary attack, codenamed Operation Ausladung (‘Unloading’), in the Sedjenane Valley and cover Weber’s northern flank.

oschenkopf map 2

A Tiger tank from 10th Panzer Division


The first in what was to be a complicated series of nine offensives by von Arnim’s troops along a 60-mile front opened on the morning of 26 February when Lang’s infantry, supported by 74 tanks, including 14 Tigers, advanced along the road between towering heights to Sidi Nsir. Defending this patrol base – hardly more than a small white building and wooden platform where the road curved close to the railway track – were 5th Hampshires from 46th British Infantry Division , supported by 155th Battery, 172nd Field Regiment, which had placed its eight 25-pounders well forward of the infantry.

Soon after dawn a vicious slogging match developed as Lang was forced to commit more and more of his armour in trying to dislodge the Hampshire’s antitank gunners and infantry who stuck doggedly to their posts despite low-level attacks from German fighters causing havoc among their supply lorries. As Oberst Barenthin’s paratroopers picked their way over steep hills to envelop the Hampshires, tanks crossed the Sidi Nsir-Béja road during the afternoon cutting the defenders’ supply line. After his telephone lines had been sliced, radio put out of action and observation post smashed, the artillery commander, Major John Raworth, still reported, ‘German tanks attacking. Everyone in good heart.’ Gun after gun was overrun but even when ammunition in the gunpits was blazing others went on firing. There came a final message, ‘Tanks are on us,’ followed by the ‘V’ sign before the last surviving gun of the dying 155th Battery was silenced. A lone gunner was seen to charge the German tanks, brandishing a sticky bomb.

After 12 hours’ continuous fighting German tanks broke through 5th Hampshire’s defences and their GO, Lieutenant-Colonel Newnham – later awarded a DSO – at last ordered a phased withdrawal. By then, he was in touch with only one of his four rifle companies. As darkness fell he put a time bomb into the station at Sidi Nsir, burned all his bedding and, ‘the pictures of my lovelies on the walls. “Can’t let the Germans look at you, my darlings,”’ he said, and led what remained of his battalion back over the hills.36 Only 120 struggled to Hunt’s Gap, a railway station on a rise of ground nine miles from Béja, to be strengthened and reinforced there by 128th Infantry Brigade. Of 130 officers and other ranks from 155th Battery, nine returned – two of them wounded.

At the other hand Germans paid a very heavy price for this small advance. Oberst Lang had lost 41 panzers, though his engineers were soon out at work repairing where possible and cannibalising those beyond saving. Already, his ability to reach Béja had been significantly reduced but this was by no means evident next day as the Panzers pushed on towards Hunt’s Gap after heavy overnight rain had delayed the offensive and made off-road going impossible. About midday Lang’s leading tanks were in contact with 2/4th Hampshires and the remnants of 2/5th Leicesters, newly arrived from Thala, who held a thin line across three miles of open countryside. Stopped once more, Lang tried again on the 28th after another night of heavy rainstorms which confined his tanks to the narrow ribbon of road. During the hours of darkness, the defenders had been reinforced by 2nd Hampshires, extra anti-tank guns and the North Irish Horse with 12 Churchill tanks. These had been introduced in First Army – 58 to a Regiment – only recently when a mixed squadron of 142nd (Suffolk) Regiment, RAC, rode into battle at Sbiba on 21 February, losing four in the process.

By the fourth day, (1 March), the strain of holding the German attack was beginning to tell on brigade HQ, situated about three miles from Béja. Brigadier Pratt, normally the corps artillery commander, was a worried man, unsure as to whether he could prevent the Tigers from advancing on Béja and Medjez el Bab. However, late in the afternoon the guns stopped firing at Ksar Mezouar. A British tank commander cautiously approached six wrecked German tanks which had previously tried to entice the Churchills out to fight and knocked out by British anti tank guns and discovered their turrets thrown open and crews gone. Germans had abandoned haversacks of letters, towels, pipes and tobacco, pudding powder, tinned food and, in one tank, even postcard sets of ‘Arab Beauties,’ purchased in Tunis.

The Churchill tankss, now in pursuit, trundled towards Sidi Nsir. Lang had only five ‘runners’ amongst his panzers and Weber ordered him to withdraw, go on the defensive, and hand over his command to Oberst Buse of the 47th Grenadier Regiment, from Korpsgruppe reserve. Disgruntled, Lang’s troops insultingly nicknamed him ‘Panzer-Killer’.


The wreck of a Tiger destroyed at Hunt’s Gap

hunts gap

Onto bare hillsides barring an advance up the Béja-Mateur valley clambered the 8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders to relieve most of 2/4th Hampshires. Then, for 18 days, they lay out on the open ridges, unable to move while it was light. The officer in charge of organizing supplies of food, water and ammunition on trackless slopes by farm-horse and mules, Euan Grant, admitted that bringing everything up under cover of darkness was a massive strain; he was, he said, ‘awful shagged.’

While the battle at Hunt’s Gap was the most hard-fought of von Arnim’s offensive, further south troops of the Jäger Regiment Hermann Göring climbed hill paths leading out of the Goubellat Plain. At midnight on 25 February under the garish light of flares and a furious mortar bombardment, they fell upon a company of 1st East Surreys at ‘Fort McGregor,’ no more than a sharp rocky knoll, 1,000 yards ahead of the main defensive line. ‘The hill was being torn apart with mortar and machine gun fire,’ wrote Lieutenant Kinden of the Surreys, ‘at times it was as light as day and then suddenly very dark. The noise of bombardment and men shouting, the groaning of the wounded and dying and the smell of exploding ammunition and death was everywhere. This entire situation was all about war and what it really means to be in close combat.’

By daybreak the East Surreys were cut off while the Algerian Tirailleurs, holding Djebel Djaffa on their right, were driven back exposing Brigadier Gass’s 11th Brigade HQ and his gun lines. There followed a tremendous assault but a reserve company of East Surreys, with support from 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers, a field company of Royal Engineers, 56th Reconnaissance Regiment and a few Valentine tanks of 17/21st Lancers, mounted a strong counterattack on Djebel Djaffa and re-took it. All available firepower was concentrated on Fort McGregor and at dusk on 26 February a patrol found only six Germans still on their feet who surrendered to British patrol. The bodies of 15 East Surreys were extricated from the debris; some had been killed after their capture by British artillery fire including Major Brooke Fox, the East Surreys’ company commander. Around them about 69 Germans lay dead. German paratroopers found British shelling too intense for conducting any operations and returned back to their own lines further east.

Some way south, German tanks and infantry forced their way between 11th Brigade and 38th Irish Brigade at first light on 26 February. In the Irish sector, slightly north of the village of Bou Arada, the line on Stuka Ridge and its adjoining features was held by 2nd London Irish Rifles, young men who reportedly scarcely knew each other. Hit by the 2nd Battalion of Jäger Hermann Göring and Koch’s paratroopers, they were scattered as the enemy attacked Steamroller Farm (there was a steamroller in the farmyard), on the rear slopes of Djebel Rihane where Lieutenant-Colonel Scott, Irish Brigade commander, had his HQ. Here they ran into a small unit of Lieutenant-Colonel Derek Mills-Roberts’ No. 6 Commando, whose 250 strong force had been established on the western slopes and was patrolling eastwards at irregular intervals.

Only after engaging the enemy with his HQ troop and setting his other three troops to drive them eastwards did Mills-Roberts realize he was up against a much stronger force than expected. From the north there appeared more troops shouting, ‘Jäger, Jäger’, to which the defenders retorted with equal vigour, ‘Commando, Commando’. After the Germans brought up four tanks the commandos were forced to withdraw, hunted by the enemy who introduced patrol dogs into the dense scrub, though many in this area of steep hills and gullies managed to link up with 56th Reconnaissance Regiment. Re-forming, commandos then wreaked havoc among their pursuers by pumping 60 mortar shells into the Germans’ tank harbour. During the entire action, No. 6 Commando suffered exactly 100 killed, wounded or missing (40 per cent of its strength).

Next in line on 26 February, 2nd Parachute Battalion of 1st British Parachute Brigade was involved in, ‘a bewildering course of action.’ Acting as shock troops, they spent much of their time in carriers being ferried hastily from one place to another, in action by night and travelling by day.

It was the misfortune of a large force of Italian infantry, attempting to advance from Djebel Mansour through trackless, wild country south of Bou Arada, to be waylaid by them. As the Italians disappeared into the many ravines, the paratroopers’ support company fired into them all their normal stock of ammunition, their reserve, and further replenishment brought up by mule train. When night came, a sweep of the whole battle area brought in 90 very dispirited prisoners and, ‘a collection of rifles, machine-guns and other ironmongery of typical Italian design.’

Meanwhile, 1st and 3rd British Parachute Battalions held a determined attack on their position – which centred on a feature known as Argoub, south of Djebel Bou Arada – by Austrians and Italian Alpini reinforced by men of 756th Mountain Regiment from Audorf’s 334th German Infantry Division. Under cover of a short bombardment, 1st Parachute Squadron, RE, was sent in to bolster up the hard-pushed 3rd Battalion. Charging uphill, with bayonets fixed and firing Bren Guns from the hip, they forced Germans from the Argoub until they reached a horseshoe-shaped wadi at the foot of Djebel Mansour. There the Axis troops became trapped in an area which had been ranged by 3rd Battalion the previous day and in 90 minutes both Germans and Italians were pulverized by 3,000 mortar shells. In all, 3rd Battalion took 150 German and 210 Italian prisoners and killed over 250. When searched, some prisoners had pamphlets in their pockets detailing the best way to fight Die Roten Teufel – the ‘Red Devils.’ British paratroopers were delighted; no higher honour could have been bestowed on them.

Around Steamroller Farm, German Hermann Goring Division progress towards El Aroussa, from where Brigadier ‘Nelson’ Russell was commanding his scratch ‘Y’ Division (made up from the Parachute Brigade and 38th Irish Brigade), had been slowed by stubborn resistance from armoured cars of 1st Derbyshire Yeomanry.

On 27 February the Irish attacked and stabilised their front; at the same time, 1st Guards Brigade arrived on the road to El Aroussa. The 334th German Division struck at Tally Ho corner just before midnight, surprised and overran the commando garrison, whose survivors were rescued by Churchill tanks. The Germans pressed on to a small ridge 6 mi (9.7 km) to the east of El Aroussa, where two battalions of the Herman Göring Division and a supporting panzer company assaulted a position defended by the Churchill tanks of Suffolk Squadron, 142nd Regiment RAC. Firing from positions, the Churchill tanks knocked out four Panzer IVs, disabled three Panzer IIIs and destroyed a 88 mm gun for the loss of a Churchill tank. The German infantry suffered many casualties and the survivors withdrew after determined resistance by the British infantry supported by massed artillery. The British received reinforcements and counter-attacked after another bombardment, pushing the Germans back from Tally Ho corner into the hills east of the Medjez-El-Bab to El-Aroussa road during the night.

Next day, a company of 2nd Battalion, Coldstream Guards, supported by seven Churchill tanks from 51st Battalion, RTR, charged Steamroller Farm but intense German shelling and Stuka dive-bombing knocked out five Churchills and stopped the Coldstreamers in their tracks. Undeterred, Captain Hollands carried on in his Churchill tank under repeated fire from two 88 mm guns. Both missed at point-blank range, whereupon Hollands counter fire wrecked both German guns, broke through into the enemy’s rear, caught the German transport echelon and set it ablaze. Shortly afterwards he was joined by Lieutenant Kentons Churchill tank and, when two German Mk III panzers attempted to intervene, they destroyed them as well.


Churchill tank

The Churchills then opened fire on the massed German infsntry and paratroopers who fled screaming through the bushes, trying to get to the hills behind. In hot pursuit the tanks crushed many German troops beneath their tracks and shot up 25 wheeled vehicles, eight antitank guns, two anti-aircraft guns, mortars, ammunition, radio sets and much else. They killed 200 men and were described in a German transmission, which the British intercepted, as a ‘mad Tommy tank battalion,’ which had scaled ‘impossible heights.’

On the following day 3rd Grenadier Guards walked into Steamroller Farm. The whole area, observed Sergeant-Major Bryen, RSM of 6 Commando, was littered with, ‘distorted bodies which had lain there for two days or more, shell holes, burning lorries, guns and motor cycles, arms, ammunition, kit, uniform strewn everywhere, both our own and the enemy; shell, cartridges, grenades, heaped in confusion, with plenty of very obvious booby traps.’ In recognition of their parts in the action, Mills-Roberts of 6 Commando and Hollands were awarded the DSO. (Distinguished Service Order)

5th British Corps commander Generak Allfrey sent forward the Lancashire Fusiliers, 600 men of No. 6 Commando, the 56th Reconnaissance Regiment, Valentine tanks of the 17th/21st Lancers, elements of the 51st Royal Tank Regiment (51st RTR) and the North Irish Horse. The next day almost as soon as they arrived, the Surreys and the Valentines of the 17/21st Lancers counter-attacked Djebel Djaffa, which was recaptured after some resistance

Before the start of von Arnim’s offensive, the British CIGS hoped that Brigadier Flavell’s parachute brigade might be withdrawn, refitted and retrained because it consisted of, ‘expensive personnel hard to get and hard to train, and which we are having great difficulty in replacing.’ The Germans had also used their seasoned parachute troops as line infantry, blocking holes here and there, dissipating their efforts in roles for which they had never been intended.

When the US 26th RCT (Regimental Combat Team) accordingly arrived in the Bou Arada sector, 1st Battalion reported their hand-over was so noisy it sounded like, ‘Blackpool beach on a summer Sunday afternoon in Wakes Week [a traditional holiday period in Britain].’ Flavell’s brigade was then sent to Tamera Valley in the north where the German offensive had been most successful and was pitchforked straight into a critical situation. On 2 March, the towns of Medjez el Bab and Sedjenane had come under serious attack. Two weak battalions of Algerian Tirailleurs had been driven off Djebel Ang, overlooking the Plain of Medjez. They in turn dragged off a detachment of 138th Infantry Brigade from 46th British Division which had been holding Toukabeur at the southern extremity of the mountain range.

By then the Germans had cut the Medjez-Béja road and controlled all routes to Medjez except from the south. While the British still held Oued Zarga, a settlement on the road roughly mid-way between Béja and Medjez, everything going to Medjez now had to be sent over the mountains via Tebersouk along 25 difficult miles of road. Meanwhile, the Germans shot up anything which moved and the threat to Medjez increased when strong enemy forces were reported in the prehistoric caves of the tiny village of Heidous, at the base of Tanngoucha, as well as on the mountain ridge between Oued Zarga and Medjez.

British engineers had rapidly constructed a road over desolate, broken country from a point near Testour, in the Tebersouk Valley, to link up with Oued Zarga from the rear. Ammunition, artillery and Brigadier ‘Swifty’ Howlett’s 36th Infantry Brigade accompanied by other assorted units were moved up to open a front east and west of Oued Zarga. They extended the line from 6th York and Lancasters defending the northern edge of Medjez. Further forward, east of the River Medjerda, 2/4th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry hung on to Grenadier Hill.

Howlett was transferred to take command of 139th Brigade on 3 March, temporarily replacing the unfortunate Brigadier Chichester-Constable who had suffered severe losses in defending the far north of the Allied line against attacks by elements of Division von Manteuffel. These began with Rudolf Witzig’s rugged troops from 11th Fallschirmjäger Pionier Bataillon scrambling over the hills on their way to the iron-ore mining village of Sedjenane. His objective was to push on as far as Djebel Abiod, cut the road to Béja from the north and hold up any offensive against Bizerte. In dire peril of being surrounded on 27 February, 6th Lincolns withdrew hastily from their position facing Green and Bald Hills, leaving behind in the clinging mud all their guns.

An attack on Witzig’s forces by 16th Durham Light Infantry, not yet battle-hardened, was easily repulsed and another broken up with heavy losses. This left only 2/5th Sherwood Foresters defending Sedjenane. The battalion, one of those badly mauled at Dunkirk in 1940, was occupying poor defensive positions, about three miles east of the village. It was decimated by a German attack on 2 March and only a remnant got away in darkness to safety.

For these setbacks Chichester-Constable was sacked. The holder of two DSOs, ‘he knew the Germans were going to attempt a big break-through and had quite rightly asked if he could move his defensive position,’ commented Colonel Frost. ‘Not only did they say no but took one of his battalions away [2/5th Sherwood Foresters – later returned]. The Germans attacked and completely overwhelmed him. He lost his guns, his men and his career. They had made him a scapegoat. I took careful note.’

When it arrived at Sedjenane 1st British Parachute Brigade joined the 2nd Coldstream Guards, which had hastened from El Aroussa to block the western approaches. The brigade was placed astride the main road; on its left was French Corps Franc d’Afrique under Colonel Durand, which had held up well against attacks by the Italian Bersaglieri in what the paratroopers referred to, without disrespect, as the ‘Second Eleven Match.’

After the Germans had fought their way house by house along Sedjenane’s long, muddy street, the Coldstreamers withdrew leaving the Red Devils to block the advance. At dawn on 8 March Barenthin’s Fallschirmjäger Regiment attacked through dense woods and head-high scrub covering the hills. They caught the 2nd Parachute Battalion, having only just taken over from 6th Lincolns in the dark, somewhat off balance. A Company immediately began to suffer casualties. The A Company commander rang battalion HQ and said calmly, ‘We appear to be completely surrounded now, but I am sure it will be all right.’ Only by suffering considerable losses was 3rd Battalion able to prevent Barenthin’s troops slicing between 1st and 2nd Battalions. On the 10th, in pouring rain and bitter cold, the Germans attacked again and were badly cut up by British paratroopers who took over 200 prisoners in hand-to-hand fighting.

For the next seven days 1st British Parachute Brigade stuck it out, though 1st Battalion was completely overlooked by German positions on Djebel Bel, a wooded hill on the right of the brigade’s position. An attack by the luckless Sherwood Foresters, ordered by Lieutenant-General Allfrey, was bloodily repulsed whereupon a determined German attempt to force 2nd Battalion out of the woods nearly succeeded until a squadron of JU-87 Stukas arrived and mistakenly bombed their own forward troops, from 10th Panzer, to extinction. However, the weight of attacks on the Corps Franc d’Afrique finally stove in their front and Brigadier Flavell had to allow Colonel Durand to withdraw. This unhinged his defence and made the parachute brigade’s positions untenable. Even then, 2nd Battalion, which had taken over 150 casualties, was reluctant to retreat.

This involved swimming and wading down the Oued el Madene, carrying all their weapons and under continuous shellfire. Soaking wet and exhausted, the battalion took up positions on three bare rocky hills, known as the Pimples and then handed over to the Leicesters. The key to the whole position was the highest hill, named ‘Bowler Hat,’ south-west of Sedjenane and unfortunately on the enemy’s side of the river. A strong attack by Panzer Grenadiers now fell upon the Leicesters. Major Vic Coxen of 1st Paras, probing forward with a couple of platoons to find out what was happening sent Platt, his signaller, to their HQ. Back came his response: ‘That you, sir?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘They’ve fu…ed off.’ ‘Who have?’ ‘Those fu…rs; they’ve all fu…ed. off.’ From this Coxen gathered that the Leicesters had apparently retreated and a counter-attack, mounted hastily by 3rd Parachute Battalion, failed miserably.

Another attempt on the 20th was much better organized. Following a heavy and well-directed bombardment, Lieutenant-Colonel Pearson’s 1st Parachute Battalion charged the hill, supported by a flanking attack across the river using a bridge laid down by the Parachute Field Squadron. Ferocious war cries of ‘Waho Mohammed’ (British paratroopers war cry) were heard as the paratroopers stormed forward, driving before them startled German infantry who had just relieved the Panzer Grenadiers. At small cost, the battalion took the hill and secured it. The fighting in the north, for the time being, was over.

Elsewhere, too, von Arnim’s offensive had ground to a halt. These short but savage battles, ranging over 60 miles of the front, had caused him heavy losses, which he could ill-afford. Weber’s Korpsgruppe alone reported 900 wounded, 24 panzers destroyed (including the total loss of two Tigers) and nearly 50 more disabled, as well as the destruction of many precious German anti-tank guns , artillery pieces and motorised vehicles and mortars. Two out of the four German infantry battalions were taken prisoner, in addition to the killed and wounded. Many of German prisoners had been on the Eastern Front and claimed that they had never experienced such a weight of bombardment they were subjected to during Operation Ochsenkopf . The offensive had failed to achieve the main objectives and Arnim called off further attacks. Anderson had considered abandoning Medjez, until the success of the defence of Hunt’s Gap, the no retreat order issued by General Harold Alexander (commander of the 18th Army Group) and the end of the German attack, which saved the village.

At the other hand bout 2,500 British soldiers were on their way to Italian POW camps. Among them was Gunner Greenwood of 70th Field Regiment, RA. While in transit a German remarked to him: ‘You’ve got the bloody Americans and we’ve got the Italians. Between us we could rule the world.’ Despite their differences, however, in the long run the Allies could make good their loss of weapons, ammunition and stores. Proportionately, von Arnim had managed to inflict greater damage on himself than on Eisenhower who, as Kesselring remarked, was not fighting ‘a poor man’s war.’

Rommel was dismayed when he heard that 19 Tigers had been destroyed for nothing in return. Major Hans-Georg Lueder, commander of Schwere Panzer Abteilung 501 (Heavy Tank Battalion 501) was severely wounded and the detachment lost so many tanks that it ceased to be an effective fighting force. None of the Axis operational objectives were met, despite gaining some ground in the west. The battle cost the Germans the initiative; at best they had only slightly delayed an Allied offensive. The divisions needed for the attack of the 1st Italian Army on the Eighth Army were delayed for a week by the failure of Operation Ochsenkopf and as a result the Battle of Medenine was also a costly failure for Axis. General Allfrey , 5th British Corps commander was promoted to major-general on 9 March due to his success repulsing the German offensive over his whole front. An Axis success would have meant the loss of Béja and the retirement of the Allied line along the northern sector, including a withdrawal from Medjez el Bab, which would have prolonged the campaign and interfered with Allied plans for the Allied invasion of Sicily.


Chapter 12

Every Objective Must Be Held‘

"My son’s birthday, he is four years old. I hope I shall soon be home with him, I have missed so much of his life.’

Sergeant J.R. Harris, 4th County of London Yeomanry, in his diary, 10 March 1943.1

‘I must confess that instead of becoming hardened by war and battles I find the reverse to be the case and I am if anything more nervy than I was 3 years ago. It’s a pity and not what you’d expect.’

The Rev. J.E.G. Quinn while with the Coldstream Guards at Medenine, 11 March 1943. Quinn had already won the MC and twice been wounded: six months later he was killed at Salerno.

"We will stand and fight the enemy in our present positions,’ ordered Montgomery at Medenine. ‘There must be NO WITHDRAWAL anywhere, and of course NO SURRENDER.’ Ultra had given clear evidence of Rommel’s intention to mount Operation Capri with an encircling attack using what was left, after Thala, of 10th Panzer Division together with half 15th Panzer and 21st Panzer Divisions, though his precise thrust line was not known until the actual day of the assault. Every angle of approach was covered by Eighth Army before the attack. Anti-tank guns were sighted to kill German tanks and not simply to protect the infantry. There was no wire and few mines in front of the troops, but they were well dug-in and covered by concentrated artillery whose fire could quickly be shifted in any direction.

Interception of radio signals by British Army Y detected the southwards movement of Rommel’s troops supported by 160 tanks and 200 guns, and air sightings of 10th Panzer Division and other armour suggested he would attempt a decisive thrust from the west. By mischance, the BBC revealed on the eve of the attack that the New Zealand Division was moving into the front line. For some reason the Germans apparently missed this useful nugget of information.

Rommel stood in a open car on the morning of 6 March, appearing pale and jaundiced, a dirty neck bandage covering the festering desert sores which plagued him, to observe the start of his attack. Precisely at 0600 hours his artillery opened up as Panzers rumbled out of early morning mist from the hills to the north and west of Medenine. Their only hope of success lay in a feint along the coast road by 90th Light Division, joined by battlegroups from the Italian Spezia and Trieste Divisions.

medenin map1

Battle of Medenine

Coming up against the British flank between Tadjera Khir and Medenine, 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions soon discovered that this ruse had failed. In the very centre of the advance, Hermann Frömbgen of 5th Panzer Regiment (21st Panzer) got to within 1,000 metres of the foot of low hills before Metameur, slightly north-west of Medenine, when, as he recalled, ‘all hell broke loose.’ From real British gun pits, located 40 yards behind hastily abandoned dummies positioned by British engineers as decoys, the Panzers were suddenly engulfed by extraordinarily heavy artillery fire. Low-flying RAF aircraft rocketed the tanks, while deadly machine-gunning forced them to close up their armoured panels; the shooting and severe artillery fire then swept the lorried infantry in their rear, causing much disorganization and heavy casualties.

On every side, 15th and 21st Panzer and 90th German Light Divisions were taking heavy losses and by late evening it was all over. Out on the battlefield, in torrential rain, British sappers were demolishing abandoned German tanks. ‘Under heavy fire and in profound darkness we had to return to our start point,’ noted one German infantryman, ‘The sacrifice was in vain.’ Behind them they left 54 smashed tanks and had suffered 645 casualties, over two-thirds of them German. By comparison, Eighth Army losses were moderate indeed; 130 men of all ranks killed or wounded and not a single tank or gun lost. The battle had been, as de Guingand rightly remarked, ‘a little classic all of its own,’ and on its success Montgomery’s vanity began to inflate alarmingly.

For Rommel, Medenine had been a catastrophe: ‘A great gloom settled over us all,’ he wrote. ‘The Eighth Army’s attack was now imminent and we had to face it. For the Army Group to remain longer in Africa was now plain suicide.’ On 8 March he handed over Army Group Afrika to von Arnim who remarked grimly, ‘One of us was enough here to be liquidated.’ Next day Rommel flew to Rome to see Ambrosio at Comando Supremo in an attempt to save his troops from certain disaster by persuading the high command to shorten the front in Tunisia from 400 to 100 miles, adequately supply defenders of well-fortified positions and use small motorized forces to squeeze out enemy penetrations of the line. The Führer thought him over-pessimistic and after decorating Rommel with the Oakleaves with Swords and Diamonds, sent him off to Semmering , Germany on sick-leave.

Few on the Allied side knew Rommel had gone until an Enigma intercept on 18 March revealed the fact; the first signal, signed by von Arnim as Oberbefehlshaber of Army Group Afrika, was decrypted 24 hours later. This information was withheld from all commands by the War Office for fear that the Germans might get to know that their machine ciphers had been broken and it was not until 24 April that an Eighth Army intelligence summary revealed Rommel’s departure from Africa. Other changes in the German command structure at this time put General der Panzertruppe von Vaerst, who arrived in Rome on 3 March, in command of Fifth Panzer Army while Generalleutnant Hans Cramer replaced Generalleutnant Ziegler, who had temporarily commanded the Afrika Korps.

No final decision was taken about Rommel’s return but Hitler and Kesselring had lost faith in him. Although his troops still fought and died there, Rommel’s African days were over. In the year or so left to him the Desert Fox never again saw the arena in which he had forged such a mighty (but also inflated) reputation.

Just as Rommel’s star waned, Montgomery’s ascended. In England he had become a celebrity, much to his surprise and delight: ‘In defeat unthinkable, in victory insufferable,’ Churchill was supposed to have said. Apart from Monty’s own troops, no one else could fight: ‘… the Americans were complete amateurs at fighting’ and since First Army was led by Anderson, whom he thought, ‘quite unfit to command an Army in the field’, Eighth Army would do the job by itself. Alexander was also concerned about Anderson’s shortcomings and wrote off most Americans apart from Fredendall, whom he liked and supported.

Eisenhower, however, now had grave misgivings about 2nd US Corps and his commanders in the field. ‘The problem plagues me all the time,’ he wrote to Marshall. Robinett was a puzzle: ‘He has the best fighting record of any Combat Commander on the front’, but had a loose tongue and appeared, ‘intelligent but entirely without judgment, except in a tactical sense.’ Terry Allen was doing, ‘a satisfactory job’, as was his assistant divisional commander, Brigadier-General Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt, one of the genuine maverick characters of 1st US Infantry and, like Allen, liable to ignore army regulations: ‘Aw cheer up,’ he once told his men after a particularly hard battle, ‘when this is over, you can go back to Algiers, beat up a few MPs [Military Police] and feel better.’ He shared with Allen a well-earned reputation as an exceptionally courageous and superlative leader in the field.

Major-General ‘Doc’ Ryder also passed scrutiny but Fredendall’s staff was weak and the C-in-C had spent much time travelling, ‘just to assure myself that he was doing the job successfully.’ Worried at Fredendall’s inability to select good men and get the best out of them, Eisenhower was already looking for a substitute to replace him.

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On 14 March, Eighth Army was ordered by Alexander to take the Mareth position and 2nd US Corps to capture Gafsa, advance on Maknassy and capture El Guettar, thereby threatening the enemy’s line of communication north of Gabès. Hitler had ordered ‘limited but concentrated attacks’ and a ‘reserve line’ in the Gabès area which was to be fortified ‘most strongly and at once’ with a doubling (and later tripling) of sea transport and increased offensive activity by the Luftwaffe.

That such grandiose plans bore virtually no relationship to reality did nothing to dent Kesselring’s habitual sunny confidence, even after he had inspected the defences in Tunisia. Yet the defence line was only lightly held in places and in others not at all. Since Allied strength was calculated at some 210,000 fighting troops, 1,600 tanks, 1,100 anti-tank guns and 850 field guns, they might well defeat each of the Axis armies in turn. In face of this overwhelming preponderance of men and materiel, there seemed little chance of building up adequate defences, which in any case demanded an increase in monthly shipments of supplies to 140,000 tons.

The most impossible job in Tunisia belonged to Oberstleutnant i.G. Brand, Ober quarter master Army Group Afrika, responsible for supplies to the Axis armies. As an absolute minimum on which to subsist, they required approximately 75,000 tons of supplies every month. In April, not more than 23,017 tons arrived and about 3,000 tons during the early part of May. By then, a catastrophic 77 per cent of supplies was being lost in transit.

On 13 March Fifth Panzer Army reported that it had absolutely no reserve stocks whatsoever left. Daily meals in the line often amounted to no more than half a mess-tin of cold rice, one and a half slices of bread and two potatoes. Symptomatic of a rapidly worsening situation was Hitler’s decision to cancel the consignment of important documents by air from Italy to Africa. Troops sent as reinforcements to Tunisia no longer went through the Africa acclimatisation course and the best that could be done was to make some arrangements after they arrived.

About the only positive development for Axis was the arrival on 17 March of one infantry regiment (two battalions) of 999th German Light Afrika Division to reinforce Fifth Panzer Army. Apart from specially selected officers and NCOs, it consisted of troops punished for offences against army discipline, men who had been reduced to the ranks and Schwarzschlaechter. They were given the chance to work out their punishments by demonstrating bravery on the battlefield. Roughly ten per cent of the division’s personnel deserted at the first opportunity but units which later fought around Fondouk did so with exemplary courage. Even so, since transport space was so limited, only one other rifle regiment arrived in April. The divisional commander, Generalleutnant Kurt Thomas, was killed when his aircraft was intercepted and shot down by RAF Spitfire fighters on its way to Tunisia.

Oberstleutnant Brand’s opposite number on the Allied side was Major-General G.H. Miller, who took over a supply line growing in strength and vigour. The situation at Eighth Army was ‘pretty strong’ but at Fériana, at 2nd US Corps HQ, there was talk of being stretched to the limit. ‘[I] rather doubt this statement actually,’ he noted, ‘as they have had little fighting, but no doubt the administration] is suffering from excessive demands from the fwd troops.’ In reality, front-line troops got only a residue of supplies due to persistent pilfering while in transit, though Anderson remarked that there was never any real shortage of ammunition.

Eisenhower finally lost patience with Fredendall, especially after listening to Alexander, who had changed his mind and was now ‘quite worried’ about his lack of ability to plan the next operation. As diplomatic as possible Alex remarked Ike about his summary of Fredenhall “I am sure you have men better than that” Commanding US I Armored Corps in French Morocco, Patton was chafing for active command when the C-in-C ordered him to be ready for extended field service. Realising that he was, ‘taking over rather a mess’, from Fredendall, Patton was, nevertheless, full of confidence: ‘I think I will have more trouble with the British than the Boches.’ Fredendall’s staff was outraged, believing Anderson (rather than Alexander) had done the dirty on him. ‘Pinky’ Ward was mightily relieved: only a day or so before the news came through, he had written: ‘The situation re Fredendall is still dangerous. He will get me if he can.’ Afterwards, ‘Glory be,’ everything had changed.


General Harold Alexander , commander of newly activated 18th Army Group , later titled “Alexander of Tunis” for his success in Tunisia

Fredendall was greatly surprised by his removal on 5 March although Eisenhower cabled Marshall that same day explaining that, ‘no stigma should attach to him in connection with this relief because in many respects he did a very soldierly job in the recent fighting.’ Six days later Fredendall left North Africa for good. Physically timid to the last, he refused to fly to Constantine and left by road at what he thought was the safest time, in the small hours of 7 March. ‘I think Fredendall is either a little nuts or badly scared,’ remarked Patton. Above all, Fredendall and his staff assumed that the deceitful British were behind his replacement.

One of the first things Eisenhower told Patton at Algiers on 5 March was that criticism of the British must stop. ‘I fear he has sold his soul to the devil on “Cooperation” which I think means we are pulling the chestnuts for our noble allies,’ noted Patton. Travelling on to meet Alexander, ‘a snob in the best sense of the word’, with whom he was much impressed because of his fighting record – he knew that, ‘It is clear that I too must “cooperate” or get out.’

Patton blew in like a whirlwind. Within hours of arriving at Fredendall’s HQ, in a smothering cloud of dust thrown up by a procession of scout cars and halftracks, sirens blaring, bristling with machine guns, he issued orders to smarten up the corps HQ staff. This had a stunning, not to say devastating, effect. Incredulous officers and men were fined $25 for wearing improper uniform and speed limits and other traffic regulations were strictly enforced. ‘I guess I am a S.O.B. but Discipline will win the war,’ he told Eisenhower. All this, thought Bradley, appointed deputy corps commander to gain battle experience, was designed to emphasize a new and very different leadership though some, like Martin Philipsborn of 1st Armored’s CC B, considered it counter-productive.


George Patton in Tunisia

‘A grand chap and a born leader,’ thought Major-General Penny, head of Signals for British Middle East Command, ‘Smart, blasphemous, fit and “Glamorous”! Very rich and a fighter. Possibly a better soldier than one thinks but born in the wrong century.’ Wherever he went the tall, straight-framed Patton acted up to his brash image. At 1st US Infantry Division’s HQ, a small oasis near El Quettar, Patton was irate at seeing slit trenches dug all around. ‘What are all these things for?’ he inquired in his high-pitched voice. ‘Well, you know,’ said one officer, ‘there is a lot of enemy air here.’ Patton went over to Terry Allen. ‘Terry, which one is yours?’ ‘That one right over there General,’ said Allen. Whereupon Patton walked over, unbuttoned his flies and urinated. ‘Now use it,’ he retorted.

Behind such outward exhibitions, however, lay years of professional training and a retentive memory in which was stored anything of military application. Eisenhower appreciated this but was anxious to curb Patton’s more unbridled behaviour – a further reason for Bradley’s appointment as an understudy. ‘I want you as Corps Commander – not as a casualty,’ Eisenhower told Patton, adding that he was to rehabilitate the Americans under his command and prepare with all speed for the attack ordered by 18th Army Group for 14 March.

2nd US Corps had too little strength to mount other than a limited offensive. Scattered along 120 miles of front were only about 90,000 men in four divisions and supporting units. To their left on the Western Dorsale were 50,000 Frenchmen and, further north again, about 120,000 British. A major worry was that the enemy might punch through the passes between 1st US Armored and 34th US Infantry Divisions, cutting the Americans’ line of communication.

Much to Patton’s frustration, restraint was the order of the day but his officers were more circumspect: ‘I agreed completely with this idea that we ought to go down [onto the desert before Gafsa] buttoned up, ready for anything with our flanks secure,’ commented Lieutenant-Colonel Porter of the 1st US Infantry Division staff, ‘We didn’t need another Kasserine right then.’

Alexander’s initial plan was for 2nd US Corps to reopen the Thélepte airfields, move through Fériana and take Gafsa by 15 March, though this was later put back two days. Patton ordered 1st US Infantry Division to take Gafsa and 1st US Armored Division to drive on Maknassy, which entailed furious preparations. His other two divisions remained in reserve to cover any surprise Rommel (who was assumed to be still in Tunisia) might pull.

Montgomery, in the meantime, was positioning his forces on the Mareth front, ready to attack on the night of 20/21 March. Operation Pugilist-Gallop was designed to smash through the Mareth Line, push onwards without pause through the Gabès Gap, drive northwards on Sfax, Sousse and finally capture Tunis. Strong support was to be provided by Air Vice-Marshal Harry Broadhurst, new commander of the Desert Air Force. An ex-Battle of Britain fighter pilot sporting a brilliant war record, Broadhurst had acted as Air Marshal Coningham’s chief of staff until his boss assumed command of the Northwest African Tactical Air Force, formed the day after Coningham took over what was the Allied Air Support Command, from Brigadier-General Kuter, on 17 February.

Montgomery and Coningham had little time for each other and their prickly relationship had deteriorated steadily throughout the desert campaign. Known by the soldiers for his bloody-minded temperament, Coningham was a strong proponent of equality in air-ground co-operation which, so far, was notable by its absence during operations in Tunisia, not least because the US War Department insisted that the USAAF remain subservient to the land forces.

Coningham’s subordinate commands were 242 Group RAF (Air Commodore Kenneth Gross) operating with First Army; the Desert Air Force (Broadhurst) with Eighth Army; and 12th US Air Support Command (Brigadier-General Paul L. Williams) with 2nd US Corps. His insistence on an independent tactical air doctrine inevitably caused some ruffled feathers but for the first time in Tunisia Allied air power was no longer to be a mere adjunct to land operations – providing an air umbrella over the troops – but a striking, flexible, offensive force, what Coningham termed, ‘a combination of shield and punch.’ However, this was not what Broadhurst had in mind. On taking over the Desert Air Force he ordered aircrews to concentrate on ground-air co-operation, using stationary captured vehicles laid out in the desert to show how difficult it was to score direct hits.

Montgomery favoured Broadhurst’s line and knew such teamwork would be essential in helping to crack open the Mareth Line’s formidable defences. Nearest the coast were elements of General Sozzani’s Young Fascist Division and, holding a position as far as the main Gabès-Mareth road, General La Ferla’s Trieste Division. Blocking the main road in front of Mareth itself and covering the Wadi Zeuss were von Sponeck’s 90th Light Division’s Panzer Grenadier Regiments with an attached battalion of 47th Panzer Grenadier Regiment. Further inland was the Spezia Division and General Falugi’s Pistoia Division out on the far flank at Toujane. Directly southwards the Hallouf Pass in the Matmata Hills was protected by von Liebenstein’s 164th German Light Division.

Behind the Mareth position stood Borowietz’s depleted 15th Panzer Division with Hildebrandt’s 21st and von Broich’s 10th Panzer. While the 15th was kept in reserve, 21st Panzer was forward of the Gabès Gap, a passable stretch of desert 25 miles to the rear of the Mareth Line. It lay between the village of El Hamma, 20 miles inland, and Gabès and could be reached by road from the Tebaga Gap, at the northern extremity of the Matmata Hills. North and west of El Hamma lies a great salt lake, the Chott el Fedjadj, and it was at its northern exit, 15 miles from the Gabès Gap and pinched between the salt lake and the sea, that the Wadi Akarit provided another substantial natural defence. Immediately behind it was deployed 10th Panzer Division.

Broadhurst could put up 535 fighters, fighter-bombers and tank-busters, 140 day-bombers, 80 Halifax and Wellington night-bombers of No. 205 Group and all the Mitchell and Marauder day-bombers of the NASAF. Against this massive force the Germans had only 83 serviceable aircraft in southern Tunisia and about 40 Italian. Montgomery could also deploy many more tanks yet, despite such numerical odds, he was extremely cautious. Using information about the enemy’s dispositions from the Army’s Y service, POW interrogations, captured documents and Enigma, he planned to put in a heavy frontal attack with 51st Highland Division pushing forward along the main coastal road axis. On its right, 50th Northumbrian Division, commanded by Major-General ‘Crasher’ Nichols, was to breach the Wadi Zigzaou anywhere between Hamra Rass and the sea.

In reserve, Horrocks’ 10th Corps, with a strong, mobile armoured force consisting of 1st and 7th Armoured Divisions under command, waited to meet any enemy threat that might develop between the main thrusts and, once the initial breakthrough had been made, would pass through Leese’s 30th Corps and exploit towards Gabès.

When Tuker’s 4th Indian Infantry Division was brought up on the left rear of 50th Division, he was told that his command was to be split between 10th and 30th Corps and Eighth Army HQ. A short, sharp conversation with Horrocks quickly established that, with his presence no longer required, he could clear off back to India. Montgomery informed the irate Tuker that the idea had come from Horrocks. ‘I knew that Horrocks was trying to grab troops in order to get in on the Mareth battle and so compete with Leese,’ noted Tuker, ‘I do not yet know which of the two, Horrocks or Monty, was most to be believed (then, or at any other time).’ To complicate matters, at 30th Corps Leese had the knife out for one of his subordinates, Major-General G.W.E.J. Erskine, who had taken command of 7th Armoured Division on 24 January after John Harding had been wounded. ‘Bobby Erskine… has risen to great fame here of late but I am sure that he is ultimately a complete shit… He is at present frightened of me…’


Initial Advance On Mareth Line and Gafsa/ El Guettar

Prior to the main attack, scheduled for 20 March, Freyberg’s New Zealand Division (designated a corps at midnight on 11/12 March because of its special tasks and extra attached units) began to gather its 25,600 men, 151 tanks, 112 field guns and 172 anti-tank guns in a staging area south-east of Foum Tatahouine. Under command were 5th and 6th New Zealand Infantry Brigades, 8th Armoured Brigade (from 30th Corps), Leclerc’s L Force (Free French), the armoured cars of 1st King’s Dragoon Guards, and additional artillery regiments. Freyberg was to force the corps through Wilder’s Gap around the western slopes of the Matmata Hills, reach the entrance to the Tebaga Gap (objective ‘Plum’), advance to El Hamma (‘Peach’), and capture the hills northwest of Gabès (‘Grape’) bringing his troops well into the rear of the Mareth Line.

Monty’s latest version of his ‘left hook’ involved an approach march of 250 miles over open country and was not without risks for, if Leese’s attack faltered in the main sector, Freyberg would be way out in the wilderness, threatened by 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions.

Screening Wilder’s Gap from enemy reconnaissance probes was Leclerc’s force 2nd Free French Brigade, lying up by day between the sand sea called Le Grand Erg Oriental (the ‘Great Oriental Urge’ to soldiers) and the Matmata Hills. They were attacked on 10th March by a strong reconnaissance force from 21st Panzer consisting of armoured cars, artillery, and infantry in tracked carriers and trucks, supported by Me-109s and Stukas. The French had been forewarned and with RAF fighter bomber assistance, summoned by a radio ‘air tentacle’ unit, repulsed the attackers. ‘The British… also did great execution, particularly of armoured cars,’ noted Captain Peers Carter, a liaison officer with Leclerc’s force, ‘The battlefield was simply littered with German dead when they pulled out.’

Freyberg’s troops were able to start off unmolested through Wilder’s Gap on 11 March, led by Lieutenant Tinker’s LRDG T2 patrol and accompanied by Mactroop, a highly individualistic team of volunteers from 9th and 51st HAA Regiment, RA (Royal Artillery), commanded by Brigadier H.M.J. McIntyre, who deployed to maximum effect, a number of captured German 88mm guns.

From their staging area the New Zealanders turned northwards towards Bir Soltane and the Tebaga Gap. Travelling at eight miles an hour on a nine-vehicle front through broken country, with ‘L’ Force covering his line of communication, Freyberg’s corps on the move was a formidable undertaking. On 20 March, just east of Ksar Rhilane, a squadron of RAF Kittihawks inadvertently strafed the column, causing numerous casualties and setting some vehicles on fire. ‘The RAF is supposed to be on our side,’ complained Sergeant Caffell of Mactroop.

Freyberg’s attack on objective Plum (the Tebaga Gap) was to coincide with an assault by Leese’s 30th Corps, forcing the Axis command to meet simultaneous threats from two directions. Preliminary moves on the night of 16/17 March included attempts to drive in the enemy’s outer bastions on the Mareth Line during Operations Canter and Walk.

In Canter, elements of two divisions, the 50th British Infantry Division (69th Infantry Brigade – 5th East Yorkshires and 6th Green Howards) and 51st Highland Division (153rd Infantry Brigade – 5/7th Gordon Highlanders) cleared out isolated pockets of Italians from the flat coastal area without much trouble and went beyond the Wadi Zeuss, forward of Wadi Zigzaou. But on their left, 201st Guards Brigade ran into awful difficulties in carrying out Walk on the bare, whalebacked hills at the south-west end of the Mareth defences dominating the main road to Mareth and known from their configuration as ‘The Horseshoe.’

operation walk

Very little opposition had been expected and an over-confident Montgomery told the Guards: ‘It is going to be a party, and when I give a party it is always a good one!’ So men of the 3rd Coldstream, advancing with 6th Grenadiers on their right, were relaxed, even exchanging jokes, as they crossed the start line at 1040 hours supported by three medium and five field regiments of artillery.

After fording a large wadi about 400 yards from the start line, they stumbled into a large and dense minefield whose location had not been established by British intelligence. To make matters worse, the Germans had captured a gunnery officer and knew from his map the supporting fire plan and its exact timings. The unwounded who managed to extricate themselves fought their way up bare hillsides with matchless courage. Verey lights on the Grenadier’s side announced they had secured their objectives but despite superhuman efforts the Coldstreamers took only one of theirs. ‘Well I am still alive and that was more than I dared to hope twelve hours ago, when we were caught… by mortar and machine gun fire of terrific intensity,’ recorded the Rev. Gough Quinn, a Coldstream padre. ‘Our attack was a complete failure… Every attempt to get through was wrecked by [a] devilish minefield on which scores of men were killed and [those] going to help them were in turn blown up… Most of our casualties we could not get at. The shelling was terrific.’

The Grenadiers lost 363 killed, wounded and missing and the more experienced Coldstream battalion, 159. Even recovering their bodies proved difficult: 69 Grenadiers were later brought in – an effort which necessitated lifting 700 mines. ‘The most damnable thing has happened,’ wrote Leese, blaming himself. ‘I had thought it would be an easy blooding for them.’ It was certainly a blooding though hardly as Leese had expected. Yet despite this setback, Montgomery’s confidence in Leese and his own abilities remained undiminished. Writing to Brooke on 17 March he boasted: ‘I had no difficulty at all in the area where my real thrust is to go in [with 50th Division across the Wadi Zigzaou], and I am pretending that I am not really interested in that area at all.’

On the other side, von Arnim’s intelligence sources revealed Montgomery supplying his main front while heavy traffic and reinforcements at Ksar Rhilane suggested a possible thrust west of the Matmata hills. Captured documents and POW interrogations gave a reasonably accurate picture of the opposing battle array and signals intelligence reported an unusual silence on all Eighth Army’s wireless nets on the Mareth front – and after 16 March on the communications of the flanking New Zealand group – suggesting preparations were virtually complete. ‘Similar signs had been observed before all large scale attacks by Eighth Army,’ noted a senior German intelligence officer.

General Oliver Leese , 30th Corps commander was unshaken after the mauling suffered by 201st Guards Brigade but critical of what American help was on offer. Alexander had virtually written them off, relegating 2nd US Corps to a subordinate and supporting role, limited to reaching Gafsa and then merely demonstrating down the Gabès road. ‘Don’t let them be too ambitious,’ cautioned Monty, telling Alexander that once he was through the Mareth Line and breaking through the Gabès Gap, ‘I do not want the Americans in my way.’ Alexander agreed, confining American and French troops west of a clear-cut boundary extending along the hills from Maknassy to Faïd and thence along the Eastern Dorsale to Fondouk.

Newly-promoted Lieutenant-General on 12 March, Patton began Operation Wop five days later when US aircraft laid on fragmentation bombing at 0930 hours, half an hour before 15,000 men of the ‘Big Red One’ (1st US Infantry Division) moved through pre-dawn darkness along desert trails branching off the Fériana-Gafsa road. They were directed by military police, ‘with the same calm ill nature exhibited by New York traffic cops.’ Against very little opposition and in pelting hail and rain they occupied Gafsa by mid-morning, the enemy pulling out along the Gabès road and sowing mines to cover his retreat.

Back home, this easy victory was the subject of much enthusiastic publicity. Patton, ‘a hard-hitting, fast-thinking American hero’, received the lion’s share. American confidence soared still higher when El Guettar, ten miles east of Gafsa, was taken by 1st Ranger Battalion (attached to 26th RCT, 1st Infantry) on 18 March. Most of the Germans had pulled out 48 hours earlier, taking with them all the Italians’ trucks and even the wheels from their field guns, leaving the Centauro Division no option but to stand and fight. Demoralized, they offered little resistance to the Rangers’ fired-up aggression though marauding Ju-88s caused some nasty casualties.

In his wartime book Captain Ralph Ingersoll describes how he came across one of the injured doughboys sitting on a rock, his rifle across his knees. Looking up, face contorted and tears running down his cheeks, the soldier held out his left hand: ‘Please, sir, get them quickly and have them take it off.’ Ingersoll saw what remained of a hand. ‘There was,’ he wrote, ‘no back to it. There were some bones and some red and white patterns, like the patterns in medical textbooks.’ Again the soldier asked plaintively, ‘Please, have them take it off so I don’t have to look at it.’ Near the road to El Guettar, Ingersoll met a lieutenant, his face white with anger, picking up ugly, jagged pieces of blue-grey steel. ‘You see this,’ he panted, ‘You see this? I got a place for this. I got a place in a God-damn booby trap for those God-damned bastards.’

While his troops consolidated their positions, Patton heard that 1st US Armored Division was, ‘largely stuck in the mud’ but was determined that Ward should advance on Maknassy whilst infantry and artillery took Sened Sation. On 19 March he went to see Ward, travelling over 42 miles of new road carved out by army engineers in filthy weather. ‘Wet, dirty, and isolated, they keep right at it. I stopped and talked to each group and complimented them on what they had done and they seemed pleased.’ Further on he observed a squadron of Derbyshire Yeomanry on reconnaissance duties as usual: ‘They were drying their blankets on cactus bushes, which either indicates great hardihood or great stupidity.’

On arriving, he found Ward’s tanks mired in a sea of glutinous sludge. Robinett was defensive and, curiously, lacking in confidence. Nevertheless, his, ‘violent passion for war’, aroused, Patton was raring to go and ordered Ward to advance on Maknassy and take the heights beyond, even if it meant using only infantry, ferried forward in half-tracks. Returning to his HQ at Fériana next day, Patton found Lieutenant-General Dick McCreery, Alexander’s chief of staff, waiting with new orders. While holding Gafsa, Patton was to halt at the limit set for 1st US Armored Divisions advance. ‘These instructions definitely prohibit an American advance to the sea,’ he fumed, ‘… this is to pinch us out so as to insure a British triumph. I kept my temper and agreed. There is nothing else to do, but I can’t see how Ike can let them [the British] pull his leg so. It is awful.’

The day after the Americans took Gafsa there appeared, at the eastern entrance to the town, large signs emblazoned with the insignia of First Army (a Red Cross of the Crusaders) and a message in a scroll above the shield: ‘The First Army welcomes the Eighth Army.’ But such a meeting was to be delayed longer than anyone could reasonably have expected.

Committed to a narrow break-in front at Mareth, Montgomery warned 4th Indian Division that the battle would be, ‘a slogging match’. Brigadier Bateman (commander, 5th Indian Infantry Brigade) thought, ‘no worse approach to any battle objective could have been selected.’ It was, he observed, ‘a flat and featureless plain, across which it was quite bad enough to follow behind an attack let alone carry it out.’ That unenviable task fell to 50th British Division’s 151st Infantry Brigade (commanded by Brigadier Beak, VC) whose 9th Durham Light Infantry had orders to cross the Wadi Zigzaou and capture an outlying enemy position, Ksiba Ouest at the same time as 8th Battalion, 1,200 yards away on its left, took Ouerzi Est. In the meantime, 7th Green Howards were to protect 151st Infantry Brigade’s left flank by securing a prominent fortification named the Bastion.

The RTR’s (Royal Tasnk Regiments) 50th Battalion would then cross the Wadi Zigzaou and keep going while 6th Durham Light Infantry mopped up behind. Close up, in reserve, waited 4th Indian Division ready to carry out various possibilities of which the most ambitious was to exploit towards Gabès. On standby was 51st Highland Division, prepared to advance up the main road towards Gabès and Sfax if a breakthrough was effected while 10th Corps awaited a rapid advance on Gabès should a route become available. By aerial reconnaissance, patrols and flash-spotting, the enemy’s gun positions on the Wadi Zigzaou had been located. All 30th Corps artillery was involved and divided its barrage into three phases with suitably martial names – ‘Hawk’, ‘Falcon’, and ‘Eagle’ – whose success was to be identified by signal rockets, though some bright character had chosen the same signal for both first and third phases.

Tunisia January March 1943

Great sheets of flame lit up the dark night of 20th March as the preparatory barrage opened up. The heavy 5.5-inch guns were each sending over shells weighing 100 pounds, fused to explode just above the ground, spreading a lethal hail of metal. In the gunpits, sweating gunners reeled from the deafening concussions, the barrels of their guns too hot to touch. ‘You can close your eyes and plug your ears with cotton,’ said an officer, ‘but you can’t get away from that terrific concussion. It’s no fun to fire for four hours at a stretch like that.’

In order to maximise the effect of the creeping barrage that followed the troops had to advance, over favourable terrain, within 100 to 150 yards of the line of bursting shells, taking losses from them if necessary. ‘Until and only until the infantry suffer casualties from our own guns are the infantry getting within fighting distance of the enemy and doing the job,’ observed Brigadier Dimoline, commanding the artillery of 4th Indian Division.

The first British assault troops into action were Green Howards’ special fighting patrols who proudly labelled themselves ‘The Thugs.’ Moving about 500 yards ahead of 7th Battalion in small parties with the sappers they quickly came under murderous fire. Struggling through a minefield they cleared a path and raised scaling ladders to clear the enemy’s anti-tank ditch. Wiping out the first machine-gun post they got through another minefield, attacked another machine-gun post and took about 30 Germans and Italians prisoner. Meanwhile, the main body of the battalion had started out but was caught by severe shell and mortar fire in the anti-tank ditch. Lieutenant-Colonel Seagrim rallied the shaken troops and won a VC – though he was killed at Wadi Akarit two weeks later. Fighting on in the maze of trenches and defence works making up the Bastion, 7th Green Howards took it by daybreak, 6th Battalion being brought up to secure their left flank.

The Durham Light Infantry’s assault troops who started out for the Wadi Zigzaou moved as if they were on their way to a picnic. Their confidence quickly dissipated however, once they ran into enemy shelling and mortaring which crowded them behind the leading Scorpion tanks. Reaching the edge of their first major obstacle, they found all the features already known from reconnaissance – a steep and well-defined bank, up to 20 feet high, and a ditch often filled with stagnant water which had turned to a sticky morass. Parallel to the wadi on either side was a deep and wide anti-tank ditch. Pill boxes, the size of an ordinary bedroom but with concrete walls two feet thick and equipped with ¾-inch thick steel doors, were connected by an elaborate network of deep trenches.

Scrambling down precipitous banks, the 8th and 9th Durham Light Infantry squelched through a black sponge of knee-deep mud and set their scaling ladders and cat-walks (hooked poles with metal struts) against the opposite bank of the wadi. Up they went, carrying 18-foot ditching planks and, where ladders and poles would not reach, men formed human ladders.

In the meantime, huge stores of brushwood, duck boards, steel mesh and timber had been piled up to bridge the Wadi Zigzaou but the sappers ran into trouble as soon as they attempted to construct a firm crossing for 50th RTR’s Valentines. Working under intense enemy enfilading fire and a stream of bombs and shells pouring down from the Matmata Hills, they slaved away only to see the brushwood and timber sinking into the mud as the leading tank slipped into the morass. Other fascines were set on fire by the Valentines’ exhausts. Four tanks managed to manoeuvre round their stricken leader before another tank churned to a helpless standstill. ‘As dawn was very near,’ recalled one RTR commander, ‘there was nothing for it but to turn back to avoid being caught in the open in daylight.’

Throughout the next day (21 March) the tiny bridgehead was held while day-bombers of the Desert Air Force Wellington bombers and American Mitchell bombers blasted the enemy’s positions; others struck at landing grounds far and wide. Unable to counter-attack, the Germans reinforced the Young Fascist Division with a battalion of 200th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, anti-tank guns, and 15th Panzer’s artillery as well as moving up a battalion of Luftwaffe Jäger.

Orders were issued by Eighth Army HQ that, come what may, 30th Corps was to construct at least one crossing on the night of 21/22 March. As tired sappers of 50th Division tried again to build a causeway around the mired Valentines, 6th Durham Light Infantry moved forward, to extend the bridgehead. They took Ouerzi Ouest and another position, Zarat Sudest, quite easily with Italians surrendering in droves, but 9th Durhams suffered heavy casualties in capturing several other strongpoints, including Ouerzi Est. On the far right flank 5th East Yorkshires also secured part of Ksiba Est but were unable to extend their advance toward the coast through complex defensive works.

Across the causeway advanced 42 Valentines of 50th RTR. After a Very rough ride’, they came across, ‘quite a few bodies of our infantry boys lying still in the sand obviously having been caught in the shelling of the previous night.’ No support was available because the tanks’ tracks had so torn up the sappers’ handiwork that 6-pounder anti-tank guns were unable to follow. This was potentially disastrous for, somewhere ahead, 15th Panzer was manoeuvring to attack, protected by the miserable weather which had grounded Allied air cover.

Montgomery chose this moment to inform Alexander that 50th Division had secured a bridgehead which was being extended and suggested that, ‘you now announce that my operations are proceeding satisfactorily and according to plan.’ In fact, Leese had no more than four battalions of infantry – the Durhams much depleted – and some outgunned Valentines across the Wadi Zigzaou, no anti-tank screen and a single crossing, fast becoming impassable in heavy rain, which was shelled and machine-gunned unmercifully.

At corps and divisional HQs there was much confusion and great pandemonium at the crossing itself. In mid-afternoon murderous bursts of machine-gun fire heralded 15th Panzer’s attack. They were supported by a brigade of infantry from 90th Light, Panzer Grenadiers, and Ramcke paratroopers. Receiving news that the Durhams were withdrawing, ‘Crasher’ Nichols’ forward brigade commander charged onwards in a jeep, ‘shouting out to the divisional commander that he was going to stop “the b——s”!’ Driven back to the anti-tank ditch, the exhausted Durhams cut themselves a fire-step and settled grimly to their task. Before them lay the hulks of 27 Valentines. Eleven surviving tanks perched on the edge of the wadi to give support while away to their right the 5th East Yorks were still in position, though vulnerable to being pushed back which would expose the Durhams’ flank.

A few days later, Montgomery boasted that, ‘we never lost the initiative, and we made the enemy dance to our tune the whole time.’ Such a claim is totally at odds with what happened. He was out-of-touch, still planning to put through Shermans of the 22nd Armoured Brigade, 7th Armoured Division, as soon as the bridgehead had been established and ordering a renewed assault for the evening of 22 March.

Sappers and miners of 4th Indian Division had the arduous task of constructing another crossing; until they did so the whole of Eighth Army’s coastal advance was held up. Lieutenant-Colonel Blundell, the division’s fearless and highly popular chief engineer, decided to rush up two temporary bridges of steel mesh stretched over fascines. Between dusk and moonrise the necessary materials were carried forward and sappers began to break down the eastern bank for the approach ramps as others dropped into the bed of the wadi to work on the crossings. Labouring under a canopy of screaming artillery shells, mortar and machine-gun fire, surrounded by dust, fumes and towering flames, Madrassi and Sikh sappers and miners worked away with the imperturbable Blundell everywhere, cheerily pointing out that, since he was so tall and had not been hit, others must be safe. This laughing assertion was somewhat offset by the fact that the peak of his cap had been shot away.

At 0145 hours, amidst another torrent of shells, the men withdrew so that the infantry could attack. In order not to panic them, Blundell ordered his troops to walk back casually, chatting and joking, stopping to explain the situation. 30th Corps’ artillery support had been delayed and various infantry units jumped off too soon, adding to the confusion amid the dreadful congestion on the approach to the crossings where 6th and 7th Green Howards were painfully making their way forward under fire as streams of wounded struggled the other way.

The mistimed attack forced the cancellation of the artillery fire plan and convinced Leese that nothing but certain slaughter awaited his men. At 0200 hours, he saw a newly-awakened Montgomery in his map lorry where he confessed that Eighth Army had, ‘lost its bridgehead.’

‘What am I to do, Freddie?’ Montgomery, badly shaken by this news, asked his chief of staff. For once, he seemed insecure and indecisive. On how soon he recovered depended Eighth Army’s fortunes, those of the Allies in Tunisia and, more immediately, the fate of the living soldiers still crouching in their shallow graves at the Wadi Zigzaou.

Chapter 13

We Stopped the Best They Had

‘It is a miracle I am still alive. If it goes on like this, Tommy will soon finish us off in Africa.’ German Gefreiter in his diary, 24 March 1943.

Far removed from the carnage at Wadi Zigzaou, in southern flank Freyberg’s New Zealanders moved forward over difficult, soft ground and waited under nearly a full moon only a few miles short of their first objective – the Tebaga Gap (Plum). Early on 21 March, Eighth Army Intelligence reported 21st Panzer as likely to bar the way at Peach (El Hamma) with 70 tanks while 15th Panzer Division waited in readiness with 50 tanks, unless required at the Mareth Line. Messe had also ordered 164th German Light Division from Mareth to the Tebaga Gap; it arrived on the 22nd. This was not revealed to Freyberg by Enigma or Y sources until the next day.

Concerned at the mounting delay, Montgomery twice urged Freyberg to smash through towards El Hamma and hasten on to Gabès while II Corps moved east from Gafsa, ‘which should give enemy further bellyache.’ But Freyberg was worried about lack of manpower in his division which was 2,400 short of its 16,000 establishment. Aware that serious losses might lead to the complete withdrawal of New Zealand troops from the Middle East, he kept such worries to himself.

Many fires were started in the Tebaga Gap after it was bombed by Desert Air Force bombers at 0800 hours on the 21st but Freyberg’s armour, lacking infantry support, was held up. Despite the pre-arranged orange smoke signal, some returning aircraft strafed the New Zealanders, fortunately with minimal casualties. An attack on Point 201, isolated, flat-topped, in the centre of the gap by 25th and 26th NZ Battalions of Brigadier Gentry’s 6th New Zealand Infantry Brigade and a squadron of tanks from 3rd RTR, was delayed while a minefield was cleared and all the corps’ artillery positioned in support. Mactroop moved to within 300 yards of the enemy: ‘We are hit by a salvo of shells,’ recorded Sergeant Caffell, ‘which kills Bdr. Bert C——and wounds [other] Gnrs… All possible praise to the NZ [New Zealand] army MO… who was on the gun position within minutes tending the wounded under fire. We are forced to move guns back about 1,000 yards then continue in action barraging to cover our infantry. During the night we are attacked by enemy a/c [aircraft] with cannon fire and anti-personnel bombs by moonlight.’

Despite intense small-arms fire the infantry cleared the first trenches with bayonet, grenade and rifle, taking the forward defence line and Point 201 (though it changed hands several times in intense fighting), losing 11 killed and 68 wounded or missing. In cold and windy weather next day, over 800 Italian POWs captured by Freyberg’s infantry and began filtering back through the New Zealanders’ lines complaining about the way they had been shelled.

Having captured Point 201, Brigadier Gentry urged Freyberg to put 8th Armoured Brigade through the Tebaga Gap rather than wait until daylight. Instead, Freyberg merely gave its commander, Brigadier Harvey, permission to do so – instead of issuing a direct order – and throughout the 22nd carefully widened the corps’ salient. His natural caution was reinforced by Lieutenant-Colonel Kellet (2i/c 8th Armoured) having his head blown off while Freyberg was actually talking to him. Miraculously, Freyberg escaped injury but five others nearby were wounded.

After his indecision on the night of 22/23 March, Montgomery was up early, extraordinarily rejuvenated, his self-confidence restored. With 30th Corps stuck on the Wadi Zigzaou and Freyberg’s men making sound but unspectacular progress on the left flank, he decided to close down the too narrow attack and concentrate everything on a ‘left-hook’ by backing up Freyberg with the British 1st Armoured Division. Lieutenant-General Horrocks was to go along with his 10th Corps’ HQ, and take charge. Freyberg was senior to Horrocks, disliked the arrangement and was, ‘grim, firm, and not at all forthcoming’, when Horrocks arrived. Major-General Tuker thought Horrocks was, ‘unlearnt militarily’, afraid of Montgomery and ‘lacked moral courage’. But at least Leese was pleased when 50th Division was withdrawn: ‘Off you go, Jorrocks [Horrocks],’ he said condescendingly, ‘and win the battle.’

It took all de Guingand’s diplomatic skills and some sensibly tactful behaviour by the comparatively unknown Horrocks to placate Freyberg who was, in any case, too experienced to let his annoyance get the better of his tactical good sense. Some disagreements did, naturally, arise which de Guingand did his best to smooth over by ensuring that every communication sent from Eighth Army HQ went to both commanders.

‘Gertie’ Tuker was not pleased by what had happened so far: ‘This battle’s a mess,’ he wrote on 23 March, ‘It has been fought badly by 30th Corps and 50th Division.’ Much to his surprise, however, 4th Indian Division was about to take an active part. Ahead lay the mountains, where men of the Punjab, Nepal and Baluchistan could call on their specialised knowledge, already learnt on the Indian Frontier, Abyssinia and Eritrea.

From earlier reconnaissance by 5th Brigade and from local French sources Tuker knew that what was shown on Allied maps as a poor cart-track, climbing into the Matmata Hills from Medenine and then traversing to the Hallouf Pass, 35 miles to the west, was in fact a decent, if narrow, tarmac road. Just inside the hills the road forked, the northern branch giving access to the crests at Toujane and Téchine to the north-east, when it became a cart-road dropping precipitously down through Matmata village and Beni-Zeltene onto the Gabès Plain. If the division could gain control of these mountain tracks just as the New Zealanders arrived at Peach (El Hamma), 150 miles would be cut off their supply lines. Granted power of manoeuvre for 40 miles from the sea to El Hamma Pass, magnificent opportunities opened up for a thrust into the enemy’s rear areas behind the Mareth Line.

On the 23rd, Montgomery ordered Tuker to assemble 4th Indian Division and open the Hallouf Pass. Speed was essential to Tuker’s ambitious strategy of turning the enemy’s flank but bringing his division through Medenine proved difficult because 1st British Armoured Division, en route to reinforce the New Zealanders with an armoured brigade of 7th British Armoured Division on its tail, claimed absolute precedence. Tuker could only wait impatiently before getting his troops started into the hills on the night of 24/25 March.

mareth line map 4

At 18th Army Group HQ, Alexander was pleased with Patton who was, ‘doing well and cooperating in every way.’ US 1st Infantry Division had also proved itself in the recent fighting – unlike 1st US Armored ivision which, he informed Churchill, had been ‘very sticky.’ Aware of this fact , Patton intended to do something about Ward’s slowness in taking the hills beyond Maknassy but the second phase of 2nd US Corps’ operations was delayed by mud engulfing Ward’s armour. His divisional HQ bivouac area was covered in a rippling surface of water; not far away McQuillin’s CC A was parked in waist-deep floods.

Ward fulfilled Patton’s orders to take Sened Station – by way of careful manoeuvre rather than a storming attack along the Gafsa-Maknassy railway route. Threatening a frontal attack by McQuillin’s CC A, which had managed to extricate itself from its watery pit on 20 March, Stack’s CC C and Colonel DeRohan’s 60th RCT (from 9th US Infantry Division) outflanked Sened Station from the north. DeRohan’s men climbed and contoured 600 feet above the valley floor to command the heights while Stack’s tanks crossed a series of awkward ridges, blocking off the northern road route out of Sened Station. McQuillin, too, had to cope with mud and mines but was rewarded with minimal casualties and over 500 captured Italian prisoners.

As soon as Sened Station had been secured on the 21st March, 1st US Infantry Division’s 18th and 26th Infantry Regiments, with 1st Ranger Battalion, were scheduled to move east of El Guettar. By mid-morning of the next day they had captured a major position, formerly occupied by 6,000 men of the Italian Centauro Division, and dug in along Gum Tree road.

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Patton was furious at Ward who was diffident in advancing 1st US Armored Division on Maknassy and ‘dawdled all day’ before entering the town – which proved easy since the enemy had already departed. There was another delay while Ward sized up the task of putting tanks onto ridges to the east. On the evening of 22 March, Ward sent his tanks forward in an effort to take the pass, five miles away, leading to Mezzouna and seize the heights of the Eastern Dorsale commanding it. Despite having only a short time in which to set mines, erect barbed-wire and position their machine-guns, a few Germans and Italians of Special Brigade 50, organised by Generate di Brigata Imperiali de Francavilla, stopped US attack, virtually without artillery. It was resumed next morning with extra support. Imperiali had to come into the front line to stiffen his troops who were giving themselves up at an alarming rate, but what saved the day was fanatical resistance by about 80 men of Rommel’s former Begleitkompanie (bodyguard) under Major Medicus, accompanied by troops from Reconnaissance Unit 580, and the appearance of Oberst Rudolph Lang, summoned hastily to take charge of leading elements of a Kampfgruppe from 10th Panzer Division. Getting hold of a few energetic young officers from an 88mm Flak-Abteilung, he ordered them to use every means, including their personal weapons, to prevent one additional man or vehicle retreating. A straggler line was set up and later several battalions were sent up to reinforce the hard-pressed defenders.

At El Guettar, Kesselring had wanted to move 10th Panzer Division closer to the southern sector of the front but leading elements only arrived on the 22nd and 23rd when a determined attempt was made to pinch out the American advance. Fortunetely for US Army , British Army Y intelligence gave precise advance warning of a serious attempt on the second morning; the Germans thought they had been betrayed, increased their security and re-timed their attack on 1st US Infantry Division, dug in behind a series of low ridges which guarded the entrance to the long El Guettar plain, four to five miles wide and confined by two mountain ranges. Advancing rapidly over a carpet of yellow daisies and poppies, the attacking German tanks were followed by lorried infantry and supported by dive-bombers, strafing the American gun positions.

A roaring storm of shells fell on the leading Panzers as the US field artillery opened up and tank-destroyers appeared out of the wadis to blast them at short range. After struggling through three miles of defences and getting to within two miles of Allen’s HQ, they were forced to withdraw back to ‘Hot Corner’ – a road junction between the eastern end of the valley and the road running south to Kebili.

Displaying great fortitude, they regrouped and advanced, finishing off the tank-destroyers which, contrary to Patton’s instructions, pursued the Panzers without having sufficient advantage in speed or armour to fight them. But the attack was again eventually repulsed leaving the hulks of 30 German tanks, some of them burning, on the battlefield. When the area was being cleared in the second half of April, amidst piles of spent shell casings, gutted tanks and the occasional unburied corpse, the body of a 1st US Division infantryman was located in one of the forward positions. By his side was a half-finished note to his family which began: ‘Well folks, we stopped the best they had.’


El Guettar 2

El Guettar map

wrecked German equipment after el guettar

Wrecked German tanks at the end of Battle of El Guettar

When 1st US Armored Division had still failed to take the heights beyond Maknassy on 24 March, Patton ran out of patience and ordered Ward to lead the attack himself. Thus, at 0030 hours next morning a battalion assault against Djebel Naemia was, to universal astonishment, led by the division’s commanding general over ridges swept by enemy fire. ‘Damn it, men. You’re not going to let a fifty-one year old man run your tongues out?’ shouted Ward, ‘Let’s get up that mountain.’ Nevertheless, little headway could be made under Italian gunfire and he received a nasty gash in the corner of his left eye from a flying splinter of rock. At 0600 hours, Ward and his aide decided to retreat in order to allow 1st US Armored’s artillery to flush out Germans drilled into the bare rock. Patton thought he had, ‘made a man of Ward’ and decorated him with the Silver Star; Ward had thought he might refuse it. Nowhere, however, had 1st US Armored’s troops been able to advance far.

Facing no real opposition other than the remnants of one Italian battalion which did stand and fight – each of its soldiers was awarded the Iron Gross, Second Glass – the Americans ought to have stormed ahead and would have reached the Maknassy Pass at the latest by 20 March. From there, they could have cut into the rear of First Italian Army and severed its supply route. Instead a series of set-pieces, in which the highly accurate US artillery became separated from the infantry, slowed the advance against Tigers and 88mm guns. As Lang observed, ‘the enemy was well aware of his material superiority and therefore was no longer willing to accept the necessity of severe infantry casualties.’ There is no doubt that for his part Patton was affected by the sight of German losses, telling Bradley that when they attacked at Gafsa on 23 March, he saw the German infantry slogging on and on through the combined fire of 16 battalions of artillery. Under the rain of shell fragments, ‘you could just see these fine infantrymen melting away. He just hated to see good infantrymen murdered in that way.’

Alexander insisted that 2nd US Corps should exert increasing pressure at all possible points along the Eastern Dorsale and send an armoured task force down the Gafsa-Gabès road to the Wadi Akarit, the next natural defensive position to which First Italian Army could retreat after Mareth. He released 9th US Infantry Division (less 60th RCT), which was to fill the line south-east of El Guettar, and 34th US Infantry Division moved to Sbeïtla to demonstrate through the Fondouk Gap towards Kairouan. In the northern part of its sector, 1st US ArmoredDivision was to leave CC B and position a greatly reduced force east of Maknassy with 60th RCT. The rest of the division was to pass as a mobile armoured formation towards Gabès through a hole punched by elements of 1st and 9th US Infantry Divisions. Unfortunately, these orders were too late and poorly conceived. They involved an attack through a desolate land mass composed of tumbling ridges, riven by deep wadis, in which resolute defenders would have many advantages. Nevertheless, the threat held 10th Panzer Division in check and Enigma revealed that it was in serious difficulties.

Mareth line map 2

Operation Supercharge II , Eighth Army overflanks Mareth Line

On Eighth Army’s front, 21st Panzer Division and 164th German Light Division , now lying near the Tebaga Gap, had orders to respond only if attacked, and there were serious doubts as to whether they could hold, ‘the new thinly-occupied main defence line’. Leclerc’s Force L had come under Freyberg’s command and its fierce Senegalese infantrymen had taken with the bayonet a series of dominating mountain ranges. Brigadier Kippenberger of 5th New Zealand Infantry Brigade was, therefore, able to obtain a perfect view of the enemy’s lines. ‘It was,’ he remarked, ‘the only reconnaissance I ever made in which I could see everything that I wanted to see.’

Overlooked by the New Zealanders and French, 164th German Light Division reported that 21st Panzer Division might not be strong enough to re-capture this high ground and feared that a mass tank attack could not be stopped. They were given permission on 25 March to retreat to El Hamma if in danger of being overrun.

In the wake of 1st Armoured, 4th Indian Division had set off from Medenine, sending 7th Brigade southwards through the Khordache Pass to encircle the main Matmata buttresses. 5th Brigade was to push straight through the mountains westwards to Hallouf, turn north to roll up the enemy, to be followed by 7th Brigade in support. Having taken the summits, both brigades would become mobile battlegroups and descend onto the Gabès Plain. This was no mean task for Brigadier Donald Bateman’s 5th Brigade, with 1st Battalion, 9th Gurkha Rifles in the lead, which was in difficulties as soon as it approached the Hallouf Pass on the night of 24/25 March. Here was encountered every type of mine – Teller mines, Italian N-mines like lengths of rail, paratroop anti-tank mines, square French mines, S-mines, and limpet mines shaped like Chianti bottles – many armed for delayed action.

A road demolition caused further severe delay until the afternoon of the 26th when the junction of the Téchine trail and Hallouf road was reached; l/4th Essex then turned northward and upward, covering ten miles against light opposition with l/9th Gurkhas close behind. Reaching Hardy Crossroads, on the very crest of the Matmata Hills, accurate German gunfire prevented further movement along a knife-edged ridge.

South of the Khordache Pass, 7th Brigade was, ‘wading through a sea of mines’, noted Tuker. ‘They’re buried so deep that the detector and bayonet can’t reach them but the vehicle puts them off.’25 After losing all their available mine sweepers Brigadier Lovett’s leading elements reached the western entrance of the Hallouf road before dark, following the trail blazed by 5th Brigade towards Téchine, a troglodyte village, where the inhabitants lived underground and only their tombs were on the surface.

As 4th Indian Division crossed the Matmata Mountains, plans had been finalised by Montgomery, Freyberg and Horrocks to lay on a blitz attack at El Hamma. Plainly worried at the prospect, Monty requested 1,500 immediate reinforcements by air to replace Eighth Army’s casualties together with 56th British Infantry Division and troops from 10th Indian Infantry Division. Attempting to force Alexander’s hand he warned: ‘If we do not finish this business there will be NO repeat NO HUSKY…’ Since Husky was the planned invasion of Sicily and the next big Allied move, this was not far short of blackmail and Alexander bought him off by sending 11,500 men while asserting that only 56th British Division would be available in addition and would be transported, as originally planned, by road.

Montgomery had decided to call the attack on El Hamma, Supercharge II, a reference to the successful breakout at El Alamein. With the sun immediately behind them, 300 tanks were to advance right through the Tebaga Gap and along the axis of the main Kebili-El Hamma road. Opposing them, 164th Geman Light and 21st Panzer Divisions had about 70 tanks, though these were scattered all along the front. (scatterinmg their limited forces was a blunder Germans rarely did but here at Tebega Gap they did) In fact, they were unable even to match Brigadier Roscoe Harvey’s 8th Armoured Brigade total of 150-plus, let alone the 67 Shermans, 13 Grants and 60 Crusaders of Brigadier Fisher’s 2nd Armoured Brigade (1st Armoured Division). 15th Panzer’s 50 tanks were still held back in order to be able to support either at the Mareth Line or Tebaga Gap and it was important for the Allied attack to go in before this division could be moved.

In Harry Broadhurst’s crucial air support system, strafing of low-level targets was to be controlled by an experienced pilot flying a Spitfire above the Kittyhawk squadrons and a ground controller operating what later came to be known as the ‘cab-rank’ system. Sitting next to the commander, 8th Armoured Brigade, he was to call-up fighter-bombers, directing them onto the army’s targets, warning them if they looked like shooting up friendly troops and giving them confidence that he would not fly them into masses of flak. Coningham thought the Desert Air Force was being misused and sent his chief of staff, Air Commodore Beamish, to remind Broadhurst that his permanent rank was only squadron leader: ‘One kick up the arse and you’ve had it,’ Beamish told him. Even his own pilots shouted ‘Murderer!’ when he briefed them.

Before the main attack, bombers from 205 Group RAF and the Desert Air Force, including American squadrons, plastered targets in the battle area by day and night. An Royal Artillery ‘stonk’ gunfire on Point 184, which overlooked the start line, was followed by a bayonet attack by 21st Battalion (New Zealand Corps). In a quick and ‘clean’ operation they cleared the hill of troops from 104th Panzer Grenadier Regiment (21st Panzer), killing 18 Germans.

A crucial part of Supercharge II involved putting 1st Armoured Division through after 8th Armoured Brigade had punched a hole in the Tebaga Gap bottleneck. With recent memories of abortive actions at the Ruweisat and Miteiriya Ridges, Freyberg had to be assured by Horrocks that he would rapidly follow up, but remained doubtful about charging a gun line. Freyberg told Kippenberger, ‘I thought it was going to be tough. Reply: “It will be tougher for him” [the enemy].’

As three formations of light and heavy bombers blitzed enemy positions on 26 March, at precisely 1600 hours Shermans from 8th Armoured Brigade began moving steadily forward through an enveloping sandstorm. On the right were the Nottinghamshire Yeomanry, abreast of them the Staffordshire Yeomanry and on the left 3rd RTR (Royal Tank Regiment). Next came lighter Crusader tanks and carriers with the New Zealanders’ 28th (Maori), 23rd and 24th Battalions, ranged from right to left. Over their heads roared shells from 200 guns of the combined divisional artillery hitting the enemy’s own artillery lines and infantry, 3,000 yards ahead.

After making good progress on the eastern or right flank, a well-sited 88mm gun on Point 209, occupied by 2nd Battalion, 433rd Panzer Grenadier Regiment (164th Light Afrika), knocked out three Shermans. 28th NZ Battalion halted and deployed to attack the lower features, later named Hikurangi by the Maoris, and its higher western extremity , capturing both.

In the centre, the Staffordshires drove right through their second objective, losing six Shermans, but to their rear 23rd NZ Battalion was delayed on its right flank by some determined but ultimately short-lived opposition from men of 1st Battalion, 382nd Panzer Grenadier Regiment (164th Light) before being overrun by New Zealand infantry. By 1800 hours the New Zealanders had also penetrated almost 2,500 yards beyond their first objective.

On the left, 3rd RTR’s tanks lost their earlier precision after striking an unsuspected minefield covered by the anti-tank guns of 1st Battalion, 125th Panzer Grenadier Regiment (164th Light). Further to the west, the other side of the gap and the lower slopes of Djebel Tebaga were defended by a formation of Italians, 5th Panzer Regiment (21st Panzer) and 1st Battalion, 433rd Panzer Grenadier Regiment.

Losing contact with the tanks, 24th NZ Battalion was badly cut up by German machine-gun posts which the Shermans had by-passed, losing 50 dead and 62 wounded though it took over 500 German and Italian prisoners. In a straightforward fire-fight at ranges up to 200 yards, Major Andrews reported: ‘On my immediate front, our accurate fire bowled most of them and some Italians began yelling and throwing up their hands, but were rallied by two Germans, a sergt. and a Red Cross chap, both of whom we killed. (The sergt. had on him the Iron Cross and Italian Croce di Guerra so must have been a hot number.)’

Only a single company reached its final objective at 1800 hours but by then 2nd Armoured Brigade’s three regiments (Queen’s Bays, 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers and 10th Royal Hussars) obeying Brigadier Fisher’s orders – ‘Speed up, straight through, no halting’ – had led hundreds of Eighth Army tanks in nine columns irresistibly through the Tebaga Gap to a forward staging area, where 1st British Armoured laagered until the moon rose to light the rest of the way to El Hamma. In an extraordinary drive the division had smashed right through two German divisions, pinning them between its own rear anti-tank screen and the New Zealanders.

In order to protect his front after the combined assault, von Liebenstein requested 15th Panzer Division to act as his reserve for a counter-attack but Bayerlein, at First Italian Army, did not issue orders until three hours later due to severe delays in communications. By then 5th Panzer Regiment had been bulldozed aside and 1st Battalion, 125th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, scattered. Around 1900 hours, just as the first elements of 2nd Armoured Brigade arrived on their first objective, 5th Panzer Regiment began to pull back and Hildebrandt sent two elements of 21st Panzer Division, 3rd and 33rd Reconnaissance Units, to construct a defence four miles south of El Hamma.


British Armor en route to El Hamma

At midnight on 26/27 March, 1st Armoured again set off with 2nd Armoured Brigade leading a fantastic race against von Liebenstein’s troops retreating in a parallel direction south-west of El Hamma, all units intermixed in a headlong dash. Von Liebenstein had placed his anti-tank screen across the road but, confused by the sight of tanks approaching them at night, the gunners presumed they were retreating Panzers. A big mistake: 2nd Armoured Brigade thrust past then crushed them and British armor was stopped only by a few 88s, and some other anti-tank and field guns which von Liebenstein hastily scraped together and sited about three miles from El Hamma.

Coming up late in support, 15th Panzer Division tried to break in with its surviving ten tanks but was beaten off by the combined firepower of powerful new 17-pounder anti-tank guns of 76th Anti-Tank Regiment, RA, 1st Royal Northumberland Fusiliers and 8th Armoured Brigade. In the confusion the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry was repeatedly fired on by 1st British Armoured Division’s rearguard. ‘On my asking them later if they knew what the recognition signal was,’ noted Lieutenant-Colonel Bonifant of the New Zealanders, ‘I was informed that they had never heard of it.’

By-passed by the main force, the Maoris of 28th NZ Battalion were engaged in a private war of their own. Neither they nor 443rd Panzer Grenadier Regiment, holding the saddle connecting the steep underfeatures of Hikurangi to Point 209’s real summit, realized that 1st Armoured had nearly reached El Hamma. During desperately bitter fighting on the night of 26/27 March, when only about 20 yards separated the two sides, parts of the hill mass changed hands several times. At one stage, the Germans broke into a sector where Second Lieutenant Ngarimu drove off the attackers with his Tommy-gun and then with a hail of stones after his ammunition ran out. In the morning, he was seen on the crest of the hill, gun in hand, summoning his men on until a burst of fire cut him down. His outstanding courage was recognized by a posthumous VC.

At around 1700 hours Captain Matehaere’s company, braving severe automatic and rifle fire, charged from the saddle to the summit cheered on by others standing on Hikurangi dancing and chanting their hakas. Unable to retreat – they had no transport – the German resistance suddenly collapsed; just 231 German prisoners came off the hill, among them their CO, Major Meissner.

Visiting the scene, Kippenberger came across what he described as ‘a most horrible scene of slaughter. There were,’ he continued, ‘dead and mangled Germans everywhere, more than I had seen in a small area since the Somme in 1916.’ At the New Zealanders’ regimental aid post lay 30 or 40 bodies, mute witnesses to the murderous effects of artillery fire on the stony ground. Ninety-two Maoris had paid with their lives for the occupation of Point 209, isolated and soon forgotten.

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