Together We Stand - North Africa 1942-1943 and Turning the Tide in West - James Holland


Conflicting Personalities: 18 January–13 February 1943

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At varying times, both Anderson and Ike had talked of the need to pull back to the Grande Dorsale. This would have shortened the length of the front, brought them closer to their airfields and supply lines, and given them the passes through the mountains to form strong defensive positions. Here, they could have built up their strength with far greater ease. Neither, however, seems to have quite had the courage of his convictions, presumably fearing the loss of face and confidence this might cause. Instead, Ike ordered Anderson ‘not to leave the French unsupported in isolated positions and to concentrate his mobile forces in the south so that he may counter any enemy move immediately’. The problem was that Anderson couldn’t really support the French and keep his forces concentrated, and so 1st US Armored remained divided into the four different Combat Commands, and, for the most part, in the plains. Anderson was facing the same quandary as Neil Ritchie at Gazala in May 1942, and responding in exactly the same way: trying to cover the entire front, and in so doing splitting his forces into more and more penny packets – penny packets that could all too easily be gobbled up one by one by a more concentrated Axis force.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What for?’ he asked.

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

Now, on Saturday, 13 February, he was back near the front as a four-star general, and approaching 2nd US Corps HQ for the first time. He heard the din of hammers and drills coming from Fredendall’s command post long before his car actually reached the entrance. Truscott had warned his boss, but the sheer scale of the complex and the amount of time being wasted on its construction shocked Ike deeply. Approaching a young engineer, Ike asked if he’d helped prepare the front-line defences first before working on these bunkers. ‘Oh, the divisions have their engineers for that!’ came the reply. With a sinking heart, Ike then continued with an all-night inspection of the front lines. He found minefields that hadn’t been planted, forward positions inadequately prepared, and 1st US Armored Division still spread out in small groups. Worse was to come. Robinett, the CCB commander, was visiting Ward at the Cactus Patch when Ike arrived. Robinett told him that his reconnaissance parties had repeatedly ventured through the Fondouk area and found no evidence of any Axis military build-up. He had, he told Ike, reported this several times to his British superiors.

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

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

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Rommel Strikes Back 14–22 February 1943

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yes,’ Peter’s men told him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘How do you know?’ Hamilton asked.

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

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

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

‘Well, how about to the left?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Before Alex’s plans could be put into action or any wholesale reorganization undertaken, he found himself confronted with a further Axis assault. Von Arnim, without warning Rommel, his new Army Group commander, gained permission from Kesselring to launch Operation Oschenkopf, a three-pronged attack to push the British back in the north. The main central strike force was to seize the railway station of Sidi Nsir and the valley westwards that led all the way to Beja, while in the north another assault was to drive the British back from Green and Baldy Hills towards Djebel Abiod; an attack further south was directed towards Medjez el Bab. All this offensive effort would be focused on 5th British Corps front.

Oschenkopf was launched on 26 February and in the centre immediately came up against stiff opposition from the 5th Hampshire Battalion and 155 Battery of the 172nd Field Artillery Regiment from 46th British Division. Both had only recently arrived in Tunisia and this was their first engagement. They were twelve miles further east from the rest of the 128th Brigade, who were holding positions at Hunt’s Gap, the mouth of the valley and the last defensive position on the road to Beja. All day long this tiny British force held off the full might of a German armoured corps, which included Tigers, Mark IVs, German paratroopers and infantry equivalent to three battalions, in a last stand that was every bit as remarkable as that at Outpost Snipe during Second Battle of Alamein five months before. But by nightfall, the position had been overrun. All the British guns had been destroyed, although they had fired to the last man and to the last round. Nine gunners made it to safety along with 120 men from the 5th Hampshires. The rest had all been either killed or wounded. Although reports on the number of enemy tanks knocked out vary, it was certainly a significant number and the action forced the Germans to delay any further advance for forty-eight hours. And in that time, the British were able to hurriedly bring up more reinforcements.

Further south, the Herman Göring Division had launched its attack on Medjez and Bou Arada, where both the 17th Field Regiment and 1st British Parachute Brigade were based. Early on the 26th, the 2nd Paras heard intensive fighting away on the left flank where the 3rd Battalion were positioned. By nine, they were coming under fire themselves and Colonel John Frost could see large numbers of infantry advancing down the slopes opposite them. ‘We took up our places at the command post with a feeling of alarm, noted Frost.’ He knew his men were ready, however. They had built up large stocks of ammunition, were dug in properly and their defensive fire-plan had been coordinated with the supporting French artillery. Moreover, his men were fit, fresh, and knew exactly what they had to do, and although the different companies were necessarily spread out because of the wide section of front they’d been ordered to hold, the gaps in between were covered by machine guns and mortars. The German and Italian attacks got nowhere. ‘The situation at nightfall,’ noted Frost, ‘was that we with our French supporters were intact and sound in every way, but the enemy were scattered about in front of, and between, our forward company positions.’ During a long day of fighting, the 2nd Parachute Battalion had suffered just one man killed and two wounded. During the night, Frost listened with satisfaction to the sound of grenades and Stens cutting apart the still air as his raiding party went hunting for prisoners. By dawn, they had over eighty Italians in their hands. Of the enemy there was no sign. A day later, Frost’s men handed over their positions to the Americans.

A few miles north of the Paras, the 17th Field Regiment were supporting the infantry of 38th Irish Brigade. They too found themselves mainly faced with an assault by Italian infantry supported by German Panzers. Here too, after some initial success, the enemy were forced back. The British gunners also had ready a carefully prepared fire-plan. Helping to direct this fire was David Brown, who had spent the day at the battery observation post. At one point, the regiment had managed to get twenty-one rounds from their 25-pounder guns in among the advancing infantry in the space of ten minutes, no mean achievement. ‘We’ve had a lot more action in which we were pretty successful,’ wrote David a few days later. His wife had been sending him newspapers, and although any kind of news or mail only rarely reached them, he had heard about the Russian success at Stalingrad. It had given them all a great lift.

While the thrusts on Bou Arada and Medjez had failed, von Arnim had not yet given up on his major assault towards Beja, and on 28 February his forces set off again from Sidi Nsir towards Hunt’s Gap. Facing this latest onslaught were the battered 2/5th Leicesters.

After being overrun at Thala, the 2/5th Liecesters had been reformed into two companies and were then sent to Beja on 25 February to rejoin 46th British Division. There, they were to be given a chance to refit. After a long overnight journey, they had arrived to the welcome news that they were being given seven days’ rest at Teboursouk. It was not to be, however. By mid-morning on the 26th, news began reaching them of the latest German assault and so the Leicesters were hurriedly sent up to Hunt’s Gap. Beja had to be saved at all costs as it commanded the Allied lines of communication and supply to the entire northern front.

Despite the grim news, there was one cause for optimism, however. ‘For the first time, while waiting in Beja that day,’ noted Peter Moore, ‘we saw impressive Allied air activity. Waves of medium bombers, British and American, flew over escorted by fighter aircraft, British Spitfires and Hurricanes and the American twin-boomed Lightnings.’ One of the Spitfires Peter saw zooming overhead was that flown by Bryan Colston, for 225th Squadron was now in action every day bombing enemy airfields as well as ground forces. On the 28th, Bryan flew no less than three sorties during what he called a ‘big bombing day’ over the German forces moving towards Hunt’s Gap. Along with 241st Squadron, they dropped 64,000 pounds of bombs between their first and last missions. Despite facing heavy flak, it was, says Bryan, ‘a bumper day dive-bombing the Hun’.

The Leicesters moved up through Hunt’s Gap that night, ‘B’ Company moving to Frenchman’s Hill, while ‘C’ Company took up positions at Montaigne Farm, ahead and to the right, and began digging in. This time, they had been thoroughly briefed about their role, which was to be purely defensive, and so they were determined to establish their positions properly. Dawn proved what good positions they were. Ahead, Peter could see a long valley of swaying grassland, a mile or so wide, protected either side by long ridges of high, mountainous hills. The single-track railway from Sidi Nsir passed beneath them, while to the left of their position the road wound its way up from the valley. Montaigne Farm, a cluster of white, flat-roofed buildings, was perched on a gently curving spur that strutted out into the centre of the valley. From there, the Leicesters had commanding views. More importantly, so too had the 25-pounders and heavy 5.5-inch guns digging in behind.

At first light, Peter saw and heard the approaching enemy, and recognized the now unmistakable square-shaped hulk of the Tiger Mark VI with its 88-mm gun. Artillery fire and the new heavy British Churchill tanks repulsed this first attack, but from then on, and for the entire week the Leicesters spent at Montaigne Farm, the men in their slit-trenches suffered a particularly uncomfortable time. Peter was already becoming familiar with the various different types of shellfire. With normal artillery, they had learned that whenever they heard the report, they should count to ten and then brace themselves for the rushing scream of the descending shell. Mortars were even more frightening. They would hear the tung, tung, tung, tung, tung of five mortar bombs being dropped down the mortar, then would wait six or seven seconds until they whistled down upon them, counting each explosion and praying they would not be torn apart by a direct hit. The 88s, on the other hand, fired and arrived almost simultaneously. ‘This was easier to bear than the long-drawn-out wait for the indirectly fired gun or mortar,’ noted Peter. During that first day at Montaigne Farm, Peter managed to find the time to scrawl a note to his parents, who had recently sent him a parcel of socks, soap, writing paper, and pyjamas. ‘There is absolutely no need to worry about me,’ he assured them, ‘because we are living very well and having a fine time.’

Under a hail of high explosive and jagged shards of white-hot metal, Peter and the Leicesters held firm. The Germans reached the ground directly in front of them, but got no further despite repeated infantry and armoured assaults. It was during the defence of Hunt’s Gap that Peter suffered what was his worst day of the entire war. From first light, the terrible sound of mortars being loaded drifted up to their positions. Peter was sharing a slit-trench with Sergeant Ragg, and the mortars appeared to be falling almost vertically from the sky. Sustained mortar bombardment and shellfire rained down on them with increasing intensity all day. Whenever he thought they were being given a respite, the tung, tung, tung of the mortars began again. They couldn’t move. They simply had to stay where they were and endure the repeated and relentless wait for each bomb and shell to explode. ‘By the end of a day of this form of torture,’ wrote Peter, ‘crouched in your slit-trench, awaiting the coup de grâce, you are literally gritting your teeth, clenching your hands together and tensing your whole body to avoid giving way to involuntary shaking.’ It was obvious that later they could expect another infantry assault and, sure enough, as darkness fell, flares were sent up which showed the Germans readying themselves to attack. The artillery sent down a withering barrage, however, after which one of the officers spoke through a loudhailer demanding the Germans surrender or face another heavy blast of artillery. The Germans turned down the offer. The guns boomed again, the ground trembling as the night was ripped apart by the ear-shattering din of fire. After this, the chance to surrender was offered again, and on this occasion, thirty Germans walked in with their hands up, while the rest withdrew. The Leicesters were learning that when stout hearts occupied properly dug-in positions and were supported by plenty of well-trained artillery, it was very difficult for the enemy to break them.

After ten days of continuous action at Montaigne Farm, the Leicesters were relieved by a battalion of the Hampshires. They were delighted to be away from there, not just because of the intensity of the enemy attacks, but also because the battlefield around them had become littered with dead cattle, goats and pigs, and the smell had been appalling. Their respite was short-lived, however. After one day out of the line at Beja, they were hurriedly sent to help stem the northernmost enemy attack. In the early hours of 11 March, without having had any kind of chance to recuperate, they took over the positions of the 3rd Parachute Battalion on some high ground among the dense cork-oak forests near Temara. On their right was Colonel John Frost’s 2nd Parachute Battalion, who had already helped repulse two major enemy assaults since reaching the Cork Wood four days before. The contrast with the rolling grassland of Hunt’s Gap could not have been starker. Stukas and Focke-Wulfs roared and swirled above them, while the sound of rifles and machine-gun bursts could be heard from the forests around them. ‘It was like jungle warfare,’ says Peter.

For several days, he watched and listened as the battle in front of them grew ever more intense. He was particularly in awe of the Paras. ‘They were superb,’ he noted, ‘aggressive and enterprising soldiers and officers who fought with tremendous élan and made us feel very pedestrian in comparison.’ During the fighting, Frost’s Paras had managed to capture so many German machine guns that each section now had an MG 34. The sound of these weapons ripping through the forest made Peter think the enemy were doing all the shooting. It was slightly unnerving.

The Germans attacked heavily again on 16 March, aiming their blow at the French battalion on the left of the Leicesters. The Frenchmen were soon overrun, and once their position collapsed the Leicesters and then the Paras found their own positions enveloped in turn until they too were forced to pull back, Frost’s men covering the withdrawal to three bare hills some four miles west, known as the ‘Pimples’. Peter Moore and his men began taking up their new positions on ‘Leicesters’ Pimple’ in heavy rain during the night of the 19/20 March. Spirits were low as they began hacking once more in the dark into the hard, wet rock. At first light Peter’s heart sank even further when he realized just how vulnerable they were. ‘It was the highest feature in the area, completely bare of trees, scrub and rocks, just closely cropped turf,’ noted Peter. It was impossible to dig in properly. To make matters worse, they were told they had to defend it to the last man.

Having successfully covered the withdrawal from the Cork Wood, Frost’s men were placed in reserve while fresh infantry battalions were brought up to the Pimples. The new arrivals came under heavy mortar attack, as did the Leicesters. For much of the day, Peter could barely move. ‘We could only lie on our stomachs and pray,’ he noted. Sure enough, the enemy attacked again that night. Peter was very conscious of ‘No More Withdrawal’, but after ‘C’ Company HQ was overrun, it was clear this was an impossible order. Chaos ensued as the Leicesters began retreating down a narrow track leading away from the Pimple. Peter had no idea what was going on, but then grenades started exploding all around him and ahead he saw some German soldiers charging towards him shouting, ‘Hände Hoch! Hände Hoch!’ ‘There was nothing for it,’ he wrote. ‘I was on my own. I turned and fled down the track, firing my revolver as I ran.’ Safety lay on the far side of a fast-flowing flooded river. Reaching the water’s edge, Peter heard a voice say, ‘Who’s that?’ It was Tony Cripps, commander of ‘C’ Company. Both agreed the river would be too cold and the current too strong to give them much of a chance. There was, however, a bridge a short way upstream, and so, inching past German troops, they crawled along the riverbank, frequently stopping and desperately holding their breath as enemy soldiers passed within feet of them. Once they reached the bridge, they couldn’t be sure it wasn’t already guarded by Germans, so in the darkness they strained their eyes and listened intently. Since neither of them could see or hear anything, they agreed to take a chance and hope for the best. The risk paid off. Tiptoeing across the bridge, hoping they wouldn’t suddenly be exposed by the glare of a flare, they reached the other side and soon afterwards found the remains of the battalion. Both Peter and Tony felt bitterly disappointed that Leicesters’ Pimple had fallen without a fight. ‘At the time I felt ashamed of what I regarded as my own performance in not fighting to the last man last round, as we had been ordered,’ says Peter. ‘I did not question then the right of my commanders to put us in what I later realized were impossible positions. I was only aware that I was fighting for the honour of my regiment and that I had let it down.’

But Peter was being hard on himself. Moreover, the attack marked the limit of the German advance. The next day, the 1st and 3rd Paras managed to push the Germans back and retake the Pimples. Sedjenane might have fallen, but the more important Djebel Abiod had been held.

Peter had seen little of the RAF, but despite the continued bad weather they had done much to support the defences of both Hunt’s Gap and Djebel Abiod. Throughout this time, 225th Squadron had been busy. On 6 March, Bryan Colston had taken off on a Tac/R in poor weather and low cloud. His Merlin engine was already sounding below par when he dived on some enemy trucks. Flak opened up and he was hit in the tail, although this did not prevent him banking hard and turning back to strafe two German staff cars with his cannons. ‘I shall never forget one German machine gunner who continued firing at me as I attacked,’ noted Bryan. He could see the man, crouched over his gun; and saw him keel over too, raked by Bryan’s bullets. A very brave enemy,’ he added. But Bryan’s Spitfire had now been hit in the engine as well. It was a nerve-racking journey back. The damage to his tail had affected his elevators and rudder, but worse was the rising oil pressure in his engine, and he wondered whether he would be able to make it back to Souk el Khemis. ‘Had difficulty in the circuit,’ he recorded in his diary, ‘but landed safely. The aircraft was completely u/s.’ This was extraordinary understatement: with damaged controls and an engine that could have seized at any moment, landing the Spitfire was, to put it mildly, very dangerous indeed.

Rommel had been scornful of von Arnim’s efforts, and particularly irritated to discover that fifteen of the nineteen Tigers that had gone into action had been lost – Tigers that would have been infinitely more effective in the open terrain of southern Tunisia.


Now in charge of the renamed German - Italian Panzer Army was the Italian, General Messe, like von Arnim, a veteran of the Eastern Front. While the Fifth Panzer Army was launching its offensive in the north, Messe had been preparing a spoiling attack on Eighth Army.

There were sound reasons for this. On Alex’s request to support First Army and the Americans, Monty had hurriedly brought up both 7th Armoured and the 51st Highland Division from Tripoli to the border town of Medenine, some twenty-five miles south of the Mareth, but it had left him ‘off-balance’ and meant he was running dangerous logistical risks. If ever there had been a time to hit Eighth Army and deal them a painful blow, it had been during the ten days these two divisions lay isolated at the front.

Fortunately for Monty, however, Messe had not been able to act quickly enough. Elements of 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions had been used by von Arnim in the north, and until they could be brought further south Messe was unable to attack. As it was, his plan was fraught with risk and involved sending the Afrika Korps around the Matmata Hills that bordered the western edge of the Mareth Line. This would enable them to attack Monty’s forces from the west and south around Medenine, while a mixed German-Italian group launched a holding attack from south of the Mareth Line. Rommel was not especially enthusiastic about the plan but felt there was little choice; the alternative was to sit back and mark time until the full weight of Eighth Army was brought to bear against them.

The Desert Air Force was now in Tunisia. At the beginning of March, 73rd Squadron was at El Assa, just six miles from the Tunisian border. Still on night-fighter duties, John Fairbairn was nonetheless having an easier time of late. They had discovered large quantities of Italian wine and after the long, dry trek across the desert, the pilots were ready to let their hair down. ‘Today blokes have been really getting their heads stuck into Itie wine,’ recorded John in his diary, ‘passing out like ninepins all day.’ They had also managed to lay their hands on a softball bat and a rugger ball. ‘The mess,’ John noted, ‘looks like a school sports day with all the events going on at once.’,

On 26 February, John felt the very first signs of spring. The icy wind had dropped and he spent much of the day sitting outside his tent soaking up the sun, and watching the day-fighters roaring overhead. Camels grazed close by their tents, while at the nearby well, Bedouin Arabs and their children came and went, laughing, chattering, and paying the airmen very little attention. ‘Felt quite at peace with the world,’ he noted.

There was no question that the Desert Air Force had control of the air in this corner of Africa, but the Axis air forces were still capable of turning up and spoiling the show, as Christopher Lee discovered shortly after 260th Squadron crossed over into Tunisia. He’d been standing on the edge of their landing strip gazing out into the distance, when suddenly a loud explosion snapped him out of his daydreaming. Spinning round, he was horrified to see a petrol bowser bursting into flames. Four Me 109s were dive-bombing them. When a further bomb landed only 150 yards away, Christopher began running.

The nearest cover was a small vehicle, so he dived underneath it only to discover three others had had the same idea. Hastily getting to his feet again, he sprinted towards another. He hadn’t reached it, however, before the blast of the next bomb hit him from behind. ‘It was like being hit with a shotgun from thirty yards,’ he noted. ‘The stuff penetrated and stitched my trousers to my buttocks.’ Once the enemy planes had gone, Christopher staggered over to see the MO. After perfunctory treatment, he was standing by a truck wondering whether he would ever be able to sit down again, when two senior officers approached. One of them was none other than the C-in-C Allied Mediterranean Air Command, Air Marshall Tedder.

‘What’s all this bloody nonsense going on here?’ he asked, then without waiting for a reply, added, ‘There’s been an aerial attack.’ Christopher was then subjected to a grilling about precisely what had happened, but in truth, there was very little to tell. ‘And what were you doing while this was going on?’ Tedder asked him. Christopher explained that he’d tried to hide underneath a small truck. ‘Kept them off, did it?’ enquired Tedder.

‘No, sir, I stopped a bit of blast (fire),’ Christopher replied.

‘Oh? Where?’

‘In my backside, sir.’

Tedder laughed, but for Christopher this somewhat humiliating experience had been no joking matter. ‘I advanced towards the enemy’s last redoubt in North Africa,’ he wrote, ‘with my arse on fire.’


Since these last entries were incompatible with title of previous thread (Race For Tunis November 1942) , I copied them in a new title to avoid confusion


By 5 March, Monty had most of Leese’s 30th Corps in place at Medenine, including the New Zealanders. Holding three miles of a new and hastily drawn front line were the Maori. New Zealand corporal Maiki Parkinson had been happy to be on the move again. Tripoli had been nothing special: a sun-bleached city short of just about everything and with a harbour that was only slowly being brought back into some kind of order. Nor had wharf fatigues been much fun. ‘C’ Company also had a new CO – Captain Peta Awatare. ‘He was brilliant,’ says Maiki. ‘He could be a bad tempered bastard, but he was a great company commander’, and he was a most definite improvement.

The New Zealanders reached Medenine late on 2 March and the following day began digging in some three miles east of the town, facing west towards the Matmata Hills. Here the ground was still desert – rocky, sandy, and scattered with rough vetch and scrub. Theirs was the southern flank of the line and their role was to defend the airfields and supply dumps building up behind them.

Also taking up battle positions were the Sherwood Rangers, although, along with the rest of 22nd Armoured Brigade, they were being held in reserve, behind the Guards in the centre of the line. On 4 March, they leaguered in a garden surrounded by oak, olive, and fig trees and scented by wild flowers. As at Alam Halfa, Monty had ordered them to stay where they were and not be drawn out. Instead, a powerful artillery and anti-tank screen was drawn up, including Harold Harper’s 107 Battery and, at long last, some 3.7-inch guns, specifically to be used in the anti-tank role. The infantry were warned that, should an attack come, they too were to lie low until the anti-tank guns opened fire. These had been placed well forward with the aim of dealing with the tanks before they reached the infantry. Seventy thousand mines were hastily laid in the northern part of the line, but there were none in front of the New Zealanders, just a single line of wire.

‘From air reports it appears that the Germans are going to attack from the north,’ noted Major Stanley Christopherson from Sherwood Rangers in his diary on 5 March. Monty had known the Axis attack would be launched the following day, although his intelligence had not known the exact direction of the assault. First light on the 6th brought with it a cold mist. Axis long-range artillery from the hills signalled the start of their attack, but the Panzers were debouching from the hills cautiously, unsure in the mist exactly where the British positions were. Maiki Parkinson was in a muddy slit-trench manning a Bren when he and his mate suddenly heard German voices. Then the mist began clearing and there, rumbling down from the ridge ahead of them, were hordes of German tanks. At this, Maiki’s mate scarpered, leaving Maiki to man the Bren on his own. Now that the mist was lifting he could see everything perfectly. His slit-trench was on a slight ridge overlooking a wadi in which the anti-tank screen was waiting. He now watched more tanks spreading out in front of him, while lorried infantry followed up behind. Unsure whether the sergeant manning the 6-pounder in front of him could see what was happening from the wadi, Maiki yelled out, ‘Hey, Sarge! Tank coming!’

‘What do you mean, you stupid bastard?’ the sergeant shouted back.

‘Tank!’ shouted Maiki again. Tenth Panzer Division got to within 400 yards of the New Zealanders before the Kiwi gunners opened fire. ‘I could feel the ground shaking,’ says Maiki, who watched one, then two tanks brew up. A third was hit by a mortar bomb. ‘Lucky shot,’ says Maiki. ‘The shell went straight down the open turret.’

The Sherwood Rangers remained behind the line all day. Several men were wounded by shards of flying shrapnel, but none of the injuries was particularly serious. Trooper Shewell broke his leg when his armoured car went over a mine. He was an American who had volunteered to fight for the British, although he had recently asked to join 2nd US Corps. ‘The Colonel has agreed,’ noted Stanley, ‘and has further promised that when we do join up with the Americans he personally will take him over there in his Jeep.’

Maiki Parkinson barely fired his gun all day. ‘I just watched the shells scream over and the guns blasting away at the tanks,’ he says. All along the line, the story had been the same: the Panzers had hit a wall of concentrated artillery fire. The only British tanks to be used had been a few Shermans brought up to help the 1/7th Queens’ which operated from static, hull-down positions. The 1/7th Queens’ accounted for twenty-seven tanks alone. In all, Messe had lost fifty-two German tanks and over 700 infantry and achieved nothing.

As night fell, the British pushed forward and further artillery fire made life difficult for the Axis recovery parties. ‘All attacks easily held,’ signalled Monty to Alex, ‘and nowhere has enemy had any success … My tank losses are nil. All my troops delighted enemy has attacked Eighth Army as it is exactly what we wanted. The man (Rommel) must either be desperate or mad’ Monty’s crowing was understandable. The Battle of Medenine had been a disaster for the Axis. ‘The cruellest blow,’ noted Rommel, ‘was the knowledge that we had been unable to interfere with Montgomery’s preparations. A great gloom settled over us all.’

Battle_of_Médenine 4

The following morning, the Sherwood Rangers broke leaguer, and Stanley Christopherson sent out half his squadron to mop up. ‘They got one prisoner,’ noted Stanley, ‘who turned out to be a Pole but in appearance looked to be the usual blonde, well-made, thick-necked German.’ When later questioned, the Pole confessed he’d been forced to fight for the Germans, which was why he’d given himself up. He wanted to fight for the Allies instead. The recce party also came back with other trophies: a pair of coveted black Panzer trousers, a pair of ‘Canadian bathing drawers, size 34, I suppose captured from the Americans’, and a notebook with detailed drawings of American equipment. Stanley also put down his thoughts on the battle. The Axis had not properly reconnoitred beforehand, he thought. ‘This only goes to prove once again,’ he scribbled, ‘that the anti-tank gun will always beat the tank.’ Stanley and the rest of the Sherwood Rangers had reached the front the previous summer every bit as green and undertrained as the US 1st Armored when they’d reached Tunisia. Battle and the success of Eighth Army were making them wise to the ways of modern warfare.

medenine map 2

Rommel had already asked Messe and von Arnim for appreciations of the situation. Both felt a bridgehead in the north, with a shortened front and with both Panzer Armies operating together, was their best chance now of maintaining a foothold in Tunisia, particularly since they were only receiving around 70,000 of the 120,000 tons of supplies needed to supply the 350,000 fighting troops they now had between them. Rommel agreed and so suggested to the Commando Supremo and OKW that Messe withdraw as far as Enfidaville and that they attempt to maintain a 100- rather than a 400-mile front around Tunis. Kesselring was against this idea, believing the accompanying loss of airfields would prove disastrous. So too was Hitler, but only because it seemed to him that Rommel was going back on earlier assurances. With the defeat at Medenine and his new plans discarded, Rommel decided the time had come to take his postponed medical treatment. On Wednesday, 9 March, the Desert Fox flew to Rome, leaving Africa for the last time. It would now be left to von Arnim to face Allied forces that were growing in strength with every passing day.

Alex aimed to have the new command system up and running by 8 March. At that point, First Army would consist of the British 5th Corps, while the French 19th Corps and US 2nd Corps would come under the direct command of 18th Army Group. By that date, the Allied forces would be ready in their new positions and sectors.

Anderson was still in charge of First Army, but only just. Alex had also wondered why the front had not been shortened before the Axis offensive. As Churchill pointed out in a letter to him, ‘Nobody cared about these places whose names they had never heard of until they were lost. A kind of false front manoeuvre might have been very clever.’ Ultimately, all decisions and responsibility fell on Ike, and he was the first to hold his hand up for what had happened at Sidi Bou Zid and Kasserine, but Alex was neither able nor willing to start the pointing finger at his new C-in-C. Furthermore, although Ike had guided Anderson with regard to his troop dispositions, he had been shocked to discover on the eve of battle just how thinly they had been spread. This had been Ike’s first view of the extended front. Anderson, on the other hand, was forever traipsing up and down the front, diligence that did him credit. But like Ritchie who commanded Eighth Army and let it routed in 1942 before his service, Anderson should have known that by dealing in penny packets he was asking for trouble. He could – and should – have suggested shortening the front to Ike, but never did so. The similarities with Ritchie did not end there. As Alex also recognized, Anderson did not have the force of character to gel his troops together. Alex, like Monty, believed commanders needed to create an ‘atmosphere’ in which staff and subordinates all followed the chief’s firm and clear leadership. From the moment Alex reached Anderson’s HQ, he knew this was lacking. He even asked Monty if he could spare General Oliver Leese. Anderson’s neck was only saved because Monty wanted to hang on to his 30th Corps commander. With US 2nd Corps taken out of his control, Anderson was given another chance till end of Tunisian Campaign.

Fredendall’s inadequacies as a battlefield commander had been glaringly revealed by the recent fighting, although for a while it seemed as though Ike intended to keep him in position as well. Even on 1 March, the Supreme Commander was writing to Fredendall saying, ‘There is no question in my mind of you having proved your right to command a separate and fairly large American force on the battlefield.’ That was blatant nonsense; as Marshall had warned, Ike needed to be tougher with his subordinates. Montgomery as an army commander would certainly have sacked Fredendall on the spot, but Alexander had refused to get involved in what he now considered an American matter. However, when Ike later asked him what he thought of Fredendall, Alex replied, ‘I’m sure you must have better men than that.’ Instead, it was left to Ike’s other senior American commanders to bring down the axe on the 2nd US Corps commander. General Harmon, on his way back to Morocco, told Ike bluntly, ‘He’s no damn good.’ Later, he went further, saying Fredendall was a ‘common, low son-of-a-bitch’ and a ‘physical and moral coward’. Equally unimpressed with Fredendall was Major-General Omar Bradley, Ike’s old friend from West Point, sent over to North Africa by Marshall at Ike’s behest and now at 2nd US Corps HQ. On a visit to 2ns Corps at the end of February, Ike took Bradley aside. ‘What do you think of the command here?’ he asked him.

‘Pretty bad,’ Bradley told him.

‘Thanks, Brad,’ said Ike. ‘You’ve confirmed what I thought.’

Fredendall left 2nd US Corps in the early hours of 7 March. Back in the USA he would receive a third star and a training command, but he never took to the battlefield again.

Three days earlier, in Morocco, General George S. Patton had already been given the nod to take over 2nd US Corps. Ike had felt that if anyone could take the corps by the scruff of the neck, gel it together, and turn it into an effective fighting force, it was Patton. Nonetheless, he had his reservations as well: Patton’s impetuosity and disapproval of what he saw as Ike’s kowtowing to the British were well known. Only a month before, Ike had felt obliged to write to him to warn him to ‘count ten before you speak’. Harry Butcher had recently spent an evening with him and Patton had told him how disappointed he had been not to have been given command of 2nd US Corps from the outset. ‘He felt he was the logical man to chase Rommel,’ noted Butch, ‘had a great desire to personally shoot Rommel, and had all the spirit that goes with the job.’ Patton was to be denied this chance (Rommel already left Africa never to return) , but his appetite for killing Germans would soon be impressed upon every man in 2nd US Corps.

The other problem was that Patton was also already busy with preparing the newly formed US Seventh Army for the invasion of Sicily. However, with Bradley as deputy corps commander, and with Patton’s promise that he would behave himself, Ike felt the appointment – albeit a temporary one – of his old friend was a risk worth taking. Furthermore, on their first formal meeting, Alex and Patton appeared to have struck some kind of rapport. ‘[He] was very friendly and complimentary in his remarks,’ noted Patton, ‘stating that he wanted the best corps commander he could get and had been informed that I was the man.’ Shortly after, Patton wrote glowingly about his new British commanding officer , Harold Alexander. ‘What a man,’ he wrote to his wife when he heard about Alex’s long life of soldiering. ‘I like him very much."


By the middle of March, cohesion had been brought to the front. Successive Axis offensives had been halted. Valuable experience had been gained and confidence was visibly increasing. In the southern sector, the Americans were recovering well. The Bowles twins and the 18th Infantry had said farewell to the British, and had been re-equipped with American uniforms, while Joe Furayter and the 5th Field Artillery Battalion had parted company with the French. All were now back with the Big Red One, while Bucky Walters and the 135th Infantry Regiment were also now together with the rest of the 34th US Red Bull Division and in positions south-west of Fondouk.

Ray Saidel, meanwhile, had been posted to the 1st US Armored Division. In the aftermath of Kasserine, the division badly needed to rebuild its strength. Ray was sent to Company ‘G’ of the 1st Armored Regiment and, because of his machine-gun training back in the States, became a .30 calibre gunner on an armoured half-track. ‘When I got there,’ he says, ‘we didn’t have anything, not even a single half-track. But within two weeks we were completely re-equipped as a company and heading back through the Kasserine Pass.’

Pinky Ward finally had the whole of 1st US Armored Division under his command, while Hamilton Howze was thrilled to learn that Fredendall had been fired and replaced by Patton, a man whom he had known as a boy but also whom he greatly respected as a soldier and general. ‘He was profane and colourful,’ noted Hamilton. ‘More importantly, however, he was aggressive and bold … He shook up 2nd US Corps Headquarters by getting it off its behind and fining everybody for poor saluting or appearing without a helmet; he shook up divisions by telling them that he wanted to see more dead bodies, American as well as German.’ Patton’s new rules about dress and saluting applied to every man in 2nd US Corps, and included the wearing of ties and full uniform at all times. Despite what Hamilton says, this was unsurprisingly not at all popular with the men. As far as Bing Evans was concerned, Patton was a show-off. Ray Saidel was of much the same opinion. ‘He was just arrogant,’ he says. ‘Everyone disliked him.’ Bucky Walters agrees. ‘The infantry hated him. They didn’t like him at all. We knew he was a glory seeker.’ The Bowles twins were more charitable. ‘He was OK,’ says Tom. But whatever the men thought of him, no one now doubted who was in charge of 2ns US Corps. ‘He spread the word almost immediately that there was now a new commander present,’ says Hamilton Howze, ‘and I think that had a very salutatory effect on the corps.’


General George Patton in Tunisia

In the British sector, the front was stabilizing once more. Lieutenant David Brown was still finding the art of gunnery of great interest. ‘I spend a lot of spare time improving myself as a gunner,’ he told his wife, then added, ‘I am very keen on promotion now, I reckon I’ve done enough at the gun end, and love being at the OP. I am due for captain fairly soon.’ He was rather enjoying the war: it was exciting and the comradeship was intense. His chief concern was not his personal safety, but his personal discomfort: he now had boils on his hands and neck, infected scratches, and the rain was getting to him. For three days in the middle of March, it poured solidly on their positions and he got soaked through. ‘It makes life rather sordid,’ he wrote. Worst of all, however, was his hunger, a not uncommon problem for tall men like himself. The rations and meals he was given were never enough, and he found himself fantasizing over the food he used to get at home. ‘Wish I hadn’t such a big appetite,’ he added. When his wife wrote to him about her role as the Fairy Queen in a pantomime, he replied wistfully, ‘Wish I had a theatrical late supper to look forward to,’ then added, ‘Gosh I am hungry.’

For the most part, Captain Nigel Nicolson was also enjoying himself. He was good at his job: not for nothing had he been promoted. His situation reports – sitreps – were becoming famous throughout the Guards Brigade and beyond for their eloquence and incisiveness, and he never shied away from going out into the firing line to gather information. He also found the task of interrogating German and Italian prisoners enormously fascinating, not least because it revealed that the Axis forces were vulnerable and decidedly beatable. The Italians, he wrote in a letter to his parents, were just as he’d imagined: ‘Hopeless, charming, loquacious, dirty and puzzled.’ One Italian was asked what he thought of Mussolini. ‘I don’t like the Duce at all,’ he told Nigel, ‘because he stays in bed and sends me to the front.’ Another told him that his entire battalion wanted to desert, and would have done but most were scared the Allies would shoot them. ‘The Germans, of course, are much better,’ he added, although among their number were plenty of Poles, Yugoslavs and even French who were generally reluctant combatants. ‘The Panzer Div is not, however, the unconquerable dragon that we had always imagined,’ he wrote, ‘and on one or two occasions I have seen it looking particularly foolish.’ Self-belief was vital as the Allies readied themselves for the next offensive.

Alex had given all his commanders – Anderson, Monty, and Patton – very clear directives. In the north, Anderson was to regain certain pieces of land, but would otherwise concentrate for the moment on holding the line and retraining. Monty was to break the Axis along the Mareth Line; this next big offensive was to begin on 20 March. Patton was to re-take Gafsa and the airfields at Thelepte, establish a supply base to ease Eighth Army’s logistical problems, and, it was hoped, draw off some of the enemy troops from the Mareth Line.

Alex was happy to give Monty an almost completely free hand in the planning of Eighth Army’s operations, but decided to keep Patton on a much tighter leash. His reasoning was irreproachable. He knew the American commander was an indomitable fighter, but also believed he was ‘a horse that you had to keep a rein on – a dashing steed that always wanted watching’. The way to turn 2nd US Corps into an effective fighting force, Alex believed, was to give them achievable goals that gave them fighting experience and also built up their confidence. He was determined not to let Patton push 2nd US Corps beyond their capabilities and have them knocked back again, recognizing that another Sidi Bou Zid could have disastrous and far-reaching consequences. General Doc Ryder’s 34th US Division was to take control of the northern half of 2nd Corp’s sector towards Fondouk; Pinky Ward’s 1st Armored was to take Thelepte, while General Terry Allen’s 1st US Infantry Division was to capture Gafsa and, if the conditions were right, the oasis of El Guettar, ten miles further south-east. Under no circumstances was Patton to push beyond the Eastern Dorsale – not yet, at any rate. Predictably, Patton found such restrictions frustrating, but Bradley felt they were justified. ‘Better, I thought, that we learn to walk before we run,’ he wrote later, ‘and I believe for all his tough talk, Patton believed that too.’ Certainly his diary entries suggest this was true. He was worried about the state of his troops. He thought discipline was slack – as had Alex. ‘If men do not obey orders in small things,’ he noted in his diary, ‘they are incapable of being led in battle.’ He noted that 34th US Division was ‘too defensive’ in attitude, whilst 1st US Armored Division was ‘timid’. The newly arriving 9th US Infantry Division was yet to be tested, but at least he thought the Big Red One was good. It was certainly the most experienced. ‘I cannot see what Fredendall did to justify his existence,’ he noted. ‘Have never seen so little order or discipline.’

By the middle of March, Alex had reason to feel sanguine. His air forces were operating well and his ground forces properly established, with the command structure now clear. The days were getting longer and at long last the rains were beginning to lessen. The time had come for the Allies to take the offensive once more.



Left Hook: 17–31 March 1943

Lieutenant Randy Paulsen was one of a number of officers and enlisted men who were transferred from the 3rd US Division in the wake of Rommel’s offensive. Randy was sorry to be leaving – the 3rd US Division had been his home since passing out of officer school. He knew little of what had been going on in Tunisia, although, like just about every other American on the planet, he’d heard something about a place called the Kasserine Pass.

When he eventually reached the Big Red One, he was none too impressed either. Assigned to Company ‘F’ of the 18th US Infantry Regiment, he was taken over to see the company first sergeant, a huge, imposing man and a pre-war regular named Merrill. Merrill showed not the slightest interest in his new officer. ‘Sergeant,’ said Randy, ‘isn’t it customary to stand to attention when you’re speaking to an officer?’

Merrill eyed him and said, ‘I’ve been standing to attention longer than you’ve been in the army.’ Randy couldn’t believe what he was hearing. ‘I thought, my God, what the hell kind of guy is this?’ he says. Merrill then turned around and yelled, ‘Spinney!’ Captain Spinney was the company commander. Randy was even more astonished. ‘I’m thinking, the first sergeant calls the company commander by his last name?’ says Randy. ‘Jesus Christ, I thought, this is a great outfit.’ Spinney appeared. ‘What d’you want?’ he asked Merrill.

‘The new lieutenant’s here. Where do you want him?’

‘Put him in the weapons platoon,’ Spinney told him.

A little while later, Spinney appeared again and took Randy to see the battalion commander, Colonel Ben Sternberg. The colonel was wearing fleece-lined flying boots and walking with a cane because his feet had frozen. ‘You can imagine what I was thinking of the big First Division,’ says Randy, ‘where the sergeants don’t pay attention to you, the company commanders do what the sergeants want and the battalion commander can hardly walk. I wondered what the hell I’d got into.’

In the desert at Eighth Army ranks, new personnel were joining the 2nd Rifle Brigade too. Under the six-year repatriation rule, most of the remaining pre-war professionals were now being sent home, which left Albert Martin and the others in the class of 1940 as the senior veterans in the battalion. One of those leaving was Albert’s great mate Paddy. He’d not seen England for seven years but, rather than feeling over the moon at the prospect, was decidedly gloomy, worrying about what he would find after such a long time away and whether he would find it easy to adjust to a more settled existence. He’d been so long with the battalion he could hardly remember any other kind of life.

The replacements that had arrived were generally older too – not the fresh-faced, highly impressionable eighteen- and twenty-year-olds that Albert and his contemporaries had once been. Most were married, had left secure jobs, and had joined up with less enthusiasm than Albert had done. It was the task of men like Albert, younger but wiser in the ways of war, to show them the way.

On 1 March, 2nd Rifle Brigade finally dismantled the camp at Tmimi, where they had been based all year, and began the 1400-mile journey to the front. It was a dull, cold day as they set off, with greatcoats buttoned, collars up, and groundsheets wrapped around them. ‘We looked anything but an army intent on victory,’ noted Albert. Eighty-five miles were covered that first day; ninety the next. Each day they managed between seventy and a hundred miles, often over rocky and difficult terrain, past Benghazi, El Agheila, then Sirte, and eventually Tripoli. And all along this epic route were the signs of battle and war: burnt-out vehicles, stacks of lifted mines, shell cases, and rough lines of makeshift crosses.

By the time they crossed into Tunisia, thirteen days later, Albert was beginning to think gloomily of their imminent return to action. Rations had become short. They were all low on fags and in need of a beer and more sleep, and began grousing about the failure of the First Army and the Americans to wrap up the campaign already. On 14 March, they took over positions north-west of Medenine. The monotony of the journey was behind them and their minds once more turned to the job in hand. On his second day back at the front, Albert was told to lead his section to lay markers for a night bombing run on enemy artillery positions in the low hills to the north-west. Bearings were taken during the afternoon and empty ammunition boxes laid ahead of their positions where the markers were to start. Then, in the early hours, they moved out, the platoon commander in a Jeep and Albert and his section in a truck with a 6-pounder on the back and loaded up with a stack of 4-gallon petrol cans cut in half and three jerrycans of petrol. They found the box markers then drove along a straight bearing for 1.2 miles exactly – bringing them to within a thousand yards of the enemy guns. At this point they stopped and began placing the petrol cans in a straight line, six feet apart with a few inches of petrol in each. Then came the nerve-racking part. The bombers were due in about a minute and so they could delay lighting the petrol no longer. Immediately, they were lit up in the darkness. ‘I felt extremely vulnerable,’ noted Albert, ‘expecting any second a ferocious riposte.’ Leaping into their vehicles, they sped off, but to their relief neither shells nor bullets followed them. All they could hear was the roar of bombers overhead and shortly after, a mass of explosions.

Also now at the Mareth Line was General Francis Tuker and his 4th Indian Division. He and his headquarters team had reached Medenine on 11 March, and at a meeting with Horrocks he was told that once again ‘they’ intended to split his division up. ‘In that case, I would like to be relieved of my command,’ Tuker told him. ‘I can accept this misuse of my division no longer.’ The following day, however, he was asked to visit the army commander for tea, and as they sipped their brew Monty told him that he’d put his foot down with Horrocks and wanted Tuker’s division concentrated and to take part in the forthcoming battle. For Tuker, it was a minor triumph.

First and Second Gurkhas had already arrived ahead of the rest of the division and had immediately been put to good use. Nainabahadur Pun found himself patrolling the Matmata Hills on a nightly basis, making the most of the Axis fear of the kukri. On the night of 14/15 March, Nainabahadur, along with the entire battalion, investigated the El Djouamea Pass, a narrow gorge through the heart of the Matmata mountains. During that one night, they covered nearly forty miles and returned with a number of prisoners. The following evening, Nainabahadur was out again, this time attacking a German machine-gun outpost. Not a single shot was fired: the Gurkhas had crept up silently and overran the position using only their kukris. Nine Germans had had their throats cut, while the rest of the position ran off screaming into the night. Accompanying the Gurkhas that night had been George Lait, an American war correspondent, who then wrote up an account of the raid in gruesome detail. When the story ran in the USA, the Gurkhas suddenly became news. ‘Why have I not been told of these Gurkhas before?’ one American editor complained.

The Mareth Line ran along the northern edge of the Wadi Zigzaou, a dried and sometimes deep river bed, largely impassable to any kind of vehicle, even tanks. In places, its cliffs were sheer and as much as twelve feet deep, while along its northern edge was a long network of pillboxes, bunkers, and connecting trenches, ironically built by the French before the war to keep the Italians out of Tunisia. Concrete gun positions covered every approach across the Wadi Zigzaou and stretched twenty-two miles into the Matmata Hills, a long and dense range of mountains that ran north-south and protected the left flank of the line.

Monty had begun planning his attack on the Mareth Line weeks before Messe had launched his assault at Medenine and had been exploring ways to outflank the Axis defences. The French had suggested there was no route through the hills that could be used by massed armour and heavy vehicles, but the intrepid Long Range Desert Group had found a way around behind them. It meant a 160-mile journey but the route eventually led into a narrow pass, just a couple of miles wide, between the northern end of the Matmata Hills and the Djebel Tebaga. Beyond was the village of El Hamma, the gateway to the plains west of Gabès. This was the Tebaga Gap, which had been recognized as a key pass centuries before by the Romans. The remains of their fortified wall were now defended by the Axis, but Monty hoped that a left hook around the Matmata Hills and through the gap would draw off a large number of Axis troops, especially armour, and bring his forces round behind the Mareth Line where they would be able to cut off any retreat. For this task, he created the New Zealand Corps, made up of Freyberg’s New Zealand Division but also 8th Armoured Brigade and a newly arrived French force led by the inspirational and enigmatic General Leclerc.

The main assault, however, was to be along the eastern flank of the Mareth Line and would be carried out principally by 50th British Division. The aim was also to draw enemy reserves to this part of the line. As at Alamein, the main thrust was covered by 30th Corps, with the 1st and 7th British Armoured Divisions of 10th Corps as a mobile reserve ready to push through any breach of the line.

General Leclerc’s ‘L’ Force of Free French had joined Eighth Army in Tripoli, where he had been welcomed by both Alex and Monty. Leclerc’s was a remarkable story. As France had collapsed in June 1940, he had returned home to his family chateau outside Paris, collected his wife and six children, and fled to their retreat near Bordeaux. His children had still been sleeping when, before dawn on 3 July 1940, he had told his wife, ‘Courage, Therese. Our separation may be long,’ and had then set off on a bicycle to continue the fight against the Axis. Managing to reach England, he joined de Gaulle and immediately changed his name from Philippe de Hautecloque to Jacques Philippe Leclerc in order to protect his family. They had not heard from him since, although they had listened in complete ignorance to the exploits of General Leclerc and his Free French forces in central and west Africa. In the autumn of 1942 he had been in Chad and, collecting together 555 Frenchmen and 2,713 colonial and African troops, began the long march north across the Sahara to join Montgomery, pushing aside, with his meagrely equipped force, any Italians that crossed his path. It was a quite breathtaking achievement.

By 10 March, ‘L’ Force had been reinforced with a handful of 6-pounders, Bofors, and a couple of Shermans and had clashed with a German armoured reconnaissance force at Ksar Rhilane, fifty miles south-west of Medenine and behind the Matmata Hills. With the help of the RAF, ‘L’ Force had easily seen off the Germans, leaving a dozen armoured cars, guns, and forty trucks smouldering in the desert. They were still there, guarding the planned route of the left hook and waiting to join the rest of the New Zealand Corps which was beginning to form up for its epic march.

The Maori, along with the rest of 5th New Zealand Brigade, gathered ten miles south-west of the small town of Ben Gardane on 12 March. Maiki Parkinson had no idea where they were headed or what they were doing, but in the trucks with them were six days’ rations and water, and petrol for six hundred miles. The New Zealand silver fern emblem had been painted over on all their trucks and equipment and they had been ordered to remove all cap badges and titles from their uniforms. From there the battalion was dispersed along a stretch of over fifty miles on the south-west side of the Matmata Hills, lying low in the hope that neither they nor the rest of the force would be spotted by the enemy.

On 13 March, Major Stanley Christopherson had been taking part in the brigade shooting tournament. For several days beforehand he’d hoped the start of the battle would not begin before the competition, and he’d not been disappointed, although ‘C’ Squadron had lost out to the Staffs Yeomanry in the Crusader category. For their efforts, the victors had won a whole sheep. Then the following day they received orders to head off to join the New Zealanders in the left hook around the Matmata Hills, travelling on transporters until the ground became too rough. The Sherwood Rangers arrived at their forming-up positions in the early hours of the 16th. By now there were 27,000 men and many hundreds of trucks, tanks, and other vehicles scattered across the rough country of the southern Matmata Hills, waiting for the signal to begin their march north.

That same day, Private Johnny Bain had been involved in some early sparring as the Gordon Highlanders took part in attempts to push the Italians back from their outposts among the minefields ahead of the Mareth Line, an operation labelled CANTER by General Leese. This was largely successful, and far more so than Operation WALK, the attack by the Guards Brigade on Horseshoe Hill, the one dominant feature along this stretch of the line. It was supposed to have been lightly defended, but had in fact been reinforced by the German 90th Light Division. Moreover, the area around it was thick with mines. These had become increasingly sophisticated in recent months and were no longer just the old soup-plate and plunger style. There were long, rectangular Italian ‘N’ mines, heavy Tellermines, paratroop anti-tank mines that looked like soup bowls; there were also the fiendish German ‘S’ mines, filled with ball-bearings which sprang chest high then exploded, and limpet mines shaped like Chianti bottles. Some were now covered in plastic or wood and were missable by mine detectors; others were designed to explode only after being crossed several times. Trip wires and booby traps were now so sophisticated that almost any object when touched might spell death. The two Guards battalions attacking Horseshoe Hill managed to gain most of their objectives, but not the hill itself, an important observation point. Inadequate reconnaissance and intelligence meant the Guards were slaughtered. Over five hundred men were lost. Later, over seven hundred mines had to be lifted in order to bury the corpses of sixty-nine Grenadier Guardsmen.

But despite the failure to capture the hill, Monty still intended Leese to launch his attack on the main Mareth Line on 20 March, and for the New Zealanders to start moving towards the Tebaga Gap the day before. With a bit of luck, they would both push through to victory on the 21st.


A couple of hundred miles away, the Americans were beginning their march on Thelepte and Gafsa. Never one to be held back by political correctness, Patton had termed his operation WOP. The new 2nd US Corps commander felt torn, however. On the one hand he desperately wanted to be tested in battle against the Germans, but at the same time he knew he’d not had much time in which to prepare the 90,000 troops now under his command, and was worried that they weren’t ready. The best he could do was to try and boost their confidence and crank up their aggressive spirit by offering dramatic pep talks. ‘Our bravery is too negative,’ he warned them. ‘We must be eager to kill, to inflict on the enemy – the hated enemy – wounds, death, and destruction. If we die killing, well and good, but if we fight hard enough, viciously enough, we will kill and live. Live to return to our family and our girls as conquering heroes – men of Mars. The reputation of our army, the future of our race, your own glory, rests in your hands. I know you will be worthy.’

Whether this kind of rabble-rousing did spur his men into a state of fever-pitched aggression is unclear. Such talks certainly left no lasting impression on the Bowles twins, who cannot remember one word that Patton ever spoke to them, but certainly the American advance began promisingly. The Big Red One took Gafsa after an overnight march on 17 March and then headed on to El Guettar, which was taken by the Rangers the following day. The Axis had retreated almost without a fight, moving to positions just east of El Guettar among the razorback pink hills either side of the road to Gabès.

Colonel Darby then sent out patrols of his Rangers to locate the enemy defensive positions. Bing Evans was now a lieutenant, having received a battlefield commission, and was given the task of leading one of the patrols, while Lieutenant Walt Wojcik led the other. The key to the enemy position, they quickly discovered, was the narrow, rocky valley that cut through the hills towards Sened Station known as the Djebel el Ank Pass. In places only a few hundred yards wide, it led to the mountain village of Bou Hamran, but funnelled into it were large numbers of the Italian Centauro Division, with guns ranged and covering the Gafsa-Gabès road. On the first night, Bing and his men probed the enemy positions. ‘The whole night long, we repeatedly advanced until we drew their fire,’ he says, ‘then we withdrew into the darkness and pushed forward somewhere else.’ This showed Bing where the enemy were strong and where they were a bit weaker. ‘They seemed worried about my patrol,’ says Bing. ‘They had no idea we were just ten men.’ Just as importantly, they were acting as a diversion while Wojcik and his men worked out a route through the rocky slopes that would bring them into the rear of the Italian positions.

The following night, the Rangers moved in force along Wojcik’s route through the mountains. It was six miles of rocky and dangerous terrain, but they were used to such night-time marches by now, and in the early hours the moon came out so that the jagged peaks were silhouetted against the sky and their way bathed in soft, milky light. At dawn they were all in position, overlooking the rear of the Italian positions. As Wojcik had promised, the enemy guns, which they could see dug in beneath them, were all facing in the opposite direction. The first rays of sunlight hit the jagged tops of the mountain behind them, then Darby, echoing Colonel Frost’s hunting horn, blew his bugle, and the Rangers, yelling and shouting like Dark Age barbarians, charged down the slopes, while others covered them with machine-gun fire. ‘They didn’t know what had hit them,’ says Bing. Emerging from foxholes and tents, the stunned Italians were completely taken by surprise. Groups of Rangers sped from one gun position to another, shooting, knifing, and capturing over two hundred prisoners. At the same time, the 26th Infantry pushed straight along the road, and with the Italian guns silent took the pass easily, along with over seven hundred prisoners.

A pall of blue-grey smoke now hung over the valley. The Rangers had not lost a single man in the entire attack. The 18th US Infantry Regiment fared almost as well. While the Rangers had been stealing through the mountains, a few miles further south the 1st Battalion of the 18th Infantry had pushed forward over flat, mine-infested land with no cover and at dawn caught the Italians napping once more, securing Hill 336, a key feature overlooking the Gafsa-Gabès road. Later in the morning Randy Paulsen and the Bowles twins were in action with the 2nd Battalion, attacking with the 3rd around a long ridge running north of the road and overlooking Djebel el Ank. The confused and surprised Italians threw in the towel, surrendering in droves, and so the Americans pushed on and, despite aerial attacks and heavier resistance, pushed on eastwards, establishing a firm line along the foothills of the next ridge of mountains that ran north-south some fourteen miles east of El Guettar. They had lost just fourteen men all day.

While Bing Evans and the Rangers had been stealing through the mountains of Djebel el Ank, the New Zealand Corps had been doing the same around the Matmata Hills towards the Tebaga Gap. Maiki Parkinson noticed plenty of enemy reconnaissance planes. ‘They must have seen us all right,’ he says. Their efforts to remain inconspicuous were not helped by the French colonial troops of ‘L’ Force. ‘Those bastards would shoot every time a plane came over,’ says Maiki, ‘even with rifles, the stupid idiots.’ He was not impressed*. ‘They were rough, wild-looking bastards, unshaven and dirty.’* Nor were efforts to keep the left hook a secret helped by Howard Marshall of the BBC, who reported on 23 March that ‘a British armoured column has outflanked the entire Mareth position after a forced march of over 100 miles over the desert’. Alex was furious. ‘This is very wrong after what I had told the Press,’ he told Ike, ‘and makes one despair that they will ever have any sense. How can any intelligent man give out the whole plan as Howard Marshall has, without realising that he was giving the whole show away?’

Then one evening, just as Maiki’s column was breaking their daytime leaguer to begin the night-time march, they were strafed by American P-38s, who flew over them so low that Maiki could easily see the stars underneath the wings and on the fuselage. ‘Shit, their map-reading was terrible,’ he says.

Meanwhile, the infantry of the 50th British Division had begun Operation GALLOP against the Mareth Line. Monty had left Leese to plan the details of the attack, which was a solidly unimaginative affair. The enemy defences were formidable, both in terms of mines and firepower, and although reconnaissance and intelligence about the opposition along the eastern edge of the line had been excellent, Leese had announced his assault with the division’s artillery firing a barrage that had little hope of causing much damage to the thick concrete gun positions overlooking the Wadi Zigzaou. To make matters worse, the armour supporting the infantry were obsolete Valentines, of which only one in five had a 6-pounder gun; the rest were armed with 2-pounders, about as much use against concrete as throwing mud. For some reason, Leese had not thought to use Shermans with their 75-mm guns and ability to fire a mixture of HE and solid shot. To make matters even worse, the rain that had been pouring down in the west had run down the mountains and hills making the dried-up river bed not quite so dry after all, so that, far from galloping across the wadi, the armour failed to clear their first fence. As a tank tried to cross a low point in the wadi, it sank up to its turret, blocking the way for any others. By daylight, only four more Valentines had made it across.

While the gallant infantry – almost to a man from the north and north-east of England – managed to take their objectives and establish a bridgehead, engineers worked all day to make fascines to bridge the wadi. As dusk fell, the Tynesiders, along with their four tanks, began the job of extending their gains, but instead of sending over as many anti-tank guns as possible with which to fight the inevitable armoured counter-attack, Leese ushered over more Valentines. By the time a further forty-two had made it across, the fascines were wrecked and the wadi once again impassable.

Then the rain finally reached the coastal areas, grounding the Desert Air Force, which had been ready and waiting to support 50th British Division’s attack. Through the rain, and the smoke and mist that hung over the battlefield, the tanks of the 15th Panzer Division emerged. They had covered a serious amount of miles in recent weeks, but this had little effect on their shooting: by dusk, over thirty outgunned Valentines had been knocked out and the bridgehead all but pushed back into the mire of the Wadi Zigzaou.

Earlier in the day, Leese had asked Tuker whether some of 4th Indian Division’s sappers might help build two crossings from a combination of fascines and steel plating. Tuker sent his 4th Bengal Sappers, 12th Madras Sappers, and division miners. Amidst an ear-splitting din and torrents of bullets, they set about their task. Ramps were cut, fascines laid, and ballast spread, and then a steel roadway was laid on top. Before dawn the two causeways had been finished. Few people seemed to know what was going on. The congestion around the crossings, both that night and since the beginning of the battle, had torn wires to bits, while radio had proved singularly ineffective. While more troops, and – at last – Shermans and Grants, arrived ready for a further attack, news reached them that there had been a change of plan. In the early hours of the morning, Monty had decided to call off the assault on the Mareth Line and reinforce the New Zealanders with 1st British Armoured Division instead.

It had been a busy few days for the gunners of the 7th Medium Regiment, RA. In 107 Battery, Harold Harper and his gun crew had been called upon to fire one ‘stonk’ after another. They also came under heavy counter-battery fire themselves. On one such occasion, as the shells began crashing into their positions, Harold dived into a shallow slit-trench. Suddenly he felt a terrific burning sensation coursing down his back. By then, he’d seen many dead and wounded men and as the hot fluid trickled over him, he was certain that his time had come. But much to his surprise, a few minutes later he was still alive and, when the shelling stopped, was able to pick himself up without any difficulty. He then discovered that the cookhouse nearby had received a direct hit. What had been running down his back was not blood, but a shattered tin of hot stew.

The Axis had also been hastily redeploying their troops. The left hook had been detected, and Messe had ordered most of his German 164th Division out of the Matmata Hills to reinforce the Italians at the Tebaga Gap, where they were to be joined by 21st Panzer Division. They had not arrived, however, by the time the forward elements of the New Zealand Corps reached the entrance to the Tebaga Gap. The Sherwood Rangers had been among the first to make contact with the enemy, their tanks firing indirectly at the enemy artillery. Alongside them, New Zealand troops were also using captured German made 88 mms, much to the delight of everyone who saw them. It was the first time the Sherwood Rangers had seen action without Colonel Kellett as CO. He had been promoted to deputy brigade commander. His departure had been felt keenly, for Kellett had become something of an institution, beloved by the men.

During the night the New Zealanders forced a path through the minefields at the mouth of the Tebaga Gap, but Freyberg had not felt confident enough to push his armour through in the darkness. By dawn, the chance of a quick breakthrough had gone. German troops had reached the Italians and had set up machine-gun posts, artillery, and anti-tank positions on the high ground. It was a bitterly cold morning as Stanley Christopherson led ‘C’ Squadron through the New Zealanders, only to come under fire immediately. ‘The shelling was extremely unpleasant,’ noted Stanley, ‘not only for ourselves but even more so for the echelons and gun positions in the rear. The enemy held wonderful observation posts.’ Stanley’s tanks still managed to knock out a 50-mm gun, capture some prisoners, and push out of the congested area around the old Roman wall, but having crossed a wadi they got little further. ‘We came across a fairly intensive screen of 50 mm,’ noted Stanley, ‘and it was pretty obvious the high ground was held.’ RAF tank-busters roared overhead, and the valley became shrouded in an array of different coloured smoke and dust – from exploding shells, burning vehicles, yellow smoke signals put up by the British for the RAF, and pink smoke signals put up by the Axis for the benefit of the Luftwaffe. During the afternoon, they heard via the RAF that enemy tanks were manoeuvring behind the high ground now in front of them. Stanley decided to climb out of his tank and lead some of his troopers on a stalk around this ridge. Unbeknown to him, a German tank crew the other side of the ridge had had the same idea. ‘As a result we both came face to face,’ noted Stanley, ‘had one quick look and beat a somewhat hasty and undignified retreat back to our respective tanks.’ Then news arrived that Colonel Kellett had been killed. Earlier in the morning, as his old regiment had been pushing forward, he’d been shaving in his tank turret when a shell burst nearby and he had been struck by a shard of shrapnel. The Sherwood Rangers were stunned.

After their efforts at Djebel el Ank, the American Rangers were taken out of the line. As they came down from the mountains and headed back to El Guettar, Patton and General Terry Allen passed them on their way to the front. By this time, Bing Evans had four days’ growth of beard, no tie, and a muddy and soiled uniform. ‘Patton stopped me and read the riot act,’ says Bing, who seethed with anger at being so publicly admonished. Fortunately Colonel Darby intervened. ‘Darby put Patton straight,’ says Bing. ‘He said, “Look, General, this guy hasn’t seen a razor, hasn’t looked at water, hasn’t had a chance for water. They’ve been fighting from mountain top to mountain top and you’re asking him to wear a tie!” He backed off.’

There was still much for the Americans to do, however. While the Big Red One was holding the new line south-east of El Guettar, Pinky Ward’s 1st US Armored Division was pushing forward to the north of the mountains towards Sened Station. Patton had wanted his armour to capture Sened on the 19th, but heavy rains had once again brought terrible delays. Patton himself had driven the forty miles to see Ward, but it had taken him three hours. ‘He is in a sea of mud,’ Patton noted on reaching Ward’s command post. Ward’s plan was for a two-pronged attack, with part of his armour attacking Sened along the road from Gafsa, while another part put in a surprise attack through the hills to the north-west. Ray Saidel was now a part of CCA, which was to attack along the road from Gafsa. It had been a torturous journey down from Thelepte, and it wasn’t getting any easier by 21 March. Their column had been attacked several times by enemy aircraft and once by their own P-38 Lightnings. When they heard the strafing at the back of the column, everyone in Ray’s half-track jumped over the side and ran into a field – except Ray, who stayed on the .30 calibre and began firing furiously at the lead aircraft.

Also travelling with the column was journalist Alan Moorehead. He had accompanied the Big Red One to Gafsa and had been impressed with Patton and his ivory-handled revolvers. ‘Go down that track until you get blown up,’ Patton had told his ADC as they had approached the town. ‘The ADC set off in his Jeep,’ noted Alan, and soon they were all trundling after him. But he noticed more caution among CCA as they struggled towards Sened. Alan was surprised to notice the alacrity with which the column halted and then leaped for safety the moment the faint buzz of aircraft engines could be heard. ‘Most of the vehicles were equipped with heavy machine guns,’ he commented, ‘and the men would have felt very much better firing them than they did taking cover among the wild flowers.’ Ray Saidel agreed.

By the time they finally reached Sened Station late on 21 March, having struggled through mines and mud, the outpost had already fallen to CCC and a regiment of 9th US Division’s infantry. Opposition had been light, but the Americans had been able to notch up another minor victory and their confidence was growing, just as Alex had hoped it would. He had already changed Patton’s orders once. On 19 March, with Gafsa and El Guettar taken, he had instructed Patton to push on and take Maknassy, and then to send a light armoured force through the Eastern Dorsale for a raid on the enemy airfields at Mezzouna. Alex was mindful that there was always a balance to be achieved between responding to the changing demands of the Allied offensive and not overstreching 2nd US Corps. For example, Monty had told Alex as early as 11 March, when outlining his plans for the Mareth battle, that an American thrust towards Maknassy ‘would be of greatest value’. Now, however, with 30th Corps struggling along the Mareth Line, he asked Alex for an even more ambitious effort from the Americans, suggesting they push through in force into the plains beyond Maknassy to cut the Gabès-Sfax road. Alex refused, but on 22 March he did change his orders to Patton a second time, telling him to prepare a strong armoured force ready to push through to the plains should the situation change and warrant the risks involved in such a thrust. Patton was hugely disappointed and saw it as a deliberate attempt to ensure that any Axis defeat remained a British triumph. This was absurd; no one could have been less of a glory-seeker than Alex and, within a few days, his decision to keep the reins tight on 2nd US Corps would prove entirely justified. So far, the American offensive had been almost entirely against Italians. When the inevitable German reinforcements arrived, then Patton’s men would be properly tested.

In the meantime, as Leese’s attack on the Mareth Line was failing, Ward’s men marched on Maknassy only to find the Axis had already left. His reconnaissance troops then discovered that enemy rearguards to the east of the town were holding the pass through to the plains. It is possible that a big effort might have dislodged them, but his men were exhausted and, mindful of Alex’s orders, he called a halt. Certainly Ray Saidel felt that none of them in the 1st US Armored Regiment were in fit state to fight. They were still lagging behind the rest of the division, bivouacked halfway between Sened and Maknassy, and were to remain there for a further three days, bogged down as the rain continued to pour. Streams were overflowing, their bivouac was sodden, and Ray, for one, was fed up. Most of their time was spent trying to free tanks that had become bogged down. ‘We were out of rations for two days,’ he noted, ‘weak from the weather and soaked to the core. Everyone was miserable. Everyone was tired … Morale was at an all-time low.’

Morale wasn’t exactly high among the British struggling along the Mareth Line. ‘This battle’s a mess,’ wrote General Tuker on 23 March. ‘It has been badly fought by 30th Corps and 50 Div. I’ve made up at least six plans of attack and not yet been put in and not likely to be for a bit.’ But although disappointed not to attack north across the Mareth Line as had originally been the plan, Tuker was now given another task for his two infantry brigades. Monty envisaged another, smaller, left hook, this time through, rather than round, the Matmata Hills. No other troops in Eighth Army were better trained for such a task.

As Tuker had already planned for such an operation, he was able to get cracking right away. His 7th Indian Brigade loaded up then set off through Medenine, before heading south-west towards the hills. They were to cross through the hills south of Kreddache, then turn northwards and double back down the Hallouf Pass. Meanwhile, 5th Indian Brigade was to enter the hills from the east slightly further north, and push straight through the pass. Tuker intended that the two brigades would then link up, having squeezed out any enemy forces, and push north together towards Techine, emerging behind the Mareth Line through the village of Beni Zelten. He was anxious to get on with the job as quickly as possible: the sooner they emerged from Beni Zelten, the better their chance of cutting off the enemy from the Mareth Line before they had a chance to escape through the Gabès Gap.

‘But now came a sad disappointment,’ wrote Tuker. Just as 5th Indian Brigade were entering Medenine on their way to the Matmata Hills, 1st British Armoured Division were also passing through on their way to join the New Zealand Corps. ‘We had previously reconnoitred every possible way round that beastly village,’ noted Tuker, ‘and there was none.’ They were stuck, as hundreds of tanks, trucks, and other vehicles squeezed through, and then were held up again as a brigade from 7th British Armoured followed on the tail of the rest of the British armour. Tuker was fuming. The delay had cost him twenty-four precious hours, and so Nainabahadur Pun and the rest of 5th Brigade did not push into the mouth of the Hallouf Pass until the night of 24/25 March.


The Big Red One was now dug in along a twelve-mile line. In the north, covering the ‘Gumtree Road’ that ran through the Djebel el Ank, were the 26th US Infantry Regiment. In between, as far as the Gafsa-Gabès road, were the 16th US Infantry Regiment and the 3rd Battalion of the 18th. South of the road, the ground rose again. Here, on the night of 22/23 March, the 2nd Battalion of the 18th US Infantry was hurriedly moved across to join the 1st Battalion. This had been no easy task. The slopes here were so precipitous that guns had to be winched into position. Tom Bowles discovered that he and his colleagues in Company ‘G’ had been given an isolated stretch of high ground on the Djebel Berda, overlooking another spur on the northern side of the road. They immediately began digging in, but it was hard work on such rocky ground. Both battalions were expected to attack the Italian positions later that morning.

But as they were digging in, strange deep rumblings could be heard coming along the road from the east. Gradually they grew until it became clear they were the sounds of engines. A mist had settled along the valley beneath them, so that even though the first sliver of sunlight was creeping over the valley opposite, Tom still could not see clearly what it was that was rumbling towards the American lines. Suddenly tracer cut across the sky, then more, followed by the deep, resonating report of larger guns. As the sun rose, so the mist cleared, revealing a valley full of tanks, armoured vehicles, artillery, and trucks. The 10th Panzer Division had arrived.

Henry Bowles had barely started wiring between the various companies before the Panzers formed up and began their advance straight on down the road. Both he and his brother now had ringside views as the Germans swept past in front of them towards El Guettar. Both the 5th and 32nd Field Artillery Battalions had been sited on Hill 336, captured two days before. At ‘A’ Battery of the 5th Field Battalion, Joe Furayter was with his crew by their gun when news arrived from ‘D’ Battery, a bit further forward, that the enemy were coming. ‘They could hear all this rattling of tanks coming and the next thing they knew they were looking down the barrel of a German Panzer,’ says Joe. ‘They reported enormous amounts of tanks, infantry, trucks, self-propelled artillery – all kinds of things.’ Both artillery battalions immediately opened fire, Joe bringing up shell after shell. They enemy column then broke between the 3rd battalions of the 16th and 18th US Infantry Regiments, rolling over their foxholes, then swivelling and crushing the infantrymen below. Those who were able to, fell back, but it soon became clear that the artillery on Hill 336 was also about to be overrun. ‘We were getting low on ammo,’ says Joe*, ‘and then the order came to abandon our guns. They were dug in and we couldn’t get them out in a hurry.’* Having spiked most of their howitzers, the artillerymen ran to their trucks and hastily withdrew.

But just as the Germans were threatening to repeat their slaughter at Sidi Bou Zid, they came in for a shock. Having continued their surge forward, the Panzers found themselves faced with a wadi running across their path. They were being led into the trap of a well-prepared anti-tank screen on the other side of this ditch. The violence of the battle was ferocious. Round after round screamed across the narrow stretch of land between the Panzers and the waiting Americans. Amidst the dust and smoke, eight Panzers were knocked out as they struggled through the thick rows of mines laid across the Wadi Keddab. A further thirty were destroyed by the American tank destroyers and artillery. By mid-morning, under cover of a hail of artillery shells whistling down on the US positions, the Panzers turned and withdrew. The Americans cheered to see them go, but they’d suffered heavily for their success: one tank destroyer battalion, for example, had lost twenty-four of its thirty-six guns.

German JU-87 Stuka dive bombers continued to screech overhead, hurtling so close the Americans felt they could reach out and touch them, while enemy shells hurtled down the valley, exploding relentlessly as the defenders scuttled about bringing up more ammunition and reinforcements. Bing Evans and the Rangers were hastily brought into line along the Wadi Keddab next to the 16th US Infantry Regiment. Meanwhile, the two battalions of the 18th US Regiment, still on the slopes of the Djebel Berda, also braced themselves. They had become almost completely cut off from the rest of the division.

A radio intercept warned that 10th Panzer Division was preparing to attack later that afternoon, and sure enough, at 4.30 p.m., a heavy attack by JU-87 Stukas was followed by another assault. Again, the Germans came straight down the valley, with no attempt at concealment. This time, the Panzers hung back behind the infantry. It was an inexplicable tactic from a division as experienced as 10th Panzer, likened by Colonel Darby, who was watching with his Rangers, to an attack in the American Civil War. When the Germans were within fifteen hundred yards, the American gunners opened fire, sending over one booming salvo after another. Black smoke as the shells exploded showed they had been timed to burst before they hit the ground. The Germans fell like flies. ‘My God,’ muttered Patton, who had been watching the assault, ‘it seems a crime to murder good infantry like that.’ For the second time that day, the Germans were forced to withdraw. At Sbiba, American infantry had helped repulse a Panzer division. Now the Big Red One had done it again, but this time on their own.

The Germans had only fallen back, however, not withdrawn entirely, and the following day they began digging in alongside the Italians and nibbling away at the American forward positions, especially along the Djebel Berda where the two battalions of the 18th US Infantry were still cut off from the rest of the division; the Wadi Keddab was some two miles to their west. Most isolated of all, however, was Company ‘G’, dug in on a different spur to the rest of the battalion. ‘We were on a peak about a quarter of a mile ahead of everyone else,’ says Tom. From his position he could see German tanks in the valley beneath him. ‘We couldn’t go nowhere,’ he says. They were beginning to run short of supplies. In among the rocks there was a pool of water. When they’d first moved in, they’d used it for washing both themselves and their clothes. Now they were drinking it. Enemy mortars had been lobbing in among them ever since they’d arrived, but there were now German troops on their right overlooking them from the higher ground of Djebel Berda. Throughout the day, the mortar fire had been intensifying, every explosion spattering shards of lethal metal and rock splinters. ‘They were picking us off one at a time, for all of the time,’ says Tom.

On another rocky crag a short distance to the west of Tom was Company ‘F’. Randy Paulsen had also seen the German tanks in the valley below and noticed that, as dusk fell, they’d formed into a leaguer and had begun cooking on little fires. He reported this to Captain Spinney, who told him to fire on them. Randy pointed out that all he had were a few mortars and .30 calibre light machine guns. Spinney repeated his order. ‘Fire on them,’ he told Randy. So Randy returned to his weapons platoon and repeated the order. ‘Lieutenant, those are .30 calibre lights,’ his sergeant said, looking at their machine guns.‘I know,’ said Randy resignedly.

‘You’d better dig in deep,’ his sergeant replied. Sure enough, the moment they fired, the Germans jumped into their tanks and swivelled round their turrets. Their shells soon found the range. ‘I lost two guns,’ says Randy.

By this time, over at the positions held by Company ‘G’, Tom Bowles’s sergeant, Nels de Jarlais, had been wounded, so Tom and his friend Giacomo Patti, an Italian from Brooklyn, decided they needed to try and get him out. It was evening, and the light was fading. Mortars and machine-gun fire continued to burst and chatter nearby. They picked their way carefully down to the aid station, collected a stretcher, then clambered back around the front of the hill. ‘Probably the only reason we weren’t shot was because we were carrying the stretcher,’ says Tom, who could hear the sound of motorbikes in the valley beneath him. Having made it safely back to their positions, they were just putting the sergeant on the stretcher when word arrived from their listening post that the Germans had just about surrounded them and were about to attack.

By now it was almost dark. Since being in Tunisia, Tom and his buddies had noticed that darkness fell quickly and that the Germans often liked to carry out their attacks in the time before the moon rose. So it was this night. Suddenly flares were whooshing into the sky, lighting up their positions, and troops from the 10th Motorcycle Battalion were clambering up the slopes beneath them yelling ‘Heil Hines!’ ‘Don’t know what that meant,’ says Tom. There was no question of getting the sergeant out now, however. Taking off the scarf he wore round his neck, Tom rolled it up and and put in under Sergeant de Jarlais’ head to make him more comfortable. ‘D’you think we can hold ’em?’ the sergeant asked him.

‘Yeah, we can hold ’em,’ Tom replied, then hurried back to his mortar. He would not see his sergeant again. Tom quickly began firing, but he had just thirty-six mortar bombs left. Enemy mortars were landing all about him, exploding with an ear-splitting din followed by the whiz and hiss of flying rock and shrapnel. The motorcycle battalion was getting ever closer to their positions. Tom saw one mortar land in a foxhole. One of the sergeants clambered out of his dugout. ‘Dees!’ shouted Tom. ‘Don’t go over there!’ But his warning was ignored. Moments later another shell hurtled down, just twenty yards in front of Tom, killing both Sergeant Dees and the wounded man in the foxhole instantly. Then Patti hurried over. ‘The lieutenant says we’re going to surrender,’ he told Tom. ‘Let’s get out of here.’

‘When one of the officers says that,’ explains Tom, ‘you’re on your own. You can do as you please.’ They scrambled over the rocks, slid down a small cliff and fell into a pool of water, but got themselves out and away to the comparative safety of battalion HQ. ‘I never hated anything so much in all my life as leaving those guys up there,’ admits Tom. ‘And we had to leave the sergeant up there too. I still don’t know whether he made it or not …’

His brother Henry, however, was unaware that Tom had managed to escape, and so with two of his colleagues set out to try and find him. He’d heard Company ‘G’ had come under heavy fire all day and was worried about his twin brother. In the dark, and with the rain pouring down, they scrambled up through the rocks towards Company ‘G’s position, then suddenly they heard German voices. One of Henry’s friends said, ‘Looks like we’re caught here. Shall we give up?’

But it was dark and all three were wearing captured German ponchos, so Henry said, ‘No. Let’s just turn around and head back the way we came.’ The ploy worked. Not a single German so much as spoke to them.The following morning, Henry was back at battalion HQ, where he was told to get a wire to Company ‘E’; so he and his old buddy, Blake C. Owens, gathered up another spool and, armed with a field telephone, began laying a line towards the Company ‘E’ command post. The firing of the previous night seemed to have quietened down, but desultory shell and mortar fire continued to explode among the battalion positions. Henry and Blake were trying to cover as much ground as they could by scrambling along a small wadi when suddenly they found themselves being shot at from the rough direction of Company ‘E’, Henry had a raincoat rolled up and tied on the back of his belt, so to begin with he thought they must have been mistaken for Germans, with his raincoat looking like a German gas mask canister. ‘So I waved at them and they stopped,’ says Henry. On they went a bit further, but then the firing began again, bullets pinging and ricocheting uncomfortably close by. Henry waved again, and once more they stopped. They scurried on a bit further, but sure enough the firing began again. They could see the shots were coming from some rocks just ahead of them, so they ran and dropped behind the safety of a large boulder, bullets whistling over their heads and pinging into the other side of the rock. Frantically, Henry wired up his phone and put a call into headquarters. ‘We’re trying to get to “E” Company up here,’ Henry told them, ‘but there’s somebody shooting at us.’“E” Company?’ came the reply. ‘They’ve already left that position.’ Unbeknown to Henry and Blake, ‘E’ had been moved to higher ground in the early hours of the morning. ‘You’d better get out of there quick,’ they were told*.‘We can’t,*’ Henry told him. We’re out in the open here.’

"Just wait a minute, kid,’ said the man on the other end. ‘The artillery liaison officer’s right here. You can talk to him.’

The LO came on the phone and asked Henry whether he thought he could direct their fire onto the enemy position.‘I can try,’ Henry told him. Shortly after, two shells whistled over but landed short. ‘Raise up two hundred yards,’ Henry told him from his crouched position behind the rock.

‘All right,’ said the LO, then added: ‘Now when you hear those shells coming in, you get out of there.’

‘And boy when we heard that whistling we took off,’ says Henry. ‘The Germans still shot at us a couple of times, but we zig-zagged down and managed to get away.’ Both men were later awarded the Silver Star for this action. ‘For escaping, I guess,’ says Henry.

Later that afternoon, the 1st and 2nd Battalions finally withdrew from their isolated positions along the Djebel Berda. Although reinforced by the Rangers, they had not been gaining ground, and by midnight on the 25th were back in reserve in El Guettar. Tom’s Company ‘G’ had been all but wiped out. A few others had escaped, but most had been either captured or killed. The other companies had suffered heavily too since the offensive had begun. The loss of these crucial positions along the Djebel Berda would come back to haunt General Patton in the days to come.

Patton had been pleased to see the Big Red One beat back 10th Panzer Division, but he was an offensively minded person and more interested in attacking than defending. What he really wanted to see was 1st US Armored Division take the Maknassy Pass. He’d been annoyed that Pinky Ward had not pushed on in strength as soon as he’d taken the town. In fact, he was beginning to doubt Ward had enough drive and force of personality to lead the division. During his attack on Sened, Ward had spoken to Patton and told him he’d been fortunate not to lose a single officer that day. ‘Goddammit, Ward, that’s not fortunate,’ Patton replied. ‘I want you to get more officers killed.’

‘Are you serious?’ said Ward incredulously.

‘Yes, Goddammit, I’m serious,’ snapped Patton*. ‘I want you to put some officers out as observers well up front and keep them there until a couple get killed.’*

Early on the 23rd, the pass was still weakly held, but just as Ward’s forces seemed to be breaking through, German reinforcements – Rommel’s former personal guard – arrived. Only eighty strong, this tiny German force stiffened Italian resolve and kept Ward’s forward infantry battalion at bay. ‘Ward has not done well,’ Patton noted in his diary that day. By now more German reinforcements were arriving – including eight Tigers – and their position in the pass strengthened with every hour. By evening on 24 March, 1st US Armored Division still hadn’t forced their way through, and when Patton found out he rang Ward and told him to lead the attack personally the following morning on a crucial hill that overlooked the pass, and to not come down again until he’d captured it. ‘Now my conscience hurts me for fear I have ordered him to his death,’ noted Patton, ‘but I feel it was my duty.’

Pinky Ward did not die, but as they were approaching the crest of the hill, he was wounded in the eye. Covered in blood, he crawled back down the hill and continued to direct artillery fire, but the summit could not be held. Shortly after, he called off the attack. Both Bradley and Robinett met him at his command post and were somewhat shocked at his appearance. Dried blood caked his face, while across his back was a narrow red line where he had been seared by a bullet. ‘I think I have made a man of Ward,’ noted Patton later.

CCA had not been involved in the attack on the Maknassy Pass, but on 25 March they were brought out of their bivouac area and told to protect the northern flank of the division along the Wadi Leben, a few miles south of a small mining town called Meheri Zebbeus. Ray Saidel and his half-track crew drove down into their new positions in broad daylight and started digging in. Shells soon screamed over towards them as the enemy artillery adjusted its range. ‘Unfortunately for us,’ noted Ray, ‘our artillery was in the same wadi and it drew counter-battery fire and bombers like molasses does flies.’ Around noon on his second day there, Ray was catching a brief nap when he was woken by the sound of machine-gun fire. Looking up, he saw twelve Stukas peeling off for their dive directly above him. ‘Yeah, I was scared,’ he admits. He started to run down to the bottom of the wadi where there was a slit-trench but had only got halfway down when the first bomb landed about twenty-five yards away. Ray flattened himself into the ground, but several pieces of shrapnel cut holes through the top of his helmet. ‘How I escaped being hit is beyond me,’ he noted. As soon as the Stukas had gone, he immediately set to work deepening his gun post so he could get greater elevation. When twelve German Ju 88 bombers roared over later that afternoon Ray was ready and poured 250 rounds into them. ‘I could see that they were going right in,’ he noted.

The Wadi Leben was, in fact, a number of dried river channels, which gave CCA a natural network of wide trenches. Machine-gun posts had been established along the Americans’ main defensive positions, but every night MG teams were sent forward to set up overlooking a further wadi several hundred yards in front of them. This was to protect their principal line from a potential night infantry attack. In addition, listening posts were also placed, beyond the night-time machine-gun positions. Teams of two would slither forward a couple of hundred yards and lie down close to the Axis front line. While one strained into the darkness and listened, the other tried to sleep. Then they would swap over, until, just before first light, it was time to scamper back again.

During the day, back in their main positions, only one post in three would be on duty, while the other two teams slept and rested. ‘I pulled MG posts most nights,’ says Ray, ‘and listening posts on others.’ It was impossible to ever sleep properly, however. Nuisance shells would be sent over at least every two hours, just to keep them awake. Ray and Sergeant Lowrey found this intensely frustrating, and felt they should do something – anything – to try and get those guns. After talking it over, they hatched a plan for the two of them to creep out into no man’s land and see what they could find out. Initially their plan was dismissed out of hand; although night patrols were widely used by the infantry, CCA was inexperienced at holding a static line and not so ready to adopt tactics and techniques that were normally accepted as run of the mill. However, a couple of days later, Ray and Lowrey were summoned to the command post and told to get themselves ready to go out on their planned patrol. Their orders were to head about a mile to their right where the 16th Engineers were based. There they would find a railway line that led to the mining town. They were then to head along by the railway and try and find out where the enemy’s forward positions were. ‘But don’t engage them,’ they were told. ‘Just find out where they are.’

Having armed themselves – in Ray’s case, with a Tommy gun, a borrowed .45 revolver, and a number of grenades – they set off. The engineers were holding a blown-up iron bridge that had collapsed into the wadi. Having reached the sappers, Ray and Lowrey quizzed them about minefields and asked them not to shoot when they came back. Then off they went, down into the wadi, then along for about thirty yards before clambering up the other side into enemy territory, the railway on their right. No matter how quietly they moved on that still, dark night, Ray thought they were not being quiet enough. Every noise seemed horrendously amplified. The water in his canteen was swishing about so he got rid of it. Then the strap on his Tommy gun seemed to be chinking against something. He threw that away too. They had gone about three hundred yards when they heard voices, so they flattened themselves on the ground and waited. After about an hour, and with nothing stirring, they got going again, pushing forward another hundred yards or so. Suddenly they heard more voices and the chink of metal directly in front of them. Ray and Lowrey froze, then lowered themselves to the ground. Directly ahead, only about twenty-five yards away, was a German machine-gun post.

Ray had his Tommy gun ready and silently prepared his grenades, but after a couple of hours lying there, he heard the Germans changing their MG team, so he leaned over to ask Lowrey what the time was. As he did so, their helmets chinked. ‘Boy they were on the ball,’ says Ray. ‘Almost at the same instant a green flare went up right over us.’ Ray pushed his head down into the ground and prayed. ‘There was no cover, nothing.’

Miraculously, they were not spotted, but they knew they needed to get out of there soon because the moon was due to rise and when it did, they would be silhouetted into the easiest targets imaginable. ‘After another half-hour, we just stood up and gradually walked away,’ says Ray. When they’d inched back about fifty yards, they quickened their pace, eventually reaching the wadi again, and hoping their own MG posts wouldn’t cut loose. They didn’t, and the two of them were able to calmly make their way back to their lines.After they’d reached their own positions and reported their limited findings, Ray felt absolutely exhausted. ‘The suspense was worse than being fired at,’ he scribbled in his diary. ‘Every second of those hours was packed with more than ten years of normal life!!’



Meanwhile, further south, Eighth Army was preparing to launch its main assault on the Tebaga Gap. Horrocks had reached the New Zealand Corps ahead of the rest of his armour and was coolly received by Freyberg, who, not surprisingly, resented having the 10th Corps commander breathing down his neck. Although Monty had not put either one of them in charge, together they managed to draw up some plans, which they then sent off to the army commander. All were rejected because in the meantime Monty had accepted a plan by Air Vice-Marshall Broadhurst, now commanding the Desert Air Force, who was proposing to take Mary Coningham’s air doctrine one stage further by saturating the Tebaga Gap with his entire bomber force, followed by reams of low-flying fighter-bombers. Working in conjunction with the artillery, they would effectively become part of the barrage and help blast a way through for the infantry and armour. Both Freyberg and Horrocks thought the plan worth trying, but made it clear they would not be ready until 26 March, a day later than Monty had hoped.

By evening on the 25th, most of Horrocks’s force had reached the Tebaga Gap, despite a fraught and uncomfortably hurried journey. Among those at the rear of the column were 2nd Rifle Brigade. As far as Albert Martin was concerned, the journey had been one of the most uncomfortable of his life. Progress had been painfully slow, partly because of congestion, partly because of the very difficult terrain over which they were travelling. Albert found their surroundings ‘a confusing mixture of desert and fertile plains between dominant hills, some with sheer cliff sides; then wadis steep, deep and strewn with boulders that defied intrusion by either wheeled or tracked vehicles’. The flat, featureless desert of old was now behind them for good.

The Riflemen may have been cursing their slow progress, but the fact that so many men, guns, and armour had reached the Tebega Gap was no small achievement. The Maori had not been in the initial attack on the gap – that had been left to 6th NZ Brigade – but on the eve of battle on 25 March, they were told they would be leading the right flank of the infantry assault. The Maori company commanders had all been to Brigadier Kippenberger’s briefing, and Peta Awatare returned and told his men the plan. ‘Peta came round and said, “You know what, we’re going to attack tomorrow afternoon,”’ recalls Maiki. ‘I thought, shit, we’re in for a pounding. It was the first daylight attack I was to be in and I wasn’t happy about it.’ Their attack was to be preceded by the heaviest air assault ever attempted by the Desert Air Force, the enemy would have to return fire with the sun in their eyes, and the infantry would be advancing with the tanks of the 8th Armoured Brigade, but Maiki would have gladly foregone all these advantages for the protective darkness of night.

The Maori moved up to their start line overnight. Broadhurst’s preliminary air assault began with his entire night-bombing force pounding the enemy positions. Albert Martin, some miles in the rear, heard the explosions of their bombs as he got his head down for his first proper kip in forty-eight hours. He found the sound relaxing rather than disturbing, knowing the bombs were for the enemy and not him. There was no chance of sleep for the forward troops, however, as bomber after bomber roared overhead and the earth shook with each explosion.

Dust was being whipped up through the valley by the khamseen blowing in from the south as the Sherwood Rangers trundled forward round the Roman wall to their start line a couple of hundred yards further on, directly in front of the Maori. The 28th (Maori) Battalion were now lined up in their battle formations. ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies were to lead, ‘C’ Company to follow behind, mopping up. The aim was to penetrate some three miles, although they were to pause roughly halfway, at the foot of a gentle rise in the ground known as Point 209. This was then to be taken by ‘C’ Company, with ‘D’ Company following behind to help.

Just before 3.30 p.m. that afternoon, the Tebaga Gap was quiet, save for the occasional whistle and thud of shellfire. Then, at half-past three exactly, orange flares denoting the forward positions of the infantry and armour whooshed into the sky. Moments later, droves of bombers roared over, carpet-bombing the enemy positions, which disappeared in a cloud of thick dust and smoke. Following behind was the first relay of fighter-bombers, swooping in at zero feet, dropping their bombs then strafing anything that moved. Wave after wave arrived and tore up and down the valley so that there were always at least two squadrons of fighters over the area at any one time. Duke Ellington and the boys of the 57th Fighter Group were among the squadrons used in this way. There was little opposition from the Axis air forces, but by flying so low they were dangerously exposed to flak and small-arms fire – most of the fighters that made it back did so riddled with bullet holes and flak damage.

Duke had been flying along the deck when he was hit – he saw a huge hole in one of his wings. Hurrying out of the fray, he headed for the coast and out to sea. As soon as he was sure he was behind British lines, he turned back in and landed at an RAF resupply unit. ‘When I landed,’ says Duke, ‘the British sergeant took a look at my bird and said, “Damn Yank, you’ve got a problem here.”’ His P-40 Warhawk was also gushing fuel from a ruptured tank – he had been extremely lucky not to run out of fuel over the sea. To his surprise, the sergeant asked him whether he wanted another plane. Eager to get back, Duke jumped at the chance. The cockpit was configured slightly differently for British use, but Duke quickly got his bearings and set off to join the rest of the 57th. By now he’d been missing for several hours and was presumed to have been shot down. ‘My appearance,’ says Duke, ‘with a new plane was hard to explain.’

At four o’clock, two hundred field and medium guns opened their barrage, and the three battalions of the 8th Armoured Division and three battalions of Kiwi infantry began their advance. On the right, Major Stanley Christopherson moved off leading his squadron of Crusaders, while behind him Maiki Parkinson started to walk forward. The barrage was lifting at a rate of 100 yards per minute for the first 1000 yards and Stanley found this an extremely uncomfortable experience: the great strength of the Crusader was its speed, but now they were moving at a snail’s pace. Ordnance was flying everywhere, screaming and whistling overhead. Ahead of them was nothing but smoke, dust, and explosions, but this did not stop the Axis artillery firing through the barrage and over the tanks.

The attackers reached their first objective without too much difficulty, a number of the Maori catching rides on the backs of the Sherwood Rangers’ tanks – although not ‘C’ Company, who soon found themselves falling behind. As they pushed forward there was plenty of evidence of a hasty retreat: paper flapped in the wind, abandoned German Opel trucks lay in perfectly good working order. There was even an enemy regimental aid post, although no sign of any patients left behind. Then, as the forward tanks and leading companies reached the rise of Point 209, they were forced to bunch up as they veered round to the left side of it. Suddenly concealed anti-tank guns opened fire. ‘B’ Squadron, to Stanley’s right, bore the brunt, three Shermans brewing up in quick succession. Maiki also saw the tanks get hit. ‘They knocked their turrets clean off,’ he says. Stanley raked the positions with his machine gun and main gun and even lobbed grenades as they rumbled past, but enemy fire continued. ‘They were sitting pretty in the hills,’ says Maiki, who was stumbling forward into a shower of bullets and razor-sharp shards of metal. He saw a number of men fall nearby. ‘That’s me done,’ said one man close by Maiki, then dropped dead. He watched another Maori fall, then another, but as they took cover at the base of the rise, his section was miraculously still in one piece.

For a short while they paused as they braced themselves for the assault. It was now clear that what they had thought was Point 209 from the start line was actually only a lower crest of the feature; the hill, in fact, had two significant rises and was thus much deeper and more heavily defended than they had thought: their view had shown them a false summit. Along the other side of the valley, the advance stumbled on with the rolling barrage, leaving the Maori, and ‘C’ Company in particular, to take out the hill. And they would have to do it alone: the artillery was supporting the main attack. ‘Nor was there a smokescreen,’ says Maiki. ‘I couldn’t understand why not because it had worked so well at Alam Halfa last September.’

Peta Awatare quickly organized his men: 13 Platoon were to work their way around the hill to the right, 14 Platoon to the left, while 15 Platoon – including Maiki and his section – were to head straight up from where they were towards the summit. The lower slopes were comparatively steep and rocky, and the enemy machine gunners dug in at the top of the first rise were unable to get an angle on the Maori below them. ‘That’s probably what saved us,’ says Maiki. He could see tracer pouring down over their heads from an MG post on the ridge immediately above them. For the moment they were pinned down where they were. Maiki turned to Paul Te Kani, his section leader, and said, ‘Have you got a grenade? We can get this bastard. If we crawl up round the side here, he won’t see us.’ But Paul didn’t have one. They could hear fighting just to their left where Lieutenant Ngarimu and his platoon were attacking another German position. Mo Ngarimu had already taken out two MG nests single-handedly, his men a further two, and they’d cleared their side of the first ridge. They were now pinned down on the slopes below Point 209, while Maiki and the rest of 15 Platoon were still stuck below the first ridge.

By now it had begun to get dark, then suddenly someone hollered out that the Germans were coming down the hill towards them. ‘We thought they were attacking us,’ says Maiki, so when they appeared Paul opened fire with the Bren. ‘He cut them down,’ says Maiki, ‘only when we looked at them we realized they had no guns.’ They’d been coming down to surrender. One of them, a young lieutenant, was crying and calling for his mother. ‘The tears were running down his face,’ says Maiki. ‘Christ, it was awful. I took off my greatcoat and laid it over him, but he died later in the night.’

In the heavy fighting above them, the Maori had suffered heavily for their gains. Among the casualties, Mo Ngarimu had been wounded twice, and Peta Awatare once in the leg. Both refused to go down to the regimental aid post, insisting they stay with their men, but Awatare’s leg got so bad that, after organizing their defences, he finally relented and Lieutenant Jackson of 13 Platoon took over. Scrabbling back down to 15 Platoon, he said, ‘Right, one of the Bren gunners go and give Mo a hand.’ Paul and Maiki volunteered.

Moving round to their left, they were clambering up the slopes where Ngarimu’s men had advanced when the enemy started lobbing mortars. One landed right in front of Maiki and Paul. Maiki was cut above the eye and in the crook of his arm, while Paul was hit in the leg and on his trigger finger. Blood was running over Maiki’s eye and down his nose, and both were cursing. ‘Shit, we’ve got to get out of this, Parky,’ said Paul. But the mortars were still dropping behind them, barring their way. ‘We can’t, we’ll have to keep going,’ Maiki told him, so they continued to scramble up the slopes until they saw a machine-gun nest twenty yards in front of them that hadn’t already been destroyed by Mo’s men. Paul sprayed it with the Bren, then they dropped to the ground and Maiki called out in Maori, ‘Are you there?’

‘Who’s that?’ replied Ngarimu.

‘It’s Parky and Paul,’ shouted Maiki. ‘We’ve come to give you a hand.’

‘What I need is ammo and grenades.’

By now the mortars had quietened down and so they clambered back down again and told the battalion sergeant-major that Mo was in urgent need of ammunition. ‘All right,’ he told them, ‘I’ll see to it.’

Paul and Maiki were still bleeding, so Maiki said, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here. We’ve done our bit.’ Paul agreed. Finding some rocks at the foot of the hill, they sat down and rested.

The rest of the advance had reached its objective, with the tanks of the 1st British Armoured Division pelting through 8th Armoured Brigade around six o’clock that evening. By 7.30 p.m. they had broken through 21st Panzer Division and were some four miles down the valley. The Sherwood Rangers had halted as darkness fell but could see there was still fighting on Point 209 behind them and to their right; the situation still seemed to be confused. Stanley Christopherson felt they had done well, though, having accounted for six German tanks, and two 88-mm and two 50-mm guns. A number of men had been killed, however, including Stanely’s friend Sam Garrett, another stalwart of the regiment.

Meanwhile, on Point 209, the Germans had launched a counterattack on Mo Ngarimu and his men. This had been thrown back, as the Maori lobbed their last grenades. Over the screams of the German wounded, the Maori started chanting, ‘E koe’, their traditional Maori taunt for when a wrong had been righted. Another assault was also repulsed, Ngarimu rallying his men once more, hurling stones now that they had run out of grenades. Then, just as the Germans were about to withdraw for good, Ngarimu was killed, shot whilst leading his men forward once more. For his extraordinary heroics that night, Mo Ngarimu was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.

The Sherwood Rangers eventually leaguered, as they’d been ordered, at their final objective, some two miles from the start line. It was an uncomfortable place to spend the night. Fires from burning tanks flickered, silhouetting them against the night. Nearby was a knocked-out German tank, whose headless commander hung limply from the turret. In the darkness they could hear the rumble of a tank engine and so expected a counter-attack any moment. Only at dawn did they realize they’d been listening to another casualty of the battle. With its engines still running, a lone Mark IV was idling where it had stopped, its crew all dead. The rising sun also revealed to the astonished Sherwood Rangers the sheer levels of destruction achieved the previous day. Across the battlefield lay the wreckage of blackened and contorted German tanks and vehicles and, among them, the bodies of the many dead.

With dawn, the Maori were at last able to get some help from the artillery, which was soon directed onto the German positions. A smokescreen was finally used so that ‘C’ Company and ‘D’ Company could change places. Both sides continued to exchange fire, but the Germans had had enough. First sending some men forward to request urgent medical aid, they soon after surrendered entirely. Around noon, a long procession wound its way down the hill, some walking, others in the arms of comrades and a number on stretchers. The bloody and bitter fight for Point 209 was over.

Maori battalion

Maori Battalion in their traditional Haka Dance

4 Libya

Maoris in training exercise Egypt 1942

The rest of the Battle for Tebaga Gap was over too. First British Armoured Division were now just three miles south of El Hamma, although they were unable to push on through and take the town as planned. Bad weather, dust storms over the plain, plus a hastily cobbled-together anti-tank screen from the remnants of 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions and the 164th German Light Division, halted the British tanks. It was here that Albert Martin and the 2nd Rifle Brigade faced their first serious engagement since returning to front-line action. Earlier they’d passed through the debris of the battle at the rear of the armoured column. During a brief pause, Albert had added to his collection of booty as he and his mates scavenged pistols, binoculars, and Iron Crosses. Then they found a black metal document box. Prising off the padlock, they discovered it was full of Bank of Tunis notes. Loot was considered fair game by both sides, but nicking a pay box was a different kettle of fish, so over a quick brew they pondered what they should do. With hot tea inside them, they eventually decided to keep the money – after all, who was going to know? Divided out between them, each man ended up with a thick wad of notes in his backpack.

Now south of El Hamma, the Riflemen were coming under uncomfortably close shellfire as they set up their 6-pounders and began firing in return. For another day, Horrocks’s force were held up, by which time Messe had begun withdrawing his forces from the Mareth Line. Few can have been more disappointed than General Tuker. His Indian Division had been fighting hard in the Matmata Hills although Nainabahadur Pun had found himself chasing an elusive enemy. No sooner did they overcome one rearguard than they found their progress slowed by collapsed roads, mines, and booby traps. By the time they finally emerged through Beni Zelten and onto the plain north of the Mareth Line, the enemy had gone. They had performed well, however; and Tuker had reason to be proud of his men. But, as he’d feared, the delay in Medenine had cost them. ‘This operation was put on forty-eight hours too late at least,’ he noted bitterly. ‘We’ve missed him after all our sweat and trouble.’

Tunisia January March 1943

Earlier on 25 March, Alexander had visited Patton. He still believed the American commander needed to be closely controlled, but the developing situation required another change of orders. With the success of the Big Red One and with Monty’s main thrust now coming through the Tebaga Gap, Alex felt it made sense for 2nd US Corps to try and push on down towards Gabès. He hoped that, by releasing the 9th Infantry Division to support the Big Red One, they might be able to clear a now weakened enemy from the mountains running east from El Guettar, then send the 1st US Armored Division down to cut off the enemy as they retreated from the Tebaga Gap.

Patton drove up to 1st US Armored Division’s HQ near Maknassy on the 27th to explain the new plan to Ward. He also wanted to see their forward positions. Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton Howze was assigned to guide him. With Hamilton in a Jeep and Patton in a glaringly conspicuous command car, they drove towards the front until they were stopped by engineers clearing mines. Hamilton walked over to Patton’s command car and explained that they could go no further.

‘To hell with that,’ Patton told him. ‘Let’s go. Ham, lead the way!’

‘I figured this was possibly my last act,’ noted Hamilton, but on they went, past the astonished engineers. A light tank then joined them and shortly after duly hit a mine. Much to Hamilton’s relief, this finally persuaded Patton to have a change of heart, and very gingerly they turned around and went back the way they’d come.

Patton’s attack down the Gafsa–Gabès road was finally launched on the night of 28/29 March. The 1st US Infantry Division, including the 18th Infantry Regiment, pushed the enemy back down Gumtree Road from Djebel el Ank, but could not take the high point that overlooked the Gafsa-Gabès road. This was where the 9th US Infantry Division attacked and their inexperience soon got the better of them. In the dark, they assaulted the wrong objectives and discovered, as many Allied troops had done before them, that prising German troops from strong positions was an extremely difficult task. With no immediate breakthrough, but sensing there was still a chance that an eastward thrust by the Americans might force the Axis to abandon their next line of defence north of Gabès, Alex decided to order 2nd US Corps to make another push from El Guettar, and so changed his orders for a fourth time. This time he instructed Patton to bring some of his armour down from the Maknassy area to El Guettar, and from there launch a lightning armoured raid, supported by the 9th US Infantry, in one last effort to break through to Gabès. But it wasn’t to be. Much to everyone’s frustration, 10th Panzer Division fell back just five thousand yards and then held fast.

The enemy had slipped away again. While the Americans were being held at El Guettar and Gabes road, the Axis had held up 10th Corps with a makeshift anti tank screen at El Hamma just long enough to allow the main bulk of their forces from the Mareth Line to slip through the Gabès Gap behind them, so that by the time the rest of New Zealand Corps joined Horrocks’s armour, the chance to cut them off had passed. On the 29th, 51st Highland Division, advancing over the Mareth Line, linked up with 1st British Armoured Division once more in Gabès. As at Alamein, Eighth Army had won the battle decisevely , but had failed to destroy the enemy army.



Joining Hands: 1–18 April 1943

Commander Harry Butcher had not set foot in America since leaving with Ike the previous June, but early in the morning on Wednesday, 17 March, having spent eight days covering nearly ten thousand miles, he touched down in Washington once more and made straight for the Wardman Park Hotel where his wife and daughter were currently living.

‘Hello, gals,’ he said casually, as the door opened. ‘The next day,’ noted Butch, ‘Ruth said her knees had quaked so vigorously that she had two charley horses. Bev cried.’ It was hardly a relaxing trip, however. To begin with Butch was laid low with a bug, and then was unleashed into a whirlwind of meetings and parties without having had a chance to get over it properly. General Marshall also wanted to see him. How was Eisenhower, the general wanted to know? Fine, Butch told him, although he confessed that he had yet to find him a masseur. Marshall told him that a delegation from General MacArthur had come over from the Pacific and was now in town. Of particular interest were the new air-to-surface tactics being developed by the US air forces out there. ‘I told General Marshall that our air people in the North African Theatre are always on the look-out for new and better methods of attack,’ noted Butch, ‘and that I would tell his story to Ike.’ Marshall also told him that Ike was not to waste any time on political machinations or defending his past actions. ‘The General said that Ike’s rise or fall depended on the outcome of the Tunisian battle,’ recorded Butch. ‘If Rommel and Co. are tossed into the sea, all quibbling, political or otherwise, will be lost in the shouting of the major victory.’ The President was more reassuring, however, impressing upon Butch that he and the whole country were not only right behind Ike, but confident of his success in North Africa.

All this Butch dutifully reported back to his chief on his return on 4 April. He had felt somewhat relieved to get back on the plane again. ‘I couldn’t stand the pace of the home front,’ he noted. Ike was delighted to have him back – he had missed him – but if he was pleased with Marshall’s and FDR’s votes of confidence, he was disturbed by Butch’s view of popular opinion. ‘Most of the critics assume we have “won the war”, and are now quivering for fear we are “losing the peace”,’ Butch told him. ‘The hardships of our combat troops, the quality of the Axis fighters in Tunisia, and the supreme effort that will be required finally to shove Rommel into the sea are lost in the swirl of wishful thinking that an early victory is inevitable.’ From a PR point of view, Butch felt that at AFHQ they had been picking up the habit of reticence from their British colleagues and that they should be more open about the realities of fighting against the Axis. ‘We must recognise that our theatre is in competition with every other theatre for equipment and attention,’ Butch told him. And Ike agreed. ‘I rather think that my press relations people ought to help a little on this matter,’ Ike told Marshall, ‘by emphasising the toughness and skill of the German, both in offensive and defensive battle.’

Meanwhile, on the battlefront, the Allies were clawing back the land they’d lost during the recent Axis offensives. Most of the action might have been taking place in the south, but the northern and central parts of the line had not been inactive – not in any way, for while Patton and Monty were launching their major attacks at El Guettar and the Tebaga Gap, two other assaults were being made: at Temara in the north, where an effort was being made to recapture Sedjenane, and on the Fondouk Pass in the centre of the line. Both were coordinated to ensure von Arnim’s forces were kept occupied and unable to hurry to bolster Axis defences in the south, although Alex hoped that by taking the Fondouk Pass, armour could then pour through into the plains as and when the enemy started to retreat through the Gabès Gap.

Although 34th US Red Bull Division initially took some high ground overlooking the pass, they had begun their attack with only two infantry battalions and suffered the usual difficulties faced when assaulting Axis troops dug into advantageous mountainous positions. After four days of bitter fighting, their attack was called off, the men of the Red Bull falling back several miles.

The attack in the north went rather better, despite heavy rain that was to last for nearly a week without let-up. Anderson had massed his 46th British Division as well as a number of French troops, although it was once again 1st British Parachute Brigade which led the way, taking their objectives forty-eight hours before anyone else. This marked the end of a difficult period for Colonel John Frost and his men of the 2nd Parachute Battalion. He had lost over 150 men during the retreat to the Pimples, while the drive to capture Temara and Sedjenane had involved particularly brutal and difficult fighting against equally skilled German parachute troops. Churchill had written to Alex earlier in March questioning the wisdom of continuing to use the Paras in an infantry role rather than for airborne operations, but time and again during the Tunisian campaign they had proved their exceptional tenacity and skill. And here, in the wooded, hilly north, the quality of the fighting troops counted for everything.

After two days, when the Paras reached their final objective in the Cork Wood around Temara, Frost was left with just 160 men. But despite such crippling losses, Frost himself was in great heart, happy that his men had performed so well and that they had achieved all that had been asked of them. With them were around a hundred German and Italian prisoners, and when the double rum ration that Frost had ordered arrived, the Paras shared it freely with the men they had so recently been fighting. Later that evening, they held an impromptu concert, and Frost was most impressed by the vigour with which the Germans and Italians sang. The following day, when one of their German prisoners was taken to the Corps Interrogation Centre, he was asked where he had spent the previous night. ‘Singing and drinking with my comrades of the English Fallschirmjäger,’ he replied.

Frost had discovered he had little hatred for the enemy. They were, he realized, much like themselves, with the same fears, worries, strengths and weaknesses. ‘We had met no cases of “Hunnish frightfulness”,’ he noted, ‘and on the whole they were a chivalrous foe.’ He was also interested to hear from prisoners about conditions on the Eastern Front. One wounded German officer told him that the relentlessness with which the Russians pushed their men forward defied belief. ‘You simply cannot kill them quickly enough,’ the officer told him, ‘even when the scene of carnage in front of our positions is indescribable, still they come, and eventually you have to move to avoid being trampled on.’

There were several reasons why the Paras had proved to be such good fighting men. One was obviously their level of training. Another was their high morale and pride – throwing in the towel was simply not part of their culture, and mental toughness became a point of honour. At one time during the attack on Temara, Frost was under such intense attack, and the enemy so close, that he ordered his men to fix bayonets. ‘The very act of fixing bayonets struck a wonderful note among all ranks,’ he noted, ‘and morale reached a peak.’ Most men would have been scared witless in such circumstances, but instead one of his men simply picked up a tray of captured Italian grenades and handed them around asking jokingly, ‘Cigarettes? Chocolates?’

But another reason was their ability to adapt to the environment in which they found themselves, a skill shared with the LRDG and SAS. Frost had instilled in his men the importance of keeping clean and fit at all times, despite appalling conditions, and had evolved a drill that made maximum use of the small bowl of hot water which he insisted each man use every day, even though this meant taking it out of their precious drinking ration. First they would shave with it, then wash their face and neck, followed by armpits. After putting their shirts back on, they turned to their feet, giving particular attention to the area between their toes. ‘Finally off with the pants so that one could squat over the bowl to deal with nether regions,’ noted Frost. Undignified this might have been, but once he had set the example, there was no excuse for anyone else. This daily routine quickly paid off. Few of his men suffered the kind of sores and skin troubles that affected men like David Brown and so many others in Tunisia.

At Bou Arada, David was still suffering from sores, and although he was now based in a dilapidated farmhouse and had a bed in which to sleep, he was being bitten alive by bed bugs and lice. And he was still hungry. ‘It is nearly tea-time, thank goodness, I’m starving,’ he wrote in a letter to his wife on 21 March. ‘Lunch is no sort of a meal at all. Cheese or jam and a few biscuits and what is left of the bread … Wish I was just going to have a Castle Park tea, what a pig I’d make of myself. I’ll never say no to scones and pancakes again. The thought of one makes my mouth water.’ Then he added, ‘Or potatoes, I could eat any amount of those too.’

Sergeant Bucky Walters felt he was slowly acclimatizing, however. He had not been involved in the Red Bulls’ attack at Fondouk – the 1st Battalion of the 135th US Infantry were held in reserve – but he was learning how to make the most of their rations and to keep warm. He had stitched together two blankets into a kind of sleeping bag that made the most of his body heat. His feet were suffering from the wet, but he, too, made sure he did his best to keep his nether regions clean if nothing else. ‘The filth and dirt – you just got used to it,’ he says, ‘even though this was an utter change and different kind of existence to the one we were used to. But we adapted pretty well, especially the farm boys from Minnesota. They were a pretty rugged bunch.’ And young too: at twenty-two, Bucky was one of the oldest in his company. ‘You’re pretty adaptable at that age,’ he says.

Further south, Eighth Army was also adjusting to its new environment. Albert Martin was conscious that this new landscape was very different to the desert of old. They were going to have to learn new ways of fighting from now on. The Gurkhas could not have been happier, however. ‘Morale was high,’ says Nainabahadur Pun. Not only were the hills and mountains more familiar to him than the wide, open desert, but most of the Gurkha officers and senior NCOs were highly experienced in mountain warfare. ‘Many of them had served on the North-West Frontier,’ he says. ‘We had great trust in our British officers and knew they listened to the advice and experience of our “gurus”.’ Nainabahadur Pun was also a great admirer of General Tuker , 4th Indian Division commander. ‘We had enormous faith in him,’ he says, ‘and were tremendously proud that he was originally an officer in 1/2nd Gurkha Rifles.’ The feeling was entirely mutual. Tuker knew his Indians could achieve great things and for once it looked as though they were going to be given a major role in the next battle.

Messe’s forces had fallen back to the Akarit Position, the last practical defensive line in southern Tunisia. It was here that the so-called Gabès Gap was at its narrowest. Eighteen miles north of Gabès town, the plains were just five miles wide before they rose into a craggy salient, firstly the high ground of the Djebel Roumana, a whale’s back hump some five hundred feet high, and then the jagged and rocky peaks of the Zouai Heights and Fatnassa Hills, an imposing jumble of ridges and pinnacles that in places towered as much as nine hundred feet over the plains below. These features alone made this narrow stretch of land a formidable natural defence, but running across this stretch were not only minefields and an anti-tank ditch, but also the often deep and steep-sided Wadi Akarit.

Most of Eighth Army was now a few miles south of the enemy defences in the dusty, stunted-grass dunes north of Gabès. General Tuker immediately recognized that gaining control of the high ground of the Zouai Heights and Fatnassa Hills was the key to the forthcoming battle; in mountain warfare, gaining the second-highest peak is of little value. But if it could be achieved, they would then command the entire position and Eighth Army would have a wonderful opportunity to burst through and encircle the Axis forces once and for all. Wasting no time, Tuker began sending out patrols. ‘All we wanted to know,’ he wrote, ‘was whether our men thought they could, on a starry, moonless night, perhaps using the odd flare, the Bofors direction shoots on selected points, and a very occasional artillery concentration at call to fix their position – whether they could scale those sheer cliffs and infiltrate right through to seize all the heights by daylight’ His patrols confirmed what he had hoped: it could be done.

On 2 April, Tuker was summoned to 30th Corps HQ for a planning conference. Driving to the meeting, Tuker was reminded of Captain Popham’s infiltration into Gwalior fort in August 1781 during the First Anglo-Marathan War. He had done so during the dead of night and had captured the stronghold with a handful of men. The same principle applied now. All he had to do was persuade his commanders.

Monty, however, had dismissed an attack on the Zouai Heights and Fatnassa Hills as impossible, deciding instead to attack with two divisions – 51st Highland Division pushing over the Wadi Akarit and across the coastal plain, and 4th Indian Division seizing the low ground between the Djebel Roumana and the Fatnassa Hills; 10th Corps were once more to wait in reserve ready to burst through any gap. But it was because it seemed so impossible that Tuker felt certain his men would succeed; achieving surprise was one of his principal tenets for securing any victory.

As the plan was explained by Leese, Tuker kept silent. He was not going to get into an argument before a gathering of officers. But afterwards, having talked to General Wimberley of the Highland Division, the pair of them went to see Leese alone, and Tuker then assured him that his division could take the massif before the main assault was due to begin at 4.30 a.m. on the morning of 6 April. He also urged him to bring 50th Northumbrian Division into the centre of the line and stressed his belief that his men could also build a crossing over the westernmost part of the anti-tank ditch. Leese agreed to Tuker’s suggestions and set off at once to discuss it with Monty. ‘Eighth Army conceded all our points,’ noted Tuker.

As dusk fell on Monday, 5 April, an early sickle moon hung in the sky. Both 5th and 7th Brigades immediately began their approach march. Nainabahadur Pun was among those in l/2nd Gurkhas who were chosen by Tuker to lead the silent attack. They were to strike at the Zouai Heights. ‘After a very long march into the hills, we split into company groups,’ says Nainabahadur. ‘It was a very slow and difficult move as absolute silence had to be maintained and it was very dark.’ Scouts moved stealthily ahead of them as they crossed several ridges. ‘C’ Company were the first to encounter the enemy, when they came across an Italian sentry who was asleep. A quick swish of the kukri ensured he never woke again, then the Gurkhas leaped into the first machine-gun nest and cut down the unsuspecting defenders.

Nainabahadur Pun was slightly below when he heard the enemy alarm being raised. Wild firing suddenly tore the silence of the night apart. ‘To watchers in the plain below came an eerie sound,’ noted the division history with relish, ‘an excited whimper not unlike hounds finding scent – as the Gurkhas, swarming over the high ground, guided each other with shrill voices.’

With the rest of ‘A’ Company, Nainabahadur Pun attacked Point 275, singled out beforehand as a key objective. ‘Everything was very confused,’ he says. ‘The enemy opened fire with everything – artillery, mortars, machine guns.’ But their firing was wild and inaccurate and the light of explosions and flares only helped to illuminate their positions to the attackers. Screams of the dying soon rang out over the sound of gunfire. Point 275 was captured just after midnight. By 2 a.m., the Zouai Heights were in Gurkha hands.

Meanwhile, ‘D’ Company had discovered a ravine studded with enemy outposts and crammed full of anti-tank guns, machine guns and mortar positions. Leading two sections, Subedar Lalbahadur Thapa reached the leading sangar and cut down the enemy there without challenge, but then every gun post along this narrow pathway began to open fire. Without hesitation, Lalbahadur Thapa dashed from one gun position to another, leading his men through a sheet of bullets, grenades, and mortar bombs. Leaping into one MG nest, he personally killed two men with his kukri and the other two with his pistol. By the time he reached the last enemy position, he had only two men left with him, but after slashing two more men dead, the rest of the defenders fled in panic. For this action he won the Victoria Cross.

With the Zouai Heights captured, the 1/4th Essex – one of Tuker’s two English infantry battalions – led the 11th Field Regiment and their artillery working parties up to take over the enemy positions. Tuker aimed to have seventy-two guns in place by dawn. Meanwhile the 1st Royal Sussex – his other English battalion – were making good progress on the Djebel Meida, another ridge of peaks overlooking the low ground through which 50th Northumbrian Division were due to pass.

Much to the relief of Private Johnny Bain, the Gordon Highlanders were in reserve for the main attack. They’d only been told just before setting off to their forward positions, although Johnny had already learned not to crow about such good fortune. Fate could play tricks, and many a man had been killed by a freak shell or booby trap far from the main fighting. Like the Gurkhas, they had all marched up to their forward positions in the dark and in silence, apart from the occasional cough and the tramp of boots on the stony ground. On reaching the foot of Djebel Roumana, the Gordons had begun digging in, while 152nd and 154th Brigades prepared to make their attack. Mortar bombs soon started dropping among them, filling the cool air with the pungent smell of cordite, but Johnny continued digging furiously. Soon he and his mate had scooped out enough earth to enable them to crouch foetally in their hole. This done, and with their Bren set up in front of them, Johnny had taken first kip, his knees up and chin resting on his chest. He had no difficulty in getting to sleep this way; he’d done so in far worse conditions.

At 4.15 a.m., a 496-gun barrage began and 50th Division and 51st Highland Division set off as planned, the Seaforth Highlanders passing over Johnny and the rest of the Gordons. From their slit-trenches they softly wished the assault infantry luck, watching them silently and steadfastly advance in the murky darkness. As soon as they were out of sight, the first rip of the Spandaus rang out over the still night air.

Fiftieth Division ran into heavy artillery fire and soon became pinned down. Hurrying to help were a platoon of Tuker’s 1st Royal Sussex, who, on the far left flank, charged the Italian positions and captured four of their anti-tank guns. They immediately turned them round and began firing at the enemy batteries and mortar teams.

By the first streak of dawn, the 4th Indians had taken most of their objectives, just as Tuker had promised they would, and at his divisional headquarters he was receiving news from the fighting with increasing excitement. At around 7 a.m., Major-General Harding of the 7th Armoured Division visited him to tell him that thousands of prisoners were streaming in. At 7.35 a.m., Tuker told 30th Corps that all first objectives had been taken. Now there really was nothing stopping 10th Corps from charging through and cutting off the Axis forces by a right thrust to the coast. Horrocks arrived soon after and Tuker told him at 8.45 a.m. that the way was clear and that immediate action could finish the campaign in North Africa. ‘Now was the time to get the whips out and spare neither men nor machines,’ Tuker told him. While Horrocks was still at 4th Indian HQ, the news arrived that Tuker had been waiting for since dawn: his sappers had crossed the anti-tank ditch. A complete breakthrough had been achieved. The path was clear for the British armour. 10th Corps’ passage was being further improved with every minute, as the 4th Indians continued clearing the Fatnassa Hills. By 10 a.m., Tuker’s men were about to break out into the plains behind the enemy front line. Six enemy infantry battalions had simply ceased to exist, while a further six had been cut adrift in the hills to the west and were completely paralysed.

There and then, Horrocks made a request to Monty for permission to put in 10th Corps immediately. Monty gave it, and 10th Corps commander told Tuker he was going to send through his armour at once, using 4th Indian’s crossing as well as the one now open on the boundary between 50th and 51st Division. Shortly afterwards, from their commanding positions in the hills, Tuker’s men could see the entire battle unfolding. They saw the first British tank columns head forward. They saw the enemy artillery pulling out. They saw that the only fighting was on the right, in 51st Division’s sector. All this they gleefully relayed to division HQ, and the news was in turn passed to 30th Corps and 10th Corps. Their attack had run like clockwork. The surprise had been total and now a decisive victory was there for the taking.


Eisenhower had visited Monty for the first time in North Africa on 31 March and had ‘a most interesting time’ being given a tour of the Mareth Line before all the debris of battle had been towed away. He was not much taken with the Eighth Army commander, however. ‘He (Montgomery) is unquestionably very able, but very conceited,’ Ike wrote to Marshall. ‘He is so proud of his successes to date that he will never willingly make a single move until he is absolutely certain of success.’ This was true. Although he had very good reasons for assuringf success before starting any operation , like rigid order based operational mentaility of British Commonwealth forces and dimishing manpower and replacements , Monty had been also irascible and had rubbed people up the wrong way long before he ever reached North Africa, but if his ego had reached new levels after Alamein, it was now out of control in the wake of his Mareth victory. His belief in his own pre-eminence was total. ‘I like Eisenhower,’ he told Alex. ‘But I could not stand him about the place for long; his high-pitched accent, and loud talking, would drive me mad. I should say he was good probably on the political line; but he obviously knows nothing about fighting.’ Ike did not speak with a high-pitched accent; his voice was strong and quite deep. Monty, however, did, and was notorious for it. Nor was he in any real position to make judgements about Ike’s capabilities; rather, his assessment was suspiciously similar to Brooke’s.

In his letters and notes, Monty wrote as though his authority was absolute, no matter to whom he was writing. Eighth Army was always ‘his’. References were always made to ‘my’ artillery, ‘my’ tanks; ‘I’ have given Rommel a bloody nose. His notes to Alex were frequently bossy and dictatorial in tone. ‘It is vital to keep the Americans on their side of the agreed boundary,’ he wrote on 8 April. ‘Please impress this on the Americans, French, and everyone else. Keep clear of my area.’ Alex was used to this. He knew Monty would never change and he took no notice of his tone. If he agreed with Monty, he acted upon his suggestions; if he did not, he ignored them.

Alex could do this because he was Monty’s commanding officer. But his corps commanders could not. Lumsden had ‘bellyached’ (disagreed with him) and had been sacked after Alamein. Horrocks and Leese were his lieutenants, men who carried out his wishes without question. This was fine so long as any plan was Monty’s and so long as he kept firm control and command at all times. The problem during the drive through the Tebaga Gap had been that Monty had not been commanding the left hook of the battle. He had been some way from the main action and had left the drive through to El Hamma to Horrocks, and Horrocks lacked the confidence and strength of character to take potentially risky or costly decisions. Monty’s mantra of proceeding only when victory was guaranteed had rubbed off too strongly; his autocratic style of command hindered initiative.

The same was now true at Wadi Akarit. Monty had left the running of the battle largely to Leese and Horrocks, and once again Horrocks dithered. Not until 1 p.m. did the first tanks of 8th Armoured Brigade start nosing across the 4th Indians’ anti-tank ditch, some four and a quarter hours after Tuker had told Horrocks the coast was clear. The Sherwood Rangers had been formed up and ready to move much earlier in the morning, when they were bombed by their own side – though casualties were light. Stanley Christopherson was told that they were being held up by strong anti-tank fire at the end of the pass. This was true. German anti-tank guns were lurking at the far end of the valley behind the Djebel Roumana, but, as Tuker was quick to point out, these were comparatively few in number and no match for the hundreds of tanks and guns available to 10th Corps and the New Zealanders, who had been placed temporarily under 10th Corp’s command. At 9.20 a.m. Tuker had even sent his trucks over the anti-tank ditch to resupply his forward infantry – and they had done so without so much as a scratch. At regular intervals, Tuker sent through increasingly ‘peevish’ enquiries as to why on earth 10th Corps wasn’t pushing through, until, at 4 p.m., he was told 10th Corps was now going to wait until dawn the following morning, moving behind another massive air bombardment and barrage. Tuker was appalled. His men had done all the hard work and 10th Corps had been handed the battle on a plate. That Horrocks was prepared to squander it so feebly beggared belief.

Meanwhile, to the right, the Highlanders were facing vicious counter-attacks. Bitter fighting continued all day and into the evening along the ridge and the wadis below it, fighting that could have been largely avoided had 10th Corps pushed through. Johnny Bain had remained in his hole for much of the day, occasionally seeing figures moving about in stick-like clusters. As usual, no one along their line was really sure what was going on. Johnny watched and waited in a state of trance-like indifference, something he’d noticed would come over him whenever he was close to the action. By nightfall, the fighting seemed to die down.

Throughout the afternoon, Nainabahadur Pun and the men of 1/2nd Gurkhas had fought off repeated efforts by the Germans to retake the Fatnassa Hills; they were now holding a 3000-yard mountainous front. The enemy had made no progress, however, and at the end of the day the entire division had lost only around 400 men. Whilst this had been going on, the Axis commanders had been discussing their options. Messe believed they could hang on, but von Arnim was more pessimistic. In the end, it was the commanders of the 15th Panzer and 90th German Light Divisions who had the casting vote, and they believed they should retreat overnight or face annihilation. “That was NOT a good battle for us” commanted Messe.

During the early hours, the air and artillery bombardment began, but on empty Axis positions. At 7 a.m. on 7 April, 10th Corps finally passed through 4th Indian’s and 50th Division’s fronts. Once again, Eighth Army had won the battle but failed to finish the job. ‘Here, in this spot,’ wrote Tuker, ‘the whole of Rommel’s army should have been destroyed and Tunis should have been ours for the taking. Again the final opportunity and the fruits of our victory have been lost.’ But Tuker despite all his brilliance , overstates his version. The past engagements when British armor charged enemy anti tank screen rarely ended well for Britisk armor and even when suceeded overwhelming enmy gun screens , the tank casaulties had been devestating. No one in 10th Corps wished to participate another Supercharge style unsupported tank charge like happened in Tel El Aquaqir and Rahman track and be one of the last casaulties when the end of victorious campaign had been in sight. So in that sense Horrock’s decision had been the correct one. Eventually it was the Germans and Italians who blinked the first and retreated to Enfidaville after Eighth Army captured Wadi Akarit heights and repulsed all Axis counter attacks to recapture them.

That morning, Johnny Bain and the Gordon Highlanders had crept up over the Djebel Roumana, unsure at that stage whether the enemy was still there or not. The dead were scattered across the hillside. Johnny stumbled by a lifeless Seaforth Highlander. ‘There’s one poor bastard’s finished with fuckin’-an’-fightin’,’ said his friend. ‘Already the flesh of the dead soldiers, British and enemy, was assuming a waxy theatrical look,’ wrote Johnny, ‘transformed by the maquillage of dust and sand and the sly beginnings of decay.’ Then men in his own section started bending over the bodies, turning them over with their boots and taking watches, rings and any other valuables they could find.

Johnny watched this for a moment, then simply turned away and began walking back down the hill. No one stopped him, and he later picked up a ride all the way back to Tripoli. On the Djebel Roumana, Johnny had realized he’d had enough of fighting. And so he deserted. (later he was pardoned and joined Normandy Campaign in 51st Highland Division in 1944)

Alan Moorehead had been having a busy time, flitting from one part of the front to the other, but on 7 April he was near Medjez el Bab, where 78th British Division was beginning another assault. He had noticed that in the past couple of weeks the efforts of the Luftwaffe had been considerably on the wane; he’d barely seen a Stuka for days. But as he and a fellow reporter drove towards Testour, ten miles south-west of Medjez, yellow tracer bullets suddenly began spitting either side of them. The driver immediately slammed on the brakes, skidded to a halt, and they all leapt out as a Grman Me 109 fighter roared past only twenty feet over their heads. At the same time, a nearby Bofors crew opened fire, hitting the Messerschmitt on its underside. Alan watched as it flew on, rose slightly, then banked, before belly-landing in a field of wild flowers.

They rushed towards the aircraft, but the Arabs had got there first. The pilot had made an attempt to get away and hide, but was quickly found and marched back to his machine with his hands behind his head and a pistol pressed into his back. ‘He was a strikingly good-looking boy,’ wrote Alan, ‘not more than twenty-three or four, with fair hair and clear blue eyes.’ He was searched and his pistol taken from him then everyone stood back. The pilot looked suddenly alarmed. ‘He stiffened and the hand holding the cigarette was tensed and shivering,’ noted Alan, who had realized that the pilot thought he was about to be shot. ‘Little globes of sweat came out in a line on his forehead and he looked straight ahead.’

But he was not executed of course, nor was he ever going to be. Someone moved towards him, and motioned the pilot to come with him. The relief on his face was unmistakable. But for Alan it had been an illuminating experience. ‘This actual physical contact with the pilot,’ he wrote, ‘his shock and fear, suddenly made one conscious that we were fighting human beings and not just machines and hilltops and guns … But now, having captured a human being from that dark continent which was the enemy’s line, one wanted to talk to the pilot and argue with him and tell him he was wrong.’

Air reconnaissance and intelligence soon showed that the Axis were pulling out of the El Guettar massif and Maknassy areas as well. That same day, 7 April, 2nd US Corps finally linked up with Eighth Army on the Gafsa-Gabès road. Alex had anticipated such a retreat and on 4 April had ordered another attack through the Fondouk Pass. He now had General Crocker’s British 9th Corps in Tunisia, and since the 34th US Red Bull Division was already to the west of the pass it made sense to use both forces together, with Ryder’s men temporarily under Crocker’s command.

Crocker’s background was with tanks rather than infantry: the 6th Armoured Division – of which the Guards Brigade was the mobile infantry – was the backbone of his corps. Doc Ryder’s men had had the least combat experience of all 2nd US Corps forces, while the British 128th Brigade that was loaned to Crocker had to be brought out of training at 18th Army Group’s battle school early, but Alex hoped that overwhelming strength would see them through. Unfortunately, however, Crocker’s plan was faulty, largely because he ignored Tuker’s tenet that the highest ground needs to be captured first. The attack was actually to be made through two passes: the Pichon north of the Djebel Rhorab, the Fondouk to the south. This high ground in the centre thus dominated the position, but although it was to be shelled, it was not on Crocker’s list of objectives. General Ryder, whose men were to pass to the south of the Djebel Rhorab, was not happy about this, and so gained permission to start his attack early in the morning of 8 April, and under the cover of darkness.Sergeant Bucky Walters in 1st Battalion, 135th Infantry, was once again in reserve, following on behind the 3rd Battalion, who were to lead the assault against the high ground to the south of the Fondouk Pass. To their right was the 133rd Battalion, but from the outset their attack was mired in confusion. Rather than begin their attack at 3 a.m., as planned, they finally got going some two hours later. At 6.30 a.m., the leading troops gave the signal that the artillery barrage should start. A number of the shells fell short, hitting their own men, but the Red Bulls pressed on. By now the Axis troops in the hills above them were fully awake to the attack and began finding their range on the advancing troops with ease. At 7.30 a.m., the American advance was halted entirely; an air bombardment was due to start half an hour later and the infantry was concerned not to be within the 2000-yard bomb line previously agreed. Unbeknown to them, however, corps HQ had already cancelled the air attack precisely because it was worried the Red Bulls had already advanced too far.

All this time, the poor infantry were milling around, wondering what was going on and offering themselves as sitting ducks. Another artillery barrage began at 9.30 a.m., but by this time it was too late. It was now broad daylight, and the Americans were coming under heavy attack. Bucky had not been far behind the assault troops. ‘Our advance was delayed once, then twice then three times,’ he says. ‘We could feel that somebody who was issuing orders wasn’t doing their job properly.’ All he could see was a number of hillocks from which enemy fire was pouring down among them. ‘We were right in front of them in open skirmish order. It was like World War I.’ Then they reached the enemy minefields. Bucky’s lieutenant trod on a mine nearby. ‘I saw him go,’ says Bucky, who by now hadn’t the faintest idea what they should be doing and what the hell was going on. The advance ground to a halt and the Red Bulls began hastily digging foxholes. ‘It was pretty flat as we advanced,’ says Bucky. ‘We’d have been entirely wiped out if we’d gone any further. It was murderous and a terrible, terrible piece of strategy.’

However, 128th British Brigade had had an easier time. Their advance had begun on time and their objectives, against weak opposition, had been taken. By late afternoon they had turned south with a view to taking Djebel Rhorab. But with the Red Bulls’ attack grinding to a halt, Crocker ordered his tanks of the 6th Armoured Brigade to go and help the Americans. They arrived just as 34th US Division’s own armour was renewing their attack. More confusion followed, but later the Red Bulls’ armour made another attempt at an advance. Reaching the foot of the massif ahead of them, they were shot to pieces by 88s. They were short of leadership, not courage.

Overnight, Alex ordered Crocker to send in 6th British Armoured Division in force and to smash through the pass whatever the cost. The Americans also launched another attack, and this time Bucky Walters was in the main assault, accompanied by a tank-destroyer battalion. ‘Men were getting hit by small arms and shrapnel,’ says Bucky. ‘The enemy was firing air bursts – they were terrible.’ Time and again, Bucky and his men hit the dirt, before eventually crawling to a hillock and finding some disused foxholes. There he watched one tank after another get hit. ‘They were coffins,’ says Bucky. ‘The 88s were devastating.’ At one point he looked down into his foxhole and saw an ant and wished he could be the same size.

The Djebel Rhorab was eventually taken at great cost by the Welsh Guards later that afternoon. Watching them from the high ground facing the pass was Captain Nigel Nicolson, who was amazed to see them advance in long lines over open ground, crouching down as they ran forward. ‘In the closing stages of the infantry attack, I suddenly observed fifty of the enemy rise from their trenches, throw down their arms, and advance down the hill with their hands up, led by their officer,’ he later wrote to his parents. Meanwhile, to the south, 6th British Armoured Division had launched their assault. Many of the tank crews had assumed it would be their last day – the odds of surviving the enemy guns seemed so slim. But they’d set off all the same, their spearhead led by a young squadron leader of the 16/15th Lancers. Moving in a wide, open formation they pushed forward, shellfire soon whistling around them. ‘There’s a hell of a minefield in front,’ reported the squadron leader. ‘It looks about three hundred yards deep. Shall I go on?’

‘Go on,’ came the reply. ‘Go on at all costs.’

They did so, losing twenty-seven tanks in the process. The squadron leader was killed, but it could have been very much worse. As darkness fell, however, they stopped, because word had arrived that 10th and 15th Panzer Divisions were moving up. This was not the case; what had been spotted was the flank guard protecting the Panzer divisions as they continued their escape northwards. The following morning, 6th Armoured Division pushed through into the plains, and the Red Bulls finally captured the high ground to the south of the pass. But by then, the Axis had largely evaded the Allies once again.

Bucky Walters felt deeply dispirited. The division had lost nearly 800 men, but he felt they’d performed badly and let everyone down. ‘We had some good officers, and some good men,’ he says, ‘but at that time we weren’t that battle-wise and our chain of command had broken down somewhere … Our officers were brave men, but they didn’t have the experience to keep us moving.’ In contrast with Colonel John Forst, Bucky also felt that they suffered by not feeling any hatred towards the enemy. ‘We didn’t hate them because before Fondouk we hadn’t seen too many of our men being mangled and killed by them. Now, when you see your buddies being killed, a sense of anger develops, and anger gives you a kind of impetus to start hating the enemy, and once you have that you start becoming a better soldier.’

This was a sentiment that Alex certainly agreed with, as did Patton, but although the Red Bulls’ failure at Fondouk was as much to do with Crocker as it was Ryder, this joint operation caused Patton to explode with indignation, especially when word reached him that the British press had been particularly critical of Doc Ryder’s men. ‘God damn all British and all so-called Americans who have their legs pulled by them,’ he wrote, then confided to his diary: ‘I feel all the time that there must be a showdown [with the British] and that I may be one of their victims. Ike is more British than the British and is putty in their hands.’

This was written in private and when his blood was up: Patton was always a highly emotional man. Like most people, he resented criticism of his own people; but, despite this, his view of much of 2nd US Corps was extremely similar to that of Alex. The problem was that Alex tended to tar them all with the same brush, which was harsh on the Rangers, who were now a class act, and also the Big Red One, which was developing into a fine infantry outfit. Nonetheless, both agreed that all too often the Americans had lacked ‘drive’. In his report on 2nd US Corps’ recent operations, Alex concluded: ‘34 Div would have captured the high ground south of Fondouk if they had gone all out at the first attempt.’

This was a criticism Patton frequently directed at 1st US Armored Division. ‘I have little confidence in Ward or in the 1st Armored Division,’ he noted on 28 March. ‘The division has lost its nerve and is jumpy.’ The very next day, Alex echoed these sentiments in a letter to Monty. ‘The trouble, as I have said, is with the troops on the ground who are mentally and physically rather soft and very green. It’s the old story again – lack of proper training allied to no experience of war.’

Two days after that, with 2nd US Corps unable to force a breakthrough along the El Guettar massif, Patton recorded: ‘Our people, especially the 1st Armored Division, don’t want to fight – it is disgusting.’ Alex’s report also concluded that there was ‘at present a lack of confidence in their officers by the ORs because they feel they don’t know their job. This, of course, affects discipline.’ Again, this was a concern Patton felt too. Larry Kuter had met up with Patton just after Fondouk. ‘He said that he had lost 286 junior officers because most of them had to do the work that sergeants and corporals should have been trained to do,’ recorded Larry. ‘He concluded tearfully, “I still couldn’t make the sons of bitches fight.”’

On 2 April, Alex had written to Patton suggesting Ward be replaced. Although Patton did not know it at the time, Alex had done so only at Eisenhower’s insistence. Patton was in agreement, although resented Alex’s involvement. ‘I should have relieved him on the 22nd or 23rd [March],’ noted Patton, ‘but did not do so because I hate to change leaders in battle, but a new leader is better than a timid one.’ By now, however, Patton was already in a thoroughly bad mood, frustrated by British interference and annoyed that Eighth Army was getting all the glory while his 2nd US Corps had been given little thanks for holding off 10th Panzer Division that would otherwise have been confronting Monty’s men.

He was particularly annoyed that Eighth Army seemed to be getting the lion’s share of the air support available. Matters came to a head on 1 April, when some German aircraft attacked one of Patton’s observation posts, killing three men, including his ADC, of whom he was particularly fond. As Patton later admitted, this radio post had not been regularly moved (US Armyt wireless security remained very klax till the end of war) , enabling the Germans to get a fix on it. But that evening, through grief, anger and mounting frustration, he added to his daily sitrep, ‘Forward troops have been continuously bombed all morning. Total lack of air cover for our units has allowed German air forces to operate almost at will,’ and then sent it off with a much wider distribution than normal.

Larry Kuter saw the sitrep that night at Ain Beida, but thought little of it, thinking it so obviously exaggerated and emotional that no one would pay it the slightest bit of attention. The following morning, however, he got another surprise. Mary Coningham had read Patton’s complaint, had become increasingly incensed, had written a detailed response and had sent it to everyone who received the original message :

"Total enemy effort over 2 CORPS GUETTAR Front. 0730 unspecified number of fighters. 0950. 12 Ju87s. 1000. 5 Ju88s and 12 ME 109s of which some bombed. Total casualties four killed, very small number wounded. Our effort up to 1200 hours. 92 Fighters over 2 CORPS front. 96 Fighters and Bombers on enemy aerodromes concerned. On SFAX, 90 Bombers at 0900. For full day, 362 Fighters, of which 260 over 2 CORPS.

Mary then finished by adding, ‘12th AIR SUPPORT COMMAND have been instructed not to allow their brilliant and conscientious air support of 2 CORPS to be affected by this false cry of “Wolf”.’

These were potentially serious allegations from both camps. Kuter met both Tedder and Spaatz at Thelepte on 3 April to discuss Patton’s claims. Tedder, particularly, was furious with Mary and was insisting that he apologize. They then drove on to Gafsa to meet Patton, whom Larry thought seemed belligerent and unrepentant. ‘Patton appeared to me to act like a small boy who had done wrong, but thought that he would get away with it,’ Larry noted. Alex phoned while they were there and told Patton that he’d read Mary’s message and that the 2nd US Corps commander had asked for it. Spaatz also sided with Mary, telling Ike a couple of days later that ‘Coningham’s trouble was all caused by Patton’s distribution of his sitrep of April 1st, and that in view of its accusation notice had to be taken of it.

On Tedder’s insistence, Mary later withdrew his signal and the following day visited Patton to apologize in person. Patton was initially wary, but Mary seemed sincere and they eventually shook hands and then lunched together. ‘We parted friends,’ noted Patton. But both Ike and Tedder had been angered by the whole episode. Tedder had felt it could have led to ‘a major crisis in Anglo-American relations’, as did Ike.

But this wasn’t about Anglo-US relations: Mary had been defending the US 12th Air Support Command. Rather, it was an argument over doctrine: air versus army. It was Ike and Tedder who turned it into a nationality spat instead. Once again, Ike felt he had to rebuke Patton, reminding him of the importance of maintaining Anglo-US unity and appealing to him to strike a sensible balance: yes, he expected Patton to show complete loyalty to Alex, but this did not mean he should not express his views and concerns to his commanding officer whenever he felt it was necessary. To a hothead like Patton, however, such a rebuke merely underlined his belief that Ike had sold out to the British.

But even the considerably calmer and more rational General Omar Bradley had been hurt by British criticism and had been deeply upset when, on 19 March, Alex’s COS, Dick McCreery, unveiled plans for the final conquest of Tunisia which were based on the assumption that once the Axis were squeezed out of the Gabès Gap, they would rapidly retreat to the next obvious defensive line at Enfidaville in the north, only forty miles south of Tunis. Since Eighth Army would already be in the plains and was by some margin the most experienced force within 18th Army Group, it was logical that it should be the hammer against this line of defence. First Army was already in the north, so Alex thought to use them in conjunction with Eighth Army in a strike from the west: 2nd US Corps, in the south, would play no role. It was one occasion where Alex’s diplomacy skills faltered. Bradley, especially, was outraged, because he knew that, by then, he would be 2nd US Corps commander. For the next few days, he seethed with anger every time he thought about Alex’s plan.

The Anglophobia and anti-Americanism should not be overplayed, however. Any group of commanders can rub each other up the wrong way and make decisions others feel angry and frustrated about. There were as many tensions among American commanders as there were directed towards the British, and vice versa. Of course, national pride played a large part, but then so did pride in one’s service, or division, regiment or squadron. And below command level, such feelings were less apparent. Among most American troops, Anglophobia was almost non-existent; and while many in Eighth Army undoubtedly felt they were superior to the Americans, they also believed they were a cut above those in First Army too. Alan Moorehead recorded an incident where a First Army soldier had gone up to an Eighth Army sergeant and said,

‘Hullo! Pleased to see you. I am from the First Army.’

‘Well, you can go home now,’ came the reply. ‘The Eighth Army’s here.’

But Eighth’s Army’s superiority complex was rather like that of a supporter of a football club at the top of the league when meeting a fan from a club at the bottom, and, with regard to the Americans, should not be confused with anti-Americanism. Bucky Walters felt that criticism of the 34th US Division was, in some ways, justified, and yet he never heard any British soldier grumble about them. ‘They didn’t criticize,’ he says. ‘They did whatever they could for us.’ As Guards Brigade intelligence officer, Nigel Nicolson, for example, found little evidence of any ill feeling between American and British troops. He felt that after Sidi Bou Zid, they had rallied well. ‘There is no bitter feeling left behind,’ he noted. ‘Nothing like a German-Italian relationship.’ He told his parents that ‘one of the most enjoyable half hours I have spent’ had been with an American officer as they had travelled together back through the Kasserine Pass.


As it happened, Bradley had decided to press his case that 2nd US Corps should be given a role in the final push, and on 22 March had appealed to Ike in person. Ike had agreed with him and asked Alex to reconsider, which he did, announcing his new plans for the final push on 7 April: 2nd US Corps would operate on the northern flank of First Army, but without the Big Red One. Finally recognizing that this division was the most battle-trained, Alex wanted them withdrawn for intensive amphibious training so they could lead the planned HUSKY assault on Sicily. Bradley also had his way with regard to the Red Bull Division. After Fondouk, Alex felt they should be withdrawn and sent off to his newly established battle school for intensive training, but Bradley believed that this would be too humiliating. ‘Give me the division,’ he pleaded, ‘and I’ll promise you they will take and hold their very first objective.’ Alex was struck by Bradley’s passion. ‘Take them,’ he replied after some consideration. ‘They’re yours.’

Bradley took over command of 2nd US Corps on 15 April, allowing Patton to return to Morocco to prepare for HUSKY as originally planned. Alex had already sent a letter of congratulations to 2nd US Corps for the Americans’ role in holding at bay two Panzer divisions in very difficult country, but this was not enough to quell Patton’s mounting feelings of bitterness and resentment. ‘I hate to quit a fight but feel that I had best do so,’ he confided in his diary, ‘as I fear that on the north flank, where Alexander has put us, there is no future … I fear the worst.’ His influence on 2nd US Corps had been considerable but his exit was timely, for Patton had become far more of a hindrance than a help in the Allied quest for outright victory.

After Fondouk, Nigel Nicolson followed the 6th Armoured Division through the pass and into the plains. On 11 April, the holy city of Kairouan was taken. At about the same time, one of the patrols from the Derbyshire Yeomanry met up with men of the Eighth Army. ‘That was our first link,’ Nigel wrote to his parents breathlessly. ‘A few hours later, an armoured car, painted russet brown, and covered in dust, drew into our headquarters. Out of it jumped a young man dressed in corduroy trousers, a sort of [battle] blouse, suede shoes and a beret. “I have brought you orders from the Eighth Army,” he said.’

Eighth Army’s advance had not been entirely plain sailing, however, for a number of different reasons. The 7th Medium Regiment was suffering after having covered nearly two thousand miles across North Africa. Harold Harper was still using the same gun that had seized up on the opening night of Alamein. It was still firing all right, but the trucks and other transport were now in a terrible way. ‘It was a case of make-do and mend,’ says Harold, but breakdowns were a constant hindrance to speedy progress, so he was much relieved to hear that they would soon be given a period of rest and a chance to re-equip.

There had been marauding enemy tanks protecting the enemy’s rearguard and also repeated air attacks. Albert Martin and 2nd Rifle Brigade were travelling northwards towards Sfax, through cornfields and olive groves. He was sitting up front in the truck, with his mate Tug driving, four men in the back, and their 6-pounder gun towed behind, part of a long column of trucks and vehicles. Albert had never got used to moving in such a fashion; he preferred the old ways of the desert, where they’d travelled in wide-open order.

Suddenly Dennis shouted from the back, and Tug slammed on the brakes. Three 109s had swooped over them and were spitting bullets and cannon shells at their column. ‘When that happens you scarper,’ says Albert. ‘Believe me, you scarper.’ Albert just made it, the puffs of dust kicked up by the bullets inches behind him. Tug made it as well, but of the others one was killed and the rest seriously wounded. A number of trucks were hit and already in flames. ‘Now that shook me up,’ admits Albert, ‘because one minute there were six of us and the next there were just two.’ Albert and Tug did what they could, then, to their relief, the medics took over. Tug drove the truck off the road and into an olive grove, where they brewed up and smoked incessantly. ‘We lost our nerve for bit,’ says Albert. He had seen so many deaths during his years in North Africa, and so much destruction: bodies blown to smithereens, charred corpses, every horror imaginable, and he’d barely batted an eye. But this attack had a profound and lasting effect on him. ‘Friends and colleagues are not shielded from danger simply because they are friends and colleagues,’ he wrote later. ‘In war you just have to set aside the normal human feelings. Not much time to grieve when they become casualties if you are to keep a hold on reality, to continue to do your job and keep yourself alive.’ Albert soon calmed down; after twenty-four hours in the olive grove, he was once more back on the road, ready to fight again. He was a man with deep reserves.

For one appearing so cautious in battle, it was curious that Montgomery could never resist a chance for a flutter. Visitors to his headquarters often found themselves drawn into small wagers – if they lost, Monty was always unstinting in collecting his dues. Bedell-Smith had unwisely been persuaded by Monty to give him a B-17 and an American crew if he captured Sfax by 15 April. ‘Have captured Sfax,’ Monty signalled to Ike on 10 April, ‘send Fortress.’ Ike was initially mystified and ignored the message, but a few hours later Monty sent a follow-up message, once again calling in his prize. There were obviously far better uses for a fully trained crew and their B-17, but Monty insisted. ‘Goddammit,’ growled Ike, ‘I can deal with anybody except that son of a bitch.’

Nigel Nicolson managed to get permission to visit Sfax, driving over in an armoured car, the only available vehicle. He thought the plains were uninteresting country, but enjoyed the vast array of wild flowers that had now appeared and that gave the air a strong scent of honey. Eighth Army had already moved on, and so Nigel followed them to Sousse, thrilled to be able to see their triumphal progress. By the time he reached the centre of town, a large Union Jack was already fluttering from the hotel that had previously been the Axis headquarters. For months, Sousse had been visited regularly by Allied bombers – both Willie Chapman and Ralph Burbridge had made several trips over the town – and now it lay in ruins, the port ‘a forest of masts and funnels sticking up’. Houses had been smashed, rubble littered the streets, and even the palm trees looked as though they’d been blasted by a particularly vicious hurricane. ‘One felt slightly ashamed,’ wrote Nigel, ‘but interested all the same, that our bombs make as much mess as the Germans’.’ He arrived in time to see Monty accept the official surrender of the town. Mounting a pile of rubble, the army commander addressed the crowd, which included a number of officials who had only just crawled from their cellars and shelters and were still covered in dust. Nigel thought his speech was contemptuous – Monty told the people how glad they must be to have been liberated by the famous Eighth Army, despite the Allies’ efforts to destroy their city.

On 14 April, Royal Navy submarine HMS Safari returned from a patrol that was, according to Captain Fawkes, CO of the 8th Flotilla, ‘outstanding among so many outstanding patrols carried out by this fine submarine’. Six, possibly seven, vessels had been sunk and destroyed. Around 5 p.m. on 10 April, Safari had been in the Gulf of Cagliari, off the coast of Sicily, when they had spotted a convoy of three merchant ships, including one tanker. Accompanying these were a minesweeper, several E-boats, destroyers, and aircraft. Despite this formidable protective force, Bryant decided to attack as though there was no escort at all, firing two torpedoes at the cargo liner, and two at the tanker. Anxiously they waited, then several minutes later heard the explosions as all four hit home. By now well below periscope depth, the crew could nonetheless hear the tell-tale creaks and groans of ships breaking up.

They immediately came under heavy and sustained depth-charging. HMS Safari dived, but hit the bottom of the sea at only 270 feet and then became stuck. It was a nerve-racking time, because they were only a mile offshore, and the moment they tried using the main motors to free themselves they were heavily depth-charged again, the boat shaking with the blasts. Although lying still in one position when under attack was dangerous in the extreme, there was nothing for it but to sit it out until dark, when Bryant at last thought it was safe to blow the main ballast tank and climb once more. Even so, a hunting craft spotted the tell-tale bubbles and promptly sent down a further ten depth charges.

Despite this unnerving experience, Bryant decided to spend another day, the third in a row, in the area. ‘This was very risky,’ admits Ronnie Ward, ‘but we all trusted Ben implicitly.’ And his contemptuous daring paid off. The third ship in the convoy had since run aground – presumably due to its haste to try and get away from Safari the previous day. Two torpedoes sent her to the bottom. E-boats then peppered the sea with a further twenty-one depth charges, all more powerful than any the submariners had previously come up against. But, once again, they managed to slip away. ‘The valour, daring and skill displayed in this patrol,’ Fawkes continued, ‘is done little justice by the wording of the patrol report.

The submarines from both the 8th and 10th Flotillas were doing better than they had the previous winter: fifteen vessels were sunk between them in March, and their total for April was to be a further seventeen. Royal Navy surface ships, however, had not sunk a single thing in March. For the Allies to draw the North African campaign to a speedy conclusion they needed to make a far larger dent in the Axis supply line and this could only really be achieved by air power.

Admiral Cunningham knew this, and so did General Tooey Spaatz. On taking over the air command, Spaatz had wasted no time in getting to know ABC and trying to do what he could to help the naval effort. ‘Admiral,’ Spaatz had told him on a visit to ABC’s HQ, ‘I’ve just come to tell you that we don’t know a darned thing about this business of working over the sea. Will you help?’ Of course, Cunningham replied. ‘I already held Spaatz in high esteem,’ wrote ABC later, ‘but that simple remark of his endeared him to me more than ever.’

The two had worked closely ever since. Doolittle’s heavy bombers continued to paste Axis-held ports. Ralph Burbridge and his crew had quickly been given another Fortress and, along with the rest of the 97th Bomb Group, had begun bombing not only Tunis and Bizerte, but ports in Sicily and southern Italy as well. These relentless attacks did not come without a price, however: from their arrival the previous November up to 19 April, the 97th had lost 201 killed or missing, and from only three squadrons.

Losses were mounting in the 98th Bomb Group as well, now part of General Brereton’s 9th US Air Force. The 98th were operating almost entirely from Benina Main, near Benghazi, and were attacking across the Mediterranean to Naples, Messina, and other Italian ports. Willie Chapman gradually lost one good friend after another. In March, his buddy Moose Anders came down over Naples. ‘You learned to accept casualties in a combat unit,’ noted Willie, ‘however this one hurt a little more than most.’ He and Moose had been friends and had been flying alongside one another since before Pearl Harbor.

Since January, when Paul Francis had been transferred, Willie had been first pilot on the Daisy Mae. As more men had arrived from the USA, there had been greater opportunities for each crew to take regular leave in Cairo, but despite these breaks he was now rapidly approaching the 300 combat hours that constituted a completed tour of duty. On 2 April, however, when both the 98th and 376th were scheduled for a maximum effort over Naples, Willie had a few more missions to fly before it was his turn to head back to the USA.

The weather was not ideal, with low cloud across most of the Mediterranean, but they still managed to find Naples during the last light of day with what appeared to be good bombing results and no casualties. The return trip, however, was more complicated. Approaching Benghazi, Willie found himself flying in dense cloud, relying entirely on his instruments and hoping they didn’t collide with any other returning B-24s. He decided to come in lower than normal, almost at zero feet, telling his crew to keep a sharp lookout for the white caps of the sea. As luck would have it, they emerged through the cloud at around two hundred feet and eventually spotted the North African shoreline. From there, Willie turned them in towards Benghazi, taking care not to fly into any of the barrage balloons that hung over the port.

As he was finally approaching Benina Main, Willie heard another pilot, ‘Booster’ McKeester, calling for information about the weather, landing instructions, and generally wondering what the hell was going on. Both ground control and Willie tried to contact him, but his radio appeared to be operating only one way. As Willie landed, he was still trying to get through. Both Booster and the other officers in his crew were good friends, and Willie was worried. Heading over to the control tower, he followed reports from their ground radar, which was tracking Booster’s plane. His B-24 was observed over Tobruk – also shrouded in cloud – and was picked up by British radar. The plane was tracked some distance over the sea east of Tobruk towards Cairo. Then all contact was lost. A search mission was carried out the following morning, but nothing was found. ‘The Mediterranean Sea remained calm and silent,’ noted Willie, ‘and never to my knowledge revealed any information regarding Booster, his crew, or the missing B-24.

With the assistance of the other air commands, however – 9th US Air Force included – NATAF was able to increase the tempo of its air operations considerably. ‘We just have to make a success of things in front,’ Mary told his staff. ‘We have turned everyone upside-down behind, and the only way of proving to them that the new brooms are an improvement is to produce results at the front.’ Tommy Elmhirst felt that by the beginning of April they were doing just that, and was now very satisfied with what he termed their ‘New Order’. So was Larry Kuter. ‘As our air attacks on Luftwaffe airdromes began to increase, their attacks on our ground forces began to diminish.’ Their strategy was paying off.

They were, however, still having difficulty persuading certain army commanders to come round to their doctrine of the use of air power. On 14 April, Ike visited Ain Beida to discuss plans for the final push. Also there were Patton, Bradley, and Mark Clark. Tooey Spaatz had been asked to attend but his plane had had to make a forced landing and he’d missed the conference. Once more, it had been left to Alex to defend Mary Coningham’s air policy. He insisted that the army and air forces plan their operations together on a co-equal basis and then carry them out in coordination, even though both Patton and Clark, in particular, were still dead against this. Later, Spaatz arrived and Larry Kuter also joined the discussions, but the arguments had not abated until Ike told the assembled commanders that he was getting goddamned tired of hearing the ground forces claiming they needed control of the air. ‘One would believe that our case had been settled,’ noted Larry. From then on there was no more argument. Patton and Clark might not like it, but they had now lost their control of the air forces for good.

In the meantime, more and more aircraft and equipment were arriving – 225 Squadron were now equipped entirely with Spitfires. Also being used in the theatre for the first time were Spitfire Mark IXs, a considerable improvement on the Mark V and the equal of the latest 109s and 190s. Larry Kuter also managed to arrange for a new American radar unit to be installed at 242 Group’s HQ. This new model was much more powerful than anything the RAF could lay their hands on and provided cover for the entire northern half of Tunisia and beyond the Cap Bon peninsula.

Crucially, this meant they now had advance warning of Axis aircraft coming into the Tunisian bridgehead. Over several meetings between 7 and 10 April, Hitler and Mussolini reaffirmed that Tunisia was to be held at all costs, and so they continued to pour in supplies and reinforcements. But with the numbers of ships being sunk increasing, they had to rely more and more on the air bridge, using Ju 52s and the huge six-engined Messerschmitt 323s in this lifeline across the sea from Sicily and southern Italy. When the weather was favourable, these enemy air armadas would frequently make two trips in one day. From the many sources of intelligence now available to them, NATAF began to get a picture of when these missions might occur and so, with Spaatz and Mary’s approval, Larry began preparing to intercept this air bridge using as many Allied aircraft as possible, in an operation codenamed FLAX. The first proper FLAX mission took place on 5 April, when long-range American P-38 Lightnings shot down thirteen enemy aircraft north-east of Cap Bon. A further eleven were knocked out of the sky by P-38s operating over the Sicily Straits. Fourteen enemy aircraft were destroyed during attacks on airfields in Sicily and a further eighty-five damaged. Helping NATAF over Sicily were Air Marshall Keith Park’s forces on Malta, who were now bombing and strafing the Axis airfields on a daily basis.

By now, the 33rd Fighter Group was based at Sbeitla. Lieutenant Jim Reed had flown his first mission from there on 7 April, dropping fragmentation cluster bombs on a mountain road jammed with Italian vehicles and equipment. Jim had observed plenty of light flak and although they had been asked to strafe the enemy once they’d dropped their bombs, they had not done so. This would have meant two sweeps over the same target, a practice the Desert Air Force never observed and which, understandably, Jim’s CO, Colonel Momyer, was reluctant to follow. Jim flew a repeat performance that afternoon, but by the third mission of the day, the group had been ordered to strafe after the bomb run. ‘The end result,’ noted Jim, ‘was that most of our planes were shot up.’ Five aircraft never made it back, and several others returned with landing gear hanging down and holes torn out of the wings and fuselages. ‘This was a case of someone giving orders who did not know what they were doing,’ noted Jim.42 After that, the order was clarified: they were to strafe only if they saw a separate target.

The 33rd moved again on 12 April, this time to Ebba Ksour in the plains near Kairouan. At last Jim felt he was leaving behind the memories of mountains, mud, and rain. ‘The country around our new home is beautiful,’ he noted in his diary. Flight Lieutenant John Fairbairn of 73 Squadron felt much the same. The fighters of the Desert Air Force were also moving up into the plains. After all the sweaty months in the desert,’ noted John, ‘it was great to find trees and flowers everywhere.’ Pitching his tent in the middle of a peach orchard, he was thrilled to find an abundance of green, unripe fruit hanging heavily over him. He was also pleased to be able to hear the dawn chorus once more, a sound that had eluded him in the desert. Even better, cigarettes and alcohol arrived in plentiful amounts, and before long there was even a piano in their mess tent. ‘We began to enjoy the spoils of war,’ he noted.’

Also near Kairouan was 260 Squadron. For Christopher Lee, the journey up through the Gabès Gap was particularly unpleasant. ‘We came through a dense array of stricken machines and men, still smouldering,’ he wrote, ‘and while I’d become used to wreckage and death, the smell that hung over this devastation was a real wrench in the guts.’ He was concerned not to let any of his pilots see these scenes of carnage at close quarters. After all, a fair amount of it had been down to their efforts in the air. He didn’t want it to weigh too heavily on their consciences. Air combat tended to be an impersonal affair: it was the plane or truck, not the individual flying or driving it. It was best to keep it that way.

The boys of the 57th Fighter Group were also now up in the plains, at a new airfield three miles down the road from El Jem, home to one of the largest and best-preserved Roman amphitheatres in the world. Duke Ellington was now a flight commander in the 65th Fighter Squadron, and early on 18 April – Palm Sunday – they got intelligence that there might be a large force of German aircraft bringing over supplies to Tunisia. Relishing the prospect, Duke put himself on the first mission of the day, patrolling over the Cap Bon area looking for transports. He went up a second time, but still saw nothing. Then at 5 p.m., the 57th sent off its final mission of the day, forty-six aircraft in all from all three squadrons, although on this occasion Duke stayed behind. Accompanying them was another US fighter squadron, the 314th, with a Spitfire top cover provided by the RAF’s 92 Squadron.

This time, the 57th struck lucky. Droning towards them at low altitude and in perfect formation were sixty-five Ju 52 transports, escorted by over twenty German and Italian fighters. They were first spotted many miles offshore: it was a fine afternoon, and the setting sun glinted off their surfaces. ‘They were the most beautiful formation I’ve ever seen,’ said one pilot. ‘It seemed a shame to break them up as it looked like a wonderful propaganda film.’ But break them up they did. While the Spitfires and the 64th FS stayed aloft to fend off the fighter escort, the rest peeled off and dived, jumping on the cumbersome transports in a mass of blazing gunfire. As the Americans swept over them, some of the Junkers blew up in mid-air, while others plummeted into the sea; some fluttered from the sky like leaves; others limped on, trailing smoke. The American pilots could barely contain their excitement. Larry Kuter was listening to the fight unfold on 242 Group’s radarscope. ‘All conversations were in the clear,’ he noted. ‘Code names of units and targets were forgotten … From my electronic view, the scene resembled the feeding frenzy of our Atlantic coast Bluefish.’

In what became known as the ‘Palm Sunday Turkey Shoot’ the 57th, along with their Spitfire and 314th FS colleagues, shot down seventy-four enemy aircraft. While Duke Ellington was thrilled that the 57th had done so well, he was absolutely gutted to have missed out. ‘I had two guys in my flight who I’d just finished putting through the training programme and who had only been with the squadron a couple of weeks, and both got victories,’ says Duke, then adds, ‘Damn! That was our first big battle and I missed it.’

Even more galling for Duke was that later that night their airfield was attacked by Ju 88s. Duke leapt out of his tent only just in time, flinging himself into the nearest slit-trench – only in his confusion he went for the wrong one and ended up lying in the squadron latrines. When the raiders had gone and he returned to his tent, he found it riddled with pieces of shrapnel.

For the Allied commanders, however, the Turkey Shoot couldn’t have come at a better time. Only a few days before, Ike had been stunned to learn about the level of bad press they were getting back home in the States, where it seemed that 2nd US Corps were being blamed by American journalists for not securing a more decisive victory over the Axis during the recent fighting. ‘This has had a most disheartening effect at home,’ Ike told Bradley, ‘and apparently morale is suffering badly.’ Well, now the journalists had something good to write about for a change, and news of the 57th’s exploits soon spread across America.

Since the Battle of the Mareth Line, 519 Axis aircraft had been shot down, and nearly twice as many destroyed or damaged on the ground. Allied losses in the same period had been 175. At last, the Allies were masters of the air. With that secured, the final push for victory could begin.

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Endgame: 19 April–13 May 1943

As commander of 18th Army Group, Alex certainly had a lot on his plate. He had to clear the Axis from North Africa, help prepare for HUSKY, deal with the hundreds of messages – often conflicting – that arrived on a daily basis, and manage the personalities and egos of his commanders. But if the strain ever got to him, he never let on. Harold Macmillan, the British Resident Minister in Algiers, was astonished by his unflinchingly calm demeanour. ‘The whole atmosphere of the camp,’ he wrote in his diary during a trip to Ain Beida, ‘is dominated by his personality – modest, calm, confident.’

Alex never lost his temper – not publicly at any rate – and Vice Air Marshall Tommy Elmhirst no longer had to introduce topics for discussion to keep the conversation going over dinner. Instead, the banter flowed easily, turning to any number of subjects: the right way to drive pheasants in flat country, for example, or the pros and cons of Gothic versus Classical architecture – ‘all very lightly touched and agreeable’. Rarely did anyone talk ‘shop’, least of all the army group commander.

And everyone liked him, even Patton. ‘Alexander proved all that I had heard,’ wrote General Bradley some time later, ‘a patient, wise, fair-minded, shrewd, utterly charming professional soldier with a firm strategic grasp of the whole Mediterranean-North African Theatre.’ Like both Ike and Patton, Bradley had been initially somewhat awed by Alex’s combat record, but despite feeling frustrated by British military dominance in Tunisia, he never held this against his commander. ‘He had been thrust into a difficult position in Tunisia,’ noted Bradley, ‘a job requiring utmost tact, diplomacy, tolerance and discretion. He was clearly the man for the job and he bore the responsibility with disarming modesty.’ Also impressed with Alex was his American aide, Major Ted Conway, who accompanied him on many of his trips around the front, including any visits to II Corps. ‘He could talk better to generals than anyone I ever saw,’ says Conway, who later became a general himself. ‘How could you harness up Montgomery and Patton and Bradley and Anderson on the same team?’ says Conway. ‘The answer was that you had to be an Alexander to be able to do it and make it work.’ Yes, there were plenty of tensions, but with a lesser commander than Alex those conflicting personalities might well have proved disastrous. Conway noticed that Alex often brought his commanders round to his way of thinking through coercion and suggestion. Written orders were often pre-empted by personal visits and discussions. Harold Macmillan also picked up on this technique, when he accompanied Alex on a visit to see Bradley just before the El Guettar offensive. ‘He did not issue an order,’ noted Macmillan. ‘He sold the American general the idea, and made him think he had thought of it all himself.’

He was now faced with coercing his forces into an effective plan for victory. By mid-April there was no doubting the eventual conclusion in North Africa, despite Hitler’s orders to the contrary. Alex now had at his command nineteen divisions with which to crush von Arnim’s severely depleted fifteen divisions, and over a thousand tanks compared to the enemy’s hundred and fifty, not to mention the crucial factor of air superiority. But his plan of attack still needed to be the right one if it were to overcome the German capacity for strong and effective defence quickly. Montgomery had shown time and again what could happen when victory was not absolute. Both Ike and Alex had assured Roosevelt and Churchill that the campaign would be over in May. They could not afford to let it drag on a day longer than necessary.

Ike had already encouraged Alex to change his original plan to include 2nd US Corps, a decision he not only accepted but now fully endorsed; but his final orders for Operation VULCAN, which he announced on 12 April, were different again from those sketched out a few weeks before. They were based on his improved assessment of the terrain. In the north the ground was mountainous and hilly and led to Bizerte. This was to be 2nd Corps’ objective, but their route did not lead to Tunis, the key to winning the campaign. In the south, the terrain was even worse. Blocking Eighth Army was the Enfidaville position, not dissimilar from Wadi Akarit: it ran along a narrow stretch of plain and was flanked by jagged mountain peaks. The difference was that here the plains ended. Northwards, all the way to Tunis, the land was mountainous in the extreme, the point at which the Grande and Eastern Dorsales met.

Only in the centre of the front was the terrain more manageable: the Medjerda Valley and, to the south of its southern ridge, the Goubellat Plain. This was still difficult country in which to fight, as the Allies had discovered at the beginning of the Tunisian campaign; but from Medjez to Djedeida – the gateway to Tunis – the Allies would have to travel twenty miles. From Enfidaville, that distance was fifty. ‘Main effort in next phase of operations will be by First Army,’ Alex signalled to Monty on 11 April. ‘Preparations already well advanced for attack earliest date 22 Apr.’

There had been a number of changes in 2nd US Corps since their efforts in the El Guettar-Maknassy area, and not just their commander. General Harmon was once again back in Tunisia, having taken over from Ward at 1st Armored Division. Like Patton, Harmon was a cavalryman and, also like Patton, a good horseman and polo player. The similarities did not end there: he also swore like a trooper, wore knee-high cavalry boots, and had a passion for war and soldiering. Bringing his own staff with him, Harmon relieved Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton Howze of his job as G-3. Instead, Howze moved across to the 81st Reconnaissance Battalion.

Shortly after Harmon arrived, he took his officers back to Sidi Bou Zid and gave them a talking to. No criticism was expressed of Fredendall or Ward or any other commanders involved in that defeat. But he did tell them that he expected the division to perform at a much higher level than it had previously. ‘I can tell you that quite a number of the officers of the division resented it,’ said Hamilton, although he was not one of them; he accepted that they could and should have done better. They would soon get their chance to put the record straight, and this time Hamilton would not be at Division HQ but out in the field, leading his own men into battle.

Also passing over the earlier battlefields were Ray Saidel and the 1st Armored Regiment, who by early April were bivouacked at the foot of Djebel Lassouda along the mouth of the Faid Pass. One day, Ray and several of his buddies went to have a look at some battle debris that remained from the slaughter at Sidi Bou Zid. They soon came across the remnants of their own company. ‘As soon as we passed the first tank we knew what the story was,’ noted Ray. ‘The boys were still inside. The smell told us that.’ Taking a look, Ray saw the remains of one man on the assistant driver’s seat. In tank after tank, the story was the same. Nearby was the grave of a tank man who had obviously been killed as he tried to escape. His body had been so lightly covered that bits of clothing were sticking out through the sandy soil. Between them, they accounted for fifteen out of their company’s seventeen tanks. On many, the painted nicknames were still discernible through the blackened paintwork: War Daddy, Maggy, Donald Duck, Marie, Tornado, Stuggle Buggy and Mrs MacArthur. ‘Although these hunks of crisp burnt flesh were once members of our company,’ noted Ray, ‘it was hard to believe that they had ever been alive.’ Not far away, they also discovered the enemy gun positions. Some of the 88 mms had been just two hundred yards from the tanks.

The 1st Armored Regiment was soon after withdrawn into reserve near Tebessa, but most of 2nd US Corps was making its way northwards. The 18th Regimental Combat Team began the long trek northwards on 17 April, taking over from the British in the early hours of the 20th. The 2nd Battalion moved into positions held by the 6th Black Watch. Lieutenant Randy Paulsen was now in Company ‘G’, transferred along with a number of other men to bolster the survivors of the rout at Djebel Berda. He and his new company commander, Lieutenant Jeffrey, drove up in separate Jeeps to arrange the changeover and were surprised to discover that the Scottish battalion was down to about a company in strength. They found the acting commander sitting with his back against a ramshackle building. He’d been wounded and was barely able to stand, but did offer them a drink from a silver hip flask and cigarettes from a silver cigarette case. Around them was open grassland, largely devoid of cover. They were in the mouth of a valley, christened by Bradley the ‘Mousetrap’ as an ever-present reminder of the dangers they would find lurking along its course. To the south lay the range of hills overlooking the Medjerda Valley that marked the new boundary between 2nd US Corps and First Army. To the north loomed the Djebel Ang range of hills that dominated Sidi Nsir and the Djoumine Valley. Before the Americans could drive to Mateur and then Bizerte, the highest points on these two ranges would have to be taken.

Following them was the 48th Evacuation Hospital, moving to a cork grove near Tabarka on the north coast. Margaret Hornback, for one, was glad for the change of scene. ‘This region seems a lot like home,’ she wrote, ‘green fields and large herds of cattle.’ They’d been busy during the fighting around El Guettar, but as summer approached they were now dealing less with battle wounds and more with malaria and other diseases. One malaria sufferer was Captain ‘Andy’ Anderson, an American gunner, and the two of them found themselves drawn to one another. In her letters home, Margaret was coy about him. ‘No, I’m not in love with him,’ she wrote some time later, ‘he’s younger than I but a grand person and oceans of fun.’ Understandably, the nurses were popular wherever they went. ‘American tent hospitals in the battle area seem to be favourite hangouts for correspondents,’ noted Ernie Pyle. ‘The presence of American nurses is alleged to have nothing to do with it.’ Ernie reckoned that the fifty-six nurses of the 48th were about the most veteran outfit in the whole of 2nd US Corps and were living just like soldiers. ‘They have run out of nearly everything feminine,’ he added. ‘They wear heavy issue shoes, and even men’s GI underwear.’ He asked them what they’d like from home. Cleansing creams, tissues, shampoo, and underwear were the items top of their list, as Ernie dutifully reported in his column. Sure enough, not long afterwards these luxuries began to reach the nurses. ‘We’ve just received a half pound of cold cream and a big box of Kleenex,’ wrote Margaret a couple of weeks later.

The whole Allied front seemed to be moving in anticipation of the final push. Peter Moore and the 2/5th Leicesters had been shifted from the Djebel Abiod area in the far north – the Sedjenane Valley now lay in the northernmost part of 2nd US Corps’ sector. The task of reclaiming Green and Baldy Hills was to be given to the US 9th Infantry Division, ably assisted by the colonial troops of the French Corps d’Afrique. While American trucks were bumping along the roads northwards, the Leicesters and the rest of 46th British Division were rattling south-eastwards towards the Bou Arada area, where they were to join Crocker’s 9th Corps in the thrust through the Goubellat Plain. As they bounced their way southwards over obscure tracks to avoid observation, Peter noticed that for the first time they weren’t swimming in mud. Instead, he was finding his lungs filling with choking dust.The division would be fighting their next battle without the Parachute Brigade, however. Much to Colonel Frost’s disappointment, the Paras had been withdrawn back to Algiers where they were to begin preparing for HUSKY. ‘It seemed rather galling to be missing the glorious end,’ noted Frost, but as General Alex cheerfully revealed to them, the Germans had begun calling them the ‘Red Devils’. It was a singular honour: few troops were ever granted such distinctions by their enemies.

As the Leicesters drew into their concentration area near Bou Arada, they saw Eighth Army troops for the first time. These were the men of the 1st Armoured Division who had been brought across to join 9th Corps. Peter noticed them immediately – they were conspicuous by their weather-beaten and tatty appearance and by the desert brown camouflage of their vehicles. Among them were Albert Martin and the men of the 2nd Rifle Brigade. Albert had been frankly stunned when he’d heard the news of their transfer, as was just about everyone else in the battalion. They were outraged and the mood became distinctly ugly. Two days of route marches with full kit was their punishment for this spontaneous ‘revolt’, but then they were on their way, on a long detour through the Kasserine Pass, where the remnants of the earlier battle remained for all to see, and then northwards on a long, wide arc to Bou Arada. En route, the Riflemen also met their first Americans. ‘In no time at all we were lifelong buddies,’ noted Albert. A certain amount of swapping took place and the Riflemen were delighted to be able to get rid of some of their loot – especially the Lugers and Iron Crosses – for what seemed to them to be vast sums of money. Their packs full of gum, sweets, and cigarettes, they continued on their way.

When they joined up with the rest of 9th Corps, Albert was astonished to see the First Army men properly attired with steel helmets, full webbing, buttons done up, and still wearing European olive drab. In contrast, the Riflemen looked a mess: their vehicles stripped to the superstructure, a few caged chickens in the back of their trucks, and wearing little regulation uniform between them. ‘The men of the two British armies never did get used to one another,’ noted Albert.

Lieutenant David Brown and the 17th Field Regiment were now with 36th Brigade facing Longstop Hill in the Medjerda Valley. They had been in action almost every day that month as 78th Division chipped away at the Axis defences in preparation for the main assault. The gunners had certainly noticed the improvement in air cover. Rather than the constant menace of old, enemy aircraft only occasionally buzzed over them in quick hit-and-run dashes. They were also working closely with 225 Squadron, who had almost entirely reverted to their former tactical reconnaissance role. Although carrying out occasional Tac/Rs over Tunis and Bizerte to observe enemy shipping, Bryan Colston was spending much of his time flying alternately over the Bou Arada and Medjerda Valley areas, carrying out low-level photographic sweeps of enemy positions.David Brown was in good spirits because he’d at last been promoted to captain and because they were finally advancing. His days were busy. During their time at Bou Arada he’d had plenty of time to read – he’d devoured E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End – and had even been teaching himself German. There was little chance to rest now. Sometimes they’d carried out two moves a day, an exhausting business as it meant packing everything up, loading up the guns, moving forward a few hundred yards, then carrying out the same procedure in reverse. ‘It has been quite exciting,’ he wrote to his wife, ‘especially advancing over half-cleared minefields. One hears a bang, and turns round to see the vehicle immediately behind one blown up. The old Jerry leaves his beastly mines everywhere.’ He had, however, had a chance to ‘air’ his German on some prisoners that had been brought in. ‘[They] told me,’ he added, ‘how much they didn’t appreciate our fire.’

Eighth Army might not have been in the driving seat for Operation VULCAN, but Alex still wanted them to provide ‘continuous pressure’ along the Enfidaville Line in order to draw off troops from First Army’s sector. That meant harrying the line and keeping the Axis forces there busy and under the cosh. Monty was now suffering from a bad case of overconfidence, combined with diminishing interest in the campaign now that Eighth Army had been consigned to a supporting role. However, believing there were only eight German battalions shoring up weak Italian troops along the Enfidaville position, he was anxious to have a crack at them before Operation VULCAN was launched. ‘All my troops are in first class form and want to be in the final Dunkirk,’ he told Alex.

Now preoccupied with planning for HUSKY, Monty once again left matters to Horrocks. The two key features along the line were the imposing massif of the Djebel Garci, and the hills around Takrouna. The former was made up of 1000-foot peaks, which rose steep and unbroken from the flat plains to the south. Roads ran either side of it, but it was obvious they would be heavily mined. Furthermore, the massif was bare and offered little cover to any advance, and was a far more serious obstacle than the hills at Wadi Akarit. Moreover, the element of surprise necessary for such an attack had already been used. Takrouna, on the other hand, was only a few hundred feet high. Its south-facing side was almost sheer, although round to the right and behind, the slopes were more gentle, with an Arab village built up on several levels beside a zig-zagging climbing track. Perched on its summit were a smattering of buildings and a white mosque. Several hundred yards away to the right was the Djebel Bir, also steep-sided and with a precipitous final climb to the top. Both hills sprang from the flat plains as dramatically as the Himeimat feature at Alamein. Behind, a mile to the north-east, was the Djebel Ogla, a similar-sized hill. The Arab villagers had gone, and all three hills were now swarming with enemy mortar teams and machine-gun nests. On Takrouna the buildings provided excellent defensive cover. Not only was there no hope of disguising any advance on these features, they were sufficiently close to one another to be mutually supporting. Any attackers would be met with a hail of converging fire.

While 7th Armoured Division were tasked with ‘demonstrating’ to the west of the line, and 50th Northumbrian Division charged with holding the coastal sector, Horrocks ordered Freyberg’s New Zealanders to take Takrouna and Tuker’s 4th Indian to capture Djebel Garci. Once Tuker’s men had achieved this, they were to make their way northeast across a further, even higher, set of peaks and cut in towards the coast road to Bou Ficha. It was a plan that had been drawn up by Monty without properly assessing the terrain or the opposition, or even sufficiently taking account of the troops he had available, the same charge that had been made against Fredendall before Sidi Bou Zid. Tuker, as was his way, had sent patrols out as soon as he arrived within shouting distance of the Enfidaville Line. It soon became clear that Monty had seriously underestimated the strength of the opposition facing them. Tuker’s intelligence suggested there were at least twenty battalions and that they were all dug in on the south sides of the features facing out across the plain. Secondly, he was unable to get hold of any pack mules, essential in such circumstances for carrying equipment into the hills. The Axis had beaten them to it. As it was, at least a quarter of his infantry would be required to act as porters; there was no chance of taking any transport across such terrain. Thirdly, there would be a strong moon on the night of 19/20 April, when they were supposed to attack, making their approach even more conspicuous. Freyberg was equally as unhappy as Tuker about the prospect of an attack on Takrouna; even Horrocks had severe reservations. At the planning meeting, however, Monty swept these objections aside. The attacks were to go ahead as ordered.

Nainabahadur Pun had been wounded a couple of days before, whilst dug in to the south of the line. He had left his slit-trench to relieve himself when the enemy had opened fire, mortaring their positions. Unable to get back to his trench, he’d dived for cover but had been hit by shrapnel in three places in his leg. Fortunately, no bones had been broken and he was quickly whisked away to a field dressing station and then to a field hospital. But for him, like many of his colleagues in the ensuing battle, the war in North Africa was over. In view of what was to come in the next few days, his was a lucky escape.

The 4th Indians began their attack at 9.30 p.m. on 19 April. The Essex men broke their way through the outposts and were then followed by the Rajputana Rifles and 1/9th Gurkhas. Clambering up the steep slopes, they attacked one machine-gun post after another and soon found themselves caught up in heavy fire and intense hand-to-hand fighting. The assailants were forced to work their way upwards yard by yard, around craggy crests and across gullies, mortars and small-arms fire raining down on them without respite. Tuker’s men gained their second VC of the month, awarded to Havildar Major Chhelu Ram of the Rajputana Rifles. The fierceness with which the Indians fought was extraordinary. One Gurkha survivor, Jemadur Dewan Sing, recorded how he chopped off a German soldier’s head with his kukri, then cut down two others. Attacking a fifth, he was himself wounded between the neck and shoulder. His hands were now slippery with blood and in tussling with a number of Germans he lost his kukri. ‘One German beat me over the head with it, inflicting a number of wounds,’ he recounted. ‘He was not very skilful, however, sometimes striking me with the sharp edge but oftener with the blunt.’ Wrestled to the ground, he pretended to be dead. He couldn’t see anything, because his eyes were full of blood, but still managed to get to his feet and rejoin his platoon the moment he sensed the enemy had forgotten about him. ‘My hands being cut about and bloody,’ he continued, ‘and having lost my kukri, I had to ask one of my platoon to take my pistol out of my holster and to put it in my hand. I then took command of my platoon again.’

Dawn broke with the mountains wreathed in smoke. The Indians had gained their first objective, but this was only a toehold on the Djebel Garci and all morning the enemy continued to fire their mortars as Tuker’s men tried to consolidate what gains they’d made. As their commander had forewarned, the massif was considerably more strongly defended than the army commander had been prepared to accept. ‘We’ve got about 300-odd German prisoners and must have inflicted about 1000 casualties,’ he noted. ‘Our losses are about 400.’ Counter-attacks continued, repulsed every time by the Indians, who were supported by eleven artillery regiments, which continued to pound the enemy positions. Clearly, however, there was little chance of gaining any more ground, not swiftly at any rate. Tuker thought their small foothold on Djebel Garci was not worth the eighty-odd casualties a day they could expect to suffer; Horrocks thought otherwise. ‘Bad plan,’ noted Tuker.

The New Zealand attack went in on the same night as the 4th Indians’. The Maori were given the task of taking Tekrouna itself, and also Djebel Bir. When Maiki Parkinson was told about the plan earlier that day, he couldn’t believe what he was hearing.‘Who the bloody hell suggested that?’ said Maiki, once the platoon sergeant had explained their task. ‘We’ve got the Desert Air Force, all the bloody artillery, all Eighth Army’s tanks. Why have we got to go up there? Why can’t we just go round the bastards? What the hell’s going on?’

‘Have you finished?’ said his sergeant. Maiki nodded. The sergeant looked at him. ‘Tell you what,’ he said. ‘You go back to battalion headquarters. You’re LOB. Have a rest.’

But Maiki refused. ‘We’d just got reinforcements from New Zealand. I knew most of them – been at school with them, and had gone hunting with them. This was their first bloody battle. I couldn’t let them go in while I stayed behind.’ His friend Paul Te Kani then came over to him and put an arm around Maiki’s shoulder. ‘I’m glad you’re not going back,’ he said. ‘But I’m sad too.’

‘So am I, Paul,’ said Maiki.

The battalion held their normal pre-battle service – a few hymns, and some prayers and thoughts from the padre – then, as darkness fell, they prepared to set off. Paul told Maiki to keep an eye on three of the new fellows in their section. ‘Look after them, Maiki,’ he told him. ‘B’ Company had been tasked with attacking Takrouna from the south, where the rock face was at its most sheer. On their left were 21st Battalion. ‘A’ Company were to take Djebel Bir, and ‘C’ the right of Takrouna and the land in between. There was confusion from the outset. In front of Takrouna were heavy minefields and dense cactus plantations. A barrage had been laid on, but it rolled forward far faster than the men could advance. Soon the shells were landing far ahead of them and were of little use, as were the three tanks allotted to help clear a passage through the cactus. ‘Jesus Christ,’ says Maiki. ‘They were bloody useless. As soon as they went over these bloody great cactus, they sprang back up again.’ And the tanks simply drew enemy fire, bullets clanging and pinging into them. The moon was up, flares streaked across the sky, and tracers screamed over and into the advancing infantry. Maiki and his three new boys soon lost sight of Paul and the rest of the platoon and were struggling to make their way through. Eventually they worked their way out of the cactus plantation and into a wheat field. Crossing through that and then some olive groves, they eventually emerged at the base of Takrouna, taking cover by a ledge under its lower slopes. For the moment they were quite safe. ‘You stay here,’ he told his three charges, ‘while I go and try and find the others.’

Working his way around, he came across a Bren carrier that had just made it through with stacks of extra ammunition. Maiki could see fierce fighting going on both on Djebel Bir and on the lower slopes of Takrouna above him. Then he heard voices and suddenly Sergeant Manahi from ‘B’ Company appeared, scrabbling down towards him. He needed help carrying the ammunition up to where he and eleven other men were attacking up the most precipitous side of the hill. ‘Get some men together will you?’ he asked. Maiki was worried that he didn’t really have the authority. He was only a private and didn’t want to be responsible for getting anyone killed. If Paul had been with him, he’d have been able to tell them what to do, but they still hadn’t found him. When he went back for the others, however, they insisted on helping, and so they began lifting the boxes out of the Bren carrier and carrying them up the slopes. ‘It was difficult,’ says Maiki. ‘These were two-to-a-box jobs, and the slopes were bloody steep.’ They were aiming for the first level of buildings, where ‘B’ Company had a foothold, but all the time mortars and grenades were being slammed down into them. Even so, they made it in one piece, handing over the boxes to the ‘B’ Company men. Maiki paused for a moment, his back against a building. He had only been there a few moments when a bullet ricocheted off a wall and hit him in the leg. ‘The bastard went straight through the top of my thigh,’ says Maiki.

‘Look, we’re all right now,’ Manahi told him, having seen his wound. ‘You get on back down.’ With the help of the new boys, Maiki did just that, reaching the comparative safety of some rocks at the foot of the hill. His wound was not good, but he was worried about Paul – he hadn’t seen him since they’d set off and so thought he’d try and look for him. He now had a better sense of his bearings and knew roughly where Paul had told him they were to aim for. Telling the new boys to stay put, he staggered off.

But there was no sign of Paul, or any of the rest of ‘C’ Company. Having decided he should try and get back to the others and rest up his leg, he had begun stumbling back when a mortar bomb whistled down and landed right next to him. ‘Jesus Christ, it was just as though someone had stuck a searing hot iron on you,’ says Maiki. ‘The bomb inflated like a tyre and blew out’ Blasted to the ground, his leg was just hanging on by a bit of skin. ‘The blood was pissing out, just pumping out,’ he says. Fully conscious still, he tried to lift himself up and do something to stem the flow, but he was rapidly losing strength and the weight of his pack, his Tommy gun, and ammunition was too much. He tried to undo his belt but couldn’t. He fell back. ‘I just lay there. I had my right hand inside my groin and I could feel the bone. I wasn’t in pain. They say your life swims before you … I started thinking of home.’

Maiki was still conscious when he heard a voice and looking up saw two stretcher-bearers. With some difficulty they managed to lift him up onto the canvas. ‘I can’t do anything here, Parky,’ one of them told him. ‘It’s too bad.’ They took him to a trench then eventually, by ducking and dodging the bullets, back to the regimental aid post. And there Maiki finally passed out.

‘I attacked the Enfidaville position on night 19/20,’ Monty wrote to Alex on the 21st, even though he had been in Cairo at the time. ‘Fighting was very heavy. A lot of Boche were killed.’ So too were a lot of his own troops. Djebel Bir was taken on the 20th, and Takrouna finally cleared the following day. At one point, two Maori had reached the summit by climbing hand-over-hand up telephone cables. There they captured an astonished German radio operator and artillery observer. Later, some Italians – who offered stiff resistance throughout – hurled grenades into a building sheltering the wounded and the survivors went beserk, even hurling the enemy over the rock face. Elsewhere, the New Zealand attacks had met heavy resistance, and while most reached their initial objectives 21st Brigade had to be withdrawn after the first night of the attack.

News of the Maori assault on Takrouna quickly filtered through Eighth Army, and was recounted with something close to awe. ‘In my opinion,’ wrote Horrocks some years later, ‘it was the most gallant feat of arms I witnessed in the course of the war.’ But their success had come at a bitter price. One of the dead was Maiki’s great friend Paul Te Kani. His scattered body had been found later as they’d cleared the battlefield. ‘They told me they picked him up in pieces,’ says Maiki.