Battle Group Fullriede in the Tunisian Mountains, spring 1943

Lieutenant-Colonel Fritz Fullriede

The war in Africa which had, from 1940, been confined to the deserts of Libya and Egypt, expanded in November 1942 out of those sandy wildernesses and into the mountains of Algeria and Tunisia. Those two countries, both French colonial territories, had been neutral since the Franco-German armistice of June 1940, and the Axis Powers had respected that neutrality. Allied planners realised however, that if they could land an army at Rommel’s back his forces could be crushed between British 8th Army in the desert and an Anglo-American host operating in French North Africa. It was obvious that the Vichy French government would never give authority for landings and military operations in its territory so, without asking for that permission, the Allies decided to breach Algerian and Tunisian neutrality. Early in November their forces began to disembark in ports along the whole North African coastline.

Hitler’s immediate reaction was to order a blocking force to be sent without delay and the speed with which this directive was carried out surprised the Allied leaders. Within a day German paratroop contingents had been flown in to secure airfields, ports and the principal cities of Tunisia. A constant trickle of men and material came in to hold the bridgehead perimeter and to ensure that Rommel’s Italo-German army, withdrawing out of Libya, could reach the bridgehead and reinforce the troops in Tunisia. Germany’s speedy reaction to the Allied invasion — and which had countered the Anglo-American strategy — was based on the simple and obvious premise that for as long as Axis forces held the capital city and Bizerta, the country’s major port, the Allies could not use Tunisia as a springboard for military operations in the western and central Mediterranean. To maintain that spoiling victory which would thwart the Allied plans, required men and supplies. Hitler supplied both.

General von Arnim, the German commander in Tunisia, had to hold back the Anglo-American forces driving into Tunisia from the West while at the same time co-ordinating operations with Field Marshal Rommel, whose Panzer Army in the south of Tunisia was being driven back by British 8th Army. Von Arnim’s most urgent military problem was to prevent the Anglo-American forces from seizing the mountain passes through which they would gain access to central Tunisia and, thereby, split Rommel’s army from that of von Arnim. The defence of those passes fell chiefly upon army divisions, but many others were the responsibility of battle groups. One of the most successful Kampfgruppen was led by Lieutenant-Colonel Fritz Fullriede. During February 1943, the colonel was flown to Africa and briefed by von Arnim on the task which his new command was to carry out. This was to defend the Fondouk passes, part of the battle group’s 65km-length of front. Battle group Fullriede was, to begin with, low in number and poorly equipped. It was made up of three companies of Italian infantry, nine German companies, 14 Italian field guns and three German infantry guns. A well-armed nucleus around which the Kampfgruppe had been built was Captain Duevers’ 334th Armoured Car Battalion which also included some engineers, a pair of 88mm guns and a few light anti-aircraft weapons.

Fullriede saw as his first task the need to make himself known to the men he would be leading in battle, as well as gaining a clear picture of their fitness for combat. For the first few days after taking up position in his allotted sector he visited each of his units. Fullriede was fortunate in that he had arrived in Tunisia during a period of comparative inactivity. Both sides were exhausted from the strain of the winter battles and in that brief lull he was able to impress upon the soldiers of his Kampfgruppe the force of his personality. Between November and January the Allies had sought to crush the German bridgehead and the German-Italian forces had fought to hold the perimeter which had been created in the earliest days of the campaign. Fighting in the Tunisian mountains had been bitter, hard and wasteful but had been brought almost to a standstill by the mud produced by the heavy rains of January and February. The energetic Fullriede was determined to give the American units on his sector no rest at all. He sent out battle patrols to dominate No Mans Land and often accompanied these, learning at first hand the advantages and disadvantages of the local area. On those sectors where aggressive American commanders mounted their own small-unit operations, Fullriede soon reached the spot to inspire his men to master the situation.

Slowly the strength of Kampfgruppe Fullriede grew. On 4 March an Arab battalion, “Tunisia”, came under command. The officers and NCOs of that unit were Germans who had served with the French Foreign Legion and had left it to serve with Panzer Army Afrika. The rank and file were native Tunisians.

The peace which had endured along Fullriede’s sector was broken on 5 March by a heavy artillery barrage which fell onto an isolated forward position in front of the small native town of Pichon. First reports from the men in the front line indicated that the artillery fire was the opening of a major new American offensive. There had been a change of command in US II Corps and the new corps commander was the aggressive George Patton. Fullriede drove into the forward positions to judge the situation on the spot. There he saw that American tanks had outflanked the German advanced strongpoint and had almost surrounded it. There was no time to lose if the men in that outpost were not to be cut off and destroyed. The commander ordered his reluctant soldiers to pull back to the main defensive positions in the village of El Ala and under heavy tank and machine gun fire the defenders withdrew. But before El Ala could be prepared for defence, US tank forces had swept down upon them and in a swift assault had captured the village.

Fullriede’s worries were a little alleviated when a group of reinforcements came up — a platoon of commandos from the Brandenburg regiment. It was exactly the type of support that Fullriede would have wished for himself, combat veterans of proven ability. Fullriede knew that the Americans had not yet had time to consolidate their positions in El Ala and that until they had done this their hold on the village was tenuous. The German Army’s standard response to the loss of ground was to counterattack immediately — and here the battle group commander had the men available to retake the lost village. There was no time to organise even a mortar barrage and to issue artillery fire orders would have taken too much time. The need to counter-attack was an immediate one and the Brandenburg commandos claimed they needed no artillery support. They fought best in close-quarter battles.

The commandos melted away into the growing darkness leaving Fullriede’s men to wait for a given signal — a Very light. Minutes passed and then there was a series of explosions from inside the village where two companies of American tanks had laagered for the night. Those explosions were followed by fires as the vehicles blew up, one after the other. The commando platoon was in action. The dark of the night was pierced at intervals by sudden brief flashes as hand grenades exploded or machine pistols fired bursts of bullets at the surprised Americans. Impatiently, Fullriede and his soldiers waited upon the signal and then, finally, it came: a green flare rising fast into the night sky. The battle group commander ordered his men to follow him and led them at the charge to where the Brandenburg platoon was driving the last American troops out of the houses which they had sought in vain to convert into strongpoints. The light of burning tanks showed a pair of American light howitzers with their crews lying dead around them. Immediately Fullriede called to a group of commandos asking whether they could operate the enemy guns. They could. Detachments of the battle group swung the weapons round, the commandos took post on the guns and within a few minutes they were in action firing at a pair of Grants which, attracted by the sound and sights of battle, had driven into El Ala. Three shots from the howitzers and both vehicles lay immobile and out of action. The remaining Americans realising the hopelessness of their position either surrendered or fled into the night.

The passes at Fondouk had been a sensitive sector since the earliest weeks of the campaign. Now, in March, their importance had increased with the build-up of Allied — chiefly American — forces facing them. The Axis High Command in Africa, aware of Allied preparations for a major offensive, reinforced Fullriede’s battle group once again, and this time with Captain Kahle’s 190th Reconnaissance Battalion.

We have seen in earlier pages that it was a favourite tactic of Field Marshal Rommel to launch pre-emptive strikes to upset his opponent’s military preparations. He determined to launch such an attack against the US troops holding the El Zhagales Pass. That pass lay in the sector of front held by Fullriede’s battle group and it says a lot for the confidence which the commander had in his men that for this spoiling attack he proposed to use just three platoons of infantry and three armoured reconnaissance vehicles. The task of that small fighting group was to advance across the 10km-wide No Mans Land, reach the mouth of the pass and then to fight a way through it.

The élan of Fullriede’s soldiers proved irresistible and after a short but intense fire-fight the US defenders, who greatly outnumbered the German attackers, were forced back. One small American group took up positions on a ridge of high ground behind the pass. Tactically, this was an unsound move and was one which Fullriede quickly exploited. Combining some armoured cars, a detachment of motor cyclists and a couple of SPs mounting 7.5cm guns, his units encircled the American group on the ridge. The only immediately available artillery to support the infantry attack was a single mortar, the crew of which fired a short barrage. Under that flimsy fire cover Fullriede led his men in a charge. Five American officers and 65 other ranks were taken prisoner, but more welcome booty was the lorry park with a number of serviceable vehicles.

Rommel’s pre-emptive attack had two consequences. The first of these was that the Americans had been forced out of the El Zeghales Pass. The second was that it woke the front on that sector and throughout the succeeding few days US troops made a series of attacks against the Kampfgruppe and the units on either flank. Slowly, that burst of American activity died away to leave reconnaissance and battle patrols as the principal activity. It was, however, a false lull. On 20 March, a US armoured thrust broke through at Maknassy and at first Fullriede was ordered to clean up the situation, but those orders were revoked two days later. Then, instead of undertaking a new attack his battle group received further reinforcements, a small battle group whose principal formation was the 961st Penal Regiment.

Fighting flickered fitfully along Fullriede’s front with US thrusts succeeded by battle group counter-thrusts. One particularly serious breach was made by the Americans on 28 March, on a neighbouring sector. That attack was the opening move of a general offensive to capture the passes. The first penetrations made by the US troops into the German positions were extended to become wide breaches. A break-through was imminent and it seemed that nothing could halt the American onrush.

Fullriede decided to swing across onto the neighbouring sector and open a counter-attack. Shortly before last light on 29 March, he explained his battle plan to the men of the two infantry companies and the 334th Battalion whom he intended to lead in person in the forthcoming battle. The mission was, he told them, to recapture a dominant hill, Jebel Gridyina, which had been lost the previous day. He led the column of infantry to the foot of the Jebel and then ordered his men to take up attack formation. He himself took post in the centre of the short line and led the companies into the attack. Swiftly and efficiently the battle group infantry swept up the hill, recaptured it and took as prisoners most of the US defenders. The remainder managed to escape into the night. Determined to recover all the ground which had been lost in the opening moves of the American offensive, Fullriede struck at the US forces holding another mountain top, Point 603, and used for this mission a battalion of the penal regiment and No 2 Company of the 334th Battalion. The attack opened at first light on 30 March and its speed and weight flung the US defenders off the peak and recaptured it.

There was a regrouping of forces on the Allied side and US II Corps was pulled out of the line at Fondouk and sent to the northern sector of the Tunisian battle front. That corps was replaced by British 6th Armoured Division and detachments from a French colonial division. Fullriede decided to launch a spoiling attack to roll up the Allied line, but his best unit, the 334th, was taken from him and posted to another sector. Now lacking the strength to undertake large scale missions, he and his battle group had to be content with local operations. Reinforcements were promised but few arrived. One which did was an Italian machine gun battalion.

The first major assault by 6th Armoured Division came in on 7 April and broke into the German main defensive line, but only at its second attempt; the first, an infantry attack, was beaten back. The second was a tank attack and succeeded. During the fighting one battalion of the Penal Regiment was almost totally destroyed. Only 150 men escaped from the battlefield. Immediately, Fullriede ordered a counter-attack using his SPs whose 7.5cm guns outranged the British tank guns. Five British machines were soon wrecked or burning and the advance by 6th Armoured was brought to a temporary halt.

By this time Rommel’s Panzer Army had been driven out of the positions it had held at Mareth in southern Tunisia and was moving into the central part of that country. In order that the desert veterans could reach and take up fresh sectors in the battle line, it was even more essential that the western passes be held. The most important of those passes was Fondouk and the little town of Pichon, through an accident of war, had now become a place of strategic importance. A town so vital to the battle plans of the Axis High Command as Pichon had now become, needed to be defended by a strong formation and the withdrawal of the 334th had left Fullriede’s battle group dangerously weak. Aware of that fact, High Command returned the 334th which took up position ready to meet the Allied offensive which would soon come in, now that 8th Army had linked up with the Allied forces in Tunisia.

It was stressed upon Fullriede that his Kampfgruppe had to hold Pichon and the Fondouk Pass until Rommel’s Army had passed through Kairouan and into the security of the central area of the bridgehead. Only then could his unit leave its positions and pull back northwards. The scale of fighting on Kampfgruppe’s front diminished for a day and then grew again. The opening moves of 6th Armoured Division’s offensive were air and ground bombardments followed by infantry probes testing for weak points in the battle group’s front. The weight of those British attacks and the fury of the artillery barrages and air- raids were too much for some of the battle group’s soldiers. The native battalions — “Tunisia” and “Algeria”, together with the Italian machine gun battalion — were the first to break and either abandon their positions or else surrender én masse to the British troops. Only the Foreign Legion NCOs and officers of the native battalions stayed to fight.

Pressure grew on the battle group’s remaining units and under that pressure Fondouk was eventually taken, but 6th Armoured’s attempts to bring their advance forward were stopped by Fullriede’s last SPs and those companies which had been with the KG since it was created. There was a brief lull as both sides regrouped after the recent bitter fighting. Then came the news that the last elements of Afrika Korps had passed through Kairouan. Kampfgruppe Fullriede could now leave the battlefield and during the evening of 9 April, the commander issued orders to the groups which had served under him, that they were to detach themselves from the enemy and were to pass through Kairouan to take up fresh positions around Enfidaville, where a fresh defensive line had been set up. Not all the groups were able to detach themselves cleanly and were overrun by Allied armour.

Although Kampfgruppe Fullriede was later employed on other sectors, chiefly in the Pont du Fahs area, it is at this point that we leave it. The end of the war in Africa was now only a matter of weeks away and with that defeat ahead lay years of captivity as prisoners of war for the veterans of the African campaign.

Colonel Fritz Fullriede took command of the fortress of Kolberg March 1, 1945.

Fritz Fullriede (4 January 1895 – 3 November 1969) was a German officer and war criminal during World War II. Fullriede fought in the German invasion of Poland, on the Eastern Front, in the Afrika Korps and the Italian Campaign. The last commander of Festung Kolberg, Fullriede received the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves in 1945. After the war, Fullriede was tried and convicted by a Dutch court for his role in the Putten raid of 1944. He was sentenced to 2 1/2 years.

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