“Goats Set Out to Lure a Tiger” I

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The almond trees bloomed early in central Tunisia, sweetening the January air with white blossoms that soon carpeted the ground as if strewn for a wedding. Arabs trotted to market on their braying donkeys, carrying faggots of firewood or panniers heaped with green onions. Veiled women peered through the iron grilles in their front doors at soldiers hurrying along the roads. War and rumors of war flared along the Eastern Dorsal, but mostly there was an intense bustle, as though scene-wrights were building a proscenium on which great battles were to be staged once the curtain lifted. Men died—in firefights and in minefields and in plane crashes; at the temporary American cemetery in Maktar, grave markers were fashioned from the wooden slats of ration crates after the stack of crosses purchased from a local monastery ran out. But deaths remained few enough for the fallen to be unique and even flamboyant, like the American officer shot dead by a sniper in his jeep outside the Ousseltia Valley: while the jeep was being towed back to Allied lines, its brakes stuck, the vehicle caught fire, and soldiers for miles along the front could see what appeared to be a corpse riding a comet across the Tunisian pan.

As a first line of defense in extending the Allied battle lines south of the Medjerda River, the Anglo-Americans had entrusted the Eastern Dorsal to the French. General Juin’s 35,000 troops formed a frayed picket line for 200 miles down to the Saharan oasis at Tozeur. Relations between the French and British were even more strained than those between Brits and Yanks. “British senior officers are what they are,” Juin wrote Giraud. “What we think in them is stupidity or obstruction is often only the result of a slowness in, or absence of, imagination.” A British colonel described his French counterpart in Tunisia as “a comic-opera soldier on the stage, 45 years’ service in the Foreign Legion, covered with medals held on to his tunic by two bits of cotton…. We get on like fighting cocks.”

The French possessed almost no antitank weapons, but Allied planners considered most of the Eastern Dorsal too mountainous for German armor. Besides, the French lacked almost everything else, too: ammunition, artillery, uniforms, boots. Horses pulled trucks, men pulled wagons. Artillerymen wagged signal flags to communicate between batteries, as their forefathers had in Napoleon’s legions. Morale slumped; some French soldiers pleaded for American helmets, to fool the Germans into thinking they were facing better-armed U.S. troops. Scattered on the lonely ridgelines, A. J. Liebling wrote, the French units resembled “goats set out to lure a tiger.” An American liaison officer reported to Eisenhower that the French were “somewhat discouraged” because “it seems to be a question of running or being overrun.”

“This past week has been a succession of disappointments,” Eisenhower confessed to his diary after returning to Algiers from Casablanca. “I’m just writing some of them down so as to forget them.” The abandonment of SATIN was one; he cited, as well, the “signs of complete collapse” by the French.

Other disappointments went unlisted. Neither Roosevelt nor Churchill had been effusive in his praise at Casablanca, and Eisenhower felt unappreciated. “His work and leadership had been taken rather for granted,” Butcher wrote on January 17, 1943. The “absence of clear-cut words of thanks from the president or prime minister showed that they had their noses to the political winds.” Harry Hopkins told Butcher at Casablanca that taking Tunisia would prove Eisenhower “one of the world’s greatest generals,” but without such a victory his fate was uncertain. “Such is the life of generals,” Butcher mused. Some British journalists had begun speculating that the commander-in-chief might be sacked, and editorial writers at home also voiced impatience. “Mud is a silly alibi [for the] failure of the Allied forces to deliver a knockout blow,” an Oklahoma newspaper opined. In a note to a West Point classmate, Eisenhower wrote, “There is no use denying that at times discouragement has piled on top of discouragement.”

The abrupt scuttling of SATIN sent Allied planners back to the drawing board. There would be no drive to the sea, at least not until Montgomery’s Eighth Army was in Tunisia to lend support. Instead, Fredendall’s II Corps was to conduct raids and keep the enemy off-balance until better weather allowed a coordinated offensive. “We must keep up a bold, aggressive front,” Eisenhower wrote Marshall, “and try to keep the Axis forces back on their heels.”

At a commanders’ meeting in the Constantine orphanage on January 18, the commander-in-chief laid out this new strategy, calling it “offensively defensive.” Juin listened closely, then warned, “The Germans will not remain inactive.” Eisenhower replied with the exasperation of a man who had had a difficult week: “I don’t want anything quiescent on this goddam front during the next two months.”

In this the Germans accommodated him, beginning that very day. Axis troops already occupied the mountain passes in the north, including the portals at Jefna and Longstop Hill that gave on to Bizerte and Tunis. Now they set out to capture the four main gaps through the Eastern Dorsal in central and southern Tunisia. Control of the passes would enlarge the Axis bridgehead and safeguard the coastal corridor linking Arnim’s Fifth Panzer Army and Rommel’s troops, who were closing into Tunisia from Libya. It would also guarantee Tunis’s water supply—a reservoir forty miles southeast of Medjez-el-Bab—and keep the initiative in the Axis camp. (Eisenhower on January 11 had asked his staff about cutting off drinking water to the capital; he was told that because of heavy rains and multiple sources “no action can be taken against the water supply of Tunis.”) Field Marshal Kesselring had not abandoned his ambition of driving the Anglo-Americans back through Constantine and Bône, but first he needed firm possession of the Eastern Dorsal.

On the afternoon of January 18, after a feint by fifty panzers toward British lines in the north, Tiger tanks and 5,000 Axis infantrymen slammed into the French around the reservoir. The enemy swarmed like wasps into the Ousseltia Valley, which controlled the critical pass to the holy city of Kairouan. Reporter A. D. Divine described French troops “retiring from crest to crest, fighting like mountain goats in an area of rock and shaley slopes.” Within a day the equivalent of seven French infantry battalions had been cut off on the ridgelines. Juin reported that he was “not hopeful.”

General Anderson ordered a British infantry brigade to counterattack from the north, then asked Fredendall to dispatch Robinett’s CCB from the 1st Armored Division to block further Axis advance in the south. At 5:15 P.M. on January 19, from his lair in Speedy Valley, Fredendall phoned Robinett with an order so circumspect it seemed delphic:

Move your command, i.e., the walking boys, pop guns, Baker’s outfit and the outfit which is the reverse of Baker’s outfit, and the big fellows to “M,” which is due north of where you are now, as soon as possible. Have your boss report to the French gentleman whose name begins with “J” at a place which begins with “D,” which is five grid squares to the left of “M.”

Robinett later observed that translating this message, so freighted with mystery and confusion, probably took “about as much of my time as it did of the opposing German commander’s.” The corps commander’s desires having at last been divined, 3,400 men and three dozen CCB tanks marched fifty miles to Maktar while Robinett reported to Juin at Djerissa. On the morning of January 21, American tanks rumbled down a perilous corkscrew road into the Ousseltia Valley, filled with “a lake of morning mist, beautiful, almost ethereal,” Divine reported.

Three days of desultory fighting followed, with neither side robust enough to win a decisive advantage. Five battalions from Terry Allen’s Big Red One joined Robinett, who theoretically was under French command but continued to receive contradictory orders from Fredendall, including one message that required nine hours to decode. “An excellent example of lack of coordination in the high command,” a CCB assessment concluded, although the maverick Robinett was never wholly displeased at any confusion among his superiors that enlarged his autonomy.

By January 24 the battlefield had stabilized with the German line three to eight miles west of where it had been a week earlier. American casualties exceeded two hundred. Jubilation swept Speedy Valley at a report that more than four hundred Germans had been captured, but the whooping subsided when a second dispatch reduced the figure to fewer than forty.

French casualties were catastrophic, with prisoner-of-war losses alone close to 3,500 and some battalions pared to 200 men. “The French can no longer be counted on for much,” Truscott reported.

Even Giraud now recognized the idiocy of his refusal to integrate French units into the Allied command structure. On January 24, with French concurrence, Eisenhower gave Anderson command of the entire Tunisian front, including French and American units. Fredendall’s 32,000 men in II Corps would join the 67,000 British and American soldiers already in First Army, rather than reporting directly to Eisenhower through Truscott.

Until dry weather arrived in the north, and the drive on Tunis resumed, II Corps was to “act defensively” in protecting the Allied right wing. Eisenhower had decreed on January 18—and he repeated the order on January 26 and February 1—that the 1st Armored Division was to remain concentrated in a tight fist as “a mobile reserve” capable of countering any Axis attack in lower Tunisia.

He had no sooner issued these orders than he undercut them by authorizing the extended diversion of CCB to reinforce the Ousseltia Valley and by encouraging Fredendall to “blood” the rest of Old Ironsides in various raids. Instead of being “well concentrated,” as Eisenhower advised, the division was soon scattered across southern Tunisia.

As in the initial planning for SATIN, Eisenhower had issued ambiguous directives and then failed to ensure that his orders were properly executed. Again he was distracted by matters large and small: planning had begun for the invasion of Sicily, with Patton chosen to command the American forces; Churchill and his retinue intended to visit Algiers in early February, despite warnings of a plot to assassinate “the Big Cigar Man” a variety show produced by Irving Berlin was scheduled to tour North Africa with 300 troupers; some American officers were drinking excessively, and, Eisenhower wrote Beetle Smith on January 26, “barracks used by our soldiers are not kept as neat and homelike in appearance at they could be.”

Some of these issues required a supreme commander’s attention, but they compromised Eisenhower’s efficacy as a field general. Once again he considered moving to Constantine to take direct command of the front; once again he decided that the press of business in Algiers precluded the move. Instead he watched from afar and issued plaintive edicts urging that “every man do his best.”

“As much as we preach simplicity in the Army,” he wrote a friend in Washington in late January, “I sometimes feel it is the one thing most frequently violated in my own thinking.”