Tunisia: American First Blooding

After the Allied Task Forces’ amphibious landings, an overland assault from Algeria was necessary to seize the Tunisian ports of Bizerte and Tunis, since the Axis air presence in Tunisia and Sicily had negated a simultaneous seaborne landing to achieve those objectives. Five German fighter groups and dive-bombers had transferred to Tunisian airfields since November 8, 1942. Although Tunisia was relatively small, extending only 160 miles east to west and 500 miles north to south, it was still more than 400 miles from Algiers, from which Lt. Gen. Kenneth Anderson’s Eastern Task Force troops would have to begin their overland advance.

The overland advance was scheduled to begin on the night of November 24, and Anderson’s force was made up of the British 78th Infantry Division, under the command of Maj. Gen. Vyvyan Evelegh, and an armored division, along with several smaller supporting American armor and reconnaissance contingents. This force would attack on three axes. The first objective was Tunis, followed by the encirclement of Bizerte to compel its surrender. The British troops were divided into three infantry brigade groups (IBGs). In the north, toward Bizerte, the 36th IBG would advance along a road 10 miles inland from the sea. In the south the 11th IBG would be 40 miles inland and advance in a northeasterly direction toward Tunis. A third IBG, Blade Force, would move in between the other two units, 20 miles inland, and meet with the 11th IBG near Tebourba, due west of Djedeida, for the continued eastward advance toward Tunis.

The first clash with Axis forces occurred on November 16 at Djebel Abiod, with the enemy retreating toward Bizerte after losing eight tanks. Despite this, the Allied attack commenced as scheduled. The 11th IBG was stopped at Medjez el Bab along the southern axis; however, the Germans retreated within twenty-four hours and the town of Tebourba was taken on November 27, with Axis forces withdrawing to Djedeida. Blade Force’s 100 American and British tanks moved east at sunrise on November 25. The initial American-German armor engagement occurred on November 26 at Chougui, north of Tebourba, with the enemy again retreating after several tanks were knocked out on both sides. After a delay the 36th IBG started its advance on November 25–26 and ran into fixed enemy defensive positions on November 28, 30 miles to the west of Bizerte, at Djefna.

Axis defenses were stiffening, which subsequently stalled the advances of the 11th and 36th IBGs. Panzer Mk VI (“Tiger”) tanks made their combat debut at Djedeida, 13 miles to the west of Tunis, proving their superiority over extant Allied armor. German air squadrons enjoyed local superiority due to hard-surface airfields east of the Atlas Mountains and more favorable weather, enabling them to attack Allied armor and infantry columns, thereby impairing their mobility, which was a factor that Eisenhower and his local commanders had counted on. Axis counteroffensives in early December from Djedeida pushed back to just east of Medjez el Bab along the southern axis while inflicting losses of roughly 500 tanks and vehicles as well as 70 artillery pieces. More than 1,000 Allied troops became prisoners of war.

Nonetheless, General Anderson planned to continue his attack on Tunis to commence on December 22, 1942. After reinforcements arrived, almost 40,000 Allied troops, now including French forces, would strike at fewer than 25,000 Axis combat troops under the command of German general Walter Nehring’s XC Corps. Elements of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division and British Coldstream Guards advanced up the lower ridges of Longstop Hill, which was the dominant terrain feature controlling the river corridor to Tunis, on December 22 during heavy rain. However, on December 24, a German counterattack halted the Allied advance up the slopes, and within forty-eight hours a withdrawal was ordered, with more than 500 casualties. The Allies’ highly anticipated “race for Tunis” ended in failure.

Now the Allies would have to wait for better weather since the vital need for improved air support to aid the newly formed British First Army in the north, comprising five divisions (with the British 6th Armored and 78th Infantry Divisions as the current nucleus), to fight the Axis armies had become readily apparent. Also, Maj. Gen. Lloyd R. Fredendall would command the U.S. II Corps in central Tunisia, which was to include regiments from the 1st and 2nd Armored Divisions as well as infantry from the 1st, 3rd, 9th, and 34th Divisions that moved up from their Moroccan and Algerian landing zones. Eventually the French XIX Corps, after being equipped by the Americans and under the command of Gen. Louise-Marie Koeltz, would be stationed between the British First Army and Fredendall’s U.S. II Corps.

Also in December 1942, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, commander in chief (C-in-C), South (in control of Tunisia and Rommel’s Axis forces retreating through Tripolitania), activated the German 5th Panzer Army, under Gen. Hans-Jürgen von Arnim. This 5th Panzer Army would comprise the 10th Panzer Division near Tunis; an armored division under Col. Friedrich Freiherr von Broich (Division von Broich) near Bizerte; the 21st Panzer Division, under Lt. Gen. Hans-Georg Hildebrandt; the 334th Infantry Division; and the 5th Fallschirmjäger Regiment. The Italian XXX Corps would comprise the 1st Superga Division, the 47th Grenadier Regiment, and the 50th Special Brigade to the south. Eventually Rommel’s Panzer-Armee Afrika would join von Arnim with the intent to move westward as a combined force to push the Allies back into Algeria and, perhaps, Morocco. For this operation the Axis would have to have control of the mountain passes in the Eastern and Western Dorsal Mountains of central Tunisia.

On January 30, 1943, a battle group of the German 21st Panzer Division and the Italian 50th Special Brigade, the latter with Semovente assault guns, attacked a French regiment in the Faïd Pass in the Eastern Dorsal near Sidi Bou Zid on the Sfax-Sbeitla road and defeated them there. An American counterattack with limited infantry and armor forces from Sbeitla failed to recapture the Faïd Pass and other neighboring ones, now defended by German 88mm antitank (AT) guns. Also, Fredendall’s II Corps’ advance during the last week of January on the Maknassy road junction via Sened—more than 30 miles to the southeast with his Combat Command C of Maj. Gen. Orlando Ward’s 1st Armored Division—had to be recalled and redirected to Sidi Bou Zid instead, just to the southwest of the Faïd Pass, as a crisis was unfolding to the north.

The loss of the Faïd Pass and failed counterattacks there from January 31 to February 1 would set the stage for further German offensive movements. On February 14 columns from both the 21st and 10th Panzer Divisions, under von Arnim, with more than 200 tanks combined broke through a thin American armor defensive line at Sidi Bou Zid from two different directions. The 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions made contact with one another to the west of Sidi Bou Zid at nightfall on February 14 to consolidate their gains. A failed American armored and mechanized infantry counterattack the next day led to the capture of approximately 1,500 GIs. More than 150 American tanks, half-tracks, artillery pieces, and trucks were left on the Sidi Bou Zid battlefields. The U.S. 1st Armored Division’s Combat Command A (CCA) had been crushed.

The Tunisian battlefield, mid-February 1943. After the Allies failed to win the race to Tunis in late November and December 1942, General Eisenhower called a halt to offensive operations and consolidated his forces while awaiting better weather. The British 1st Army was deployed in northern Tunisia with both armored and infantry divisions. In central and southern Tunisia, the French 19th Corps, under General Louis-Marie Koeltz, was positioned to the south of the British and to the north of the U.S. II Corps, under Maj. Gen. Lloyd Fredendall. The American II Corps comprised the 1st Armored Division, with its dispersed armored combat commands, and the 1st Infantry Division, which, likewise, had its 16th, 18th, and 26th Regiments scattered along a 200-mile front from north to south. Elements of the U.S. 34th Infantry Division were also assigned to the II Corps sector; however, their deployment was also scattered. The 5th Panzer Army, under Gen. Hans-Jürgen von Arnim, had its headquarters in Tunis; however, its infantry and armored divisions were situated along a defensive line running down the eastern side of the Eastern Dorsal Mountains from the Mediterranean coast in the north to the impassable Chott Djerid salt marshes to the south of El Guettar. Major elements of 5th Panzer Army’s two panzer divisions, the 10th and the 21st, would force through the Eastern Dorsal Mountains during the second and third weeks of February, thereby preempting a U.S. II Corps offensive, which theoretically could have split the Axis forces if it reached the sea at Sfax. In addition, von Arnim’s and Field Marshal Rommel’s separate armored offensives inflicted major defeats on the Americans at Sidi Bou Zid and at Kasserine on February 14–15 and February 20–22, respectively. Upon entering Tunisia, Rommel’s Panzer-Armee Afrika was situated in the south along the Mareth Line and was renamed the Italian 1st Army as major armored elements of the Deutsches Afrikakorps (DAK) were transferred to the German 5th Panzer Army in central Tunisia. The Italian 20th and 21st Corps, with some armor in the former, would remain in the south with elements of the DAK to combat Gen. Bernard Montgomery’s advancing 8th Army from the south.

On Kesselring’s direct order, von Arnim’s 21st Panzer Division continued 25 miles farther to the west, in the absence of another American counterattack, on February 16. Around Sbeitla were the remnants of the U.S. 1st Armored Division’s CCA and Col. Paul Robinett’s CCB. The Germans captured Sbeitla on February 17 after some lackluster fighting by the demoralized CCA, necessitating the withdrawal of CCB. The U.S. II Corps, after suffering extensive losses to the German armored thrust, had to establish a new defensive line through the Kasserine Pass, just to the southwest of Sbeitla, on the road toward Thala.

Enter Rommel! Since Gen. Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army had outrun its supplies and needed time to reassemble its lines of communication, so Rommel strengthened the Mareth Line in southern Tunisia with his infantry (now to become the Italian First Army under General Maresciallo Giovanni Messe) and utilized the mobile elements from his retreating German-Italian panzer army to seize Gafsa and Feriana on February 17, followed by the capture of the Allied airfield at Thelepte along with many aviation stores. Meanwhile, on February 17, von Arnim sent the 10th Panzer Division north toward the Fondouk and Pinchon Passes, while leaving the 21st Panzer Division at Sbeitla. On February 18–19, Kesselring approved of Rommel’s plan over von Arnim’s to now attach both the 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions to Rommel in order to attack the U.S. II Corps defenses in the Kasserine Pass area on February 19. After getting through the Kasserine Pass through the Western Dorsal, Rommel could threaten Tebessa, the American supply base in Algeria on a road and railway network, and/or strike northwestward toward Thala and Le Kef, which would place him in the rear of the British First Army in northern Tunisia.

Rommel attacked the Kasserine Pass with his former Deutsches Afrikakorps (DAK) mechanized forces, while the 10th Panzer Division was still en route, during the early hours of February 20. The 21st Panzer Division attacked Sbiba directly due north of Sbeitla; however, this German force was repelled by Allied forces there. Initially opposing Rommel were only an American engineer regiment and a battalion of the U.S. 26th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division. Other elements of the U.S. 39th Infantry Regiment of the 9th Infantry Division also arrived. Anderson reinforced the road to Thala by ordering in contingents of the British 26th Armoured Brigade. Late in the afternoon elements of the 10th Panzer Division (without its Mk VI Tiger tank battalion) arrived, and along with Rommel’s German-Italian troops, they attacked to get through the Kasserine Pass with the intent of moving on either Thala to the northwest or Tebessa to the west. This German advance caused some Allied units to begin to retreat or become surrounded. Also, the armor of the British 26th Brigade, which had initially held off the German armor on the road to Thala, was finally overwhelmed with enemy reinforcements. Rommel’s Italian tanks were moving on the road toward Tebessa. Fredendall sent in Robinett’s CCB and other units of the 1st Infantry Division to block the further movement of Axis armor in light of the disintegration of Allied defensive positions.

Rommel consolidated his gains in the Kasserine Pass on February 21 as he vacillated in moving on Tebessa, Thala, or Le Kef (via Sbiba). As a result, he divided his battle groups along the three different road axes of advance, and each was to encounter increasing Allied strength. The Axis attempt to break into Thala was rebuffed by British armor; American artillery, including 105mm and 155mm howitzers of the 9th Infantry Division; and Allied fighter sorties, on the morning of February 22. American tank and artillery fire from Robinett’s CCB halted the Axis movement on Tebessa on February 21. The 21st Panzer Division’s movement along the road axis toward Sbiba was, likewise, stopped by British armor and American infantry defensive positions. By the afternoon of February 22, Rommel had realized that although his initial forays into the Kasserine Pass had been successful, a combination of stiffening Allied resistance along the axes of his advance, his waning fuel reserves, and the threat of Montgomery attacking the Mareth Line well to the southeast all necessitated him to issue a withdrawal order late on February 22 for all units. By the next day most of the German and Italian units had left Kasserine Pass.

After Sidi Bou Zid and Kasserine, Eisenhower altered his command structure by appointing the British general Sir Harold R.L.G. Alexander the new leader of the 18th Army Group. For the final drive to capture Tunisia, Alexander would have twenty divisions in three main groups along a front of 140 miles. The formation of a Mediterranean Air Command under British air chief marshal Sir Arthur Tedder in late February would hopefully obviate some of the inadequacies of the Allied air presence up till then. It would comprise the 242nd Royal Air Force (RAF) Group, the XII Air Support Command, and the Tactical Bomber Force. Maj. Gen. George S. Patton Jr. was to take over the command of II Corps from Fredendall, with Maj. Gen. Omar N. Bradley as his deputy.

On February 26 von Arnim launched an offensive against the British in northern Tunisia to expand his perimeter of defense for Tunis. Von Arnim’s 5th Panzer Army would operate north of the area of Gabès, while Rommel would stand his forces facing southward toward Montgomery and his advancing British Eighth Army. On March 6 Rommel attacked Montgomery at Medenine; however, Eighth Army artillery and AT gunfire, along with RAF attacks on Axis columns, halted the German field marshal’s last Tunisian offensive.

In mid-March the Eighth Army prepared to assault the Mareth Line with several of its divisions. The Mareth Line consisted of a series of outdated blockhouses and entrenchments built by the French in the late 1930s to protect southern Tunisia from Mussolini’s Tripolitania outposts. It ran roughly from east to west halfway between Medenine to the south and Gabès to the north. The Mareth Line was to defend the plain between the Matmata Hills and the sea. To the west of the Matmata Hills were salt marshes and broken desert. Rommel harbored grave doubts about the suitability of the Mareth Line to stop Montgomery and left Africa permanently on March 9. After direct attacks on the enemy fortifications on March 20 failed, separate British operations at such locales as Wilder’s and the Tebaga Gap from March 23–26 successfully turned the Mareth positions from the flank and rear, respectively. This compelled the Axis, under General Messe, to begin its retreat on March 27, first to the north of Gabès at Wadi Akarit and then farther north to Enfidaville, less than 50 miles from Tunis.

Patton’s II Corps had three full infantry divisions, an armored division, and the 1st Ranger Battalion, plus engineers as well as field and coast artillery units, all totaling almost 90,000 men. In mid-March its first objective was Gafsa, directly due south of Kasserine, to draw enemy forces away from Montgomery in the south. The 1st Armored Division took Gafsa without a fight on March 17. Despite extremely muddy terrain, Sened, about 30 miles directly east of Gafsa, was captured with light opposition. The 1st Armored Division advanced an additional 20 miles to the northeast and took Maknassy uncontested. Finally, encountering stiff Axis resistance just to the east of Maknassy, the armored unit stopped its advance on March 22, just as a German counterstroke was to be unleashed on II Corps infantry at El Guettar, between Gafsa and Sened.

From March 21–24 the 1st Infantry Division repelled two major assaults by the 10th Panzer Division utilizing massed artillery, tank destroyers, mines, air sorties, and hand-to-hand combat. The American infantry suffered heavy casualties, but the Germans were compelled to withdraw. The Allied command had received their wish, namely, a diversion of Axis armor away from the Eighth Army in the south.

Following his victory at El Guettar, Patton unleashed a two-infantry-division (1st and 9th) attack to the sea between Gabès and Sfax, which would divide the Axis forces in two; however, the 9th Division, in its combat debut as a complete division, encountered stiff enemy resistance and incurred more than 1,600 casualties over nine days of combat. As little progress to the sea was made in late March and early April by II Corps, Eisenhower and Patton replaced Orlando Ward with Maj. Gen. Ernest Harmon to lead the 1st Armored Division on April 5. In any event, the Axis troops hastened in their northward retreat into the Tunis and Bizerte bridgeheads. II Corps divisions began shifting north to close in further on the two Tunisian ports.

On April 15 Bradley took command of II Corps as Patton returned to the rear echelon to plan the Sicily invasion. II Corps was to assist the British First Army in pushing back the enemy perimeter, and after the two enemy ports were isolated, Bradley was to capture Bizerte. Both the 9th Infantry Division along the coast and the 1st Infantry Division to its south had rough combat with the enemy in the hilly terrain, with daily success measured only in yards. On April 26 the 34th Infantry Division entered the II Corps thrust between the 1st and 9th Divisions. With objectives such as Hill 609 and Hill 523, the American infantry divisions continued to meet fanatical enemy resistance, with the 1st and 34th Divisions incurring more than 2,300 casualties in three days of nearly continuous combat. On April 30 II Corps began another general attack and overran Hills 609 and 523, with the Germans retreating into Mateur on the night of May 1. After two more days of tough combat, the 1st Armored Division drove the Germans out of Mateur. Bradley and his troops were only 20 miles from Bizerte.

The American attack on Bizerte with Maj. Gen. Manton S. Eddy’s 9th Infantry Division and Harmon’s 1st Armored Division commenced on May 6. On the next day, after some heavy street fighting in Bizerte to root out snipers with infantrymen and M3 Lee medium tanks, the retreating enemy fled through the city. Concurrent with this the British First Army’s V Corps drive on Tunis began on May 3, after linking up with Eighth Army. Alexander shifted Montgomery’s 7th Armored Division, the 4th Indian Division, and the 201st Guards Brigade from the Eighth Army to the First Army for this final assault on the Axis redoubt. Montgomery’s remaining troops would participate only in local operations so as to conserve manpower for the upcoming Sicily invasion. Tunis fell on May 7. The Axis units encountered in and around Bizerte and Tunis were in a state of complete disarray, with wholesale surrender commonplace. Eventually 275,000 Axis prisoners surrendered with the capture of Bizerte and Tunis. With the advent of the second week of May, the hard-fought, six-month-long Tunisian campaign was over, with the formal Axis surrender on May 13, 1943.

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