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Excerpt from Tunisia 17 November 1942 – 13 May 1943,

by Charles R. Anderson, U.S. Army Center of Military History:

 

Strategic Setting

“…By the end of November [ 1942 ] the Allies would have 253,213 troops in North Africa.  The Axis buildup began at an equally frenzied pace.  As early as 10 November the Italian Air Force sent to Tunis a flight of 28 fighters.  Two days later an airlift began that would bring to Tunisia over 15,000 men and 581 tons of supplies.  During November transports brought to the ports of Tunis and Bizerte 176 tanks, 131 artillery pieces, 1,152 vehicles, and 13,000 tons of supplies.  To strengthen Axis units already in North Africa, the Germans sent three fresh divisions, the Italians two.  Due to limited Allied naval capability, Axis submarines could attack Allied ships in waters between Sicily and Tunisia with little worry about Allied antisubmarine retaliation…on 13 November…the Allies gained their major objective: French forces in North Africa would immediately assist American and British forces in liberating Tunisia and, later, metropolitan France…

 

Operations

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On 30 January [ 1943 ] the 21st Panzer Division blasted through French defenders at Faid Pass, then drove off an American relief column the next day.  The attack on Faid interrupted preparations for an assault by the U.S. II Corps on Maknassy, thirty-two miles south.  The attack went ahead on the 31st but was fatally compromised when Allied commanders argued whether American armor should be concentrated for the Maknassy operation or diverted to a counterattack on Faid.  By 3 February von Arnim and Rommel had the results they wanted: the Allied counterattack on Faid had failed, the II Corps attack on Maknassy had been stopped and recalled and Allied units were withdrawing.  As a bonus, dissension appeared in the Alliance when the French protested ineffective American support.

 

While Eisenhower struggled to contain squabbles on the Allied side, the Germans refueled their tanks and continued west.  On the 14th they hit Sidi Bou Zid, ten miles beyond Faid. With over 200 tanks on both sides, a huge, drawn-out battle appeared in the making.  But American armor was spread too thin, and the panzers punched through in only one day.  An ineffective counterattack the next day and the stunning capture of some 1,400 troops forced the Americans to undertake a major withdrawal.  As the 1st Armored Division fell back, enemy pressure eased. However, on the 16th the panzers resumed their westward push, seizing Sbeitla, twenty-five miles beyond Sidi Bou Zid.

 

Again the Americans scrambled back to establish a new defensive position, this time at Kasserine Pass. Four days of successive defeats cost II Corps dearly.  The Americans lost 2,546 missing, 103 tanks, 280 vehicles, 18 field guns, 3 antitank guns, and 1 antiaircraft battery.  Even service and medical companies, miles behind the infantry and armor, had been reached by the onrushing panzers.

 

The succession of II Corps defeats did not end with the loss of Sbeitla.  Rommel saw the opportunity to keep his battered adversary reeling with a push for an even bigger prize: Kasserine Pass, gateway to Algeria.  Adding the 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions to his German-Italian Panzer Army, Rommel struck the II Corps on 19 February.  By the next afternoon the pass was in Axis hands.  Only the valiant stands of individual battalions and companies on isolated hilltops interrupted Rommel's progress.

 

As an alarming indication of falling morale, American troops abandoned huge stocks of equipment.  In a final insult, the disastrous series of defeats was ended not by stiffening American resolve but by a shift in Axis priorities.  Concerned that the British Eighth Army might attack from Libya while he was moving west, Rommel turned back to the east.

 

The conduct of Allied operations in both northern Tunisia in December 1942 and the central mountain ranges in February 1943 forced a total reexamination of Allied organization and plans.  In short order General Eisenhower restructured the Allied command and changed key personnel.  A new command, the 18th Army Group under British General Sir Harold R. L. G. Alexander, tightened operational control over the combat corps and armies of the three Allied nations.  With the British Eighth Army now close enough to the Allied southern flank to affect Axis operations, the three national commands in Tunisia narrowed their battlefronts and shifted north.  Because the U.S. II Corps had taken high casualties and lost so much equipment during the February battles, and, in the British view, shown tactical incompetence, the Americans were to play a role auxiliary to the British in the next phase of the campaign. Accordingly, Alexander's staff was primarily British.

 

During late February and early March Allied units in Tunisia increased their combat power.  Two fresh British divisions arrived and the British 6th Armoured Division refitted with American Sherman tanks.  The French XIX Corps turned in its prewar equipment for the latest American weapons.  The U.S. II Corps received the rest of the 1st, 9th, and 34th Infantry Division components from Algeria and replaced lost tanks and equipment as fast as ships, trains, and trucks could bring them to the front. Engineer and other support specialists improved and expanded ports, rail lines, and roads.  Best of all for the troops on the ground, Allied air support soon improved.  The Mediterranean Air Command under British Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder went into operation in late February.  Consisting of the U.S. Ninth and Twelfth Air Forces and four major Royal Air Force commands, Mediterranean Air Command could put over the battlefield enough aircraft to challenge seriously the air superiority enjoyed by the Axis thus far in the campaign.

 

The Americans received the highest-level personnel change when in early March Eisenhower selected Maj. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., to command II Corps.  Now the Allies had a field commander who would cause his adversaries genuine concern for his willingness to attempt maneuvers others thought rash.  With Maj. Gen. Omar N. Bradley as his deputy, Patton set about rebuilding the II Corps into the panzer-killing force he knew it could become.  Overlooking no detail, including neckties in the heat of North Africa, Patton pushed his men to fight and dress like the best soldiers in the world.

 

Within days they knew they were led by a commander who would not let them fail…

 

Analysis

If American commanders and troops thought their brief combat experience in French Morocco and Algeria in November 1942 was adequate preparation to face hardened Axis units in a lengthy campaign, the fighting in Tunisia brought about a harsh reappraisal.  With few exceptions, French units in North Africa had been more intent on upholding national honor than inflicting casualties and damage; those that offered determined resistance were at a marked disadvantage in terms of weapons, equipment, supplies, and numbers.

 

In Tunisia, however, American soldiers found themselves faced with well-trained, battle-tested units skillfully using the most advanced weapons and innovative combined arms tactics repeatedly to frustrate Allied plans.  The result was painful to Army units involved and a shock to the American public: five months of almost continuous setbacks with commensurably high casualties.

 

The fighting in Tunisia underlined both the strengths and weaknesses of the Western Alliance and the United States Army.  On the political level the successful conclusion of the Tunisia Campaign left one Allied problem unsolved: factionalism among the French.  Followers of Generals de Gaulle and Giraud were still unable to unite in a common cause.  In the victory parade in Tunis on 20 May Gaullist troops refused to march with those loyal to Giraud. Until some basis for political cooperation was found, the French would likely remain unable to make more of a military contribution to Allied operations than their two-division XIX Corps.  But that was perhaps not so bleak a prospect when considered against enemy losses in Tunisia: nearly 200,000 battle casualties (an entire field army), 275,000 prisoners of war, tons of equipment and supplies, and the mortal wounding of Italy as an Axis partner.

 

On the tactical level the Allies were slow to amass the naval and air forces necessary to stop the flow of Axis supplies from Sicily.  Not until the last month of the campaign did the Allies push enemy supply levels below the minimum tonnages Kesselring needed to continue offensive operations.  Of more immediate concern to Allied ground commanders, theater-level air forces were unable to neutralize enemy airfields on Sicily despite frequent attacks.  In addition, enemy airfields in Tunisia, even those outside the Tunis bridgehead, remained operational well into April.

 

The last weeks of the campaign also saw troubling, and somewhat unexpected, problems arise between American and British ground commanders.  After nearly six months of working together in the field, British headquarters officers and their II Corps counterparts found a new area of dispute in their respective missions.  American commanders were unhappy with the abrupt mission changes ordered by British commanders, and the latter became at least temporarily disillusioned with American tactical capabilities.  In order for the American-British partnership to remain functional, headquarters staffs of the two allies would have to do a better job of assigning missions and managing accomplishment, and American units would have to give better accounts of themselves tactically, a problem which they recognized openly and had begun to solve in the latter stages of the campaign.

 

At the beginning of the Tunisian battle the United States Army had in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations parts of four divisions which had acquired only limited experience at a cost of very light casualties in only four days of combat.  The remainder of the force was completely "green."  At the end of the battle the Army had five full divisions in the field, four of which had gained extensive experience although the cost had been high.  American divisions carried out major and minor missions during the campaign in a generally successful manner, but notable failures occurred at Kasserine Pass and Fondouk el Aouareb.

 

After these battles, they were given supporting roles to gain experience.  Although American commanders chafed under this British-inspired practice, it allowed the divisions to recover from each setback, and all showed later improvementParticularly satisfying to Eisenhower and Bradley, the 34th Infantry Division began showing commendable tactical maturity in the final weeks of the campaign.  Despite casualty levels that would enervate a green unit, the 34th skillfully coordinated air and artillery support to enhance the effectiveness of its infantry-armor team advancing along the II Corps southern flank [ italics added ].

 

All ground combat arms showed varying degrees of improvement during the campaign.  American infantrymen deserve much praise for the persistence they showed against a skilled enemy, most notably on 23-24 April when the 2d Battalion, 18th Infantry, had to take the same objective three times before the enemy quit the fight.  One week later the 1st Division continued the successful attack on Hill 523 despite crippling casualties in the 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry.  The weakest aspect of infantry operations was coordination with other arms.  Too often, gaps opened between troops and tanks, forcing armor to pull back and slowing the tempo of the attack.  Some battalions had waited too long to advance after their artillery support was lifted, allowing enemy troops to resume fighting positions, largely nullifying the artillery fire. In other instances, artillery stopped too soon after the seizure of objectives, inviting successful enemy counterattacks.

 

In Tunisia American commanders showed a preference to begin attacks in the last hour of darkness, a tactic which gave the infantry an advantage but created problems for the artillery.  Night movement is more difficult for artillerymen because of their heavier equipment and the time needed to prepare and survey gun positions.  To lessen chances of detection, artillerymen also tended to accelerate gun repositioning by sacrificing adequate defensive measures.  As a result, enemy counterattacks occasionally captured howitzers before machine guns could be placed to cover approach routes.

 

In their many battles against panzer units, American tankers learned much.  Tank doctrine before the Tunisia Campaign called for rapid thrusts deep into enemy territory far in advance of infantry. But the devastating effect of accurate enemy artillery, antitank guns, and Stuka dive bombers forced a reconsideration.  Greater success with armor came when panzer tactics were adopted: a deliberate tank-infantry advance preceded by intensive reconnaissance and heavy artillery.  In the latter stages of the campaign a formula was laid down: one tank battalion in the attack should have three artillery battalions in support.

 

The greater lesson for armored units in Tunisia was to maintain concentration of tanks.  Too often, armored units were dispersed to fill gaps or served as emergency reaction forces.  These stopgap missions used the mobility of armor but ignored the greater advantages of its shock effect and massed firepower.  When the 2d Armored Division operated as a unit in the battles for Mateur and Bizerte, the spearhead potential of armor was at last realized, and the enemy had to deal with sudden breaches in defensive lines, disruption of command links, and chaos in supply dumps.  Best of all, American casualties fell dramatically.

 

The mission of tank destroyers (self-propelled antitank vehicles) was clarified somewhat in Tunisia. Battle experience confirmed the fear of tank destroyer crews: their thin armor made them easy targets for enemy tank and antitank gunners in open terrain.  They were most effective in an ambush role, digging into a "hull down" position and awaiting a panzer assault.  Success in this role, however, depended on accurate intelligence about enemy routes of approach.  Over the course of the campaign tank destroyers expended more ammunition in the traditional artillery support mission than in any other role.

 

Air support of ground operations remained a problem throughout the campaign.  Not only were there not enough squadrons in the theater to support all combat units but the system of requesting air support was cumbersome as well, with ground commanders having to go through several echelons of control.  Tactical commanders pressed for the assignment of specific squadrons to specific regiments or divisions, but air commanders successfully argued against this policy as wasteful of air resources.  The results on the ground were too often confusion and higher casualties.  Air support had to be scheduled hours or days in advance and on a few occasions was postponed or canceled altogether, as the 34th Division found at Fondouk el Aouareb on 8 April.  When air strikes did occur they were of limited duration, so that if the infantry and armor achieved a breakthrough, aircraft were often no longer overhead when the opportunity for exploitation developed.  Only in the last stage of the campaign did air support take forms satisfactory to ground commanders: interdiction attacks on enemy assembly areas and routes of approach.  Solution of the air support problem would have to await increased aircraft availability.

 

With victory in Tunisia, the Allies had expelled Axis forces from North Africa and thereby taken a giant step toward victory in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations.  The United States Army had contributed mightily toward that accomplishment.  The victory in northwest Africa, however, did not come cheaply.  Of 70,000 Allied casualties, the United States Army lost 2,715 dead, 8,978 wounded' and 6,528 missing.  At the same time, however, the Army gained thousands of seasoned officers, noncommissioned officers, and troops whose experience would prove decisive in subsequent campaigns.  These seasoned soldiers of all ranks would not have long to wait or far to go, for the next test was only two months and 150 miles away: the island of Sicily. “

 

Read Anderson’s entire essay on the Allied-Axis WWII clash in Tunisia at 

http://www.history.army.mil/brochures/tunisia/tunisia.htm

 

 

The Restored Burlington Northern Depot & WWII Memorial Museum

http://depothill.net

 

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