Tunisian campaign

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Tunisian campaign
Part of the North African campaign of the Second World War
Gromalia prisoner of war camp.jpg
German and Italian prisoners of war, following the fall of Tunis, 12 May 1943.
Date17 November 1942 – 13 May 1943
Location
34°N09°E / 34°N 9°E / 34; 9 Coordinates: 34°N09°E / 34°N 9°E / 34; 9
Result Decisive Allied victory
Territorial
changes
Axis ejected from North Africa
Belligerents

Flag of the United Kingdom.svg  United Kingdom

Flag of the United States (1912-1959).svg  United States
Flag of Free France (1940-1944).svg  Free France
Flag of New Zealand.svg  New Zealand
Flag of Poland (1928-1980).svg Poland
Flag of Greece (1822-1978).svg  Greece
Flag of Germany (1935-1945).svg  Germany
Flag of Italy (1861-1946) crowned.svg  Italy
Commanders and leaders
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg Harold Alexander
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg Kenneth Anderson
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg Bernard Montgomery
Flag of the United States (1912-1959).svg Dwight D. Eisenhower
Flag of the United States (1912-1959).svg George S. Patton
Flag of Germany (1935-1945).svg Albert Kesselring
Flag of Germany (1935-1945).svg Erwin Rommel
Flag of Germany (1935-1945).svg Hans-Jürgen von Arnim   White flag icon.svg
Flag of Italy (1861-1946) crowned.svg Giovanni Messe   White flag icon.svg
Strength
March:
500,000 troops
1,800+ tanks
1,200+ field guns
Thousands of aircraft [1]
March:
350,000 troops [nb 1]
200+ tanks [nb 2]
1,000+ field guns
Thousands of aircraft [1]
Casualties and losses
76,020
849 aircraft destroyed
340+ tanks lost [nb 3]

290,000–362,000 (238,000-300,000 captured)
2,422+ aircraft destroyed

600+ aircraft captured

Contents


450+ tanks lost [nb 4]
1,000+ guns captured
Thousands of trucks captured [3]

The Tunisian campaign (also known as the Battle of Tunisia) was a series of battles that took place in Tunisia during the North African campaign of the Second World War, between Axis and Allied forces. The Allies consisted of British Imperial Forces, including Polish and Greek contingents, with American and French corps. The battle opened with initial success by the German and Italian forces but the massive supply interdiction efforts led to the decisive defeat of the Axis. Over 230,000 German and Italian troops were taken as prisoners of war, including most of the Afrika Korps.

Tunisia Country in Northern Africa

Tunisia, officially the Republic of Tunisia, is a country in the Maghreb region of North Africa, covering 163,610 square kilometres. Its northernmost point, Cape Angela, is the northernmost point on the African continent. It is bordered by Algeria to the west and southwest, Libya to the southeast, and the Mediterranean Sea to the north and east. Tunisia's population was 11.435 million in 2017. Tunisia's name is derived from its capital city, Tunis, which is located on its northeast coast.

North African campaign military campaign of World War II

The North African campaign of the Second World War took place in North Africa from 10 June 1940 to 13 May 1943. It included campaigns fought in the Libyan and Egyptian deserts and in Morocco and Algeria, as well as Tunisia.

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 70 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.

Background

Western Desert

The first two years of the war in North Africa were characterised by chronic supply shortages and transport problems. The North African coast has few natural harbours and the British base at Alexandria on the Nile delta was some 2,100 km (1,300 mi) by road from the main Italian port at Tripoli in Libya. Smaller ports at Benghazi and Tobruk were 1,050 km (650 mi) and 640 km (400 mi) west of Alexandria on the Litoranea Balbo (Via Balbia) running along a narrow corridor along the coast. Control of the central Mediterranean was contested by the British and Italian navies, which were equally matched and exerted a reciprocal constraint supply through Alexandria, Tripoli, Benghazi and Tobruk, although the British could supply Egypt via the long route through the Atlantic around the Cape of Good Hope and by the Indian Ocean into the Red Sea.

Alexandria Metropolis in Egypt

Alexandria is the second-largest city in Egypt and a major economic centre, extending about 32 km (20 mi) along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in the north central part of the country. Its low elevation on the Nile delta makes it highly vulnerable to rising sea levels. Alexandria is an important industrial center because of its natural gas and oil pipelines from Suez. Alexandria is also a popular tourist destination.

Nile River in Africa and the longest river in the world

The Nile is a major north-flowing river in northeastern Africa, and is the longest river in Africa and the disputed longest river in the world, as the Brazilian government claims that the Amazon River is longer than the Nile. The Nile, which is about 6,650 km (4,130 mi) long, is an "international" river as its drainage basin covers eleven countries, namely, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, Republic of the Sudan and Egypt. In particular, the Nile is the primary water source of Egypt and Sudan.

Tripoli Capital city in Greater Tripoli, Libya

Tripoli is the capital city and the largest city of Libya, with a population of about 1.158 million people in 2018. It is located in the northwest of Libya on the edge of the desert, on a point of rocky land projecting into the Mediterranean Sea and forming a bay. It includes the port of Tripoli and the country's largest commercial and manufacturing centre. It is also the site of the University of Tripoli. The vast Bab al-Azizia barracks, which includes the former family estate of Muammar Gaddafi, is also located in the city. Colonel Gaddafi largely ruled the country, from his residence in this barracks.

The chronic difficulty in the supply of military forces in the desert led to several indecisive victories by both sides and long fruitless advances along the coast. The Italian invasion of Egypt by the 10th Army in 1940, advanced 97 km (60 mi) into Egypt and more than 1,600 km (1,000 mi) in a straight line from Tripoli, 600 km (370 mi) from Benghazi and 320 km (200 mi) from Tobruk. The Western Desert Force (WDF) fought a delaying action as it fell back to Mersa Matruh (Matruh), then began Operation Compass, a raid and counter-attack into Libya. The 10th Army was destroyed and the WDF occupied El Agheila, some 970 km (600 mi) from Alexandria. With the arrival of the German Afrika Korps the Axis counter-attacked in Operation Sonnenblume and in April 1941 reached the limit of their supply capacity at the Egyptian border but failed to recapture Tobruk.

Italian invasion of Egypt Italian offensive during the Western Desert Campaign (1940–1943) of the Second World War

The Italian invasion of Egypt was an offensive in the Second World War, against British, Commonwealth and Free French forces in Egypt. The invasion by the Italian 10th Army ended border skirmishing on the frontier and began the Western Desert Campaign (1940–1943) proper. The goal of the Italian forces in Libya was to seize the Suez Canal by advancing along the Egyptian coast. After numerous delays, the scope of the offensive was reduced to an advance as far as Sidi Barrani, with attacks on British forces in the area.

The Tenth Army was an Italian Army which fought in World War I and in Italian North Africa during World War II.

The Western Desert Force (WDF) was a British Army formation active in Egypt during the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War.

In November 1941 the British Eighth Army recovered, helped by the short supply distance from Alexandria to the front line and launched Operation Crusader, relieving the Siege of Tobruk and again reached El Agheila. The Eighth Army was soon pushed back to Gazala west of Tobruk and at the Battle of Gazala in May 1942, the Axis pushed them all the way back to El Alamein, only 160 km (100 mi) from Alexandria. In 1942, the Royal Navy and Italian Navy were still disputing the Mediterranean but the British hold on Malta allowed the Royal Air Force to sink more Italian supply ships. Large quantities of supplies became available to the British from the United States and the supply situation of the Eighth Army eventually resolved. With the Eighth Army no longer constrained, the Axis were driven westwards from Egypt following the Second Battle of El Alamein in November 1942.

Eighth Army (United Kingdom) army of the British Army during World War II, engaged in the North Africa Campaign

The Eighth Army was a field army formation of the British Army during the Second World War, fighting in the North African and Italian campaigns. Units came from Australia, British India, Canada, Free French Forces, Greece, New Zealand, Poland, Rhodesia, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

Operation Crusader military operation during the Second World War in North Africa

Operation Crusader was a military operation during the Second World War by the British Eighth Army with Allied contingents, against the Axis forces in North Africa commanded by Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel. The operation was intended to by-pass Axis defences on the Egyptian–Libyan fronter, defeat the Axis armoured forces and relieve the 1941 Siege of Tobruk.

Siege of Tobruk Military Confrontation in North Africa During the Second World War

The Siege of Tobruk lasted for 241 days in 1941, after Axis forces advanced through Cyrenaica from El Agheila in Operation Sonnenblume against Allied forces in Libya, during the Western Desert Campaign (1940–1943) of the Second World War. In late 1940, the Allies had defeated the Italian 10th Army during Operation Compass (9 December 1940 – 9 February 1941) and trapped the remnants at Beda Fomm. During early 1941, much of the Western Desert Force (WDF) was sent to the Greek and Syrian campaigns. As German troops and Italian reinforcements reached Libya, only a skeleton Allied force remained, short of equipment and supplies.

Operation Torch

American troops land on an Algerian beach during Operation Torch. Near Algiers, "Torch" troops hit the beaches behind a large American flag "Left" hoping for the French Army not fire... - NARA - 195516.jpg
American troops land on an Algerian beach during Operation Torch.

In July 1942, the Allies discussed relatively small-scale amphibious operations to land in northern France during 1942 (Operation Sledgehammer, which was the forerunner of Operation Roundup, the main landings in 1943), but agreed that these operations were impractical and should be deferred. [4] Instead it was agreed that landings would be made to secure the Vichy territories in North Africa (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia) and then to thrust east to take the Axis forces in the Western Desert in their rear. [5] An Allied occupation of the whole of the North African coast would open the Mediterranean to Allied shipping, releasing the huge capacity required to maintain supplies around the circuitous route via the Cape of Good Hope. On 8 November, Operation Torch landed Allied forces in Algeria (at Oran and Algiers) and Morocco (at Casablanca) with the intention that once Vichy forces in Algeria had capitulated, an advance would be made to Tunis some 800 km (500 mi) to the east.

Allies of World War II Grouping of the victorious countries of World War II

The Allies of World War II, called the United Nations from the 1 January 1942 declaration, were the countries that together opposed the Axis powers during the Second World War (1939–1945). The Allies promoted the alliance as a means to control German, Japanese and Italian aggression.

Amphibious warfare is a type of offensive military operation that today uses naval ships to project ground and air power onto a hostile or potentially hostile shore at a designated landing beach. Through history the operations were conducted using ship's boats as the primary method of delivering troops to shore. Since the Gallipoli Campaign, specialised watercraft were increasingly designed for landing troops, materiel and vehicles, including by landing craft and for insertion of commandos, by fast patrol boats, zodiacs and from mini-submersibles.

Operation Sledgehammer was a World War II Allied plan for a cross-Channel invasion of Europe, as the first step in helping to reduce pressure on the Soviet Red Army by establishing a Second Front. It was to be executed in 1942 and acted as a contingency alternative to Operation Roundup, the original Allied plan for the invasion of Europe in 1943. Allied forces were to seize the French Atlantic ports of either Brest or Cherbourg and areas of the Cotentin Peninsula during the early autumn of 1942, and amass troops for a breakout in the spring of 1943.

Prelude

Allied plans

Because of the nearness of Sicily to Tunisia, the Allies expected that the Axis would move to occupy the country as soon as they heard of the Torch landings. [6] To forestall this, it would be necessary to occupy Tunisia as quickly as possible after the landings were made. However, there was a limit to how far east the Torch landings could be made because of the increasing proximity of Axis airfields in Sicily and Sardinia which at the end of October held 298 German and 574 Italian aircraft. [7] Algiers was accordingly chosen for the most easterly landings. This would ensure the success of the initial landings in spite of uncertainty as to how the incumbent French forces would react. Once Algiers was secured, a small force, the Eastern Task Force, would be projected as quickly as possible into Tunisia in a race to occupy Tunis, some 800 km (500 mi) distant along poor roads in difficult terrain during the winter rainy season, before the Axis could organise. [8]

However, planners had to assume the worst case regarding the extent of Vichy opposition at Algiers and the invasion convoys were assault-loaded with a preponderance of infantry to meet heavy ground opposition. This meant that at Algiers the disembarkation of mobile forces for an advance to Tunisia would necessarily be delayed. [9] Plans were thus a compromise and the Allies realised that an attempt to reach Bizerte and Tunis overland before the Axis could establish themselves represented a gamble which depended on the ability of the navy and air force to delay the Axis build-up. [10] The Allies, although they had provided for the possibility of strong Vichy opposition to their landings both in terms of infantry and air force allocations, seriously underestimated the Axis appetite for and speed of intervention in Tunisia. [11]

Italian Semovente 75/18 Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-784-0208-17A, Nordafrika, italienische Panzer.2.jpg
Italian Semovente 75/18

Once operations had commenced and despite clear intelligence reports regarding the Axis reaction, the Allies were slow to respond and it was not until nearly two weeks after the landings that air and naval plans were made to interdict Axis sea transport to Tunis. [12] At the end of November, naval Force K was reformed in Malta with three cruisers and four destroyers and Force Q formed in Bône with three cruisers and two destroyers. No Axis ships sailing to Tunis were sunk in November but the Allied naval forces had some success in early December sinking seven Axis transports. However, this came too late to affect the fighting on land because the armoured elements of 10th Panzer Division had already arrived. To counter the surface threat, Axis convoys were switched to daylight when they could be protected by air cover. Night convoys resumed on completion of the extension of Axis minefields which severely restricted the activities of Force K and Force Q. [13]

Tunisia

Sketch map of Tunisia during the 1942-1943 campaign Tunisia1942-1943.svg
Sketch map of Tunisia during the 1942–1943 campaign

Tunisia is rectangular, with its northern and much of its eastern boundary on the Mediterranean coast. Most of the inland western border with Algeria is astride the eastern line of the Atlas Mountains which run from the Atlantic coast of Morocco, 1,900 kilometres (1,200 mi) east to Tunis. This portion of the border is easily defensible at the small number of passes through the two north–south lines of the mountains. In the south, a second line of lower mountains limit the approaches to a narrow gap, facing Libya to the east, between the Matmata Hills and the coast. The French had earlier constructed a 20 kilometres (12 mi) wide and 30 kilometres (19 mi) deep series of defensive works known as the Mareth Line along the plain, to defend against an Italian invasion from Libya. [14]

Only in the north was the terrain favourable to attack; here the Atlas Mountains stopped near the eastern coast, leaving a large area on the north-west coast unprotected. Defensive lines in the north could deal with approaching forces, while the Mareth Line made the south secure. In between, there were only a few easily defended passes through the Atlas Mountains. [15] Tunisia has two big deep water ports at Tunis and Bizerte, only a few hundred miles from Italian supply bases in Sicily. Ships could deliver supplies at night, safe from RAF patrols and return the next night, while Libya was a full-day trip, making supply operations vulnerable to daylight air attacks. In Hitler's view, Tunisia could be held indefinitely, upsetting Allied plans in Europe. [16]

Run for Tunis

Tunisia campaign operations 25 November to 10 December 1942 Tunisia25Novto10Dec1942.jpg
Tunisia campaign operations 25 November to 10 December 1942

By 10 November, French opposition to the Torch landings had ceased, creating a military vacuum in Tunisia. [17] The First Army (Lieutenant-General Kenneth Anderson) was immediately ordered to send the 36th Infantry Brigade Group, which had been the floating reserve for the Algiers landing, eastward by sea to occupy the Algerian ports of Bougie, Philippeville, and Bône and the airfield at Djedjelli, preliminary to advancing into Tunisia. The Combined Chiefs of Staff had decided that with the forces available, Torch would not include landings close to Tunisia. Anderson needed to get his limited force east quickly, before the Axis could reinforce Tunisia, but the Allies had only two brigade groups and some additional armour and artillery for the attack. [17] [nb 5]

The French governor in Tunisia, Admiral Esteva, was afraid to support the Allies or oppose the Axis. He did not close airfields to either side; the Germans moved first and by 9 November, there were reports of 40 German aircraft arriving at Tunis and by 10 November, aerial reconnaissance reported 100 aircraft. [20] Two days later, an airlift began that carried over 15,000 men and 581 long tons (590 t) of supplies and ships brought 176 tanks, 131 artillery pieces, 1,152 vehicles and 13,000 long tons (13,000 t) of supplies. By the end of the month, three German divisions, including the 10th Panzer Division, and two Italian infantry divisions had arrived. Walther Nehring was assigned command of the newly formed XC Corps on 12 November and flew in on 17 November. The French military commander in Tunisia, General Barré, moved troops into the western mountains of Tunisia and formed a defensive line from Tebersouk through Majaz al Bab (Medjez el Bab). [21]

There were two roads eastwards into Tunisia from Algeria. The Allied plan was to advance along the two roads and take Bizerte and Tunis. On 11 November, the British 36th Infantry Brigade had landed unopposed at Bougie but supply shortages delayed their arrival at Djedjelli until 13 November. [17] Bône airfield was occupied following a parachute drop by 3rd Parachute Battalion and this was followed by 6 Commando seizing the port on 12 November. Advanced guards of the 36th Infantry Brigade reached Tebarka on 15 November and Djebel Abiod on 18 November, where they met Axis forces. Further south, on 15 November, a US parachute battalion made an unopposed drop at Youks-les-Bains, capturing the airfield and advanced to take the airfield at Gafsa on 17 November. [22]

On 19 November, the German commander, Walter Nehring, demanded passage for his forces across the bridge at Medjez and was refused by Barré. The Germans attacked twice and were repulsed, but the French defensive success was costly, and lacking armour and artillery, the French had to withdraw. [21] [23] Some Vichy French forces, such as Barré's, joined the Allies. But the attitude of Vichy forces remained uncertain until on 22 November, when the "Darlan Deal" placed French North Africa on the Allied side. This allowed US and British forces that had been securing Algeria to go to the front. By this time, the Axis had deployed a corps in Tunisia and outnumbered the Allies there in almost all ways.

US crew of an M3 Lee tank at Souk el Arba, 23 November 1942 SC167334t.jpg
US crew of an M3 Lee tank at Souk el Arba, 23 November 1942

Two Allied brigade groups advanced toward Djebel Abiod and Béja respectively. The Luftwaffe , happy to have local air superiority while Allied planes had to fly from relatively distant bases in Algeria, harassed them all the way. [24] On 17 November, the same day Nehring arrived, the leading elements of the British 36th Brigade on the northern road met a mixed force of 17 tanks and 400 paratroops with self-propelled guns at Djebel Abiod. The German paratroopers, with Luftwaffe and Italian fire support from the 1st Mountain Infantry Division Superga, knocked out 11 tanks but their advance was halted while the fight at Djebel Abiod continued for nine days. [25] On 22 November, tanks from the Italian 50th Brigade forced US paratroopers to abandon Gafsa. The two Allied columns concentrated at Djebel Abiod and Béja, preparing for an assault on 24 November. The 36th Brigade was to advance from Djebel Abiod toward Mateur and 11th Brigade was to move down the valley of the River Merjerda to take Majaz al Bab (shown on Allied maps as Medjez el Bab or just Medjez) and then to Tebourba, Djedeida and Tunis. Blade Force, an armoured regimental group was to strike across country on minor roads in the gap between the two infantry brigades towards Sidi Nsir and make flanking attacks on Terbourba and Djedeida. [26]

Crusader III tanks in Tunisia, 31 December 1942 Crusader Mk III tanks in Tunisia, 31 December 1942. NA323.jpg
Crusader III tanks in Tunisia, 31 December 1942

The northern attack did not take place because torrential rain had slowed the build-up. In the south 11th Brigade were halted by stiff resistance at Medjez. Blade Force passed through Sidi Nsir to reach the Chouigui Pass, north of Terbourba part of Blade Force infiltrated behind Axis lines to the newly activated airbase at Djedeida in the afternoon and destroyed more than 20 Axis planes but lacking infantry support, withdrew to Chouigui. [27] Blade Force's attack caught Nehring by surprise and he decided to withdraw from Medjez and strengthen Djedeida, only 30 km (19 mi) from Tunis. [28] The 36th Brigade's delayed attack began on 26 November but they were ambushed with the leading battalion taking 149 casualties. [29] Further attacks were driven back from cleverly planned interlocking defences. 1 Commando landed 23 km (14 mi) west of Bizerte on 30 November to outflank the Jefna position, but failed and rejoined 36th Brigade by 3 December. [23] The position remained in German hands until the last days of fighting in Tunisia the following spring. [30]

German paratrooper with rifle, pistol, stick grenade and machinegun belt in Tunisia, near the Algerian border Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-788-0009-13A, Tunesien, Fallschirmjager mit Gewehr u. Munitionsgurt.jpg
German paratrooper with rifle, pistol, stick grenade and machinegun belt in Tunisia, near the Algerian border

Early on 26 November, as the Germans withdrew, 11 Brigade were able to enter Medjez unopposed and by late in the day had taken positions in and around Tebourba, which had also been evacuated by the Germans, preparatory to advancing on Djedeida. However, on 27 November the Germans attacked in strength. 11th Brigade tried to regain the initiative in the early hours of 28 November, attacking toward Djedeida airfield with the help of US armour, but failed. [31] On 29 November, Combat Command B of US 1st Armored Division had concentrated forward for an attack in conjunction with Blade Force planned for 2 December. They were forestalled by an Axis counter-attack, led by Major-General Wolfgang Fischer, whose 10th Panzer Division had just arrived in Tunisia. [32] By the evening of 2 December, Blade Force had been withdrawn, leaving 11th Brigade and Combat Command B to deal with the Axis attack. [23] The attack threatened to cut off 11th Brigade and break through into the Allied rear, but desperate fighting over four days delayed the Axis advance and permitted a controlled withdrawal to the high ground on each side of the river west of Terbourba. [33]

The Allied force initially withdrew roughly 9.7 km (6 mi) to the high positions of Longstop Hill (Djebel el Ahmera) and Bou Aoukaz on each side of the river. Concern over the vulnerability to flanking attacks prompted a further withdrawal west. By the end of 10 December, Allied units held a defensive line just east of Medjez el Bab. Here, they started a build up for another attack and were ready by late December 1942. The slow build up had brought Allied force levels up to a total of 54,000 British, 73,800 American and 7,000 French troops. A hasty intelligence review showed about 125,000 combat and 70,000 service troops, mostly Italian, in front of them. The main attack began the afternoon of 22 December. Despite rain and insufficient air cover, progress was made up the lower ridges of the 900-foot (270 m) Longstop Hill that controlled the river corridor from Medjez to Tebourba and thence to Tunis. After three days of to-and-fro fighting, with ammunition running low and Axis forces now holding adjacent high ground, the Longstop position became untenable and the Allies were forced to withdraw to Medjez, [34] and by 26 December 1942 the Allies had withdrawn to the line they had set out from two weeks earlier, having suffered 20,743 casualties.

Aftermath

French politics

General Charles de Gaulle and General Charles Mast saluting at Tunis, Tunisia, 1943 Charles de Gaulle 1943 Tunisia.jpg
General Charles de Gaulle and General Charles Mast saluting at Tunis, Tunisia, 1943

While the battles wound down, factionalism among the French again erupted. On 24 December, François Darlan was assassinated and Henri Giraud succeeded him as High Commissioner. To the frustration of the Free French, the US government had displayed considerable willingness to make a deal with Darlan and the Vichyists. Consequently, Darlan's death appeared to present an opportunity to bring together the French in North Africa and Charles de Gaulle's Free French. De Gaulle and Giraud met in late January but little progress was made in reconciling their differences or the constituencies they represented. [35] It was not until June 1943 that the French Committee of National Liberation (CFLN) was formed under the joint chairmanship of Giraud and de Gaulle. De Gaulle quickly eclipsed Giraud, who openly disliked political responsibility and more or less willingly from then on deferred to the Leader of the Free French.

Command changes

Nehring, considered by most to be an excellent commander, had continually infuriated his superiors with outspoken critiques. Hed was "replaced" when the command was renamed the 5th Panzer Army and Colonel-General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim arrived in Tunis unannounced on 8 December, to assume command. The Army consisted of the composite Infantry Division von Broich/von Manteuffel in the Bizerte area, the 10th Panzer Division in the centre before Tunis and the 1st Mountain Infantry Division Superga on the southern flank, but Hitler had told Arnim that the army would grow to three mechanised and three motorised divisions. [36] The Allies had tried to prevent the Axis build up with substantial air and sea forces but Tunis and Bizerte were only 190 km (120 mi) from the ports and airfields of western Sicily, 290 km (180 mi) from Palermo and 480 km (300 mi) from Naples, making it very difficult to intercept Axis transports which had the benefit of substantial air cover. [10] From mid-November 1942 to January 1943, 243,000 men and 856,000 long tons (870,000 t) of supplies and equipment arrived in Tunisia by sea and air.

German reinforcements; a Sd.Kfz. 8 half-track and a tractor pull transport from a Messerschmitt Me 323 Gigant. Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-552-0822-36, Tunesien, Zugmachinen und Me 323 Gigant.jpg
German reinforcements; a Sd.Kfz. 8 half-track and a tractor pull transport from a Messerschmitt Me 323 Gigant.

General Eisenhower transferred further units from Morocco and Algeria eastward into Tunisia. In the north, the British First Army, over the next three months, received three more British divisions, the 1st, 4th, and 46th Infantry Divisions, joining the 6th Armoured and 78th Infantry Divisions. By late March the British IX Corps HQ (Lieutenant-General John Crocker) had arrived to join the British V Corps (Lieutenant-General Charles Allfrey) in commanding the expanded army. On their right flank, the basis of a two-division French XIX Corps (General Alphonse Juin) was assembling. [37]

In the south was the US II Corps (Major General Lloyd Fredendall), consisting of the 1st and 34th Infantry Divisions and the 1st Armored Division (although the 34th Division was attached to the British IX Corps to the north). Giraud refused to have the French XIX Corps under the command of the British First Army and so they, along with the US II Corps, remained under command of Allied Force Headquarters (AFHQ). New forward airfields were built to improve air support. [38] The Americans also began bases in Algeria and Tunisia, to form a large forward base at Maknassy, on the eastern edge of the Atlas Mountains, well placed to cut off the Panzerarmee in the south from Tunis and the Fifth Panzer Army in the north.

Kasserine

Prelude

A German Tiger tank on the move, in Tunisia January 1943 Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-554-0872-35, Tunesien, Panzer VI (Tiger I).jpg
A German Tiger tank on the move, in Tunisia January 1943

During the first half of January, Anderson had with mixed results kept constant pressure through limited attacks and reconnaissance in strength. [39] Arnim did the same and on 18 January, launched Unternehmen Eilbote I (Operation Courier I). [40] Elements of the 10th Panzer and 334th Infantry divisions attacked from Pont du Fahs to create more space in front of the Superga Division and forestall an Allied thrust east to the coast at Enfidaville, to cut Rommel's line of communication. [41] The westward thrust against the right wing of the British V Corps at Bou Arada had little success but further south his attack against French positions around the "hinge" of the Western and Eastern Dorsals succeeded, advancing 56 km (35 mi) south to Ousseltia and 40 km (25 mi) south-west to Robaa. The poorly equipped defenders resisted well but were overwhelmed and the equivalent of seven infantry battalions were cut off in the mountains. [42] Anderson sent the 36th Brigade to Robaa and requested Lloyd Fredendall to send Combat Command B from 1st Armored Division to Ousseltia, to come under Juin's orders on arrival. Fierce fighting lasted until 23 January but the front was stabilised. [39]

The obvious lack of Allied co-ordination led Eisenhower to change the command structure. On 21 January Anderson was made responsible for the co-ordination of the whole front, and on 24 January his responsibilities were extended to include "the employment of American troops". That night, Juin accepted the command of Anderson, confirmed by Giraud the next day but with forces spread over a 320 km (200 mi) front and poor communication (Anderson motored over 1,600 km (1,000 mi) in four days to speak to the corps commanders) the practical difficulties remained. Eisenhower appointed an air support commander, Brigadier General Laurence S. Kuter, for the whole front on 21 January. [39]

Italian General Giovanni Messe Giovanni Messe.jpg
Italian General Giovanni Messe

Erwin Rommel had made plans for forces retreating through Libya to dig-in in front of the defunct French fortifications of the Mareth Line. The Axis forces would control the two natural entrances into Tunisia in the north and south, with only the easily defensible mountain passes between them. In January, those parts of the German-Italian Panzer Army on the Mareth defences were renamed First Italian Army (General Giovanni Messe), separate from the units (including the remains of the Afrika Korps) he had facing the Western Dorsale. On 23 January 1943, the Eighth Army took Tripoli, by which point the army retreating through Libya was already well on its way to the Mareth position. Part of the II US Corps crossed into Tunisia through passes in the Atlas Mountains from Algeria, controlling the interior of the triangle formed by the mountains. Their position raised the possibility of a thrust eastwards towards Sfax on the coast, to cut off the First Italian Army at Mareth from Arnim's forces to the north around Tunis. Rommel could not allow this and formed a plan for a spoiling attack.

Battle of Sidi Bou Zid

8th Army operations, 30 January to 10 April 1943 Tunisia30Janto10Apr1943.jpg
8th Army operations, 30 January to 10 April 1943

On 30 January 1943, the German 21st Panzer and three Italian divisions from the 5th Panzer Army met elements of the French forces near Faïd, the main pass from the eastern arm of the mountains into the coastal plains. Fredendall did not respond to the French request to send reinforcements in the form of tanks from 1st Armored Division and after desperate resistance, the under-equipped French defenders were overrun. [43] Several counterattacks were organised, including a belated attack by Combat Command B of the US 1st Armored Division but all of these were beaten off with ease by Arnim's forces which by this time had created strong defensive positions. [43] After three days, the Allied forces had been forced to pull back and were withdrawn into the interior plains to make a new forward defensive line at the small town of Sbeitla.

In Operation Frühlingswind (spring wind), Arnim ordered four armoured battle groups forward on 14 February in the area of Sidi Bou Zid held by 34th Infantry Division's 168th Regimental Combat Team and 1st Armored Division's Combat Command A. The defenders' dispositions were poor, with concentrations dispersed so that they were unable to be mutually supportive. By 15 February, CCA had been severely damaged leaving the infantry units isolated on hill tops. Combat Command C was ordered across country to relieve Sidi Bou Zid but were repelled with heavy losses. By the evening of 15 February, three of the Axis battlegroups were able to head toward Sbeitla, 32 km (20 mi) to the northwest. [44] Pushing aside the remains of CCA and CCC, the battlegroups were confronted by Combat Command B in front of Sbeitla. With the help of air support, CCB held on through the day. However, the air support could not be sustained and the defenders of Sbeitla were obliged to withdraw and the town lay empty by midday on 17 February. [44]

To the south, in Operation Morgenluft (morning air), an Italian First Army battlegroup made up of the remains of the Afrika Korps under Karl Bülowius had advanced toward Gafsa at dusk on 15 February to find the town deserted, part of a withdrawal to shorten the Allied front to facilitate a reorganisation involving the withdrawal of French XIX Corps in order to re-equip. II US Corps withdrew to the line of Dernaia-Kasserine-Gap-Sbiba with XIX Corps on their left flank vacating the Eastern Dorsal to conform with them. [45] By the afternoon of 17 February, Rommel's troops had occupied Feriana and Thelepte (roughly 24 km (15 mi) southwest of Kasserine) forcing the evacuation on the morning of 18 February of Thelepte airfield, the main air base in British First Army's southern sector. [46]

Battle of Kasserine Pass

American troops moving through the Kasserine Pass Americains Kasserine.jpg
American troops moving through the Kasserine Pass

After further discussion, the Comando Supremo issued orders on 19 February for Rommel to attack through the Kasserine and Sbiba passes toward Thala and Le Kef to threaten First Army's flank. Rommel's original proposal was for a limited but concentrated attack through Kasserine to confront II Corps' strength at Tébessa and gain vital supplies from the US dumps there. Although he was to have 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions transferred to his command, Rommel was concerned that the new plan would dilute his force concentration and expose his flanks to threat. [47]

On 19 February 1943, Rommel, having now been given formal control of the 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions, the Afrika Korps battlegroup as well as General Messe's forces on the Mareth defences (renamed Italian First Army), [48] launched what would become the Battle of Kasserine Pass. Hoping to take the inexperienced defenders by surprise, he sent the light armour of the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion racing into the pass. Colonel Alexander Stark's Stark Force, a brigade group made up of US and French units, was responsible for the defence of the pass. [48] It had not had time to organise properly but was able to direct heavy artillery fire from the surrounding heights which brought the Afrika Korps battlegroup's leading mechanised units to a halt. [49] Before they could continue, infantry had to be sent up into the high ground seeking to eliminate the artillery threat. A battlegroup under Hans-Georg Hildebrand including tanks from 21st Panzer were advancing north from Sbeitla toward the Sbiba Gap. In front of the hills east of Sbiba they were brought to a halt by 1st Guards Brigade and 18th Regimental Combat Team which had strong field and anti-tank artillery support and were joined by two infantry regiments from 34th Infantry Division. [50]

Germans fire an 88mm gun in Tunisia Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-787-0510-34A, Nordafrika, feuerndes Geschutz.jpg
Germans fire an 88mm gun in Tunisia

By the morning of 20 February, the bitter hand-to-hand fighting in the hills above Kasserine was continuing while the Afrika Korps Kampfgruppe and a battalion from the 131 Armoured Division Centauro and more artillery, prepared for another attack through the pass, once it had been joined by a 10th Panzer Division battle group from Sbeitla. The morning attack made slow progress but the intense pressure applied during the renewed attack that afternoon triggered a collapse in the Allied defences. [51]

Having rolled through the Kasserine Pass on the afternoon of 20 February, units of the Centauro Division headed west toward Tébessa, meeting little or no resistance. Following them came the von Broich battlegroup from 10th Panzer, which forked right onto the road to Thala where they were slowed by a regimental armoured group from 26th Armoured Brigade (Gore Force). Their tanks outgunned, Gore Force sustained heavy losses but bought time for Nick Force, a composite force from British 6th Armoured Division, based around 26th Armoured Brigade Group with extra infantry and artillery (which Anderson had ordered the previous day to leave the Kesra area to bolster the Thala defences) to prepare defensive positions further up the road. Meanwhile, Fredendall had sent 1st Armored Division's CCB to meet the threat to Tébessa. [52]

Infantry and carriers of the Grenadier Guards advance over difficult terrain near the Kasserine Pass, 24 February 1943. The British Army in Tunisia 1943 NA880.jpg
Infantry and carriers of the Grenadier Guards advance over difficult terrain near the Kasserine Pass, 24 February 1943.

By 1pm on 21 February, Battlegroup von Broich was in contact with the dug-in 26th Armoured Brigade Group on the Thala road and making slow progress. Rommel took direct control of the attack and forced the defences by 4pm. [53] However, 26th Brigade Group were able to withdraw in reasonable order to the next, final, defensive line in front of Thala. Fighting at this position started at 7pm and continued at close quarters for three hours with neither side able to gain a decisive advantage. Nick Force had taken a heavy beating and did not expect to be able to hold out the next day. However, during the night a further 48 artillery pieces from US 9th Infantry Division arrived after a 1,300 km (800 mi) trip from Morocco on poor roads and in bad weather. On the morning of 22 February, as Broich prepared to launch his attack, his front was hit by a devastating artillery barrage. Surprisingly, Rommel told Broich to regroup and assume a defensive posture, so surrendering the initiative. [54]

The 21st Panzer battlegroup at Sbiba was making no progress. Further south, the Afrika Korps battlegroup on the road to Tébessa had been halted on 21 February by CCB's armour and artillery dug in on the slopes of Djebel Hamra. [55] An attempt to outflank them during the night of 21 February was a costly failure. A further attack early on 23 February was again beaten back. [56] In a dispirited meeting on 22 February with Kesselring, Rommel argued that faced with stiffening defences and the news that the Eighth Army's lead elements had finally reached Medenine, only a few kilometres from the Mareth Line, he should call off the attack and withdraw to support the Mareth defences, hoping that the Kasserine attack had caused enough damage to deter any offensive action from the west. Kesselring was keen for the offensive to continue but finally agreed that evening, and Comando Supremo formally terminated the operation. [57] The Axis forces from Kasserine reached the Mareth line on 25 February.

Aftermath

Action then abated for a time and both sides studied the results of recent battles. Rommel remained convinced that US forces posed little threat, while the British and Commonwealth troops were his equal. He held this opinion for far too long, and it would prove very costly. The Americans likewise studied the battle and relieved several senior commanders while issuing several "lessons learned" publications to improve future performance. Most important, on 6 March 1943 command of the II US Corps passed from Fredendall to George S. Patton, with Omar Bradley as assistant Corps Commander. Commanders were reminded that large units should be kept concentrated to ensure mass on the battlefield, rather than widely dispersed as Fredendall had deployed them. This had the intended side effect of improving the fire control of the already-strong US artillery. Close air support had also been weak (although this had been hampered by the generally poor weather conditions).

General Alexander, Deputy Commander in Chief Allied Forces in North Africa, discussing operations for Tunisia with the Supreme Commander, General Eisenhower General Alexander, Deputy Commander-in-Chief Allied Forces in North Africa, discussing future operations with the Supreme Commander, General Eisenhower, in Tunisia, 26 July 1943. CNA1074.jpg
General Alexander, Deputy Commander in Chief Allied Forces in North Africa, discussing operations for Tunisia with the Supreme Commander, General Eisenhower

At the Casablanca Conference, it had been decided to appoint General Sir Harold Alexander as Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Allied forces in French North Africa. This came into effect on 20 February and at the same time, in order better to co-ordinate the activities of his two armies in Tunisia, Eisenhower at AFHQ brought First and Eighth Armies under a new headquarters, 18th Army Group, which Alexander was to command. [58] Shortly after taking up his new appointment, Alexander reported to London,

...I am frankly shocked at the whole situation as I have found it...Real fault has been the lack of direction from above from [the] very beginning resulting in no policy and no plan. [59]

and was critical of Anderson although this was later felt to be a little unfair. Once he had been given control of the whole front at the end of January, Anderson's aim had been to reorganise the front into consolidated national sectors and create reserves with which to regain the initiative, the same priorities articulated in Alexander's orders dated 20 February. [59] [60] On 21 February, Alexander declared his objective to destroy all enemy forces in Tunisia by first advancing Eighth Army north of Gabès, while the First Army mounted attacks to draw off reserves which would otherwise be used against the Eighth Army. The armies would gain airfields for the Allied air forces. The co-ordinated land, sea and air power of the Allies would draw a net round the Axis forces in Tunisia by 30 April, to meet the timetable set at the Casablanca Conference to allow Sicily to be invaded during the favourable weather of August. [61]

Hans-Jurgen von Arnim (right) Commander-in-Chief of Army Group Africa Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-787-0502-34A, Generaloberst von Arnim und General von Vaerst.jpg
Hans-Jürgen von Arnim (right) Commander-in-Chief of Army Group Africa

The Casablanca Conference had agreed to reorganise the air forces in the Mediterranean to integrate them more closely; Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder was made commander of Mediterranean Air Command, responsible for all Allied air activity in the Mediterranean and Major General Carl Spaatz became commander of the Northwest African Air Forces under Tedder, with responsibility for all air operations in Tunisia. [62] By 23 February, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham had succeeded Kuter at the Allied Air Support Command, which became Northwest African Tactical Air Force under Spaatz, with the Desert Air Force supporting Eighth Army, under its operational control.

Coningham found that the air organisation in Tunisia was that of the Western Desert in 1941 when he had first assumed command of the Desert Air Force. The lessons of the Desert Campaign had not been used in planning for Torch, which constrained the ability of the air arm, already short of aircraft and supplies, to provide tactical support to the army during the Run for Tunis. Coningham unified the British and American operational commands and trained them in new operational practices. [63]

The Axis also created a combined command for their two armies. Hitler and the German General Staff (OKH) believed that Arnim should assume command but Kesselring argued for Rommel. Rommel was appointed to command the new Army Group Africa on 23 February. [64]

Southern front

Battle of Medenine

A Universal Carrier escorts a large contingent of Italian prisoners, captured at El Hamma, 28 March 1943 The British Army in Tunisia 1943 NA1630.jpg
A Universal Carrier escorts a large contingent of Italian prisoners, captured at El Hamma, 28 March 1943

The Eighth Army had been consolidating in front of the Mareth defences since 17 February, and launched probes westward on 26 February. On 6 March 1943, three German armoured divisions, two light divisions and nine Italian divisions launched Operation Capri, an attack southward in the direction of Medenine, the northernmost British strong point. The Axis attack was repulsed with massed artillery fire; 55 Axis tanks were knocked out. With the failure of Capri, Rommel decided that the only way to save the Axis armies would be to abandon the campaign, and on 9 March he travelled to Italy for discussions with Comando Supremo in Rome. Finding no support for his ideas, he travelled on 10 March to see Hitler at his headquarters in Ukraine, to try to convince him to abandon Tunisia and return the Axis armies to Europe. Hitler refused and Rommel was placed, in strict secrecy, on sick leave. Arnim became commander of Army Group Africa. [65]

Battle of the Mareth Line

Montgomery launched Operation Pugilist against the Mareth Line on the night of 19/20 March 1943. XXX Corps of the Eighth Army commenced Operation Pugilist along with the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division. They penetrated the Italian-held line [66] and established a small bridgehead west of Zarat on 20/21 March. The terrain and rain however prevented the deployment of tanks, aircraft and anti-tank guns, which left the infantry isolated. A determined counter-attack by 15th Panzer Division and the 136th Armoured Division Giovani Fascisti on 22 March, recaptured much of the bridgehead. XXX Corps prepared a new attack towards Tallouf, in which the 4th Indian Infantry Division (Major-General Francis Tuker) was to make a night attack on 23/24 March, around the inland end of the line. This would coincide with the wide left hook manoeuvre Montgomery was planning with a new operation called "Supercharge II". [67]

On 26 March, X Corps (Lieutenant-General Brian Horrocks) drove around the Matmata Hills, capturing the Tebaga Gap and the town of El Hamma at the northern extreme of the line in "Operation Supercharge II", making the Mareth Line untenable. The following day anti-tank guns from German and Italian units checked the advance of X Corps, to gain time for a withdrawal. In the next 48 hours the Axis defenders pulled out of the Mareth Line, establishing a new defensive position 60 kilometres (37 mi) to the north-west at Wadi Akarit near Gabès.

Gabès

Ghurkas attack, 16 March 1943 Ghurkas advance through a smokescreen up a steep slope in Tunisia, 16 March 1943. NA1096.jpg
Ghurkas attack, 16 March 1943

The reorganised US II Corps advanced from the passes again and got behind the Axis lines; the 10th Panzer Division counter-attacked at the Battle of El Guettar on 23 March. The German tanks rolling up lead units of the US forces ran into a minefield, and US artillery and anti-tank units opened fire. The 10th Panzer Division rapidly lost 30 tanks and retreated out of the minefield. A second attack supported by infantry in the late afternoon was also repulsed, and the 10th Panzer Division retired to Gabès. The US II Corps was unable to exploit the German failure and each attack was stopped by the 10th Panzer Division or 21st Panzer Division counter-attacks up the road from Gabès; co-ordination of Allied air and ground forces remained unsatisfactory. The Eighth Army and the US II Corps attacked for the next week and on 28 March, the Eighth Army captured El Hamma, forcing the Axis to abandon Gabès and retreat north towards the Fifth Panzer Army. The hills in front of the US forces were abandoned, allowing them to join the British forces in Gabès later that day. The 2nd New Zealand Division and 1st Armoured Division pursued the Germans 225 km (140 mi) northwards into defensive positions in the hills west of Enfidaville, which were held until the end of the campaign.

Northern sector

German Panzer Mk III tanks advance through a Tunisian town Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-049-0008-33, Nordafrika, Panzer III bei Fluss-Uberquerung.jpg
German Panzer Mk III tanks advance through a Tunisian town

On 26 February, Arnim, in the mistaken belief that the Kasserine battles had forced the Allies to weaken the north to reinforce the south, launched Unternehmen Ochsenkopf (Operation Ox Head) against V Corps, across a wide front and commanded by General Weber. [68] The main attacks were by Corps Weber which had the 334th Infantry Division, newly arrived elements of the Hermann Göring Division and the part of the 10th Panzer Division not involved in Unternehmen Frühlingswind (Operation Spring Wind). Weber's force was to advance in three groups: a central group moving west toward Medjez el Bab; a second to the north advancing south-west, on the route from Mateur to Béja (which was some 40 km (25 mi) west of Medjez) and the third group pushing west 25 miles (40 km) south of Medjez. The northern flank of Weber's corps was to be protected by the Manteuffel Division advancing west (Operation Ausladung) and forcing the Allies out of their advanced positions opposite Green Hill and the Axis-held Jefna Station. [69]

The aim of Unternehmen Ausladung was to gain control of the vital town of Djebel Abiod. This attack by the Manteuffel Division made good progress across the French-held, lightly defended hills between Cap Serrat and the railway town of Sedjenane. Costly counter-attacks on February 27 and 2 March by part of the 139th Infantry Brigade, 46th Infantry Division), No. 1 Commando and supporting artillery delayed the Axis advance. [70] Withdrawals of French battalions in the Medjez area to join XIX Corps, left little opposition to the German occupation of the high ground dominating the town, which was left in a dangerous salient. [71] As a result, Sedjenane was abandoned by the British on 4 March and the 139th Infantry Brigade was pushed slowly back over the next three weeks some 24 km (15 mi) toward Djebel Abiod.

Operation Ochsenkopf

A British 4.5 inch medium gun firing on targets spotted by the RAF British 4.5 inch gun and crew Tunisia 1943 IWM TR 1004.jpg
A British 4.5 inch medium gun firing on targets spotted by the RAF

The main offensive, Ochsenkopf led to fierce fighting - Kampfgruppe Lang attacking in the northern sector were held up by a small force of artillery and a battalion of the Hampshire Regiment for a whole day at Sidi Nsir and Hampshire Farm before they could be overcome. This delay was critical and as a result the British force was able to prepare a significant killing field at Hunts Gap (an area between Medjez and about 24 km (15 mi) north-east of Béja). [72] In the Southern attack Kampfgruppe Audorff made some progress west toward Medjez el Bab but a British ad hoc force, Y Division was able to repel the Southern attack; particularly after two Churchill tanks shot up an entire German transport column at a place called 'Steamroller' Farm. [73] The final attack by Lang's battered force was stopped at Hunt's Gap by the 128th Infantry Brigade of the 46th Infantry Division with substantial artillery, RAF air cover and two squadrons of Churchill tanks from the North Irish Horse under command. [70]

Fighting lasted until 5 March and in terrible weather conditions the operation was called off by Arnim. [74] The failure had cost the Axis grievous losses in infantry as well as tanks, particularly the loss of many of the heavy Tiger Tanks. [73] Ochsenkopf was to be the last major Axis offensive by the 5th Panzer Army. [75] On 25 March, Alexander ordered a counter-attack on the V Corps front and on 28 March, Anderson attacked with the 46th Infantry Division, with the 138th Infantry Brigade, 128th Infantry Brigade in reserve and reinforced by the 36th Infantry Brigade, 1st Parachute Brigade and French units including a tabor of specialist mountain Goumiers, the artillery of two divisions plus more from army resources. In four days, it succeeded in recapturing all lost ground and took 850 German and Italian prisoners. [71] On 7 April, Anderson tasked the 78th Infantry Division with clearing the Béja-Medjez road. Supported by artillery and close air support, they methodically advanced 16 km (10 mi) through difficult mountain terrain over the next ten days, clearing a front 16 km (10 mi) wide. The 4th Infantry Division joined the fighting, taking position on the left of the 78th Division and pushing toward Sidi Nsir. [76]

Allied victory

Allied plans

Tunisia Campaign operations, 20 April to 13 May 1943 Tunisia20Aprto13May1943.jpg
Tunisia Campaign operations, 20 April to 13 May 1943

The salient at Medjez had been relieved and lateral roads in the V Corps area cleared so that Anderson was able to turn his full attention to the orders he had received on 12 April from Alexander to prepare the large-scale attack, scheduled for 22 April, to gain Tunis. [76] By this stage, Allied aircraft had been moved forward to airfields in Tunisia to prevent the aerial supply of Axis troops in North Africa (Operation Flax) and large numbers of German transport aircraft were shot down between Sicily and Tunis. British destroyers operating from Malta prevented marine supply, reinforcement or evacuation of Tunisia by sea (Operation Retribution). Admiral Cunningham, Eisenhower's Naval Task Force commander, issued Nelsonian orders to his ships: "Sink, burn, capture, destroy. Let nothing pass" but very few Axis ships even attempted passage. By 18 April, after attacks by Eighth Army from the south and flanking attacks by IX Corps and French XIX Corps, the Axis forces had been pushed into a defensive line on the north-east coast of Tunis, attempting to protect their supply lines but with little hope of continuing the battle for long.

Alexander planned that while II US Corps would attack on the north towards Bizerte, First Army would attack towards Tunis while Eighth Army attacked north from Enfidaville. Anderson would co-ordinate the actions of First Army and II US Corps, issuing the appropriate orders to achieve this. [76] Anderson's plan was for the main attack to be in the centre of the V Corps front at Medjez, confronting main Axis defences. However, IX Corps on the right would first attack north-east with, by speed of movement, the intention of getting in behind the Medjez position and disrupting their armoured reserves. II US Corps would make a double thrust: one to capture the high ground on V Corps' left flank and a second toward Bizerte. French XIX Corps would be held back until IX Corps and Eighth Army had drawn in the opposition and then advance toward Pont du Fahs.

Battle

Hawker Hurricanes Mark IID on a Tunisian airfield, preparing for a ground attack mission, April 1943. Hawker Hurricane Mark IID 'tank busters' of No. 6 Squadron about to take off from Gabes in Tunisia, 6 April 1943. TR869.jpg
Hawker Hurricanes Mark IID on a Tunisian airfield, preparing for a ground attack mission, April 1943.

The Allied forces had reorganised and during the night of 19/20 April, the Eighth Army captured Enfidaville against the Italian 16th Motorised Division Pistoia, which counter-attacked several times over the next three days and was repulsed and the action at Takrouna also took place. The northward advance of Eighth Army had "pinched out" US II Corps' eastward facing front line, allowing the corps to be withdrawn and switched to the northern end of the Allied front. Arnim knew that an Allied offensive was imminent and launched a spoiling attack on the night of 20/21 April, between Medjez and Goubellat on the IX Corps front. The Hermann Göring Division supported by tanks from 10th Panzer Division penetrated up to 5 miles (8.0 km) at some points but could not force a general withdrawal and eventually returned to their lines. No serious disruption was caused to Allied plans, except that the first attack of the offensive, by IX Corps, was delayed by four hours from 4:00 a.m. on 22 April. [77]

German troops surrender to British crew of a Stuart tank near Frendj, 6 May 1943. The British Army in Tunisia 1943 NA2514.jpg
German troops surrender to British crew of a Stuart tank near Frendj, 6 May 1943.

On the morning of 22 April, the 46th Division attacked on the IX Corps front, creating a gap for the 6th Armoured Division to pass through by nightfall, followed by 1st Armoured Division, striking east for the next two days but not quick enough to forestall the creation of a strong anti-tank screen which halted their progress. The battle had drawn the Axis reserves of armour south, away from the central front. Seeing that no further progress was likely, Anderson withdrew the 6th Armoured Division and most of the 46th Infantry Division into army reserve. [77] The V Corps attack began on the evening of 22 April and the US II Corps launched their offensive in the early hours of 23 April in the Battle of Hill 609, in which the hill was captured, which opened the way to Bizerte. In grim hand-to hand fighting against the Hermann Göring Division, 334th Infantry and 15th Panzer Divisions, it took V Corps with the 1st, 4th and 78th Infantry Divisions, supported by army tanks and heavy artillery concentrations, eight days to penetrate 9.7 km (6 mi) and capture most of the Axis defensive positions.

The fighting was mutually costly but in the Battle of Longstop Hill, Longstop was captured, which opened the way to Tunis and Anderson felt a breakthrough was imminent. [77] On 30 April, after a failed attempt by the 169th Infantry Brigade of the recently arrived 56th (London) Infantry Division, which had just arrived over 3,300 miles from Syria, it had become clear to both Montgomery and Alexander that an Eighth Army attack north from Enfidaville, into strongly-held and difficult terrain, would not succeed. General Alexander gave Montgomery a holding task and transferred the British 7th Armoured Division, the 4th Indian Infantry Division and the 201st Guards Motor Brigade from the Eighth Army to the First Army, joining the British 1st Armoured Division which had been transferred before the main offensive. [78]

The redeployments were complete by the night of 5 May; Anderson had arranged for a dummy concentration of tanks near Bou Arada on the IX Corps front, to deflect attention from the arrival of the 7th Armoured Division in the Medjez sector and achieved a considerable measure of surprise as to the size of the armoured force when the attack began. [79] The final assault was launched at 3:30 a.m. on 6 May by IX Corps, commanded by Lieutenant-General Brian Horrocks who had taken over from Lieutenant-General John Crocker, who had been wounded. V Corps, under Lieutenant-General Charles Walter Allfrey, had made a preliminary attack on 5 May, to capture high ground and secure the left flank of IX Corps. The 4th British and 4th Indian Divisions, concentrated on a narrow front and supported by heavy artillery concentrations, broke a hole in the defences for the 6th and 7th Armoured divisions to pass through. On 7 May, British armour entered Tunis and American infantry from II Corps, which had continued its advance in the north, entered Bizerte. [80]

Axis surrender

US troops with abandoned German equipment including an M3 halftrack May 1943 German M3 wreck2 Tunis May1943.jpg
US troops with abandoned German equipment including an M3 halftrack May 1943

Six days after the fall of Tunis and Bizerte, the last Axis resistance in Africa ended with the surrender of over 230,000 prisoners of war (POWs). [81] Major General Lucian Truscott, commander of the US 3rd Infantry Division and Major General Ernest N. Harmon, commander of the US 1st Armored Division, reported that German resistance in the American sector ceased on 6 May and German troops started surrendering en masse. [82] On 8 May, the 334th Division surrendered to the British forces between Mateur and Tebourba. [83] At 10:00 a.m. on 9 May, the US II Corps, now under Major General Omar Bradley, cornered Major-General Gustav von Vaerst and what remained of the 5th Panzer Army, which surrendered before noon. At least 12,000 Germans surrendered in Major-General Fritz Krause's sector (of the initial batch of 25,000 prisoners, fewer than 400 were Italian). Around 22,000 Germans in the mountainous Zaghouan sector also ceased fighting on 11 May and surrendered with their equipment to the Free French.

British and Commonwealth forces reported 150,000 Axis POWs taken in the German-held sector from 5 May – 12 June. Major-General Count Theodor von Sponeck, commander of the 90th Light Division, had surrendered unconditionally to the 2nd New Zealand Division, after threatening to fight till the last round. Messe, commander of the 1st Army, held the line north of Takrouna and on 12 May, cabled Comando Supremo vowing to fight on; at 7:55 p.m. that evening, after the German collapse, Mussolini ordered Messe to surrender. Next day, the 1st Army was still holding opposite Enfidaville but the remaining 80,000 men were surrounded; the RAF and artillery continued their bombardment and around noon, the 1st Army surrendered to the Eighth Army. [84]

Aftermath

Analysis

Churchill tank moves through Tunis during the liberation, 8 May 1943 A Churchill tank and other vehicles parade through Tunis, 8 May 1943. NA2880.jpg
Churchill tank moves through Tunis during the liberation, 8 May 1943

In 1966, the British Official Historian I. S. O. Playfair wrote that

Had the Allies been able to get a tighter stranglehold on the Axis communications immediately after the 'Torch' landings, they might have won the gamble of the Tunisian Campaign by the end of 1942 and victory in Africa as a whole might have been close. Conversely, the Axis might have staved off for a long time their defeat in May 1943 had their forces received the supplies they needed.

Playfair [85]

The decision to reinforce North Africa was one of the worst of Hitler's blunders: admittedly, it kept the Mediterranean closed for six more months, with a negative impact on the Allied shipping situation but it placed some of Germany's best troops in an indefensible position from which, like Stalingrad, there would be no escape. Moreover, Hitler committed the Luftwaffe to fight a battle of attrition under unfavourable conditions and it suffered losses that it could not afford.

Williamson Murray [86]

The Axis gamble had only slowed the inevitable and the US defeat at Kasserine may have been paradoxically advantageous. With North Africa in Allied hands, plans quickly turned to the invasion of Sicily and Italy. Joseph Goebbels wrote that it was on the same scale as the defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad; Tunisgrad was coined for the defeat. [87]

A Victory March was held in Tunis on May 20, 1943, in which units of the First and Eighth Armies and representative detachments of the American and French forces marched past, with bands playing and generals Eisenhower, Alexander and Giraud taking the salute. [88]

Casualties

Allied

Allied casualties of 76,020 include the losses incurred by the First Army from 8 November 1942 and the Eighth Army from 9 February 1943. British and Commonwealth losses amounted to 38,360 men; 6,233 were killed, there were 21,528 wounded and 10,599 missing. Free French losses were 19,439; 2,156 killed, 10,276 wounded and 7,007 missing. American losses amounted to 18,221 men; 2,715 killed, 8,978 wounded and 6,528 missing. [89] [90]

849 aircraft were destroyed; from 22–30 November 1942, the RAF flew 1,710 sorties and lost at least 45 aircraft. The USAAF flew 180 sorties and lost at least 7 aeroplanes. [91] From 1–12 December, the RAF flew 2,225 sorties and lost a minimum of 37 aircraft. The USAAF flew 523 sorties and lost another 17 aircraft. [92] From 13–26 December, the RAF flew 1,940 sorties for a loss of at least 20 aeroplanes while the USAAF conducted 720 sorties for a loss of 16 aircraft. [93] From 27 December 1942 – 17 January 1943 the RAF flew 3,160 sorties and lost 38 aircraft while the USAAF flew an estimated 3,200 sorties and lost 36 aeroplanes. [94] From 18 January–13 February the RAF flew 5,000 sorties, excluding those against shipping, for the loss of 34 aircraft while the USAAF flew an estimated 6,250 sorties for the loss of 85 planes. [95] During the remainder of February to 28 March, 156 allied planes were lost. [96] Between 29 March and 21 April, 203 Allied aircraft were destroyed. [97] From 22 April to the end of the campaign, 45 bombers and 110 fighters were lost; the RAF lost 12 bombers and 47 fighters, the USAAF losing 32 bombers and 63 fighters, while the French lost 1 bomber. [98]

Axis

Axis casualties were from 290,000–362,000 men; the losses are uncertain but it is estimated that the German army lost 8,500 men killed during the campaign while the Italians lost 3,700 men killed; another 40,000–50,000 Axis soldiers were wounded. [87] In the British official history, Playfair wrote that the Allies took 238,243 unwounded prisoners; 101,784 Germans, 89,442 Italians and 47,017 others. [89] In 2004, Atkinson wrote that a quarter of a million men captured is a reasonable estimate. [87] Playfair wrote that G. F. Howe, the American official historian, recorded the capture of 275,000 Axis soldiers, an 18th Army Group calculation of 244,500 prisoners (including 157,000 Germans), that Rommel estimated 130,000 Germans were taken and Arnim estimated 100,000 German and 200,000 Italian prisoners had been taken. [89]

The Luftwaffe lost 2,422+ aircraft in the Mediterranean theatre from November 1942 – May 1943 (41 percent of the Luftwaffe). [99] At least 1,045 aircraft were destroyed; from 22–30 November 1942, the Luftwaffe flew 1,084 sorties losing 63 aircraft, including 21 destroyed on the ground. The Regia Aeronautica recorded the loss of 4 aeroplanes. [91] From 1–12 December, the Luftwaffe flew 1,000 sorties and lost 37 aircraft, including nine on the ground, while the Italians recorded the loss of ten more. [92] From 13–26 December, the Luftwaffe flew 1,030 sorties and lost 17 aircraft, while the Italians lost three. [93] From 27 December 1942 – 17 January 1943, the Luftwaffe lost 47 aeroplanes; Regia Aeronautica losses are unknown. [94] From 18 January – 13 February, the Luftwaffe lost another 100 aircraft but Italian losses are unknown. [95] From 14 February to 28 March, 136 German aeroplanes were lost and the Regia Aeronautica lost 22 more. [96] From 29 March – 21 April, 270 Luftwaffe planes were destroyed and 46 "operational aircraft and almost their entire remaining air transport fleet" was lost. [97] From 22 April until the end, the Luftwaffe lost 273 aircraft; 42 bombers, 166 fighters, 52 transport aircraft, 13 Storch observation aircraft and the Italians recorded the loss of 17 aeroplanes; 600+ aircraft were captured by the Allies. [98]

See also

Notes

Footnotes
  1. 2/3 of the combat troops and 1/3 of the support troops were Germans [1]
  2. Operational tanks only [1]
  3. 183 lost in the Battle of Kasserine Pass, 6 lost in the Battle of Medenine, 40 lost in the Battle of El Guettar, 16 lost in Operation Oxhead (Operation Ochsenkopf), at least 51 lost in the Battle of the Mareth Line, 32 lost in the Battle of Wadi Akarit, 12 lost in Operation Vulcan and several more lost in minor battles. [1]
  4. Mitcham lists the following tank losses with no upper limit and no noted losses to mechanical breakdowns. 34 (20 German, 14 Italian) lost in the Battle of Kasserine Pass, 55 (40 German, 15 Italian) lost in the Battle of Medenine, 45 (mostly German) lost in the Battle of El Guettar, 71 (all German) lost in Operation Oxhead (Operation Ochsenkopf) and 200+ operational tanks (mostly German) lost in actions after March 9. Mitcham also notes that a very large number of tanks were not operational at the time due to previous mechanical issues; for instance, by April 22, only 45% of German tanks were operational, with the rest confined to workshops. Therefore the actual number of tanks lost after March 9 is possibly around 450 rather than 200. [2]
  5. After the event, Anderson and Cunningham, the naval commander, expressed the view that without landings east of Algiers, the race for Tunis was lost before it started. [18] Eisenhower, when accepting the Combined Chiefs' ruling, pointed out that the decision not to land east of Algiers removed the early capture of Tunis "from the realm of the probable to the remotely possible". [19]
Citations
  1. 1 2 3 4 5 Mitcham, p. 78
  2. Mitcham, pp. 56 to 84.
  3. Churchill, Winston. "The Hinges of Fate: The Second World War, Volume IV". Houghton Mifflin Company, 1950. Page 697, quoting a telegram from General Alexander on 12 May 1943: "It appears that we have taken over 1,000 guns, of which 180 are 88-mm, 250 tanks and many thousands of motor vehicles, most of which are operational".
  4. Playfair, p. 111.
  5. Playfair, p. 114.
  6. Playfair, pp. 151–152.
  7. Playfair, p. 116.
  8. Playfair, pp. 117–118.
  9. Hinsley, pp. 472–473
  10. 1 2 Playfair, p. 239.
  11. Hinsley, p. 487
  12. Hinsley, p. 493
  13. Hinsley, pp. 495–496
  14. Playfair et al. 2004, p. 117.
  15. Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 117–119.
  16. Playfair et al. 2004, p. 171.
  17. 1 2 3 Anderson 1946, p. 2.
  18. Hinsley, p. 492
  19. Eisenhower, p. 90
  20. Playfair, p. 152.
  21. 1 2 Watson (2007), p. 60
  22. Anderson 1946, pp. 4–6.
  23. 1 2 3 Anderson 1946, p. 6.
  24. Ford (1999), p. 17
  25. Ford (1999), pp. 19–22
  26. Ford (1999), p. 23
  27. Ford (1999), pp. 23–25
  28. Ford (1999), p.25
  29. Ford (1999), p.28
  30. Ford (1999), p. 40
  31. Ford (1999), pp. 37–38
  32. Watson (2007), pp. 62–63
  33. Ford (1999), p. 50
  34. Ford (1999), pp. 53–54
  35. Playfair, p. 266.
  36. Watson (2007), p. 64
  37. Playfair, pp. 258–259.
  38. Anderson 1946, p. 7.
  39. 1 2 3 Anderson 1946, p. 8.
  40. Watson (2007), p. 67
  41. Playfair, pp. 278–279.
  42. Playfair, p. 279
  43. 1 2 Watson (2007), p. 68
  44. 1 2 Watson (2007), p.77
  45. Anderson 1946, p. 9.
  46. Playfair, p. 294
  47. Watson (2007), pp. 80–81
  48. 1 2 Watson (2007), p. 82
  49. Watson (2007), p. 84
  50. Watson (2007), pp. 86–87
  51. Watson (2007), pp. 89–93
  52. Watson (2007), p. 102
  53. Watson (2007), p. 103
  54. Watson (2007), p. 104
  55. Watson (2007), p. 105
  56. Watson (2007), pp. 106–107
  57. Watson (2007), pp. 109–110
  58. Playfair, p. 303
  59. 1 2 Playfair, p. 304
  60. Playfair, p. 305.
  61. Playfair, pp. 315–316
  62. Playfair, p. 271
  63. Playfair, pp. 307–311
  64. Watson (2007), pp. 110–111
  65. Watson (2007), pp. 121, 123
  66. Young Italians in the Battle of Mareth
  67. Playfair 2004, pp. 337–342.
  68. Playfair, p. 326.
  69. Playfair, p. 306.
  70. 1 2 Playfair, p. 327.
  71. 1 2 Anderson 1946, p. 10.
  72. Perrett (2012) pp 139-40
  73. 1 2 Rolf (2001) pp 152-53
  74. Watson p 113
  75. Windrow p 23
  76. 1 2 3 Anderson 1946, p. 11.
  77. 1 2 3 Anderson 1946, p. 12.
  78. Mead, p. 44
  79. Anderson 1946, p. 13.
  80. Anderson 1946, p. 14.
  81. Playfair, p.460
  82. Heefner 2010, p. 101.
  83. Williamson 2012.
  84. Delaforce 2008, p. 133.
  85. Playfair, p. 419
  86. Murray 1995, p. 322.
  87. 1 2 3 Atkinson 2004, p. 537.
  88. Playfair et al. 2004, p. 461.
  89. 1 2 3 Playfair et al. 2004, p. 460.
  90. Atkinson 2004, p. 536.
  91. 1 2 Playfair et al. 2004, p. 179.
  92. 1 2 Playfair et al. 2004, p. 186.
  93. 1 2 Playfair et al. 2004, p. 189.
  94. 1 2 Playfair et al. 2004, p. 278.
  95. 1 2 Playfair et al. 2004, p. 284.
  96. 1 2 Playfair et al. 2004, p. 355.
  97. 1 2 Playfair et al. 2004, p. 401.
  98. 1 2 Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 460–461.
  99. Glantz 1995, p. ch 10.

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References