World War Two: North Africa (4-17B); Stalemate Before Tunis (pt.2)

The Action at Djebel el Guessa, 6 December: General Eisenhower would not accept as final the initial failure to penetrate beyond Djedeida; General Anderson, although far from sanguine, continued therefore to plan for a renewed offensive against Tunis and Mateur. Preparations for such operations were to be made while holding a line which ran along the eastern edge of Djebel Lanserine (569) from Chouigui pass through Tebourba gap and across the Medjerda river to Djebel el Guessa (145), southwest of EI Bathan. The main body of Combat Command B, U.S. 1st Armored Division, was deployed under General Oliver’s command on the southeastern side of the river with the 1st Battalion, 1st Armored Regiment, now released from Blade Force and back with its parent unit. Rankled by the recent setbacks at the hands of the German armored forces, the Americans hoped now to fight as a team in conformity with their own doctrine. More British units kept arriving in Tunisia in conformity with pre-invasion plans. The 1st Guards Brigade (Brigadier F. A. V. Copland-Griffith) reached Bedja on 6 December while elements of the British 6th Armoured Division (Major General Sir Charles F. Keightley) began to assemble in the area near Souk el Khemis, Thibar, and T eboursouk for eventual employment south of the Medjerda. Blade Force returned to the 6th Armoured Division.

The French assisted in holding a line east of Medjez el Bab and in preparing for the renewed attack on Tunis. General Juin insisted that Goubellat be held to cover Medjez el Bab from the south. To lighten the load on General Anderson’s troops, he gave General Barre responsibility for defending the sector north of Bedja, bringing forward French units from Le Kef and replacing those units by others which General Giraud had planned to send to the Tebessa area. French troops took up positions on the southerly slopes of Djebel el Ang (668), north of Medjez el Bab. In central Tunisia, where Giraud had directed that an advance be made to a line extending northeastward from Gafsa to Sbeltla and thence through Kesra to Maktar, the French 7th Algerian Infantry with a battalion of 75-mm. guns and elements of the Tunisian Task Force on 3 December seized Fald pass in the Eastern Dorsal. French forces next occupied Fondouk el Aouareb on 8 December and Pichon on 19 December. Plans were laid to advance toward Pont-du-Fahs and Zarhouan, and even to strike at Kairouan.

Thus the French threatened the Axis southern flank and prepared to participate in a renewed Allied offensive. The pressure for troops to protect the long line of communications against forays by enemy parachutists and other saboteurs at the time of the Axis counteroffensive in early December was severe. The Allied Force command would have preferred to use more French troops in such duties in order to get the maximum numbers of Anglo-Americans, who were better armed, into the advanced zone. The entire ten companies of the Territorial Division of Constantine, plus 300 native customs guards (douaniers), and two companies of regulars were used on guard duty at Bone and Constantine, and at bridges and tunnels along the routes across Algeria. The U.S. 39th Infantry Regiment was similarly employed. Throughout December French commitments in advance sectors ran counter to the preferences of the Allied command for French guard troops.

If the Allies intended to resume their offensive, so also did the German XC Corps. General Nehring found the means, while holding at other points, to press beyond Tebourba up the Medjerda river valley. Part of General Fischer’s command was shifted to the southeastern side of the river to the vicinity of EI Bathan and Massicault. The projected attack was to strike along both sides of the Medjerda and to include a wide swing through Furna to approach Medjez el Bab from the southeast. But first, Allied troops had to be driven from Djebel el Guessa, a cluster of hills and ravines which rose abruptly from the flat farm land southwest of El Bathan. Its heights gave perfect observation over an area extending from Tebourba gap to the north to the El Bathan-Massicault road to the cast and a broad area to the south. Fire from its bare northern slopes upon the narrow shelf of Tebourba gap could interdict the road there. To clear the Allies from Djebel el Guessa, Fischer planned a major flanking move through Massicault to the northwest and at the same time, a secondary push westward from the area south of El Bathan.

The Allied line was held by the 2nd Battalion, 6th U.S. Armored Infantry, and the 8th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highland Regiment (8/ ASH), at Tebourba gap, and the 1st Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry, and part of the 27th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, strung out thinly along the crests of Djebel el Guessa. Enemy preparations were observed on the afternoon of 5 December. An attack was recognized as imminent.

After a night in which German flares kept the area lighted for observation, the attack struck on 6 December at about 0700. Two waves of dive bombers softened up the American defense; then parachute infantry, with machine guns and mortars, began their approach to the northern flank. Soon, supported not only by renewed air strikes but also by other infantry, reinforced by tanks attacking to the west and toward Djebel el Guessa’s Hill 145, they began to infiltrate through the saddles of the ridge line to cut off the troops in the northern section of that line. Simultaneously, on the southern flank, the enemy committed an armored force, of the 7th Panzer Regiment, with some twenty tanks and truck-borne infantry, headed for Hill 148 and thence to Djebel el Guessa.

This armored force, after being held up for a while, threatened to penetrate between the Americans on Djebel el Guessa and their line of withdrawal. Its attack caused them to retire hastily with severe losses. Company C, 6th Armored Infantry, became completely disorganized. Battery C, 27th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, firing in support, drew the enemy armored force against its own positions. It was forced back into a natural cul-de-sac, and although aided by Battery B, of the same unit, in the end its five old-style half-tracks were destroyed and its survivors were captured. But it had won considerable time and claimed to have knocked out at least eight Mark IV German tanks with its 105-mm. howitzers.

To relieve the exposed force at Djebel el Guessa General Oliver dispatched Colonel Bruss’s half-strength 2nd Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment (mediums), later sending in the 2nd Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry, from the north side of the river, and the light tanks of 1st Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment (-) from its assembly area south of Djebel el Asoud (214).

Colonel Bruss’s force was so late in getting started that the battle around Djebel el Guessa was almost over. General Oliver still hoped to inflict severe damage on the enemy’s forces, which ceased advancing and waited southwest of Djebel el Guessa for the counterattack. Bruss divided his battalion into two groups, sending E Company, reinforced, along a narrow strip between the river and Djebel Bou Aoukaz (226) and D Company around the eastern side of that hill mass, while the enemy took cover. When the group nearest the river emerged from the shelter of the hill, antitank shells swiftly knocked out several tanks, stopping the attack; when the other column appeared later, it too was repulsed. Colonel Todd’s 1st Battalion, meanwhile, made a sortie but arrived too late to be of assistance to Bruss’s force. After this serious setback, the counterattack was broken off, but General Fischer’s forces also pulled back to the northeast without attempting to push farther toward Medjez el Bab. Instead, elements were sent to support the disarming of General Derrien’s French forces near Bizerte on 8 December.

The Allies might have reoccupied Djebel el Guessa but did not. The day’s battle had been damaging to both adversaries and especially galling to the Allies. The enemy had been able to send a strong battle group against part of a force deployed on both sides of a river and, after overwhelming the exposed forward elements, to meet a counterattack under conditions highly favorable to him. These results were probably all the more satisfactory to the enemy because of American tactical errors. Once again tanks had sallied forth to contend with tanks rather than attacking with mutually supporting weapons, as the situation had demanded.

Again they ran into a curtain of antitank fire. But the resulting situation was hardly as unfavorable as the interpretation placed upon it at British 5 Corps headquarters, which ordered the British 11th Brigade Group to withdraw its remaining elements from Tebourba gap along the other side of the river to a new line at “Longstop Gap,” the next conspicuously narrow neck between mountains and river southwest of Tebourba gap. On the night of 6-7 December, retirement to this position by General Evelegh’s troops made pointless an occupation of Djebel el Guessa. Combat Command B therefore took up new stations at Djebel Bou Aoukaz and Djebel el Asoud, a complicated hill mass east of the Bordj Toum bridge. The Allies were now obliged, in view of General Fischer’s initial success, to reappraise the situation.

[NOTE: The name “Longstop Gap” was derived from Longstop Hill, the British designation for Djebel el Ahmera, east of which the Allies were not again to pass for a long period.]

The Allies Fall Back to a New Line General Allfrey believed the Allies would be incapable of successfully attacking Tunis for a considerable period. Rather than squander resources to defend territory, he believed that economies should be practiced and the accumulation of reserves expedited by taking safer positions farther west. On 7 December Allfrey proposed falling back to a line extending south from Djebel Abiod through Oued Zarga and Testour to Bou Arada. This meant abandoning Medjez el Bab. Such a step was resisted by General Juin in a conference with General Allfrey at Barre’s headquarters and, when recommended to General Eisenhower by British First Army, was also protested by General Giraud. The Allied commander in chief ordered the defense of a line which ran somewhat farther east and which protected Medjez el Bab.

The Commander in Chief, Allied Force, was by no means unaware of the risks. “I think the best way to describe our operations to date,” he wrote at the time, “is that they have violated every recognized principle of war, are in conflict with all operational and logistic methods laid down in textbooks, and will be condemned in their entirety by all Leavenworth and War College classes for the next twenty-five years.”

He accepted the French views and approved defense by General Anderson’s force of a line which ran east of Medjez el Bab, from Tamera on the north through Sidi Nsir, Djebel el Ang, Goubellat, and Bou Arada. From the new base line, the attack was to be resumed when the build-up and the weather made it possible. French troops of General Barre’s command were ordered by Giraud to extend the line south of Medjez el Bab through Goubellat, Bou Arada, and Barrage de l’Oued Kebir, and to cover the Medjerda valley, on a line facing south, through Slourhia, Testour, Teboursouk, and Le Kef: In the complex redistribution of forces, the 1st Guards Brigade (-) was to move to Medjez el Bab the night of 10-11 December and hold there. The 11th Brigade and Combat Command B were meanwhile to withdraw through Med jez el Bab and by 0600, 11 December to take up positions farther west. General Anderson’s advanced command post at Ain Seynour, just west of Souk Ahras, moved back to Constantine, to which Headquarters, British First Army, had already moved from Algiers. Preparations were made during two days of persistent rain. But before the Allies could begin their withdrawal, the enemy struck.

Early on 10 December, the 86th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, as part of the Fifth Panzer Army’s effort to expand the bridgehead, started a two-pronged offensive along both sides of the river, each prong supported by a company of tanks. The 7th Panzer Regiment began a southerly loop through Massicault, Furna, and Sidi Mediene (later known as “Peter’s Corner”) to attack Medjez el Bab from the southeast.

This regiment (less its 2nd Battalion) was reinforced by elements of the 501st Panzer Battalion, whose armament included Mark VI (“Tiger”) tanks, an antitank company, and a battery of 100-mm. guns.[Combat Command B, 1st Armored Division, reported 62 light and 22 medium tanks plus 21 Sherman tanks of a detachment of the 2nd Battalion, 67th Armored Regiment, at the end of 9 December]. Combat Command B, 1st Armored Division, was caught at Djebel Bou Aoukaz in an exposed position. The closest supporting positions were those of British units six to ten miles farther to the west. It was in danger of being cut off on the southeastern side of the river if enemy forces attacking from Tebourba gap got control of the Bordj Toum bridge at the same time that the enveloping sweep of 7th Panzer Regiment blocked access to the bridge at Medjez el Bab. The American armored unit fought throughout the day on rain-soaked ground which offered serious hazard to vehicular movement except by road.

An encounter took place at the Allied roadblock on the northwest bank near the railroad station of Bordj Toum, protected by mines laid by the U.S. 16th Combat Engineers and by antitank guns. These were supported by medium tanks of the 2nd Battalion, U.S. 13th Armored Regiment, and by 105-mm. howitzers of Battery B, 27th Field Artillery Battalion, firing across the river, as well as by Battery A, 175th Field Artillery Battalion, and the Headquarters Platoon, 13th Armored Regiment, on the northwest side. The engagement stopped the Germans and protected the bridgehead but left it under fire and subject to threat of renewed attack at nightfall On the east bank, the second prong of the German attack was held back by skillful defense and by soft ground, which limited maneuver. But the attack by the third enemy column, after overrunning elements of the 1st Battalion, 1st Armored Regiment, reached a roadblock about two miles east of Medjez el Bab. Elements of the 4th Mixed Zouaves and Tirailleurs Regiment (4 MZI) plus the 3rd Battalion, French 62nd Artillery Regiment, and another French battery firing from the far side of the Medjerda river held up the advanced section of the enemy column about t 400, after knocking out four tanks and causing other losses.

Combat Command B tried to intercept the main enemy column with a flank attack, using elements of the 1st Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment, and of Company C, 701st Tank Destroyer Battalion. The Germans turned back to meet this threat. The American light tanks were outgunned by the enemy and mired when they maneuvered off the road; nineteen were lost. The tank destroyers claimed ten German medium tanks knocked out before being put out of action themselves. The enemy had successfully run the gantlet until stopped by the French roadblock and the American counterattack. He then pulled back to Massicault leaving a small blocking detachment at Sidi Mediene. He had suffered only moderate losses, but at the end of the day, both the bridge at Med jez el Bab and that at Bordj Toum remained in Allied possession.

At dusk, the plans for Combat Command B’s withdrawal behind the approved line from the southeast side of the Medjerda were arranged in a roadside conference west of Medjez el Bab by Generals Allfrey, Evelegh, Oliver, and Robinett and by visits to other British commanders. British units were to cover Combat B’s route, including the vital Bordj Toum bridge. Two platoons of infantry, operating as a patrol, were designated for this mission.

The withdrawal began after darkness. One after another, the units pulled out of position on Djebel Bou Aoukaz and Djebel el Asoud and fell into column on a lateral road leading to Bordj Toum and the supposed roadblock. Tanks, half-tracks, trucks, guns, and other vehicles were soon closely bunched on a virtual causeway across a treacherous sea of mud, and remained so as they approached the river. Ahead of them, Company D, 13th Armored Regiment (Captain Philip St. G. Cocke), with some infantry, crossed at 1745 to strengthen the defense of the bridgehead until the withdrawal was complete. They found no evidence of the covering force and turned toward the railroad station of Bordj Toum and the supposed roadblock. A light engagement with a small German force ensued, the sounds of which started rumors back at the bridge that a German attack was imminent. Occasional shells fell near the bridge. The rumors spread from the head of the column to those in command. They made the position of the withdrawing force seem critical.

Rather than stop to reconnoiter, Lieutenant Colonel John R. McGinness, the officer in command, hurriedly ordered the vehicles to reverse and instead of crossing by the Bordj Toum bridge to turn off onto a narrow dirt track which ran near the southeastern bank of the river through Grich el Oued to Medjez cl Bab. It was a disastrous error of judgment. The leading vehicles kept going but behind them they left an increasingly churned-up ribbon of mud in which most of the remainder were completely mired. The crews were ordered to abandon them and continue into Medjez el Bab on foot. Under the circumstances, despite the fact that the tanks and half-tracks had already been brought close to the point of requiring overhaul by hard use and insufficient maintenance, the loss was equivalent to a serious defeat at the enemy’s hands.

It was particularly injurious to morale as it became a celebrated instance of frustrated logistical effort. 16 Vehicles could be replaced only by stripping some other unit. The 1st Battalion, 18th Armored Regiment, relinquished its materiel and some of its personnel and went back to the Oran area to await a new shipment. The 2nd Armored Division in Morocco sent 26 mediums by rail. A few of the mired vehicles were later extricated by determined crews before the enemy closed in. The Germans claimed to have destroyed 36 American tanks, 4 armored reconnaissance cars, 2 antitank guns, 3 armored prime movers, and an undetermined number of guns on 10 December, and during a subsequent mop-up of the battlefield on 11 December, 80 guns, vehicles, and armored personnel carriers.

The Allies could not resume their drive on Tunis until further preparations for a sustained attack had been completed. For some ten days after the Allied withdrawal of 10-11 December, combat was confined to patrolling by ground and air, and to bombing raids by each side. The enemy consolidated his position, moved security elements into dominating heights along the routes northeast of that town, and set up his main line of resistance from Bordj Toum to the road between Furna and Massicault and thence southward to the hills.

Meanwhile the Allies built up supplies at the railhead in Souk el Arba, got the railroad between Tabarka and Sedjenane into limited service, and strengthened antiaircraft defenses. Allied forces, American, British, and French, were regrouped for another major thrust above the Medjerda river and for support to the north and south of it.

The Allied retirement to the west and the continued arrival of Axis reinforcements in Tunisia permitted General von Arnim to expand the two perimeters protecting Bizerte and Tunis into a general bridgehead. His line became a series of interconnected defense outposts which he endeavored to consolidate. As of 13 December the northwestern part of his front started on the coast about twenty-five miles west of Bizerte, crossed the hills to the south as far as the Djefna position, then bore southeast to cross the Tine river valley; about five miles southwest of Chouigui pass the line surmounted Djebel Lanserine and near Bordj Toum leapt the Medjerda river. Continuing in a southeasterly direction and passing east of Ksar Tyr, it continued towards the southeast to Zarhouan and the area of Enfidaville.

This front was divided into three sectors held in turn by Division von Broich from the north coast to the area of the Tine river valley, by 10th Panzer Division to a point ten miles west of Zarhouan, and by the Superga Division in the south and east. The extreme southern flank, beginning at a point southwest of Enfidaville, was under command of General Giovanni Imperiali of the Italian 50th Special Brigade. Defense of the coast to the north was divided between General Neuffer at Bizerte and the German commandant of Tunis.

On 15 December the Fifth Panzer Army ordered a considerable southward movement to begin next day. The 10th Panzer Division’s sector was extended to include Ksar Tyr and Pont-du-Fahs, the southern edge of good “tank country” in northern Tunisia. General von Arnin directed the Superga Division, Italian 50th Special Brigade, the 47th Grenadier Regiment, and the 190th Reconnaissance Battalion (directly under Fifth Panzer Army headquarters) to occupy stations along the coast and in the mountain passes of the Eastern Dorsal. They were to occupy and defend the defiles through the mountain chain from Pont-du-Fahs to Maknassy and thence to El Guettar and Kebili in southern Tunisia. They were to recover the pass near Faid and the other key points at which French troops were installed. On 16 December the 10th Panzer and Superga Divisions advanced their main line of resistance while the 190th Reconnaissance Battalion completed its mission as Ordered.

Allied aviation, whose overstrained condition had made necessary an interlude before a second drive toward Tunis, was improved and organized for better co-operation. A new Allied offensive required more fighter support of the ground troops, which in turn depended upon preparing forward airfields, bringing up steel matting for runways, obtaining fuel and other supplies, and establishing a rapid flow of replacement aircraft. The air arm of the Allied Force was faced with a monumental task. The number of planes at the forward airfields increased. Intermediate fields at Telergma and Canrobert, southwest and southeast of Constantine, began operations. At Biskra, on the edge of the desert, another field permitted American heavy bombers to operate without plunging into mud whenever they overran a runway. B-17’s (Flying Fortresses) and Wellington heavy bombers equipped for night operations used the all-weather field at Maison Blanche and the one paved runway at Blida. Light and medium bombers from Morocco came to Youks-les-Bains. The headquarters of various air commands were scattered and linked by primitive signal facilities. During the forthcoming offensive, control over both British and American tactical air units would be maintained by the principal air officer on General Anderson’s staff.

Reducing the enemy’s rate of reinforcement to stop him from successfully counterbalancing each increment of the Eastern Task Force was a major objective for Allied aviation. Royal Air Force units based on Malta sank or crippled seven small merchant vessels, including oil tankers, in December, and bombed airfields in Sicily.

American and British aircraft of the Eastern Air Command struck repeatedly at the Tunisian terminals of the airlift and at the ports of Bizerte and Tunis. The enemy’s improved antiaircraft defenses and numerous intercepting fighters, as well as the network of accessible airfields at his disposal, enabled him to take a high toll of Allied fighter escort. Allied fighter units were worked to the limit to meet the demands for escort missions and sweeps against enemy dive bombers.

The Plans for the Final Attack

AFHQ estimated the effective Allied combat troops at 20,000 British, 11,800, Americans, and 7,000 French, while the opposing Axis forces were set at about 25,000 combat and 10,000 service troops, most of them in the Tunis bridgehead. The enemy was credited with eighty German tanks. The Allies were stronger in long-range artillery, although the enemy’s 88-mm. gun was deeply respected. The Allied tanks, though weaker, were somewhat more numerous. It was recognized that Axis aviation would be superior to that of the Allies.

After postponements caused both by adverse weather and by the rate of build-up, General Anderson, under General Eisenhower’s prodding, concluded on 16 December that D Day must be set at 23-24 December in order to take advantage of a full moon for night infantry attacks. He intended to concentrate maximum strength on a relatively narrow front for a direct push toward Tunis. This arrangement would make the most of his artillery and antitank resources. He would reduce flank protection to the minimum consistent with safety. He proposed to keep the British 6th Armoured and 78th Divisions in close co-operation and to hold Combat Command B, U.S. 1st Armored Division (which he estimated at half-strength), in corps reserve. The attack could be maintained, he believed, for from seven to ten days only.

Headquarters, British 5 Corps, prepared the plan. The attack was again to be along the Medjerda river, but this time with the main effort on the southeastern side. In November, the stream had been a protection for the Allied south flank as the attacking force converged on Djedeida with the intention of crossing there. In the December attempt, the river was to be a protection for the north (left) flank, and except for a small force using the bridge at El Bathan, the Allied forces would cross it from the northwest at Medjez el Bab and even farther upstream. The two British divisions, 6th Armoured and 78th, with the American 18th Combat Team (1st Infantry Division) attached to the latter, were expected to approach Tunis via Massicault from the southwest.

Two artillery groups were organized to support the attack by massed fires. Their employment necessitated maneuver off the roads, which became more feasible as the rains abated for a few days. The Allied center, near Sidi Nsir, was to be held by a mixed force of French and British infantry and American artillery. On the north flank, Brigadier Kent-Lemon’s 36th Brigade Group was to threaten Mateur, but Anderson considered his strength sufficient only to contain, not to capture, that town. No parachute or Commando operations in the rear of the enemy were scheduled.

Preliminary to the advance south of the Medjerda river, the Allies had to gain its northwestern bank as far as Tebourba, beginning with the capture of Djebel el Ahmera (290, Longstop Hill), about seven miles northeast of Med jez el Bab. That hill dominated the highway and railroad routes prospective condition of First Army on 22 December in between Medjez el Bab and Tebourba, and furnished unimpeded observation over a wide area from its long, knobby crest. The Axis commander had less than a battalion of infantry in positions on the mountain and along the base, particularly at the small railroad station (Halte d ‘el Heri) near the eastern end of Longstop Hill.

Although the main Allied attack on Tunis was scheduled for 24-25 December, preliminary operations by the 78th Division were planned for each of the two preceding nights to gain the approaches to the Tebourba-Djedei’da area. On 22-23 December, British troops were to seize the village of Grich el Oued on the southeast bank of the Medjerda, a few miles northeast of Medjez el Bab, while a battalion of the Coldstream Guards, followed by the 1st Battalion, U.S. 18th Infantry Regiment, was to occupy Longstop Hill. Next day the 5th Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment, on a march through the mountains toward Tebourba gap, would pass through the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Algerian Infantry Regiment, and that night further advances were scheduled which would regain for Allied troops possession of Bordj Toum bridge, Djebel el Guessa, and Tebourba gap. On 25 December, when the main offensive began, the left flank of the main thrust at EI Bathan-Tebourba-Djedeida would be held by the British 11th Infantry Brigade.

The main Allied attack was prefaced by operations which the French Army undertook on the southern flank, a drive to gain possession of the commanding heights at the juncture of the Eastern and Western Dorsals. The objective was the high ground from Djebel Fkirine (988), to Djebel Zarhouan (1295), south and east of Pont-du-Fahs.

Rebaa Oulad Yahia was occupied on 16 December, but during the next four days, while Colonel Marcel Carpentier’s reinforced 7th Moroccan Infantry Regiment continued northeastward, the Superga Division also strengthened its outposts with armor, self-propelled guns, and air support. The first lunge of the French was stopped on 22 December after two days’ fighting had gained the Barrage de rOued Kebir at considerable cost. A second attempt in greater strength, directed by General Maurice Mathenet and supported by small Allied units of armor, antitank guns, and aviation, was made on 27 December, also without success. These operations were co-ordinated with others by the Eastern Task Force, but a unified command over the whole Allied front was not yet in existence.

[NOTE NA-45G: (1) French losses, 20-22 December, were 14 killed, 95 wounded, and 58 missing. They captured 10 German and 26 Italian soldiers. CSTT Jnl, 20-22 Dec 42. French losses in the 27-29 December attack were 37 killed, 156 wounded, and 188 missing. They also lost 9 American-made tanks and 9 guns. Captured were 7 German and 122 Italian prisoners. CSTT Jnl, 27-29 Dec 42. (2) Msg, CinC AF to CCS, 17 Dec 43, NAF 43.]

General Giraud proposed to General Eisenhower on 17 December that the supreme command in Tunis should now pass to him, in general agreement with a formula indicated in the discussions at Gibraltar, when he was ready to become the French leader in Northwest Africa. He reminded the Allied commander in chief that an estimated 40,000 French troops were in the forward area. The proposal required some satisfactory accommodation of Giraud’s claims, for the French troops, though ill equipped, were essential both to cover the southern flank of the Eastern Task Force and to deliver aggressive pressure at selected points. General Giraud was not willing to put French units under General Anderson’s command. Despite the need for unified control, its exercise by Giraud could not be reconciled with military and political realities.

The Allied commander in chief later resolved the problem by creating an advance command post at Constantine through which he himself would co-ordinate the parallel operations of French, British, and American commands; however, long before the activation of the post in January, Giraud had been diverted by other problems of great urgency.

During the night of 16-17 December a small raid on Maknassy was carried out by eighty selected men from Company L, U.S. 26th Infantry, under Lieutenant Colonel John W. Bowen. They struck the town from the flank and rear with complete surprise to the much larger garrison. They took twenty-one Italian prisoners from the Ariete Division, men who had survived EI ‘Alamein and arrived at Gabes on 10 December as members of the Italian 50th Special Brigade, but who were now, within a week, taken out of combat.

In preparing for a possible Allied offensive, Kesselring chose to strengthen von Arnim’s command in Tunisia rather than meet Rommel’s insistent requirements for the means of making a stand at Buerat el Hsun. On 17 December, when Rommel argued the futility of keeping his army there in view of the failure of the supply line and the inadequacy of the men and materiel he had been receiving, Kesselring assured von Arnim in Tunis that both men and materiel would soon be on the way to him. Three regiments of infantry and the truck transport with which to motorize the reserves would come to Tunisia. Stevedores and cranes from Italy would speed up port operations. Air support would take the form which von Arnim requested-strikes on the concentration areas and close support during future engagements. The Axis command also called for an extensive program of sabotage by parachutists and glider-borne troops intended to disrupt Allied supply traffic between the ports and the front, and to delay Allied advance to the coast in the vicinity of Sfax and Gabes. This attempt (Operation RIGA) was frustrated for the most part by Allied countermeasures.

The Engagement at Longstop Hill The second Allied attempt to take Tunis, it will be recalled, was to be preceded during the night of 22-23 December by the seizure of Grich el Oued by a reinforced company of the 3rd Grenadier Guards and the capture of Longstop Hill by the 2nd Battalion, Coldstream Guards. After Longstop had been secured, the Coldstreams were to hand it over before dawn to the 1st Battalion, U.S. 18th Infantry, and return to Medjez el Bab in order to participate in the main phase of the attack on Tunis. Longstop Hill, the objective of this initial phase of the attack, is not quite seven miles to the northeast of Med jez el Bab.

The mountain, rising to more than nine hundred feet, is separated from the higher ground to the west by a saddle, to the north by a small basin that widens into the plain of Toungar. Between the eastern slopes and a loop in the Medjerda river is a gap, less than half a mile wide, where a railroad station, Halte d ‘el Heri, is located. The dominating ridge stretches for almost two miles in an east-northeasterly direction and is marked by a succession of knolls, the highest being Point 290, near the center of the crest. At the far end, separated by a ravine from the main feature, rises another somewhat lower hill, Djebel el Rhar (243). The tactical significance of this hill, even its existence, had not been discovered during the reconnaissance for the attack.

Combat Team 18 of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division moved up from Oran with elements of the U.S. 36th Field Artillery Regiment (155-mm. guns) for the final attack. Although Djebel el Rhar has been described as masked during reconnaissance and not shown on the map used by the Guards battalion, it is clearly shown on Sheet 19 (Tebourba) of the 1:50,000 map published by the British War Office in 1942 and attached to the 78th Division’s attack orders held by Combat Team 18.

The battalion plan was to capture Longstop Hill by advancing with two companies on the left, via Chassart Teffaha, to take the col with one of them and secure the crest with the other. Meanwhile a third company, proceeding along the main road, was to take Halte d’el Heri. The reserve company, following the same route, would be assembled at the southern base of the hill close to the battalion headquarters.

On the German side, the 69th Panzer Grenadier Regiment with attached elements of the newly arrived 754th Infantry Regiment, both under the command of Colonel Lang, held the line north of the Medjerda, the boundary between Lang’s sector and the one held by the adjoining 86th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, south of the river. During the night of 21-22 December elements of the crack 69th Panzer Grenadiers who had occupied positions on the hill and at the railroad station had been relieved by two companies of the hastily organized 754th Infantry Regiment. To speed up their commitment the men had been shipped to Tunisia with hand weapons only. They occupied the line without special equipment, lacked organic transport, and consequently had been unable to carry their full basic load of ammunition.

The German main line of resistance ran through Point 290, Djebel el Rhar, and Halte d’el Heri. The latter position was well protected by mine fields, some of which were not known to the Allies. As early as 21 December enemy artillery observers on Longstop Hill had recognized substantial Allied movements in the vicinity of Medjez el Bab. Patrols had reported Chassart Teffaha and Smidia reoccupied by the Allies. At noon, the next day, German air confirmed these reports. When the attack started, it lacked the element of surprise.

The British troops who engaged in the preliminary attack advanced through heavy rains which began late in the afternoon, 22 December, and continued throughout the night. Grieh el Oued was taken without opposition and held until 26 December, but vehicles had to be sent back lest they be trapped in the mire. The company of the 3rd Grenadier Guards (3/GG) relied henceforth on mules for transport.

North of the river the 2nd Battalion, Coldstream Guards (2/CG), executed the initial phase of its assault according to plan. It secured Longstop Hill as far as Point 290; it also reached the railroad station. The green troops of the 754th Infantry Regiment, disheartened by the powerful Allied artillery preparation, soon exhausted their ammunition, and after a valiant effort to defend their position, with bayonets only, some elements withdrew. Things appeared to be going well for the Allies. But then the Germans counterattacked at the railroad station and drove the Coldstream Guards back. A reserve platoon which the Guards committed in an attempt to stabilize the situation ran into an antipersonnel mine field. The British commander, under the mistaken impression that he held all of Longstop Hill, abandoned the attack and left the Germans in control of HaIte d’el Heri.

The 1st Battalion, U.S. 18th Infantry, had meanwhile begun its advance from Medjez el Bab, but had fallen somewhat behind schedule. The British commander expected two of the U.S. rifle companies to take the route via Chassart Teffaha and the others including the battalion headquarters to follow the main road. The Americans, however, were disposed to take the left road with three companies, including the heavy weapons company and battalion headquarters, while sending only Company A and the battalion antitank platoon to Halte d’el Heri. The guides left by the Coldstream Guards to lead the several units into position either missed them in the dark rainy night, or did not know where to take them. The resulting confusion made orderly relief quite impossible. While the two commanding officers finally managed to meet at the British command post, their headquarters never did link up. At 0430 the 1st Guards Brigade ordered the Coldstream back to Medjez el Bab. The battalion, under the impression that only a handful of the enemy remained to be mopped up, left the hill before all positions previously held by them were reached by the Americans. The existence of Djebel el Rhar had gone unnoticed.

In the morning of 23 December the Americans realized that they held little more than half of Longstop Hill. Company A, reinforced by tanks, struck again for the railroad station, advancing between the road and Longstop Hill’s eastern slopes. In the gap a reinforced panzer grenadier company successfully enveloped most of the company, capturing or killing all but one officer and thirteen men. Meantime the 1st Battalion, 69th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, had counterattacked the Americans dug in on the hill. Strong German elements circled the northwestern base of the Longstop massif and drove the Americans off Point 290. By 1500 Colonel Lang reported all positions of his former main line of resistance recaptured. An hour later the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry, supported by British artillery, launched a co-ordinated counterattack against Point 290. In the face of determined German resistance the attack failed. By 1800 the U.S. battalion had to take up defensive positions to the west and south. B Company was now in an advance position on the knob closest to Point 290 with C and D Companies in support. Communications were exceedingly difficult. Wire lines were frequently cut; the rad105 got soaked in the heavy rain and failed. Those still operational were handicapped by the screening effect of the hills.

After the first setbacks the commanding officer of the 18th Infantry, Colonel Frank U. Greer, requested reinforcements, lest the whole mountain be lost. The Coldstream, back at Med jez el Bab since 1030, were the only reserve available. The 1st Guards Brigade now ordered them back. One company returned during the afternoon to the scene of its night battle, but it was not until late at night that the rest of the battalion was assembled at the entrance to the Colonel In the drenching rain all roads beyond Chassart Teffaha had become impassable. There were no mules to take the place of motor vehicles.

As both sides brought up additional forces, the battle for Longstop Hill came to a temporary halt. The enemy had watched the battle with deep concern. General von Arnim, his chief of staff, and General Fischer came forward during the day to Colonel Lang’s command post near the hill. Early in the morning von Arnim had sent elements of the 7th Panzer Regiment and an organic 88-mm. flak battery of the 10th Panzer Division to Toungar. The 2nd Battalion, 69th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, was rushed to Tebourba gap. Additional elements of the 754th Infantry Regiment were also brought up and attached to Colonel Lang’s command.

In accordance with the Allied plan the 5th Northamptons, during the night of 22-23 December, had embarked on the highly difficult mission of advancing through the mountains from Toukabeur via Heidous and Sidi Ahmed to Tebourba gap. At noon (1235), meanwhile, 5 Corps had decided to postpone the main Allied attack, continuing only the battle for Longstop Hill. Desperate efforts were immediately undertaken to reach the Northamptons and order them back, but planes sent out were unable to locate the battalion in the cloud-covered mountains. The Germans, however, had been warned by Arabs. Patrols sent out confirmed the threat to Colonel Lang’s right flank. In the afternoon two companies of the 754th Infantry Regiment were dispatched to drive the British off Hill 466, some four miles north of Longstop Hill. In a bitter night engagement the Germans succeeded, but before this reassuring news could reach the German command the panzer grenadiers on Longstop had been almost driven off the mountain.

By 0600, on 24 December, the Coldstream Guards had again assembled in the Colonel This time the battalion planned to pass one company through B Company, 18th Infantry, still clinging to the hill opposite 290. The Guards company was to clear the ridge all the way to the east. It would thus be in a position to dominate the gap. Another British company would follow in support, while one reserve company would be held in the Colonel The fourth company was organized into carrying parties. At 1700, two hours before dark, the attack went off. Following closely behind a rolling barrage, the Coldstream again drove the Germans off the crest, “but when No.4 [Company] reached the final peak they saw in the failing light what had never been appreciated Djebel el Rhar staring at them across a gully. They thereupon inclined to the left and gallantly attempted to deal with this new objective. It was found, however, to be strongly held and to be a much larger area than anyone company could possibly cope with.”

Nevertheless the Coldstream temporarily reached Djebel el Rhar’s highest peak, Point 243, but in the darkness evidently never realized it. From the north slope the Germans continued to subject the companies to accurate and devastating mortar fire, while the men were struggling to dig in on the rocky crest as best they could. For the German command Christmas Eve had brought a serious crisis. Colonel Lang’s forces were still fighting to eliminate the threat to their right flank. The units on Longstop Hill had been driven off the massif and were regrouping in the eastern reentrants. Losses had been painful, though considerably below those of the Allies.

Faced with this situation Lang decided to counterattack the next morning. A small group in the center of the German line was able to regain Point 243 on Djebel el Rhar during the night. This unit was ordered to hold down the Allies with strong frontal fire. Armored elements of the 7th Panzer Regiment, swinging around the northern slopes of Longstop Hill, were to advance to the saddle, destroy the Allied troops there, and exploit by pushing toward the southern entrance of the pass. The main attack would round Longstop Hill’s base from the east with the objective of completing the double envelopment.

On Christmas Day, 0700, the enemy struck his final blow. In the col a company of French native troops without any antitank weapons was quickly dispersed by the German armored thrust. When the French withdrew they exposed the Allied left flank.

 

The enemy’s main-effort group, personally led by Colonel Lang, caught the Americans from the rear. The Coldstream Guards were thus isolated in their position on top of Longstop Hill. The Allied situation soon became untenable and when the Germans retook 290 by 0900, General Allfrey ordered his troops to withdraw. Against stubborn resistance the Germans took all of the remaining knobs of the hill, but when they sortied toward Chassart Taffaha they were stopped by mine fields and the 3rd Grenadier Guards who had been committed on the high ground to the east of the village. The enemy remained on Longstop Hill, and for understandable reasons called it thereafter “Christmas Hill.” Losses during the four-day engagement had been heavy. American casualties amounted to nine officers and three hundred and forty-seven men; the Coldstream Guards lost one hundred and seventy-eight officers and men.

Obviously a number of mistakes had been made in the planning and execution of the attack. Insufficient reconnaissance contributed to the fact that Longstop Hill was never completely captured. Requiring one battalion to secure the objective and perfect the transfer in the same night was asking the impossible. The Allied troops also lacked air support, largely owing to the weather conditions. During the decisive German counterattack on Christmas Day artillery support was highly unsatisfactory because the forward observers had been withdrawn the night before and were unable to return.

On 24 December, at V Corps headquarters, General Eisenhower and General Anderson had reached the conclusion that the weather dictated an indefinite deferment of the second Allied offensive aimed at capturing Tunis. After all troops which had moved east of the 11 December line had returned during the night of 25-26 December it was evident that not even the preliminary phase of the Allied attack, with the objective of gaining the approaches of the Tebourba-Djedelda area, had been realized. With the greatest reluctance, General Anderson and General Eisenhower in Constantine concluded that the race with the Axis forces had been lost. Tunisia would have to be taken by a prolonged struggle and with a strategy substantially revised. In his periodic review for the Combined Chiefs of Staff, General Eisenhower indicated that the initial, opportunistic phase of operations would now be followed by initiative in another quarter while the vast supplies and reinforcements needed to capture Tunis and Bizerte were slowly being accumulated.

The Allied Force would begin reorganizing immediately. Weather would not permit resumption of the attack in northern Tunisia for about two months. Acknowledging that abandonment of the attempt to capture Tunis was a severe disappointment, the Commander in Chief, Allied Force, deemed the evidence conclusive that any attempt to make a major attack in northern Tunisia under existing conditions would be to court disaster.

SOURCE: Northwest Africa: Seizing The Initiative In The West; by George F. Howe (United States Army Center of Military History)

World War Two: North Africa (5-18); New Situation: Allied Reaction

World War Two: North Africa (4-17); Stalemate Before Tunis (pt.1)

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World War Two: North Africa (4-17); Stalemate Before Tunis (pt.1)

Field Marshal Kesselring directed General Nehring, commanding the German forces defending Tunis, to enlarge the area they were holding. During a visit to Tunis on 28 November he found much to criticize. He believed that Medjez el Bab should have been defended rather than abandoned. The unloadings of cargo at Bizerte had been much too slow, limiting operations against the Allies and retarding the schedule of sea transport. He found Nehring’s attitude too cautious and defensive. Since another infantry regiment was soon to arrive, he urged that the situation be faced with confident determination rather than in a mood of desperation. Finally, he ordered Nehring to regain lost ground up to a line running from Tebourba gap to Massicault. Nehring placed the operation under command of the recently arrived commanding general of the 10th Panzer Division, General Wolfgang Fischer, and scheduled it for not later than 1 December.

[NOTE: General Fischer was relieved as Military Governor of Bizerte by Generalmajor Georg Neuffer, commanding general of the 20th Flak Division.]

The Allied forces were then widely dispersed in the Tebourba area. The most advanced elements were at the ridge line near Djedeida. Two miles west of them a company held Djebel Maiana ( 186) and made full use of its dominating position for observation of the plain below. Close to Tebourba village were various units, including the 2nd Battalion, U.S. 13th Armored Regiment, and the U.S. 5th Field Artillery Battalion. Other units were at El Bathan, on the southeastern bank of the Medjerda river south of Tebourba. The remainder of the Allied troops held a triangular area whose points, about four miles apart, were at Tebourba village (5th Northamptons), Chouigui village ( Blade Force less 17/21 Lancers), and Tebourba gap (Headquarters, 11th Brigade, 17/21 Lancers, and artillery and antitank units.

Tebourba gap is a narrow belt of level ground between Djebel Lanserine (569) and the Medjerda river through which a highway and railroad run to Medjez el Bab. Along the western edge of the triangle are the serried shoulders of Djebel Lanserine, rising from the edge of the rolling plain. Between Tebourba gap and Tebourba is a low ridge, while between Tebourba and Chouigui are dips and wadies and a few clumps of trees.

Since 29 November Blade Force had been assembled in the area of Chouigui and in a position to protect the left (northern) flank of Brigadier E. E. Cass’s 11 th Infantry Brigade, at the same barring time access to Chouigui pass from the east From this assembly area the 17/21 Lancers ( 17/21 L) had moved early in the morning of 1 December to Tebourba gap, leaving the 1st Battalion, U.S. 1st Armored Regiment, and other elements of Blade Force behind. This was the setting for General Fischer’s counterattack, which opened a little later that morning.

The Axis Counterattack Begins

To carry out his orders Fischer was assigned the forces in the Tunis North sector, 190th Panzer Battalion, and those elements of the 10th Panzer Division that had arrived in Tunisia. The Tunis North sector forces maned a perimeter, divided into two subsectors-that under Colonel Guensch running from Protville to Djedeida and that under Lt. Colonel Koch from Djedeida through St. Cyprien to La Mohammedia. Group Lueder (elements of 190th Panzer Battalion), which had helped close the gap between Mateur and Djedelda on 28 November by its advance from Sidi Athman, stood three miles north of Chouigui pass, and the elements of the 10th Panzer Division under Captain Hudel were assembling in the area around Protville. From the Mateur area Fischer recalled on 30 November a small tank unit which had been with Group Witzig opposing Brigadier A. L. Kent-Lemon’s 36th Brigade Group. General Fischer expected to have at his disposal for his attack approximately forty tanks, mostly Mark III’s, and about fifteen 75-mm. antitank guns and he was expecting additional reinforcements daily.

Late on 30 November he took command of the Tunis North sector from Colonel Stolz and issued orders for his counterattack from headquarters at Le Bardo, on the edge of Tunis. The only radio available to his staff was that in Tunis at Headquarters, XC Corps. Some of the forces to be committed would pass out of radio contact at the first hostilities and could be reached thereafter only by courier. Accepting this handicap, he assigned and scheduled objectives that would take a considerable period of time, and prepared to exercise direct command at various points on the battlefield, trusting otherwise to the discretion of his principal subordinate commanders.

The operation was to open with a holding attack on the southern flank and an armored thrust against the northern flank delivered at the triangle south of Chouigui village. Four separate groups were organized. At the outset, three would be in motion while the fourth waited in reserve. At the south, Group Koch (seven companies of parachute infantry, three companies of regular infantry, one German and one Italian antitank company, two field artillery pieces, and platoons of engineers and bicyclists) was to tie down the Allies by attacking EI Bathan.

 

Northwest of Chouigui village, Group Lueder (one company of tanks, one field artillery battery of three guns, one company of dismounted motorcycle troops) was to exit from a valley near Hill 258 and attack toward the south, while also blocking the road through Chouigui pass. Group Hudel (two companies of tanks, two companies of antitank guns, and a company of dismounted motorcycle troops) was to attack from Sidi Athman, eight miles north of Djedelda, and destroy the Allied armored force at Chouigui, and then, in conjunction with Group Lueder, to drive through Chouigui and attack Tebourba from the west. If the Allies were already falling back from the town by the time the groups reached the area west of Tebourba, the mission of Croups Lueder and Hudel would be to block the Tebourba gap.

Ready at Djedelda, a fourth group (Group Djedeida ) would pursue the Allies if they pulled back during the tank operations north of Tebourba but otherwise would await General Fischer’s specific order to attack. Group Djedeida included one company of parachute infantry, two companies of regular i:ifantry, two antiaircraft companies, eighteen 20-mm. guns, a motorcycle engineer platoon, elements of a tank destroyer company ( three 55-mm. guns ), two Mark III tanks and the two untried Tiger tanks which had successfully made the overland trip from port to battle front. Several of the new 88-mm. flak guns were diverted from the defense of Bizerte to be converted to use as antitank weapons of surprising power.

The German counterattack began at 0745, 1 December. It had substantial success from the start. Allied troops saw the two armored columns converging on Chouigui, elements of Blade Force in the vicinity first observing Group Lueder. Northwest of the village, they engaged in a relatively brief artillery exchange which cost each side light losses. The attacking group in two extended V-shaped lines continued south toward Chouigui. The supply and service units of Blade Force, screened by 1st Battalion, U.S. 1st Armored Regiment, and Squadron B, 1st Derbyshire Yeomanry, fell back east toward Tebourba to avoid being enveloped.

Then Group Hudel, accompanied by General Fischer, delivered the main blow against Chouigui from the north. Blade Force was thus attacked from two directions, and before noon had been largely overrun, its headquarters dispersed, and the remainder driven back on Tebourba. An attempt to assist the armor at Chouigui by sending 17/21 Lancers back from Tebourba gap to Blade Force’s western flank proved ineffectual.

When the Lancers moved out of the cover of an olive grove and approached their objective across open ground, five of their Crusader tanks were knocked out by the enemy’s longer-ranged guns, concealed in the trees south of Chouigui. The remainder pulled back to a strong position on a knoll northwest of Tebourba in support of the 11th Brigade Group. When the units of Blade Force which had not been destroyed at Chouigui later withdrew to Tebourba, they were attached to 17/21 Lancers for further employment.

The German armor continued southward from Chouigui in a careful pursuit which was slowed even further by the delaying action of a British armored car unit, covering the somewhat hasty withdrawal into Tebourba gap of Allied trains, artillery, and other units. The congestion of vehicles converging there was increased when enemy rifle and machine gun fire from Hill 104 near the southern bank of the river temporarily stopped movement along the northern bank. Allied artillery emplaced on high ground at Tebourba gap was weakly protected against possible ground attack with close air support, but the afternoon passed without execution of such a threat although enemy air attacks were frequent. At the same time, these batteries continued successfully to slow the southward advance of the Germans despite persistent counterbattery and heavy machine gun fire on their positions. Groups Lueder and Hudel were finally stopped just north of the main road between Tebourba gap and Tebourba, although they succeeded in denying use of that road to the Allies despite one Allied air bombing and persistent Allied artillery fire. During the afternoon, the defenders did not fall back westward from Tebourba but, reinforced by the arrival of elements of Blade Force, held their positions. Under Fischer’s plan, German armor was expected to attack Tebourba next, but instead it was held northwest of the village while Group Djedeida attacked.

Group Djedeida attacked early in the afternoon against the Allied line at the ridge west of Djedeida, marking the climax of Allied progress toward Tunis. General Fischer had left Group Hudel, around noon after Chouigui had fallen, to lead Group Djedeida’s attack personally. Its troops were inferior in skill and morale, and it lacked reserves. The two supporting Tiger tanks were helpful, but the stubborn resistance offered by the 2nd Hampshires (2/H) held the attackers far short of their objective. During the course of the day the elements of Group Koch designated for the attack on the German left (south) flank advanced to points south and east of El Bathan.

The Allied situation at nightfall, 1 December, was not good, although the battle had not reached a decisive stage. Enemy maneuvers had exposed the 11th Brigade Group’s northern flank and had reduced the zone between Tebourba and Tebourba gap to a narrowing strip close to the Medjerda.

Enemy air attacks upon Allied units moving in daylight had increased in tempo. Blade Force was divided. Its effectiveness as a tactical unit had been destroyed. The 11th Brigade Group was strung out from Tebourba gap on the west to the vicinity of Djedeida on the east and was grouped in four principal sections: (1) the 2nd Battalion, Hampshire Regiment, at the ridge near Djedeida, with one company of the 1st Battalion, East Surrey Regiment, on Djebel Maiana west of it, protecting the observation post, and miscellaneous units, including elements of the 2nd Battalion, U.S. 13th Armored Regiment, near Tebourba; (2) a southern force, the 1st Surreys (-), holding El Bathan on the southern side of the river with two companies supported by heavy artillery and antitank guns; (3) a western force, chiefly artillery, on the hills north of Tebourba gap; and (4) the remnants of Blade Force, mainly the 17/21 Lancers, harboring south of Tebourba village. These Allied troops improved their situation during the night by shifts and reinforcements.

Most of the 5th Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment (5INH), after blunting the German armored thrust, was able to move onto the ridges north of Tebourba gap to protect the hitherto exposed artillery positions there, while remnants of Blade Force continued to rally in that area. Substantial reinforcements from Combat Command B, U.S. 1st Armored Division, approached from Medjez el Bab and brought to Tebourba gap by daylight of 2 December the light tanks of the 1st Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment (less Company C), the mediums of Company E, 13th Armored Regiment, which had been recalled from attachment to the 36th Brigade Group, the 1st and 2nd Battalions, 6th Armored Infantry, and a battery of four self-propelled 105-mm. howitzers of the 27th Armored Field Artillery Battalion. A truck convoy loaded with ammunition, gasoline, and rations got through to Tebourba where replenishment was badly needed. Partially offsetting these gains, the southern force defending El Bathan lost the support of the U.S. 5th Field Artillery Battalion’s 155-mm. howitzers by its failure to receive ammunition resupply. Without authorization by the commander of the British artillery unit to which it was attached, the battalion withdrew during the night rather than uselessly expose its weapons.

The Second Day

General Evelegh had forfeited the initiative but intended, if possible, to relieve Blade Force with Combat Command B, 1st Armored Division, under command of General Oliver, and to counterattack the enemy’s armored forces northwest of Tebourba while the 11th Brigade Group held its positions. The enemy for his part intended to draw tighter the German ring encircling Tebourba by sending the two armored groups and Group Djedeida against it in the morning while Group Koch prevented any withdrawal to the south through El Bathan and also reconnoitered against the possibility of Allied reinforcements approaching from the southwest. During the night, General Fischer sent an armored detachment to gain control of Tebourba gap, through which Allied reinforcements were correctly reported to be moving northeastward, but his force was driven away toward Chouigui.

The enemy’s prospects of early success were dimmed by the low quality of his infantry units. The Tunis Replacement Battalions, casual infantry which had been brought to XC Corps, were seriously deficient In important respects. General Fischer reported to General Nehring of their 1 December’s action:… not the slightest interest existed, no aggressive spirit, no readiness for action, so that I was forced to lead some companies, platoons, even squads, and to assign them a sector on the battlefield. I consider it my duty to point out this critical condition as it is impossible to fight successfully with such troops. It is also true that their command is inadequate. I have warned one captain who failed several times to execute his missions that in case of a repetition I would have him relieved. I had another officer relieved on the spot and demanded that he be court-martialed because he and his men lurked under cover for hours ….

The enemy nevertheless expanded his first day’s gains during 2 December. He did not occupy much new ground but he further weakened the Allies. The 2nd Battalion, Hampshire Regiment, by bitter fighting at the easternmost ridge line, held Group Djedeida, except for a penetration along the Medjerda river, but at heavy cost. At midnight the depleted British force had to withdraw about two miles to a new line which ran south from Djebel Malana to the river, the left (northern) flank being protected by A Company, 1st Surreys.

The southern defending force, two companies of the 1st Surreys in El Bathan, for a time supported by a detachment of 17/21 Lancers in forays against enemy mortar and machine gun emplacements, was worn down by persistent attack from Group Koch. It was threatened with partial encirclement after enemy machine gunners had infiltrated across the river into the olive groves on the Tebourba side. Because of the need to reinforce the troops at Tebourba village, Brigadier Cass authorized withdrawal of the infantry to positions nearer Tebourba, leaving the bridge at El Bathan covered only by antitank guns in exposed forward positions.

On the plain northwest of Tebourba, enemy armor almost completed its attempt to encircle the village. Brigadier Cass had four separate elements with which to oppose the German tanks. One consisted of tanks from the 1st Battalion, 1st Armored Regiment, which had formed a part of Blade Force. They had been driven back to the cover to Tebourba’s olive orchards on the previous afternoon, and had later slipped northward from Tebourba to a wadi nearer Chouigui to escape being trapped. In the early morning, after scooting westward to the base of the hills and then continuing southward toward Tebourba gap, most of them reached the cover of British artillery and there rejoined the main Allied force.

Another element available was the 2nd Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment (less Company E), which had been defending Tebourba village from close-in positions. It was in danger of being cut off at Tebourba and out of communication with Colonel Bruss, its commander. The newly arrived elements of Combat Command B formed a third armored element. The British antitank units attached to the 11th Brigade Group formed the fourth and vital part of the total Allied strength.

The situation on the morning of 2 December called for a well co-ordinated employment of these troops in tactics adapted to certain advantages held by each side. The Germans had pronounced air superiority. Their tanks were individually stronger than the American tanks, and some of their antitank guns were greatly superior to anything the Allies possessed. The Allies had larger numbers of tanks and antitank guns, and could also count on well-placed field artillery, aided by superb observation. The enemy’s well-knit armored groups were obliged to operate in a limited zone between Tebourba and Tebourba gap, where they were necessarily exposed much of the time to fire from the flanks and, if they turned against either area, to fire and counterattack from the rear. Instead of taking advantage of this situation, the Allies frittered away some of their armored strength in an attempt to pit tanks against tanks without even seeking to benefit from greater numbers.

Brigadier Cass was unable, moreover, to make effective use of all Allied strength for lack of radio communications with important elements of his command. General Oliver, as commander of Combat Command B, U.S. 1st Armored Division, was expected to assume command of all armored units upon the relief of Blade Force, and at 1150, 2 December, he sent forward from Medjez el Bab Brigadier General Paul M. Robinett, commander of the 13th Armored Regiment, to bring about co-ordination from an advanced command post nearer Tebourba.

Robinett’s party arrived after a sortie of over thirty light tanks-made by 1st Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment, against German Mark IV’s without benefit of artillery support-had been driven back with heavy losses, and as Colonel Bruss was sending medium tanks of Company E, 13th Armored Regiment, toward Tebourba with a view to reinforcing and extricating the remainder of the 2nd Battalion of that regiment, west of the village. This ill-conceived attempt subjected the American vehicles to antitank fire which destroyed eight of the Shermans, cost several lives, and despite heroic conduct brought no benefits to the Allied side. Cass and Robinett agreed that the situation required defensive tactics until British and American forces could be strengthened and co-ordinated. Another attack by 1st Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment, was canceled.

Neither Group Lueder nor Group Hudel could punch its way as far as the river to cut off completely the Allies in and near Tebourba. The Allied artillery in the olive groves west of the town joined the guns on high ground above the gap, catching the armored units from two directions, holding them back and inflicting substantial losses. Although the Germans dominated the main road between the gap and the village, they still left available to the Allies an unimproved track running close to the river’s bank and screened by trees.

The fighting of 2 December thus left the Germans still holding the initiative, still bringing up reinforcements, with much more yet to accomplish before the battle could be said to be theirs. The successive defeats of both British and American armor were ominous for the Allies, for they suggested that, even if the battle for Tebourba ended with a German withdrawal, Allied offensive power would be below requirements for a successful final assault on Tunis. At the same time, Axis air activity showed no sign of abatement. Under these conditions the next day’s battle, even if won by the Allies, might determine merely how far they could get in their December drive toward Tunis with no likelihood of leading to ultimate victory.

The Climax of the Counterattack, 3 December

On 2 December, two companies of the 10th Panzer Division’s 86th Panzer Grenadier Regiment were flown from Italy to Tunisia and thence to reinforce Group Djedeida in the next day’s assault. The main effort was to be made by this group along the railroad, immediately after a heavy dive-bombing attack and with the support of tanks. Hill 186 was its objective. Group Lueder was ordered to stop traffic moving westward from Tebourba by pushing all the way to the river. Group Rudel, while supporting Group Lueder’s operation, was required to bar withdrawal from Tebourba to the northwest and north. Group Koch, besides strengthening the close-in protection of Tunis against a possible attack from the southwest, was to bar retreat over the EI Bathan bridge and to harass Allied traffic through the Tebourba gap by fire from hills opposite it on the southeastern bank of the river.

The third day’s fighting brought favorable results to the Axis forces. Quickly the two German armored groups, by taking two hills west of the town, narrowed the opening along the river’s northerly side through which the Allies to the west might keep in communication with those in Tebourba. Although El Bathan was mistakenly left undefended by Group Koch for part of the morning, leaving open a way for possible Allied withdrawal from Tebourba, the Allies had pulled back from El Bathan and were much too engrossed in resisting the seizure of Hill 186 (Djebel Maiana) to grasp the opportunity.

Group Djedeida waited until 1000 for a scheduled preparatory dive-bombing attack and then attacked without it. In a two-pronged thrust the Germans struck for Djebel Maiana. The right group gained the northern end of the ridge, secured it, then pressed southward until they controlled the entire hill. The loss of Hill 186 with its superlative observation post in the end proved decisive. Valiant counterattacks launched during the afternoon by the 2nd Hampshires were tantalizingly half-successful. The German left (south) prong of the Djedeida group, reinforced by tanks and supported by air strikes, broke through the British line just north of the river and by 1630 had succeeded in temporarily isolating the 2nd Hampshires in the orchards east of Tebourba. After a last attempt by the 1st Surreys to regain Hill 186 had failed, and under a very heavy dive-bombing attack on Tebourba, the remnants of the 2nd Hampshires prepared at 1800, together with remnants of other units, to evacuate Tebourba village.

The route of the withdrawal, begun after dark, was southward to the track along the river bank and thence westward through Tebourba gap. The enemy subjected the area to heavy artillery and machine gun fire.

As the column of vehicles thickened, some near its head were hit and set on fire; movement stopped, bombardment was intensified, part of the track close to the river gave way; progress became impossible, and extrication of the vehicles all but impossible.

They were therefore abandoned-field guns, tractors, and motor transport, along with much ammunition. The troops infiltrated across the countryside in small groups to Tebourba gap. The enemy had fortunately been cleared from the hills south of the river by Company C, U.S. 6th Armored Infantry, supported by Battery A, 27th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, in a sharp, short action on the previous morning. The way from Tebourba gap up the Medjerda valley was thus cleared of harassing fire at this critical time.

At 1100, 4 December, attacks from both east and west broke swiftly into Tebourba and, about an hour later, yielded the town to Groups Lueder and Djedeida. Group Koch then advanced northward from El Bathan and established contact with the other Axis units. The Allies had been stopped and turned back. They had withdrawn what they could, but the losses inflicted upon them by General Fischer’s command in four days were estimated by him to total: 55 tanks, 4 armored cars, 4-antitank guns, 6 100-mm. guns and 6 120-mm. guns, 13 smaller guns, 38 machine guns, 40 mortars, 300 motor vehicles, 1,000 to 1,100 Allied prisoners, and quantities of ammunition of many kinds. It was an unmistakable victory for Fischer and Nehring.

The general situation in Tunisia was reported to the Combined Chiefs of Staff on 3 December by General Eisenhower as follows:

1. We have gone beyond the sustainable limit of air capabilities In supporting ground forces in a pell-mell race for Tunisia. Consequently, although our air forces have been working at maximum pace without even minimum repair, supply and maintenance facilities, the scale of possible support is insufficient to keep down the hostile strafing and dive-bombing which is so largely responsible for breaking up all attempted advances by ground forces.

2. The Air Commanders report that from 2 days to 1 week more of present scale air operation, under existing conditions, will leave them near or at complete breakdown, yet this scale of air support is not sufficient; provide reasonable conditions for air operation’s we must arrange at once for:

(a) Advanced operating airfields.

(b) Air maintenance troops well forward.

(c) Stocks of spare parts and supplies in advanced dromes.

(d) Warning services and Ack Ack.

To do these things we need a breathing space and proper air cover over land and sea routes of communication in the rear areas.

3. We will curtail air operations in forward areas to bomber attacks on ports and hostile lines of communication with occasional fighter attacks against existing airfields. Our ground operations will be reduced to consolidating

principal gains. . . . All our ground forces in Tunisia, except a portion of the “Blade” force brought out for refitting, arc in contact. No reserves are present in that area.

4. Seven days or even more of delay would not be particularly serious in view of tremendous distances we have advanced ahead of schedule, provided we could stop Axis ground reinforcement, something that to date we have not been able to do. Even with some opportunity to improve our general supply situation east of Algiers, there is a definite limit to our rate of build up and the strength of forces we can sustain in Tunisia ….

5 …. We hope, by reducing the number of aircraft in the forward areas during the next 5 days, to cut down plane losses . . .and build up reserve supplies … for a sustained effort of several days. During the same period we will have an opportunity to straighten out the congested condition on our railway line between Constantine and the forward areas and get supplies moving to the proper places. Because of the shortage of motor transport, sidings have become crowded and supplies immobilized. To move supplies will require not only the use of whatever troops and trucks the French may be able to give us . . . but the use of our own tactical vehicles.

6. Should these calculations and anticipations work out, we will resume the advance as soon as possible. The present target date is December 9th. The principal objective will be the capture of Tunis, to throw the enemy back into the Bizerte stronghold. There we will try to confine him closely while bringing up additional means for the final kill.

7. Success of this plan depends also upon weather, because if protracted rain should set in, every field we have becomes unusable except the tiny one at Bone and the one at Maison Blanche. Bad weather would, of course, also facilitate Axis reinforcement in that our bombing operations would not be effective.

December Decisions on Axis Strategy The aggressive defense of Tunis which the enemy undertook on 1 December was in conformity with the decision reached earlier at higher levels of Axis command to adhere to an ambitious strategy in northwestern Africa. The Germans abandoned the fiction that they were supporting French interests against the depredations of the Allies. They sought to seize control of the French warships at Toulon, an attempt which on 27 November led to the scuttling of these ships in harbor. Hitler on 30 November ordered Kesselring to disarm the French forces in Tunisia.

On 8 December General Gause, sent from Rome to conduct this operation, obliged Admiral Derrien to surrender the elements of his command at Bizerte, thus obtaining in good order and without resistance all the coastal batteries, an arsenal, three torpedo boats, nine submarines, two dispatch boats, some artillery, and the weapons of 7,000 Senegalese and 3,000 others. The troops were eventually removed from Tunisia. The Axis command at the same time began abortive preparations to recruit an Arab legion in Tunisia and to cultivate leaders of the Destourian movement for Arab independence.”

Admiral Canaris of the German Abwehr and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem were scheduled to go to Tunis in December to organize sabotage by pro-Axis Arabs. The new measures toward the French reflected a modification of the original considerations which prompted the Axis occupation of Tunis and Bizerte. The bridgehead in Tunisia and Rommel’s position in Libya were inextricably related. The decision to occupy Tunisia had been made when Rommel’s defeat was new, when his army needed a supplementary line of communications, and when warnings of Allied Italian negotiations in Lisbon cast suspicion on Italian determination to continue the war on the side of the Axis. On both military and political grounds, the creation of the bridgehead had then seemed necessary to prevent the Axis position in the Mediterranean from deteriorating. The speed and vigor with which Axis forces-air, ground, and naval-occupied key positions in Tunisia could not be matched by equally effective command decisions concerning the ultimate exploitation of their bridgehead. Those decisions depended upon the future course of Rommel’s army, and what that course should be was a subject of recurrent strategic discussions among the Axis commanders.

Beginning while the race for Tunis was new, their arguments over Axis strategy in Africa extended into January 1943. Should Rommel’s weakened army retire all the way across Libya into Tunisia? Once there, should his command be consolidated with the other Axis forces in order to resume aggressive operations? If an offensive was then begun, should it lead farther westward in French North Africa or should it head eastward once more across Libya to Egypt? On the other hand, if aggressive measures could be sustained only on a scale unlikely to achieve important successes, should not all Axis forces which could be salvaged for the defense of Sicily and Italy be brought back across the Mediterranean? The answers to these questions depended at bottom upon what military resources the Axis powers could commit to operations in Africa. If sufficient organized units could be found, would it be possible to furnish sufficient logistic support?

The Axis high command, except for its temporary frustration on the eve of Allied landings in French North Africa, had a fairly reliable concept of what the Allies would attempt and of the means at their disposal. Its knowledge was not exact but it was generally correct. Kesselring’s instructions to Nehring, for example, showed that he had a good grasp of what General Anderson would probably attempt. Rommel had also shown amazing, though fluctuating, success in anticipating the tactics of his adversaries in the desert fighting. The major problem for the Axis high command was to weigh the capabilities of its combat forces and its logistics organization. The estimates submitted by field commanders and emissaries of OKW caused successive conferences and eventual modifications of Axis strategic decisions. Ultimately, each of these plans affected the nature of the enemy’s effort in Tunisia; Rommel’s withdrawal across Libya to Tunisia became part of the history of Allied operations in Northwest Africa.

On 17 November 1942, on the eve of the first small clashes between Allied and Axis troops in northern Tunisia, Rommel’s much depleted German-Italian Panzer Army was consolidating after retreating from El Alamein as far as the area of Marsa el Brega, near the southeast corner of the Gulf of Sidra. Rommel was then trying to induce his superiors to face the facts of the military situation which resulted from his retreat after failure of the drive into Egypt. Those facts led, in his judgment, to but one conclusion: his army should start retiring by stages without delay at least as far as southern Tunisia and perhaps all the way to northeastern Tunisia. He was trying to prevent orders to stand at the line of Marsa el Brega and to hold it, as the phrase goes, “at all costs.” He therefore submitted to the Comando Supremo a strong argument for immediate authorization to pull his forces back to Buerat el Hsun, at the western edge of the Gulf of Sidra, and ultimate approval of his making a stand in what he termed the “Gabes Position.” That site was a narrows in the coastal plain north of the port of Gabes, where passage was blocked partly by hills and partly by the steep-sided stream bed of the Akarit, with great salt marshes (chotts) on the western flank and the sea on the other.

Rommel’s Italian military superiors did not accept these proposals. Aside from the basic question of whether there was to be a retreat at all, two major points were at issue: the timing of Rommel’s retreat and the area in Tunisia, if he was to fall back that far, where his army should make its stand.

The Italians wanted the maximum amount of time in which to increase Axis strength in Tunisia and to develop there a fortified, un-flankable line. They preferred the “Mareth Position,” south of Gabes, a fortified zone which the French had designed and which extended between the Matmata hills and the seacoast. Rommel preferred the “Chott Position,” farther north. He wished to be free to move his army back when necessary to escape being outflanked at any position in Libya or to avoid being so deeply engaged that extrication of his whole command would not be possible. Contrary to his recommendations, Rommel was ordered to stand at the Marsa el Brega line while added strength was promised to him there, enough to guarantee his hold until he was again ready for the offensive.

Rommel’s estimate of the reinforcements and replacements of materiel needed to execute those orders was very large. His realization that the orders were ill conceived led him to make a vain effort on 21 November 1942 to get them changed. But the Italians had gained Hitler’s explicit approval and had gotten him to direct Rommel, through Field Marshal Keitel, that he must hold the position at Marsa el Brega. Moreover, the Comando Supremo put Rommel under the orders of its representative in Libya, Marshal Ettore Bastico.

Hitler assured Mussolini, and indirectly informed Rommel, that new German tanks, antitank and antiaircraft weapons, and supporting air strength would be sent to Tripolitania. But actually, Hitler was so preoccupied with the Eastern Front, so insistent on treating the Mediterranean as an Italian theater of war, and so unwilling to accept unpleasant truth about conditions and prospects there that his decisions and assurances were correspondingly unreliable.

Almost immediately after this decision had been reached, the Axis high command began to reconsider it, and kept it under review for the rest of the month of November. The principal Axis commanders in the Mediterranean conferred at Arco del Fileni, Libya, on 24 November 1942 to weigh once more the factors affecting Axis strategy. Kesselring pointed out that if Rommel’s army fell back as far as Buerat el Hsun, Allied air bases could be constructed so near to Tripoli that their bombers would soon terminate its value to the Axis as a port. Despite this probability, Kesselring and Cavallero felt compelled to acquiesce in Rommel’s judgment that he could be outflanked at Marsa el Brega and therefore had no real choice but to pull back as soon as the British Eighth Army began trying energetically either to pin down his front or to envelop his southern flank. Kesselring concluded that this maneuver would not be long delayed.

Mussolini became reconciled to an eventual loss of Tripolitania as he contemplated the alternative prospect of occupying Tunisia, which had long been an object of Italian imperial claims. He believed that, in order to retain Tunisia, as much time as possible for defensive preparations there must be won by delaying tactics in Libya. He therefore ordered that Rommel counterattack the leading British elements and withdraw only with Bastico’s express authorization. Despite those orders, Kesselring was willing to consider decreasing Rommel’s force in order to use part of it to check a possible Allied advance from the west against Gabes or even farther, against Tripoli. To put an end to the intolerable contrast between the mission assigned to him and the means provided for its accomplishment, Rommel early on 28 November flew to consult Hitler face to face at his headquarters in East Prussia.

Rommel’s venture did not go well. Hitler gave him no opportunity to pass from his proposal of an alternative concept of Axis operations to his reasons for objecting to the strategy being pursued. At the word “withdrawal” he cut him off and insisted vehemently that Rommel’s orders were in conformity with the requirements of Axis high strategy and must be carried out. If Rommel needed more men and munitions, he should have them. Hitler therefore quickly arranged for conferences in Rome to consider how the system of supply should be reformed, and for Reichsmarschall Gӧring, as the Führer’s personal representative, to go there with Rommel by special train.”

During the train journey, the plan which Rommel had not been allowed to present for Hitler’s consideration, that the Axis forces be consolidated in Tunisia to strike at the Allies before they could match the combined Axis strength, and then drive eastward against the British Eighth Army, was outlined to Gӧring. The early union of the Axis forces in Tunisia could be treated, he was told, for propaganda purposes as a preconceived maneuver responsible for the retreat from EI ‘Alamein. Victories in Tunisia would galvanize Italian morale as the prospect of a slow bleeding to death in the Tripolitanian desert would not. The Sicilian straits would remain under Axis control and would thus deny passage to the Allies from the western Mediterranean to the rest of that sea. Kesselring came to the train at Rome for a conference preceding the first meeting with Mussolini and his principal military advisers, and neither he nor Gӧring was wholly favorable to Rommel’s proposal. They agreed that there was no longer time enough to convey to Marsa el Brega sufficient means for Rommel to hold there but they decided that retirement west of Buerat el Hsun should not occur. The final decision, as Hitler saw it, would be one for Mussolini to make.

The Italians, it was soon discovered, were now ready to adopt Rommel’s earlier plan for retirement to the Gabes area. They were induced by German arguments to revise that position and to accept the plan to hold resolutely at Buerat el Hsun, after postponing until the last possible hour withdrawal from Marsa el Brega. Mussolini prescribed that Rommel must avoid the loss by capture of large numbers of non-motorized Italian troop units, as at El ‘Alamein, and that the time for retirement must be determined by Marshal Bastico. After six days, the Axis leadership had arrived again at approximately the same course of action as that which the Arco dei Fileni conference had approved. The new element was the attention now given to the main difficulty in carrying out that decision, the necessary degree of logistic support.

Since the one army which Rommel commanded had received inadequate logistical support even before El ‘Alamein, it could hardly be rehabilitated unless the line of supply through Tripoli were drastically improved. To bring about such a change while at the same time trying to win a race with the Allies for the possession of Tunisia meant that the logistical support of northern Africa would in effect have to be revolutionized.

Gӧring presided at a meeting on this problem on 2 December, directing the discussion in a forceful manner without much regard for Italian susceptibilities. [NOTE: Present were Cavallero, Riccardo, Fougier, Gandin, Kesselring, Rommel, Gause, Weichold, Pohl, and Reich Commissioner Kaufmann. (1 ) Cavallero, Comando Supremo, pp. 404-05 (1 Dec 42).] He successively brought up certain specific measures by which the transport system from Italy to Africa could be improved. These measures involved vigorous efforts to increase the efficiency of operations and the protection from air attacks at the ports. A double screen of antisubmarine mines could be laid across the Sicilian narrows to Tunisia to insure a safe channel resembling that which the English had established along the coast from the mouth of the Thames River to Scotland. Germany could supply the mines; Italy must lay them. German radar could be installed to help protect the convoys. Materiel for Rommel’s army could be forwarded from Tunis to Tripoli on barges and ferries moving along the coast under air cover. Italian submarines could take over fuel and ammunition. The cargo shipping seized by the Germans in southern French ports which was suitable for the supply lines to Africa must come into service without further delay attributable to questions of jurisdiction between the new Reich Commissioner for Sea Transport, Gauleiter Kaufmann, and the principal German Naval Commander, Admiral Weichold.

[NOTE: Ltr, Hitler to Mussolini, 20 Nov 42, in von Rohden Collection, OCMH, 4376-53, explained that Kaufmann’s mission was to regulate the disposition of these French ships and the small-boat traffic for Libya, Crete, and the Black Sea.]

Gӧring’s effort to improve the system of supply, while accepting the fact that control over transport would remain Italian, was based on belief that the Italians could be persuaded or pushed into more efficient use of the resources available. He remained in Italy long enough to visit Naples and Sicily and to report his findings to a second Axis conference in Rome on 5 December 1942.

In the interval, Rommel had returned, early on 2 December, to Tripolitania, having discovered that munitions bound for his army were being diverted to Tunisia, where Allied pressure seemed even more critical. There had not been enough supplies for the urgent needs of both Axis commands in Africa. What reason was there to believe that in the future this deficiency could be overcome?

By 17 December 1942, Rommel had withdrawn his army to the Buerat el Hsun area, as authorized. He had observed so insignificant a change in the miserable trickle of supplies and munitions coming over the shortened line of communications that he could not expect to achieve any substantial build-up there. At a conference on that day with Bastico and others, he therefore renewed the argument in favor of making a fighting withdrawal from Tripoli and concentrating in Tunisia for a stroke towards Algiers. Holding Buerat el Hsun was becoming impossible and defending Tripoli seemed to be pointless. The Axis leadership was again obliged to review a strategic decision only a short time after its adoption.

If Rommel’s proposal to withdraw his army to Tunisia for aggressive operations to the west was not accepted on 17 December, it was not for lack of intention to strike offensively toward Algeria. To meet the requirements of just such a purpose, Hitler had recently sent to Tunisia a new commander, Generaloberst Juergen von Arnim, and elevated the headquarters of the Axis forces there to that of the Fifth Panzer Army. A competent deputy commander, Generalleutnant Heinz Ziegler, was also designated. Hitler himself had a conference with each of these commanders on the way to their new stations at Tunis, at which both arrived via Rome on 8 December. The transfer from Nehring to von Arnim took place next day.

[NOTE: (1) General von Arnim had been Commanding General, XXXIX Panzer Corps, on the Russian, Front. MS #C065a (Greiner), 4 Dec. 42. Both von Arnim and Ziegler were promoted on 4 December 1942 before leaving for Tunisia. (2) MS # C-090 (Warlimont), (3) MS # C-098, Erinnerungen an Tunesien (Generaloberst Juergen von Arnim).]

The strategy of the Axis powers was to operate as aggressively in Tunisia as the means allowed, and their intention in December was to deliver to General von Arnim enough forces and logistical support to strike out boldly into French North Africa.

SOURCE: Northwest Africa: Seizing The Initiative In The West; by George F. Howe (United States Army Center of Military History

World War Two: North Africa (4-17B); Stalemate Before Tunis (pt.2)

World War Two: North Africa (4-16); Attack toward Tunis