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

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