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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