World War Two: North Africa (5-19); New Situation: Axis Reaction

Revision of Axis Plans: In January the Axis powers like the Allies were obliged to revise their operational objectives in Northwest Africa. Earlier Axis decisions, it will be remembered, were to maintain two armies there by reinforcing Rommel’s command while establishing in Tunisia the Fifth Panzer Army of four or more divisions. General von Arnim assumed command of this army on 9 December with the prospect of an aggressive campaign before him. Rommel was authorized to retire from Marsa el Brega to Buerat el Hsun if necessary to avoid being cut off, but he was expected to bold at Buerat el Hsun indefinitely while his losses were made good and his army was restored as an instrument of offensive power. To the commanders in the field it soon became evident that such plans could not be carried out without reinforcements, a radical improvement in transportation, and the provision of more equipment and supplies.

General von Arnim within a week of assuming command of the Fifth Panzer Army, reported to Commander-in-Chief, South. that the current rate of supply was far below African requirements. He estimated the volume at 12,000 tons per month for his army and an equal amount for Rommel’s. Since only half his army was then in Tunisia, shipping to transport the remainder must also be found. The opportunity to complete the building up of the Fifth Panzer Army and reach the 24,OOO-ton-per-month level of resupply for the two armies was expected to last only six to eight weeks longer, this being the period during which prevailing rains would prevent the Allies from renewing their attack. Yet at the existing rate, the concentration of Axis forces scheduled to come under his command would take several months.

Rommel at the same time was facing a critical shortage of supply and therefore, on 17 December, the very day on which he had got his army into position at Buerat el Hsun, urgently renewed his recommendation of 30 November that he be authorized to pull back into Tunisia, only to have his proposal again rejected.

When Hitler, to establish the foundations of further operations, called a conference with Italian representatives at his Rastenburg headquarters on 18-22 December, he was presented by Kesselring’s headquarters with a survey of Allied capabilities and a plan for providing the North African bridgehead with supplies and equipment. Hitler then reaffirmed his position that North Africa must be held in order to check the increasing power of the Allies, and concluded also that it was an Italian theater which would remain under Italian command.

He would send reinforcements into Tunisia, including some of his best troops, bringing the German strength there up to 130,000-140,000 men, and take measures that would insure air superiority over the line of communications from Italy. He painted an optimistic picture. But it was one which recognized the critical nature of the logistical contest.

Before the end of the year, a second factor which Hitler was bound to recognize forced adjustments in the Axis program for Northwest Africa. The battle for Stalingrad began absorbing the reserves at the disposal of OKW, taking away to an operation of the highest priority the German divisions with which Hitler might have redeemed his earlier promises to Mussolini. The only opportunity to gain the preponderance of force necessary for aggressive action in Tunisia seemed likely to take place during the few weeks intervening between the arrival of Rommel’s army and that of the pursuing British Eighth Army. Mussolini therefore issued a directive, which Marshal Bastico delivered to Rommel on 31 December at Misurata, authorizing his conditional withdrawal into Tunisia. The German-Italian Panzer Army was to move to the Mareth Position south of Gabes in several stages and at a rate which would consume at least two months. This much time would be needed to develop the Mareth Position. It was stipulated that Rommel must have the approval of Marshal Bastico for the timing of each step in the withdrawal. This restraint was a precaution against the loss of Italian foot soldiers to motorized enveloping attacks. When Rommel protested that the duration and staging of his withdrawal would have to take account of Allied maneuver, Comando Supremo, with Hitler’s concurrence, gave him freedom of action for six weeks, the length of time regarded as necessary for him to reach a position just east of Tripoli.

On 2 January, Rommel began sending back part of his non-motorized force from Buerat el Hsun. By mid-January the rest of Rommel’s forces, less the 21st Panzer Division, had been forced back to the Tarhuna-Homs position. The rate of retirement which was to have kept Tripoli in Axis possession until the middle of February was suddenly accelerated by a British maneuver which Rommel accepted as a genuine threat of envelopment at Tarhuna Homs. On the night of 19-20 January, he ordered movement to start still farther west; this step began the last stage of retreat to the next defensible position, that in southern Tunisia! Rommel sent his rear area commander to Sfax on 19 January to open a headquarters from which to regulate traffic southward through Gabcs to the retreating army. The stage was therefore set in Tunisia for the union of the Axis forces. Since early January Comando Supremo had feared an Allied offensive from the Tebessa-Gafsa area intended to prevent the junction of the two Axis armies. Retaining all of the present bridgehead and keeping open the connection to Rommel’s army was naturally the first preoccupation of the Axis.

OKW therefore concurred in Comando Supremo’s proposal to seize Gafsa to counter the Allied threat. To carry out this plan the depleted 21st Panzer Division was ordered to the Sfax area to be re-equipped and used to make the attack on Gafsa. Kesselring, more than ever anxious about the adequacy of the forces in his African theater, pointed out that the shifting of units from one of the armies to the other could not be regarded as reinforcement and requested two motorized divisions in addition to the units that had been promised him. Though he carried his views up to Hitler himself on 12 January, he could get nothing more than permission to send the Hermann Gӧring Division into Tunisia immediately.

While the seizure of Gafsa was being planned, the possibility of more far-reaching operations was kept in view. Preparations to wrest control of the Tebessa area from the Allied force by an attack through Gafsa and Sbeltla were ordered, and the possibility of driving all the way to Bone and Constantine was contemplated. It was recognized that such ambitious operations would require at least three mobile divisions, one of which would have to come from Rommel’s army, and that they would be possible only when the Fifth Panzer and German-Italian Panzer Armies had been combined and only as long as the improved Mareth Position could be counted on to protect the southern flank. The immediate decision, made in early February, was to break up the Allied concentrations at Sidi bou Zid and Gafsa.

The Axis Logistical Problem

The enemy’s capacity for offensive operations remained conditioned by the ability of the Axis to improve the logistical support of the forces defending the Tunisian bridgehead. The arrival of Rommel’s German-Italian Panzer Army in southern Tunisia on the turn of January-February did nothing to reduce the problems facing the Axis command. On 12 January Kesselring discussed the supply situation with Hitler and his staff. The combined armies in Tunisia, it was now estimated, would need 60,000 tons of supply a month. The Commander-in-Chief, South, optimistically assured Hitler that with additional shipping, which was becoming available from ports in Southern France, these increased demands could be met. Kesselring had misgivings as to surface protection for the convoys but felt that the ports of Bizerte and Tunis could handle the flow. Although abandonment of the line to Tripoli permitted a concentration of effort and a considerable reduction of mileage over the highways, to meet the new schedules the sea and air transportation systems would have to be revolutionized.

The flow of men and materiel from Europe to Tunisia ran through Italy and Sicily overseas to the ports and airfields at Bizerte and Tunis. Railroad and highway connections with these terminals permitted speedy distribution to depots at various points along the coastal plain. The shallow ports of Sousse and Sf ax were used by smaller cargo craft, but most traffic to Tunisia passed through Bizerte and Tunis. The channels into the harbors of Tunis, Bizerte, and Sfax were partially blocked by wrecks. Power cranes at the piers of Bizerte, and to a lesser degree at Tunis were damaged by Allied bombers and had to be replaced by cranes shipped from Toulon, Marseille, and after the first shipment was sunk on the way, from Germany. Meanwhile unloading was slow and cumbersome.

The transport vessels were not fitted out with heavy-lift equipment, and were forced to use their own cargo gear and improvise as best they could. The labor in the ports was not wholly reliable. Arabs fled rather than risk being caught in air raids. For the same reason few of the Tunisian Italians promised to Nehring for stevedore service ever appeared. German labor troops and Hamburg stevedores were finally imported. The turn-around rate for ships in Tunisian ports, unloading at piers from one side only, was approximately one day per 1,500 metric tons, which meant that the larger vessels remained long enough to experience one or more raids.

Transport to Tunisia by air had begun on 9 November 1942 and continued until 11 May 1943. At the peak of the operation, the daily flight consisted of an average of 200 Junkers-52 aircraft, which carried 1.8 metric tons of useful load, and 15 of the gigantic six-motored Messerschmidt 323 planes, which carried 10 tons of useful load. Since part of the Junkers-52 elements made two trips a day from Sicily to Tunisia, the average total each day in this maximum period reached 585 metric tons. The volume dropped rapidly in April, as a consequence of successful Allied countermeasures, sinking to a daily average of less than 190 tons.

These totals were achieved only by revising the emergency improvisations of November and establishing a routine intended to continue for a prolonged period. In December, Generalleutnant Ulrich Buchholz became the Air Transport Commander in the Mediterranean (LufttransportFührer Mittelmeer-LTFM) and instituted a system whereby planes were concentrated at relatively few airdromes, with dispersion to numerous airfields occurring only in temporary emergencies.

For the long pull in the Tunisian campaign, the German air transport service was organized under a central headquarters at Rome. Wing staffs were located at Capodichino near Naples and Trapani, Sicily, with control officers at the Tunisian airports of Sidi Ahmed (Bizerte) and El Aouina (Tunis), and at some of the fields in the Sicily-Calabria and Naples areas. One round trip from Naples and two from Sicily were made each day. The first Sicilian flight came in before 0700 and the second, late in the afternoon. Formations of from 80 to 120 planes each (Pulks) skimmed over the water at elevations of about 150 feet as they headed for Tunisia. Detection by radar or other means of observation was thus minimized, while attacks from below, against which the transports were defenseless, were avoided. The formations from Naples were escorted by fighters from Trapani during the crossing of the Sicilian narrows and by others based in Africa during the period of landing, unloading, reloading, and return. When these flights arrived off the Golfe de Tunis, they separated into sections for Bizerte or Tunis-sections scheduled to arrive during the normal noon lunch period for the Allied air forces-a time when hostile interference was found to be relatively unlikely.

[The principal airfields were, in the Naples area, Pomigliano, and Capua, and in the Sicily-Calabria region, Trapani, Palermo, Reggio di Calabria, and Vibo Valentia.]

The Northwest African Air Force eventually perfected the means of detecting and surprising Pulks approaching the African coast. German fighter escort was small and the speed was controlled by the slower planes, sometimes at a rate which rendered the heavy Messerschmidt 323’s so unstable that the formations had to string out. But not until April did Allied depredations pass the point of bearable loss. Meanwhile, suspension of the railroad ferry service across the Strait of Messina, or breakdown in the movement of trains on the Italian peninsula, required temporary modifications.

For supply by sea, Axis forces in North Africa could initially draw on a shipping pool of Italian and German merchant vessels with a combined tonnage of approximately 150,000 tons. The fleet consisted mostly of small merchantmen which had been used on short passages in the Mediterranean.

In November when conditions were still favorable, the Axis command was able to use 37 merchant ships. This tonnage was supplemented by employing 20 ferries (Naval ferries with 80 tons capacity and Siebel ferries with 40 tons capacity) and 14 submarines. By an agreement with Vichy France the Germans were able to utilize about 100,000 tons of French merchant shipping found suitable for providing transportation to North Africa. As a result of Allied bombings the capacity of Italian shipyards was so reduced that only a fifth of the tonnage theoretically available was actually operational at anyone time. To an even larger extent Allied sinking’s curtailed Axis tonnage. Out of 95 ships of all categories which made the passage to Africa in November, thirteen were sunk. In December, 26 ships were sunk and 9 damaged out of a total of 127.

The Italian Navy was unable to protect the lines of supply. The Luftwaffe’s effort to provide air cover proved equally inadequate. When, late in December, thirteen destroyers were diverted from escort duty to transporting- 300 to 350 troops at a time in swift passages at intervals of about three days, the practice exposed the freighters to an accelerated rate of depletion. As losses at sea and in port continued to mount, the Axis stock of cargo vessels, oil tankers, and troop transports fell so low that frantic efforts were undertaken to ship everything on small ferries.

In January the number of such craft rose to ninety, but it was estimated that to be sufficient the fleet of ferries would have to be more than quadrupled. An increasing number of small coastal vessels and barges, some culled from France’s interior waterways, were requisitioned but their total capacity was insignificant. Even before the period when almost half of all shipments to Tunisia by sea were lost en route (during the month of April) it became gradually and painfully clear to the Axis Command that adequate sea transport was an unattainable goal. Resourceful ingenuity could not outstrip Allied power.

Despite staggering losses the Axis managed to ship to Northwest Africa a surprising amount of troops and supplies. During the period from November 1942 through January 1943,81,222 Germans and 30,735 Italians, a total of 111,957 troops, arrived there. Supplies brought in by air and sea during the same period amounted to 100,594 tons.

Axis Reorganization in January

The presence in Tunisia of both Axis armies required a major alteration of the Axis command structure. Hitler, when warned in early December that the Italians would probably seek to command the Axis forces in Tunisia, declared his determination to retain effective control in German hands. He believed that the Italians would acquiesce, in view of the preponderance of German forces on which offensive action would depend, and because the Germans would be supplying most of the materiel and the supplementary (French) vessels to transport it to Africa. His expectation was not fulfilled. As a result of the conference at Rastenburg the Germans had to concede that the conduct of operations in Tunisia as in Libya would be the responsibility of Comando Supremo. OB SOUTH would become commander of all German forces in the central Mediterranean and, although relieved of responsibility for ground operations in the Balkans, would control German air forces in the entire Mediterranean. Close eo-operation in Tunisia between the Axis partners, it was agreed, would be sought by attaching a German operations staff to Comando Supremo for the purpose. Hitler accepted this arrangement. He also agreed to meet Cavallero’s proposal that when Rommel’s army had retired to Tunisia, it would be re-designated the First Italian Army, and Rommel would be replaced by an Italian commander.

The Italians and Germans agreed that the retreat of Panzer Army Africa into Tunisia would make necessary a superior authority in the field to co-ordinate the two armies. The German military authorities wanted this to be an army group (Army Group Africa) with a German commander, reporting to a German armed forces headquarters, commanded by Kesselring. Hitler rejected this plan as politically inopportune and decided that Comando Supremo should exercise direct command of both armies.

The reorganization of command could not be fully carried out until Rommel had withdrawn into Tunisia. In the meantime, the first concrete result of the discussions and maneuvers for position that went on throughout December and January was Kesselring’s reorganization of his headquarters at Frascati to carry out his new duties. During January, Kesselring reorganized his headquarters from an Air Force into an armed forces staff with operations, quartermaster, and transport sections. The first two had Army, Navy, and Air Force groups, and the last included sea, air, and administrative groups, with a general officer on special assignment as deputy transport officer. A separate staff was formed to control the Second Air Force.

As for the Tunisian theater, Kesselring, in addition to being Commander-in-Chief of the German forces, was to convey to the supreme Italian command the views of the Führer and of OKW on the conduct of operations in that theater. To implement this relationship Kesselring in late January, as previously agreed, installed the whole of his operations staff except one officer in Comando Supremo. This move further strained the relationship between the Germans and Italians and endangered Hitler’s policy of mollifying the susceptibilities of his anxious Italian partners. Marshal Ambrosio, who replaced Cavallero as Chief of Comando Supremo on 2 February, protested to Kesselring against the size of this contingent which outnumbered the whole operations staff of Comando Supremo, but he had to be content with the assurance that German influence on operations in Tunisia would be confined to recommendations and requests.

To summarize Kesselring’s position, he now had under his command:

1. The Second Air Force.

  1. The German Air Force General at Headquarters of the Italian Armed Forces.
  2. The Commander of the German Naval Forces, Italy, under the restriction that basic operational directives would be issued by the Navy High Command.
  3. The German General at Headquarters, Italian Armed Forces (Comando Supremo), under the restriction that, in his capacity as liaison officer between OKW and Comando Supremo and in his missions outside of the Central Mediterranean, he was subject to direct control of OKW. The directives issued by Hitler on 28 January indicates the complexity of on SOUTH’s responsibilities and powers.

Kesselring was to have the following tasks:

  1. Represent the Führer’s concepts of the conduct of operations in the Central Mediterranean in negotiations with the Duce and Comando Supremo.
  2. Assure German influence on the unified command of the panzer armies in North Africa which are placed under Comando Supremo’s control.
  3. Within the range of these powers, be the superior officer of thc German Commander in Chid of the central headquarters for the two armies in Tunisia.
  4. Control German Air Force and Navy operations in the Central Mediterranean, in conformity with directives from the Commanders-in-Chief of those services, as in the past.
  5. Directing the entire system of supply to German troops and the Central Mediterranean through his Chief of Supply and Administration and the Armed Forces Transportation Section under his control. Submit requests and recommendations on matters of organization, including those of Coman do Supremo, to OKW /WFSt or the High Commands of the several services. To carry out the agreements rearranging the system of command in the Tunisian theater, on 23 January Mussolini designated General Giovanni Messe to assume command of the new First Italian Army when its organization had been effected. On 26 January the Fifth Panzer Army was put under direct operational control of Comando Supremo. Until the activation of Headquarters, Army Group Africa, the conduct of operations in Tunisia was, initially, to be co-ordinated by von Arnim.

Axis air strength in Tunsia was consolidated in a single tactical air headquarters, Fliegerkorps Tunis, under Brigadier General Hans Seidemann, with headquarters at La Fauconnerie, northwest of Sfax, and with subordinate headquarters at This and Gabes. Seven principal airdromes from Bizerte to Kairouan, six near Gabes, and others at Mezzouna, Sfax, and La Fauconnerie were to be linked for maximum performance by the 53rd and 77th Fighter Wings. The Luftwaffe had expended 201 aircrews and 340 aircraft out of a total of 877 in stopping the Allied advance toward Tunis but could expect a period of at least temporary preponderance in fighters and fighter-bombers in northern and central Tunisia.”

Rommel’s relief, which he was informed on 26 January would be given him for reasons of health, was postponed for more than a month beyond the time when his army entered Tunisia in early February. This action, according to the Axis plan, was to have been the signal for transfer of command to an Italian. The plan was amended first on 22 January to defer Rommel’s departure until the army was firmly established in the Mareth Position, and’ a second time on 18 February to enable Rommel to command certain offensive operations before retiring. The commander designate of the First Italian Army, General Messe, was meanwhile familiarizing himself with the duties of his new command, and the Italian leaders waited with some impatience for Rommel’s departure.

The Axis Forces-Strength and Disposition

The strength of the Axis forces in Tunisia rose during January until it reached a total of approximately 100,000, of which 74,000 were Germans, and 26,000 Italian troops. During the transition month of January the Fifth Panzer Army was responsible for the defense of the Tunisian front sector from the sea to the thirty-fourth parallel, the February the boundary was shifted northward to run from a point on the coast ten miles northeast of Sfax through Mezzouna and Station de Sened to the Kbir river northwest of Gafsa. Initially Fifth Panzer Army’s headquarters continued operating with minimum staff and without a German corps staff intervening until von Arnim organized the provisional Headquarters, Korpsgruppe Fischer on 4 January. One reason for the activation of this headquarters was the arrival, late in December, of elements of the 334th Infantry Division (Colonel Friedrich Veber) which was inserted between Division von Broich in the north and the JOt h Panzer Division (reinforced by the 5th Parachute Regiment) in the Medjerda Valley and as far south as Pont-du-Fahs.

The Italian 1st (Superga) Division continued operating directly under Fifth Panzer Army in its sector which extended to Djebel Bou Dabouss (816) . Headquarters, Italian XXX Corps, on 12 January, assumed command over the portion of the Fifth Panzer Army front south of the Superga Division, with Group Benigni, the 47th Grenadier Regiment (Lieutenant Colonel Buse), and 50th Special Brigade (General Giovanni Imperiali). The 190th Panzer Battalion was held in reserve, to be committed only on von Arnim’s orders.

Rommel’s German units when they arrived in southern Tunisia were down to about half strength. They had approximately one third of their full tank strength (129 tanks, of which less than half were operational), one third of their complement of armored personnel carriers, about one fourth of their antitank guns, and one German forces brought back by Rommel consisted of the German 15th and 21st Panzer, 90th and 164th Light Africa Divisions, supplemented by the 1st Luftwaffe Jaeger Brigade, corps troops and reconnaissance units with a combat effective strength of almost 30,000. The Italian divisions were the 131st (Centauro) Armored, 16th (Pistoia) , 80th (La Spezia) , 101st (Trieste), 13th (Young Fascists) Divisions and the Saharan Group. Italian troops numbered about 48,000.”: Of these units Rommel was about to lose the Centauro Division (temporarily) as it moved to positions guarding the El Guettar defile, and the 21st Panzer Division (on 20 January) when it passed to the direct control of Fifth Panzer Army to be rehabilitated in the area of Sfax and simultaneously serve as army reserve.

[NOTE: Fifth Panzer Army, KTB, Bands 2, 4,12 Jan 43. sixth of their artillery strength. Wheeled transport was down to roughly one third. Only in the truck category was the picture somewhat brighter. Here the Germans had managed to preserve 60 per cent of their allotted total.]

[NOTE: Panzer Army Africa, KTB, Band 2, 20 Jan 43. The main body of the panzer division crossed the Tunisian border on 20 January. The division left its tanks and most of its heavy weapons with Rommel]

None of these divisions was anywhere near full combat strength. Kampfgruppen continued to undertake operations adapted to the requirements of particular missions rather than by divisions or standard subdivisions of larger units. No new divisions could be sent to Tunisia after mid-January. Not even the normal process of replacement by allocating troops from replacement battalions to fill up depleted units could be carried out. Instead, it became a practice to fill out regiments by assigning to them Tunis Field and Africa Replacement Battalions, units numbering about 900 men each, with their full complement of officers and light weapons.

In the seven weeks which followed the suspension of the drive on Tunis, during which the operational objectives of the two coalitions were modified and their forces were reorganized for action in central Tunisia, the new situation in Tunisia had thus developed several significant aspects. The Allies had temporarily lost the advantage of numbers; they retained the advantage of position, although lacking enough forward, all-weather airfields. Neither adversary could be dislodged readily from existing positions, although the French were somewhat vulnerable because of their lack of antitank defenses. The stalemate before Tunis and the conditions of weather and terrain encouraged both sides to extend southward, and each to attempt balancing the other’s build-up along the Eastern Dorsal. Both the British First Army and the Fifth Panzer Army anticipated early reinforcement by second armies from Tripolitania, and each prepared plans and reorganized commands in order to guarantee well co-ordinated operations when the four armies faced each other at various points along the very broad front. Each coalition struggled with logistical problems, recognizing that the degree of success in this effort would control future operations. The Allies in this period confidently adopted a course of action for the next major operation in the Mediterranean, that in Sicily, for which French North Africa was to be a base, and to which the Allied Force engaged in liberating Tunisia would contribute much of the means.

The tactical initiative in Tunisia, which the Axis forces had seized near Tebourba, remained with them throughout these transitional weeks except for minor offensives by elements of British First Army and a limited success by the French.

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 (5-20); Sparring Along the Eastern Dorsal

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


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