Fighting To Keep the Initiative; During the period of Allied strategic decisions, reorganization, and accumulation of force which characterized the transition from Operation TORCH to the Allied offensives in March, the Allied Force was sparring for advantage with the Fifth Panzer Army. Each side sought to improve its positions and to seize the initiative.
Allied operations from 27 December to 17 January were essentially for consolidation or improvement of local situations and to keep the enemy under pressure. This was particularly true of the northern zone, where another attempt by the 36th Brigade Group on 5-7 January to capture the enemy’s Djefna position on the road between Djebel Abiod and Mateur, at the defile between Djebel Adjred (556) and Djebel Azag (396), although it came closer to success than the effort in the last week of November, again fell short of the objective. Farther south, the British 6th Armoured Division shifted to the Bou Arada area to keep opposite the 10th Panzer Division, and tried unsuccessfully to drive enemy detachments from their advanced positions on hills east of the road between Bou Arada and Goubellat.
On 11-13 January, two attempts to take the hills revealed how strongly the enemy had organized these positions, with interlocking bands of machine gun fire, and with mortars registered exactly on those targets in defilade from other weapons. Here, as at the Djefna position, the enemy’s shelters were proof against highly accurate Allied artillery shelling, enabling him to put up a strong defense against infantry attacks and to prepare counterattacks quickly to retake positions briefly occupied by the British.
The enemy’s determination to hold these hills may well have been strengthened by his intention of shortly making an attack through the area as part of a projected operation called OLIVENERNTE. By this operation the enemy planned to outflank Medjez el Bab from both the north and the south. Elements of the 334th Division would attack through the mountains to take Oued Zarga and thus cut the road from Medjez el Bab to Bedja. The 10th Panzer Division was to capture Testour and Slourhia just below Medjez el Bab on the Medjerda river, and the 5th Parachute Regiment to take Djebel Rihane (720) and guard the south flank along a blocking position due west of the djebe!. Von Arnim ordered this operation and assigned it to Corps Fischer after receiving Kesselring’s order of 2 January to capture Medjez el Bab. Execution was postponed for about two weeks by continued bad weather and the chronic shortage of artillery and transport. Meantime two limited French offensives, 27-30 December and 12-15 January, gained important positions in the Eastern Dorsal on either side of Karachoum gap and Kairouan pass, defiles which lead from the Ousseltia valley onto the coastal plain and southeastward to Kairouan. Although German reinforcements, sent to bolster the lines of the Italian 1st (Superga) Division in this sector, were able to check any tendency of the French to carry the attack beyond the mountains, von Arnim decided on 13 January to eliminate the developing threat to this part of the Tunisian bridgehead. Troops for such an operation, if the attack was to be timely, had to be drawn largely from the 334th Infantry and 10th Panzer Divisions, so that Operation OLIVENERNTE had to be abandoned.
An offset to the French success northwest of Kairouan was the loss a few days earlier of Fondouk el Aouareb gap to a well-coordinated attack by superior Axis forces. On 3 January, a preparatory air strike in two waves, a powerful artillery bombardment, and a determined tank and infantry assault overwhelmed the French defenders with the loss of more than 300 men and several guns. This assault was made by elements
of the 47th Grenadier Regiment (reinforced) and the 190th Panzer Battalion. Allied air support was credited with knocking out ten enemy tanks in repeated attacks. The enemy gained a stronghold in the area of the Fondouk el Aouareb gap. The French sought to contain the Axis forces at the gap and to prepare for a counterattack with American armor in an effort to recover control of this key opening in the mountain barrier.
Headquarters, II Corps, opened in Constantine during the first week of January and, as already noted, first prepared to direct Operation SATIN, for the seizure of Sfax.4 The force under its command, as contemplated on 12 January, was to consist of the U.S. 1st Armored Division (Major General Orlando Ward) with the 26th Combat Team (Colonel Alexander N. Stark, Jr.) of the 1st Infantry Division attached, the 1st British Parachute Brigade (less one battalion) for an airborne mission, and the French Constantine Division, plus corps troops. Combat Command B, U.S. 1st Armored Division, passed to General Robinett’s control with the return of General Oliver to the United States to take a divisional command. Combat Command B, after commitment under British 5 Corps, reverted to General Ward’s control on 7 January and, beginning next day moved to Sbeitla for participation in the impending French-American attack to regain Fondouk el Aouareb gap and perhaps for flank protection during Operation SATIN.
[Note: General Fredendall’s staff was headed by the following: Chief of Staff, Colonel John A. Dabney; G-I, Lt. Colonel Lon H. Smith; G-2, Colonel B. A. Dickson; G-3, Colonel Robert A. Hewitt; and G-4, Colonel Robert W. Wilson. Other staff officers of Center Task Force had been reassigned to AFHQ, First Army, or the War Department. “Msg, Eisenhower to CCS, 12 Jan 43.]
The remainder of General Ward’s division came eastward from Oran to central Tunisia in early January, as did the 26th Combat Team (less its 3rd Battalion, which had already come up near the end of November). Mobile antiaircraft protection for the armored division was brought to Tunisia from Morocco in two sections: A provisional battalion under Major Werner L. Larson in January; and the remainder of the 443rd Coast Artillery (AA) Battalion (SP) under Lt. Colonel John C. Smith in February. Although the multiple weapons on halftracks, each mounting a 37 -mm. gun and two air-cooled .SO-caliber machine guns, could be used in an antitank role, it was possible only by placing the vehicles down a forward slope, or with their front wheels in a ditch. As antiaircraft weapons, they were destined to reduce the losses from enemy dive bombing appreciably.
Ten days’ supplies of all types were accumulated at a new II Corps depot in Tebessa and at supply points extending eastward as far as Kasserine. A provisional ordnance group, assembled from northern Tunisia and Algeria, established its principal shops in Tebessa. An evacuation hospital and medical supply depot opened in Tebessa. Plans for an attack on Sfax via Gabcs were being perfected by General Fredendall’s staff at the very time when, as noted, the higher command felt obliged to cancel the undertaking and to direct II Corps to “act defensively.”
The Enemy’s Attack, 18-28 January As if to confirm the wisdom of the Allies decision to abandon an attack against Sfax, the enemy on 18 January began an operation to obtain control over Djebel Mansour (678) and over the main source of the water supply for Tunis; the great reservoir and dam on the Kebir river (Barrage de l’Oued Kebir) about twelve miles southwest of Pont-du-Fahs. Another purpose of his attack was to drive the French from the Eastern Dorsal near Kairouan between the reservoir and Kairouan pass.
Von Arnim, on 13 and 14 January, withdrew from Corps Group Fischer the Headquarters, 334th Infantry Division with the 756th Mountain Regiment and two organic artillery batteries. From the 10th Panzer Division he drew the 2nd Battalion, 69th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, the 10th Motorcycle Battalion, and the 501st Heavy Panzer Battalion. In addition, he earmarked for his attack (EILBOTE I) the entire north wing of the 1st (Superga) Division (Group Stolz), and elements of the 190th Panzer Battalion, and of the 20th Flak Division.
To support his main effort, and protect the exposed north flank of the attack, von Arnim ordered 10th Panzer Division with elements of 5th Parachute Regiment and armored Kampfgruppe Burk to execute a secondary drive in the direction of Bou Arada. He put Friedrich Weber in command. The force temporarily organized for the attack was known as Kampfgruppe Weber. Its movements were accomplished by using Fifth Panzer Army transport at night, with the intention of concealing the build-up.
Colonel Weber organized his attacking force in three sections. The first consisted of the newly arrived 756th Mountain Regiment. This was reinforced by two armored sections, consisting of four Mark VI (Tiger) and four Mark III tanks, and engineer, artillery, and antiaircraft elements. The force thus composed was sent to open the pass southeast of Pont-du-Fahs and to take Djebel Mansour. They were to support the movement of a second section, Armored Group Lueder) into the Ousseltia valley.
This armored group consisted of one company of tanks, partly Mark VI Tigers and partly Mark IV’s, and a battalion of armored infantry, with a platoon of engineers and some antiaircraft units. It was to push up the Kebir valley to the road fork at the southwest end of the reservoir, then swing south for about twelve miles to Hir Moussa crossroads. After the mountain regiment had closed to the same area, Armored Croup Lueder would turn east toward Karachoum gap. The third section of Weber’s command was a composite German-Italian infantry regiment of the 1st (Superga) Division, consisting of four battalions and reinforced by a company of 190 Panzer Battalion (Kampfgruppe Stolz). It was to exploit by advancing to the west on an axis perpendicular to Weber’s main effort and thus to complete the destruction of the French units on the Eastern Dorsal. Stolz would then build up a new line seven to nine miles farther west, extending from Djebel Mansour in the north to the heights just west of Hir Moussa. This would constitute the first phase of Operation EILBOTE 1. Finally, the operation might be extended southward to secure the better Kairouan~Ousseltia road which ran through the gap between Djebel HaIfa (572) and Djebel Ousselat (887), connecting the the valley with the coastal plain at Aln Djeloula.
The attacks opened early in the morning of 18 January with diversionary thrusts by parachute infantry and tanks against the extreme south wing of British 5 Corps in the vicinity of the Bou Arada crossroads. Although the British parried these attacks successfully, fighting continued in this area intermittently during the following week without much change in position but with considerable losses on both sides. In the meantime the first section of Weber’s force broke through the French and opened the way into the Kebir valley for the armored force. Lueder, after lending support to this operation, regrouped at 2lO0, then pushed ahead to his objective, the road fork southwest of the reservoir, reaching it by midnight.
Kampfgruppe Stolz, meanwhile, achieved what the enemy considered satisfactory progress in the subsidiary drive across the heights between the reservoir and Djebel Chirich (717) . The enemy’s intentions were still uncertain on 19 January, for although some of his armored forces were observed passing the northern edge of D jebel Bargou ( 1216) into the Ousseltia valley, a report by air reconnaissance of a movement from the reservoir area of an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 truck borne troops made a dual thrust seem possible.
By the end of the day the Axis forces had almost completed the first phase of their operation as planned. With a small but powerful force Armored Croup Lueder blocked the road to Rebaa Oulad Yahia near Sidi Said. The main force had advanced to Hir Moussa crossroads. Colonel Stolz’s battalions had continued to move west and begun to relieve the 756th Mountain Regiment on Djebel Mansour thus freeing these units to follow Lueder. All along the front the French defenders were driven out. The remnants began to regroup northwest of Djebel Mansour and on Djebel Bargou.
One group was isolated on the slopes of the Eastern Dorsal in the area of Karachoum gap. Neither Rebaa Oulad Yahia nor Ousseltia had more than miniature garrisons with meager antitank weapons maned by scanty British and American detachments. A small reinforcement of armored cars and engineers was sent forward by the British to Rebaa Oulad Yahia during the night. General Juin’s appeal for Allied reinforcements, for commitment at a point to be determined after the enemy’s hand had been more clearly shown, brought orders from AFHQ to the U.S. II Corps to divert a suitable force northward for the purpose.
About 1715, 19 January, General Robinett, commanding Combat Command B, 1st Armored Division, then in bivouac near Sbeitla, was ordered by General Fredendall over the telephone: Move your command, i. e., the walking boys, pop guns, Baker’s outfit and the outfit which is the reverse of Baht’s outfit and the big fellows to M, which is due north of where you are now, as soon as possible. Have your boss report to the French gentleman whose name begins with “J” at a place which begins with D which is five grid squares to the left of M. Further, CC/B will enter Corps Command net not later than 0900 hours, 20 January. CC/B will remain in contact with the tanks, tank destroyers, infantry, and artillery, with engineer, medical, service, and maintenance companies, in all over 3,400 men, were on the road after dark and reached a point near Kesra before morning. The next day, the force received its mission.
NOTE: (I) CCB 1st Armd Div AAR, 19-29 Jan 43, 12 Feb 43. (2) The components of Combat Command B on 19 January 1943 were: Headquarters Company, Reconnaissance Company, Service Company (less detachment), and 2nd Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment (mediums); 2nd Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry Regiment; 27th Field Artillery Battalion; 60lst Tank Destroyer Battalion (less Company A) : Company B, 16th Armored Engineer Battalion (C); Company N, 47th Medical Battalion: Battery D, 106th Coast Artillery (AA) Battalion: and Company C, Maintenance Battalion. 1st Armored Division.]
SATIN Force at Tebessa.
The situation on 20 January caused General Eisenhower’s advance command post to arrange for co-ordinated resistance to the Axis attack by ground units of French, American, and British nationality, and by Allied air forces. The orders directed British First Army elements to move southeast and south toward the Rebaa Oulad Yahia valley to cut off and block the enemy’s advance there, while Combat Command B, U.S. 1st Armored Division, was placed at Juin’s disposition for operations as a unit in either the Rebaa Oulad Yahia or Ousseltia valleys as the situation should require. The arrangement also specified that General Fredendall should assemble an armored mobile force comparable to Combat Command B in the Sheitla area, to be used under his command to join the French in an attack against Fondouk el Aouareb starting on 23 January.
General Juin assigned Robinett’s force to General Koeltz’s XIX Corps for commitment in the Ousseltia valley, to which it was ordered to move during the night of 20-21 January. By 0933, next morning, the force was assembled about five miles southwest of Ousseltia and engaged in active reconnaissance, with the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion (less Company A) out ahead.
The German and Italian forces, which had met in the northern part of the Ousseltia valley on 20 January after converging on it from the northwest and northeast, had already accomplished most of their mission before the American reinforcements under General Robinett arrived. They had an opportunity, too tempting to resist, to clear the eastern mountain chain completely as far as Djebel Ousselat southeast of Ousseltia village and to envelop French troops caught on the heights by pushing along the ridge as well as attacking northwestward from the coastal plain. Only a shortage of infantry prevented them from mopping up the whole area and establishing themselves astride the passes. By midnight, 20-21 January, Lueder overran the three lightly held Allied roadblocks on the roads leading into Ousseltia village, and reached the Ousseltia-Kairouan road about four miles northwest of the Kairouan pass. During the night only one battalion of the 756th Mountain Regiment, using trucks borrowed from other units, was able to reinforce Lueder. Nevertheless, the enemy could now block access to Kairouan pass from the west. He proceeded to destroy the French units, cut off on the ridge to the north of Djebel Bou Dabouss, assisted by Italian elements attacking from east of the pass.
On the morning Robinett’s command made its slow and difficult march from the Maktar area into the Ousseltia valley, an advance group of the British 36th Brigade, the 5th Battalion, Royal Buffs (5/RB), came up the valley of the Siliana river from Gafour to Rebaa Oulad Yahia before daylight and took up defensive positions north of the village. During the next night, 21-22
January, the British 36th Brigade, which had very recently been relieved after a long period in the line northeast of Bed ja, shifted to Rebaa Oulad Yahia with the 6th Battalion, Royal West Kents (6/R WK), with part of the 12th Battalion, Royal Horse Artillery, and with detachments of engineers and light antiaircraft artillery. They took over the defense of the valley under attachment to the British 6th Armoured Division.
The enemy’s main effort had by then shifted to the Ousseltia valley. General Robinett received orders from General Koeltz at 1245, 21 January, to counterattack eastward along the Ousseltia-Kairouan road. He was determined not to fritter away strength by piecemeal commitment after an arduous march. His counterattack from Ousseltia toward the western entrance of the Kairouan pass began about 1500, after an air bombing and when strong artillery support was ready. It progressed steadily until nightfall against stiff resistance, but did not dislodge Armored Group Lueder from its blocking position along the road. At darkness, the enemy pulled back into a defensive perimeter. This allowed French troops, previously cut off on the heights near the pass, to slip southward and escape.
At 1830, 21 January, XIX Corps put Robinett’s command under the control of General Agathon Deligne of the Algiers Division, units of which had been holding the pass under enemy attack. General Deligne at 0435, 22 January, in conformity with Allied plans, directed Robinett to abandon the counterattack, to adopt defensive measures toward the east, and to drive northward to a point of junction with British forces at the northeastern end of Djebel Bargou.
Combat Command B’s ammunition and supply train failed to get through during the night, so that a dawn attack could not be made. The enemy for his part was weakened by a breakdown of radio communications and by the fact that the direct road between Lueder’s force and the 756th M oltntain Regiment was temporarily cut at Hir Moussa by fire from the 6th Battalion, Royal West Kents. The reinforced 2nd Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment, began a thrust northeastward up the Ousseltia valley at 1430, 22 January only to be stopped soon by stiff resistance.
Late that day, II Corps asked Robinett what reinforcements, if any, he would need to carry out the mission given him by General Deligne. In reply he gave his estimate of the forces opposing his command-one battalion of infantry, two companies of tanks, four 88-mm. guns, and three or four batteries of howitzers of at least 105-mm.against which he had disposed one battalion of armored infantry, one battalion of thirty operational medium tanks, nine self-propelled and six towed 105-mm. howitzers, twelve 75-mm. tank destroyers, and a battery of 40-mm. antiaircraft weapons. The enemy had succeeded in placing his artillery on high ground along the eastern edge of the valley. Robinett therefore reported that any attack whatever northward over the floor of the valley would be unduly hazardous until infantry could engage the enemy in the eastern hills and prevent the flanking fire which might otherwise be expected. To clear the valley, he estimated necessary reinforcements as two battalions of infantry, one battalion of field artillery, and one company of tank destroyers, as well as indirect assistance from an anticipated strong push from the west into the valley by British units.
Elements of the 1st Infantry Division were already being sent from Guelma in Algeria via Maktar to the Ousseltia valley sector in order to take over part of the Allied line formerly held by the French, after Combat Command B should have restored the situation. General Fredendall expected, in the light of decisions taken at a command conference at AFHQ Advance Command Post on 21 January, that his zone was to be extended northward and that these troops would be controlled by II Corps. He expected to command them directly, and to have them operate under Colonel D’ Alary F echet, regimental commander of the 16th Infantry, in co-ordination with Robinett’s forces rather than under Robinett’s command, while the latter was withdrawing.
Fredendall instructed Robinett to discontinue his attack northward, the operation which General Deligne had ordered, and instead to hold Combat Command B near Ousseltia village on the defensive. Robinett’s command was still attached to French XIX Corps and under orders by General Deligne to carry out the offensive, orders he was unable to execute without the reinforcements which, upon arrival would be operating, as just stated, only in co-ordination with Combat Comand B, rather than under attachment to it. While Lieutenant Colonel Russell F. Akers, Jr., an Assistant G-3 of II Corps, attempted to straighten out this tangle, Robinett’s force held its positions.
As the night of 22-23 January passed, persistent efforts to get Allied aviation to furnish a controlled air support mission next day finally proved successful. The request was approved about 1000, 23 January, for execution at 1230. When the planes arrived, one smoke shell was placed on the target, which then came under accurate bombing. Damage included the destruction of two enemy trucks loaded with ammunition. During the bombing and a subsequent artillery shelling, a truckload of American prisoners of war was able to scatter, and later to infiltrate back to their own lines after darkness. But with its mission and command relations uncertain, Combat Command B lost the opportunity to follow up with an attack to seize the area.
The first elements of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division began arriving before the end of the day, too late to organize an attack for 24 January. They were attached by II Corps to Combat Command B. The principal unit for commitment toward Kairouan pass was the 26th Infantry Combat Team (less 3rd Battalion) commanded by Colonel Stark, which included the 33rd Field Artillery Battalion. The 7th Field Artillery Battalion also supported an attack begun by Colonel Stark’s force at 0900, 25 January. By that time, Weber’s force started its withdrawal, leaving the newly established main line of resistance across the northern end of the Ousseltia valley and along the eastern edge to Djebel Ousselat to be defended by an Italian force consisting of elements of the 1st (Superga) Division and Group Benigni. Stark’s attack first encountered about noon a battalion of Italian infantry which had been recruited in Tunisia, drove it back, and continued advancing through the following night. By the next morning, it had gained the western end of the Ousseltia-Kairouan pass and had come up against a German unit. Its offensive continued during the next two days.
Combat Command B, 1st Armored Division, after assisting these infantry operations to a successful outcome at the pass, and after more uncertainty about its mission, received orders from General Koeltz in person to move north on 27 January to clear the enemy from the valley. At 1530, this attack began, and moved smoothly along the western edge of the valley at the base of Djebel Serd j (1357). During the following night, the 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry, and 7th Field Artillery Battalion moved under armored escort to the northern end of Djebel Serdj. The enemy had stepped up his air attacks in the valley beginning on 25 January, but the Allied hold on the southern and western portions was not otherwise contested, and Stark’s progress at the pass promised eventual control not only over its western exit but along its entire length. Combat Command B and the 26th Combat Team (less 2nd and 3rd Battalions) were needed elsewhere, however, so that both were withdrawn from the valley during the night of 28-29 January. While Robinett’s force made a long road march to Bou Chebka, Stark’s shifted to the vicinity of Sbeitia, where it joined Combat Command A, 1st Armored Division.
Before these two forces left, the U.S. 1st Infantry Division (General Allen) with headquarters in Maktar temporarily assumed defense of the Allied line running along the Ousseltia valley and southeast toward Pichon. Colonel Fechet’s 16th Combat Team was to be on the north and Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.’s, mixed command of American and French units, on the south. The French units were to be relieved as rapidly as possible by the 18th Combat Team (Colonel Greer) and a combat team from the U.S. 34th Infantry Division: Eventually the 34th Division was expected to relieve all 1st Infantry Division units and thus permit their consolidation in British First Army reserve. It was during an early stage in these preparations that Combat Command B and 26th Combat Team (less 2nd and 3rd Battalions) returned to II Corps control from that of General Koeltz. Their battle in the Ousseltia valley was ended.
Robinett’s command had lost 5 killed, 54 wounded, and 25 missing, had captured 11 Germans and 28 Italians, and had killed an estimated 205 of the enemy. It claimed to have destroyed six Mark III and three Mark IV tanks, eight 88-mm. guns, one mortar, four 20-mm. guns, and two enemy aircraft. The 26th Infantry (less 3rd Battalion) had lost 7 killed, 47 wounded, and 64 missing, while taking 211 prisoners.
The enemy had dealt a hard blow, especially to the French, one battalion being reduced to only 196 men. His prisoners totaled 3,449. Material captured or destroyed, as reported, included 87 machine guns, 16 antitank guns, 36 artillery pieces, 21 tanks, 4 armored reconnaissance cars, 4 self-propelled gun carriages, more than 200 other vehicles, and over 300 horses. Allied aviation and artillery had inflicted considerable damage on the enemy, but control of the passes west of Kairouan was worth this price to the Fifth Panzer Army.
At the tactical level, the battIe in the Ousseltia valley yielded some valuable lessons to the Allies. The enemy was discovered to have an unexpectedly defensive attitude, for he twice abandoned strongly held positions under cover of darkness without waiting for the Americans to press their attack home, leaving at least ten mobile artillery pieces. The morale of the Italian troops was found to be low; among the prisoners taken were a conscripted Pole, a Yugoslav, and several Austrians. Among the probable causes for this low morale was a failure of supply, many units going without rations for a long period. Another probable cause was the fact that Axis air support was not as strong or as co-ordinated with ground operations as it had been near Tebourba, while at the same time the Allied air effort was noticeably greater. By standing up to the attacking force and refraining from a premature attack or ill-advised armored lunges, Combat Command B had been able to avoid enemy traps and to retain its ability to strike back at a favorable time. Because of the termination of its commitment, and that of Colonel Stark’s Combat Team on 28 January, Combat Command B lost the opportunity of regaining the passes through the Eastern Dorsal before the enemy could become solidly established astride them. The French had fought ably, but they were handicapped by the lack of heavy weapons and means of communication. From now on it would be necessary to reinforce their sector with U.S. and British units until their equipment could be brought up to modern standards.
Changes in Allied Field Command The enemy’s attack from Pont-du-Fahs to Ousseltia in the week following 18 January had far-reaching consequences. It did not, as was once supposed, cause the cancellation of Operation SATIN, for as already pointed out, that decision had been made by General Eisenhower at Casablanca. But it did bring an end, after less than four weeks, to the period of national commands by the British First Army, American II Corps, and French XIX Corps, each directly under General Eisenhower. The enemy’s attack had been well aimed.
Striking first between British 5 Corps and the French, it forced the two Allied forces to attempt the difficult task of co-ordination across their boundaries and, as just shown, even involved American II Corps in remedial measures. General Eisenhower discovered that to control the entire Allied line through his advanced command post would not be practicable. On 21 January he flew with General Spaatz and Brigadier General LAllence S. Kuter to Constantine, met Generals Anderson, Fredendall, Truscott, Cannon, and Juin, and transferred to Anderson responsibility for co-ordinating operations in the three national sectors. General Juin accepted the new situation and General Giraud made no objection.
Unified air support along the broad Tunisian front had proved to be as essential as a single command over the ground forces. During the early part of January, the XII Air Support Command had declined requests to send units over the area for which Royal Air Force 242nd Group held responsibility. The impending operations by II Corps required that its resources for air support be carefully husbanded. In close sequence, Operation SATIN was canceled;
Brigadier General Howard A. Craig, commanding XII Air Support Command, became ill and was relieved by Colonel Paul L. Williams; American air support was furnished over the Ousseltia valley to stranded troops on the heights and to Combat Command B, U.S. 1 st Armored Division; and General Kuter was installed in command of an Allied air support command, charged with controlling Allied operations until the Northwest African Tactical Air Force under Air Vice-Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham should come into being.
It became clear after about four days more that simple co-ordination of forces was insufficient; the situation required command. General Anderson could not maintain the pace which had already taken him over more than 1,000 miles of Tunisian roads in order to confer with independent commanders and guide them toward decisions conforming to a general plan of action. When Generals Eisenhower and Anderson met at Telergma airfield, southwest of Constantine, on 24 January, the next step toward improvement of the command situation had to be taken. The same motives which had induced the commander in chief to transfer Combat Command B, U.S. 1st Armored Division, from SATIN Force to French XIX Corps on 20 January now caused him, four days later, to make Anderson “responsible for the employment of American troops” in accordance with general directions from AFHQ. The II Corps was attached to First Army. General J uin was urged to take parallel action for French troops, whose sector was to be narrowed materially. Following a long conference with General Anderson that evening, General Juin yielded, effective 3 February, acting in this vital matter on his own responsibility since General Giraud was attending the conference at Casablanca.
General Eisenhower’s directive to General Anderson followed at once:
The object of your current operations must be:
- To re-establish your central forces on the general line: FONDOUK [el Aouareb Jeastern exit of the pass cast of OUSSELTIA the terrain feature DJ BOU DABOUSS (0-85) -road junction 7 miles northeast of ROBAA [Rebaa Oulad YahiaJ-BOU ARADA.
- As soon as you have accomplished a, to seize and hold the eastern exits of the passes along the general line: EL GUETT ARMAKNASSY-FAID-FONDOUK.
- To protect your right (south) flank with particular attention to the air bases in the TERESSA area. In this connection, I deem it essential that you keep the bulk of the 1st Armored Division well concentrated, so as to be prepared to take advantage of any opportunity the enemy may offer to act aggressively as well as to counter strongly any enemy thrust that may develop.
The command arrangements arrived at by you in conferences with General Juin to meet the situation resulting from the enemy breakthrough in the area of the DORSALE ridge arc confirmed. Under these arrangements you are given command of all Allied forces on the TUNISIAN front, including, in addition to the troops presently assigned to the First Army, the II Corps (U.S.), and a Composite Corps (French and U.S.). The Composite Corps will consist ultimately of the 34th Division (less detachments) and certain French elements now in the OUSSEL TIA area, all under a French corps commander. I know that you will be fully sympathetic with the efforts of General Juin to conserve the French forces and uphold the honor of France, and that you will always welcome him at your headquarters and at the front, and afford him every facility which will contribute to that end.
The re-groupment of your forces incident to the above will envisage the relief of all elements of the 1st Division (U.S.) and their movement to an assembly area in the vicinity of GUELMA, where it will later pass to your control prior to the attack. To this end, it is contemplated that the 168th CT (U.S.) will be made available to you for the relief of the 26th RCT (U.S.).
You are to bear in mind always that all operations now to be undertaken are for the purpose of facilitating the launching of a powerful coordinated attack as soon as the weather will permit and the necessary forces and supplies can be assembled in position. In this latter interest we must look well to the security of lines of communication and to increasing by every possible means the daily delivery of supplies in the forward area.
For your information, the Allied Air Force is being directed to continue to pound Rommel’s line of retreat including his critical ports so as to hamper to the utmost his withdrawal. General Giraud has been shown this directive and has concurred in it. The AFHQ orders of 20 January prescribing the transfer to French command of Combat Command B, 1st Armored Division (see page 378 above), had also contained instructions to General Fredendall to assemble in the Sbeitia area an armored force of comparable strength. But a French attack in the Pichon-Fondouk el Aouareb sector starting 23 January, which this U.S. armored unit was to have reinforced, had to be abandoned.
After II Corps had been attached to it, First Army directed General Fredendall to assume command of the ground troops of all three nationalities operating south of a line running through Morsott-Thala-Sbiba (all exclusive), Djebel Trozza (997)-Fondouk el Aouareb (all inclusive), and north of a line from the salt marshes to Gabes.
The mission of II Corps was limited to protecting the right flank of the Allied forces in Tunisia. The French were to be largely withdrawn for rest and rearming, and prepared for the new command arrangements to become effective on 3 February. The decision to withdraw the majority of the French forces from forward areas required a modification of the mission assigned to General Anderson in the commander in chief’s directive of 26 January. As altered, it was:
- To protect the airfields at SOUK EL KHEMIS, TEBESSA, and THELEPTE… so that our air forces may operate continuously from them; and to secure the defiles at MEDJEZ EL BAB and BOU ARADA which First Army will require when, in conjunction with Eighth Army, the offensive against the enemy in Tunisia begins.
- Without prejudice to the role in a above:
(1) to secure the defiles at present held by the enemy which will improve our position when the offensive begins.
(2) to interfere with the enemy’s lines of communication in the coastal plain. In undertaking minor offensive operations, you are to consider the effect upon morale of costly failures. Sufficient means should be assembled to give reasonable assurances of success.
The revised directive continued with the following admonition: In the execution of the above mission, I deem it essential that your mobile striking forces in the south be held well concentrated so as to strike en masse when the need arises. I realize that it will not be possible for you to withdraw the 1st Division (U.S.) into rserve in the vicinity of GUELMA.
If the dispersion of the 1st Armored Division did not disturb the commander in chief because of its adverse effect on Operation SATIN, it was objectionable because of the fundamental need of covering the south flank. He wished the division concentrated as soon as possible, and repeatedly made his desires known to General Anderson.
[NOTE: (1) Ltr, Eisenhower to Anderson, II Feb 43. AFHQ C-3 Ops 58/2.1, Micro Job 10C, Reel 188D. (2) In addition to Combat Team 18 (strength approximately 4,500), First Army had under command 62,456 British officers and enlisted men on 27 January 1943. Q (Maint) Tab Rpt of Admin Sitrep 10, 1800, 27 Jan 4:1. AFHQ CofS Cable Log.]
The Enemy’s Next Moves
In the struggle for the advantages of position and initiative prior to 29 January 1943, the enemy had gained the larger measure of success. In northern Tunisia, he retained his positions guarding the routes to Bizerte and Tunis. Farther south, he controlled all the important passes giving access to the coastal plain in the vicinity of Kairouan.
His thrust from the north into the Ousseltia valley had forestalled an Allied operation to recover the gap at Fondouk el Aouareb. To protect the line of communications along the coast from Tunis toward Tripoli, which had just become the only source of supplies for Rommel’s army approaching the Mareth Position, the enemy next planned to take control of the routes by which the Allies in central Tunisia could attempt a disrupting attack and subsequently destroy the American forces in the Tebessa area. To facilitate this task Comando Supremo on 28 January ordered the Fifth Panzer Army to take offensive action at three points-the Rebaa Oulad Yahia valley, the pass through the Eastern Dorsal at Fai’d, and the road center and oasis of Gafsa. Preparations for an attack at Fai’d pass were already far advanced.
II Corps Plans
Ten days earlier U.S. II Corps had devised its own program in the light of its new directive to act defensively. If an active defense like that of the enemy was not authorized, the problem for II Corps was to determine what ground it needed to hold in order to protect the southern flank of British First Army. The main corps supply base at Tebessa and a growing airbase at Thelepte were the only installations of consequence in the corps area which required protection. Everything else existed for the purpose of supporting Allied forces holding Fai’d pass and Gafsa, on the one hand, and covering the pass at Fondouk el Aouareb on the other. Mere possession of a pass by one side offered a threat to the other. The French were convinced that both Faid pass and the oasis of Gafsa should be defended strongly. The II Corps could employ elements of the 1st Armored Division (reinforced) to strengthen the garrisons at those two points, or it might attempt to take Fondo uk el Aouareb, Maknassy, or other places from the enemy, or it might hold the division well concentrated and in readiness to fend off any hostile intrusion and to threaten retaliatory action. The last course, although specifically ordered by General Eisenhower, was postponed until after all elements of the 1st Armored Division had had a taste of combat.
General Fredendall’s first plan of action preceded the summons to send Combat Command B, 1st Armored Division, to the support of French XIX Corps in the Ousseltia valley. It provided for four simultaneous assaults against different objectives, to begin on 22 January. One attack would be launched from the vicinity of Hadjeb el Aioun, in conjunction with General Koeltz’s command, to recapture Fondouk el Aouareb from the enemy. The other three operations were all to be based in the Gafsa area, about 100 miles airline from Fondouk el Aouareb, and to be directed against Maknassy, El Guettar defile, and Bir Mrabott, respectively.34 Mountains and substantial distances would separate each of the three forces engaged in these operations. The overly ambitious project was suspended when Combat Command B, 1st Armored Division, shifted to Maktar en route to Ousseltia.
The attacks on El Guettar defile and Bir Mrabott were dropped but Combat Command A, 1st Armored Division (Brigadier General Raymond E. McQuillin) , was sent to Sbeitla to take over the mission which Combat Command B had been fulfilling there, while the seizure of Maknassy remained on the agenda for early execution. To carry out that attack, General Ward improvised a Combat Command C, 1st Armored Division, under control of a headquarters consisting chiefly of the staff of the 6th Armored Infantry Regiment (Colonel Robert I. Stack).
Before sending this force against Maknassy, and despite the objection of Generals Ward and Welvert that the prospective attack there would thus be revealed, General Fredendall sent elements of Combat Command C in a hit-and-run raid on Station de Sened. It occurred on the night of 24-25 January 1943.
The raiding force, protected by Allied air cover, left Gafsa at about 0400, 24 January. Company C, 81 st Reconnaissance Battalion, took up a position east of Station de Sened from which it could stop any reinforcements coming from Maknas5Y. Battery B, 68th Field Artillery Battalion, opened fire about 1115 from positions west of the objective.
At noon, Company I, 6th Armored Infantry, with one mortar platoon jabbed from the west while the tanks of Company I, 13th Armored Regiment, and the remaining infantry swung around the right flank and struck Station de Sened from the south. The tanks overran some antitank guns at the southern edge and continued among the few houses and the olive trees, while infantry followed mopping up. In a little more than three hours from the opening artillery concentration to the last, the place had been overwhelmed and Combat Command C could reorganize for the return march. By 1800, it was back in bivouac near Gafsa.
Two men wounded, one tank damaged by a mine and another by gunfire, were the 36 Combat Command C for this engagement consisted of: the 6th Armored Infantry (less the 1st and 2nd Battalions and Company G) ; Company C (plus one platoon of Company D), 81st Reconnaissance Battalion; Company I, 13th Armored Regiment; Battery B, 68th Field Artillery Battalion; the 3rd Platoon of Company D, 16th Engineer Battalion; the 2nd Platoon of Battery B, 443rd Coast Artillery (AA) Battalion (SP); and detachments of the 141st Signal Company and 47th Medical Battalion.
only American casualties. Prisoners totaled ninety-six, with the killed and wounded estimated to be about the same number. For the American troops, it had been principally a morale-building exercise. They were better prepared for the next operation. For the enemy, it was a distraction, luring reinforcements to Station de Sened and drawing increasing air activity toward the Gafsa areas, General Fredendall faced an immediate choice between occupying Maknassy and the pass just east of it or strengthening the Allied hold on Faid pass, as General Giraud and General Juin desired. Either operation would be undertaken in the face of known enemy preparations for an offensive toward Tabessa or Gafsa. The 1st Armored Division had been considering operations against Maknassy since early January. Fredendall’s decision was to seize Maknassy, on the ground that such action would effectively protect Faid pass and would inflict direct damage on the enemy:
Maknassy, it will be recalled, is in the southeastern corner of central Tunisia on a plain where the Eastern Dorsal bends to the southwest toward Gafsa. The fertile, irrigated olive orchards close to the village are in turn surrounded by undulating stretches of bunch grass and cactus which stretch not only to steep hills on the east and south but to a screening arch of hills and ridges on the west and north, a barrier which projects from the Eastern Dorsal. A narrow-gauge railroad and highway enter the Maknassy plain at the southwestern corner through an opening at Station de Sened and continue east through a defile between low hills. Entry from the north is made via a pass between Djebel Maizila (522) and Djebel.
The plan for the attack on Maknassy would send two forces against the objective in simultaneous assaults, one approaching from the direction of Malzila pass and the other by way of Station de Sened. At the same time, in reserve, a third element of the 18t Armored Division would be near SbeItla. For the Maknassy attack, scheduled for 1 February, Colonel Stack’s Combat Command C was to march on the previous day from Gafsa along the northern side of the screening hills to enter the plain via Maizila pass, while on the same day, a temporary Combat Command D under Colonel Robert V. Maraist moved from the Bou Chebka area through F eriana and Gafsa against Station de Sened, and thereafter eastward along the route of the railroad to Maknassy.
The Enemy Attacks Faid Pass Before this attack on Maknassy could begin, the enemy launched an attack of his own against Faid pass, committing the 21st Panzer Division, directly under Fifth Panzer Army control, aided by elements from the Italian 50th Special Brigade (General Imperiali) and by army troops. The mission was to control the pass, to install security detachments on the chain of mountains from north of Faid pass to Sened village, and to reconnoiter halfway to Sbeltla. At the conclusion of the operation, the attacking force was expected to withdraw all but strong security detachments. These detachments, with others from Brigade Imperiali. would occupy key points in the Eastern Dorsal. Italians would hold the area of Station de Sened, blocking the narrow plain there and maintaining liaison with Division Centauro east of Gafsa, at a pass between Sened village and Sakket
Faid pass is a broad opening between Djebel Sidi Khalif (705) on the north and Djebel Bou Dzer (473) on the south through which ran the main tarmac highway from Sfax to Sbeitla, and beyond. There were two other gaps in the Eastern Dorsal, which were crossed by inferior roads or trails. The first, about six miles north of Faid pass, near Sidi Khalif, the other just south of Djebel Bou Dzer at Ain Rebaou. A detachment of about 1,000 men from General Welvert’s Constantine Division defended these passes under command of Brigadier General Schwartz. An attacking force, immediately after passing through Faid defile on an approach from the coastal plain, would find, one mile to the southwest, the village of Faid, a small collection of block-shaped, white masonry houses. The road forked at this village, the main road leading seven miles straight across the level plain to Poste de Lessouda while a secondary road ran west-southwest for eight miles to Sidi Bou Zid. Just to the north of Poste de Lessouda is the isolated hill mass of Djebel Lessouda (644) a bold butte with excellent observation over the wide stretches of plain which encircle it. Well to the southwest are a series of similar hills of which Djebel Ksaira (560), near Ain Rebaou pass, and Djebel Garet Hadid (620), west of Djebel Ksalra, are prominent. Sidi Bou Zid’s dark evergreens and gleaming white low buildings are about five miles south of Djebel Lessouda and four miles north-northwest of Djebcl Garet Hadid. Geometric patterns of cultivated fields and orchards are adjacent to bright stuccoed buildings. Elsewhere are the irregular extensive fields of cactus and thin grass which grow generally without the benefit of irrigation. Here was the area in which the U.S. II Corps was to meet its first true challenge.
The 21st Panzer Division, commanded by Colonel Hans Georg Hildebrandt, organized for the attack in two major groups, Kampfgruppe Pfeiffer and Kampfgruppe Gruen. Kampfgruppe Pfeiffer was further subdivided into northern, central, and southern task forces. The small northern task force was to assume protection of the north flank and to hold Sidi Khalif pass. This comprised the 2nd Tunis Battalion (-) reinforced by Italian elements. The center group, directly commanded by Major Pfeiffer, was to attack Faid pass from the east, using the 3rd Battalion, 104th Panzer Grenadier Regiment (reinforced). One company of infantry from the 2nd Tunis Battalion would climb Hill 644 at the southern end of Djebel Sidi Khalif to strike the defenders of Faid pass from the northern flank at the same time that the attack from the east began.
The somewhat weaker southern task force consisting of the 1st Battalion, 104th Panzer Grenadier Regiment (reinforced) was expected to seize and block Ain Rebaou pass and protect the southern flank against the French on Djebel Ksaira. To the south, nearer Maknassy, Kampfgruppe Gruen (1st Battalion, 5th Panzer Regiment, reinforced) was to make a longer encircling march through Malzila pass. This maneuver would enable it to attack the French garrison at Faid village from the rear and thence to join in seizing the pass. Kampfgrpuppe Gruen would be preceded by the 580th Reconnaissance Battalion as far as a supporting position west of Djebel Boudinar (716). It was then to reconnoiter as far as Bir el Hafey. A division reserve was held near the Sfax-Faid road!
The attack began early on 30 January. The northern and southern task forces (Kampfgruppe Pfeiffer) attained their objectives readily, but the center task force and Kampfgruppe Gruen were held up for five hours. They finally forced a stubbornly intervening French force back into Sidi Bou Zid and, after another one and one-half hour’s fighting, captured Faid village. It was then midafternoon, Kampfgruppe Gruen drove off an American armored force that approached from the northwest, after which the German tanks continued toward the pass in an effort to envelop the defenders.
Mines knocked out four tanks and the effort was postponed at nightfall. By that time they had made contact with the company of the 2nd Tunis Battalion and sealed off the pass on the west. At the eastern end of the pass, Major Pfeiffer’s center task force was twice stopped short; under cover of darkness, it got only 200 yards into the opening before being held up again. The French kept the area illuminated by parachute flares, forestalling night movement up the slopes by Axis troops to positions from which to aid a renewed attack in the morning. Thus during the night of 30 January the French defenders were surrounded but the Germans were far from holding Faid pass.
The American reconnoitering force which had approached Faid from the northwest during the late afternoon was a small portion of General McQuillin’s Combat Command A, U.S. 1st Armored Division, from Sbeitla. McQuillin had been directed to help regain control of the pass. In spite of early and repeated requests from the French, these first American reinforcements had been unable to travel the distance of more than thirty miles in time to intervene before the loss of Faid village or the encirclement of Faid pass. Allied air action also had been too weak to deter the enemy’s advance.
The II Corps’ orders, received about 0930, 30 January, had prescribed that Combat Command A was to counterattack in order to restore the French positions at Faid, but without reducingthe covering force operating northeast of Sbeitla or materially weakening the defense of Sbeltla. At about 1000 General McQuillin dispatched a reconnaissance company to reconnoiter the Djebel Lessouda-Faid area.
Shortly thereafter he sent a group consisting of a company of tanks, a company of armored infantry, and an artillery battery, southward to Sidi Bou Zid ordering them to advance along a secondary route via Bir el Hafey. This reconnaissance company reported by 1400 that the enemy was holding the sector from Rebaou pass to Faid village with infantry and tanks. Meantime enemy air intercepted American efforts to reinforce the advanced groups during daylight. At 1430, therefore, McQuillin decided to postpone his counterattack until early on 31 January. Dividing his command, he ordered a northern group to assemble in the vicinity of Poste de Lessouda, and a southern group in the Sidi Bou Zid area. These movements were to be executed under the cover of darkness.
About 0330, 31 January, General McQuillin, who was accompanied by General Truscott of the AFHQ Advance Command Post, issued orders from Paste de Lessouda for an attack at 0700. One part of his force under Lt. Colonel William B. Kern was to strike through Rebaou pass from Sidi Bou Zid to get east of the enemy at Faid pass and the other under Colonel Stark, to advance against the Fai’d area from Djebcl Lessouda.
[NOTE: 1st Armd Div FO 4, 30 Jan 43. Troops available to Combat Command A were: the 1st Armored Regiment (less the 1st and 2nd Battalions) ; the 1st Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry; the 26th Infantry (Jess Company C and 2nd and 3rd Battalions); the 1st Reconnaissance Troop; the 33rd Field Artillery Battalion: the 91st Field Artillery Battalion; Company A, 701st Tank Destroy Battalion; Company C, 16th Armored Combat Engineers; and Battery D (less two platoons), 4+3rd Coast Artillery (AA) Battalion (SP).]
[NOTE: The northern group consisted of: the 1st Battalion (–), Headquarters and Cannon, Antitank, and Medical 26th Infantry: a platoon from the lead 3rd Coast Artillery (All.) Battalion (SP): and II, 1st Armored Regiment, with a platoon 701st Tank Destroyer Battalion attached. The tanks were to leave this force after taking Faid village in order to attack southward along the mountains to Aln Rebaou. The southern group included: the 1st Battalion (less Company B), 6th Armored Infantry: Company G and a platoon from Reconnaissance Company, 1st Armored Regiment: Company A (less a platoon), 701st Tank Destroyer Battalion: and one platoon from Company C, 16th Armored Combat Engineers. Battslion), B, 915t Field Artillery Battalion, Was to support from a position east of Djebel Lessauda.]]
American efforts to relieve the French in FaId pass on 31 January were not successful. The enemy during the preceding night had emplaced and concealed his antitank and heavy machine guns, mortars, and artillery, and had put many of his tanks in defiladed positions. The American infantry, after making a limited penetration into the lower foothills north of FaId pass, was repulsed by a thick curtain of fire. The medium tanks of Company H, U.S. 1st Armored Regiment, were lured within range of well-sited antitank weapons which destroyed at least eight vehicles. The American supporting artillery came under long-range counterbattery fire and was also heavily attacked by dive bombers. The southern force was delayed by enemy aviation and then driven back by the enemy ground troops. By 1400 on 31 January the enemy had succeeded in capturing FaId pass. The American attack not only failed to relieve the French, but also, through absence of Allied air support, failed to prevent the enemy from bringing up reinforcements. The Germans were now firmly established on the Eastern Dorsal from Djebel Sidi Khalif to Maizila pass where they had gained a foothold south and west of that gap.
At 0930 on 1 February Giraud called General Welvert’s headquarters ordering that a strong protest be made to General Fredendall regarding the slowness of American intervention and ineffectiveness of U,S. air and artillery. But by 1 February the French in the pass could not be relieved nor Allied possession restored. Nevertheless, efforts to drive out the enemy were not abandoned.
The Allied Attack on Maknassy Begins
The Germans had struck at Faid pass while the Allied attack on Maknassy was being organized, As a result, General Fredendall faced the difficult tactical decision whether he should send Colonel Stack’s force Combat Command C, to join the counterattack at FaId or use it for the attack on Maknassy.
Generals Giraud and Welvert recommended that the force be brought south of Djebel Ksai’ra to the Ai’n Rebaou area by a route enabling it to strike the enemy from the rear. At 1300, 30 January, Stack received orders by telephone to start northeastward from Gafsa toward the area of Sidi Bou Zid with the mission of hitting “. . . in flank the force of enemy tanks and infantry thrusting at SIDI BOU ZID from the east, and also to strike any force moving from MAKNASSY toward SIDI BOU ZID.” Stack was out of direct communication with McQuillin, during the night of 30-31 January, which Combat Command C spent in bivouac about thirty miles southwest of Sidi Bou Zid. As he was nearing the F ai’d battle area on 31 January, he received radioed orders at 1600 to “turn south and join in co-ordinated effort with Maraist on Maknassy.” During the following night when he was only a few miles northeast of Maizila pass on the trail to Maknassy, he was still out of communication with McQuillin at Faid. Stack, following his instructions, blocked the northern mouth of Maizila pass and prepared for a morning attack, leaving the action at Faid pass to be completed by Combat Command A and General Welvert’s troops.
The orders sending Stack south were based on an overoptimistic concept of what was happening at Ai’n Rebaou, for American troops were then understood to be advancing north along the eastern side of Djebel Bou Dzer when in fact they had been repulsed!” The opportunity for McQuillin and Stack to co-operate late on 31 January had thus been rejected in favor of combining Stack’s attack on Maknassy with that by Maraist’s force, but during the night of 31 January-l February it was still feasible to postpone the Maknassy operation and to recall Combat Command C to the Faid area. General Welvert was so thoroughly convinced of the merit of such a course that he sought out Stack that night and induced him to raise the question again with General Ward. Ward confirmed Fredendall’s orders for Stack to co-operate with Maraist in attacking Maknassy, while McQuillin and French units under General Schwartz made one last attempt to recover Faid pass from its Axis occupants.
The Enemy Retains Fazd Pass
Near Sidi Bou Zid, General McQuillin sent Colonel Stark’s force south by foot during the night to make the next day’s main attack on Ai’n Rebaou, converging on Kern’s axis of approach. The advance on 1 February was not begun until noon when the sun was no longer low in front of the American forces. It opened with an extraordinarily heavy artillery preparation, followed by an infantry assault; the tanks were initially held in reserve for a later sweep against Faid, if it should prove advisable.
The infantry, after first advancing methodically behind the barrage, started up the lower slopes where they were eventually pinned down by machine gun, mortar, and heavy artillery fire as the barrage lifted. At this point fifteen enemy tanks made a sortie out of Faid village and struck the left (northern) flank of the attacking infantry throwing their assault into confusion. The 3rd Battalion, 1st Armored Regiment, was now sent forward to get the attack in motion again but the American tanks were subjected to severe shelling from guns so skillfully hidden that observers and searching American artillery fire had failed to find them. By now the infantry was already falling back. There were no reserves. The 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry, pulled back to positions three to five miles east of Sidi Zid, while the 1st Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry, turned southwest and occupied Djebcl Ksaira.
McQuillin acknowledged candidly at the end of the day that he had failed to accomplish his mission. He pointed out that his right wing had been stopped and the infantry on the left had been driven back “in disorder” from a point close to the enemy’s positions by the sudden attack of nine or more Mark IV tanks which had emerged from concealment., while these enemy tanks were being driven back by four American self-propelled 75-mm. guns, by tanks, and by tank destroyers, and pursued until they reached the cover of German antitank guns, the disorganized infantry had been able to withdraw.
Under orders on 2 February to pass to the defensive, Combat Command A organized positions on Djebcl Ksaira and set up a line east of Sidi Bou Zid while the Allied high command determined where to establish the main line of resistance. The enemy had already moved onto high ground east of Diebel Ksaira and directly south of Rebaou pass, onto the heights north of that pass, and along the western slopes of Djebel Sidi KhaliL His observation points surveyed all approaches to the Faid area. His tanks were withdrawn into the passes, but he emplaced artillery as heavy as 210-mm. howitzers where they could interdict Allied movement toward his infantry positions and outrange American and French guns in counterbattery fire. He remained in Faid village while Sidi Bou Zid was occupied by the Allies.
Operations Southwest of Pont-du-Fahs While the enemy’s attack at Faid pass was succeeding, another attack, ordered by von Arnim on 28 January, directed against Hir Moussa crossroads and the heights northeast of Rebaa Oulad Yahia, was thrown back. Success in this endeavor would have forced the Allied troops in the heights west of the Ousseltia valley to pull back in order to avoid being cut off, but on 31 January the armored force was repulsed short of Rebaa Oulad Yahia at Sidi Said by the British 36th Brigade (with the 2nd Battalion, U.S. 16th Infantry, attached). Although the enemy broke off the attack that evening, his threat brought Combat Command B, U.S. 1st Armored Division, hurrying back from the area southeast of Tabessa to which it had so recently been recalled from the Ousseltia valley. It spent 1 February at Hadjeb el Aloun, and during the next night continued to its new station in the vicinity of Maktar, out of II Corps’ area and in First Army reserve.
[NOTE: ” (1) 6th Armd Inf AAR, 23 Jan-26 Feb 43, (2) Memo, CG CCA to CG 1st Armd Div, in 1st Arrnd Div Sitrc·p, 1-2 Feb 43, (3) 1st Armd Div FO 5, 1200, 3 Feb ·13, (4) Losses reported by the 26th Infantry wen’ 1 killed and 56 wounded and for 6th Armored Infantry 4 killed and 16 wounded. (5) French losses known on 2 February were 905 officers and men, killed or missing in action. DMC Jnl, 2 Feb 43, (6) The enemy reported ,capture of 1,047 prisoners of war (mostly French), 25 armored cars, 12 guns, 2 antiaircraft guns, 15 antitank guns, 8 mortars, 57 machin” guns, 10 trucks, and 5 aircraft either destroyed or damaged. Msg, OKH/ GenStdH/Op Abt, Nr. 1563/43, to army groups, 4 Feb 43, in OKH/GenStdH/Op Abt, File’ Abendorientierungen Afrika, 11-/3, V.43. (7) Msg, CG]]
British 5 Corps (General Allfrey) attempted early in February to get into a position to cut the Pont-du-Fahs-Rebaa Oulad Yahia road at the junction just south of the reservoir. To accomplish this purpose, it became essential to gain control of Djebel Mansour (678) and its spur Djebel Alliliga, commanding the road at a point southeast of Bou Arada. Using elements of the British 1st Guards Brigade and 1st Parachute Brigade, Allfrey’s attack in approximately battalion strength on 3 February did not quite succeed. Reinforcements by each side balanced out during the next two nights. After his counterattack on 5 February gained control of Djebel Mansour, the enemy finally drove the remaining British troops from Djebel Alliliga. The adversaries were left in deadlock fifteen miles southwest of Pont-du-Fahs, but with the Axis in firm possession of the approaches to that town.
II Corps Attack on Maknassy Ends
While the enemy’s initiative southwest of Pont-du-Fahs and at Faid pass drew Allied forces into containing positions, the operations by II Corps to seize Maknassy came to an end.
As Colonel Stack’s Combat Command C opened its attack on Ma’izila pass on 1 February, under II Corps order which General Ward had confirmed during the previous night, it soon found that enemy reinforcements had been brought up during the night. Enemy infantry and armored cars, supported by artillery, counterattacked at 0730. The enemy was driven back, but new divisional orders to Combat Command C to postpone full commitment in the pass kept the forces waiting until afternoon. The course of Maraist’s battle for Station de Sened, of McQuillin’s at Faid pass, and of the enemy attack northeast of Rebaa Oulad Yahia for a time made it difficult to decide the best way to employ Combat Command C. Then at 1400, orders terminating this indecision came through to Colonel Stack: “Secure Maizila Pass, including both exits. Reconnoiter to south with view to attack on Maknassy.” The afternoon assault opened with a twenty-minute artillery preparation followed at 1710 with an advance by the tanks and two companies of infantry on foot.
Other infantry were carried in half-tracks to objectives already captured in order to organize them quickly for defense. Soft ground and antitank fire delayed the general advance, but the troops gained the southwestern side of the pass and part of the northeastern side before darkness forced them to suspend the attack. Preparations were made to complete the task in the morning. Reported losses were 3 killed, 20 wounded, and 43 missing. Combat Command C might reasonably expect to reach Maknassy on the next day. As it prepared for the last phase of its operation, its orders were abruptly revised. Combat Command C was recalled from the pass and sent north to Hadjeb el Ai’oun on the night of 1-2 February as part of a general defensive shift to counter an enemy threat against that sector of the Allied line.
Meanwhile, Colonel Maraist’s force, called Combat Command D, led by clements of the 81 st Reconnaissance Battalion, marched on Station de Sened from Gafsa early on 31 January. The reconnaissance force slipped around Station de Sened to occupy high ground east of it. The infantry was ordered to move in trucks cross country on a wide front to a point about ten miles west of the objective, then to detruck and proceed on foot, attacking from the south with two companies abreast and a third echeloned to the right rear. The tanks were to approach parallel to the road but were to bypass the objective on the north and turn in order to strike from the east. The artillery was to support the attack from position northwest of the hamlet.
The scheme of maneuver somewhat resembled that which had been so successful in the raid a week earlier, but factors in the situation were markedly different. The attack began much later in the day.
Although the tanks and artillery were in position at 1345, the infantry convoy was slow in coming up, kept marching past the assigned detrucking point, and was insufficiently dispersed. From the beginning, heavy enemy air attacks repeatedly harassed the operation, with Allied planes unable to be of help. A dive-bombing attack by eight Stukas at 1330, and another by twenty-four at 1656, stunned the infantry and caused substantial casualties. The troops could not be formed for an assault by 1700; so the entire force was reorganized for the night, and the attack was rescheduled for dawn. The 175th Field Artillery Battalion and the 2nd Battalion, 168th Infantry, were sent up during the night to supplement the 1st Battalion, but except for a small 168th Infantry regimental group with Colonel Thomas D. Drake, and a portion of the 2nd Battalion, the troops were unwittingly guided past the American lines into the enemy’s rear area. In the morning, most of the “lost battalion” was either taken captive or otherwise prevented from taking part in the attack, even though some troops managed to find their way back before noon.
Station de Sened was more strongly defended than on 24 January Combat Command D had expected about 250 men with eight machine guns, four 47 -mm. antitank guns, and two 75-mm. field guns emplaced behind mine fields west of the village. A few armored cars had also been observed there, but the main force was supposed to be east of Maknassy. Actually, the objective was well defended from the start and when the position was threatened, the enemy reacted quickly by sending reinforcements from Gabes.,g In a slow attack on 1 February, the Americans finally penetrated the hamlet about 1640, held the town during the night, and prepared to continue the advance next morning to the cast, where stronger enemy forces had assembled.
“It is of vital necessity for you to get forward and place the infantry on its objective four (4) miles east of Sened Station,” General Fredendall informed Colonel Maraist, “Too much time has been wasted already. I shall expect you to be on the objective not later than 1000 hours, 2 February. Use your tanks and shove. From 1800 hours, this date, (1 February) General Ray E. Porter, USA, will be in command of your operation until completion of your mission, after which you will revert to Corps control in the Gafsa area.
On the same night, General Ward, unaware of these orders, informed Colonel Maraist that the units of the 168th Infantry and 175th Field Artillery were to revert to General Porter’s command after Combat Command D had gained the position east of Station de Sened, and only then was Maraist to move to the Gafsa area to enter corps reserve. The 81st Reconnaissance Battalion would then shift to Sbeitla, where the 1st Armored Division headquarters would open at 0200, 2 February. Maraist was directed finally to secure a position favorable to defense “three to four miles east of Sened Station.” After it had been organized by the 168th Infantry (less the 3rd Battalion), he was to remain in a supporting position until relieved by Porter’s direction.
These confusing orders were issued in ignorance of General Eisenhower’s directive, drawn up in conference with General Anderson and Truscott at Teiergma airfield that same morning, that the central front must be securely held by employing the U.S. 1st Armored Division as a concentrated force, even if that involved pulling back the line from the Eastern Dorsal, evacuating Cafsa, and forfeiting the use of Thelcpte airfield. “If Maknassy is not taken by tonight, the whole division should be withdrawn into a central position and kept concentrated,” Eisenhower had insisted.
The morning attack toward Maknassy on 2 February proceeded rapidly against light artillery and machine gun fire until about0930, when it was interrupted by a very heavy dive-bombing attack on the tanks. By noon, the infantry in force held the ridge east of Sened. The tanks reassembled in readiness to meet a counterattack; the infantry dug in; the 81st Reconnaissance Battalion’s units took up positions protecting the north and south flanks; and the 701st Tank Destroyer Battalion’s reconnaissance elements pushed five miles farther east. The counterattack came about 1600. A dive bombing by twenty-four Stukas first shook up the infantry. When sixteen enemy tanks approached on the left flank, some excited troops started running back and others jammed the road with vehicles headed west. These troops had to be firmly checked and turned around. Five enemy tanks got through to the main position, but were driven off by American tanks and tank destroyers over an hour later. By 1900, the position was generally restored, and held throughout the night.
The attack toward Maknassy was renewed at daylight on 3 February with tanks, tank destroyers, and assault guns out in front of the infantry line to repel any counterattack by Axis forces. Well forward was the reconnaissance unit of 701st Tank Destroyer Battalion, which got within six miles of Maknassy by noon. Artillery fired on elusive enemy detachments, and fifteen American B-25’s bombed enemy tanks near Maknassy at about 1530 and Station de Sened (in American possession) by mistake soon afterward. At this juncture, Maraist’s attack on Maknassy from the west was broken off when orders from II Corps’ advanced command post were received directing Combat Command D’s withdrawal at 1830 to Gafsa. The move was completed before daylight.
Losses inflicted on the enemy amounted to seven light tanks, two French 75-mm. guns, and two 88-mm. dual-purpose guns, considerable transportation equipment, along with a small quantity of ammunition, destroyed or captured, and about 160 prisoners taken. American losses reported included four light tanks, nine half-tracks, one self-propelled 105-mm. howitzer, one 75-mm. pack howitzer, two self-propelled and one towed 37-mm. guns, as well as lesser weapons and transport vehicles. Casualties were 51 killed, 164 wounded, 116 missing.
The force Colonel Maraist and Colonel Stack had encountered was Kampfgruppe Strempel. When American attacks on Sened Station and Mai’zila pass threatened to interfere with the 21st Panzer Division’s operations in the Faid pass area, Colonel Hildebrandt organized a provisional headquarters under his chief of staff, Lt. Colonel Strempel, ordering him to defend at all cost the sector from Djebel Matleg (477) to Djebel Bou Hedma (790), boundary with the Italian Centauro Division. Group Strempel consisted of the 334th Reconnaissance Battalion, 29th Africa Battalion, 580th Reconnaissance Battalion, and miscellaneous units of the Italian 50th Spedal Brigade, reinforced by artillery and flak. The 190th Panzer Battalion, ubiquitous “fire brigade” of the Tunisian bridgehead, was at hand as a tactical reserve held in the Meheri Zebbeus area.
II Corps Goes on the Defensive
At 1200, 3 February, Headquarters, 1st Armored Division, issued new orders based upon the loss of Faid pass and the vulnerability of the poorly armed French forces in the Fondouk el Aouareb-Pichon area to an attack of the kind which had succeeded at Faid.o5 The mission given the division was to contain the enemy from F ondouk el Aouareb gap to Maizila pass, a distance exceeding fifty miles. The division was directed to plan to reinforce the French troops quickly wherever indicated, to engage in active reconnaissance and patrols, to use artillery freely, and to employ mobile striking forces in counterattacks against any enemy penetrations of the eastern mountain chain. At Maktar, in First Army reserve was Combat Command B, still withdrawn from General Ward’s control. 6G Near Hadjeb el Aloun, was Combat Command C, only nominally under division control and directed by II Corps to cover the twenty-mile zone from north of Djebel Trozza to a screening ridge southeast of Hadjeb el Aloun. Combat Command A covered the rest of the chain of mountains as far as Djebel Meloussi, west of Malzila pass. At First Army’s insistence Combat Command D was recalled from its operation toward Maknassy in order to enter II Corps Reserve at Bou Chebka in place of Combat Command B. The 81st Reconnaissance Battalion (less Company B) went into 1st Armored Division Reserve at Sbeltla. The 168th Infantry (less 1st Battalion) was also to pass to direct corps control and to move from Gafsa to Sbeltla and thence to Sidi Bou Zid. The 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry, went into II Corps Reserve at Feriana. Greater mobility in the northern sector was accomplished by the improvement of a road from Hadjeb el Aloun to El Ala, a project carried through by Company B, 16th Armored Engineer Battalion, and units from the U.S. 34th Division.
These dispositions were intended to hold as much as possible of the forward areas while the Allies prepared for sustained, aggressive action in the month of March. As soon as an opportunity for a blow at the Axis line of communications on the coastal plain should present itself, the forces could assemble west of the mountain barrier, in which all the gaps were held by the enemy, and fight its way through whichever gap seemed to offer most hope of success. But it was hardly to be expected that the enemy would quietly permit strong forces to be organized for the purpose of piercing the barrier and wreaking havoc in the rear of Field Marshal Rommel’s army. The loss of Faid pass, moreover, made the Allies so much more vulnerable to hostile, disruptive incursions that retention of the areas east of the Western Dorsal was correspondingly more hazardous. The dispositions described above were risky, and the result of difficult decisions reached by Anderson, Fredendall, and their chiefs of staff, on the evening of 5 February.
Anxiety about the Axis forces at Faid led Fredendall not only to assign specific responsibility for containing them to the Commanding General, 1st Armored Division, on 10 February, after a visit to his command post near Sbeltla, but in addition, to issue orders very specifically controlling the means made available there. On 11 February, Major Warren Hugulet, liaison officer of the 1st Armored Division, brought to Sbeltla the following directive from General Fredendall:
HEADQUARTERS II CORPS
APO NO. 302
11 February, 1943
SUBJECT: Defense of FAID Position.
TO: Commanding General, 1st Armored division.
- You will take immediate steps to see that the following points concerning defense of the FAID position are put into effect:
- Scheme of Defense.’ D.J. KSAIRA on the South and DJ LESSOUDA on the North are the key terrain features in the defense of
FAID. These two features must be strongly held, with a mobile reserve in the vicinity of SIDI BOU ZID which can rapidly launch a counter attack. Plans for all possible uses of this reserve should be prepared ahead of time. A battalion of infantry should be employed for the defense of D J. KSAIRA, and the bulk of a battalion of infantry together with a battery of artillery and a company of tanks for the defense of DJ. LESSOUDA. Remainder of artillery is at present satisfactorily located. It should, however, furnish its own local protection,and be prepared to shift rapidly.
- Additional Reserves: The 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry, now under your control, should immediately send a liaison officer to Hq., CC A. Inasmuch as this Battalion will likely be employed by McQuillin should an attack in the F AID area develop, the Battalion Commander, in collaboration with McQuillin should prepare plans for the use of his Battalion. These plans should ensure rapid movement and employment of this Battalion once it has been ordered.
- Reconnaissance: It is extremely important that reconnaissance and counter reconnaissance be conducted by you from HADJEB EL AIOUN on the North to the pass between DJ. MAIZTLA [Djebcl Maizilal and DJ. GOULEB on the South. In this area strong listening posts should be established 24 hours a day from which raids, when appropriate, can be conducted. It is essential that this reconnaissance and counter reconnaissance link up with that now being conducted by the 1st British Derbyshire Yeomanry. The force now at McQuillin’s disposal is not sufficient for the area for which he is responsible. The bulk of your 81st Reconnaissance Battalion should be used in the area HADJEB EL AIOUN-MAIZTLAGOULEB PASS.
- Patrols: It is vital that strong infantry foot patrols be sent forward at night from DJ. LESSOUDA and DJ. KSAIRA. These patrols must be offensive. They must keep track of the enemy’s strength and organization. They should be especially watchful for any attt’mpt of the enemy to debouch from the passes at night. They must take prisoners. It is also important that these patrols locate the presence of minefields, if any, in areas like the gap between DJ. RECHAIB and D J. BOU DZEL [Djebel Bou DzerJ. The latter would, of course, be of great importance in the event we decide to capture FAID.
- Use of Wire, AT Mines, Trip Wire, etc: I desire that you make maximum use of all available means to strengthen the positions outlined above. The necessary materiel is available and should be used immediately.
- Photography: I have instructed my G-2 to furnish you as soon as possible a photographic strip covering the area: Pass at
T8358-FAID PASS-REBOU [Ain RebaouJ-MATLEG PASS. I have asked that every effort be made to secure good pictures of the Pass at T8358, FAID PASS, and MATLEG PASS.
I desire that a copy of this directive, together with your own comments, be sent to McQuillin.You will inform me when the instructions enumerated in this directive have been complied with.
Major General, U.S.A.
[The following was written in longhand: ]
In other words I want a very strong active defense and not just a passive one. The encmy must be harassed at every opportunity. Reconnaissance must never be relaxed especially at night. Positions indicated must be wired and mined now. L. R. F.GS
The note of hopefulness with which January had opened, and the high expectation of II Corps of carrying the battle to the enemy, had led early in February to temporary frustration. The enemy was still calling the tune. Until the Allies were strong enough to resume the offensive in March, they would have to fight the enemy where he chose to attack, and when.
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 (5-21); Axis Strike II Corps
World War Two: North Africa (5-19); New Situation: Axis Reaction