World War Two: North Africa (6-26); Tunisia-Axis Strives To Retain the Initiative

The Allies were not allowed to regroup, reorganize, and prepare for the mid-March offensive without engaging in some bitter battles. The respite gained in central Tunisia had no parallel in northern Tunisia. Here von Arnim had plans of his own for resuming the offensive. On 22 February Kesselring, after approving Rommel’s decision to break off his attack at Thala and Djebel el Hamra (1112), had authorized von Arnim to prepare an attack that would keep the Allies under pressure in the north while Rommel’s forces were withdrawing to regroup for their attack against Montgomery’s forces in the south. The Fifth Panzer Army operation, timed to facilitate Rommel’s disengagement, was to push back the Allied lines in the north and expand the narrow bridgehead protecting the vital Axis supply bases of Tunis and Bizerte. Von Arnim immediately held a conference with his subordinates to discuss possible plans. He could attack either in Manteuffel’s sector along the coast or in Weber’s zone in the Medjez el Bab area. In either case the commander might hold and firmly defend the newly gained positions or, after a spoiling attack, withdraw to his original lines.

Early in the afternoon of the next day von Arnim decided on a spoiling attack in the Medjez el Bab area. He charged Corps Group Weber with this limited attack which was to jump off on 26 February. Von Arnim chose this solution after it had become painfully evident to him that he lacked the strength for a bigger operation. He picked Medjez el Bab as the objective mainly because to shift major elements to von Manteuffel’s sector would have been too time-consuming.

Von Arnim had already begun to assemble the forces at his disposal. He stopped Group Lang’s perfunctory attack on Maktar on 22 February and ordered these units to assemble farther north. By scraping the barrel, he gathered some six battalions of varied composition and combat effectiveness and designated one Tiger and one panzer battalion to participate in the projected assault. But he lacked the main body of the 10th Panzer Division which continued to be under Rommel’s immediate control.

A Major Effort In the North Is Planned At dawn on 24 February, von Arnim flew to Rome for a conference with Kesselring. He sent his operations officer to Sbeiba to brief Rommel on the limited Medjez el Bab attack on which he had decided the day before. From the Kesselring-von Arnim conference in Rome, however, emerged an entirely different plan, couched in a new direct order to von Arnim-Fifth Panzer Army was to launch a major offensive along its entire front from the coast to the Bou Arada valley with both von Manteuffel’s and Weber’s forces. The main effort, to be executed with the only armored force available, bolstered to 77 tanks by the temporary assignment of 15 Mark IV’s from Rommel’s 21st Panzer Division, was to be directed at Sidi Nsir with Bedja as its objective.

The attack was designed to gain for the Axis the much desired extension of the bridgehead westward to a new main line of resistance running from Djebel Abiod through Bedja to Testour and El Aroussa. This offensive went far beyond the mission so recently assigned to Fifth Panzer Army by Comando Supremo and it required considerable aplomb on Kesselring’s part to explain his authorization to a highly astonished Ambrosio. Kesselring sent his assistant chief of staff, Colonel Westphal, to explain the new situation to Rommel and to request the field marshal to support von Arnim’s drive by keeping 10th Panzer and 21st Panzer Divisions in positions capable of threatening Le Kef. Rommel was flabbergasted by this “completely unrealistic” concept contrived by what he later called the “nincompoops at Comando Supremo.”

Despite Rommel’s attitude, the Fifth Panzer Army’s attack order was issued on 25 February and the attack began on the next day. (Map 14) It was Kesselring’s and von Arnim’s assumption that available Allied reserves had already been withdrawn from the Fifth Panzer Army front as a result of Rommel’s drive on Thala. To exploit a favorable situation, von Arnim planned a deep thrust toward Bedja. He charged Corps Group Weber with the main effort and Manteuffel with making a secondary attack nearer the coast. Weber’s main objective was to be Bedja. Simultaneously he was to capture Medjez el Bab in a double envelopment operation that would also destroy Allied forces at Bou Arada and gain the Siliana river between EI Aroussa and Testour. Von Manteuffel was ordered to reduce the Allied positions at Djefna and win the Ez Zouara river sector near Djebel Abiod. For his attack von Manteuffel would have to draw chiefly upon the forces already committed in the line or held in reserve.

In addition, he received reinforcement by one Tunis battalion. This brought his entire force to a strength of eight battalions. Weber organized his attack forces in five groups. Armored Group Lang (with 77 tanks including 14 Tiger tanks) had the mission of moving by way of Manteuffel’s sector to break through the Allied position at Sidi Nsir and drive on toward Bedja.

Group Eder (755th Grenadier Regiment, reinforced) was to advance across Djebel el Ang (688), then, turning south, to destroy Allied units in the mountains near Chaouach and Toukabeur and cut the main highway between Bedja and Medjez el Bab east of Oued Zarga. Group AudorfJ (754th Grenadier Regiment [-]), reinforced by a battalion of infantry from the Hermann Gӧring Division, was to launch holding attacks opposite Medjez el Bab and subsequently open the route through the town. South of the Medjerda river Group Schmid (consisting of an armored infantry battalion of 10th Panzer Division, the Parachute Regiment, Hermann Gӧring, and the 756th Mountain Regiment of the 334th Infantry Division, reinforced) was to assist with its northernmost force in the capture of Medjez el Bab by taking Slourhia and turning north to meet Group Audorfe the center force was to isolate Allied units on Djebel Rihane (720) near Bou Arada and subsequently reach the Siliana river sector in conjunction with the mountain regiment. The fifth group, consisting of the 47th Grenadier Regiment (- ) and two additional infantry battalions, was to be held in reserve; Von Arnim’s plan was ambitious indeed, but if any two adjacent attacks succeeded, the Allies would be forced to pull back their lines and yield to the Axis forces a substantial advantage. The north-south road between Djebel Abiod and Bedja, for example, was the first good switch line in the mountains west of Tunis, a prize worth seeking.

Encirclement of Medjez el Bab would give the Axis control of an important communications hub. Possession of EI Aroussa would also gain for the Axis the crossroads east of it at Bou Arada, and in consequence a much greater margin of security for the Axis forces in Pont-du-Fahs. While even partial success could yield benefits of no little value to General von Arnim’s command, the attacks would serve Comando Supero’s original purpose by freeing the troops farther south from Allied interference during the necessary regrouping for Rommel’s next offensive operations.

The Attack on the Northern Flank The British 46th Division (Major General H. A. Freeman-Attwood) held the northern part of the Allied front from the coast to and including Oued Zarga. The Allied radar station on Cap Serrat, with its small security force, used a track branching from the Tabarka-Mateur road at Sedjenane gap. Two French battalions of the Corps Franc d’ Afrique (CFA) protected that trail and elements of the British 139th Brigade, the road junction. Between the enemy’s impregnable position west of Djefna and El Aouana, other elements of the 139th Brigade had taken position. One reinforced battalion was astride the road, about two miles east of El Aouana. A smaller infantry force was near the station and a battalion of infantry was in reserve, near Sedjenane. In support was one regiment of field artillery. The road and railroad ran in close proximity through the same valleys.

At 0630, 26 February, the enemy opened his attack. Three groups of Division von Manteuffel were committed on the north flank. The 10th Bersaglieri Regiment nearest the coast attacked toward Cap Serrat. The unit which had pushed eastward along the road as far as Djebel Abiod in November, the 11th Parachute Engineer Battalion (Witzig), advanced north of the road in order to envelop the French and British at Sed jenane and attack them from the rear in conjunction with elements of Regiment Barenthin which pushed ahead south of the road. If the operation at Sedjenane proceeded successfully, the next objective for Regiment Barenthin would be occupation of Djebel Tabouna (564), southeast of it, from which a considerable adjacent area could be brought under observation. Major Witzig’s battalion hit the French troops hard and cut the connection to Cap Serrat but was stopped about two miles north of Sedjenane. The British held on to the El Aouana position against light attack for more than a day, but, to avoid being cut off there by the enemy success at Sedjenane, pulled back and on 4 March also lost Sedjenane itself.

The radar station had been evacuated on the previous day. The Germans easily occupied Djebel Tabouna. General von Arnim, despite an interest in the operations which brought him during the first days to the forward command post of Division von Manteuffel west of Sedjenane, could not provide the means to exploit the initial success.

For a while the Allies maintained a determined defense of Tamera with reinforcements including the 1st Parachute Brigade, although on 10 March the enemy occupied an adjacent height (Djebel Bel Harch, 419) and went on to capture Tamera. Through rugged terrain, von Manteuffel’s forces advanced to within two and a half miles of Djebel Abiod and by 19 March had fulfilled their mission. But they were too weakened to continue the drive. Thereafter the situation once again became stabilized and was to remain so until one side or the other could commit enough strength to seize a substantial advantage. Djebel Abiod was thus kept under a steady threat. When this phase of the Fifth Panzer Army attack had come to an end, Kesselring reported that 1,600 Allied prisoners, 17 guns, 16 tanks, 13 antitank guns, and 70 vehicles had been taken or destroyed after three weeks of action on this part of the front.

The Attack Via Sidi Nsir

The main attack against the British 46th Division on 26 February came in the sector of the 128th Infantry Brigade (Brigadier M. A. James) along the road from Mateur to Bedja through Sidi Nsir. Here was the area in which the U.S. 1st and 34th Divisions would be engaged during the final attack two months later, and here was the route which the 1st Battalion, U.S. 1st Armored Regiment, as part of Blade Force, had used on 24 November as it rolled eastward toward Chouigui pass, Tebourba, and Djedelda. Sidi Nsir is a small agricultural village nestled in the valley of the Bou Oissa river at the junction of a secondary road to Tunis and the railroad to Mateur. The railroad continues northeast along the gentler grades and twisting course of the Bou Oissa and the Djoumine rivers. The highway climbs almost due eastward over heights which separate Sidi Nsir from the broad Tine river valley. Among the many grass green and gray limestone hills, Djebel Tahent (609) is most prominent.

Over two miles northeast of Sidi Nsir it rises to a broad crest from which Mateur itself is readily seen, and movement over a wide area can be easily observed. A British artillery unit had an observation post on Hill 609 during the days before the attack but it was an air reconnaissance which discovered, late on 25 February, that enemy troop carriers and tanks were moving on Sidi N sir from the east. The position at Sidi Nsir was held by one battalion of infantry and one battery of artillery simply as a forward patrol base. The main line of defense was halfway to Bedja at a long defile, east of Ksar Mezouar, which the British had in November renamed “Hunt’s Gap.” 

Von Arnim committed Kampfgruppe Lang at Sidi Nsir with the mission of taking the village and capturing a road junction ten miles beyond it on the way to Bedja. Colonel Lang’s armored force consisted of Group Lueder (501st Heavy Panzer Battalion, armed with Tiger tanks, the 2nd Battalion, 7th Panzer Regiment, an armored infantry and a reconnaissance battalion). A second force, Kampfgruppe Eder (755th Grenadier Regiment, reinforced, from the 334th Infantry Division), had orders to attack farther south over Djebel el Ang and through Toukabeur and take the heights northeast of Oued Zarga, thus cutting the main road to Medjez el Bab. The 47th Grenadier Regiment was initially held in reserve and later assigned to Lang.

The Germans opened the attack with heavy mortar fire on Hill 609, and enemy infantry took it about 1000, 26 February. A delaying battle near Sidi Nsir then ensued. The enemy worked along the hills on the northwest and southeast of Sidi Nsir until his fire enfiladed the defenders from both flanks. He then made a frontal assault with tanks, led by a Tiger. By 1800, the main British position had been overrun, and shortly afterward, the British abandoned Sidi Nsir. During the night scattered groups began working their way back to the main force at Hunt’s Gap through soaking rain.

The day’s respite was invaluable in allowing time for reinforcements to start toward the 128th Brigade there, reinforcements which enabled the brigade to meet the enemy next day in sufficient strength to keep him from reaching Bed ja. Sections of Kampfgruppe Lang advanced along the road into the defile at Ksar Mezouar, the tanks in platoons of four interspersed with truck-borne infantry and armored cars. Although expert marksmanship knocked out some of the British guns before they could fire, the attacking force entered what amounted to an ambush. The defenders were well emplaced along a main line of commanding ground, with five batteries of field artillery, one battery of antitank guns, and excellent observation. Royal Air Force bombers assisted in halting the enemy armored column on the road, while the guns knocked out tank after tank. The leading section could not turn around, could not leave the road, could not back out. Some of the vehicles, abandoned during what appeared to be a panic, were demolished by British engineers after dark. At least eleven were never recovered by the foe.

Colonel Lang attributed the failure of the attack to the fact that an infantry battalion sent by a circuitous route through the mountains to envelop the British blocking position got lost and did not complete its assigned mission. For the next four days, the battle continued in the vicinity of Ksar Mezouar before the enemy settled down to develop defensive positions in the hills.

The northern wing of the British 78th Division (General Evelegh) in the area north and west of Medjez el Bab was not seriously involved until 28 February. On that day elements of the 755th Grenadier Regiment (Group Eder) pushed along Djebel el Ang to attack Toukabeur. They struck two battalions of the French 3rd Algerian Infantry under Evelegh, on the djebel and south of it near the village of Chaouach. The 1st Battalion fell back next day on Chaouach. Both battalions had suffered severe losses and were withdrawn to Teboursouk during the night of 1-2 March.

The enemy on the opposite side of the river closed in on Medjez el Bab as far as Grich el Oued, but did not accept the hazards of exposure closer to its strong artillery defenses. On 2 March, the enemy broke off action near Medjez el Bab. Two days later the German forces went over to the defensive between the Med jerda river and the Sidi Nsir sector. The enemy now occupied the high ground from T oukabeur to Ksar Mezouar, then north and northwest to Tamera.

The Enemy Fails, South of the Medjerda

General Weber’s attack south of the Medjerda river had been less successful and more costly. The assault was executed by Group Schmid. It had two objectives. One attack, made by the 1st Battalion, 69th Panzer Grenadiers, reinforced by artillery and the only company of tanks in this sector, and directed across the hills toward Slourhia, was part of the attempted encirclement of Medjez el Bab. The second and more complicated enemy effort was an attempt to envelop Bou Arada by co-ordinating his attacks through the hills on either side of the Bou Arada valley (Djebel Rihane, 720, and Djebel Mansour, 678) with an armored drive aimed at Sidi Mahmoud gap (seven miles north of Djebel Rihane). The two prongs of the attack were to meet at El Aroussa on the Siliana river. The northern force was Group Koch (Parachute Regiment, Hermann Gӧring Division [-] and to the south was Group Holzinger (756th Mountain Regiment, reinforced, from the 334th Infantry Division).

The British 11th Infantry Brigade (78th Division) bore the brunt of the thrust aimed at Slourhia while elements of the 38th Brigade (reinforced) of the British Y Division opposed Group Koch’s attack toward Djebel Rihane, Testour, and El Aroussa. The attack of the. 756th Mountain Regiment (Group Holzinger), launched from the heights of Djebel Mansour, with El Aroussa as the ultimate objective, was met by the British 1st Parachute Brigade, also under command of “Y” Division. The first day’s action went to the enemy, but on the second, the Allies stood their ground, and on 28 February counterattacked with the aid of reinforcements. By the end of the day they had restored the position north of Bou Arada. The enemy’s attack, executed with insufficient strength and led by inexperienced officers, failed almost at once and at a high price in casualties and irreplaceable materiel. Von Arnim now withdrew the mountain regiment and shifted it to Colonel Lang’s sector northwest of Medjez el Bab as the action south of the Medjerda faded out and the front was again stabilized along the original lines.

[NOTE: Y Division was a provisional unit organized on 16 February 1943. Its commander was the artillery officer, 6th Armoured Division. It had the southern flank of the British 5 Corps sector while General Keightley’s headquarters controlled armored forces during the withdrawal to the Grand Dorsal and the defense of Sbiba and Thala. Major units of Y Division were the 1st Parachute Brigade, 38th Brigade, and dements of the 17/21 Lancers.]

The Outcome of the 26 February Offensive On 3 March, when it had become evident that the Axis offensive had not fulfilled the hopes of its originators, Fifth Panzer Army summed up its gains and losses. Von Arnim claimed the capture of 2,500 Allied prisoners and the destruction or capture of 16 tanks, 20 guns, 17 antitank guns, 7 planes, and other materiel. At the same time, his forces had suffered over 1,000 casualties and the total loss of 22 tanks. But this report does not give the whole picture. In addition to the 22 enemy tanks which were destroyed, another 49 were disabled, leaving General Weber with only 6 operational tanks on 1 March. This was the reason why the Axis attack in the main effort sector had to be suspended. Reluctantly, the Germans had to admit on the same day that their losses were higher than those inflicted upon the Allies. These tank losses, amounting to almost 90 percent, could hardly be expected to escape Rommel’s scrutiny. In his opinion the armor had been committed in violation of sound tactical principles.

Von Arnim paid the price for a poorly timed and hastily prepared operation. He had sent his tanks into mountainous terrain where they were trapped and knocked out without the possibility of maneuvering. The bulk of the infantry had been wasted in the open tank country of the Bou Arada valley. But above all, the effort had come too late. It might have succeeded if co-ordinated with Rommel’s drive on Thala.

But it was not. Nevertheless, the Axis offensive which began on 26 February in northern Tunisia, though it fell short of complete success at every point, yielded some important results. The enemy had been stopped on the northern road near Tamera, but was in a fairly strong position for a later attempt to reach Djebel Abiod. He was not in possession of the Bedja-Djebel Abiod switch line, to be sure, but, farther to the southeast, he held the dominating heights above the Med jez el Bab-Oued Zarga road and kept Medjez el Bab under constant threat. He would have to be driven out of those hills before the drive on Tunis could be renewed. While making this gain in northern Tunisia, the enemy had also been preparing for an Allied attack on the Mareth Position and had adopted measures intended to meet Allied strategy.

To meet the Axis threat the British, by 7 March, had executed numerous shifts of their forces. The 36th Brigade was withdrawn from the northern wing of the French XIX Corps and inserted opposite Toukabeur to reinforce left of the 138th Brigade. The 1st Parachute Brigade was relieved by the 26th Regimental Combat Team, U.S. 1st Infantry Division, south of Bou Arada, and was moved north to the Tamera position in support of the hard-pressed 139th Brigade. The main body of the 1st Guards Brigade (Brigadier F. A. V. Copland-Griffiths) , which was still in the Kasserine area when von Arnim launched his attack, arrived in El Aroussa on 27 February to relieve the pressure on that town and Testour.

When the danger in this sector had abated, the brigade, on 3 March, moved to the area of Bedja and came under the control of the British 46th Division. Three days later the 1st Guards Brigade was committed at Munchar eight miles east of Bedja. By then the enemy’s attacks had ceased.

American forces had participated only briefly and on the outer fringe of these operations. On 5 March a task force from the U.S. 34th Infantry Division under Colonel Robert W. Ward, commanding officer, 135th Infantry, made a demonstration toward Pichon. Starting from Sbiba and advancing via El Ala the task force made contact with the enemy early in the afternoon. The engagement took place along the road leading from El Ala to Pichon and Fondouk el Aouareb in the area just north of Djebel Trozza (997). The Americans discovered that the Germans were dug in along a well prepared defense line. At 1700 Colonel Ward received orders to withdraw. Hampered by rain and “ice-slick” muddy roads, the task force returned to its original position near Sbiba via a circuitous route that took elements of the command through the enemy outpost line. Casualties had been few.

During the entire period of the enemy’s 26 February offensive, the Allied air effort in northern Tunisia had been more active and more effective than ever before. New Instructions tor Army Group Africa Rommel was to retain command of Army Group Africa for only a short time. But before he withdrew he forced another review of Axis strategic intentions. He thus instigated the issuance on 8 March, the day before his retirement on sick leave, of a new directive for operations in Tunisia.

[NOTE: (1) RAF Middle East Review 2, p. 35. AAF Archives. (2) The German troops holding this sector were part of Group Fullriede, a provisional unit, which had replaced the 47th Grenadier Regiment when the latter was pulled out and moved north in support of von Arnim’s offensive of 26 February. The Germans claimed to have destroyed two American tanks and several vehicles. See Fifth Panze Army, KTB V, 5 Mar. 43.]

On 24 February, shortly after assuming command of the army group, Rommel had called on his two army commanders for estimates of the situation confronting their forces. General von Arnim pointed out that the position of the two Axis armies was such as to expose them to the danger of being separated and defeated if the Allies delivered heavy simultaneous attacks on them from Algeria and Libya. But he did not believe that the Allies needed to launch large offensives to achieve their purpose. He stated that if he were in General Eisenhower’s place he would concentrate on using all the means at his disposal to cut the supply lines and destroy the ports and air forces of the Axis.

If this effort succeeded, the Axis positions in North Africa would fall before July without the possibility of being seriously contested. Any lengthy defenses of them would be possible only if one or the other of the Allied forces were hit hard enough to put it out of action for at least six months. This accomplished, all available Axis forces could be concentrated in an attack on the other front. Less sweeping successes, achieved by Axis sallies from their well-fortified line, could only put off the inevitable decision.

General von Arnim estimated the total Axis strength as 350,000, of which 120,000 were fighting troops. Germans constituted two thirds of these combat troops and one third of the auxiliary forces. The combat elements were so badly strung out along the extended front as to average one company and two guns to each two and one-half miles. The front should, he declared, be shortened to prevent the Allies from separating the two Axis armies.

The Axis supply line by sea should also be improved and secured. The current volume of supplies reaching Tunisia barely sufficed for current operations. For the all-out offensives that he favored von Arnim estimated that a supply backlog of at least one month was necessary. He calculated that at least 140,000 tons a month would be needed to stockpile the material required to meet a large-scale Allied attack. General Messe, in his report, lamented the Allied air superiority in his area, the shortage of men and materiel, and the lack of unity in newly assembled units. He believed it probable that the Allies would launch simultaneous attacks on his position from the southwest, southeast, and the west or northwest. Believing his forces incapable of beating off such a coordinated attack, he recommended preparations to withdraw from the Mareth Position after merely a preliminary battle there rather than remaining until his army became inextricably engaged.

Rommel on 1 March presented a memorandum to Kesselring which raised the issues squarely. He outlined the situation as he saw it: a front of 387 miles, of which 341 were very weakly held, with many vulnerable points and the main defensive effort concentrated to the west and southwest of Tunis and in the Mareth Position; the Allies with 50,000 British, 40,000 American, and 40,000 French troops along the Fifth Panzer Army’s front, armed with 366 tanks, 440 guns, and 600 antitank guns, and eventually to be reinforced by the 2nd Armored Division (U.S.) with 390 tanks; while across from the First Italian Army’s front were the estimated 80,000 troops, 900 tanks, 400 guns, and 550 antitank guns of the British Eighth Army. Such strength would permit the Allies by coordinated and simultaneous action to pierce the Axis line at any selected point. The Axis forces must deliver continuous spoiling attacks to delay a major Allied offensive as long as possible.

Once the Allies were able to mount such an offensive, the weakness of the Axis defenses would make its containment impossible. To achieve a proper degree of strength and depth in defense, the Axis could shorten its line from 387 to 93 miles, by combining the two Axis armies in the area northeast of the current Fifth Panzer Army’s front as far south as Djebel Mansour and thence over the mountains eastward to Enfidaville, at the same time expanding to the west to take in the ridges beyond Medjez eI Bab and Bou Arada.

If such a withdrawal meant that the two Allied armies would be able to establish direct contact, and that airfields would have to be abandoned to them, it also meant that such disadvantages would be offset by a line which could be held for a long time rather than only while awaiting a concentrated Allied attack. It promised to forestall an Allied attempt to separate the two armies and overwhelm them individually. He again called attention to the critically deficient rate of supply. Only if it could be raised to 140,000 tons per month could the Axis accumulate the means of withstanding a large-scale attack and engaging there after in offensive operations. In view of the current situation and the Allied operations expected to begin within the month, Rommel asked what specifically were the high command’s long-range plans for the campaign in Tunisia.

The issues before the Axis leaders were clear. Should the Mareth Position on which so much reliance had been placed be abandoned, or should it be defended to the utmost? Should the two armies be brought into a narrower area in order to thicken the defense of the front? Could lagging logistical support be expedited?

On 3 March Kesselring transmitted the views of Rommel to the OKW with his own comments, which emphasized a point of view natural to an Air Force officer. While admitting that the situation called for a shortening of the front, he insisted that the airfields which would be given up were essential to strong defense. To forfeit them would defeat the very purpose of shortening the line. They should be given up only when the situation became desperate and he did not regard it as such. His proposal was that the current respite from an Allied offensive should be prolonged by a series of attacks in north and central Tunisia, to be made by armored and mobile units. If the planned strike of the First Italian Army from the Mareth Position against Montgomery succeeded, several weeks would be won there.

The time thus gained could be used to strengthen rear positions and to expand the volume of supply and reinforcement to the extent necessary to bring the armored units up to full strength for offensive operations. If the strike failed both the Mareth and Chott Positions must be organized for defense in depth. Summing up, Kesselring took the position that to contract the area held by the two Axis armies would increase the chance of losing Tunisia. He believed that by utilizing fully their advantage of interior lines and holding the Allies off with strikes by reinforced mobile units over a large area, they could gain ground and eventually secure the Axis bridgehead. Hitler was not pleased with the views of his field commanders.

After all the urging earlier by Rommel and others that the Tunisian’ problem could be solved if the southern army were pulled back into the Mareth Position, he found it surprising that, once there, this army should have to be brought still further north. To withdraw the two armies into a limited bridgehead would clearly signify the beginning of the end. Concentrated spoiling attacks with limited objectives must be undertaken, but success could not be achieved by un-coordinated attacks carried out by each army separately, with insufficient means. Hitler refused to accept the length of the present front or the inadequate number of small cargo craft as justifying the failure of the Axis line of supply. He instructed Jodl to remind Kesselring that he had promised a solution of the supply problem as early as the end of 1942. He endorsed Kesselring’s program for limited attacks but with the injunction, fantastically optimistic, that the rate of supply would have to be doubled and later tripled.

The somewhat flurried re-examination of Axis capabilities in Tunisia which Field Marshal Rommel had provoked ended on 8 March with a directive from Comando Supremo which conformed with Hitler’s views. The Commander of Army Group Africa was directed to defend the Mareth Position, to proceed immediately with the preparation of the Chott Position for defense in depth, and to engage in aggressive spoiling attacks on the Allied positions. These instructions were accompanied with the information that Comando Supremo would make the utmost efforts to raise the rate of supply to 120,000 tons monthly. Kesselring had told Comando Supremo that one third of this amount would represent an allowance for expected losses, i. e., that 80,000 tons would probably be the amount delivered.

[NOTE: Rommel had actually urged a withdrawal to the Chott Position north of Gabes and not to the Mareth Position.]

Axis Logistical Preparations

The prospect of imminent Allied attack invited urgent preparatory action by both Axis powers, and subjected to new stresses and strains the somewhat hypothetical Italian control over Axis operations in the Mediterranean theater. Marshal Kesselring returned from an inspection trip to Tunisia on 10-11 March to report somewhat hopefully to OKW the condition of the defenses, despite ammunition shortages, and the low morale of General Messe’s troops. The Mareth attack, he told Mussolini on 11 March, could be expected between 15 and 20 March.

The dispositions were, he thought, well adapted to meet the attack; successful defense depended principally upon overcoming the scarcities of ammunition and fuel. Both the Duce and Kesselring saw the main threat in a possible Allied thrust toward Gabes. Gafsa seemed to be in no danger, despite the assembly of what he called another American army in the Tebessa area, for the approaches were heavily mined and the garrison was strong. In the north, Fifth Panzer Army was about to break off its attack near Djebel Abiod and would either attack Medjez el Bab or set up a reserve made up of the troops which were withdrawn plus the expected reinforcements from Sicily. Thus the situation in Tunisia permitted hope that the whole Gabes position would be successfully defended provided that the supply problem was solved.

The Chief of Supplies and Transportation of Army Group Africa, Colonel Heigl, computed the monthly minimum requirement in supplies at 69,000 tons for all purposes including civilian needs. With an added 25 percent for losses, the total for all kinds became 86,000 tons. At the same time, about 3,000 motor vehicles could be shipped. At the beginning of February, Comando Supremo’s chief transportation officer had calculated that he would be able to transfer from 70,000 to 82,000 tons, which, if subject to the 25-percent-loss rate, would fall below the indispensable minimum.

Actually, the total achieved was much lower, so that in both January and February it was possible only to provision the troops and to replace expended materiel. No accumulation against future demands was possible. Field Marshal Kesselring promised approximately 50,000 tons for the first fortnight of March, an assurance which, if fulfilled, would increase the resources available but would still be at a rate far below the 140,000 tons per month recommended to Field Marshal Rommel by General von Arnim (before the latter succeeded to the command of Army Group Africa) or the 120,000 tons recommended by Kesselring to Ambrosio on 7 March.

The attempt to transport 60,000 tons of materiel in the first two weeks of March fell far short of success. Kesselring estimated the amount convoyed during the first eleven days at 10,000 tons, with about 19,000 tons en route and 3,500 scheduled to leave port on 14 March. Thus the crisis in fuel and ammunition would persist. About 20,000 men were waiting to be transported. To cope with the emergency, Kesselring proposed that captured French destroyers being refitted should be temporarily shifted to the transport of troops, and that, in general, the men be taken on destroyers, the medium and heavy weapons by air, and supplies and vehicles by steamships.

He emphasized, however, that every makeshift which could expedite the transfer of needed men and materiel should also be employed. He urged, for example, that the prohibition on transporting fuel and munitions in the same vessel be temporarily lifted, that slower ships be escorted by German motor-craft carrying antiaircraft guns for protection against Allied torpedo bombers, and that the decks of all escort craft be fully used for cargo. When one of the ships of a convoy, a ship carrying fuel and ammunition, failed to get through on 12 March, he had all the small craft which had been loaded for the crossing that night reloaded and sent with gasoline and munitions only. He also induced the Italian authorities to comb the upper Adriatic for seaworthy motor lighters not in use and to consider diverting to Tunisia those normally used in the Strait of Messina or for transport to Pantelleria.

On 13 March shortly before leaving for a conference with Hitler and Doenitz on the ways and means to increase the shipment of supplies to North Africa, Kesselring saw Mussolini. Mussolini informed Kesselring that he had recently written Hitler a letter regarding the Mediterranean situation and had proposed a conference with him in late March or early April on these matters. He agreed with Hitler’s appraisal of the Tunisian situation and he stressed again the need for more Axis air support.

Conference on 14 March with Doenitz, Keitel, Kesselring, and Jodl was to reiterate the strategic importance of Tunis for the Axis and to point out that the Allies would gain four to five million tons of shipping space monthly if Tunisia fell. Retention of Tunisia was a question of supply, not of 80,000 tons as proposed by the Italians but rather of 150,000 to 200,000 tons. It was impossible to supply armies by air. The necessary supplies could only be brought in by sea. The need for ships was unlimited. To master this problem, organizing ability was needed and this only the German Navy could supply. The Italians would have to be confronted cold-bloodedly with the alternative of making an all-out effort to get supplies to North Africa or of losing Tunisia and with it Italy.

Admiral Doenitz, after meeting some opposition from Italian naval authorities, was supported by Mussolini and arranged for German-Italian naval collaboration on a much extended scale in conformity with the terms of a formal written agreement signed on 17 March. The German Admiral, Rome (Vice Admiral Friedrich Ruge), who had previously been the commander of convoy protection in northwestern waters, would pass, with his staff, under control of the Italian Naval Commander in Chief, Admiral Riccardi, and be integrated into Supermarina to help insure the flow of supplies.

Germans were to be much more extensively used in Italian naval headquarters in the main ports, on the ships, and at antiaircraft training stations. Captured French war ships were to be operated by Germans, while in mixed German-Italian convoys, command would go with seniority.

The Italians undertook to draw on their merchant and fishing fleets for small craft for antisubmarine operations with either Italian or German crews. German position-finding and mine-detecting apparatus would be sent to Italy for operation by German instructors with Italian personnel. Such measures, if energetically carried out, could not fail to improve the Axis logistical situation in the Mediterranean, but to achieve a doubling and tripling of tonnages delivered in Tunisia, the changes would have to be prodigious. Theses contemplated arrangements could hardly be so regarded.

The Battle of Medenine

Field Marshal Rommel was eager to strike the British Eighth Army before it had assembled in full force near the Mareth Position. He fought his last battle in Tunisia northwest of Medenine on 6 March. Rommel’s troops were opposed by Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese’s British 30 Corps. On 26 February, General Montgomery had estimated that 30 Corps would be ready for an enemy attack by 7 March, and that Lieutenant General Sir Brian Horrocks’ 10 Corps, which was still east of Tripoli, would be in Tunisia, prepared to attack from forward positions with air support on 19 March. Montgomery was already planning his attack on the Mareth Position as a prelude to the seizure of Sfax, and expected to make the main effort next to the seacoast.

It was apparent at Medenine that the enemy would attack before 7 March and, on the eve of the assault, that it would be delivered on the morning of 6 March. Surprise had been lost. The situation of General Leese’s corps had by then improved on General Montgomery’s estimate of 26 February. General Leese had the following strength at his disposal for a thirty-mile front: three seasoned divisions, with lesser units equal to a fourth; 300 tanks, 350 guns, and 467 antitank guns; two forward airfields in use by three fighter wings, with double the air strength expected of the Axis forces; and a pattern of control by which to bring this very considerable power into play with maximum effectiveness.

The British zone of defense around the northern and western approaches to Medenine curved like a fine fishing rod at the dramatic moment when, the tip drawn tautly down, the catch is about to be netted. The British 51st Division (with 153rd, 152nd and 154th Brigades in the front line) held a sector about fourteen miles wide from the coast to the Medenine-Mareth highway. To the left was the 7th Armoured Division (with 131st and 201st Guards Brigades in the front line). Its zone extended from a point two miles north of the Zemlet el Lebene hills to the dominating point 270 of the Tadjera Kbir heights.

On the southwestern end of the British defense line was the 2nd New Zealand Division guarding the approaches to Metameur and Medenine with the 5th New Zealand Brigade in the front. Men and guns were well dug in. Antitank guns were part of an organized belt of antitank defenses covering almost every possible approach, and sited in depth. Field artillery was not used in an antitank role but brought under centralized control for massed fires on prearranged squares in response to observers’ calls. Tanks were dispersed behind the infantry lines, ready to move to prearranged assembly areas for counterattack missions. The airfields had ample antiaircraft protection and were organized to meet an armored attack as well.

High ground was strongly held. No doubt the defenses of Medenine could have been improved in detail with more time, but they were formidable on the morning of 6 March. Furthermore, they had apparently been brought to their condition of strength without enemy recognition of what had been done.

The German Africa Corps (DAK) of which Generaleutnant Hans Cramer took command on 5 March, prepared the plan of attack against Medenine. It provided for committing the 10th Panzer, 15th Panzer, and 21st Panzer Divisions and elements of the 90th Light African and Italian Spezia Divisions in coordinated blows from the northwest, west, and southwest, using 160 tanks, 200 guns, and 10,000 infantry. The attack was to be launched from the Mareth defense zone and its extension on the south. The Axis line was held by the Young Fascist, Trieste, 90th Light Africa, La Spezia, Pistoia, and 164th Light Africa Divisions, strung out in that order from the coast to the mountains south of Ksar el Hallouf. The enemy hoped with the benefit of surprise to take the British forces on the southwestern flank, cut through and divide them, and by envelopment to dispose of the bulk of them.

[NOTE: (1) Opn CAPRI, dtd 3 Mar 43, copy in 15th Panzer Diu, KTB Nr. 7, 26.XII.42-11.XIII.43, Anlage 178. (2) General Cramer had come from OKH to Rommel’s Army on 22 January as Acting Commander, Corps for Special Employment, and became Acting Commander, DAK, on 13 February 1943. He commanded the Corps until he was captured on 1 May 1943.]

But the British on March 4 observed the 10th Panzer Division’s southward movement from Gabes through Matmata towards Ksar el Hallouf. They reported a total of sixty tanks plus very heavy antiaircraft armament. Farther west, they also spotted what was believed to be another approaching armored division. The Eighth Army, uncertain only whether the main thrust would be from the southwest or from the north, watched on 5 March for the appearance of the third enemy armored division. While the enemy withheld his attack for another day, the British perfected their well-concealed firing positions. Advance Headquarters, 30 Corps, waited expectantly at Ben Gardane.

The main highway from Mareth to Medenine runs south-southeast over open plain for about twenty-four miles. The Matmata mountain chain west of it curves toward the highway at a distance narrowing from ten miles at the south to five miles at the north. From the mid-point of this chain, a spur ridge cut by several passes projects eastward almost to the highway. The spur, incorporated in the fore field of the Mareth fortifications, offered cover behind which an attacking force could assemble.

Rommel planned to send two of his armored divisions through the passes of this spur while a third rode along the western side of the main mountain chain and cut east through it at Hallouf pass to reach the plain. This division would form the southern wing of the attacking force. The attack would then move northeastward to the initial objective, the Tadjera hills, rising on the far side of the main highway. Elements of the 90th Light Africa and Spezia Divisions would attack on the north and the 10th Panzer Division on the south; in the center would be the 15th Panzer and 21st Panzer Divisions. The Hallouf river would separate the two center divisions as they made their way along its banks to the gap between Zemlet el Lebene and the Tadjera hills just short of the Mareth-Medenine highway. On the northwestern side of this opening the Zemlet el Lebene was an early objective of the 15th Panzer Division. On the southeastern side, two ridges of the Tadjera hills paralleling the highway which were believed to be occupied by British artillery, were the initial objective of the 21st Panzer Division. The panzer division was to speed toward these ridges at first light and overrun opposing batteries without regard for losses. The 10th Panzer Division’s objective was the dominant Hill 270 of Tadjera Kbir and the village of Metameur. DAK sent a reconnaissance force to Beni Kreddache and beyond to reconnoiter toward the highway leading south from Medenine. This force was to furnish flank protection.

The attack opened at 0600, 6 March, after a rainy night. The use of smoke proved unnecessary since a heavy mist masked the exit of the armored divisions onto the plain. The enemy columns approached Medenine on separate converging trails. The fog rose slowly into an overcast which frustrated the plans for dive bombing and confined both Axis and Allied tactical air support to fighter bombers, in which the Allies had a considerable superiority.

The 10th Panzer Division’s advance group came in contact with the British outposts some four miles west of Metameur at about 0730, a fact which the Germans learned through intercepted British radioed reports. A few minutes later, the spearhead of the 15th Panzer Division on the north side of the Hallouf river came under fire from Zemlet el Lebene which obliged it to stop until its own supporting artillery could come forward. The drive of the armored group of 21st Panzer Division south of the wadi was equally unsuccessful in reaching the Tadjera hills. The German armor was stopped two miles to the west of its objective, Hill 270. Soon the British guns in positions there and on the two Tadjeras, guns which had not been overrun by tanks, struck by bombs, or silenced by counterbattery fire, were saturating the areas occupied by the attacking troops and tanks with an extraordinary volume of adjusted fire.

The Germans experienced unusual difficulty in identifying the exact sources of this shelling which pinned them down and compelled their vehicles to seek such cover as the shallow wadies and low hillocks afforded. By 1000, the attack in the center had been completely halted. A slight German penetration on Zemlet el Lebene was restored to British control by two troops of Sherman tanks. The attack of the 90th Light Africa Division and elements of the Italian Spezia Division was driven back by counterattacks after initial success against the 154th Brigade on the left wing of the 51st Division sector. The original plan had thus utterly miscarried.

Plans to renew the offensive at noon by sending the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions along both sides of the Hallouf river were frustrated by the latter’s inability to reorganize in sufficient strength in time for such an offensive. At 1430, however, preceded by Axis dive bombing against the ridges and by artillery preparations, Rommel’s tanks and infantry lunged forward again.

The 21st Panzer Division attempted to envelop the Tadjera Kbir (held by the 201st Guards Brigade) from the north with the tanks of the 5th Panzer Regiment followed by the infantry of the 104th Panzer Grenadier Regiment. Just as this venture began, the troop concentration area and the division command post came under such artillery fire that for half an hour the staff could not direct movement, and indeed had to withdraw to the west out of range. The tanks in this attack got separated from the infantry which was driven to the ground by a curtain of fire after an advance of but a few hundred yards. The 5th Panzer Regiment’s advance was thus stopped almost as soon as it had got under way. The regiment reported its strength reduced to thirty-five tanks fit for combat. New small gains by the 15th Panzer Division against the 131st Infantry Brigade were wiped out before 2000 by a British counterattack. The drive in the center had again been stalled. The attack on the right never even got started.

Late in the day, the 10th Panzer Division was erroneously reported to have entered Metameur and to have gained control of a section of the highway north of the village. Actually it had never got nearer than from one to two miles of its objective. Instead of pressing the costly direct assault in the center, the German Africa Corps now contemplated holding the ground thus far gained until darkness, then shifting the 21st Panzer Division to the defensive while the 15th Panzer Division slipped southward to join the 10th Panzer Division in exploiting its supposed success on the flank. The German armored units pulled back to the mountains, after disengaging in the center with difficulty and with additional losses in tanks, and awaited orders to renew the attack next day in accordance with the revised plan.

But the actual failure of the 10th Panzer Division as well as of the others, and the folly of further depleting the severely weakened armor against obviously stronger forces, compelled Rommel to abandon the attack. Rommel’s last battle in Africa became a costly failure.32 Here, as was to be the case at El Guettar a little later, German armor was stopped by resolute infantry, field artillery, and massed antitank defenses. On 6 and 7 March the German Africa Corps lost 61 Germans killed, 388 wounded, and 32 missing, 33 Italians killed, 122 wounded, and 9 missing, and at least 41 tanks. For the approaching battles General Cramer had only 85 German and 24 Italian tanks, and 3 Italian self-propelled assault guns ready for action. For such expenditure, the German Africa Corps could claim ascertained British losses of 6 tanks, 16 scout cars, 33 motor vehicles, 32 antitank and antiaircraft guns, and 51 prisoners.

The British had committed few of their tanks. They had won the victory over German armor by several hundred antitank and other guns well concealed, firmly protected, and fired with the benefit of good observation. They had been aided in their success by inefficient employment of the German and Italian strength. Indeed, the failure of the 15th Panzer Division to expend more than a small percentage of its normal quota of small arms ammunition and mortar shells was condemned by the commander, who cited it as convincing evidence that his infantry had not fought aggressively. The loss of 24 of his tanks-11 Mark II (special), 9 Mark IV, and 4 Mark III (75-mm. )-could hardly have been consoling.

Rommel Leaves Tunisia

Rommel’s sick leave at Wiener-Neustadt, Austria, interrupted at the time of El ‘Alamein and long overdue, took him from Tunisia on 9 March; he was never to return. He was succeeded on that day as commander of Army Group Africa by General von Arnim, who in turn yielded command of Fifth Panzer Army to General der Panzer Truppen Gustav von Vaerst. General Messe’s command over First Italian Army remained nominal with respect to its German elements, once General Bayerlein took up his duties as the German Chief of Staff with that army. For some time, the German 10th Panzer and 21st Panzer Divisions were directly controlled by General von Arnim’s headquarters as components of the Army Group Africa reserve. Only the 15th Panzer Division at first went under Messe’s command.

Field Marshal Rommel’s departure from Tunisia was kept secret. He stopped briefly in Rome, then paid his respects to the Führer at the latter’s advanced headquarters at Winniza in the Ukraine on 10 March, and continued to Wiener-Neustadt. The revamping of the command structure in Tunisia and the forthcoming battle on the Mareth Line caused some echoes in his correspondence but he had learned from Hitler that he would not return, and he was now free of African matters. The Allies continued to believe that he was in Tunisia, and for weeks press reports nurtured the popular belief that Rommel’s “Africa Corps” was the only fighting force in Tunisia. In this respect, the Allied public was scarcely less well informed then the Germans, who had to wait for the defeat in May to discover that the much-publicized German commander had not been leading Axis operations in Africa for the past two months.

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 (6-27); From Mareth to Enfidaville – 8th Army

World War Two: North Africa (6-25); Allies regroup, reorganize, reinforce


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