World War Two: North Africa (6-28); Gafsa, Maknassy, and El Guettar (17-25 March)

18 Army Group’s Plan for II Corps The operations by II Corps in March were intended to accomplish a threefold purpose. Headquarters, First Army, issued a formal directive prescribing the corps mission shortly before II Corps passed to 18 Army Group’s direct control, The II Corps was to draw off reserves from the enemy forces facing the Eighth Army; to regain firm control of forward airfields from which to furnish assistance to Eighth Army; and to establish a forward maintenance center from which mobile forces of Eighth Army could draw supplies in order to maintain the momentum of their advance. This prospective supply point was to be established at Gafsa, which the II Corps was to retrieve from an Italian garrison by an attack to start not later than 15 March.

Troops not required for the defense of Gafsa could then demonstrate toward Maknassy as a menace to the enemy’s line of communications along the coast. In the meantime, the passes in the Western Dorsal from Sbiba southwestward to EI Ma el Abiod were to be firmly held, while the airfields at Thelepte, in front of the Allied defensive line, were to be regained for the use of Allied fighter units. Of the enemy’s combat troops, AFHQ estimated that 45,100 Germans and 28,000 Italians were in the Mareth-Matmata defenses, and 11,400 German and 12,800 Italians in the Gabes-Gafsa-Chott Position area. The garrison at Gafsa, with security forces to the west of it, amounted, AFHQ thought, to 7,100 Italians of the Centauro Division; eastward, from Sened to Maknassy were only 800 German and 750 Italian combat troops. If this appraisal of the opposing forces was correct, the enemy would be forced to send reserves to try to stop the II Corps. The American forces had chiefly to avoid being caught in a weak situation during an enemy spoiling attack or by a counterattack provoked by an initial American success. They were not expected to advance southeast of Gafsa.

The plans of 18 Army Group for the II Corps prescribed a subsidiary role which naturally disappointed its more confident American officers. The directive in effect prohibited an American advance to the sea and envisaged a hesitating movement subject at all times to 18 Army Group’s approval, a program which indicated lack of confidence in the capacity of II Corps to execute a full-scale operation on its own responsibility. The higher echelons of command apparently considered the capabilities of the American units to be only partly developed. The February setback had revealed deficiencies and had presumably shaken the morale of participants. The forthcoming operations were therefore designed to permit small successes and the application of training lessons taught in battle schools instituted by 18 Army Group during the preceding fortnight. A few such victories, it was hoped, even though minor, would bring the performance of American units up to the required level by developing their capacities and fortifying their self-respect.

But the Americans, particularly the more aggressive ones like the new corps commander, General Patton, tugged against the restraining leash from the start. Both 18 Army Group and Army Group Africa thought of the area in which the II Corps would undertake its March offensive operations as the deep northwestern flank of the Axis forces in the coastal region south of Gabes. A potential Allied thrust from the Tebessa area had available two major avenues of approach. The main route ran through the mountain-walled valley, north of the chotts. This valley could be entered at Gafsa and followed to either a southeastern or northeastern exit. The second route lay just to the north of that valley, and was separated from it by the long mountain ridge between Gafsa and Mezzouna. It too was protected throughout its eastern half by a mountain screen, for north of the ridge between Gafsa and Mezzouna a loop of somewhat lower hills extended between Djebel Goussa (625), near Station de Sened, and Djebel Zebbeus (451 ), north of Maknassy. The Allied forces intending to proceed along either of these avenues would necessarily begin by taking Gafsa.

That oasis was the key. It lay in an exposed position, from a military standpoint, and had changed hands several times. When Field Marshal Rommel broke off his February offensive, he left there elements of Division Centauro which were linked with the main body of Fifth Panzer Army by small forward defense units in the Faid-Maknassy area, and with the Army Group Africa reserves nearer Gabes. Whether in Allied or Axis possession, Gafsa was near the outer end of a line of communications, and correspondingly vulnerable. Tebessa was eighty-four miles to the northwest, while Sbeitla, either via Feriana and Kasserine, or by way of Bir el Hafey, was almost as far to the north. Faid pass, on the other hand, was seventy-two miles northeast by the most direct highway, and Maknassy was fifty miles east-northeast. Although American troops were relatively familiar with part of this area, they knew the Gafsa-Gabes valley chiefly from the maps, on which important topographical features were inexactly represented. Initially, Operation WOP, as the II Corps designated the undertaking, did not provide for sending American troops, except defensive and reconnaissance forces, beyond Gafsa into this valley. The 1st Infantry Division was to make the attack on Gafsa, with the 1st Armored Division initially protecting the northeastern flank of the advance, while troops of the French Southeast Algerian Command were to operate on the other flank south of the line Metlaoui-Djebel Berda (926).

If II Corps should continue toward Maknassy, an advance contemplated as the second phase of the attack, its elements would be on both sides of the mountain ridge extending between Gafsa and Mezzouna. At its western end the bare and rugged slopes of Djebel Orbata (1165) rose abruptly to a crest of about 3,500 feet. The contours of this somewhat twisting ridge softened, and the crests were lower, along its eastern half. Trails through its deeply eroded gulches and defiles were narrow and few. Contact between the two forces on either side would be restricted to the barest minimum from Gafsa to Sened village, that is, about halfway to Maknassy, and from that point to the tip of Djebel Bou Douaou (753), five miles east of Maknassy, would be severely limited. Simultaneous attacks along both sides of the ridge would have to be relatively independent of each other.

The Corps Plan: Operation WOP

General Patton took over command from General Fredendall at Djebel Kouif on the morning of 6 March, after conferences with Generals Eisenhower and Smith in Algiers and with his new superior, General Alexander, and others in Constantine. Time before the operation was to begin was already short, and plans and preparations had to be expedited and co-ordinated. The tentative plans for II Corps, 1st Infantry Division, and 1st Armored Division, were considered in a commanders’ conference on 8 March 1943, and with some minor modifications, were then approved by the new commanding general. General Alexander and the Chief of Staff, 18 Army Group, General McCreery, spent the next two days at II Corps headquarters while inspecting the principal elements of the corps. D Day was set back from 15 March to 17 March, closer to the Eighth Army’s scheduled attack, by army group orders of 13 March, despite Patton’s apprehensions that the enemy might strike first. The II Corps’ role in the forthcoming army group operations was, Patton decided, to be like that of Stonewall Jackson in the Second Battle of Manassas. The corps was to conduct a flank battle which would assist Eighth Army to break through enemy lines, as Jackson had aided Longstreet’s corps.

[NOTE 6-29NA2: (1) Patton Diary, 13 Mar 43. (2) The II Corps staff then included the following: chief of staff, Brigadier General Hugh J. Gaffey; G-l, Colonel Samuel L. Myers; G-2, Colonel B. A. Dickson; G-3, Colonel Kent C. Lambert; G-4, Colonel Robert W. Wilson; artillery, Colonel Charles E. Hart; antiaircraft, Colonel Robert H. Krueger. The staff of the 1st Armored Division included: chief of staff, Lieutenant Colonel Grant A. Williams; G-l, Lieutenant Colonel Loris R. Cochran; G-2, Lieutenant Colonel M. M. Brown; G-3, Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton H. Howze; G-4, Lieutenant Colonel Percy H. Brown, Jr.; artillery, Colonel Robert V. Maraist. The staff of the 1st Infantry Division included: assistant division commander, Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.; chief of staff, Colonel Stanhope B. Mason; G-l, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Ware; G-2, Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Porter, Jr.; G-3, Lieutenant Colonel Frederick W. Gibb; G-4, Lieutenant Colonel C. M. Eymer; artillery, Brigadier General Clift Andrus. • Patton Diary, 14 Mar 43.]

The Axis top command had recognized the Allied threat to the garrison at Gafsa but discounted it a few days before the attack, after Kesselring’s assurances to Mussolini that the place was in no danger. The force there was strong, he declared, and the approaches were very heavily mined. Kesselring, in the same spirit of optimism, also advised the Duce to expect a defensive success even at the Mareth Position, where the British attack was expected as soon as the moon turned full. General von Arnim thought well of a project to make a swift spoiling attack through Gafsa as far, perhaps, as Tozeur. At his prompting, General Hildebrandt went to El Guettar and on beyond Gafsa toward Feriana on the morning of 15 March, arranging tentatively with General Calvi de Bergolo for an attack by his 21st Panzer Division and part of Division Centauro to take place about 19 March, and to extend to Feriana and MetIaoul.

The II Corps on 15 March consisted of the 1st, 9th, and 34th Infantry Divisions, the 1st Armored Division, the 13th Field Artillery Brigade (Brigadier General John A. Crane) and the seven battalions of the 1st Tank Destroyer Group (Colonel Burrowes G. Stevens), which had been parceled out to the four divisions and to corps reserves, plus corps troops-in all, 88,287 men. [NOTE 6-11NA] Army group retained control of the 9th Division (minus Combat Team 60), the 34th Division, and the 13th Field Artillery Brigade.

For training, 75 officers and 175 enlisted men of the U.S. 2nd Armored and U.S. 3rd Infantry Divisions were attached to II Corps. British raiding parties from Eighth Army were active in front of II Corps behind the enemy’s lines, while in the general area of the road through Bir el Hafey to Sidi Bou Zid and in the mountains to the south, two squadrons of the Derbyshire Yeomanry under II Corps control engaged in energetic reconnaissance.

[NOTE 6-11NA: (1) 1st TD Gp Outline Plan WOP, as given in M5g 1355, 12 Mar 43, Entry 64, in II Corps G-3 jnl. This lists the following tank destroyer battalions: 6015t attached to the lst Infantry Division, 701st and i76th attached to the 1st Armored Division, 811th attached to the 14th Infantry Division, 894th attached to the 9th Infantry Division, 805th and 899th in II Corps [(‘serves. (2) II Corps AAR,2 May 43, App. A,]

In the seizure of Gafsa, General Allen’s reunited 1st Infantry Division was to be reinforced by the 1st Ranger Battalion and by several battalions of field artillery and tank destroyers. Elements of General Ward’s 1st Armored Division, with Combat Team 60 attached, had the initial mission of providing protection against Axis attacks from the directions of Sidi Bou Zid or Maknassy.

Meanwhile the two reinforced divisions completed preparations behind the main line of defense at the Western Dorsal, which General Ryder’s 34th Infantry Division held in the Sbiba sector and General Eddy’s 9th Infantry Division (less the 60th Combat Team), from Kasserine to EI Mael Abiod. General Allen’s command was scheduled to approach Gafsa via Feriana on the night preceding its 17 March attack. General Wards forces were to emerge through Kasserine pass and via Thelepte move to an assembly area east of Djebel Souinia (679), near the Gafsa·Sidi Bou Zid road.

The spring rains began falling heavily a few days before 17 March, filling the gullies, soaking the ground, and confining heavy vehicles to the roads. The II Corps sent a provisional detached armored flank force to the Sbeitla area under command of Colonel Clarence C. Benson, Commanding Officer, 13th Armored Regiment, on the night of 14-15 March, while Combat Command B of the 1st Armored Division started by daylight on 16 March to make certain of reaching its positions in time for the next day’s attack. The 19th Combat Engineers had in only three days graded a new dirt road from the vicinity of Thelepte directly to the Gafsa-Sidi Bou Zid road. This new route, named “the Welvert road,” was used by General Ward’s units. The 1st Engineer Battalion lifted some 2,000 mines along the routes of approach beyond Feriana used by General Allen’s attacking elements.

The Occupation of Gafsa

General Allen’s plan for taking Gafsa, in this first operation by his whole division against Axis troops, was thorough. Division intelligence estimates of the defending forces likely to be found there ran to only two battalions of infantry, one or two of field artillery, up to two companies of tanks, and a military police battalion-all Italian. The enemy troops at Gafsa could summon reinforcements from El Guettar (one infantry battalion), and from the stations along the railroad to Maknassy, or from the Faid area.

Within one day, troops from as far away as Gabes could be brought to Gafsa, provided they were not needed for the impending Mareth battle. But the enemy garrison at Gafsa was expected only to delay the American advance and then to fall back to prepared positions in the mountains either toward Gabcs or toward Maknassy. No enemy counterattack was deemed likely unless the Mareth Position was abandoned. Indeed, road traffic observed just before the day of the attack indicated that most of the Gafsa force had already withdrawn.

Following a half hour’s air bombardment, regimental combat teams of the 16th (Colonel d’ Alary Fechet) and 18th Infantry (Colonel Frank U. Greer) and one reinforced battalion of the 26th Infantry (Colonel George A. Taylor) were to make the assault. Five complete battalions of field artillery and one battalion of antiaircraft artillery were to be employed. The 1st Ranger Battalion would be ready, after first supporting the cast flank, to reconnoiter to El Guettar and to seize an area from which, subsequently, Combat Team 26 might attack beyond that village. Following the assault, the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion was to be ready to intervene south of Gafsa against any enemy mechanized forces that might arrive there next day. The 1st Armored Division would hold one combat command of three battalions ready to furnish support from the Station de Zannouch area. Participation by the 13th Field Artillery Brigade and by the 1st Battalion, 213th Coast Artillery (AA), was to be under corps control.

In preparation for the attack the 1st Infantry Division made an approach march of about forty-five miles during the night of 16-17 March, one that was executed speedily and on a close schedule. The attacking elements detrucked north of the Gafsa area before daylight. The artillery was ready to support an assault at 0800, but the infantry was held back until 1000, despite the enemy’s visible retreat, to await a scheduled preparatory air bombardment. By noon, 17 March, the 18th Infantry had reached the eastern edge of Gafsa; shortly thereafter Company I, 16th Infantry, was leading the 3rd Battalion, 16th Infantry, into the village from the northwest; and the 3rd Battalion, 26th Infantry (reinforced), was near the western limit. They had overrun enemy security detachments and although mines and booby traps were plentiful, they found Gafsa to be free of defenders. While 1st Armored Division reconnaissance entered Station de Zannouch northeast of Gafsa on the route to Maknassy, reconnaissance and outpost forces of the 1st Infantry Division continued toward EI Guettar and Djebel Mdilla. At Mdilla they made contact with some French troops, after initially mistaking them for an enemy group. The seizure of Gafsa was an encouraging exercise rather than a hard battle like those in which the 1st Infantry Division was later to earn fame.

During 18-19 March, a period marked by drenching rainstorms, the entire division occupied the place and organized for defense against counterattack or air bombardment. At the same time the 1st Ranger Battalion occupied El Guettar on 18 March and sent patrols to establish contact with the enemy who was holding prepared defense positions behind the Keddab wadi.

The Seizure of Station de Sened

The situation at Gafsa justified General Patton on 18 March in concluding that the second phase of the II Corps’ attack could be undertaken next day. While the 1st Infantry Division organized Gafsa strongly for defense, the 1st Armored Division (reinforced) could be committed to the seizure of Station de Sened. The bulk of General Ward’s division was already in areas selected with a view both to defense against incursion from the northeast and to the concentration needed to attack Station de Sened.

Although some elements, and in particular Benson’s armored task force directly under II Corps control, were in the vicinity of Sbeitla, and Combat Command B (Robinett) was near Bir el Hafey, Combat Command A (McQuillin) was in the Zannouch area and Combat Command C (Stack) with the 60th Combat Team (de Rohan) were southeast of Djebel Souinia. It was General Ward’s intention to bring Combat Command A northeastward along the railroad line from Gafsa toward Station de Sened in conjunction with an approach by Combat Command C and Combat Team 60 over hills north of the objective. But if the military situation near Gafsa permitted an immediate start of the second undertaking, the weather made postponement unavoidable. Much against his wishes, General Patton was forced to accept the fact that the mud had made an armored attack on 19 March out of the question.

[NOTE 679NA2: (1) II Corps AAR, 10 Apr 43. (2) Patton Diary, 19 Mar 43. (3) Msg, Entry 181, in II Corps G-3 J nl. This message reports the presence at Sbeitla at 1930, 14 March, of the following units of the 1st Armored Division: the 3rd Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment (mediums); the 68th Field Artillery Battalion; Company A, 701st Tank Destroyer Battalion; Company C, 16th Armored Engineers (C). By an agreement between Generals Ward and Eddy, the 84th Field Artillery Battalion was to remain at Sbeitla. The 3rd Battalion, 47th Infantry (9th Division), was already there. The 81st Reconnaissance Battalion moved to the area east and southeast of Sbeitla.]

Streams were full to overflowing. The earth was soggy and in many places there were extensive shallow pools. Bivouac areas were flooded. The soft roads were quickly cut into deep ruts by heavy trucks or churned into a viscous blanket by tank tracks. Travel cross-country became impossible for wheeled vehicles. Indeed, to assist them in reaching the roads from their parks required extraordinary effort and much extra time. The weather’s one compensation was the fact that it restrained enemy air activity.

While most of the 1st Armored Division remained immobilized on 19 March, Patton drove through the downpour to review the situation with Ward and Robinett. He was enthusiastic and confident, concerned only that the enemy should not be given opportunity for a spoiling attack while the Americans waited for conditions to be wholly satisfactory. He would have preferred to have the attack on Station de Sened made by as much infantry and artillery as could be moved on tracked vehicles rather than to wait for full co-ordination between the elements approaching Station de Sened from the north and McQuillin’s armored force from Zannouch. Ward’s orders for the attack to be made early on 20 March were issued to McQuillin, de Rohan, and Stack, while Robinett shifted his forces southwestward to the divisional assembly area, and Benson, under II Corps’ control, took up the position north and east of Djebel el Hafey (682) thus vacated by Combat Command B.

The plan of attack involved a march extremely taxing for de Rohan’s combat team. It was to climb the western slopes of Djebel Goussa to reach the dominating terraces along its southern face, which rises abruptly some 600 feet above the floor of the valley, in order to take the enemy’s hill positions from the rear. From the heights, the attacking force could command the entrenched positions which the enemy had constructed on the flats below them near Station de Sened. At the same time, Combat Command C would be crossing a difficult series of ridges and shoulders at the southwestern extremity of the Djebel Madjoura (874) across a valley from Djebel Goussa, protecting the northeastern flank and giving fire support. Its objective was the exit (three miles north of Station de Sened) from this valley to the broad Maknassy Valley, Working together, the 60th Combat Team and Stack’s force would be able either to cut off the enemy force defending Station de Sened or to compel it to hasten its retreat in order to avoid encirclement.

McQuillin’s armored force, which would at the same time attack the enemy with infantry and artillery from the west, might be the beneficiary of the outflanking movement by Stack’s and de Rohan’s commands, Combat Team 60 (9th Infantry Division) then consisted of: the 60th Infantry Regiment; the 60th Field Artillery Battalion; Company C, 15th Engineers: Company C, 9th Medical Battalion; three platoons, 443rd Coast Artillery (AA) Battalion (SP): detachment, 9th Signal Company; Provisional Truck Company, Headquarters, 60th Infantry.

[NOTE 6-100NA: (1) Combat Command C, 1st Armored Division, then consisted of the following: the 6th Armored Infantry (less the 2nd and 3rd Battalions): the 1st Battalion, 13th Armored; the 68th Field Artillery Battalion; Company B, 16th Engineers. It was reinforced for later operations east of Maknassy } the 3rd Battalion, 60th Infantry; the 58th Field Artillery Battalion: and Company B, 776th Tank Destroyer Battalion. (2) CCC 1st Armd Div AAR, 18 Apr 43. (3) 60th Inf Hist, 1943.]

General Ward’s plan for the seizure of Station de Sened worked in general as he had foreseen. The 60th Combat Team approached Djebel Goussa during the night of 19-20 March and throughout the next day pushed to the heights while Combat Command C, 1st Armored Division, was gaining its objective somewhat earlier and holding positions from which to support Combat Team 60, if necessary. By evening of the same day Combat Command A had struggled from Zannouch to a mine field west of Station de Sened. The enemy was driven out by artillery fire, some fleeing northeastward at dawn of 21 March into the path of Combat Command C, which took seventy-nine prisoners and two 47 -mm. guns after a brief engagement. Another part of the garrison took refuge at Sened village, where it finally surrendered on 23 March to Company G, 60th Infantry, supported by elements of the 91st Field Artillery Battalion. A few escaped from Sened to Sakket on the other side of the mountains only to be captured there by troops of the 1st Infantry Division. Station de Sened had thus been taken on 21 March by maneuver rather than by storm, and without the losses normally to be expected in a frontal attack. But the exertion left the infantry, particularly of the 60th Combat Team, too tired to begin another attack effectively.

The Advance Beyond Maknassy

The capture of Gafsa and Station de Sened left only a demonstration to be made toward Maknassy, twenty miles farther east in order to complete execution of 18 Army Group’s original instructions to II Corps. But those instructions had already been changed. On 19 March, Patton returned to his headquarters in Feriana after his rain drenched visit to the headquarters of the 1st Armored Division to find General McCreery, Chief of Staff, 18 Army Group, with General Alexander’s new plans and orders for II Corps. The Corps was now to seize the high ground east of Maknassy and to send a light armored raiding party to the Mezzouna airfields to destroy enemy installations there. No large forces, however, were to pass beyond a line extending from Gafsa through Maknassy heights, Faid, and Fondouk el Aouareb. Later, after the British Eighth Army had passed up the coast beyond Maknassy, the II Corps was to be reduced by the transfer of its U.S. 9th Infantry Division to relieve the British 46th Division on the far northern flank and to operate under British 5 Corps within British First Army. The 34th Infantry Division would at about the same time sideslip to the north in order to attack Fondouk el Aouareb gap along the axis Maktar-Pichon.

It thus appeared that after the enemy had moved north of Fondouk el Aouareb, the II Corps would be faced with the ignominious prospect of being pinched out of the Allied line. These instructions would not only prohibit any American advance to the sea but would confine the role of II Corps to merely threatening the enemy’s western flank without ever actually attempting to cut him off; they would also prevent the corps, except for 9th Infantry Division, from participating in the last stage of the campaign. In accordance with orders, the II Corps sent attacking forces not only to Maknassy but to a defile east of El Guettar, on the southern side of Djebel Orbata, the purpose being- to draw off enemy troops which might otherwise strengthen the defense of the Mareth Position. There the main attack was to begin, it will be remembered, on the night of 20-21 March.

On 21 March General Patton drove to General McQuillin’s command post in order to hurry Combat Command A to a hill mass five miles northeast of Station de Sened which appeared to the corps commander a possible place of advantage which must be denied to Maknassy’s defenders. At the same time, Combat Command C moved northeastward, along a camel trail, and then swung south to reach the main route from Station de Sened to Maknassy at a point about halfway between the two places. For a stretch, Combat Command B followed, but instead of turning south, continued eastward in the valley to an area from which to guard the northern flank of the attack on Maknassy, and assist in preparatory artillery fire on the village. The exhausted troops of the 60th Combat Team, meanwhile, assembled just north of Sened station.

Advance elements of Combat Command C, 1st Armored Division, approached Maknassy before midnight and subjected the place to an interdictory shelling, hoping to discourage the enemy from laying mines and booby traps before withdrawing. Colonel Stack received reinforcements during the night and disposed these troops for the approaching action. Not until 0715 next morning did reconnaissance discover that Maknassy was free of the enemy, whom some of the inhabitants declared to have withdrawn onto the hills near the road to Mezzouna, east of the village.

General Ward was then faced with a critical choice. He could attempt to occupy the hills five miles east of Maknassy in a daylight attack without waiting to reorganize or to prepare for stiff resistance. Enemy aviation could strike from airfields only a few minutes away, as it had during the battles along the Medjerda river in November and December. If General Ward waited until fully ready, the enemy might be able to strengthen his hold on the hill position controlling the exit from the Maknassy to the Mezzouna side of the mountains, so that the effort to dislodge him would be difficult and costly. The incentive to take great risks was slight, because of the orders the Americans were then operating under to threaten the Axis line of communications but not to commit any large force beyond the hills. Ward decided to make a deliberate, soundly organized attack. Although there is a certain amount of inconclusive evidence that this choice was approved at the time by General Patton, the stronger evidence is to the contrary, and Patton was later to conclude that the choice had been founded upon considerations which were unduly defensive in character, and to condemn himself for not having gone forward that day to urge on the advance.

18 Army Group Revises II Corps Mission, 22 March At this point, the role of the II Corps was again modified. On 21 March General Montgomery, when he recognized that the Eighth Army would be engaged for several days in trying to breach the main Mareth Position near the coast, and before he decided to shift the principal effort to the El Hamma gap, suggested to General Alexander that the U.S. II Corps could be of substantial assistance by a strong armored thrust through Maknassy to cut the Sfax-Gabes road. At 18 Army Group, such a project was considered to be too ambitious, particularly in view of the likelihood that the 10th Panzer Division would intervene during its execution. But General Alexander issued instructions to II Corps on 22 March to prepare for a possible effort to disrupt the enemy’s line of communications and destroy his supply dumps southwest of Mahares. General Patton was to make ready a strong mobile column for such a mission.

Meanwhile, the limited missions of the 1st Armored Division east of Maknassy and of the 1st Infantry Division east of EI Guettar remained unchanged. Only the tempo was accelerated somewhat. That afternoon General Patton gave oral instructions to General Ward to seize the heights from Meheri Zebbeus, north of Maknassy, to Djebel Bou Douaou, southeast of it; to organize and occupy that ground; to send a light mobile armored force to raid the Mezzouna airfields; and, in addition, to prepare a second armored force and keep it in readiness to harry the enemy’s lines of communications in the vicinity of Mahares, more than fifty miles east of Maknassy on the coast. Patton directed that the attack be made that night.

The enemy had already recognized the operations by Eighth Army and U.S. II Corps as concentric attacks upon General Messe’s First Italian Army. Kesselring decided to commit the reserves of the Fifth Panzer Army in holding the heights east of Maknassy and to release the 10th Panzer Division from Army Group Africa reserve, for a counterattack toward Gafsa under the control of General Cramer’s Headquarters, German Africa Corps. Colonel Dickson, G-2, II Corps, correctly concluded on 22 March that an attack by the 10th Panzer Division was imminent, either at Maknassy or El Guettar, and General Patton acted accordingly.

The day’s reconnaissance on 22 March confirmed the reports by inhabitants of Maknassy village that the enemy had retreated into the hills, or beyond. The main ridges of the Eastern Dorsal at this southeastern extremity are in the pattern of a large figure 5, with Maknassy directly south of the vertical stem and about five miles from the heights which form the curving section.

Djebel Zebbeus (451) and Djebel Djebs No.1 (369) are north of Maknassy. Djebel Dribica (209), Djebel Naemia (322), Djebel Bou Douaou (1753), and Djebel Bou Hedma (790) form the semicircle, with the latter’s long ridges extending far to the southwest of Maknassy. Between Djebel Djebs No.1 and Djebel Dribica, the Leben wadi, crossed by a railroad and by a highway bridge north of the village, drains from the Maknassy plain to the coastal flats. With its tributaries, the Leben wadi forms a lengthy tank obstacle north and northwest of Maknassy. Djebel Dribica leads southeasterly to Hill 322 on Djebel Naemia, with which it is connected by an L-shaped ridge.

The road and the railroad from Maknassy to Mezzouna and Mahares run side by side over the southern shoulder of Djebel Naemia, except for a distance of nearly two miles through an opening between Hill 322 and a second Djebel Djebs, where the railroad loops less than a mile south of the road. This Djebel Djebs No.2 (312) rises east of a broader gap between Hill 322 and Djebel Bou Douaou, like a stopper barely removed from a bottle, and is admirably situated to control movement through the defiles northwest or southwest of it. Djebel Bou Douaou and Djebel Bou Hedma extend south and west with crests somewhat higher than Maknassy’s other neighboring hills and with good observation of the “Gumtree road” running along their southern bases from El Guettar to Mahares.

Combat Command B’s reconnaissance observed a few groups of enemy vehicles pulling back through the gaps northeast of B, 1st Armored Division, on reconnaissance, Maknassy valley, MAknassy, and drew artillery fire from the yicinity of Meheri Zebbeus; but along the route of the road and railroad, the enemy kept out of sight.

Enemy Defense of Maknassy Pass,23-25 March

At 1415 on 22 March General Ward issued written orders for an assault at 2330 that night. a2 He specified that Colonel Stack’s forces should attack Djebel Dribica and Hill 322 north of the pass and Djebel Djebs (2), beyond and southeast of it, while Combat Team 60 (-) simultaneously gained control of Djebel Bou Douaou. He directed Combat Command B (General Robinett) to protect the northern flank in the vicinity of Djebel Zebbeus and the upper reaches of the Leben wadi. Of the two bare and rocky hills north of the pass, Djebel Dribica seemed the more imposing obstacle and was assigned to the more experienced 1st Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry (Colonel Kern), while Hill 322 on Djebel Naemia was to be taken by the 3rd Battalion, 60th Infantry (Lieutenant Colonel John J. Toffey, Jr.), attached to Combat Command C. This battalion was still weary from climbing Djebel Goussa near Station de Sened, and from trying for most of the day to work through traffic-clogged roads to the assembly area after a night move toward Maknassy.

The attack beyond Maknassy was too late and too weak. The two battalions under Colonel de Rohan, to be sure, met no opposition in securing Djebel Bou Douaou, and next morning were ordered to occupy the area north of it as far as the road and railroad, and to assist by fire the southern wing of Combat Command C. On the northern flank after a three-battalion artillery preparation of thirty minutes duration, the 1st Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry, took Djebrl Dribica in competent fashion against only light opposition. But the 3rd Battalion, 60th Infantry, found that Diebel Naemia, with Hill 322 in the center, was by far the most strongly defended area. A mine field barred the approach to the crest, and was covered by concentrated fire from well placed machine guns both on the hill ahead and on adjacent slopes to the right and left. One company commander was killed. The battalion commander went forward to reconnoiter and was pinned down. The attack stopped. The men dug in to wait for daylight.

Next morning, 23 March, the 3rd Battalion, 60th Infantry, pressed forward again. This time the attack was supported by the 1st Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry, and by fire from the remainder of Combat Team 60, across the road. ] just as the enemy was beginning to fall back in the belief that the Americans were breaking through, Colonel Lang reached the battlefield and was able to make the small German force hold on until the first reinforcements arrived. At about the same time, on the Allied side, Colonel Toffey was wounded. The German force that held the vital Hill 322 was Rommel’s former personal guard. At the time of the imminent break-through it had been reduced to only eighty infantrymen. At another critical juncture the covering fire of a few tanks aided the enemy to occupy positions along the eastern edge of Djebel Dribica. Hill 322, dominating the pass, remained the objective of a succession of American attacks that evening, including one supported by four artillery battalions. Success seemed so likely that routes were reconnoitered for a light armored force preparing to raid the Mezzouna airfields during the night of 23-24 March.

After the first attacks were stalled on Hill 322, a stronger force concentrated for an assault at 0700, 24 March. Three battalions of infantry, supported by two companies of tanks and four battalions of artillery, plus some 75-mm. tank destroyers, attacked the defenders from the north, west, and south. The 3rd Battalion, 60th Infantry, on the west, and the 3rd Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry (less Company I), on the south, received direct supporting fire from a company of medium tanks, while the 1st Battalion plus companies G and I, 6th Armored Infantry, was protected by others on its eastern flank as it attacked along the ridges from the north.

[NOTE: The reinforcements hastily thrown into the threatened sector were elements of Kampfgruppe Lang (Colonel Lang, commanding officer of the 69th Panzer Grenadier Regimen(. 10th Panzer Division).These German units were nominally under General Imperiali’s 50th Special Brigade. See Fifth Panzer Army, KTB, 23 Mar 43, and is # D–166 (Lang), Part II.]

Throughout the night the enemy had been digging in while small groups of reinforcements built up his total number to an estimated 350. The Americans, their difficulties greatly increased because of the enemy’s excellent air-ground co-operation, were unable to dislodge these troops after hard ground fighting. Continued failure to gain Hill 322 threatened to frustrate that part of the mission assigned to II Corps which appealed most to General Patton. He had protested to General Eisenhower the prohibition On American advance beyond Fondouk el Aouareb. He probably counted on the raiding party from Maknassy to Mezzouna to demonstrate that if such an advance were authorized, it could lead to even bigger successes, and for that reason had instructed General Ward to prepare for an as yet unauthorized aggressive action in the area near Mahares. 

[NOTE: (1) Kampfgruppe Lang, sent to this area by Fifth Panzer Army on 22 March 1943, began arriving next day, and by 26 March consisted of: Regimental Staff and 1st Battalion, 69th Panzer Grenadier Regiment; 1st Battalion, 86th Panzer Grenadier Regiment; 26th Africa Battalion; nine Mark VI plus fifteen Mark III and IV tanks of 501 st Panzer Battalion; 580th Reconnaissance Battalion; about thirty men from Kasla O. B. (Rommel) and one company of Kesselring’s headquarters guards, and of artillery, 9th Battery, 90th Artillery Regiment; one battery of Italian 105’s; two bat· teries of 210-mm. mortars supported by one 170-mm. gun; two batteries of 88-mm. dual-purpose Flak guns; and one platoon of 20·mm. antiaircraft guns. Hq, Fifth Panzer Army, KTB, 26 Mar 43. MS # D-166 (Lang), Part II. (2) Lang was correctly identified and his units ascertained in the 18 Army Group Appreciation, 2000, 25 March 1943. (3) Kampfgruppe Lang passed to the command of Headquarters, DAK (Cramer), on 28 March 1943. “Rpt, 1st Armd Div to II Corps, 1420, 24 Mar 43, Entry 211, in II Corps G-3 Jnl. ‘” (1) Patton Diary, 22 March 1943, says that he sent General Bradley to Algiers on this mission. (2) Bradley, A Soldier’s Slor}’, pp. 56-58, says that Bradley obtained Patton’s permission to go.]

He returned from the greatly extended 1st Infantry Division, where he had spent much of 24 March, to discover that Ward’s attack on the narrower front east of Maknassy was still unsuccessful. The tanks had thrown their tracks on the rough and rocky ground and had been of minor service. The infantry had lacked the impetus to carry the attack through to success. One estimate of the time still needed to get the pass was twenty-four hours. The enemy was described as “obviously moving to concentrate” on the 1st Armored Division’s front and as stepping up the pace of his frequent air attacks. General Ward made a request for “all available air cover for our troops moving up now, and for active reconnaissance, and strafing of the enemy moving up on our front this p. m. and tomorrow.

Calling General Ward to the telephone, General Patton ordered him personally to lead an attack next morning which had to succeed. The orders were partially carried out, for the division commander did lead an attack by three battalions of the 6th Armored Infantry, which began without artillery preparation, and won a brief success.

But they could not hold the hill under heavy fire from German mortars, machine guns, and artillery. By noon, 25 March, General Ward decided that he must suspend the attack while the troops recovered from near exhaustion and reorganized. In view of the enemy’s decision to concentrate mobile armored elements against the weakening American forces of the 1st Infantry Division east of El Guettar, II Corps ordered a provisional armored protecting force under Colonel Benson to be shifted to the vicinity of Gafsa. H The initiative at Maknassy was allowed to pass to the enemy while the situation east of El Guettar was being corrected.

The 1st Infantry Division Holds the Enemy Near El Guettar

The 1st Infantry Division’s part in the operations specified by 18 Army Group’s instructions of 19 March was an attack east of El Guettar along the Gumtree road south of the Gafsa-Melzouna mountains, to be launched after the 1st Armored Division had neutralized Station de Sened. This drive easterly from El Guettar was to be made down the great valley on a front which furnished a severe test of tactical efficiency and which broadened beyond the capacities of a single infantry division to defend or control.

From Gafsa to El Guettar, the road curves around the southwestern portion of Djebel Orbata (1165) and runs along its southern base past the Chott el Guettar to a road fork some twelve miles distant from Gafsa. At this fork, the road to Gabes branches off to the southeast, passing between the Djebel Berda (926) complex on the south and jumbled hills at the north which rise to the horseshoe-shaped Djebel cl Mchehat (482). The other branch, Gumtree road, continues along the southern base of Djebel Orbata and the ridge of which it is a part, and strikes across the coastal plain north of the Sebkret en Noual to Mahares on the sea coast. Three miles east of the El Guettar road fork, the Gumtree road enters a long narrow defile between a spur of the Djebel Orbata and the Djebel el Ank (621). Near the eastern end of the defile are the village of Bou Hamran and the junction with a track which leads through the mountain hamlet of Sakket and over the ridge to the village of Sened.

[NOTE: H ( 1) MS)2;, Col Akers to Col Benson, 2000, 21 Mar 43, Entry 56, in II Corps G~3 Jnl. (2) II Corps AAR, 24-25 Mar 43, 10 Apr 43. The provisional force, consisted of a battalion of medium tanks, a battalion of artillery, and a battalion of infantry.]

The 1st Infantry Division was expected to capture the defile at Djebel el Ank and to press eastward along the Gumtree road. It could not advance very far without becoming vulnerable to an attack up the road from Gabes on the southern side of Djebel cl Meheltat, an attack which could strike the division on the flank and either cut it off from Gafsa or force a withdrawl The road to Gabes was connected with the Gumtree road by a dirt road through El Hafay at the northeastern end of Djebel Chemsi (790) some twenty-five miles east of EI Guettar. A force from either Gabes or from a point much farther north could therefore approach El Guettar from the southeast, via the Gumtree road and its El Hafay connection with the Gabes-Gafsa road. The 10th Panzer Division, once it had assembled, could strike either at Maknassy or toward El Guettar and, if the latter, then by either the Gabes road or the Djebel el Ank defile.

After a day of reconnaissance, observation, and preparations, the 1st Infantry Division opened its attack on the night of 20-21 March. To capture the defile on the road to Mahares, the 1st Ranger Battalion was sent on a circuitous and difficult ten-mile detour over the shoulders of Djebel Orbata which brought it back to the road at a point east of the Italian defenders for a surprise attack from the north same time, the 26th Infantry, aided by artillery preparation and the cover afforded by foothills and great rocks, pushed straight along the road, closing in to gain a complete victory. The Americans took over 700 prisoners and after converting captured positions for defense toward the east, continued the attack in order to gain control over all of Djebel el Ank before going on to Bou Hamran.


The 18th Infantry’s attack moved southeastward along the road from El Guettar to Gabes and into the adjacent hills against dements of Division Centauro. At night, and under a hazy moon, the infantry crossed a plain where mere six-inch grass was the main cover, and where the enemy had already demonstrated that his observation in daylight was alert and accurate, and his artillery fire swift and precise. Getting through a mine field, the troops infiltrated past Hill 336 north of the road to take it at daybreak with a rush from the rear. General Patton and some of his staff visited the hill soon afterward. The first stage of the attack “according to plan” yielded 415 prisoners. During the remainder of 21 March, the 18th Infantry, limited by the enemy’s rapid laying of artillery fire on moving men, and by very active air strafing and dive bombing, particularly of command post and artillery positions, strove to press through foothills onto the Djebel el Mcheltat. Battery A of the 33rd Field Artillery Battalion lost two 105’s and two vehicles in a direct hit. At noon, 21 March, the divisional objective was established as a line from a crest three miles northeast of Bou Hamran to a point about fourteen miles to the southeast of El Guettar, a road junction east of Djebel el Kheroua (369). Casualties by nightfall were fourteen killed and forty-one wounded.


The Americans during the next day consolidated their gains east of El Guettar, for the Italians made no resolute counterattack and were driven off by artillery fire and Allied air action whenever their guns opened up or small groups of their tanks assembled. American advance was not as rapid as had been expected. The troops improved their positions along the Gumtree road by having the 26th Infantry probe east of Bou Hamran. The 16th Infantry occupied the western foothills of the Djebel eI Mchehat, and two battalions of the 18th Infantry occupied heights south of the Gabes road, at the northeastern tip of Djebel Berda. Contact with the enemy in this area late in the day (22 March) promised action of about the same tempo for the following morning.”

The operations by II Corps had been so well correlated with attacks by British Eighth Army as to make 22 March a critical day for the enemy. The seizure of Gafsa on 17 March had coincided with initial British exploratory attacks in the Mareth coastal sector. The capture of Station de Sened on 20-21 March had occurred while British 30 Corps began trying to punch through the M1areth Line and when the New Zealand Corps was about to seize Hill 201 south of El Hamma. By the time the 1 st Armored Division reached Maknassy on 22 March and the 1st Infantry Division pushed beyond El Guettar, the enemy was committing some of his reserves near Mareth and sending others to the El Hamma gap. He had only one mobile division available with which to try to check the American approach to the Gabes area, the 10th Panzer Division (- ) (General Fritz von Broich).

On 21 March, as noted, Army Group Africa released the 10th Panzer Division to the German Africa Corps for employment in a counterattack toward Gafsa. It was not apparent to the Allies where this attack would be made, although they were aware that it was building up. Actually, the German force assembled during the night of 22- 23 March near Djebe1 Ben Kheir (587, east of El Hafay ) . At 0300 the 10th Panzer Division attacked along the axis of the Gabes- Gafsa road to push northwestward against the southern flank and perhaps the rear of the 1st Infantry Division before daylight.

Reinforced American Infantry Versus German Armor, 23 March General Allen that night had the 26th Combat Team advancing along the Gumtree road, while the 1st and 2nd Battalions, 18th Infantry, were engaged, as they had been since the preceding afternoon, in driving out Italian forces northeast of Hill 772 on Djebel Berda, thus widening the front considerably. The trains of the 2nd Battalion, 18th Infantry, barely reached the cover of the foothills, after crossing in darkness from the northern side of the valley, when sounds of motors to the northeast were followed by an eruption of tracer fire and the echoing rumble of guns. At 0500, while darkness was still complete, an enemy motorized force was reconnoitering by fire the southern slopes of Djebel el Meheltat.

Daylight revealed the presence of the 10th Panzer Division, which was methodically sweeping the foothills and the lower ground north of the road before undertaking bolder measures. The 3rd Battalions of both the 18th and 16th Infantry were under direct attack. A spearhead moving up the valley was engaged by the 60 1st Tank Destroyer Battalion until about 0700. The main body of the enemy force was in full view of American observers on heights above the valley on either side, and from the German Africa Corps’ command post on Hill 369.

At first the battle ran entirely in favor of the attacking Germans despite determined and courageous opposition. Their tanks and self-propelled guns, interspersed with infantry in carriers, rolled westward in a hollow square formation and at a slow but steady pace. Behind them, a column of trucks drove to a predetermined point at the western end of Djebel el Meheltat and unloaded more infantry, which followed closely the armored rectangle ahead of them. Then the mass of the enemy separated into three prongs. One group turned northwest among the foothills east of Hill 336 overrunning the 32nd Field Artillery and part of the 5th Field Artillery Battalions; another continued along the road; and the third, and much the largest, force tried to sweep the hills and northward along the edge of the Chott el Guettar.

German tank-infantry teams overran the American artillery and infantry positions east of Hill 336 in engagements which brought some hand-to-hand encounter, and heavy American losses. A curving belt of mines extended from Chott el Guettar across the road and along the Keddab wadi to the southeastern base of Hill 336. There the tide of battle changed. American artillery and the tank destroyers of the 601st and 899th Tank Destroyer Battalions knocked out nearly thirty enemy tanks, and the mine field stopped eight more. Eventually, the morning attack was contained. The 10th Panzer Division pulled back a few miles to the east and prepared for a second attack. During this withdrawal enemy artillery and aviation harassed the American defenders, and Allied air units struck back repeatedly. The Germans towed their disabled tanks to a prepared maintenance point not far from where their infantry had first detrucked. During this interlude, and running a gantlet of enemy shells and Stukas, nineteen American jeeps rushed back for ammunition, all but six returning safely in time to oppose the next assault. Elements of the 16th Infantry and the 1st Ranger Battalion were put into the line along the Keddab wadi. Headquarters, 1st Division, was ready for the second attack (1645 hours) and aware of the enemy forces to be committed.

[Note: The 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion lost twenty-four guns, of which two were recoverable, and had only nine others after this action. The 899th Tank Destroyer Battalion lost seven tank destroyers (M10’s). ]

Preceded by a German air strike, and on the signal of a siren, the ground troops of the enemy attacked once more toward El Guettar. At 1830, word came that they were still advancing, with thirty-eight tanks in one group, but barely fifteen minutes later, an exultant report arrived from the 18th Combat Team: Enemy attacked as scheduled, preceded by dive-bombers which did little damage. Troops started to appear from all directions, mostly from tanks. Hit Anti-Tank Company and 3rd Battalion. Our artillery crucified them with high explosive shells and they were falling like flies. Tanks seem to be moving to the rear; those that could move. 1st Ranger Battalion is moving to protect the flank of the 3rd Battalion, which was practically surrounded. The 3rd Battalion and the Rangers drove them off and the 1st Battalion crucified them.

 [NOTE: (I) The enemy units were: 2nd Battalion, 69th Panzer Grenadier Regiment; 2nd Battalion, 86th Panzer Grenadier Regiment; 10th Motorcycle Battalion; 1st and 2nd Battalions, 7th Panzer Regiment; and the 4th Battalion, 90th Artillery Regiment.]

Thus at the close of 23 March, a reinforced American infantry division, well supported by Allied aviation, mainly by their artillery had stopped the bulk of an enemy armored division. Kesselring’s report to the OKW acknowledged substantial tank losses in the morning attack at the Keddab wadi; it called the efforts of the 601st and 899th Tank Battalions a counterattack with tanks against the German north wing which had been repulsed, and it attributed the failure of the afternoon attack to superior Allied forces and a threatened penetration through the Italian-held positions on the northern edge of Djebel Berda. Although the armored counterattacks of 23 March were beaten off, the enemy by no means lost his determination to maintain an aggressive defense of the routes of Allied approach to the rear of Italian First Army. He might not succeed in plunging through the Americans with his armor, but he held strong defensive positions and could nibble incessantly with infantry and artillery, and with tanks used as artillery, at the American positions in the hills north and south of the Gabes and Gumtree roads.

On 24 March he made some progress in each sector, especially in the high ground on opposite sides of the Gabes road, and on 25 March, he succeeded in recapturing from the 1st and 2nd Battalions, 18th Infantry, their most exposed position on one of the northeastern buttresses of Djebel Berda. When a German patrol reached the bare summit of Hill 772 there, mortar fire brought it scampering down. But the two battalions of the 18th Infantry, even with the 1st Ranger Battalion, managed only to hold their position; they could not extend it without larger reinforcements, perhaps another entire regiment. With that much strength, they believed that they could take all of Djebel Berda and the hills east of it, and thus open the road to Gabes for American armor. Had such a regiment been sent, or had the two battalions simply remained in possession, the Germans might not have been able to withstand the 9th Infantry Division’s efforts later to drive them off. But during the night of 25-26 March the battalions were ordered to withdraw through the 1st Ranger Battalion. Colonel Darby’s Rangers, with a purely defensive role, held a south flank position in the foothills west of Djebel Berda for the next two days.

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


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