By 25 March General Patton’s operations had successfully drawn off one of the German armored divisions which otherwise might have opposed the British Eighth Army. General Montgomery’s attempt to circumvent the Mareth Position through the gap southwest of El Hamma was scheduled to enter a crucial phase on the night of 26-27 March. After the First Italian Army had been uprooted by this maneuver and driven in retreat to the Chott Position, the II Corps was expected to be of additional assistance if it could send an armored task force as far as the Chott Position and perhaps farther up the coast. In the meantime, by stepping up offensive action at all possible points along the Eastern Dorsal, it could pin down Axis forces at the time when success would bring fluidity to the battle near El Hamma. General Alexander accordingly brought to General Patton at noon, 25 March, a new directive for the II Corp. The corps base line was to be advanced from the Western Dorsal to extend between Gafsa and Sbeitla. He released the U.S. 9th and 34th Infantry Divisions to II Corps for employment in current offensive operations. The 9th Division (less Combat Team 60) was to attack simultaneously with the 1st Infantry Division southeast of El Guettar. The 34th Division (less the 133rd Combat Team) was to attack by itself the Axis-held gap through the Eastern Dorsal at Fondouk el Aouareb.
[Note 29-1T: The U.S. 1st Infantry Division reported casualties for the period 17-25 March, inclusive,51 killed, 309 wounded, and 57 missing. Entry 334, 26 Mar 43, in II Corps G-3 Jnl.]
The II Corps was to abandon the attempt to use the pass east of Maknassy to move an armored column onto the coastal plain, southwest of Mahares, a plan which had been under consideration since 22 March. The U.S. 1st Armored Division would leave in the area a force containing a medium tank battalion, two artillery battalions, and the 60th Combat Team, and would assemble in concealment at least three other battalions of medium tanks ready for commitment in a mobile column thrusting southeastward toward Gabes from El Guettar.
Operations east of El Guettar would thus be on a much enlarged scale. The 26th Infantry’s zone astride the Gumtree road would be stabilized while other elements of the 1st Infantry Division and the 9th Infantry Division together opened a gap between Djebel el Meheltat (482) and Djebel el Kheroua (369), southeast of El Guettar, through which the armored column could proceed. The attack along the El Guettar-Gabcs road would be executed in three phases: first, obtaining the road junction east of Djebel el Kheroua; second, securing a position as far forward as the road loop through El Rafay between Djebel Chemsi (790) and Djebel Ben Khelr (587); and third, sending the U.S. 1st Armored Division to Djebel Tebaga Fatnassa (270), a hill on the western flank of the enemy’s Chott Position, at a time to be determined by 18 Army Group, and with the mission of harassing the enemy’s line of communications without incurring a major tank battle.
In preparation for these operations ordered by 18 Army Group on 25 March, Patton directed General Ward to have General McQuillin defend the pass east of Maknassy with a much reduced force against the enemy’s increasingly aggressive pressure, to send to Gafsa as secretly as possible the 81st Reconnaissance and 6th Field Artillery Battalions after dark on 28 March. Until further orders from II Corps Ward was to hold at Maknassy the remainder of the 1st Armored Division not assigned to McQuillin. At the same time that the II Corps was attacking at Fondouk el Aouareb and strengthening and concentrating its thrust beyond El Guettar, the Southeast Algerian Command (General Robert Boissau) at the right of II Corps was directed by 18 Army Group to press forward in the valley between Djebel Berda (926) and Djebel el Asker (625), to the south.
[Note 6-1NA1: McQuillin’s command was to consist of his Combat Command A headquarters; the 1st Armored Regiment (less 1st and 2nd Battalions); the 3rd Battalion, 6th Armorcd Infantry; Combat Team 60: two battalions of the 5th Armored Field Artillery Group (the 58th and 62nd); one battery, 443rd Coast Artillery (AA) Battalion (SP); and the 776th Tank Destroyer Battalion.]
Two Divisions East of El Guettar,28-29 March
The II Corps renewed its attack towards Gabes at 0600, 28 March, as the enemy farther southeast was occupying the Chott Position and abandoning the Mareth Line. Opposite II Corps the German Africa Corps had built up a strong defensive front. Its back bone was the 10th Panzer Division (less elements committed east of Maknassy under Group Lang) interlaced with units of the Division Centauro. The enemy, making the best possible use of terrain well suited for defense, concentrated his forces in strongpoints, organized during earlier weeks, and effectively supported them with artillery and mortars. German air reconnaissance had detected Allied movements in the Maknassy-Sened area.
The enemy interpreted these movements to indicate an American shift to the defensive in the sector east of Maknassy. But at the same time enemy intelligence concluded that these moves of Allied armored groups constituted a threat to the 10th Panzer Division’s north Hank via passes southwest of Djebel Bou Douaou (753), Meich, Sened, or Sakket.
This assumption was altogether incorrect. Nevertheless, it caused General von Broich to abandon the idea of striking with his main armored force toward El Guettar along the Gumtree road. Instead, he held Group Reimann (2nd Battalion, 86th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, reinforced by elements of the 7th Panzer Regiment and artillery) in positions north of the Gumtree road at Djebel Hamadi (567) and Djebel Bou Small (608) to act as his flank force. Von Broich ordered the 2nd Battalion, 69th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, defending the northernmost portion of the curving horseshoe of Djebel el Meheltat, known as Rass ed Dekhla (536), to extend its line eastward to conform with Group Reimann’s new defensive mission. The 49th Panzer Pionier Battalion, meantime, continued to hold the main portion of Djebel el Meheltat with its Hill 482. The gap between it and the northeastern tip of Djebel Berda was held by elements of the Centauro Division. To their left was the 10th Motorcycle Battalion extending the Axis line to include Hill 772 on Djebel Berda. Other Italian units guarded the extreme south flank as far as Djebel el Asker.
On the Allied side, in the El Guettar sector, the 9th Infantry Division, using five of its six available infantry battalions, was expected to seize Hill 369 at the eastern end of Djebel el Kheroua. The division had never gone into attack as a unit. The prospective test was anything but easy. With imperfect maps and inadequate reconnaissance the division was to attack at night over several miles of open plain in an effort to reach the Djebel Berda complex. Those hills were steep, deeply eroded into numerous gorges, lacking in vegetation, jagged and craggy.
Trails were difficult. Movement through the valleys and gulches was controlled from the adjacent high ground. Progress in any given direction over the often precipitous slopes and twisting ridges would be very difficult to maintain. Several peaks and high crests provided excellent observation enabling those who possessed them to control fire or direct the maneuvers of toiling troop units which could not see each other. In the opinion of those who fought there, the Djebel Berda, and particularly its eastern extremity, was a natural fortress capable of being defended by minimum forces for an indefinite period.
[NOTE 62-1NA:, (1) Combat Team 60, 9th Division, was attached to the 1st Armored Division. (2) Staff of the 9th Infantry Division: commanding general, Major General Manton S. Eddy; assistant division commander, Brigadier General Donald A. Stroh; chief of staff, Colonel Samuel A. Gibson; G~I, Lt. Colonel C. F. Enright; G-2, Major Robert W. Robb; G~3, Lieutenant Colonel Alvar B. Sundin; G-4, Major George E. Pickett; artillery commander, Brigadier General S. LeRoy Irwin.]
[NoTE 63-2NA: (1) When they later analyzed the problem in the light of their experience, they concluded that Hill 772, the paramount observation point, should first have been captured and held, after which simultaneous attacks should have been made from west to east along the ridges of three lower mountains [Draa Saada el Hamra (316), Djebel el Kheroua, and Djebel Lettouchi (361)] with the object of capturing Hills 290, 369, and 361 respectively. Attempts to capture Draa Saada el Hamra or Djebel el Kheroua by direct assault against their northwestern faces across the open plain and valley were almost certain to result in costly failure. (2) 9th Inf Div AAR, 26 Mar-8 Apr 43, 25 Aug 43, Annex B, Terrain Study.]
The 9th Division plan of attack for 28 March provided that General Eddy’s two regiments should assemble at the northwestern base of Djebel Berda, in the area which had been abandoned three nights earlier. The 47th Infantry (Colonel Edwin H. Randle) was to move to attack Hill 369 from the west and south, one battalion going along Djebel Lettouchi, another along Djebel el Kheroua, and a third remaining in reserve but following toward Djebel el Kheroua. The 1st Battalion, 39th Infantry, was to be in division reserve behind the 47th Infantry. The remainder of the 39th Infantry was to be motorized and held, near the northeastern corner of the Chott el Guettar, also in division reserve. The plan modified another prepared the previous day, and was issued too late to enable all units to make the necessary adaptations and preparations.
The attack of 28-29 March started out as planned, with the 47th Infantry heading for Hill 369 in column of battalions from assembly points at the foot of Djebel Berda. The 1st Battalion, 39th Infantry, followed by bounds. But the silhouette of Draa Saada el Hamra ridge (with Hill 290) was mistaken for Djebel el Kheroua (with Hill 369). The 1st and 3rd Battalions, 47th Infantry, captured the ridge but did not gain and occupy Hill 290, at its tip. The plans went further astray through the miscarriage of a maneuver by the 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry. Taking a route of approach during the latter part of the night somewhat to the south, this unit marched into a confusing jumble of hills and rough terrain between Djebel el Kheroua and Djebel Lettouchi, remained out of touch with the regiment for about thirty-six hours, and lost its battalion commander, intelligence officer and communication officer, its entire Company E, and the commanders of two other Companies, for more than a day during which, with parts of the 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry, it fought as a provisional battalion under Captain James D. Johnston in the area of Hill 772. Thus the first day’s abortive operations had been costly to the division, which now faced the second day with only two more infantry battalions on which to draw when attacking its true objective for the first time.
General Eddy arranged during 28 March to send the 2nd Battalion, 39th Infantry, after dark to the vicinity of Hill 290, which it was to skirt in order to approach Hill 369 from the north for a night bayonet attack while the two battalions of the 47th Infantry on Draa Saada el Hamra ridge assisted from the west. This venture was also frustrated. The truck column moving down the Gabes road drove much too close to Hill 290, from which it received heavy fire. Badly demoralized and severely hurt, most of the column pulled out and hurried back all the way to the starting point. The remainder, pinned down and unable to move in daylight, straggled back thirty-six hours later.
[NOTE 63-29NA: The reserve battalion (1st Battalion, 39th Infantry), committed on division order to advance toward the hills around Djebel el Kheroua, also became lost to (1) In all, 232 enlisted men and 10 officers were taken prisoners. 10th Panzer Diu, Ie, Taetigkeitsbericht, 28 Mar 43. (2) 47th lnf Hist, 1943, p. 6.]
Hill 369 remained in seeming immunity, jeopardizing any passage down the road to Gabes and prolonging the first phase of the II Corps operations under the army group instructions of 25 March. The battalions on Draa Saada el Hamra ridge and in the Djebel Berda complex would have to reorganize before being able to launch an effective assault for the capture of Hill 369, and the shifts would have to be made at night. They could not begin reorganizing until the night of 30-31 March and that meant that no strong attempt would be possible before 1-2 April, although attacks on Hill 290 were kept up in the interval.
Operations thus far had demonstrated not only how attacks could go wrong but also that the enemy’s positions were hewn from rock and very effectively placed for shelter or defensive fire. Mortars became the favored infantry weapon, once the battle in the hills demonstrated their superior effectiveness, while relatively low amounts of rifle ammunition were used.
The 1st Infantry Division meanwhile executed its part of the II Corps attack on 28 March on a front narrowed by the 9th Infantry Division’s assumption of the sector from Djebel Berda to the Gabes road (inclusive) . General Allen’s sector extended from this road to the hills north of the Gumtree road. He placed the 16th Infantry on the southwest near Hill 336, and the 26th Infantry to the north. The 18th Infantry he initially held north of Djebel el Ank (621).
By 29 March, the 1st Infantry Division attack, especially in the northeast sector along Gumtree road, was progressing much more rapidly than the assault of the 9th Infantry Division farther south. As the German line was pulled back, the 18th Infantry ( – ) advanced toward Djebel Hamadi and Hill 574, thus protecting the flank of the 26th Combat Team, which captured Rass ed Dekhla and subsequently turned south in an envelopment movement aiming for Hill 482 on Djebel el Meheltat. The 16th Infantry also attacked that objective. But its advance was far more difficult since it had to be executed over a four mile stretch of open terrain and in full view of the enemy. Progress consequently was slow and costly. At the end of the day the Germans were still in firm possession of Hill 482.
Some units of the 1st Armored Division had already assembled, as noted above, to defend Gafsa in the event of a German break-through east of El Guettar, and General Patton ordered others brought down during the night of 28-29 March. The units from Maknassy had been summoned in anticipation of an armored attack from El Guettar down the Gabes road. General Patton had tried to conceal the assembly of this force, and was angry because the last contingent arrived at 0700, 29 March, instead of before dawn. The day of the 29th passed without the capture of Hill 482 on the southern portion of Djebel el Meheltat, an event which was to have concluded the first phase of II Corps operations east of El Guettar. “We are trying to be simple, not change our plans when once made, and keep on fighting,” wrote General Patton to General Marshall that day as he outlined what the II Corps had thus far been doing.
The Armored Attack Toward Gabes, 30 March-l April
Late on 29 March, 18 Army Group for the fourth time revised its directive to the U.S. II Corps. The situation was critical. The attack at Fondouk el Aouareb was failing. The one at Maknassy had been abandoned. The infantry operations to open a gap for the armor southeast of El Guettar were making no progress. At this juncture, therefore, General Alexander instructed General Patton to organize the defense of Maknassy, Sened, and Gafsa in accordance with a most detailed assignment of Patton’s units, and to launch an armored force next morning to break its own way through the enemy’s barrier on the El Guettar-Gabes road ahead of the infantry. After some of the difficulties involved in this set of instructions had been resolved, Patton determined to put the 1st Armored Division’s task force under Colonel Benson,[N63-92NA] whose aggressiveness he admired. To make certain that that quality was kept undimmed, he sent General Gaffey to “keep an eye on the show.” The basic plan of operations beyond El Guettar had been radically modified by the sudden change in 18 Army Group’s intentions, a change which in turn came as a result of developments elsewhere.
[NOTE 63-92NA(1) Patton Diary, 29 Mar 43. (2) II Corps G-3 Periodic Rpt 56, 30 Mar 43. This lists the elements of Task Force Benson as: 2nd Battalion, 1st Armored Regiment (mediums); 3rd Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment (mediums); the 81st Reconnaissance Battalion: the 899th Tank Destroyer Battalion; the 65th and 68th Field Artillery Battalions; Company B, 16th Engineer Battalion (C). The 3rd Battalion, 39th Infantry, was attached from the 9th Division on 30 March. The 2nd Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry, joined during the night of 30-31 March.]
By 30 March the British Eighth Army’s battle had shifted from the Mareth Position and El Hamma area to the Chott Position. While General Montgomery reorganized for the next attempt to punch through General Messe’s prepared defenses on the narrow front along the Akarit wadi, an American foray into the Axis flank, by drawing off defending troops, would obviously assist the impending attack.
At the same time, during these preparations the enemy would be free at least temporarily to detach some of his mobile reserves. He could thus employ the 21st Panzer Division, as in fact he did. He might have committed it at Maknassy. For several days, he had feared an Allied break-through there, although Kesselring recognized that such an Allied success, by leading the Americans onto a funnel-like plain and exposing them to the danger of encirclement, might ultimately benefit the Axis forces. Such fears had abated by 30 March, when it was for a time possible to consider sending a German armored column through Maknassy toward Gafsa. But the small force that could then be assembled would have been inadequate for such a thrust, and it might have been encircled and isolated.
In the end the Allied initiative in concentrating for a drive southeast of El Guettar drew to that front first, on 29 March, the Panzer Grenadier Regiment, Africa, and, the next day, elements of the 21st Panzer Division and an intensified commitment of the German Luftwaffe. To prevent an American success there, the 21st Panzer Division on 30 March put Kampfgruppe Pfeiffer (consisting of one battalion of panzer grenadiers, artillery, antitank, engineer, and Flak units) at the 10th Panzer Division’s disposal and on 31 March the whole division during the afternoon joined in the attempt to repel Task Force Benson.’s The II Corps operations near El Guettar from 30 March to 1 April had some initial success but did not achieve all objectives. To assist Task Force Benson’s penetration, the artillery fire of both infantry divisions and of II Corps was massed.
The 9th Infantry Division’s attack at 0600, 30 March, was prefaced by fifteen battalion and six battery concentrations on Djebel Lettouehi and Djebel el Kheroua. This bombardment enabled the infantry to take but not to hold part of Djebel Lettouchi, while it could not even establish a footing on other hills. The 1st Infantry Division was more successful After a morning attack, followed first by three hours of shelling by four artillery battalions, and then by a renewed infantry assault, the 26th Infantry was able to get most but not all the southern portion of Djebel el Mcheltat (Hill 482 and adjacent ridges)
Task Force Benson began its attack at noon of 30 March but did not get very far. The enemy’s artillery and antitank weapons, many of them mobile, were well placed and proved much too strong. A mine field barred Benson’s advance through the pass between Djebel Meheltat and Hill 369. Before he could pull the column back out of range and extricate the leading vehicles, enemy fire knocked out five tanks and two tank destroyers. But after dark, the Americans cleared a lane through the mines north of the road and made preparations for an attack next morning at 0600 by the 3rd Battalion, 39th Infantry. The object of this attack was to clear the enemy from the south side of the Gabes road and establish contact with the 9th Infantry Division. This task was accomplished. Enemy defenders finally abandoned Hill 290 after repeated American attacks and fell back one mile to their main line of resistance.
(‘ 9th Infantry Division was supported by the 2nd Battalion, 17th Field Artillery Regiment, and the 26th, 34th, and 84th Field Artillery Battalions. 9th Div AAR, 25 Aug 43. (2) The 1st Infantry Division was supported by the 5th, 7th, 32nd, and 33rd Field Artillery Battalions. Corps supplied the 1st Battalion, 17th Field Artillery Regiment; 1st Battalion, 36th Field Artillery Regiment; and a battalion of the 178th Field Artilltery Regiment. 1st Div G-3 Rpt, 17 Apr 43.)
Patton’s first inclination on 31 March was to send his G-3, Colonel Kent C. Lambert, to Colonel Benson with instructions to slam his way through at the cost, if need be, of a whole tank company, but he reconsidered, and planned instead an attack at 1600 in which supporting artillery and air would be coordinated with infantry and armor. The 9th Infantry Division put two companies on Hill 290, and one company each on three elevations west of that objective, and fed in more units to get Hill 772, towering above them all. General Eddy decided that his division must extend far enough westward onto Djebel Berda to include its crest. Meanwhile the 1st Infantry Division in a two pronged attack sent elements of Combat Teams 16 from the west and 26 from the north against the southeast tip of Djebel el Meheltat, which they kept under attack all day but did not wholly occupy.
Without waiting for the coordinated attack scheduled for 1600, Benson organized a tank-infantry attack which began at about 1230. The 2nd Battalion, 1st Armored Regiment, passed through the lane in the mine field, farmed out, and although it lost eight tanks (four of which were salvaged), it gained possession of most of the ground from the road to the foothills at the north and destroyed several 88’s and lighter antitank guns, plus an estimated six tanks. The battalion, without any infantry support, clung to its gains until the next afternoon. The 3rd Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment, then relieved it but had to yield some ground to increased enemy pressure. In these attacks Benson’s force had lost a total of thirteen tanks and two tank destroyers. Clearly, the tactical situation in the valley was inappropriate for armored exploitation. The enemy first had to be ousted from antitank positions by infantry and artillery before the armor could lunge ahead.
To reduce the enemy’s resistance to Benson’s attacks, Patton ordered a diversionary attack by elements of General Ward’s command north of Maknassy. Patton hoped that this might also assist Ryder’s operations at Fondouk el Aouareb. On 31 March, General Ward ordered Combat Command A under General McQuillin to seize the mining village of Meheri Zebbeus and Djebel Djebs No.1 (369) and thus to be in position for a breakout toward Sfax. Combat Command C under Colonel Stack remained at the railroad pass east of Maknassy. Most of McQuillin’s units, particularly the infantry, had been defending their limited gains east and north of Maknassy against unremitting pressure from Kampfgruppe Lang ever since 27 March. They had had little relief or rest, and many casualties, and their performance reflected their poor condition. The attack began late and was smothered at its inception when its flare-illuminated right flank came under heavy machine gun fire at the base of the mountain. The defense successfully held off the infantry attack by artillery fire throughout 1 April and by next day, when Benson’s attack was suspended, the whole operation had lost purpose and was abandoned.
The enemy had by then brought about another change in 18 Army Group’s instructions to General Patton. Enemy antitank fire had for three days thwarted the attempt by Benson’s armored force to smash through his lines. Enemy air attacks by 1 April were almost incessant, amounting to at least 163 sorties in 51 distinct attacks, killing fifteen and wounding fifty-five. Late that day, General Alexander therefore ordered that the tank attacks be discontinued, and he revived instead the original scheme of 25 March that infantry operations should open the way, with the tanks in support. The second phase, that of securing positions as far forward as the pass between Djebel Chemsi and Djebel Ben Kheir, was now to begin.
Strict compliance with even these instructions was not yet possible, for the enemy still held Hill 772 and Hill 369, and dominated the pass to the north. It was already painfully apparent that II Corps’ progress toward the coast had suffered severely from the cautious restraint and frequent changes in instructions imposed by 18 Army Group at the beginning of Operation WOP. Its restraining influence had permitted the enemy to occupy extremely defensible ground while the Americans were tethered to Gafsa and El Guettar.
It was now obvious how unfortunate had been the withdrawal of the right flank on Djebel Berda on the night of 25 and 26 March. Yet it must be remembered that the object of these operations remained primarily to divert enemy reserves rather than to advance onto the coastal plain against the enemy’s principal force. Even if the American armored column had been in a position to gain access, either by infantry action or its own bludgeoning attack, to the enemy’s rear area, General Alexander would then have had to decide whether he thought such an operation was advisable. As General Patton explained to General Marshall, Alexander specified the scope of each operation. “All I have is actual conduct of the operations prescribed.”
Tactical Air Support of II Corps
By 1 April, the new doctrine of air support which had been applied to the operations of II Corps seemed to have failed. The three American fighter groups operating from Thelepte and the group of light bombers from Youks-les-Bains had been visible to the ground troops from time to time, but most of their accomplishments had been out of sight and hearing. They had bombed Gafsa on 17 March, before the attack there, and on 23 March had helped throw back the 10th Panzer Division’s counterattack, but their main mission was to win air superiority in Tunisia for the Allies by fighter sweeps against enemy aircraft in the air, and by bombing and strafing strikes against planes on the enemy’s airfields. Their energies had been fully employed and they were inflicting severe damage on the enemy’s air force, but in the II Corps area, in sharp contrast to the situation over the Eighth Army, the air was far from being under Allied control. The daily report from II Corps to 18 Army Group for 1 April described enemy aviation as operating almost at will over the ground troops of II Corps because of the absence of Allied air cover. Indeed, the many enemy air attacks on 1 April against Task Force Benson near El Guettar intensified the sense of frustration brought about by the enemy’s reinforcement of his opposing ground units.
Since tactical air support had been furnished without stint, according to the Coningham doctrine, this commander of the Northwest African Tactical Air Force warmly resented Patton’s description of conditions on his battlefield. He met the complaint by a sarcastic and supercilious rejoinder reflecting on American troops which he subsequently withdrew and for which he made appropriate official amends at General Patton’s insistence. The incident subjected the solidarity of Anglo-American collaboration in arms to one of its severest tests, one through which it emerged unshaken. While Air Chief Marshal Tedder, General Spaatz, and Brigadier General Laurence S. Kuter were visiting Patton’s headquarters the day before Coningham himself came in connection with the matter, the Germans bombed the area around headquarters as if to confirm the protest that the II Corps was not benefiting from Allied air superiority.
But numerical superiority was increasing. Northwest African Tactical Air Force had, on 17 March, 319 aircraft and Strategic Air Force, 383; the enemy was operating far fewer from Tunisian airfields. The enemy was soon trying to maintain his air strength by putting Italian crews in German fighters, dive bombers, and bombers and incorporating them in Luftwaffe formations. The Stuka was driven out of use in Tunisia by the improved antiaircraft fire to which it was subjected and by the ability of Allied fighters to jump the dive bombers during their operations from forward fields.
II Corps Is Held, 2-6 April
The American forces east of El Guettar returned, between 2 and 6 April, to the grinding effort to occupy the hills and ridges along the Gumtree and the Gabes roads. The armored force now followed up the infantry line rather than serving as a spearhead.
Artillery strength increased, the ammunition expenditure was very heavy. The line lengthened to almost twenty miles as it moved eastward, greatly extending the troops of the 1st Infantry Division. The 9th Infantry Division continued to be absorbed in unsuccessful struggles to master the rugged terrain west of Hill 369 on Djebel el Kheroua. Its attacks from various directions on Hill 772 on Djebel Berda were repulsed again and again. Elsewhere its success was incomplete, and the large number of casualties, particularly those of the 47th Infantry, made it less and less likely that the tired troops could ever gain the divisional objective. Both infantry divisions drew engineer troops into the line as infantry before the end, and both were pushed to the limit, as was the enemy force which opposed them. The 1st Infantry Division drove doggedly ahead to take the village of Sakket on 3 April, but slowed down thereafter.
Its losses were not greatly different from those of the 9th Infantry Division, but were sustained by a full three-regiment unit and were therefore proportionately lighter. The badly strained forward supply services over the mountains were performed by pack mules, Arabs, and Italian prisoners. The south flank of the 1st Infantry Division was not in contact with the 9th Infantry Division, and continued exposure to flank attack threatened eventually to halt the advance.
German preparations for withdrawal were observed and misinterpreted as concentration for another armored counterattack like that of 23 March. Special defensive measures were therefore taken on 5 April. The men dug in, determined to hold on. The 19th Engineers (Combat), the 1st Ranger Battalion, and elements of the 1st Tank Destroyer Group set up a switch line along the Keddab wadi to stop any force that might come either along the road from Gabes or around the western end of Djebel Berda. The absence of information at II Corps headquarters on the operations of the British Eighth Army was partly responsible for the perturbation which for a time prevailed.
After an enemy counterattack failed to materialize and it became evident that he intended to withdraw, the two infantry divisions were again sent into an attack east of El Guettar on 6 April with their common objective a north-south line roughly equivalent to that of the first phase set out in the army group’s plan of 25 March. Task Force Benson followed up closely in the late afternoon and pushed beyond the road junction northeast of Djebel Berda.
After several days of artillery dueling, the elements of the 1st Armored Division nearer Maknassy put on another diversionary attack, Combat Command B hitting at Djebel Malzila (522) and Combat Command C demonstrating at Hill 322. American hopes of breaking through to interfere with the Italian First Army’s line of communications or with its defensive stand at the Chott Position were flickering out. Progress since 2 April had been much too slow to achieve such results. The higher levels of command were disappointed in operations to date, feeling that not enough had been achieved to promise success. The infantry divisions poked and jabbed at the defenders in their mountain positions without quite breaking their persistent hold. Those divisions seemed to be engaging the major part of the enemy’s forces. The reinforced armored division, on the other hand, after forfeiting its best chance of successful action early on 22 March at Maknassy, seemed to have spent itself against an enemy who was inferior in strength but had exploited skillfully his advantage of position. The Armored division had also been seriously dispersed by the withdrawal of units for Task Force Benson directly under II Corps, and by the semi-independent operations of Combat Command B north of Maknassy.
After going over to the defensive on 27 March it had withstood a series of enemy attacks, skillfully varied and often temporarily successful, and had sustained heavy losses. General Patton prodded his subordinates continually, and in the hope of bringing new energy and enthusiasm to the 1st Armored Division, (The casualties of 1st Armored Division reported at the end of the operation were (including Combat Team 60, attached): 304 killed, 1,265 wounded, 116 missing.) he acted on a suggestion of General Alexander which confirmed his own inclination, and on 5 April replaced its commander, General Ward, by General Harmon. Harmon, who had returned to the 2nd Armored Division in Morocco after his February service as General Fredendall’s deputy, took command as the tide was turning in south central Tunisia. Patton’s chief of staff, General Gaffey, shortly took command of the 2nd Armored Division. General Ward returned to the United States, was given command of the Tank Destroyer Center, and eventually commanded the 20th Armored Division in Europe.
The Enemy Pulls Out, 6-8 April
To 18 Army Group it was apparent on the night of 6-7 April that the battle for the Chott Position had reached its critical stage. General Patton was instructed to furnish maximum aid in the morning. Patton ordered American armor to be shoved eastward without regard for casualties, and the entire II Corps to drive forward for a spurt down the homestretch.
Almost all of the enemy forces disengaged and slipped eastward under cover of a very heavy artillery bombardment during the night of 6-7 April, so that the attack in the morning encountered no resistance but went “smoothly.” Task Force Benson, reduced to one battalion of tanks, one tank destroyer company, and one company of armored infantry, started out early after Patton’s admonition to the commander to plough through all resistance, and under Patton’s direct scrutiny from Colonel Randle’s observation post. Later, as the drive got under way, the corps commander hounded Benson by radio, then with General Keyes followed him in a jeep, and when the task force stopped at a mine field, led the way through it. The jeep continued southeastward until it had reached the Kilometer 70 road marker (from Gabes). Reluctantly turning back, Patton met Benson and again told him to keep going “for a fight or a bath.” Task Force Benson rolled eastward as never before. It crossed into the British Eighth Army’s zone soon after the General had given his parting instruction, and between 1600 and 1700, if it did not reach the ocean shore or the enemy’s positions, nevertheless arrived at a point of contact with a British Eighth Army reconnaissance detail southwest of Sebkret en Noua.
The meeting was a juncture of Allied forces from the eastern and western limits of the Mediterranean littoral. Closing in behind the Italian First Army, both were arriving at the threshold of the war’s final phase in Tunisia. Task Force Benson withdrew, in conformity with the auxiliary mission assigned to the II Corps, to assist in driving the enemy toward Mezzouna into the main stream of Axis retreat. American artillery in the vicinity of Maknassy, and American aviation from the XII Air Support Command, harried the enemy along the Gumtree road and forced him to take secondary routes. They blocked the road with enemy vehicles, forcing the 10th Panzer Division to use a trail near the northern edge of the Sebkret en Noual.
On the hills east of Maknassy, Group Lang remained through daylight of 8 April, covering the withdrawal of the 10th Panzer Division, 21st Panzer Division, and Division Centauro from points farther south. After dark, Colonel Lang’s command joined the divisions under control of Headquarters, German Africa Corps, to complete the northward march along the Eastern Dorsal.
The pass east of Maknassy, which both sides had so long tried in vain to possess and exploit, was occupied by Combat Team 60 and held until all Axis troops had unmistakably departed. The 1st Armored Division, whether from the Maknassy area, the El Guettar area, or elsewhere, concentrated near Sbeitla and Sidi Bou Zid pending the outcome of operations on the coastal plain between Faid and Fondouk el Aouareb. Only one slim possibility remained of interfering effectively with the withdrawal of the First Italian Army, the German Africa Corps, and Fifth Panzer Army into northeastern Tunisia. This possibility was the use of Fondouk el Aouareb gap to place a strong Allied force on the coastal plain to hit the retreating enemy on the western flank while the Eighth Army pressed from the south. The II Corps might have been used aggressively at this point. Instead, the 9th Infantry Division pulled back at once to the Bou Chebka area, preparatory to an early shift within the week to the extreme northern flank of the British 5 Corps in the Sedjenane area.
The 1st Infantry Division withdrew for five days rest and reorganization near Morsott, north of Tebessa. The 1st Armored Division remained somewhat longer in the Sbeitla-Sidi Bou Zid area. And the 34th Division passed from II Corps to the operational control of British 9 Corps. The 18 Army Group decided to make another attack at Fondouk el Aouareb gap using the army group reserve, reinforced by elements from II Corps and British First Army. Offensive operations by II Corps in central or southern Tunisia were at an end.
SOURCE: Northwest Africa: Seizing The Initiative In The West; by George F. Howe (United States Army Center of Military History)