World War Two: North Africa (7-32) Allied Attack Begins-Tunisia

General Alexander’s plan of attack encountered severe strain at the outset. The preliminary offensive begun by the reduced British Eighth Army on the night of 19—20 April proved difficult and costly. The southernmost positions in the Enfidaville line, which the enemy had converted into mere screening stations held by light forces while taking the main line back onto higher ground, gave way at once. The Allied bombardment of the past few days, culminating in five hours of intensive shelling, drove the Italian defenders off part of the objective and facilitated an advance north of Enfidaville in the zone near the coast.

But the ranking German officer with the Italian First Army, General Bayerlein, was in a forward position, able to organize and control the shift of German forces to contain the penetration and thus to save the line in general on the western and mountainous sector. The Eighth Army captured Takrouna and the southern portion of Djebel Garci (412) about twelve miles to the west at such cost that Montgomery broke off the attack there and planned to pursue it only along the coast. Regrouping for this effort and related measures caused the Eighth Army’s holding attack to be suspended late on 21 April for four days. This suspension at the very time the other attacks were beginning was a serious departure from the army group’s general plan.

An Axis attack in the sector of Goubellat began in the British First Army’s zone while the 9 Corps and 5 Corps were organizing for their attacks of 22 April. It had the effect of a “spoiling attack,” but was less disturbing to 18 Army Group than Montgomery’s cessation of pressure at the southeast. The Axis attack was carried out by the If Hermann Gӧring Division (-) on the night of 20-21 April. It was directed against the heights southeast and south of Medjez el Bab, with the southernmost flank along the edge of the Goubellat plain. Its mission was to lighten Allied pressure on adjacent sectors and disrupt Allied offensive preparations. The attacking troops, under command of General Schmid, were organized into three groups. Just south of the main highway leading into Medjez el Bab, Group Audorff (754th Grenadier Regiment of the 334th Infantry Division) had orders to attack toward “Grenadier Hill” (Djebel Bou Mouss, 250) with a reinforced infantry battalion.

In the center, Group Schirmer (consisting of the Parachute Regiment Hermann Gӧring (- ), reinforced by the 7th Panzer Regiment (-) and supporting troops) had the mission of capturing Allied strongholds on the hills northwest of Goubellat while keep ing close contact with the first group. The third force, Group Funk (a battalion of the Grenadier Regiment Hermann Gӧring), was to protect the southern flank by advancing against the northern foothills of Djebel Rihane (720). As these forces pulled out of their positions to form for the attack, their place in the enemy’s main line of resistance was temporarily taken by two companies of infantry and the 10th Motorcycle Battalion.

Shortly before midnight 20-21 April the Germans jumped off. The attack, favored by surprise, initially wrought some confusion among British troops and penetrated the Allied lines along a twelve-mile sector to a depth of about five miles. But at daybreak, as the enemy ran up against the main British position, the drive stalled. British tanks and artillery moved in and forced the attackers back. After nightfall the Germans withdrew to their original lines. Although the enemy claimed to have taken over 300 prisoners and to have destroyed five batteries of artillery, about 80 trucks and motor vehicles, and seven tanks, at a price of over 300 casualties, he had not been able to deter the Allied offensive in this quarter, but had only subjected its beginnings to greater strain.

British 9 Corps began its planned assault on 22 April when General Crocker sent the 46th Division (General Freeman-Attwood) to gain possession of the high ground west of the Sebkret el Kourzia. The enemy made the best possible use of the terrain he held by defending all major hills in strength and by blocking the approaches with extensive mine fields. The sector under attack was held by two battalions of the Grenadier Regiment Hermann Gӧring and, to the south of the Bou Arada-Pont-du-Fahs road, by a reconnaissance unit and a Tunis Battalion under Headquarters, Regiment Ewert. Two German and two Italian artillery battalions and units of the Flak Regiment Hermann Gӧring, in an antitank role, were in support. The spoiling attack of 20-21 April had confirmed the enemy in his assumption that the Allied offensive was imminent. When therefore the attack of the British 46th Division jumped off after an extraordinarily heavy artillery preparation, the Germans were ready and offered determined resistance. South of the Sebkret el Kourzia they managed to hold.

But north of the marsh, the British successfully penetrated the enemy defense line. Here, late on 23 April, General Crocker committed his 6th Armoured Division to exploit toward the Pont-du-Fahs-Tunis road. General Keightley’s armor rolled into the opening and broke through, forcing the remaining elements of the Grenadier Regiment back onto the hills to the east. The 6th Armoured Division rounded the northern edge of the salt lake and one element drove ahead toward Pont-du-Fahs. Thus the German front had been pierced. The German Africa Corps’ northwest flank was immediately threatened, and beyond it the entire southern front along the Enfidaville Position appeared in danger.

Army Group Africa met the crisis by ordering a withdrawal in the sector of the Africa Corps opposite the French XIX Corps and relinquished control over the Djebels Mansour (678), Chirich (717), and Flirine (988) in favor of a shorter defense line nearer Pont-du-Fahs! Simultaneously, von Arnim ordered the German Africa Corps to extend its front to include the crumbling south wing of the Hermann Gӧring Division and sent Fifth Panzer Army’s only mobile reserve, the 10th Panzer Division (-) into the breach. Here, under the German Africa Corps, the division was soon engaged in a prolonged seesaw battle with General Keightley’s tanks. During the following days the embattled armor was fought to a standstill in the area east and northeast of the Sebkret el Kourzia in the vicinity of a dominating hill known to the Germans as “Kamelberg.”

Losses on both sides were heavy. For the period from 20-26 April Army Group ‘The withdrawal was executed under some pressure from the French XIX Corps, especially in the Kebir river valley. During the night of 24-25 April the Africa Corps completed the movements in good order. In the process General Cramer reorganized his forces. He switched the 21st Panzer Division from the south to the northwest, near the breakthrough area at Pont-du-Fahs. The Superga Division took up positions on the southwestern slopes of Djebel Zarhouan (1295), and Group Schmidt, a composite force consisting of the remaining immobile elements of the 10th Panzer and 21st Panzer Divisions, held the eastern portion of the new defense line to the boundary with the First Italian Army.

[NOTE: Djebel Bou Keurnine (396), about three miles east-northeast of Sebkret eI Kourzia, was named “Camelback Mountain” for its characteristic silhouette. (I) Second Intermediate and Daily Rpt, Army Group Africa to OKH/GenStdH/Op Abt, 24 Apr 43, in Army Group Africa, Sit reps. (2) MS # T-3 (Nehring et al.) Vol. 3a.]

Army Group Africa claimed to have destroyed 162 British tanks, 24 guns, 67 motor vehicles, and 23 planes. After the first two days of battle, the 10th Panzer Division had been reduced to 25 operational tanks. But reinforcements, drawn from the First Italian Army and 15th Panzer Division, increased its strength by 26 April to 55 German and 10 Italian tanks. At the same time Fifth Panzer Army held another tank force of about 15 tanks in support of the 334th Infantry Division, and nearer the Medjerda river.

As the enemy braced himself to meet a resumption of the Allied attack, he found his capabilities seriously reduced. The fuel situation imposed a critical limitation on maneuver and troop transport, while the ammunition shortage threatened to reach dangerous proportions if strong Allied attacks in the south should be resumed. For the time being, however, the Axis counterbalanced its heavy expenditures on the western front with forces withdrawn from the sector opposite Montgomery as he suspended his attack against the Enfidaville Position.

The 10th Panzer and 15th Panzer Divisions were down to about one half of one unit of consumption, limiting their operations to a radius of about thirty miles. The remaining armored units and the two armies were reduced to about one quarter of a unit of consumption. At the prevailing rate of ammunition expenditure the army group estimated its ability to sustain operations as follows: for small arms, three days; for light artillery, five to six days; for medium artillery, three days; for heavy artillery, one to two days; and for antitank units, four days. Rations were sufficient to last through at least another week.

The British 9 Corps offensive of 22-26 April against the Hermann Gӧring Division and the 10th Panzer Division fell short of a break-through. But to prevent it, Army Group Africa had been forced to commit almost all of its mobile reserve, to withdraw from the salient opposite the French XIX Corps, and to expend a critical amount of its dwindling supplies. Thus the attack in the southern portion of the British First Army’s zone had not only gained valuable ground, but inflicted crippling blows.

British 5 Corps (General Allfrey) began its operations nearer the Medjerda river with a preliminary attack on 21 April to retake Longstop Hill (290) after four months of German occupancy. The attempt was resisted for five days with fierce determination by elements of the enemy’s 756th Mountain Regiment (reinforced) of the 334th Division, but the attacking troops of the 78th Division (General Evelegh) made their way doggedly along the ridge from southwest to northeast, much as in late December 1942, except that this time they remained after gaining control of the northeastern tip on 24 April.

The northern flank of Evelegh’s division fought along the loftier Djebel el Ang (668), where the struggle for the ridges near Heidous had ebbed and flowed for a week. South of the Medjerda, the British 1st Division (Major General W. E. Clutterbuck) and the British 4th Division (Major General J. L. I. Hawkesworth) made the principal attack toward Massicault on 23 April. Here the British were opposed by the 754th Grenadier Regiment (Group AudorfJ) and the 501st Heavy Panzer Battalion (reinforced). Grich el Oued, where in December one unit had been surrounded by mire as the attack ended, fell into British possession as these enemy units fell back through Peter’s Corner.

This road junction, where the routes from Medjez el Bab and from Goubellat to Massicault converge about eight miles from Medjez el Bab, was firmly defended. Mine fields covered by artillery, mortar, and heavy machine gun fire slowed the Allied advance, which got as far as Djebel Bou Aoukaz (226) near the river, and Ksar Tyr on the south flank. There the British were stopped by elements of the Hermann Gӧring Division on 26 April.

But the critical sector was in the area of Djebel Bou Aoukaz, scene of some of the early fighting in Tunisia in December 1942. On 24 April Army Group Africa realized that the Allied main effort toward Tunis must be expected south of the Medjerda river. Just as soon as the British 9 Corps attack north and east of the Sebkret el Kourzia had been stopped, von Arnim merged nearly all his remaining armored units into one composite force, Panzer Brigade Irkens He entrusted his most capable tank leader, Colonel Irkens, commander of the 8th Panzer Regiment, 15th Panzer Division, with the command.

[NOTE: Group lrkens initially consisted of all available detchments of 7th Panzer Regiment, 10th Panzer Division; 5th Panzer Regiment, 15th Panzer Division; 5th Panzer Regiment, 21st Panzer Division; 501st heavy Panzer Battalion, 47th Grenadier Regiment; one German and one Italian artillery battalion; and two Flak battalions, in addition to the remnants of Group Audorff, all together armed with somewhat less than 70 tanks, (11 Daily Rpt, Fifth Panzer Army to Army Group Africa, ]

On 28 and 29 April Group lrkens. under the personal supervision of the Fifth Panzer Army commander General von Vaerst, once more wrested the initiative from the British attackers, regained control of the dominating heights of Djebel Bou Aoukaz and stopped the British 5 Corps advance. In these battles which raged from 27-30 April, the Germans claimed to have destroyed 90 Allied tanks. When the Germans took count of their remaining armor, they reported a total of 69 operational tanks including 4 Tigers on 1 May. They had won a Pyrrhic victory since the Axis force had immobilized itself by expending all the available fuel. The small amounts of gasoline that arrived in Tunisia thereafter came by air and had to be sent directly to the units at the front to meet their most urgent needs. Army depots were empty, except for minute quantities held in iron reserve.

Generals von Arnim and von Vaerst now assigned to Group lrkens the most critical sector, that between the Medjerda river and the Medjez el Bah-Tunis highway. This narrowed the 334th Infantry Division’s zone to the north. Irkens’ command was reinforced by the remaining elements of the 15th Panzer Division. The reconnaissance battalions of the Hermann Gӧring Division and 10th Panzer Division were withdrawn from the line, the former to bolster von Manteuffel’s sector in the north, the latter to become Army Group Africa’s only remaining reserve. Thus the Allied attacks had reduced von Arnim’s reserves to one armored battalion. The First Italian Army meanwhile, proved strong enough for its mission of holding the Enfidaville position despite the substantial transfers needed to enable the hard-pressed units of the Fifth Panzer Army to block the direct Allied thrust on Tunis.

The II Corps Plans

General Bradley had devised a plan of attack to meet the directive that II Corps make its main effort in the southern part of its sector. The 18 Army Group conceived the II Corps mission as initially merely to guarantee the security of the British 5 Corps northern flank while the latter made the principal Allied attack along the Medjerda river. The corps therefore placed major emphasis on the effort by the U.S. 1st Infantry Division to gain control of the high ground between the Sidi Nsir-Mateur road and the Tine river valley, and of the hills rising on the southern side of that valley as far as the watershed between it and the Medjerda. The southwestern approaches to Mateur and the hills adjacent to Chouigui pass (from the Tine valley to the coastal plain near Tebourba) were ultimate objectives in this part of the II Corps zone.

The 9th Infantry Division was expected simultaneously to threaten Mateur from the west and to close the roads west of the Garaet Ichkeul. In general, the 1st Infantry Division was to move through the zone of Blade Force’s late November thrust and the 9th Infantry Division was to circumvent the barriers on the Sedjenane-Mateur highway which the British 36th Brigade Group had then found impregnable. In its plan of approach to Mateur and Chouigui, II Corps applied the lessons so painfully learned during recent weeks farther south. The upper Tine river valley was a tempting route, for the terrain near the river banks, despite the lack of good roads, promised smoother transit for vehicles than the hillsides. But the valley here consisted of several broad alluvial plains connected by narrowing gaps between closely adjacent hills, and it was labeled “The Mousetrap.” The enemy could be expected to convert this route into a succession of positions in which he could fully exploit his defensive advantages.

Mine fields, antitank and artillery positions, and observation posts would be in readiness and would enable the enemy to subject any attacking force to ruinous losses. Instead, therefore, of fighting the enemy with co-ordinated infantry, artillery, and armor on terrain where he might be most efficient. the II Corps chose to fight him on the hills where he might be weaker but where the terrain almost precluded the use of Allied armor, as well as being a serious obstacle to rapid advance by other arms. After initially occupying the hills west of the Tine river’s headwaters, the Americans would seize the high ground on either side of the valley, thus avoiding The Mousetrap until ground from which it could be dominated had been brought into American control, and mines had been cleared from routes along the stream. Then the U.S. 1st Armored Division would be employed in a swift thrust toward Mateur. The 9th Infantry Division (reinforced) was also to be sent over the northern hills rather than along the lower ground in its zone as it set about the task of flanking and cutting off the Djefna position.

The enemy had had months to develop strongly some of his most advantageously situated defensive positions. He had excavated dugouts with pneumatic drills, and had strengthened them with concrete. Defiles between hills and approaches up the slopes and in the draws were freely sown with antipersonnel mines. Routes likely to be used by American patrols, and good points of observation which the enemy would have to evacuate as he retired, were also heavily mined. The 47th Infantry, for example, found one small area of 50 by 100 feet in which as many as 600 mines had been placed.

American superiority in artillery was to be exploited fully. The corps, including the weapons of the cannon companies, had 24 heavy, 72 medium, and 228 light artillery pieces. Allotted to the 1st Infantry Division’s initial attack were its own three battalions of 105-mm. howitzers and one battalion of 155-mm. howitzers supplemented by the corps artillery of six battalions of 105-mm. (of which five were armored), three battalions of 155-mm. howitzers, and two battalions of 155-mm. field guns (less one battery). The 9th Infantry Division had four battalions of 105-mm. howitzers (of which one was armored) , two battalions of 155-mm. howitzers, and one battery of 155-mm. guns.

Preparations for the Attack in the North U.S. II Corps opened its attack during the early hours of 23 April with a tremendous artillery preparation. In some respects, the ensuing operations were simultaneous but nonetheless distinguishable and to some degree independent, with but a very thin connection between the northern attack by the U.S. 9th Infantry Division (reinforced) under General Eddy and the southern advance by the U.S. 1st Infantry Division (reinforced) under General Allen. The 9th Infantry Division’s attack will be considered first and then the one by General Allen’s troops.

General Eddy’s forces, the 39th, 47th, and 60th Infantry Regiments, and the Corps Franc d’ Afrique (CFA), [NOTE: (I) 9th Div AAR, II Apr- 8 May 43, 10 Sep 43, and 39th, 47th, and 60th AAR’s. (2) Giraud Hq, Rapport des operations, pp. 52-53. (3) The Corps Franc d’Afrique (under 4,000 men) was established by General Giraud as a special unit intended to utilize all elements in French North Africa-politically active French subjects, non-French refugees, natives and Jews under restrictions-who could not readily be put in the regular French Army. They had already fought as part of British First Army, in British uniforms. General de Monsabert had originally commanded the Corps Franc d ‘Afrique.] with supporting units, all participated from the start. Their mission, it should be remembered, was to reduce the enemy’s strongly fortified Djefna position on Green and Bald Hills astride the Djebel Abiod-Mateur highway and railroad, and to gain control of the road along the western edge of the Garaet Ichkenl. The divisional zone extended in land from a point on the coast east of Cap Serrat for over twenty miles. Two means of approach toward the objectives crossed this area from southwest to northeast. The improved highway and railroad which ran through the narrow valley between Green Hill and Bald Hill under the guns of the Djefna position used the first approach route, and an unimproved track about half way between this route and the seacoast used the second. The Sedjenane and Malah river valleys, through which those shallow streams flowed into the Garaet Ichkeul, separated three belts of rough terrain, covered by major hills and ridges and cut transversely by many shorter valleys, fringed with deep draws and gulches. The resulting topography was a jumbled series of hills dominated by high crests, of which six towered so boldly above the remainder that they became the keys to successful operations in their vicinity. North of the Sedjenane river was the Djebel Dardyss (294).

Between the Sedjenane and the Malah were “Big Ainchouna” (438) and “Little Ainchouna” (432); Djebel el Akrat (513) was in the southwestern sector; and at the northeast was one of several Kef en Nsours in Tunisia (Hill 523). This Kef en Nsour was so placed at the western edge of Garaet Ichkeul that it furnished excellent observation over movement in either the Sed jenane or Malah river valleys or toward Mateur. Within the 9th Infantry Division zone, no north-south road of consequence existed west of that which skirted Garaet Ichkeul at the eastward base of Kef en Nsour.

Where that road swung easterly toward Bizerte, it crossed a stream bed, the Douimis river, and then entered a narrow shelf at the base of the Djebel Cheniti, an advantageous position from which to oppose an attacking force. The area to be traversed by General Eddy’s command was somewhat to the east of the principal rain forest of the north coast but was extensively covered with thick brush, much of it about five feet high and so dense as to impede contact even within small units.

The 9th Division could not advance along the southern edge of its zone to attempt envelopment of the Djefna position except over very rough ground and under good enemy observation. The 47th Infantry was therefore sent forward nearer the road to engage in holding attacks while a flanking movement was tried at the north.

The 39th Infantry was there expected to slip by Green Hill in order to cut communications between the Djefna position and Mateur or Bizerte, while the 60th Infantry advanced along a still more northerly path before swinging to the southeast for the same purpose. The Corps Franc d’ Afrique was to seize Kef en Nsour. For the 47th Infantry’s attack toward the Djefna position, the 84th and 185th Field Artillery Battalions, and four 155-mm. guns of Battery C, 36th Field Artillery Battalion, with the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion (after 26 April), were committed in support. For the push farther north on either side of the Sedjenane valley by the 39th and 60th Infantry, the 9th Reconnaissance Troop reconnoitered the south side and the 894th Tank Destroyer Battalion, the north side of the river. The 26th, 34th, and 60th Field Artillery Battalions and the 62nd Armored Field Artillery Battalion, and units of the 434th Coast Artillery (AA) Battalion furnished supporting fires for these two regiments and for the Corps Franc d’ Afrique. Enough flexibility was retained between the two artillery groups to permit mutual support when needed.

General Eddy’s division faced the main body of Division von Manteuffel. In the north, the 962nd Infantry Regiment defended the sector from the coast to the hills south of the Sedjenane river valley with four battalions. Next to it, the 160th Panzer Grenadier Regiment held a nine-mile zone with another three battalions. Von Manteuffel’s third regiment, Barenthin, was still farther south, opposite the U.S. 1st Infantry Division. In the hills which the 9th Infantry had to win were therefore initially seven enemy infantry battalions. On 27 and 28 April two Italian units and two German reconnaissance battalions would raise this figure to a total of nine battalion-size units.

Effective combat strength of all of these forces was approximately 5,000 men, about one fourth of whom were Italians. Headquarters, 962nd Infantry Regiment, was technically part of the 999th Infantry Division whose commander was shot down during his flight to Tunisia. Division headquarters was never organized. Within the sector of the 962nd Infantry Regiment were initially the remnants of the 10th Bersaglieri Regiment amounting to a battalion, and by 27 April, the 5th Bersaglieri Regiment, and Battalion Grado of the San Marco Regiment (Marines), which had been pulled out of the Africa Corps sector earlier; the 2nd Battalion, 962nd Infantry Regiment; the 11th Parachute Engineer Battalion (Witzig); and the Deutsch-Arabische Lerh Abteilung (German-Arabian Training Battalion) which was the only unit that was left of the Regimental Command of German-Arabian Troops. The command had been organized into the Moroccan, Algerian, 1st and 2nd Tunisian, and the Training Battalions. The volunteer battalions, two of them on eamels, proved unreliable and were converted to labor battalions, then disbanded. The Headquarters, 160th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, controlled the 1st and 4th Tunis Battalions and the 30th Africa Battalion. Regiment Barenthin consisted of three organic battalions. The two battalions sent to reinforce Manteuffel were the Reconnaissance Battalion, Hermann Gӧring Division, and the 334th Reconnaissance Battalion.

Enemy artillery positions had been carefully and correctly spotted by British and American reconnaissance before the attack began. Two 170-mm. guns, a battery of 150- m. guns and another of 105-mm. howitzers, and nearest the front, some self-propelled 75-mm. howitzers, faced the southern part of the attacking force, while opposite the northern elements were another battery of 105-mm. and a few 75-mm. howitzers. Some of these weapons were to be shifted to the north after the attack had been in progress for a few days, and six or more 88-mm. dual-purpose guns were then brought forward, but at the beginning of the attack the Americans knew where to direct neutralizing counterbattery fire. British intelligence had also mapped the enemy’s works at the Djefna position as well as at the head of the Sedjenane valley, thus assisting the 9th Infantry Division to undertake an enveloping movement to avoid the prepared positions.

General Eddy’s command planned not only to work around the enemy’s stronger positions but in doing so to make full use of the preponderance of American over Axis artillery. That superiority was very large, for the attacking forces had eighty-three artillery pieces plus antitank and antiaircraft weapons. Antiaircraft protection of gun positions, command posts, and the Djebel Abiod-Sedjenane road was furnished by one battery each from the 67th and 107th, and by the entire 434th Coast Artillery (AA) Battalion. For reconnaissance and antitank protection, in addition to the 9th Reconnaissance Troop, the 91st Reconnaissance Squadron and two tank destroyer battalions were attached.

The Attack in the North Begins As the attack opened on 23 April the Corps Franc d’ Afrique and the 60th Infantry on the north side of the Sedjenane river, the 39th Infantry opposite Djebel Ainchouna (Hills 432 and 438), and the 47th Infantry south of the Sed jenaneMateur road and railroad, started for their objectives at 0530. The 60th Infantry at the north and the 47th Infantry at the south easily reached their D-Day objectives and continued further eastward. The Corps Franc d’ Afrique ran into trouble. Against stronger resistance, the 39th Infantry in the center sought even less successfully to occupy its objective, Djebel Ainchouna, from a base on the Djebel el Garsia (295), to the west of it. The 1st and 3rd Battalions, 39th Infantry, moved to a line of departure at the base of Hill 432 during the previous night, and attacked with the 3rd Battalion on the right. The 1st Battalion achieved the crest of Hill 432 and tried to swing along the ridge to the higher summit of Hill 438, stretching off to the northeast. A counterattack on its left rear in the latter part of the afternoon arrested its progress. The 3rd Battalion reached a point about half a mile south of Hill 432, and then tried to get on to the hill itself through dense underbrush and over steep rocky crevasses and cliffs. One company got only as far as the base of its objective; the rest were farther back.

Control of the regiment was disrupted by the intrusion on Djebel el Garsia of an enemy force of approximately 150 men which cut off and captured the regimental commander, Colonel J. Trimble Brown, his executive officer, the commanding officer of his 2nd Battalion, and a small force stationed at the regimental observation post. One American group shot its way out. Then Company G, 39th Infantry, cut off the enemy and freed several other Americans while capturing some Germans, and killing or wounding about forty-five more. Papers which the enemy seized at the observation post were not recovered. The first day’s attack by the 9th Infantry Division thus ended with its main thrust in the center frustrated and with the enemy organizing his defense more strongly.

Casualties and confusion, moreover, jeopardized chances of a successful renewal of the attack next day. During the night, 23-24 April, Brigadier General Donald A. Stroh, the assistant division commander, took temporary command of the 39th Infantry Regiment pending the arrival of the new commanding officer, Colonel William L. Ritter. The regiment got set for a hard fight next day. And they had such a fight. It was not until the afternoon of 25 April that Hill 438 was held by the two battalions, after both had worked their way along the ridge. The 1st Battalion in the lead had lost its commander, executive officer, intelligence officer, and heavy weapons company commander, and on 24 April was severely reduced by casualties and straggling. But it had pushed on, with the 3rd Battalion south of it, to occupy the crest and two principal shoulders, and to get ready for any enemy counterattack.

On 26 April, the 2nd Battalion, 39th Infantry, continued the attack southeast of Djebel Ainchouna along a second ridge with its peak at Hill 513. Meeting slight resistance, it was able to continue on 27 April to another ridge about four miles beyond Djebel Ainchouna to the east. There the enemy was found in strength, and was engaged first by an advance platoon of Company G, next by the rest of the company, and, after considerable artillery fire on the enemy’s mortars and presumed positions on the northeastern slopes, by the rest of the 2nd Battalion. The whole battalion was soon under fire from what it identified as six 88-mm. guns to the east-southeast at Sidi Bou Zitouna. Heavy machine gun fire from a hill to the south soon supplemented that of the 88’s. The battalion was at the end of a tortuous line of supply, with mules picking up from motor traffic, and with two to three miles of hand-carrying beyond the “mulehead.” It was advised to dig in and hold its positions. Thus at the conclusion of four days of fighting, the 39th Infantry in the center of the 9th Infantry Division’s attack had been stopped about two miles north of Green Hill, northern anchor of the Djefna position. There the regiment remained for the next four days.

The 47th Infantry’s mission south of the 39th Infantry was to keep up a continuous aggressive demonstration in front of the Djefna position in an effort to keep the defenders pinned down, while farther to the north the 39th and 60th Infantry advanced on flanking missions to try to cut them off. After initial success in seizing the hills nearest the line of departure, the troops met resistance, principally in the form of enemy artillery fire and combat patrols. The enemy expended his artillery ammunition parsimoniously and never in concentrations exceeding six weapons.

After three days, orders from II Corps were to keep pushing eastward “until you draw something.” For its part the 1st Battalion, 47th Infantry, executed this order by working forward as far as a group of hills southwest of Bald Hill, of which the highest was Hill 598. On the afternoon of 26 April, strong fire revealed the enemy’s presence there in force.

The 3rd Battalion (Captain Gordon H. Sympson), operating north of the road and railroad in a narrowing zone, moved to Hill 398, near the western limit of an open area at the base of Green Hill, and sent patrols through the area. One patrol eventually reported going as far as the western slope of Green Hill. Contact with the 2nd Battalion, 39th Infantry, to the north was lost during this phase.

While the 39th Infantry was painfully wresting the vantage point of Djebel Ainchouna from the enemy, and the 47th Infantry slowly approached the enemy’s main position, the 60th Infantry’s simultaneous attack on the other side of the Sed jenane river progressed more readily. The terrain rather than the enemy presented the major difficulties. The relatively speedy advance by the 60th Infantry could be attributed in part to the determination and courage of its men. One outstanding example was Sergeant William L. Nelson, who commanded a section of heavy mortars needed desperately to check an enemy counterattack at Djebel Dardyss (Hill 294) on the second day. Under intense fire, he crawled to a good observation post from which to direct on the enemy concentrations of such effectiveness that they brought the German counterattack to a halt. The enemy then tried to drive Nelson off and wounded him mortally with hand grenades. Through the fire which swept the area, he nevertheless crawled farther toward a more exposed but still more effective point of observation from which his direction of fire resulted in further weakening the opposition to the American assault. Djebel Dardyss remained in American possession.

On April, the 60th Infantry had run ahead of its supplies and stopped to permit the accumulation of necessary materiel in forward dumps, as rapidly as donkeys and burros could bring it. The Corps Franc d’ Afrique had experienced severe difficulties at Hill 107, about three miles north of Djebel Dardyss, and by 25 April clearly required reinforcement and stronger support to overcome the enemy units in its path of advance. The 60th Infantry was therefore deflected northeastward from its original route. It was directed to outflank from the south the enemy occupying DjebeI Touro (499) and the adjacent high ground through which the French must pass to reach the final group of hills north of Garaet Ichkeul. Kef en Nsour thus also became an objective for the 60th Infantry. By 26 April, the 9th Infantry Division was adapting its 22 For this heroic exploit, Sergeant Nelson was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The II Corps Southern Attack Begins

The southern portion of the II Corps front, that initially held by the 1st Infantry Division, reinforced, extended southeasterly about fourteen miles from the vicinity of Djebel Grembil (499), west of Sidi Nsir, to that of Djebel Bech Chekaoui (667), five miles west of Heidous. The northern limit of this zone of attack stretched to the northeast along the heights between the Malah and Djoumine rivers, while the southern edge extended toward Tebourba and Djedelda, along the crest of Djebel Lanserine ( 569). Like the 9th Infantry Division zone, that of the 1st Infantry Division embraced two river valleys which trended generally northeastward and three belts of ridges and hills on either side of the two valleys.

The Tine river flowed through alluvial basins wide enough at most points to furnish a substantial gap between the southern belt of rough terrain and that in the center. The center section was so irregular and so strongly occupied as to require from the beginning of the attack the full strength of the 1st Infantry Division. The northern flank along the Djoumine river was therefore protected by Company B, 81st Reconnaissance Battalion, which maintained contact with the 91st Armored Reconnaissance Squadron on the southern flank of the 9th Infantry Division, and by the 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry, temporarily attached to the 1st Infantry Division. The southern wing of the 1st Division sector was taken over by the 6th Armored Infantry (less the 2nd Battalion). This unit had relieved a battalion of the 18th Infantry on Djebel Bechkaoui on 21-22 April, and next day had reconnoitered in preparation for attack along the heights north of Djebel el Ang (Hill 668) and Heidous, all the while in steady contact with the British 78th Division on the British 5 Corps northern flank. Division von Manteuffel held not only the enemy line in front of the 9th Infantry Division but part of that in the southern portion of the II Corps zone of advance.

The area nearest Sidi Nsir thus was defended by the three battalions of Luftwaffe Regiment Barenthin and the remainder by the northern wing of the 334th Infantry Division. The area near Sidi Nsir and the sector extending north for about ten miles was defended by two battalions of Luftwaffe Regiment Barenthin with a third battalion in reserve. Southward from this area, across the Tine river valley, to the heights of Djebel Lanserine, was the main body of the 334th Infantry Division. The eight infantry battalions holding the front were organized in three regiments. North of the Medjerda river were the 755th Infantry, a provisional headquarters, and the 756th Mountain Regiment. Two more battalions and elements of the 504th Heavy Panzer Battalion were in tactical reserve. The 334th Division sector to the south, across the Medjerda river to the Medjez el Bah–Tunis highway (inclusive), was held by the 754th Infantry Regiment. There British 5 Corps was attacking at the same time that the U.S. II Corps was engaged on its northern flank.

The terrain over which the 1st Infantry Division and other southern elements of II Corps were to advance was covered with less dense underbrush than that to the north. Its valleys held cultivated fields of short, swiftly maturing wheat and numerous olive groves extending up the lower slopes. The hills were rocky, covered at best with thin grass, but the contours were generally more rounded than those at EI Guettar, for example. Most of the hills occurred in groups so related that several had to be attacked simultaneously. Their proximity to each other enabled the enemy to furnish supporting fire from hill to hill. Furthermore, the enemy’s sweeping observation from certain loftier crests made it possible for him to direct artillery and mortar fire by batteries well to the rear, and even out of range of American artillery, and to prevent surprise in daylight operations. Of the higher hills, Djebel Tahent (Hill 609), three miles east of Sidi Nsir, was an outstanding example of a major objective surrounded by lesser hills in an interlocking system of defense. There were other clusters, with the one containing Hill 575, near the road from Bedja to Sidi Nsir, requiring protracted and costly efforts by the attacking force.

The three combat teams (26th, 16th, and 18th) of the 1st Infantry Division attacked early on 23 April after very heavv artillery preparation against the principal crests and forward slopes of the first objective. The summits were identified as Hill 575 (Kef el Goraa) at the northwest, Hill 400 in the center, and Hills 407 (Djebel el Beida) and 350 (Djebel Rmel) at the southeast. Each was the nucleus of a group of hills in a rugged area from two to seven miles southeast of Sidi Nsir, and north or northeast of a semicircular arc of lower ground. The path of advance beyond these first groups between the Tine valley and the Sidi Nsir-Chouigui road became an area of strongly defined, somewhat converging ridges and valleys, with Djebel Touta (444) Djebel el Berakine (391 ) Djebel el Anz (289) on the north and Djebel Sidi Meftah (341) and Djebel Badjar (278) on the south. The topography of this subarea differed from that of the tangled hill masses farther north across the road, near Hill 609. Once the attack had pushed beyond the first line, the elements of the division on the right would be drawn along the ridges toward a narrowing front, while the remainder of the division was being committed to terrain much more like that in which the attack began.

Hill 575 was the bulbous western extremity of a saw-tooth ridge which extended for 7,000 yards almost due east, where a low saddle separated it from Djebel Sidi Meftah. Hill 400, not quite 3,000 yards to the southeast of Hill 575, was surrounded by rounded knobs and bold heights. Hill 407, 3,100 yards farther southeast and Hill 350, almost as far again in the same direction, could each be approached from the west over gently rolling ground but each was flanked by other hills in close proximity on north, east, and south. The plan of attack sent the 26th Infantry against Hill 575, the 16th against 400, and the 18th to gain Hills 407 and 350. In each instance, adjacent crests had to be occupied before the major objective could be taken and held. The central thrust by Combat Team 16 against Hill 400 first crossed some gentle slopes to the bases of two hills located 600 and 1,000 yards to the southwest of the objective. Each of these eminences was firmly defended, particularly with automatic and mortar fire, and with the greatest stubbornness. The attack promised to succeed by the next day but by nightfall had not gained firm possession of Hill 400.

On the south wing the 2nd Battalion, 18th Infantry (Lt. Colonel Ben Sternberg), attacked Hill 350 while the 3rd Battalion was sent against Hill 407. A specific objective on Hill 350 was the “Windmill Farm” on its southern slopes. The 2nd Battalion gained, lost, and regained the crest before daylight, and then lost it to a strong infantry counterattack from the northeast, made with direct artillery support which hurt the American units severely. To take the hill in daylight from a fully alerted defending force, a dense artillery preparation was delivered prior to 1145 hours, and then Company F, 18th Infantry, supported by one company of light tanks of the 1st Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment, drove the Germans off the hill by an assault from the northeast despite intense machine gun, mortar, and artillery fire. Some 60 prisoners were taken, identified as from the 3rd Tunis Battalion. The 2nd Battalion, 18th Infantry, lost 43 killed, 161 wounded, and 20 missing during the day. The division’s southern flank in the high ground above the Tine river valley was securely established.

The 3rd Battalion, 18th Infantry (Lieutenant Colonel C. P. Brown), went against a stronger opponent in trying to take Hill 407 . Its numerous shoulders, separated by bare draws, enabled the defenders to cover the approaches with machine gun and mortar fire. The enemy also received reinforcements from the north and east during the day.

The attack followed a twenty-minute artillery preparation and at about 0430 hours brought the head of the American column to the southwestern base of Hill 407, where the troops began receiving considerable machine gun fire. One platoon of Company L reached the upper slopes only to be cut off and captured, while the remainder of the battalion was driven into a deep draw and pinned down there for the rest of the day. The 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry, was then released from division reserve to pass through the 3rd Battalion during the early morning and to resume the attack. By the time this relief was completed, the 3rd Battalion’s casualties were 17 killed, 73wounded, and 48 missing in action.

The northern wing of the 1st Infantry Division’s attack was undertaken by the 26th Infantry. Colonel Bowen planned to employ the 3rd Battalion in a limited holding attack toward two hills between Hill 575 and the Bedja-Sidi Nsir road, while the 1st and 2nd Battalions seized Hill 575, Hill 549, just east of it, and other heights northeast of them, in order to protect the north flank of Combat Team 16. After the artillery preparation, the attacking troops would follow a rolling barrage. The attack on Hill 575 would require an approach from the west by the 1st Battalion and from the southwest by the 2nd Battalion. Finally, six medium tanks of the 13th Armored Regiment were to go along the road to Sidi Nsir as a diversion, while the 26th’s Antitank Company and two platoons from the 701st Tank Destroyer Battalion protected a roadblock behind them.

The attack before dawn soon revealed that the enemy was strongly established on Hill 575. The 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry, occupied a hill a thousand yards west of Hill 5 7 5 without serious opposition, but then came under fire too strong for the battalion to continue eastward onto Hill 575. Likewise, the 2nd Battalion, 26th Infantry, could secure no foothold on Hill 575 from the southwest, and General Roosevelt estimated that to take it would be “a tough fight.” More artillery fire was called for, and the American forces withdrew until the hill could thus be softened up and reinforcements could arrive. Under this fire, the enemy was also reinforced, and he dug additional positions among concrete emplacements which he had already constructed on the western slopes. The 3rd Battalion, 26th Infantry, was directed to plan for participation in the attack after it had been relieved next day by the 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry.

[NOTE 32-30: (1) Msg, 2240, 23 Apr 43, Entry 77, in 1st Div G-3 Jnl. (2) The 168th Infantry, with Company C of the 701st Tank Destroyer Battalion attached, relieved the 26th Infantry on the night of 24-25 April. 168th Inf FO 14, 24 Apr 43. (3) 1st Div G-3 Opns Rpt, 24 Apr 43. (4) Msg, 24 Apr 43,Entry 44, in II Corps G-3 Int]

South of the Tine river, the first day’s attack also met with a limited success. There the dismounted 6th Armored Infantry (less the 2nd Battalion) under command of Colonel Robert I. Stack sent its 3rd Battalion against three adjacent hills northwest of Heidous. The three objectives were Hill 420, the western height of a curving ridge (Djebel Bateune Slama) in the center, Hill 388 to the north, and Hill 485 to the southeast. The crests were approximately one mile apart but the rugged slopes dropped to narrow defiles and were under observation or fire from each other. Stack’s men took Hill 388 at the edge of the valley but could not retain it against the enemy’s counterattack.

Hill 420’s western slopes were seized and held, but the attack on the northeastern slopes of Hill 485 was successfully stopped by flanking fire from the high ground farther east on Djebel Bateune Slama. The natural advantages for defense in this extraordinarily rough terrain required a considerably stronger effort if the infantry was to succeed in pushing ahead.

The first day’s operations of the reinforced 1st Infantry Division established the relative strength of the enemy’s defenses at certain points along the broad front. The 26th Infantry at Hill 575, the 18th Infantry at Hill 407, and the 6th Armored Infantry at Hill 420 ran into resistance not only from well-placed enemy positions on the main objective but also from adjacent heights. They had already sampled the enemy’s effective placing of mine fields, and had taken note of his ability to organize counterattacking forces rapidly in order to regain lost ridges. The fact that it would be necessary for the Americans to follow their artillery preparation closely in order to occupy any ground for effective defense against counterattack was confirmed. Which hills to seize as the key crests in the various interlocking groups had also been ascertained during the first day’s attack.

On 24 April, the 16th Infantry’s experience was an outstanding example of the widening consequences of a success at a particular hill. The 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry, fought its way to the top of Hill 469 (Djebel Berboukr) in a battle which took much of the day. As the battalion cleared the enemy from that height in the late afternoon, the 3rd Battalion, 16th Infantry, which had been pinned down by flanking fire from Hill 469, was at last able to push northeastward up Hill 394 (Djebel Bou Achour), about a mile east of Hill 469. At the same time, the 2nd Battalion, 26th Infantry, extended its line eastward along the ridge south of Hill 575 toward Hill 469, and held its positions there. Thus the 1st Infantry Division’s line was pushed forward, southeast of Hill 575, until it faced almost north on a front nearly four miles long.

The 3rd Battalion, 18th Infantry, had been stopped at the base of Hill 407 for much of 23 April, but the 1st Battalion, which passed through the 3rd during the night, readily captured the crest after a thirty-minute artillery preparation. Two infantry companies and the heavy weapons company dug in to hold it against counterattack, while patrols and elements of the 701st Tank Destroyer Battalion worked through the valleys to the east. They confirmed the presence on Hill 346, the next ridge 1,500 yards to the northeast, of an undetermined number of the enemy, supported by an 88-mm. dual-purpose battery, two tanks, and a self-propelled gun.

South of the Tine valley the 6th Armored Infantry, on 24-25 April, renewed its attack against the same three hills it had assaulted the day before. A reinforced company of the 1st Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry, tried unsuccessfully to gain Hill 388 on the north, while elements of the 3rd Battalion swung around the southern side of Hill 485 in order to strike it from the southeast, in defilade from Djebel Bateune Slama (Hill 420). Before completing these measures, the Americans won all three hills by default as the enemy pulled back under a certain amount of pressure during a general Axis withdrawal undertaken on 25 April. The next line at which he appeared ready to resume his stand was about four miles to the northeast, on a group of hills located at a point where the Tine valley pivots to the north.

The II Corps modified the scheme of attack between Sidi Nsir and the Tine valley after the second day’s operations in view of certain factors-the enemy’s firmer grip on the hills near Sidi Nsir, the successes thus far attained near the northern edge of the Tine, the prospective arrival of the whole 34th Infantry Division, and the availability of Headquarters, 1st Armored Division, to assume responsibility for operations in the Tine valley and on the extreme south flank.

General Allen’s front was narrowed to take account also of the salient over which his attack had already advanced. The 26th and 18th Infantry were expected to converge as the former drove along the ridges of Djebel Touta-Djebel el Berakine-Djebel el Anz to the eastern edge of the mountain area, and the latter advanced along the steep-sided Djebel Sidi Meftah to Djebel Bad jar. The 16th Infantry would be pinched out and held in divisional reserve. The 6th Armored Infantry was expected to gain control of the heights east of Djebel Badjar where the Tine river runs through a narrow defile before crossing the Sidi Nsir-Chouigui Road.

By the time the attack jumped off early on 25 April, the enemy had pulled quietly back. Only security detachments remained to protect the enemy’s retirement, but his artillery was zeroed in to strike the hills under American attack once they were occupied, and succeeded at 0400 in driving the American troops off two of them (Hills 469 and 394) for a time.3G The enemy left booby-trapped mine fields as he withdrew to a new line.

He appeared to be in greater strength than before on Hill 473, a mile and a half west of Sidi Nsir, but by 2000 the 1st Infantry Division had occupied the western end of Djebel Sidi Meftah, and the hills leading to it from the southwest; Djebel Touta, close to the Sidi Nsir-Chouigui road, and hills directly west of Djebel Touta; and in the Tine valley, was at a line which stretched southeastward to advanced elements of the 6th Armored Infantry at Point 350, about a mile and a half north of Djebel el Ang (668) .31 General Allen intended to continue on 26 April toward the intermediate objectives sketched in the current plan of attack, but the 1st Infantry Division’s salient was projecting well into enemy-held territory with a northern flank extending for 10,000 yards along the road to Chouigui. For operations on 26 April, the fourth day of the offensive, the 1st Infantry Division would no longer have the support of the 1st Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment, which returned to the control of the 1st Armored Division during the preceding night, but instead was to be supported on the northwestern flank by the 168th Infantry. That unit had not only occupied Hills 344 and 533, northwest of Hill 575, but now took over from the 26th Infantry the mopping up on Hill 575.

Through a heavy early morning fog on 26 April, General Allen’s troops toiled and groped along the ridges of Djebel Sidi-Meltah and Djebel Touta almost as far as their eastern extremities. Patrols in the forenoon crossed to the area north of the Sidi Nsir-Chouigui road, southeast of Hill 609. Observers on newly gained heights spotted enemy troop movements and directed artillery fire on many points, including the top of Hill 609. General Allen formulated a tentative modification of the division’s objectives before the day was over. The new divisional front under this revision would be narrowed to less than five miles, to be held by one battalion each from the 26th and 18th Infantry Regiments, at a line running eastward from Hill 531 (about a thousand yards south of Hill 609) over the western end of Djebel el Anz and then southeastward via the eastern slopes of Djebel Sidi-Melitah to the Tine river valley. Other units were then to reconnoiter in preparation for eventual resumption of the advance, and the 16th Infantry was alerted for possible commitment on the left of the 26th Infantry along the northern edge of the divisional zone in co-ordination with the 34th Infantry Division’s operations to seize Hill 609.

The operations of U.S. II Corps by 26 April had shown how hard a fight must be expected before it could open the way to Mateur either at the north through the envelopment of the Djefna position or at the south by driving the enemy from the hills on either side of the Tine river valley. In the center, the front had been pushed along the Sidi Nsir-Chouigui road far enough to deny its use to the enemy but not far enough for use by American traffic. The enemy had hung on persistently to Hill 575 and to those hills near Sidi Nsir which he had defended successfully for the last two days against the 168th Infantry.

On 26 April, General Ryder’s 34th Infantry Division assumed responsibility for a zone between the 9th and 1st Infantry Divisions, from Djebel Grembil (499) and Djebel el Hara (473) on the northwest to Hill 575 on the southeast. At the same time elements of Combat Command B, 1st Armored Division, were searching out areas in which they could provide greater support, but the policy of II Corps was to keep the division concentrated for a swifter thrust, later, out of The Mousetrap and into the more open countryside near Mateur. General Bradley did not intend to squander his mobile strength in winning a path through the enemy’s antitank defenses.

The entire Allied offensive after two days had coerced the enemy into shortening his line by a general withdrawal to a second set of positions, but by 26 April the progress of the attack was slowed from one end of that line to the other.

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 (7-33) Allied Advance To Mateur

World War Two: North Africa (7-31) Allied Drive to Victory


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