World War Two: North Africa (7-35) Fruits of Victory

French Unification: The Allied victory parade in Tunis took place on 20 May. French administrative ties with General Giraud’s government in Algiers had already been re-established by the temporary assignment of General Juin as Resident General. French troops were prominent among the marchers, with the warmest applause going to the Moroccan goumiers. On the reviewing stand with Generals Eisenhower and Giraud were Generals Anderson and Juin, Admiral Cunningham, and Air Chief Marshal Tedder nearby Were about fifty other commanders and leading staff officers-American, British, and French. The ceremony was both a celebration of victory and a commemoration of the many whose sacrifices had made it possible. Ten days after the parade in Tunis, General de Gaulle arrived in Algiers to conclude with Giraud the negotiations through which they had already agreed upon a method of uniting their followers. Preliminary exchanges, largely through the mediation of General Georges Catroux, had cleared the path to organization of a nucleus of what was eventually called the French Committee of National Liberation. The two free and actively belligerent sections of the French nation which had accepted leadership by Giraud and de Gaulle, respectively, were thus to be welded into a single entity. The Anglo-American high command gave direct and close attention to these transactions, since the security of the northwest African base and the contribution of French forces to the projected invasion of continental Europe were involved. De Gaulle came to a French North Africa where political sentiment had changed remarkably since 8 November 1942, and even since Giraud’s accession to the position from which Darlan had been so abruptly removed by death.

Although Giraud in May 1943, could claim the respectful admiration of thousands, his popularity had by this time somewhat diminished despite the recent victory, while de Gaulle had gained in popularity with the resistance movements of continental France and among part of the French population in Northwest Africa.

The strongest impediment to the merger of the French Korth and West African administration under Giraud and de Gaulle’s French National Committee was the determination of the Gaullists to proscribe or punish Frenchmen who had accepted the authority of Marshal Petain. This vindictiveness had been shown toward Giraud himself by de Gaulle’s entourage during the Casablanca Conference, and toward other men actually engaged in fighting the Germans, by General LeClerc, the distinguished Gaullist officer, when Giraud later met him at Montgomery’s Eighth Army command post. The Gaullists seemed to others to be victimized by their own propaganda, which declared that any connection with Marshal Petain’s government was a disqualification for responsible service against the Axis powers. They had carried it so far that when LeClerc’s forces were in proximity to those of Koeltz’s XIX Corps, at a time when the latter were in contact with the enemy, LeClerc’s men had even engaged in recruiting activities among them. In the victory parade in Tunis, the Gaullists refused to march in a French section with Giraud’s troops, preferring, with General Anderson’s permission, to march with British units in the Eighth Army. The attitude which such incidents revealed made unification most difficult.

Although Giraud and de Gaulle compromised on other matters successfully, they could not reach a satisfactory understanding over the control of the French armed forces, for which the Allies were supplying the munitions. De Gaulle proposed to make Giraud the commander in chief only of that part of the French forces actually engaged against the enemy, while reserving for himself, as Commissioner of Defense, full control over the entire French military establishment.

Giraud was unwilling to accept so subordinate a role or to subject the French Army which he was reconstructing to the control of men imbued with a spirit such as General LeClerc’s. A deadlock ensued which lasted for many weeks, during which pressure on both factions by the Allies, who supported Giraud, contributed to an eventual adjustment. It provided for a complicated and inefficient dual control, and postponed for almost a year de Gaulle’s acquisition of complete authority, which he gained by astute and gradual steps. In the interval, the United States, British, and Russian Governments recognized the French Committee of National Liberation as a de facto government.

Some “Lessons Learned” by the Army While the Allied force reorganized for the attack on Sicily, and amid a turmoil of varied activities, U.S. headquarters reviewed the fighting of recent weeks as set forth in operations reports. They extracted from these accounts the tactical lessons which could be transmitted to troops in training.

Even then, the soldiers not only had to know what to do and how to do it, but also to be under the unremitting control of officers who knew their business. Of the basic tactical principles, none had been more emphatically upheld than the necessity of seizing key terrain features affording effective observation posts for artillery. Dispositions in depth, deployment of infantry in depth, and the mutual support of all heavy weapons from positions organized in depth were repeatedly shown to be essential, particularly in resisting armored attacks. The prevalence of mountain and hill warfare seemed to call for instruction of all infantry in the basic principles of mountain tactics rather than simply the training of specialized units therein. Among the infantry, scouting and patrolling had to be continuous and aggressive. The campaign revealed serious deficiencies in map reading, in use of the compass and other methods of controlling direction, in movement by stealth, avoidance of ambush, in clarity of plans and instructions, in accuracy of reporting, in daylight reconnaissance to prepare for night patrolling, and in control over the members of a patrol. Infantry near Hill 609 had followed artillery preparations at much too great an interval, allowing the enemy after shelling ceased, to return to his weapons before the American troops closed in.

At Djebel Cheniti north of the Garaet Ichkeul, where the infantry followed only 100 yards behind the artillery fire, they caught the enemy still seeking cover or barely recuperating, and took the height without loss. Then they made the error of remaining on the crest instead of continuing down the forward slope and digging in, so that enemy shells soon struck and hurt them. In general, infantry needed to “lean against” a barrage but that alone was not enough.

American artillery had been employed with what seemed to the enemy great prodigality and with great effect. Prolonged concentrations of slow fire on enemy positions proved more effective than a heavier mass of fire for a shorter period, what the artillerymen called a “serenade.” Time fire with high explosive shell obtained remarkable results. Among the precautions for the future which Tunisian experience seemed to justify was to allow artillery units sufficient time to, reconnaissance, after receipt of plans and orders, before going into action from new locations. Night moves to unfamiliar areas in order to support an assaulting force at dawn resulted in inefficient performance by the batteries and on occasion, left them open to capture by enemy attacks while the American assault was being made ready. The artillerymen in Tunisia were gratified by the results of their arrangements for flexible employment although aware of their dependence upon signal troops and upon strict wire and radio discipline.

The armored units were impressed by the fact that they had rarely been employed in a concentrated mass of sufficient strength, and that their tactics could not fulfill the expectation, prevalent in the States, that speedy aggressive thrusts could always be made without incurring disastrous losses. Instead of attacking with such reckless audacity, tanks had to advance steadily and skillfully, as the enemy’s did, while utilizing every available means of reconnaissance and covering fire. American armored units had found that attacks in depth on a narrow front, the rear elements exploiting gains by pushing through the leading units, and thus extending the blow forward, were more successful than a simultaneous advance on a broad front. They laid down the formula that three battalions of artillery should support one battalion of tanks in an attack. Moreover, the Tunisian battles had demonstrated that chance of success was greater by taking enough time to prepare an attack thoroughly and to disseminate the plans completely than by hurrying to the offensive in an attempt to get the jump on the enemy. In defense, the armored division was more effective if it was concentrated for timely intervention at a given point rather than dispersed to cover a wide front.

Tanks and regular, as distinguished from armored, infantry found that co-operation worked to their mutual advantage, whether in preparing for a tank penetration through a gap made by the infantry or in furnishing close infantry support during a breakthrough by tanks. Infantry support proved indispensable, especially in consolidating the ground overrun by tanks.

The Tunisian campaign tested various methods of employing the tank destroyer, a mobile 75-mm. antitank gun on either a half-tracked or full-tracked vehicle. Much of the time use of these weapons differed little from that of standard artillery, for they were not committed in battalion strength but were employed in platoons. Experience demonstrated that they could not be used to “hunt tanks,” since in a fire fight with tanks they soon succumbed. Their mobility was chiefly useful to avoid hostile fire or to get in better firing position. They could reconnoiter for the approach of enemy tank formations and then meet the onslaught with defensive fire from hull-down positions in what constituted a trap for the enemy. Best results came from establishing a base of fire, and giving close support to other tank elements from hull-down positions.

Support of ground operations by Allied aviation during the last phase of the Tunisian campaign took the form of attack on enemy troops and positions in the path of ground attack with much greater frequency than it had earlier. Tunisian experience left the air and ground commanders in disagreement, nonetheless, concerning the proper relationship of air and ground units. Disagreement which focused on the right degree of centralized control over air power actually revolved about the relative importance of air targets. Ground commanders generally sought the kind of air support which General Montgomery had received at El ‘Alamein and El Hamma, that is, the use of aviation for neutralizing hostile fires, harassing the enemy, or covering friendly ground movements. Since the Americans could not procure support of that type in northern Tunisia under the system of “requests” (through a channel of several echelons up to the 242nd Group, RAF), they urged that specific air units be placed under a ground commander’s continuous control.

The air commanders could, on the other hand, show that such an arrangement would be wasteful of air power in various ways, and might even cost the ground forces the basic benefit of air superiority. The endless conflict could not be resolved except by a more comprehensive approach to tactics than either ground or air officers were in the habit of employing, and remained to be worked out in subsequent months when Allied air resources were more plentiful.

Some “Lessons Learned” by the Enemy While American troops derived these and other tactical lessons from their combat experience, the enemy learned what to expect from the Americans. The Germans must have been amazed to find themselves losing at any point on the Tunisian front to men whose motives for fighting seemed, from their interrogation of American prisoners, fantastic. “Most of them came over to earn money, or to have an exciting time, or to see something new, or simply to do as others did, with no thought of any political objective; they are rowdies who cannot stand up under an emergency,” Hitler was told. “America will never become the Rome of the future, Rome was a country of peasants,” he commented in reply. “[American] farmers are so miserable. I have seen pictures of them. Too pitiful and stunted; something altogether uprooted that wanders around …. ‘”

The professional German military men were also struck by the inflexible, methodical fashion in which over-equipped American units adhered to fixed, prearranged plans rather than alertly adjusting their operations to grasp favorable opportunities, and by the heavy dependence of American infantry on numerical and materiel superiority. Basing their opinion on the performance of the U.S. II Corps at Faid, Kasserine, Fondouk el Aouareb, and Gafsa, the Germans felt that the American command clung too rigidly to the practice of forming combat commands and armored task forces which, in the German estimate, resulted in scrambling and inability to achieve a concentration of their forces where tactical success called for it. The Germans noted that the American soldiers fought more courageously in units than as individual fighters.

American artillery had not shown its full capabilities and effectiveness despite extraordinarily high expenditure of ammunition. Benefiting from British experience and applying British principles, the Americans had achieved more effective air-ground cooperation. The Germans had learned to respect the clever and efficient manner in which American troops organized for defense. The German High Command concluded that, despite defects in combat leadership and lack of experience in organization, training, and operations, the Americans were quick to learn and their performance in future operations would show marked improvement.

The enemy had studied the amphibious landings of November 1942. Kesselring felt that the relatively weak nature of the defense made them resemble a mere peacetime maneuver. He assumed, moreover, that the Allied capture of Northwest Africa would be a prelude to further operations which would give the Germans and Italians a second chance to oppose the Allies in an attempted beach landing. After the fall of Tunis, Kesselring believed that the predilection of the Allies for air cover in November furnished an important clue to the next point of attack. He concluded that the right mode of defense would be to assemble assault reserves in positions for early counterattack against the Allied beachheads. The landings could not well be prevented but the beachheads would be weak and vulnerable to a concentrated counterattacking force.

Allied Leadership

The Tunisian campaign not only produced seasoned troops and revealed lessons in tactics, but it also tested and developed officers capable of performing well the functions of staff and command in combat conditions. Hundreds of company and battalion officers were sifted by situations in which they showed what they could give and how much they could take. Regimental and division officers were winnowed by the same process. The extraordinary progress which General Bradley’s fighting divisions had made by the time the fighting ended was demonstrated in Sicily and Italy. A substantial number of officers later looked back to Tunisia as a point of departure from which they rose to higher command. One group soon returned to the United States to assume key positions in the Army’s program of expansion and training, and to take command of new units which eventually fought in Europe or in the Pacific. Others remained in the theater to participate in the seizure of Sicily or the occupation of southern Italy, before shifting to the European Theater or driving up the spine of Italy to the Po valley.

The end of the fighting in Tunisia found General Eisenhower’s integrated international staff at Allied Force Headquarters in Algiers a successful going concern ready for what the future might bring. Anglo-American co-operation had survived some hard tests during the preceding months. If the coalition, with the disappointments, frustrations, and recriminations inherent in such a union, could survive the initial and struggling phases, it seemed certain to remain effective as the war in the Mediterranean proceeded, and as the staff sections and commanders utilized the knowledge gained in the preceding months.

Strategic Consequences

Any survey of the gains and losses from the operations in Northwest Africa requires comparison of what had been achieved with what had been anticipated in July 1942 when the Prime Minister and the President decided to send Allied forces there. General Eisenhower had been directed to gain, in conjunction with Allied forces in the Middle East, complete control of North Africa from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. From lodgments on the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of French North Africa, he was expected to extend control over the entire area, including Tunisia, and to create conditions favorable for further offensive operations through Libya against the rear of the Axis forces in the Western Desert. The ultimate objective was complete annihilation of the Axis forces in Africa facing the Eighth Army and an intensification of air and sea operations against the Axis on the continent of Europe. Events had not worked out on schedule, but by May 1943 the Allies had obtained all these goals and more. With the southern side of the Sicilian straits in Allied possession, Allied surface vessels could henceforth move with fair security through the central Mediterranean.

The Allies now held a threat to the Axis positions in Sicily, Italy, the Balkans, Crete, and the Dodecanese islands. Airfields along the African coast permitted long-range bombing missions deep into the enemy’s European fortress, and long-range reconnaissance flights over the Atlantic in the endless warfare against the Axis submarine. These benefits had been anticipated but there were others. The Allies had destroyed not only the forces opposing Montgomery in the Western Desert but another whole Axis army and an immense amount of materiel.

Casualties, for the German elements of Army Group Africa alone, totaled 155,000 men. These losses, added to those sustained by the Axis at Stalingrad a few months earlier, left the Axis powers unable to take the initiative henceforth except for local operations. The Axis partnership, moreover, suffered a severe strain. The Italians would have preferred to have the Germans go on the defensive on the Eastern Front in order to concentrate to meet the western threat with overwhelming power. In fact, Mussolini would even have welcomed a separate peace with the Soviet Union. After the disaster in Tunisia, it was only a question of time before Italy would drop out of the war.

Hitler had determined that Tunisia must be held at all costs, but his concern with the military problem seemed fitful and superficial. He apparently recognized after the surrender that the heavy losses could be justified only by an elaborate explanation. It would have had to include his personal decision, made against the urgent representations of the Italians and his own military advisers, that the attempt to take Malta was not to be made, and Malta in Allied hands had doomed to failure his efforts to supply the Axis armies in Africa. To his principal commanders on the Eastern Front he declared early in July 1943 that he had prevented a loss of the war by defending the Tunisian bridgehead. He pointed out that the Italians would otherwise have dropped out, allowing the Allies to march to the Brenner Pass unopposed at a time when the Germans were in no condition to stop them there. His decision had not only saved the war, he insisted, but had cost the Allies dearly and had delayed a “second front” in Europe for six months. Whatever may be said against this explanation, the fact that it was given amounts to acknowledgment that in Africa the Allies had not only won territory of strategic worth but had inflicted such losses on the Axis powers as to weaken their ability, and perhaps to undermine their will, to fight.

The Allies had made a hard choice in July 1942 between seeking a quick success in French North Africa before winter and building up strength in the United Kingdom until the following spring for an attack across the English Channel. The decision to gamble on occupying French North Africa ahead of the Axis forces led to a failure in December which could not be remedied before May 1943. One may well doubt that this failure alone caused deferment of a cross-Channel attack until 1944, in view of the many other considerations involved.

But one important conclusion concerning the relation of the decision to occupy French North Africa to the fundamental Allied strategy seems beyond question. Even if the Allies had succeeded in establishing a bridgehead in Normandy in 1943, their experience in Tunisia demonstrated that they would have been unprepared for breaking out of this bridgehead and thrusting far toward the heart of Nazi Germany. This experience they gained by meeting the enemy at the outer periphery of the area to be liberated at a time when the Eastern Front continued to absorb the bulk of Axis military power.

The triumph of Allied arms in Tunisia was achieved under conditions which taught them the way to win battles together, to meet and to recover from reverses, and to push on aggressively to the far harder struggle for final victory. For the U.S. Army, the operations in Northwest Africa were of inestimable value in making it a far more efficient fighting force. At their conclusion, the Axis alliance had become seriously weaker and the Allied coalition far stronger than when they began. On the road to complete military victory in Europe, the Allies had made an auspicious start.

SOURCE: Northwest Africa: Seizing The Initiative In The West; by George F. Howe (United States Army Center of Military History)

World War Two: Mediterranean (1-2) Axis on the Defensive 1943

World War Two: North Africa (7-34) End in Tunisia: Plans To Take Tunis


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