As fighting ended in Morocco and Algeria at the conclusion of Operation TORCH, the Eastern Task Force advanced eastward toward Tunisia, organized as the British First Army under Lt. General Kenneth Anderson. They were targeting the Tunis-Bizerte area, the two important seaports of Tunisia. Far to the east was the British Eighth Army, commanded by Lt. Gen. (later Field Marshal) Bernard L. Montgomery, moving westward after its important victory at El Alamein. As the Allies had planned, General Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps would be caught between the Allied armies coming from the east and the west.
With the rapidly changing situation in North Africa, on 11 November, German and Italian forces moved into southern France. German Army units reached Toulon, on the Mediterranean coast, by 27 November. To counter the Allied advance into Tunisia, the German garrison in there was massively reinforced and reorganized, as XC Corps (90th Corps) under the command of General Walther Nehring, the former commander of the Afrika Korps. The German buildup went unopposed by the French in Tunisia, whose government under General Henri Giraud was in political chaos, leaving airfields and ports open to German use.
First Army Moves East into Tunisia
By 16 November 1942, First Army had advanced 400 miles (640km) from Algiers, and was inside Tunisia approaching Tunis from the west, only 50 miles (80km) further on. But an Allied attack on 24 November was repulsed, and German counter offensives on 27 November and 1 December forced Anderson to withdraw.
On 8 December, Gen. Nehring was replaced by Generaloberst Juergen von Arnim, recalled from Stalingrad and given command of 5th Panzerarmee, expanded by the recent reinforcements. Anderson ordered the First Army into defensive positions, recognizing a stalemate. German air superiority in Tunisia was a major factor in their success. An unsuccessful attempt at an offensive on 22-24 December demonstrated that First Army could at best hold their defensive position while building up its forces.
During the last week of 1942 and the first six weeks of 1943 the Allies and Germans conducted limited attacks, trying to improve positions in central Tunisia. German Fifth Panzer Army air and ground forces hammered away at First Army. Most of the battles were centered on the road-rail routes leading from eastern ports through mountain passes to the Algerian border on the west. In January 1943, the U.S. II Corps began reinforcing First Army with additional troops, moving into southern Tunisia, adding to the British V Corps in the north and the French XIX Corps in the center.
After the fall of Tripoli to British Eighth Army on 23 January 1943, Rommel retreated hastily across Libya to Tunisia, slowing Montgomery by bombing ports of entry, fighting rear-guard actions, and by mining roads. By 6 February all of Rommel's forces were in Tunisia and he had joined with von Arnim. Rommel took over the Mareth Line, a 22-mile long series of French colonial fortifications in southern Tunisia, where the Germans prepared a defense against the approaching British Eighth Army.
Montgomery and the British Eighth Army were delayed by lengthening supply lines while the inexperienced U.S. II Corps did not attack the Germans when they had the opportunity. Taking advantage of the pause, the German Fifth Panzer Army and the Afrika Korps combined to launch a heavy armored assault against the inexperienced and unprepared U.S. II Corps. Four days of fighting around Sidi Bou Zid and Sbeitla, from 14-17 February, cost II Corps 2,546 missing, 103 tanks, 280 vehicles, 18 field guns, 3 antitank guns, and 1 antiaircraft battery.
Breakthrough at Kasserine Pass
The humiliating losses at Sidi Bou Zid and Sbeitla were not the final blow. U.S. II Corps scrambled backward to establish a new defensive position, this time at Kasserine Pass, a two mile wide gap in the Dorsal Chain of the Atlas Mountains. For Rommel, Kasserine Pass was the gateway to Algeria.
With a series of forceful attacks on 19-20 February, the Germans massed armor and infantry against the ineffectively dispersed U.S. II Corps, pushing the Americans back, seizing huge stocks of abandoned equipment, and breaking through the mountains at the Kasserine Pass into the valley beyond, a spectacular success. The Germans hardly paused as they ran over the American defenses. The disastrous series of February defeats was only ended by a shift in German priorities. With the British Eighth Army rapidly approaching from Libya, Rommel could not afford to continue west. Rommel turned his force around, back to the east.
Allies Seize the Initiative in Tunisia
The disaster at Kasserine Pass confirmed to the Allied commanders that drastic changes were needed. Improvements in logistics, fresh troops, the new M-4 Sherman tank, and expanded air support increased the fighting power of Allied units. With the British Eighth Army now closing in on the southern flank, the British, French and U.S. commands in Tunisia narrowed their battlefronts and shifted north. Finally, a decisive new commander was nemed for II Corps: Maj. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr.
The Axis kept up the pressure while the Allies regrouped. In the north, on 26 February von Arnim launched an offensive against the British in an effort to push his front west to give the Germans a larger secure zone around Tunis. The offensive failed after hard fighting. At the same time there was another thrust in the south, Rommel's last battle in Tunisia. On 6 March, Rommel struck the British Eighth Army at Medenine soon after its arrival from Libya. The British blunted the attack with a new Panzer-stopping tactic: massed artillery and antitank fire combined with air strikes.
Allied Offensive Ends the Tunisian Campaign
In mid-March the Allies went back on the offensive. Montgomery's Eighth Army hit the Axis southern flank around Mareth with a multi-division force, breaking the Mareth line on 20 March. In a month-long series of battles, the British, hampered by heavy rains, pushed Axis units over 150 miles north to within 47 miles of Tunis. While Montgomery rolled up the German southern flank, Patton's revitalized II Corps drove east into their flank, drawing enemy units from the south, thereby weakening the opposition to Montgomery's push.
By mid-April Axis forces, increasingly hampered by growing Allied success interdicting their supply line from Sicily, had been pushed into a perimeter at the northeast corner of Tunisia. After much difficult fighting and slow progress in the last two weeks of April, on the morning of 30 April 1943, Patton's II Corps began a general offensive that set in motion the collapse of the remaining German forces. As the British V Corps entered Tunis, the final American battle of the campaign began 6 May when two American divisions enveloped Bizerte, pushing the Germans out of the city the next day. The photo at left shows an American infantry battalion approaching Bizerte.
As II Corps units pushed on to cut the Bizerte-Tunis road, they found surrendering enemy troops clogging the roads, impeding further advance. Rommel had already been flown out, too ill to continue the battle, but other Axis generals began surrendering on 9 May, included in the total of over 275,000 prisoners rounded up that week. The six-month Tunisia Campaign was over 13 May 1943, when the last resistance ended.
The Germans were defeated in Tunisia, but the bickering among the French remained. In the victory parade in Tunis on 20 May, Gaullist troops refused to march with those loyal to Gen. Giraud.
Summary and Analysis of the Tunisian Campaign
Tunisia was the first time American soldiers confronted well-trained, battle-tested enemy units equipped with the most modern weapons and tactics. The result was painful: five months of almost continuous setbacks with unexpectedly high casualties. At the beginning of the Tunisian Campaign, the United States Army in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations had almost no experience. A few parts of four divisions had seen four days of Operation TORCH combat, with light casualties. The remainder of the force was completely "green." By the time the Tunisian Campaign ended, the Army had five full divisions in the field, four with extensive experience against the best the Germans could hurl at them. Although the cost had been high, much had been learned about use of armor, combined arms operations, and managing the command of Allied forces from different nations.
The victory in Tunisia expelled Axis forces from North Africa, a major step toward victory in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations. The cost included 70,000 Allied casualties -- the U.S. Army alone lost 2,715 dead, 8,978 wounded, and 6,528 missing. From the experience the Army gained thousands of seasoned officers, noncoms, and soldiers who formed the core of subsequent campaigns, starting two months and 150 miles away with Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily on 10 July 1943.
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