Tunisia Campaign

Tunisia Campaign

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Tunisia Campaign
partof=World War II

caption=November 23, 1942. The crew of an M3 (Lee) tank from the U.S. 1st Armored Division at Souk el Arba, Tunisia.
date=November 17, 1942May 13, 1943
result=Allied Victory
flagicon|USA|1912 United States
flagicon|France| France
flagicon|New Zealand New Zealand
flagicon|India|British British India
combatant2=flagicon|Nazi Germany Germany
flagicon|Italy|1861-state Italy
commander1=flagicon|USA|1912 Dwight D. Eisenhower
flagicon|UK Harold Alexander
flagicon|UK Kenneth Anderson
Flagicon|UK Bernard Montgomery
commander2=flagicon|Nazi Germany Albert Kesselring
flagicon|Nazi Germany Erwin Rommel
flagicon|Nazi Germany Hans-Jürgen von ArnimPOW
flagicon|Italy|1861-state Giovanni MessePOW
casualties1=1British Imperial ForcesPlayfair, p.460]
6,233 killed
21,528 wounded
10,599 missing
2,156 killed
10,276 wounded
7,007 missing
2United States [Atkinson, p. 536]
2,715 killed
8,978 wounded
6,528 missing
76,020 casualties
155 aircraft destroyed [Playfair, p.460-461. RAF: 12 bombers, 47 fighters. USAAF: 32 bombers, 63 fighters. French: 1 bomber]
48,500 killedAtkinson, p. 537]
3101,784 captured
43,700 killed
389,442 captured
Nationality Unspecified
540-50,000 wounded
347,017 captured
290,443-300,443 casualties
290 aircraft destroyed [Playfair, p.460. Germany: 42 bombers, 166 fighters, 52 transporters, 13 Storch. Italian: 17 aircraft]
600+ aircraft captured
notes=1Includes losses incurred by 1st Army from 8th November 1942 and 8th Army from 9th February 1943
2United States losses from 12th November 1942
3Playfair claims the above as the most accurate record of captured axis soldiers, he notes the American Official History claims 275,000 captured, an 18th Army Group caculation of 244,500, Rommel's estimate of 130,000 Germans captured and von Arnims estimate of 100,000 German and 200,000 Italian captured Atkinson also claims the above figure as the most accurate one, supporting Playfair
4Atkinson states these are estimates as exact losses are and will most likely remain unknown
5Atkinson, "Combat wounded typically outnumber the dead by a factor of three or four, so an additional 40,000-50,000 Axis wounded can be surmised"

The Tunisia Campaign (also known as the Battle of Tunisia) was a series of World War II battles that took place in Tunisia in the North African Campaign of World War II, between Axis and Allied forces. The Allies consisted primarily of American, British Imperial Forces and the French Army. The battle opened with initial success by the German and Italian forces, but the massive supply and numerical superiority of the Allies led to the Axis' complete defeat. Over 230,000 German and Italian troops were taken as prisoners of war, including most of the Afrika Korps.


Western Desert

The first two years of the war in North Africa was characterised by a lack of supplies and an inability to provide any sort of consistent concentrated logistics support. The North African coast has few natural harbours and the main British supply head at Alexandria on the Nile delta was some convert|1500|mi|km as the crow flies from the main Italian port at Tripoli. Smaller ports at Benghazi and Tobruk were convert|950|mi|km and convert|600|mi|km west of Alexandria respectively. They were linked by a single road running along a narrow corridor along the coast. At the time the central Mediterranean was contested, and because the British and Italian navies were equally matched, their abilities to supply their garrisons via Alexandria and Tobruk were limited both by Italian and British actions, although the British were also able to supply Egypt via the very extended route around the Cape of Good Hope and into the Red Sea.

The constrained supplies led to a "back and forth" contest for the land along the coast. The initial Italian offensive in 1940, advancing roughly convert|95|km|mi across the Libyan border into Egypt, left their front line troops more than convert|1000|mi|km in a straight line from Tripoli, convert|600|km|mi from Benghazi and convert|200|mi|km from Tobruk. The British, still close to their supply bases, quickly built up their own forces and counterattacked into Libya. The front line ended up at El Agheila, some convert|1000|mi|km from Alexandria. With the arrival of the German Afrika Korps the Axis drove the front eastward but their advance eventually petered out in April 1941 at the Egyptian border as they outran their lines of supply. By November 1941 the Allies had once again regained their strength, helped by their relatively short line of supply, and launched Operation Crusader, relieving the Siege of Tobruk and once more pushing the front line to El Agheila. However, their exhausted troops were almost immediately pushed back to near Tobruk and Rommell's attack in May 1942 pushed them all the way back to El Alamein, only convert|100|mi|km from Alexandria.

Things changed dramatically by 1942. By this point the Royal Navy and Italian Navy were still disputing the Mediterranean but the British retention of Malta allowed the Royal Air Force to interdict an increasing amount of Italian supplies at sea. As large quantities of supply became available from the United States the logistics situation increasingly swung in favour of Bernard Montgomery's Eighth Army, eventually becoming overwhelming.

Operation Torch

With Eighth Army no longer short of supplies as in earlier battles, the Axis forces were driven westwards during its breakout from Egypt following the Second Battle of El Alamein in November 1942. On November 8, Operation Torch landed additional allied forces to the west of Tunisia in Algeria and Morocco, potentially trapping the Axis forces between the two allied groups in Libya's poor defensive terrain.

Tunisia's natural defenses

Much better defensive possibilities existed to the west of Libya in Tunisia. Tunisia is roughly rectangular, with its northern and much of its eastern boundary defined by the Mediterranean. Most of the inland western border with Algeria was astride the western line of the roughly triangular Atlas Mountains. This portion of the border was easily defendable in the limited number of passes through the two north-south lines of the mountains. In the south a second line of lower mountains limited the approaches to a narrow gap, facing Libya to the east, between these Matmata Hills and the coast. The French had earlier constructed a convert|20|km|mi wide and convert|30|km|mi deep series of strong defensive works known as the Mareth Line along this plain, in order to defend against an Italian invasion from Libya. Only in the north was the terrain favorable to attack; here the Atlas Mountains stopped near the eastern coast, leaving a large area on the northwest coast unprotected.

Generally, Tunisia offered an excellent and fairly easily defended base of operations. Defensive lines in the north could deal with the approaching Allied forces of Operation Torch, while the Mareth Line made the south rather formidable. In between, there were only a few easily defended passes though the Atlas Mountains. Better yet, Tunisia offered two major deepwater ports at Tunis and Bizerte, only a few hundred miles from Italian supply bases on Sicily. Supplies could be brought in at night, protecting them from the RAF's patrols, stay during the day, and the return again the next night. In contrast, Italy to Libya was a full-day trip, making supply operations vulnerable to daylight air attacks.

In Hitler's view, Tunisia could hold out for months, or years, upsetting Allied plans in Europe.

Allied and Axis buildup

By 10 November French opposition to the Torch landings had ceased,Anderson (1946), p. 2 LondonGazette|issue=37779|supp=yes|startpage=5450|endapage=|date=5 November 1946|accessdate=2008-04-25] creating a military vacuum in Tunisia and Lieutenant-General Anderson immediately ordered his troops eastward to seize the ports of Bougie, Philippeville and Bone and the airfield at Djedjelli preliminary to advancing into Tunisia. Allied planning staff had previously ruled out an assault landing in Tunisia because of a lack of sufficient troops and the threat from the air. As a result, Anderson needed to get his limited force east as quickly as possible before the Axis could build a defensive critical mass in Tunis. The Allies had available only two brigade groups and some additional armour and artillery for an attack on Tunisia. Nevertheless, they believed if they moved quickly, before the newly arrived Axis forces were fully organised, they would still be able to capture Tunisia at relatively little cost.

Tunisian officials were undecided about whom to support, and they did not close access to their airfields to either side. As early as November 10 the Italian Air Force sent a flight of 28 fighters to Tunis. Two days later an airlift began that would bring in over 15,000 men and 581 tons of supplies. By the end of the month they had shipped in three German divisions, including the 10th Panzer Division, and two Italian infantry divisions. On November 12th, Walther Nehring was assigned command of the newly formed XC Corps, and flew in on November 17.

However, the French commander in Tunisia, General Barré was untrusting of the Italians and moved his troops into the mountains and formed a defensive line from Tebersouk through Majaz al Bab (also referred to as Medjez el Bab), ordering that anyone attempting to cross the line should be shot.Watson (2007), p. 60]

On 11 November the British 36th Infantry Brigade had landed unopposed at Bougie but logistic difficulties meant Djedjelli was only reached by road on 13 November. Bone airfield was occupied following a parachute drop by 3rd Parachute Battalion and this was followed up on 12 November by 6 Commando seizing the port.Anderson (1946), p. 4 LondonGazette|issue=37779|supp=yes|startpage=5452|endapage=|date=5 November 1946|accessdate=2008-04-25] Advanced guards of 36th Brigade reached Tebarka on 15 November and Djebel Abiod on 18 November where they made first contact with opposition forces.Anderson (1946), p. 5 LondonGazette|issue=37779|supp=yes|startpage=5453|endapage=|date=5 November 1946|accessdate=2008-04-25]

Further south a U.S. parachute battalion had on 15 November had made an unopposed drop at Youks-les-Bains, capturing the airfield there, and advancing to take the airfield at Gafsa on 17 November.

On 19 November the German commander, Walter Nehring demanded passage for his forces across the bridge at Medjez and was refused by Barré. The Germans attacked twice and were repulsed. However, the French took heavy casualties and, lacking armour and artillery, were obliged to withdraw.

The run for Tunis

Despite some Vichy French forces, such as Barré's units, openly siding against the Axis the position of Vichy forces generally had remained uncertain. On November 22, the North African Agreement finally placed Vichy French North Africa on the allied side, allowing the Allied garrison troops to be sent forward to the front. By this time the Axis had been able to build up an entire Corps, and the Axis forces outnumbered their Allied counterparts in almost all ways.


There were two roads eastwards into Tunisia from Algeria. The Allied plan was to advance along the two roads and take Bizerte and Tunis. Once Bizerte was taken Torch would come to an end.

Attacking in the north towards Bizerte would be British 36th Infantry Brigade, supported by "Hart Force", a small armoured group from British 6th Armoured Division, and to the south British 11th Infantry Brigade supported on their left by "Blade Force", an armoured regimental group commanded by Colonel Richard Hull which included the tanks of 17th/21st Lancers, a U.S. light tank battalion plus motorised infantry, paratroops, artillery, anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns and engineers. [Ford (1999), p.15] [Watson (2007), p.61] Both infantry brigades were part of British 78th Infantry Division whose commander, Major-General Vyvyan Evelegh, was put in command of the offensive.


First contact

The two Allied columns advanced towards Djebel Abiod and Beja respectively. The Luftwaffe, happy to have local air superiority whilst the Allies planes had to fly from relatively distant bases in Algeria, harassed them all the way. [Ford (1999), p. 17]

On 17 November, the same day Nehring arrived, the leading elements of 36th Brigade on the northern road met a mixed force of 17 tanks and 400 paratroops with self-propelled guns at Djebel Abiod. They knocked out 11 tanks but their advance was halted while the fight at Djebel Abiod continued for nine days. [Ford (1999), pp. 19-22]

Allies attack

The two Allied columns concentrated at Djebel Abiod and Beja, preparing for an assault on 24 November. 36th Brigade was to advance from Djebel Abiod towards Mateur and 11th Brigade was to move down the valley of the River Merjerda to take Majaz al Bab (shown on Allied maps as Medjez el Bab or just Medjez) and then to Tebourba, Djedeida and Tunis. Blade Force was to strike across country on minor roads in the gap between the two infantry brigades towards Sidi Nsir and make flanking attacks on Terbourba and Djedeida. [Ford (1999), p. 23]

The northern attack did not take place because torrential rain had slowed the build-up. In the south 11th Brigade were halted by stiff resistance at Medjez. However, Blade Force passed through Sidi Nsir to reach the Chouigui Pass, north of Terbourba. Then part of Blade Force comprising 17 light M3 tanks of Company C, 1st Battalion, 1st Armored Regiment, U.S. 1st Armored Division under the command of Major Rudolph Barlow, supported by armoured cars of the Derbyshire Yeomanry, infiltrated behind Axis lines to the newly activated airbase at Djedeida in the afternoon. In a lightning attack, the Allied tanks destroyed more than 20 Axis planes, also shooting up several buildings, supply dumps, and killing and wounding a number of the defenders. However, without infantry support, they were not in a position to consolidate their gains and withdrew to Chouigui. [Ford (1999), pp. 23-25]

Blade Force's attack caught Nehring by surprise and alerted him to the vulnerability of the strong garrison at Medjez being outflanked. He decided to withdraw from Medjez and strengthen Djedeida, only convert|30|km|mi from Tunis. [Ford (1999), p.25]

36th Brigade's delayed attack went in on 26 November. However, Nehring had used the time bought holding the position at Djebel Abiod to create an ambush position at Jefna on the road between Sedjenane and Mateur. The Germans occupied high ground on either side of the road, which after the recent heavy rains was very muddy and the ground on either side impassable for vehicles. The ambush worked perfectly with the leading battalion taking 149 casualties. [Ford (1999), p.28] 36th Brigade's commander, Brigadier Kent-Lemon, sent units into the hills to try to flush the German positions out but the stubborn resistance of the paratroopers combined with the cleverly planned interlocking defenses proved too much. A supporting landing by 1 Commando convert|14|mi|km west of Bizerta on 30 November in an attempt to outflank the Jefna position failed in its objective and they had rejoined 36th Brigade by 3 December. The position remained in German hands until the last days of fighting in Tunisia the following spring [Ford (1999), p. 40]

Germans fall back to Djedeida and gain the initiative

Early on 26 November 11th Brigade were able to enter Medjez unopposed and by late in the day had taken positions in and around Tebourba, which had also been evacuated by the Germans, preparatory to advancing on Djedeida. However, on 27 November the Germans attacked in strength killing 137 men and taking 286 prisoners of war. 11th Brigade made a new attempt to regain the initiative in the early hours of 28 November, attacking towards Djedeida airfield with the help of armor from U.S. 1st Armored Division's Combat Command 'B', which quickly lost nineteen tanks to anti-tank guns positioned within the town [Ford (1999), p37-38] .

On 29 November fresh units from 78th Division's third brigade, the Guards Brigade, which had arrived at Algiers on 22 November, started to arrive at the front line to relieve 11th Brigade's battered battalions. [Ford (1999), p. 39]

On 29 November Combat Command B of US 1st Armored Division had concentrated forward for an attack in conjunction with Blade Force planned for 2 December. Meanwhile the 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment under Lieutenant Colonel John Dutton Frost would be dropped on 3 December near enemy airfields around Depienne convert|30|mi|km south of Tunis "(Operation OUDNA)" to destroy Stuka dive bombers which had been causing considerable problems and threaten Tunis from the south. In the event they dropped near a place where an experienced Italian Bersaglieri infantry battalion happened to be. [cite journal|first=Colonel Conrad H.| last=Lanza| issue=February, 1943| title=Perimeters in Paragraphs: North Africa| pages=p. 146| journal=The Field Artillery Journal| url=http://sill-www.army.mil/FAMAG/1943/FEB_1943/FEB_1943_PAGES_143_149.pdf| accessdate=2008-04-09|format=PDF] Radio Rome reported that the Bersaglieri took 300 British Paratroops prisoners. [cite journal| url=http://collections.civilisations.ca/warclip/objects/common/webmedia.php?irn=5001297| journal=New York Times| pages=| title=The Text of the Day's Communiques on Fighting in Various Zones: Italian| issue=5 December, 1942| accessdate=2008-04-09] However, the British reported that they had been in contact with 5th "FJR" Afrika (5th Fallschirmjager Regiment Africa) supported by tanks and heavy armoured cars. [cite web| url=http://www.airbornesappers.org.uk/articles/1st%20para%20sqn%20re.html| last=Stainforth| first=Peter| coauthors=Booth, Eric| title=North Africa, November 1942- May 1943 |publisher=Airborne Engineers Association website|accessdate=2008-04-09] The British parachutists nevertheless reached Oudna but the main armoured attack did not take place having been forestalled by an Axis counterattack on 1 December leaving the survivors of the raid to make their way back to home lines, refoining 78th Infantry Division on 3 December.Anderson (1946), p. 6 LondonGazette|issue=37779|supp=yes|startpage=5454|endpage=|date=5 November 1946|accessdate=2008-04-25]

The Axis counterattack, led by Major-General Wolfgang Fischer, whose 10th Panzer Division had just arrived in Tunisia, [Watson (2007), pp. 62 – 63] came from the north towards Tebourba. Blade Force became heavily engaged, suffering considerable casualties. By the evening of 2 December Blade Force had been withdrawn leaving 11th Brigade and Combat Command B to deal with the Axis attack. This threatened to cut off 11th Brigade and break through into the Allied rear but desperate fighting by 2nd battalion The Hampshire Regiment (from the Guards Brigade) and the 1st battalion East Surrey Regiment over four days delayed the Axis advance. This together with the effort of Combat Command B in opposing mixed armoured and infantry attacks from the south east permitted a controlled withdrawal to the high ground on each side of the river west of Terbourba. [Ford (1999), p.50] The Hampshire Regiment battalion suffered 75% casualties in the battle during which one of its company commanders, Major H.W. Le Patourel, was awarded the Victoria Cross. [Ford (1999), p. 47] The Surreys sustained nearly 60% casualties. [Watson (2007), p. 63]

As Allied troops built up in Tunisia a new H.Q. under First Army was activated in early May, that of British V Corps under Lieutenant-General Charles Allfrey, to take over command of all forces in the Tebourba sector, which by this time included 6th Armoured DivisionAnderson (1946), p. 7 LondonGazette|issue=37779|supp=yes|startpage=5455|endpage=|date=5 November 1946|accessdate=2008-04-25] . Despite Anderson's wish to make one more attempt to break through to Tunis, Allfrey considered the weakened units facing Tebourba were highly threatened and ordered a retreat of roughly convert|6|mi|km to the high positions of Longstop Hill (djebel el Ahmera) and Bou Aoukaz on each side of the river. On the 10 December Axis tanks attacked Combat Command B on Bou Aoukaz becoming hopelessly bogged down in the mud. In turn, the U.S. tanks counter-attacked and were also mired and picked off, losing 18 tanks [Ford (1999), p.51] . Allfrey was still concerned over the vulnerability of his force and ordered a further withdrawal west so that by the end of 10 December Allied units held a defensive line just east of Medjez el Bab. This string of Allied defeats in December cost them dearly; 173 tanks, 432 other vehicles, and 170 artillery pieces were lost, in addition to thousands of casualties.

Allies final offensive of the year fails

The Allies started a buildup for another attack, and were ready by late December, 1942. The continued but slow buildup had brought Allied force levels up to a total of 54,000 British, 73,800 American, and 7,000 French troops. A hasty intelligence review showed about 125,000 combat and 70,000 service troops, mostly Italian, in front of them.

On the night of December 16-December 17, a company of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division made a successful raid on Maknassy, 155 miles (250 km) south of Tunis, and took twenty-one German prisoners. The main attack began the afternoon of December 22, despite rain and insufficient air cover, elements of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division's 18th Regimental Combat team and 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards of 78th Division's Guards Infantry Brigade made progress up the lower ridges of the 900-foot (270 m) Longstop Hill that controlled the river corridor from Medjez to Tebourba and thence to Tunis. By the morning of 23 December the Coldstreams had driven back the elements of German 10th Panzer Division on the summit were then relieved by 18 RCT and were withdrawn to Mejdez. The Germans regained the hill in a counter-attack and the Coldstreams were ordered back to Longstop. The next day they had regained the peak and with 18 RCT dug in. However, by 25 December, with ammunition running low and Axis forces now holding adjacent high ground, the Longstop position became untenable and the Allies were forced to withdraw to Medjez [Ford (1999), p.53-54] and by 26 December, 1942 the Allies had withdrawn to the line they had set out from two weeks earlier, having suffered 20,743 casualties.

The Allied run for Tunis had been stopped.

Change in French command

While the battles wound down, factionalism among the French again erupted. On 24 December François Darlan was assassinated for his collaboration with the Nazis, and Henri Giraud was selected as replacement by the United States. Charles de Gaulle was somewhat upset that he was not chosen. Nevertheless, he had hated Darlan, considering him a traitor to France and was happy to see him go.

To the frustration of the Free French the US government had so far displayed considerable willingness to make a deal with Darlan and the Vichyists. Consequently Darlan’s disappearance was of great benefit to them. Under the joint chairmanship of the Giraud and de Gaulle the CFLN, the Committee for French National Liberation, was formed. de Gaulle quickly eclipsed Giraud, who more or less willingly from then on deferred to the Leader of the Free French.

talemate while both sides reinforce and build strength

Things were similarly upsetting for the Axis. Nehring, considered by most to be an excellent commander, had continually infuriated his superiors with his outspoken critiques. They decided to "replace" him by upgrading the command to an army and Colonel-General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim arrived in Tunis unannounced on 8 December to assume command of Fifth Panzer Army. The Army consisted of the composite heavy infantry unit Division von Broich (later Division von Manteuffel) in the Bizerte area, the 10th Panzer Division in the centre before Tunis, and the Italian Superga Division on the southern flank but Hitler, in an interview prior to von Arnim's departure for Tunis, had told him the army would grow to three mechanised and three motorised divisions. [Watson (2007), p. 64] From mid-November through January, 243,000 men and 856,000 tons of supplies and equipment arrived in Tunisia, something that the Allies found terribly frustrating because the Italians were stopping most Allied ships.

Eisenhower, meanwhile, transferred further units from Morocco and Algeria eastward into Tunisia. In the north, Lt Gen Kenneth Anderson's British First Army grew to two corps under command: three more divisions, 1st, 4th and 46th, forming British IX Corps soon joined the 6th Armoured and 78th Infantry Divisions of V Corps already in Tunisia. In the south, the basis of a two-division French corps (French XIX Corps) under Alphonse Juin was being built and in the centre was a new U.S. II Corps, to be commanded by Lloyd Fredendall, eventually to consist of the majority of six divisions: the 1st, 3rd, 9th, and 34th Infantry and the 1st and 2nd Armored. At this stage Giraud had rejected Eisenhower's plan to have the French corps under First Army and they and US II Corps for the time being remained under direct command of AFHQ. Equally important, considerable effort was put into building new airfields and improving provision of air support

The U.S. also started to build up a complex of logistics bases in Algeria and Tunisia, with the eventual goal of forming a large forward base at Maknassy, on the eastern edge of the Atlas Mountains, in excellent position to cut the German-Italian Panzer Army in the south off from its lines of supply to Tunis and isolate it from Fifth Panzer Army in the north.



During the first half of January Andersen had with mixed results kept constant pressure through limited attacks and reconnaissance in strength.Anderson (1946), p. 8 LondonGazette |issue=37779 |date=5 November, 1946 |startpage=5456 |endpage= |supp=yes |accessdaymonth= |accessdate=2008-04-30] von Arnim sought to do the same: [Watson (2007), p.67] on 18 January he made an attack against the right wing of the British V Corps with little success but further south his attack against French positions around the 'hinge' of the Western and Eastern Dorsals was more successful, reaching Ousseltia and Robaa. The poorly equipped defenders were overwhelmed and the equivalent of seven infantry battalions cut off in the mountains. Anderson sent 36th Brigade to Robaa and requested Lloyd Fredendall to send Combat Command B from 1st Armored Division to Ousseltia, both to come under Juin's orders on arrival. Fierce fighting lasted until 23 January, but the front was stabilised.

The obvious lack of co-ordination stung Eisenhower into action. On 21 January Anderson had been made responsible for the co-ordination of the whole front and on 24 January his responsibilities were extended to include "the employment of American troops". That night Juin agreed to place his Corps under Anderson, confirmed by Giraud the next day. However, control still proved problematical with forces spread over a convert|200|mi|km front and poor means of communication (Anderson reported that he motored over convert|1000|mi|km in four days in order to speak to his corps commanders). Importantly, however, Eisenhower had appointed a single executive air commander, Laurence S. Kuter, for the whole front on 21 January.

Erwin Rommel, meanwhile, had made plans for forces retreating through Libya to dig in front of the abandoned French fortifications of the Mareth Line. This would leave the Axis forces in control of the two natural entrances into Tunisia in the north and south, with only the easily defended mountain passes between them. In January Rommel's forces were reorganised: the elements of his German-Italian Panzer Army on the Mareth defences were redesignated First Italian Army with Giovanni Messe in command, separate from the units (including the remains of the "Afrika Korps") he had facing the Western Dorsale.

On January 23, 1943 the Eighth Army took Tripoli, by which point the army retreating through Libya was already well on its way to the Mareth position.

By this point in time, elements of the U.S. II Corps had crossed into Tunisia through passes in the Atlas Mountains from Algeria, controlling the interior of the triangle formed by the mountains. Their position raised the possibility of a thrust eastwards towards Sfax on the coast and cutting off the First Italian Army at Mareth from von Arnim's forces to the north around Tunis. Rommel could not allow this and formed a plan to attack before this occurred.

5th Panzer Army secures the Faïd pass and Sbeitla

On January 30, 1943, the German 21st Panzer and three Italian divisions from von Arnim's 5th Panzer Army met elements of the French forces near Faïd, the main pass from the eastern arm of the mountains into the coastal plains. Fredendall did not respond to the French request to send reinforcements in the form of tanks from 1st Armored Division and after desperate resistance, the under-equipped French defenders were overrun.Watson (2007), p. 68] Several counterattacks were organized, including a belated attack by Combat Command B of the U.S. 1st Armored Division, but all of these were beaten off with ease by von Arnim's forces which by this time had created strong defensive positions. After three days the Allied forces had been forced to pull back and were withdrawn into the interior plains to make a new forward defensive line at the small town of Sbeitla.

In "Operation Frűlingswind" von Arnim ordered four armoured battle groups forward on 14 February in the area of Sidi Bou Zid held by 1st Armored Division's 168th Regimental Combat Team and Combat Command A. The defenders' dispositions were poor, with concentrations dispersed so that they were unable to be mutually supportive. By 15 February CCA had been severely damaged leaving the infantry units isolated on hill tops. Combat Command C was ordered across country to relieve Sidi Bou Zid but were repelled with heavy losses. By the evening of 15 February three of the Axis battlegroups were able to head towards Sbeitla, convert|20|mi|km to the northwest.Watson (2007), p.77] Pushing aside the remains of CCA and CCC, the battlegroups were confronted by Combat Command B in front of Sbeitla. With the help of air support CCB held on through the day. However, the air support could not be sustained and the defenders of Sbeitla were obliged to withdraw and the town lay empty by midday on 17 February.

To the south, in "Operation Morgenluft", a battlegroup made up of the remains of the Afrika Korps under Karl Bűlowius had advanced towards Gafsa at dusk on 15 February to find the town deserted, part of a withdrawal to shorten the Allied front to facilitate a reorganisation involving the withdrawal of French XIX Corps in order to re-equip. US II Corps withdrew to the line of Dernaia-Kasserine-Gap-Sbiba with XIX Corps on their left flank vacating the Eastern Dorsal to conform with them.Anderson (1946), p. 9 LondonGazette|issue=37779|supp=yes|startpage=5457|endpage=|date=5 November 1946|accessdate=2008-05-01]


At this point there was some argument in the Axis camp about what to do next; all of Tunisia was under Axis control, and there was little to do until the Eighth Army arrived at Mareth. Eventually Rommel decided his next course of action should be to attack through the Kasserine Pass into US II Corp's main strength at Tébessa. In this way he would gain vital supplies from U.S. dumps on the Algerian side of the western arm of the mountains, eliminate the Allies ability to mount a threat to the coastal corridor linking Mareth and Tunis while at the same time threating the southern flank of First Army. On 18 February Rommel submitted his proposals to Kesselring who forwarded them with his blessing to the "Commando Supremo" in Rome. [Watson (2007), p. 80]

At 13.30 on 19 February Rommel received the "Commando Supremo's" agreement to a revised plan. He was to have 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions transferred to his command and should attack through the Kasserine and Sbiba passes towards Thala and Le Kef to the north, clearing the Western Dorsale and threatening the First Army's flank. [Watson (2007), pp. 80-81] Rommel was appalled. This plan diluted the concentration of his forces and would, once through the passes, dangerously expose his flanks. A concentrated attack on Tébessa, while entailing some risk, would yield badly needed supplies, destroy Allied potential for operations into central Tunisia and possibly give the Luftwaffe a forward base in the form of the airfield at Youks-les-Bains to the west of Tébessa. [Watson (2007), p. 81]

On February 19, 1943, Rommel, having now been given formal control of the 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions, the Afrika Korps battlegroup as well as General Messe's forces on the Mareth defences (now renamed Italian First Army), [Watson (2007), p. 82] , launched what would become the Battle of Kasserine Pass. "Stark Force", a brigade group responsible for the defence of the pass had not had time properly to organise but were able to direct heavy artillery fire from the surrounding heights which brought the "Afrika Korps" battlegroup's leading mechanised units to a halt [Watson (2007), p.84] Before they could continue infantry had to be sent up into the high ground seeking to eliminate the artillery threat.

Meanwhile a battlegroup under Hans-Georg Hildebrand including tanks from 21st Panzer were advancing north from Sbeitla towards the Sbiba Gap. In front of the hills east of Sbiba they were bought to a halt by 1st Guards Brigade and 18th Regimental Combat Team which had strong field and anti-tank artillery support and were joined by two infantry regiments from U.S. 34th Infantry Division. [Watson (2007), pp. 86-87]

By the morning of 20 February the bitter hand-to-hand fighting in the hills above Kasserine was continuing while the Axis armour, now joined by a battalion from the Italian Centauro Armoured Division and more artillery prepared for another attack through the pass once it had been joined by a 10th Panzer Division battlegroup coming from Sbeitla. The morning attack made slow progress but the intense pressure applied during the renewed attack that afternoon triggered a collapse in the Allied defenses. [Watson (2007), pp. 89-93]

Having rolled through the Kasserine Pass on the afternoon of 20 February units of the Centauro Division headed west towards Tébessa, meeting little or no resistance. Following them came the von Broich battlegroup from 10th Panzer which forked right onto the road to Thala where they were slowed by a regimental armoured group ("Gore Force"). Their tanks outgunned, Gore Force sustained heavy losses but bought time for "Nick Force", a composite force from British 6th Armoured Division, based around 26th Armoured Brigade Group with extra infantry and artillery (which Anderson had ordered the previous day to leave the Kesra area to bolster the Thala defenses) to prepare defenses further up the road. Meanwhile Fredendahl had sent 1st Armored Division's CCB to meet the threat to Tébessa. [Watson (2007), p. 102]

By 1pm on 21 February von Broich's battlegroup were in contact with the dug-in 26th Armoured Brigade Group on the Thala road and making slow progress. Rommel took direct control of the attack and forced the defenses by 4pm. [Watson (2007), p. 103] 26th Brigade Group were able to withdraw in reasonable order to the next, final, defensive line in front of Thala. Fighting at this position started at 7pm and continued at close quarters for three hours with neither side able to gain a decisive advantage. "Nick Force" had taken a heavy beating and did not expect to be able to hold out the next day. However, during the night a further 48 artillery pieces from U.S. 9th Infantry Division joined the defenses after an convert|800|mi|km trip from Morocco on poor roads and in bad weather. On the morning of 22 February, as Von Broich prepared to launch his attack, his front was hit by a devastating artillery barrage. Surprisingly, Rommel told Von Broich to regroup and assume a defensive posture, so surrendering the initiative. [Watson (2007), p. 104]

Meanwhile, the 21st Panzer battlegroup at Sbiba was making no progress. Two battalions of experienced Bersaglieri soldiers are recorded by the 23 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery as having made a daylight counterattack through the Ousseltia Plain, which was repelled. [ [http://www.bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/stories/97/a4144097.shtml BBC Peoples War website] ]

Further south the "Afrika Korps" battlegroup on the road to Tébessa had been halted on 21 February by CCB's armour and artillery dug in on the slopes of Djebel Hamra. [Watson (2007), p. 105] An attempt to outflank them during the night of the 21 February had failed and resulted in heavy Axis casualties on the 22 February. A further attack early on 23 February was again beaten back. [Watson (2007), pp. 106-107]

In a dispirited meeting on 22 February Kesselring, Rommel argued that faced with stiffening defences and the news that the Eighth Army's lead elements had finally reached Medenine, only a few kilometers from the Mareth Line, he should call off the attack and withdraw to support the Mareth defences, hoping that the Kasserine attack had caused enough damage to deter any offensive action from the west in the immediate future. Kesselring was keen for the offensive to continue but finally agreed that evening and the "Commando Supremo" formally terminated the operation. [Watson (2007), pp. 109-110] The Axis forces from Kasserine reached the Mareth line on 25 February.


Action then abated for a time, and both sides studied the results of recent battles. Rommel remained convinced that U.S. forces posed little threat, while the British and Commonwealth troops were his equal. He held this opinion for far too long, and it would prove very costly. The US likewise studied the battle, and relieved several senior commanders while issuing several "lessons learned" publications to improve future performance. Most important, on March 6, 1943 command of the U.S. II Corps passed from Fredendall to George Patton, with Omar N. Bradley as assistant Corps Commander. Commanders were reminded that large units should be kept concentrated to ensure mass on the battlefield, rather than widely dispersed as Fredendall had deployed them. This had the intended side effect of improving the fire control of the already-strong US artillery. Close air support had also been weak (although this had been hampered by the generally poor weather conditions), and while improvements were made, a truly satisfactory solution was not arrived upon until the Battle of Normandy.

In order better to co-ordinate the activities of his two armies in Tunisia, Eisenhower at AFHQ brought First and Eighth Armies under a new headquarters, 18th Army Group, commanded by General Sir Harold Alexander which took U.S. II Corps under direct command [Anderson (1946), p. 10 LondonGazette |issue=37779 |date=5 November, 1946 |startpage=5458 |endpage= |supp=yes |accessdaymonth= |accessdate=2008-05-01] in order to make Anderson's command more manageable.

The Axis too decided to create a combined command for their two armies. Hitler and the German General Staff believed that von Arnim should assume command but Kesselring argued for Rommel who was appointed to command the new Army Group Africa on 23 February. [Watson (2007), pp. 110-111]

outhern front around Mareth

Operation Capri

Eighth Army had been consolidating in front of the Mareth defences since the 17 February and launched probes westward on the 26th. On March 6, 1943 three German armored divisions, two light divisions, and nine Italian divisions, launched Operation Capri, an attack southward in the direction of Medenine, the northernmost British strongpoint. British artillery fire was intense, beating off the Axis attack and knocking out 55 Axis tanks.

With the failure of "Capri" Rommel, decided that the only way to save his armies would be to evacuate them. He therefore left Tunisia on 9 March to see Hitler at his heaquarters in the Ukraine to try to convince him to abandon Tunisia and return the Axis armies to Europe. Hitler refused, and Rommel was placed, in strict secrecy, on sick leave. Von Arnim became commander of Army Group Africa. [Watson, Bruce Allen, pp.121 & 123]

Operation Pugilist

Montgomery launched his major attack, Operation Pugilist, against the Mareth Line in the night of 19 March/20 March 1943. Elements of the British 50th Infantry Division penetrated the line and established a bridgehead west of Zarat on 20 March/21 March, but a determined counterattack by 15th Panzer Division destroyed the pocket and established the line once again during 22 March.

On 26 March, General Horrocks' X Corps drove around the Matmata Hills, captured the Tebaga Gap and the town of El Hamma at the northern extreme of the line (Operation "Supercharge II"). This flanking movement made most of the Mareth Line untenable. The following day, German and Italian units managed to stop Horrock's advance with well-placed anti-tank guns, in an attempt to gain time for a strategic withdrawal. Within 48 hours the defenders of the Mareth Line marched 60 kilometers northwest and established new defensive positions at Wadi Akarit near Gabès.


By this point the newly reorganized U.S. II Corp had started out of the passes again, and were in position to the rear of the German lines. The 10th Panzer was tasked with pushing them back into the interior, and the two forces met at Battle of El Guettar on 23 March. At first the battle went much as it had in earlier matchups, with the German tanks rolling up lead units of the US forces. However, they soon ran into a US minefield, and immediately the US artillery and anti-tank units opened up on them. The 10th lost 30 tanks over a short period, and retreated out of the minefield. A second attack formed up in the late afternoon, this time supported by infantry, but this attack was also beaten off and the 10th returned to Gabès.

The US was unable to take advantage of the German failure, however, and spent several frustrating weeks attempting to push Italian infantry off two strategic hills on the road to Gabès. Repeated major attempts would make progress, only to be pushed back by small units of the 10th or 21st Panzer who would drive up the road from Gabès in an hour or so. Better air support would have made this "mobile defence" difficult, but coordination between air and ground forces remained a serious problem for the Allies.

Both the Eighth Army and the U.S. II Corps continued their attacks over the next week, and eventually the 8th broke the lines and the Axis was forced to abandon Gabès and retreat to join the Fifth Panzer Army to the north. Italian Marines, well dug in at Wadi Akarit and plentifully supplied with automatic weapons and grenades, fought well, but the British attackers pressed forward, although casualties among the 6th Green Howards had been severe; two senior officers, six senior NCO's and junior officers and one hundred and eighteen other ranks killed. [cite web| first=Bill| last=Cheal| url=http://www.greenhowards.org.uk/bill-cheall/cheall12.htm| publisher=The Friends of the Green Howards website| work=The War of a Green Howard, 1939 - 1945| title=Chapter 11: Into Battle (AT Wadi Akrit)|month=May | year=1994| accessdate=2008-04-09]

"When we were about ten yards away we had reached the top of the slit trench and we killed any of the survivors," recalled Bill Cheall, who had just seen his section leader shot down by an Italian. "It was no time for pussy footing, we were intoxicated with rage and had to kill them to pay for our fallen pal." [cite web| first=Bill| last=Cheal| url=http://www.greenhowards.org.uk/bill-cheall/cheall11.htm| publisher=The Friends of the Green Howards website| work=The War of a Green Howard, 1939 - 1945| title=Chapter 12: Preparing| month=May | year=1994| accessdate=2008-04-09] The hills in front of the US forces were now abandoned, allowing them to join the British forces in Gabès later that day. From this point on the battle became one of attrition.

Northern sector February to April 1943

On 26 February von Arnim launched an attack against V Corps across a wide front. In fierce fighting the attack on Medjez was defeated but further south some tactical gains were made before the advance was halted. In the north progress was made towards Beja but in terrible weather conditions the attack was blunted by 46th (North Midland) Division, a mixed division made up of two infantry brigades and one armoured, over several days intense fighting.Anderson (1946), p. 10 LondonGazette|issue=37779|supp=yes|startpage=5458|endapage=|date=5 November 1946|accessdate=2008-05-01]

On 2 March von Arnim renewed his attack in the north, pushing 46th Division slowly back over the next three weeks towards Djebel Abiod. He abandoned his attacks in the centre and south of the front, however, but withdrawals of French battalions in the Medjez area to join XIX Corps had allowed him to occupy, with little opposition, the high ground dominating the town, which was left in a dangerous salient.

Anderson reinforced 46th Division with 1st Parachute Brigade and French units including a tabor of specialist mountain Goumiers and launched a counter-offensive on 28 March which in four days succeeded in recapturing all lost ground.

On 7 April Anderson tasked 78th Infantry Division with clearing the Beja-Medjez road. Supported by artillery and close air support they methodically advanced convert|10|mi|km through difficult mountain terrain over the next ten days clearing a front convert|10|mi|km wide. 4th Infantry Division were introduced for the first into the fighting taking position on 78th Division's left and pushing towards Sidi Nisr.Anderson (1946), p. 11 LondonGazette|issue=37779|supp=yes|startpage=5459|endapage=|date=5 November 1946|accessdate=2008-05-01]


The salient at Medjez had been relieved and lateral roads in the V Corps area cleared so that Anderson was able to turn his full attention to the orders he had received on 12 April from Alexander to prepare the large-scale attack, scheduled for 22 April, to gain Tunis.

By this stage, Allied aircraft had been moved forward to airfields in Tunisia, and large numbers of German transport aircraft were shot down between Sicily and Tunis. British destroyers operating from Malta prevented reinforcement or evacuation of Tunisia by sea. Admiral Cunningham, Eisenhower's Naval Task Force commander, issued Nelsonian orders to his ships: "Sink, burn, capture, destroy. Let nothing pass".

By April 18, after attacks by Eighth Army from the south and flanking attacks by IX Corps and French XIX Corps the German-Italian forces had been pushed into a defensive line on the north-east coast of Tunis, attempting to protect their supply lines, but with little hope of continuing the battle for long.

Plans for the final offensive

Alexander planned that while U.S. II Corps would attack on the north towards Bizerte, First Army would attack towards Tunis while Eighth Army attacked north from Enfidaville. Anderson would co-ordinate the actions of First Army and U.S. II Corps, issuing the appropriate orders to achieve this.

Anderson's plan was for the main attack to be in the centre of the V Corps front at Medjez, confronting main Axis defenses. However, IX Corps on the right would first attack north-east with, by speed of movement, the intention of getting in behind the Medjez defenses and disrupting their armoured reserves. U.S. II Corps would make a double thrust: one to capture the high ground on V Corps left flank and a second towards Bizerte. French XIX Corps would be held back until IX Corps and Eighth Army had drawn in the opposition and then advance towards Pont du Fahs.


The Allied forces had reorganised. U.S. II Corps had moved to the northern end of the Allied front. von Arnim knew that an Allied offensive was imminent and launched a spoiling attack on the night of 20 April-21 April between Medjez and Goubellat and also on the IX Corps front. The Hermann Goering Division supported by tanks from 10th Panzer Division penetrated up to five miles (8 km) at some points but they could not force a general withdrawal, and eventually returned to their lines. No serious disruption was caused to Allied plans although the first attack of the offensive, by IX Corps, had to be delayed by four hours from 0400 on 22 April.Anderson (1946), p. 12 LondonGazette|issue=37779|supp=yes|startpage=5460|endapage=|date=5 November 1946|accessdate=2008-05-01]

On the morning of 22 April 46th Division attacked on the IX Corps front creating a sufficient gap for 6th Armoured Division to pass through by nightfall. They were followed by 1st Armoured Division, striking east for the next two days. However, progress was not quick enough to forestall the creation of a strong anti-tank screen which halted their progress. Nevertheless, theis action had drawn the Axis reserves of armour south, away from the central front. Seeing that no further progress was likely Anderson withdrew 6th Armoured and most of 46th Infantry Divisions into Reserve.

The V Corps attack went in on the evening of 22 April and U.S. II Corps launched their offensive in the early hours of 23 April. In grim hand-to hand fighting against the Hermann Goering, 334th Infantry and 15th Panzer Divisions, it took V Corp's 1st, 4th and 78th Infantry Divisions, supported by Army tanks and heavy artillery concentrations, eight days to penetrate convert|6|mi|km and capture most of the Axis defensive positions. Casualties were heavy on both sides but Anderson felt a breakthrough was imminent

On 30 April it had become clear to Montgomery and Alexander that Eighth Army's attack north from Enfidaville into well-held and difficult terrain would not succeed. Alexander therefore gave Montgomery a holding task and transferred British 7th Armoured Division, Indian 4th Infantry Division and 201st Guards Brigade from Eighth Army to First Army, (joining 1st Armoured Division which had transferred before the main offensive). [Mead, p.44] (See also: British First Army order of battle, 4 May 1943).

The necessary movements were completed by the night of 5 May. Anderson had arranged for a dummy concentration of tanks near Bou Arada on the IX Corps front to deflect attention from the arrival of 7th Armoured in the Medjez sector. In the event, he achieved a considerable measure of surprise as to the size of his armoured force when the attack went in.Anderson (1946), p. 13 LondonGazette|issue=37779|supp=yes|startpage=5461|endapage=|date=5 November 1946|accessdate=2008-05-01]

The final assault was launched at 0330 on May 6 by British IX Corps, now commanded by Lieutenant-General Brian Horrocks who had taken over from the wounded John Crocker, V Corps having made a preliminary attack on 5 May to capture high ground and secure IX Corps' left flank. The British 4th and Indian 4th Infantry Divisions, concentrated on a narrow front and supported by heavy artillery concentrations, broke a hole in the defenses for 6th and 7th Armoured Divisions to pass through. On May 7 British armour entered Tunis, and American infantry from II Corps which had continued its advance in the north, entered Bizerte.Anderson (1946), p. 14 LondonGazette|issue=37779|supp=yes|startpage=5462|endapage=|date=5 November 1946|accessdate=2008-05-01] Six days later the last Axis resistance in Africa ended with the surrender of over 275,000 prisoners of war, many of them newly arrived from Sicily and more needed there.

It was observed by British General Harold Alexander that in the final battles in Tunisia 'It was noticed that the Italians fought particularly well, outdoing the Germans in line with them.' [ [http://books.google.com.au/books?id=zWNO8eJoBGMC&pg=RA1-PA95&dq=italians+fought+tunisia&lr=&hl=es&sig=ysh8Q0CUJZSGOAvsnv5fAW3-lcs Gooch (1990), p.95] ] This exact same sentiment was noted by General Alexander when later writing of the episode [Bauer (2000), p. 428]


According to historian Williamson A. Murray "The decision to reinforce North Africa was one of the worst of Hitler's blunders: admittedly, it kept the Mediterranean closed for six more months, with a negative impact on the Allied shipping situation, but it placed some of Germany's best troops in an indefensible position from which, like Stalingrad, there would be no escape. Moreover Hitler committed the Luftwaffe to fight a battle of attrition under unfavourable conditions, and it suffered losses that it could not afford." [Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare edited by Geoffrey Parker ISBN 0521794314 page 322 (paperback version)]

The Axis's desperate gamble had only slowed the inevitable, and the US loss at Kasserine may, paradoxically, have been the best thing that could have happened to them. With North Africa now in Allied hands, plans quickly turned to the invasion of Sicily, and Italy after it.

ee also

* North African Campaign timeline
* List of World War II Battles
* Western Desert Campaign



*cite book| first=Charles R.| last=Anderson|url=http://www.army.mil/CMH-PG/brochures/tunisia/tunisia.htm |title=Tunisia 17 November 1942 to 13 May 1943| series=US Army Center of Military History Online Bookshelves WWII Campaigns| publisher=US Army Center of Military History|year= |id=CMH Pub 72-12
*Anderson, Lt.-General Kenneth (1946). "Official despatch by Kenneth Anderson, GOC-in-C First Army covering events in NW Africa, 8 November 194213 May 1943" published in LondonGazette|issue=37779|supp=yes|startpage=5449|endapage=5464|date=5 November 1946|accessdate=2008-04-23
*cite book|first=Rick| last=Atkinson|title=An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943|series=| origdate=2003| date=| location=| publisher=Abacus|isbn=0-34911-636-9
*cite book| author=|url=http://www.army.mil/cmh/books/wwii/bizerte/bizerte-fm.htm| series=US Army Center of Military History Online Bookshelves| title=To Bizerte with the II Corps 23 April to 13 May 1943 |publisher=Historical Division, War Department (for the American Forces in Action series)|year=1943 |id=CMH Pub 100-6
*cite book| first=Gregory |last=Blaxland|title=The Plain Cook and the Great Showman|year=1977.|id=ISBN 0-7183-0185-4
*cite book | title = Battleaxe Division | first=Ken |last=Ford |year=1999|publisher=Sutton Publishing| location=Stroud (UK)| isbn= 0-7509-1893-4
*cite book | title =Decisive Campaigns of the Second World War| first=John (Editor)|last=Gooch |coauthors=Ceva, Lucio|year=1990 |publisher=Routledge| location=| isbn=0714633690| chapter=The North African Campaign 1940-43: A Reconsideration
*cite book | first=Richard| last=Mead| title=Churchill's Lions: A biographical guide to the key British generals of World War II| year=2007| publisher=Spellmount| location=Stroud (UK)| isbn=978-1-86227-431-0
*cite book|first=Major General I.S.O.| last=Playfair|title=History Of The Second World War: The Mediterranean and Middle East, Volume 4: The Destruction of the Axis Forces in Africa |series=United Kingdom Military Series| origdate=1966| year=2004| location=Uckfield, UK| publisher=Naval & Military Press|isbn=1-84574-068-8
*cite book| last=Watson| first=Bruce Allen|title=Exit Rommel: The Tunisian Campaign, 1942-43| location=Mechanicsburg, PA| publisher=Stackpole Books| year=2007| origdate=1999| isbn=978-0-8117-3381-6| series=Stackpole Military History Series

External links

* [http://collections.civilisations.ca/warclip/objects/common/webmedia.php?irn=5001297 Italian communique report the capture of 300 British paratroopers by part of the Bersaglieri]
* [http://www.greenhowards.org.uk/bill-cheall/cheall10.htm The Green Howards Regimental History, - Bill Cheall's Story]
* [http://historicalresources.org/2008/09/25/the-tunisia-campaign-battle-of-tunisia-maps-november-17-1942-–-may-13-1943/ The Tunisia Campaign (Battle of Tunisia) Maps]

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