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Tunisia - January/February 1943
- February 1943, Kasserine to Thala
Central Tunisia - Reflections
Artillery Barrage – 22 February 1943
Distinguished Unit Citation - 9th ID Artillery
Balance of Ninth
Tunisia - a Brit’s Reflections
Commands II Corps
Battle Plan For Tunisia
Maknassy And El Guettar
Tunisia - The Goddamned
Northern Tunisia - Battles
The Germans won the race to Tunisia. Tunisia had the port city of Tunis and
topography much like the western United States.
It has the Tunis Plains to the north surrounded by rugged mountains and
hills to the south and west. This
ring of mountains forms an easily defended barrier with few passes.
The Mediterranean East Coast of Tunisia has a mountain range of about 150
miles long. Only a 20-mile-wide
path between Mareth and Gabes provided canyon-like passes to the south and east.
A secondary group of passes and key to the west were at Kasserine, Thala,
Sbeitla, and Dernia.
At this time Ernie Pyle, the famous war correspondent and every GI’s favorite, describes a movement from the Oran, Algeria area, in his book, “Here is Your War”. (The 39th could have been part of this movement.)
“ A big military convoy moving at night across the mountains and deserts of Tunisia is something that nobody who has been in one can forget.
Late one afternoon the front-line outfit I was visiting received sudden orders to move that night, bag and baggage. It had to pull out of its battle positions, time the departure of its various units to fit into the flow of traffic at the first control point on the highway, then drive all night and go into action on another front.
All the big convoys in the war area moved at night. German planes would have spotted a daytime convoy and played havoc with it. It was extremely difficult and dangerous; this moving at night in total blackness over strange and rough roads. But it had to be done.
Our convoy was an immense one. There were hundreds of vehicles and thousands of men. It took seven and one half-hours to pass one point. The convoy started moving at 5:30 in the evening just before dusk. The last vehicle didn’t clear till one o’clock the next morning.
I rode in a jeep with Captain Pat
Riddleberger, of Woodstock, Virginia, and Private John Coughlin, Manchester, New
Ernie Pyle’s jeep didn’t start in the
convoy until 1 o’clock in the morning. Ernie
“The moon was just coming out. The
sky was crystal-clear, the night bitter cold.
The jeep’s top was down. We
put on all the clothes we had. In addition to my usual polar-bear wardrobe,
which included heavy underwear and two sweaters, that night I wore a pair of
coveralls, a heavy combat suit that tank man lent me, a pair of overshoes, two
caps--one on top of the other--and over them a pair of goggles.
The three of us in the jeep wrapped up in blankets.
In spite of all that, we almost froze before the night was over.”
Ernie Pyle continues:
“After a few miles we had to cross a mountain range.
There were steep grades and swish back turns, and some of the trucks had
to back and fill to make the sharper turns.
Ernie Pyle continues:
“At rest stops the soldiers got out and ran up and down the road, or
stood in one spot jitterbugging in an effort to warm their feet. The ones I felt sorriest for were the infantrymen, packed
like sardines in open trucks with no protection from the bitter cold.
It seemed that the infantry always got it in the neck.”
Ernie Pyle continues:
“My feet were so cold and achy that at last I took off my overshoes and
shoes and held my cold toes in my hands, trying to warm them. After an hour or so they quit hurting. ...”
Ernie Pyle continues:
The Big German Push
Later on in “This is Your War”, Ernie Pyle describes his view of the Afrika Korps offensive:
The attack was so sudden nobody could believe it was in full force. Our forward troops were overrun before they knew what was happening. The command post itself didn’t start moving back till after lunch. By then it was too late--or almost too late.
Command cars, half-tracks and jeeps started west across the fields of semi-cultivated desert, for by then the good road to the north was already cut off. The column had moved about eight miles when German tanks came charging in on the helpless vehicles on both sides.
A headquartered command post is not heavily
armed. It has little with which to fight back. All those men and cars could do was duck and dodge and run
like hell. There was no such thing
as a fighting line. Everything was
mixed up over an area of ten miles or more.
It was a complete melee. Every
jeep was on its own. The
accompanying tanks fought till knocked out, and their crews then got out and
moved along on foot. ...”
Ernie Pyle continues:
Twilight found our men and machines
straggling over an area extending some ten miles back from Sidi bou Zid.
Darkness saved those who were saved.
During the night the command post assembled what was left of itself in
another cactus patch about fifteen miles behind its first position, Throughout
the night, and for days afterward, tired men cane straggling in afoot from the
Ernie Pyle continues:
Unfortunately, we didn’t kick hell out of
them. In fact, the boot was on the
other foot. ...”
Ernie Pyle continues:
“ ... In every direction was a huge semi-irrigated desert valley. It looked very much like the valley at Phoenix, Arizona--almost treeless with patches of wild growth, shoulder-high cactus of the prickly variety. The valley was spotted with cultivated fields and the tiny square stucco houses of Arab farmers, and the vat scene was bounded with slightly rolling big mountains in the distance.
As far as we could see, out across the
desert in all four sections of the “pie” formed by the intersecting roads,
was American equipment--tanks, half-tracks, artillery, infantry--hundreds, yes,
thousands of vehicles extending miles and miles and everything standing still.
We were in time; the battle had not yet started.”
Ernie Pyle continues:
“... Ten miles or so east and southeast were the Germans, but there was
no activity anywhere, no smoke on the horizon, no planes in the sky.
It all had the appearance of an after-lunch siesta, but no one was
As we drove past tank after tank, we found each crew at its post inside--the driver at his control, the commander standing with his head sticking out of the open turret door, standing there silent motionless, just looking ahead like the Indian on the calendars. ...
“Suddenly out of this siesta like doze the order came. We didn’t hear
it for it came to the tanks over their radio but we knew it quickly, for all
over the desert tanks began roaring and pouring out blue smoke from the
cylinders: Then they started off ...
“Far across the desert, in front of us, lay the town of Sidi bou Zid.
Through the glasses we could see it only as a great oasis,
“Behind our tanks, leading the attack, other armored vehicles puffed blue smoke. New formations began to move forward swiftly. The artillery went first, followed by armored infantry in half-tanks and even in jeeps.
Over the radio came the voice of the battalion commander: ’We’re in the edge of Sidi bou Zid, and have struck no opposition yet’.
This peaceful report from our tank charge brought no comment from anyone around the command truck. Faces were grave: it wasn’t right--this business of no opposition at all; there may be a trick in it somewhere.
Suddenly, brown geysers of earth and smoke began to spout. We watched through our glasses. Then from far off, came the sound of explosions. Again the voice from the radio: ‘We’re getting shelled, but can’t make out where it’s coming from’. Then a long silence, while the geysers continued to burst...’I’m not sure, but think it’s artillery along the road north of town . . . Now there is some from the south.’
We looked, and could see through our glasses
the enemy advancing. They were far
away, perhaps ten miles--narrow little streaks of dust, like plumes, speeding
down the low sloping plain fro the mountain base toward the oasis of Sidi bou
“The night after our tank defeat at Sidi bou Zid I drove back to our
cactus patch near Sbeitla. There I
pitched my shelter at the same hole where I had dug in a couple nights before.
“There was artillery fire east of Sbeitla when I went to bed. .... At one o’clock in the morning Corporal William Nikolin shook my bed and told me to get my jeep packed. ...
“Ten minutes later he said, 'German tanks are in Sbeitla.‘”
“Then suddenly, a giant flame sourced up into the dark eastern sky. We had set off our gasoline dump. In a minute red flares began to shoot out from the glow--that was the ammunition dump.
“When I awakened, it was just dawn. Trucks were rolling past the edge of our cactus patch. The continuous line headed out toward the highway.
“Finally it became obvious that our withdrawal was going to be accomplished without too much opposition from the Germans. The major and I were to see another sunset after all.
“Then word came that hard fighting was going on at Feriana, forty-five miles west. I started the jeep, waved a last goodbye to Sbeitla. The day was miserably dark and cold. Just as I started it began to hail.
“The withdrawal of our forces from the vast Sbeitla Valley, back through the Kasserine Pass, was a majestic thing in a way. It continued without a break for twenty-four hours.
The withdrawal from Feriana and Thelepte airdrome was separate and smaller than ours. Ammunition dumps were set off, and all gasoline that could not be moved was set ablaze.”
Tunisia - Reflections
Ernie Pyle continues, “ You folks at home must have been disappointed at what
happened to our American troops in those Tunisian battles. So were we over here.
Our predicament was damned humiliating, as General Stilwell said about
getting kicked out of Burma the year before.
We lost a great deal of equipment, many American lives, and valuable time
and territory-to say nothing of face. Yet
no one over here had the slightest doubt that the Germans would be thrown out of
Tunisia. It was simply in the cards.”
“One thing you
folks back home must realized is that the Tunisian business up to then was
mainly a British show. Our part in
it was small. Consequently, our
defeat was not so disastrous to the whole picture as it would have been if we
had been bearing the major portion of the task.”
fundamental cause of our trouble over here lay in two things: we had too little
to work with, as usual, and we underestimated Rommel’s strength and especially
and correspondents knew we were too thinly spread in our sector to hold if the
Germans were really to launch a big-scale attack.
Where everybody was wrong was in believing they didn’t have the stuff
to do it with.
feel that some such setback as that--tragic though it was for many Americans,
for whom it will always be too late-was not entirely a bad thing for us, it was
all right to have a good opinion of ourselves, but we Americans were so smug
with our cockiness. We somehow felt
that just because we were Americans we could whip our weight in wildcats. And we
got it into our heads that production alone would win the war.”
“As for our
soldiers themselves, you need not have felt any shame or concern about their
ability. I saw them in battle and
afterward and there was nothing wrong with the American soldier.
His fighting spirit was good.
His morale was okay. The
deeper he got into a fight the more of a fighting man he became.
“It is true they were not seasoned battle veterans as the British and Germans. But they had had some battle experience … One good man simply can’t whip two good men. That’s about the only way I know to put it. …”
Kasserine to Thala
To quote directly from the book
"Eight Stars to Victory",
this time the British Eighth Army had captured the port of Tripoli, following a
spectacular 1,400-mile-drive which had stained supply lines and supporting arms
to capacity. The Desert Rats were forced to stop, replenish, rebuild and
Montgomery was building his forces for a knockout punch at Mareth, Rommel
and Von Arnim pooled 200,000 desert veterans, all the Axis armor, artillery and
air support and set the day. Weather was in their favor. They decided to launch
a sweeping lunge, break out of the last ring of mountain passes, chop up the
comparatively weak American II Corps (along the central front) in detail, then
flank the entire Allied Tunisian line - thus compelling the Anglo-American
forces to withdraw to Algeria. The hour was dark for those units, which stood in
The enemy struck during the early hours
of February 14, 1943. He hit with armor, motorized infantry, Stukas (those
dive-bombing hell planes which wracked the nerves of green troops), fighter
planes and success. Through Faid Pass and toward Kasserine rolled the Afrika
Korps . . . Rommel was launching a three-column drive to the center and an
armored attack slightly south.
There are many versions of the battle for
Kasserine Pass. All accounts, if truthful, must admit one fact: the Axis
defeated the Allies for the first six days . . . almost outflanked the Allied
line. Rommel was stopped dramatically at Thala by a small composite British
force and the Ninth Division Artillery, fortunately; for otherwise he would have
had a clear field to the rear of the British First Army to the north. A few
Engineers, a Ranger battalion and some tankers of the 1st Armored Division
performed a similar feat before at Tebessa.
main drive, as stated previously, was three-pronged. One column attacked along
the Faid-Sheitla Road, cutting off the 34th Division's 168th C.T. (which had
made the Algerian landing with the 39th C.T.). The third and largest column
enveloped the left flank of the 168th, threatening the regiment with
encirclement. An armored battalion was rushed to aid the hard hit combat team,
but this rescuing force ran into a tank ambuscade and was forced to limp off a
poor second. Although the 1st Armored attacked on the following day to relieve
the 168th, relief was impossible . . . the 168thC.T. was left to its fate . . .
Sidi bou Zid and the regiment were overrun. Among the units lost at Sidi bou Zid
was the 39th Infantry's Cannon Company, which had been attached to the armored
More tanks were lost by the out-numbered
1st Armored as the day wore on, and the badly mauled Americans fell back toward
Sbeitla and Kasserine. Panzer forces attacked Gajsa and, since this position was
held only lightly, it fell. Feriana and Thelepte, the two fighter plane bases,
were quickly enveloped and soon lost--as the Allied line hurriedly was changed
to conform with these withdrawals.
objective of the enemy appeared to be Tebessa, Algeria, for his greatest
pressure was directed against the pass of Kasserine.
Diversionary attacks were launched to the north and south of the pass by
the Germans in order to stop the Kasserine area from being reinforced.
Then the Axis attack got up steam. The
1st Armored withdrew along the Sbeita-Kasserine Road, covered by Combat Command
B which had rushed in from Maktar. Part of this covering force was the 3rd
Battalion and the Anti-Tank Company of the 39th Infantry, about to engage in
their first recorded large-scale action against the Germans in Word War II.
was at Kasserine Pass that an overwhelming force--including two Panzer
divisions, hit the 3rd Battalion and Anti-tank Company.
It was at Kasserine Pass that an overwhelming force--including two Panzer divisions, hit the 3rd Battalion and Anti-tank Company.Rommel had made a smashing drive into the pass on the 19th. Having infiltrated past the American forces and punched through the tanks, artillery and planes the Germans pressed their advantage the following day. It was an unequal battle. . . watching from their positions above the valley, infantryman could see the gigantic tank struggle and the inevitable result. . . one combat command against two divisions!
forces overran all positions; they poured into the valley and up the roads.
The 3rd Battalion was overrun completely; the Anti-Tank Company had few
casualties, but lost all its guns. Both
outfits were routed and infiltrated back to Souk Ahras--Americans had attempted
to hold at all costs and failed. (Combat Command B was able to extricate a
portion of its men and equipment and later made a gallant and successful stand
was now clear that Rommel’s entire thrust (which already had covered fifty
miles!) was directed against Tebessa--supply base and air center of the Allied
Tunisian command--and toward Thala to the north.
At first the powerful Axis drive smashed up the road toward Thala, the
entrance through which Rommel planned to drive a huge concentration of armor and
flank the Allied Line. This was the area, too, through which he hoped to flank
Tebessa. If the wily desert fox
could get by Thala he would have the Allies where he wanted them.
didn’t seem to be anything to stop the Germans except a few hastily dispatched
British tanks, infantry and artillery. .
. the kind of outfit Kipling
would have sent to conquer a native village of India . . . a small task force .
. . rushed to meet the strength of
the whole attack. The British were
waiting for the Germans on a ridge just beyond Kasserine Pass on the road to
Thala. It was a suicidal mission
and the Tommies must have known it . . . but this group sacrificed itself and
temporarily stopped the enemy. Although most of the rear guard and its tanks
were wiped out, these gallant soldiers had delayed Rommel’s advance.
. . for one day.
portion of the British 26th Armored Regiment now moved forward into Thala, its
light tanks no match for the Axis armor. With
this group came a few infantrymen--to establish a line about three miles south
of the town. On the night of February 20th the entire Allied situation was
glum. Only massed heavy artillery
or overwhelming tank superiority could halt the enemy combination and no such
help was in sight.
aid was coming . . . it was aid which Rommel could not foresee!
lies southwest of Oran and is about 800 miles distant from the passes of Faid
and Kasserine . . . 800 miles of winding, narrow, congested, slippery and
precipitous mountain roads. With
winter’s rains and frost, travel to the front from Tlemcen could have taken as much
as two or three weeks.
about 10:30 on Wednesday morning, February 17th, orders were received at
Division headquarters to dispatch--without delay--all available artillery and
cannon by forced march to the vicinity of Tebessa, on the Tunisian-Algerian
border. The artillery and cannon
companies at Tlemcen were given a three-hour alert.
Brigadier General S. LeRoy Irwin, the Diverty commander, was to lead the
4 P.M. the caravan was rolling out of the eastern edge of Tlemcen.
Snow lay upon the ground and rain beat a muffled patter upon vehicles and
weapons. Leading, was the 34th
Field Artillery followed by the 60th Field, the 60th Cannon Company and
Headquarters Battery of Diverty. They
would pick up the 84th Field Artillery and the 47th Cannon Company near L'Arba.
(These units had been proceeding leisurely toward Algiers as part of the
47th Combat Team when they received the alert.)
little sleep, and stopping only for food, fuel and occasional forty winks, the
column began a 777-mile march along slippery mountain curves.
The trucks and their bouncing tow of lethal weapons roared on.
. . on through Sidi bel
Abbes (Foreign Legion Hqs.), Orleansville, Affreville, Blida (“here comes the
84th"), L'Arba, Setif, Ain-M'lila and into Ain Beida.
the morning of February 21st the column was halted by British Traffic Control at
Ain Beida . . . and a mass of rumors began hitting the ears of the column's
troops. Those rumors reported
Tebessa likely to fall at any moment . . . and there was a steady stream of air
force personnel, supplies and service units going to the rear.
Tebessa was an important supply and aviation canter; it was being
evacuated . . . and the road was crowded with this retrograde movement.
Rommel had to be stopped!
“Ambulances, troops, supply trains, and everything imaginable clogged the narrow roads …. They were told of the hopelessness of their task … ‘get while the getting was good’ by the men who were returning from the front.”
On the night of 21 February, the column of 2,170 men and officers plus their 441 vehicles had traversed this 735-mile forced march in less than 100 hours. They travel through snow and rain and over treacherous mountain roads to Thala. Many weapons and batteries slide off the steep mountain heights, but General Irwin’s men positioned themselves by early morning. This was one of the greatest artillery marches in military history.
- Artillery Barrage – 22 February 1943
The artillery battalions rolled into position during the closing hours of
21February. ... ”awaited the
Panzer cyclone, which was due to come from the direction of Kasserine.”
To their front was but a handful of British infantry
... said to be three platoons, but about the equivalent of one American
platoon. The story goes these weary souls kept running up and down
their line of positions, firing and making the enemy believe that there was much
more opposition than existed actually.
The Axis armored spearhead had nearly three battalions of infantry
against the three threadbare platoons of His Majesty’s Lestershire Yeomanry.
About 40 powerful tanks opposed the 24 British Mark IV’s, which were
too small to give battle and so were kept in reserve.
Only the artillery were the two sides equal, and that the result of the
arrival of the Ninth’s reinforcements.
Days and nights of steady and miserable rainfall were now at an end and
the dull, cloudy morning of February 22, 1943 yawned awake. The Germans opened a tremendous tank attack up the Thala
defile at 7 A.M., aided by artillery and dive-bombers. At this time the Americans and British were only three miles
south of Thala, perched upon the last defenses before that town.
The enemy was but 2,500 yards distant, making it necessary to fire at
almost point-blank range. As a
matter of fact, British artillery, defiladed on the forward slopes, actually did
lower its muzzles and fire what amounted to flat-trajectory fire.
Guns of the 84th Field Artillery did the same.
For three hours past dawn the battle raged.
German Stukas attempted to silence the Ninth Diverty’s guns, but could
not. Battery C, 84th F.A., was
dispatched forward to an anti-tank position as the enemy approached.
Its 105’s were lowered and fired point-blank at oncoming tanks to stop
the armored threat. ..”
“Rommel’s force tried to break through to Thala all day.
... The enemy simply could not advance against the rapidly- firing
artillerymen, who sought out Panzer tanks with 105 and 155 shells for a most
devastating and memorable effect.
The drive out of Kasserine Pass was halted.
It was halted by the artillery, cannon and gumption of the force that
‘couldn’t arrive in time’. . but
The infantry and aircraft launched a counterattack from southwest of
Thala. ... Rommel went into
headlong retreat. The B-17s bombed
his columns . . . and back through
Kasserine hobbled the remnants of his once-proud 21st Panzer Division . . . “
On February 25th, while Italians and Teller mines covered their
withdrawal, the Germans fled to the east and succeeded in disengaging from the
American pursuers. “
Both sides had suffered staggering loses.
The 1st Armored lost 100 tanks, and at least 2,000 Americans of all
organizations were prisoners of the Axis. Rommel,
on the other hand had lost a large portion of his armor, and more important, the
initiative in the west.
For the Ninth Infantry Division, this battle meant the virtual elimination of an infantry battalion and two supporting companies of the 39th Infantry. However, the gallant stand of Diverty and its cannon company support overshadowed any losses, which the Division might have had. Never before in history of modern warfare had artillery alone stopped the combined assaults of tanks, motorized infantry, dive-bombers--and dueled enemy artillery as well."
Infantry Division - Artillery
Distinguished Unit Citation
. . 9th
Infantry Division Artillery, is cited for conspicuous gallantry and
heroism in battle on 21, 22, and 23 February 1943, in repelling an attack by
vastly superior forces, which were attempting to break through the Allied lines
in the vicinity of Thala, Tunisia
. . . 9th
Infantry Division Artillery, completed a 100-hour forced march from
Tlemcen, Algeria, covering a distance of 735 miles in bitter weather over
tortuous and almost impassable mountain roads on the night of 21 February 1943.
Without prior reconnaissance or adequate maps, harassed by enemy fire,
and forced to maneuver through a congested narrow road, nevertheless
. occupied battle positions, set up communications, established
observation posts, and was ready deliver fire by daylight.
Although enemy forces were entrenched only 2500 yards distant and there
were only three platoons of friendly infantry in front of the artillery, the
unit maintained constant and steady fire with such deadly affect that enemy
tanks units were dispersed and driven back.
The cool and determined manner in which
Infantry Division Artillery entered into battle, after an almost
incredible forced march contributed in great measure to the defeat of the
enemy’s attempt to break through the Thala defile.
The gallant entry into battle and the heroism, with which the volume of
fire was maintained, despite terrific enemy fire, are in keeping with the
highest traditions of the American military service.
Note: This is a consolidated citation of the awards given Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, Ninth Division Artillery: 34th, 60th and 84th Field Artillery Battalions and the 47th and 60th Cannon Companies."
Balance Of The
Ninth Infantry To
The balance of the Ninth Division pulled up stakes and left for the
Tunisian front on February 19, two days after the Ninth Division Artillery and
cannon companies left Tlemcen. Rommel's
unsuccessful Panzers had been withdrawn east of Kasserine when the Division
pulled into the border town Bou Chebka. Before them lay the grim reminder of what had transpired ---
a vast litter-strewn battleground.
Responsibility for Kasserine Pass was assumed by the Ninth Infantry
Division, relieving the 1st Infantry Division.
The 1st Infantry Division's 16th C.T. joined the Ninth Division and
remained in place. The 47th C.T. dug in at El ma el Aboid Pass with orders to
hold that gateway at all costs. The
60th C.T. remained at Bou Chebka. The Ninth Division held the positions that had
been gained for the next few weeks.
In early March the Raiders, the 47th C.T., followed by the 34ht Field
Artillery made a forced march, shuttling by truck at night, and replaced the
16th C.T. at Kasserine Pass by daylight. The
Go-Devils, the 60th C.T., moved to Thelepte and Feriana airports to guard those
vital landing strips. The 39th C.T.
rejoined the Ninth Division at Bou Chebka, after completing a 396-mile journey
through the treacherous Atlas Mountains. That fairly well accounted for most of
the Ninth Division’s detachments. The
894th Tank Destroyer Battalion also joined at this time.
- A Brit’s Reflections
Cultural differences, training and experiences -- all influence one’s
As Capt. Mittelman says in “Eight Stars to
Victory”, “Englishmen stop for tea, the Americans stop for coffee and
Frenchman stop for the night. “ Stark
differences result when reflecting on the Tunisian campaign.
Brian Harpur was born in Dublin, educated in Ireland and at London
University. His father and older
brother were ministers. He enlisted
as a private in the British army in 1939. In
1940, he was commissioned and posted to a machine gun battalion; he served in
Tunis, Sicily, and Italy, and was awarded the Military Cross in the River Senio
battle in April 1945.
In "The Goddam Troops", the first chapter of his book, “The
Impossible Victory”, he says, “The British Army has been doing things by the
numbers for centuries. There is a
prescribed drill for literally everything you do.....Let me hasten to add that
the British Army has got it right."
"In this respect there was no function which had a more precise and
undeviating formula than the issuing of battle orders.
One was drilled over and over again to deliver these either verbally or
in writing under five headings.
INFORMATION (first about dispositions and numbers
of one's own troops and then of the enemy).
(explain nature of objective to be taken and its location and always use
the word 'will' e.g. 'X platoon will attack' not 'hopes to' nor 'intends to
subject to the enemy beating the living daylights out of us first' or any
nonsense like that).
(describe the plan in such reasonable detail that subordinate commanders
could pass it on without any misunderstanding).
(here the plan arrangements for food, petrol, oil, ammunition, and for
any special equipment are outlined).
INTERCOMMUNICATION (the location of the various headquarters, boundaries, signal frequencies are noted).
The barrage of controlled verbiage then had to be concluded with two mandatory rituals. One was to ask 'Any questions'? And the other was the command 'Sychronise watches'. Both were wise precautions for obvious reasons."
“The Impossible Victory” is Brian Harpur’s personal account of the
Battle for the PO Valley. The
battle involved no less than twenty nations and ethnic groups on the Allied
side, ranging from Americans (including Japanese-American units) and British to
Poles, Brazilians, Jews, East Indians, Maoris, and Nepalese.”
He concludes, reflecting on the Allied forces, that, “Eventually the
essential logic of co-existence depending on a measure of confidence and trust
in each other’s professionalism had seeped through.“
“But it must be said that the prejudices and bigotry characteristic of so many
individuals as well as nations as a whole were never far from the background.
The conceit of the Allied armies in Italy founded often on misconceptions
about their respective superiorities had to be endured as well as be believed.
The British fortified by the success of the Eighth Army from El Alamein
onwards had a considerable contempt for the ‘Yanks’ as soldiers. They would recall with patronizing pomposity how time and
time again the Guards had to be sent into battle in Tunisia in 1943 to recapture
ground the scruffy and undisciplined GI’s had not had the guts to hold.
The fact that this was the arena in which the first largely untrained and
raw American divisions to make on overseas invasion were committed against the
seasoned veterans of Rommel’s armies was overlooked, as was the fact that the
British in their first baptism of fire did not do all that extraordinarily well
in the debacle that led to Dunkirk.”
“ The Americans displayed a certain arrogance about their superiority
over the ’Limeys’ who they thought were always dragging their feet and
simply were not to be trusted. The
Americans, they liked to think of themselves, thought big, fought big, and got
results fast. Their ’get up and
go’ philosophy was in sharp contrast with the ’pussy-footing-- tap on the
window with a wet sponge’ approach of the lousy ’Limeys’.”
Brian was dispatched to offer machine-gun support for an American
battalion on the Northern Apennines in the autumn of 1944.
The battalion was attempting to capture a gigantic mountain called
‘point 508’. Brian rushed ahead
of his unit with his driver in his jeep. He
introduced himself to the American colonel, a stocky middle-aged man with
bulging eyes, covered in mud and sweat. Brian
had to wait while the colonel was poring over his maps, muttering curses and
imprecations to a few tired and dejected officers around him.
“’We gotta take that knob, ‘ he kept on repeating.
‘Where’s Joe?’ he kept on asking.
Suddenly he whipped round on me and bellowed, “ How many men ya got?’
I said I had two platoons. His
eyes glistened. ‘We can do with
them right now Barker,’ (he had misheard my name) ‘and get them right in
there’ - he jabbed an unlit cigar in the general area of some high ground
nearby - ‘in fifteen minutes.’ There
was an embarrassing silence.
‘What ya waiting for?’ he demanded.
I explained a little diffidently that I had come in advance and my chaps,
jolly decent they were too I was tempted to say, could not be with me for at
least two hours. ‘Goddammit,’
he shouted, you can’t fight a Goddam battle unless you have Goddam troops,’
Before the irrefutable logic could sink in, some one at the door
interrupted with “Here comes Joe” and the colonel rushed outside.
I followed him and witnessed a remarkable scene, which contrasted forever
in my memory the way Americans and the British do things.
‘For Chrissake, Joe, what kept ya?’ the colonel bellowed down the
hill. Joe, a young, boyish, slim
and somewhat dejected figure, stopped in his tracks.
He had a hard black stubble of two days’ unshaven hair around his
chin.... the Germans were pitching into us with some of their biggest shells.
To a man we flung ourselves to the ground. ...
The colonel was first to his feet. . . . He peered the fifty yards down
the hill to ... Joe.
‘Listen, Joe, I’ve gotta special assignment for you,’ shouted the
colonel in stentorian delivery which must have been heard by any enemy within
half a mile. The colonel paused for
a dramatic split second between the words ‘special’ and ‘assignment’ in
a way, which suggested that Joe was the luckiest guy in the world to be given
And if conscious of his dictum that one cannot fight a Goddam battle
unless one has the Goddam troops, he added, ‘How many men ya got, Joe?’
Joe thought for a second: ‘Ah reckon about seventeen, Colonel.’
The colonel nodded and then made his first and only concession to what
might be called joint consultation.
‘Do you reckon you can take that knob, Joe?’
He pointed to the massive rock tipped mountain, which soared hundreds on
feet immediately above us. As if to
guide Joe in giving the appropriate answer he immediately added, ‘We’ve
gotta have that knob, Joe.’
Joe bent his head in tired affirmative.
‘Ah reckon so, Colonel, ah reckon so.’
‘Can you go in at 1930 hours?’ asked the colonel.
Then as an inducement he explained, ‘I’ll fix artillery support by
then and give you as easy a ride as I can.’
There was a long pause. God
knows what was going through Joe’s mind as he assessed the chances of his
seventeen men capturing a ‘knob’, which dominated this mountainous area.
It was doubtful if five hundred men could do it.
Indeed five hundred had already tried and failed.
Joe raised his head. I still
see him as a pathetic but proud silhouette of the eternal soldier as he turned
on his heels. ‘OK, Colonel’ was
all he said. I had never heard
orders before which so flouted the conventions and yet went so quickly to the
heart of the matter, I felt very humble in the face of such heroism.
Events conspired to prevent my ever finding out how Joe fared.
All I know is that at dawn the following morning I crawled under heavy
shell-fire over the same ground with men of a British brigade who had been sent
to relieve the Americans, who had in fact succeeded in taking that hateful
‘knob’. Everywhere the dead
bodies of men like Joe and the Colonel lay like grotesque stepping-stones on the
way to the objective. Looking back
I wonder if the Americans would have achieved their goal with far less
casualties if they had waited for reinforcements and the formulation of a proper
set-piece attack as the British would probably have done.
Such a pause on the other hand could have enabled the enemy to re-group
and consolidate the defense of the ‘knob’ when the carnage might have been
even greater. It is impossible to
say but my instinct tells me that in this instance the Americans were right.
The longest way round is not always the shortest way home.”
****************************Significant changes were made in the American command structure in North Africa to address the underlying issues implied by the Brit’s strong statements. Changes that required General Eisenhower break some of the old West Point school ties. Based upon my research, all I have read about the Ninth Infantry Division portrays them as a disciplined division, a “Show Division”. . .that still had a lot of work to do.
Patton Commands II Corps
S. Patton assumed command of the II Corps in early March 1943.
A new strategy
was immediately evident - the use of infantry to open a path through which armor
could race. A new battle plan was
launched on March 16 resulting in Gafsa being captured on St. Patrick’s Day by
the 1st Infantry Division, while the 1st Armored Division bypassed that town and
pushed toward Sened. (This action
was in south central Tunisia.) Meanwhile
Montgomery had strong forces in southeast Tunisia opposing the Axis on the
American forces in Tunisia at that time consisted of the 34th Infantry Division, which was aiding the British in the north and the Ninth Infantry and 1st Infantry Divisions, the 1st Armored Division and special units to the south. These forces formed the western and southwestern left wall for the final push in Tunisia.
Allied Battle Plan For Tunisia 16 March 1943
The final battle
plan for Tunisia was compared to the operation of a piston.
Forming the cylinder was the Mediterranean Sea at the top. The American
II Corps and the British First Army formed the west wall.
II Corps was in the south and the British were in the north of the west
wall. The coast from Bizerte south
formed the east wall. Montgomery’s Desert Rats would act as the piston arm.
The affect would be to explode the Axis out of Tunisia. The spark would be
provided eventually by the II Corps displacing north and making a final drive on
Mateur and Bizerte. This spark
could be ignited only after the enemy was push sufficiently north by
II Corps would
also have the mission of taking Maknassy in south central Tunisia. Then II Corps 1st Armor was to bust through the El Guettar
Pass and enter the great coastal plains.
As the Desert Rats drove up the coast of
Tunisia from the southeast, the task of the forces on the west wall was to
engage every bit of Axis armor and infantry as possible. This would divert some
of Rommel’s tanks from taking action against the British Eighth Army in the
Maknassy And El Guettar
On St. Patrick’s Day the 1st Infantry Division captured Gafsa.
The 1st Armored bypassed Gafsa and pushed toward Sened.
The drive continued with the 1st Infantry Division capturing the mountain
pass village of El Guettar, which was along the Gafsa-Gabes road.
The Italians defenders were fleeing rapidly from this village.
The 1st Armored encountered much greater resistance from the 21st Panzer
Division. They were obstructing the
path of the 1st Armored from Gafsa to Maknassy and its pass.
The Twenty Days of Maknassy, a battle of infantry and armor was underway.
The 60th C.T. was completely motorized in mid-March. The Go-Devils joined the advance of the 1st Armored and was
rolling cross-country from Zannouch Station toward Djebel Goussa.
This was a hill mass dominating the rail line from the Station de Senet
area to the sea. The first attack by the 60th was at night.
They were successful in maneuvering to the high ground to the rear of the
enemy. Despite the Axis being well
entrenched on Goussa, they retreated south.
Thus, Colonel de Rohan’s men had won their first battle with the Axis.
On the 21st of March, the 3rd Battalion began an attack toward Djebel
Naemia, a mountain pass about 5 1/2 miles east of Maknassy. Naemia was well protected by the Germans with support from
excellent artillery of many calibers, including 210mm field guns.
The American troops were outnumbered and out positioned.
Machine guns and burping mortars covered every crack and draw.
K Company Captain Robert H. Rucker and L Company Captain Robert S.
DeGurse of the 3rd Battalion hit land mines and booby traps in the attack.
A group attempting to rescue Captain Rucker ran into an enemy patrol.
Firing upon this patrol alerted the Axis forces along the entire front. “A
shower of fire sprayed down upon the battalion from all parts of the hills,
surprising the would be surprisers and causing them to scatter. Quick-thinking
Major Dilley was able to get a line of riflemen established upon the djebel and
Company M (Captain Gail H. Brown) drought up its machine guns and dug in.
But from then on it was rough going.
Even the tanks of the 1st Armored were of no assistance.”
Troops of the Go-Devil regiment attacking Maknassy were more fortunate.
They captured Maknassy on March 22nd, and then Djebel Bou Dousou and the
ranges beyond fell to the infantry. The
1st Armored could not penetrate the stubborn defenses of the Maknassy Pass.
Gradually the battle evolved into holding, driving, holding.
The Axis were well entrenched, never the less they suffered severe losses
of both men and material during the period 28 March to 8 April. 247 replacement
troops began to arrive on April 2nd and 3rd.
“They were new . . . crisp . . .fresh-looking . . . and very welcome by
“By now the main effort of the II Corps was under way at El Guettar--all
other American efforts were secondary, although important.
The British were pushing the piston arm up from the south and Von Arnim
was giving thought to retreating. One
favorite trick of the enemy was to stage a false attack to cover his withdrawal.
During the night of April 4-5 the Axis tried to break through the 1st
Battalion and was thrown back with heavy losses.
True to their pattern, the defenders began departing the following day.
The Axis completed their withdrawals on the night of 8 April.
The Go-Devils occupied the former Axis djebel strongholds and remained
there until rejoining the Ninth Infantry Division at Bou Chebka on 13 April.
El Guettar was not the biggest battle the Ninth Infantry Division was
engaged in, but it was one of the toughest in the history of the Ninth.
Had the 60th C.T. been with the Ninth, it would have been the 1st
Divisional battle for the Ninth.
The Ninth encountered many difficulties connected with engaging the enemy
at El Guettar. They were to attack
far to the north of El Guettar, and General Eddy’s staff was on reconnaissance
there. The revised orders gave the
Division only 2 days notice of its pending attack.
“The Division commander was injured in an auto mishap ... he had to
hobble on crutches during the entire ten days of the battle. Five of the six Infantry battalion commanders became
casualties during the fight as well. Furthermore,
with air superiority and the best terrain in his possession, the enemy used it
superbly to his advantage. One
soldier, a combat veteran of two wars, describes the action well, “It was
hellish . . . they were looking down at our throats all the time . . . worst I
was ever in!’.”
The map situation was almost hopeless.
They had to rely on antiquated blurred French originals that had no hills
of less than 200 meters, whose scale was 2 miles to 5/8 of an inch.
Location and direction caused all kinds of problems. On top of that, the
passes of the Gande Dorsale Range were masterfully prepared for defense by the
enemy; he had spent months digging into the rocky alpine tracts.
A small group of well-fortified individuals could hold almost any
Tunisian pass against an army. “But
appearances indicated that the pass of El Guettar was held lightly . . . and
that was the intelligence report sent to the Ninth Division.”
“Axis forces held great initial advantages.
Entrenched in a mountain wilderness the enemy was almost inaccessible.
A mumbo-jumbo mass of steep, rugged hills and gorges--which were eroded
and difficult to traverse--made barren El Guettar Pass a difficult objective for
an infantry attack. Scaling its
rises was so utterly fatigued that it left an individual with little incentive
to pitch into a death struggle. Enemy
strategy was based upon nature’s own fortress.
the Axis concentrated only on the passes . . . “
“General Patton received his instructions from the 18th Army Group;
they were explicit. The Ninth and
1st Divisions were to launch an attack on the Gafsa-Gabes axis, so as to open El
Guettar Pass north of Hill 369, thus allowing the 1st Armored to roll through
First the road junction north of Djebel Berda and the bordering hills
would be secured. Next, the
infantry divisions would advance as far as possible.
Upon completion of this phase, the 1st Armored Division vehicles would
break through to Djebel Tebaga Fatnassa. .
. like a football line clearing the way for the backfield.
“Field Order No. 16, the Ninth’s first Divisional attack directive
was issued . . H-Hour would
fall at 6 A.M. on the 28th of March!”
The Ninth had a plan, which seemed as good as any plan could be.
The 47th Infantry would work east .
. . one battalion would proceed via Djebel El Kreroua, and one via Djebel
Lettouchi, effecting capture of Hill 369. 1st
Battalion of the 39th was to follow the 47th C.T., being committed only as
necessary. The remainder of the
Falcons would stay in Division reserve . . . motorized for rapid displacement.
Diverty was reinforced by the 17th Field Artillery and their combined
big-gun power was to begin hammering the enemy at the stroke of H-Hour.
But the terrain intervened to change the situation.
Off to the side was Hill 772, a djebel, which furnished the area’s
dominating position. From that
lofty mount a defender could render all else untenable for miles around. Darby’s
Rangers had been in possession of this strongpoint, but had displaced north with
the 1st Division. The Ninth was not
aware of this displacement nor were they aware that in the interim the Axis
forces reoccupied Hill 772. A
Battalion of the 39th was given the mission of taking Hill 772.
The 1st Battalion of the
47th was stopped by fire from the ridge . . . it deployed and returned fire . . . the
3rd Battalion slipped around to the south.
El Hamra fell quickly, the first of many German positions to be captured
by the Raiders during World War II.
The 2nd Battalion was sent on a wide flanking maneuver to the south. They were not as fortunate as the other 2 battalions. The entire unit got caught in a pocket of murderous fire. For almost 2 days their whereabouts were not known. Company E had lead the engagement. Company G attempted to outflank the enemy to no avail. The defenders had strong positions. Companies F, G, and H were forced to withdraw.
“The greatest loss to the battalion that morning was in personnel
Lt. Col. Louis Gershenow, Battalion C.O.
1st Lt. Wiilard G. Duckworht, Battalion S-2
2nd Lt. Sidney A. Thal, Battalion Communications Officer
Captain Ben K. Humphrey and 175 men of Company E
Captain Francis M. Smith and six soldiers of Company F
One officer and 30 men of Company G
Captain Horace M. Spauldig, C.o. of Company H
Lt. Crane Campbell, Aide-de-Camp to General Eisenhower”
The 1st Battalion of the 39th was committed by the Ninth . . . but this
unit became lost in the djbelels as well.
“The first night on the line was not only cold
. . . it was miserable. .
. El Guettar was thought to
be a one-day operation . . . no blankets . . . no coats were taken along!”
“At the close of day, casualties were removed to the rear by the medics
and members of the Division Band . . . as they would be for the next ten
The Division continued to attack toward its objective. The 2nd Battalion of the 39th went to assault Hill 369.
they also got off course due to maps and ran into Hill 290, which was not
on the maps. Withering rains of
German and Italian fire peppered the vehicles and the ground around them.
They with drew with heavy losses. Lt
Colonel Walter M Oakes and a handful of equally determined soldiers staid behind
and tried to carry out the mission.
Most of them were either killed of captured, despite their bravery.
Hill 369 remained in Axis hands, the attack bogged down. “Contrary to preliminary briefing, these were not ordinary
positions, but rather a rocky fortress, protected by barbed wire and mutually
supporting fires. Part of the
enemy’s growing resistance could be explained because of fresh reinforcements
coming from the south. That was
good news in one sense, since it meant that the mission of the II Corps was
being accomplished. The defenders
meant a tougher time in store for foot soldiers of the Ninth Division.
On 30 March Corps ordered the drive be continued.
For the next five days the struggle for Hills 369 and 772 was carried on
unabated. At first 369. .
. then it was realized 772 had to be taken first.
Von Arnim’s men realized the importance of their positions and repulsed all attacks even when Benson’s Force-- an armored task force to which the 39th was attached for several days--to break through the pass. . . “Pushed back several times by well-placed 88mm gunfire and opposing tanks, Benson finally broke through--only to be forced back again.”
“. . . strenuous fighting was beginning to show on face after face, and
each advancing day of combat weighed down more heavily upon the men up front.
They were becoming weary of their mountain battlefield . . . of nights
and days with interrupted snatches of sleep . . . of wearing the same clothing .
. . hot dry air filled with gusts of sand and dust . . . temperature dropping to
the other extreme during the night, causing teeth to chatter . . . bones to
ache. And then the
‘round-the-clock enemy air activity, designed to keep the Americans on edge.
Stukas, Messerschmidts, and Focke-Wolfes roared over daily . . . men on
the front lines were tired of these enemy attacks . . . just plain tired!
“. . . the dorsal-pass fighting continued.
Corps had called the second phase of the attack, in spite of Axis
opposition (on Hills 369 and 772) which kept the Division from complying.
It appeared as if large numbers of tanks were being dispatched by the
enemy to aid his defenses of El Guettar and Maknassy passes, meaning that the
Axis was being tricked into the left wall valve.
Although such actions evinced little contemporary joy from the men who
had to oppose them, armor, guns and planes taken fro the southern front and sent
to Guetaria (El Guettar) meant earlier realization of Montgomery’s compression
Many tanks were destroyed by the 26th Field Artillery. Spitfires caught a huge flight of attacking German planes, downing fourteen. On March 31st, 100 Italians surrendered to a single artilleryman of the 34th F.A. “Thus the overall plan was working--and working well for the Allies!”
“Success of the piston-like operation called for tenacious warfare--the
type which allowed little grass to grow under the restive feet of the Allied
spearheads. Appropriately, before
the battle of El Guettar entered its finale, Corps received a directive from the
18th Army Group to the effect that as soon as the Eighth Army broke through the
Akarit position, the Ninth Infantry Division was to move north to the left flank
of the British V Corps. There the
Ninth would take over a lengthy front extending to the blue Mediterranean . . .
and climaxing the final phase with a spark which was destined to explode the
Axis out of North Africa.”
“Mentioning a combat team or division in battle means a good bit more
than infantry, for there is a good deal on inter-dependence on the field of
combat. Banded together, these
soldiers become a team capable of things its members would not dream possible.
Such was the team which now was growing out of a green Division. . . Men
of the Ninth did not want to be there fighting at El Guettar . . . not really.
A million other places . . . The enemy also had ides . . . big schemes
hatched by well trained military minds.”
“Von Arnim was up to something; a blanket of artillery shells was
falling fast and furiously from his well-emplaced batteries.
It was April 4th and II Corps had received a report that there might be a
mechanized attack in the offing. To
halt any such thrust the 15th Engineers became infantry and occupied positions
before El Guettar at 8 P.M.
This had been a day of armored activity on the part of the 10th Panzer
Division, with five of its tanks destroyed by tankbusters of the 26th F.A.
. . . headquarters intelligence reports continued to dribble in . . .
claiming that the Germans were being reinforced greatly and might counterattack.
The American attack plan for April 5th was called off.
“Then April 6th--Army Day--dawned . . . the enemy showed every
indication of withdrawal. Once more
the piston strategy demonstrated its soundness, as the 1st and Ninth Divisions
were ordered to complete phase two of the master plan. One-half of the 15th Engineer Battalion relieved the 47th
Infantry on El Hamra, and the Raiders prepared to press ahead.
At 5:45 P.M. the 47th was directed into the attack by Colonel Randle, who
exhorted his company commanders to. . ‘get
your companies on the objective. Use
your mortars on their machine guns. Do
not allow one machine gun or mortar to hold up your advance.’ . .
the intrepid colonel was right up front himself.”
“. . . blood-bathed Hill 772 fell . . . only Hill 369 remained to block the Division’s advance. “
“. . . April 7th Djebel Berda was believed to be evacuated . . . Axis forces were in general retreat . . . the falcons
and Raiders were pursuing the defenders.
The Ninth Division shortly was able to report Hill 369 definitely
At 5:05 P.M. Benson’s Force contacted the British Eight Army coming from the south. . the Allies were joined and the battle of El Guettar was over, finished, a memory to forget or brag about. the enemy had withstood over two million rounds of every conceivable type of ammunition
When the Ninth Infantry Division had reached its, objective, it was
ordered by the 18th Army group to leave for another area via Bou Chebka.
So ten days after the opening of its first big battle, the Division moved
back to that border town.
“The greatest lesson it had learned was that in warfare it is important
to capture the high ground first!”
- The Goddamned Infantry
Why Ernie Pyle was their favorite:
“A salute to the infantry--the God-damned infantry, as they like to
call themselves. I loved the
infantry because they were the underdogs. They
were the mud-rain-frost-and wind boys. They had no comforts, and they even learned to live without
the necessities. And in the end
they were the guys without whom the Battle of Africa could not have been won.
I wish you could have seen just one of the unforgettable sights I saw, I
was sitting among clumps of sword grass on a steep and rocky hillside that we
had just taken, looking out over a vast rolling country to the rear.
A narrow path wound like a ribbon over another hill.
All along the length of that ribbon there was a thin line of men.
For four days and nights they had fought hard, eaten little, washed none,
and slept hardly at all. Their
nights had been violent with attack, fright, butchery, and their days sleepless
and miserable with the crash of artillery.
The men were walking. They were fifty feet apart for dispersal. Their walk was slow, for they were dead weary, as a person could tell even when looking at them from behind. Every line and sag of their bodies spoke their inhuman exhaustion. On their shoulders and backs they carried heavy steel tripods, machine-gun barrels, leaden boxes of ammunition. Their feet seemed to sink into the ground from the overload they were bearing.
They didn’t slouch. It was
the terrible deliberation of each step that spelled out their appalling
tiredness. Their faces were black
and unshaved. They were young men,
but the grime and whiskers and exhaustion made them look middle-aged. In their eyes as they passed was no hatred, no excitement, no
despair, no tonic of their victory--there was just the simple expression of
being there as if they had been there doing that forever, and nothing else.
The line moved on, seemingly endless.
All afternoon men kept coming round the hill and vanishing eventually
over the horizon. It was one long
tired line of antlike men. There
was an agony in your heart and you felt almost ashamed to look at them.
They were just guys from Broadway and Main Street, but you wouldn’t
remember them. They were too far
away now. They were too tired.
Their world can never be known to you, but if you could have seen them
just once, just for an instant, you would know that no matter how hard people
were working back home they never kept pace with those infantryman.
After four days in battle, my division sat on its newly won hill and took two days’ rest, while companion units on each side of it leapfrogged ahead. ...”
Tunisia - Battles
The British and
the Americans were soon to leave Central Tunisia and push north.
Ernie Pyle on
the British troops:
“The British had more troops, and more experienced troops,
in Tunisia then we had. The
load was divided between the British and Americans up until now, but with the
arrival of the British Eight Army the affair had become predominately
“... Since Montgomery had chased Rommel all the way from Egypt in
one of the great military achievements of history, it was only right that the
British should make the kill.
The Eighth Army
was a magnificent organization. We
correspondents were dazzled by its perfection.
So were our troops. …we
came to look upon them almost with awe.”
organization for continuous movement was so perfect that it seemed more like a
big business firm than a destructive army.
The men of the Eighth were brown-skinned and white-eyed from the desert
sun. … Their spirit was like a
tonic. .. they were throbbing with
the vitality of conquerors.
They were friendly, cocky, and confident. They had been three years in the desert. … We envied them and were proud of them.”
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