Baptism By Fire: 1943 // Americans In Tunisia – Part Four

April 2, 2018 by oriskany

The time has come, Beasts of war, to draw the curtain down on our article series reviewing the American Army’s “initiation” battles in North Africa against the Germans in World War II. Using game systems like Battlegroup Torch and Panzer Leader, we’ve been recreating some of these events in our historical wargaming.

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If you’re just joining us, so far in this series we’ve covered:

In summary, suffice it to say that German and Italian forces had been hitting the US II Corps all through February 1943, inflicting harsh defeats at places like Sidi Bou Zid and Kasserine Pass. The Germans had come very close to splitting the American line clean open, and opening a road all the way out of western Tunisia and back into Algeria.

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In the end, American numbers, British intervention, and German commanders in personal conflicts had frustrated the German advance. Finally, they withdrew at the end of February, but the battered and bleeding survivors of II Corps were in no shape to pursue.

Taking Stock

The battles of Sidi Bou Zid, Sbleita, and Kasserine Pass had cost the US II Corps in the area of 10,000 casualties, over 180 tanks and armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs), and hundreds of soft-skinned vehicles. In particular, 1st Armored Division was practically smashed and would need weeks of delicate repair before it was ready again for combat.

The Americans also took a hard look at their recent performance. Firstly, Eisenhower fired his chief of intelligence, who’d been overly reliant on ULTRA / Enigma information (great for strategic and operational data, not so much for tactical battlefield information).

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Also, the commander of US II Corps, Major-General Lloyd Fredendall (universally disliked by fellow generals), was politely removed by General Eisenhower and “promoted” back to America to run a training command. Although never officially reprimanded, his already-damaged reputation was ruined and he retired shortly after the war ended.

The British were also quick to label Fredendall as a scapegoat for the near-calamity. They held no respect at all for the man, and General Harold Alexander (Montgomery’s boss, British C-in-C, Middle East) diplomatically assured the Americans that “I’m sure you must have better men than that.”

Still, a little of the blame must fall on others, including Frendenall’s boss, the British Lieutenant-General Kenneth Anderson. National loyalty aside, no less than three British generals of Eighth Army were forced to admit that Anderson’s formations were badly coordinated and unwisely deployed.

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It can be argued that by giving the corps and divisions under his command too much ground to hold, Anderson forced them to spread out to the point where Germans could isolate and attack individual commands, like the French XIX Corps at Faid and CCA/1st US Armored at Sidi Bou Zid, defeats which set the stage for Kasserine.

Eisenhower therefore streamlined and clarified the command structure between the US, British, and French forces in western Tunisia. National “autonomy” was greatly reduced, and forces of different nations would deploy, operate, and fight as a truly allied team.

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Within the American forces, in particular, changes were implemented regarding how divisions would deploy. Combat Commands (CCs) within US armoured divisions and Regimental Combat Teams (RCTs) within infantry divisions would be much closer together, allowing mutual reinforcement and easier support from corps command.

New Commanders, New Plan

Meanwhile, a new commander was brought in to command II Corps on March 6th. This was freshly-promoted Lieutenant-General George S. Patton III, formerly commanding US I Armored Corps back in Morocco. As we all know, Patton was a fire-breathing, aggressive general who immediately started whipping II Corps back into shape.

Much as Montgomery did on a larger scale with the repeatedly-defeated Eighth Army before the Battles of El Alamein, Patton used disciplinary techniques and training to first restore military order and then fighting confidence among the men of II Corps. Training reduces fear and uncertainty, of which II Corps had plenty after suffering its harsh defeats.

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One may ask how the Allies in western Tunisia had the time to make all these changes. Simply put, while the Allied camp was coming together, the Axis camp was falling apart. The bickering between von Arnim and Rommel grew worse until Rommel again fell ill (years in the desert had wrecked his health) and returned to Germany treatment.

While home, Rommel pleaded for Hitler to withdraw German forces from Africa. Not only did Hitler refuse, but forbade Rommel to return. Hans-Jürgen von Arnim was now in command, and the Desert Fox would never again set foot in North Africa. An epic chapter of the Desert War had come to a decidedly anticlimactic close.

Another reason for the reprieve was that Montgomery’s Eighth Army had finally closed up its long advance across Libya and launched a full assault against the Axis divisions holding the Mareth Line in southern Tunisia. General von Arnim could no longer afford to pound away only at US II, French XIX, and British V Corps in western Tunisia.

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With the Battle of the Mareth Line opened in earnest, Patton was keen on letting his boys loose for a little payback. A major offensive back toward the Eastern Dorsal chain of the Atlas Mountains might threaten the right rear of the Axis forces defending the Mareth Line facing Montgomery, and ultimately make the Axis position untenable.

On March 17th, II Corps moved out of the mountains of the Western Dorsal, pushing forward into the abandoned plains near the town of Gafsa and the old battlefield of Sidi Bou Zid. Gafsa was soon set up as a forward supply base for further operations and on March 18, 1st Ranger Battalion pushed ahead to take the oasis of El Guettar.

The only resistance encountered was a light skirmish with the Italians, who quickly retreated and took up positions in the hills overlooking the town. This was actually a good move, for it blocked the pass through the Eastern Dorsal mountains leading beyond El Guettar. Here the Italians could hold until German reinforcements arrived.

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No such luck. The Rangers scaled a sheer cliff on the night of March 20 and took one of these Italian positions, along with 700 prisoners. The high ground southeast of El Guettar was now in American hands, and their mechanized forces were now in a prime position to drive through the Eastern Dorsal and deeper into the Axis rear.

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Von Arnim, upon hearing these reports, sent 10th Panzer Division to beat up on the “upstart Yanks” a third time. Thus, one could argue that Patton’s II Corps had already accomplished its primary mission, practically without firing a shot. Major German formations were already being pulled off Montgomery’s front in the south.

Redemption At El Guettar

In any event, the stage was set for the showdown at El Guettar. Of course, anyone who’s seen the George C. Scott movie has seen this battle recreated for the silver screen, but we hope to do a better job than Spanish army troops and American tanks (ironically named “Pattons”) painted tan in a sad attempt to look like German panzers.

The most egregious thing the movie gets wrong is putting Patton personally there. He wasn’t. Furthermore, this isn’t just historical academics because it takes credit from the generals who actually were there commanding on the scene.

In summary, 10th Panzer was driving toward US II Corps from the east. They could attack along the Sened-Maknassy road to the north, or along the more difficult approach through El Guettar to the south. To his credit, Patton deployed so both approaches were covered, but felt the northern avenue more likely.

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Thus, Patton deployed his stronger 1st Armored Division in the north, where he took personal command. In the south was the US 1st Infantry Division (The Big Red One), commanded by Major-General Terry Allen, assisted by his executive officer (XO) Theodore Roosevelt Junior, son of the famous American President of the same name.

These were the men who’d actually command at El Guettar. One veteran describes General Roosevelt marching on foot with the men, M1 carbine slung over his shoulder. Another describes General Allen’s reaction when his HQ was about to be overrun by German tanks.

“Like Hell I’ll pull out,” he snarled, “and I will shoot the first bastard who does!”

The 10th Panzer hit the US 1st Infantry, hard, on 23rd March 1943. The German attack force was commanded by Freiherr von Broich, with fifty-seven tanks of 7th Panzer Regiment, plus elements of 69th and 86th Panzergrenadier Regiments. Another interesting feature is the 90th Artillery Regiment, partially armed with captured British 25-pounders.

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One thing the movie does get right is the general feel of a German mixed force moving up a valley against a line of American antitank guns and artillery on high ground. The Germans weren’t massacred in the open, however. They actually shoved back the outgunned American infantry and for a moment, it looked like Kasserine all over again.

Although much improved since the dark days of February, the Americans were still hampered by poor equipment. The 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion, for instance, was equipped with M3 GMC (gun motor carriages), basically halftracks with a 75mm gun bolted to the back. Not much of a tool for fighting the latest PzKpfw IVs.

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Still, Patton’s training and discipline paid off. The men didn’t panic, even when the division command was about to be overrun. The Germans then ran into a minefield, halted just long enough for the arrival of 899th Tank Destroyer Battalion, equipped with the far superior M10 tank destroyer with high-velocity 76mm antitank guns.

Heavily mauled, the Germans withdrew. Patton, having heard of the fighting the south, hurried to personally command the battle. The Germans tried again in the afternoon, and Patton was on the scene for this second engagement. But the threat had passed, and the Germans soon called off this second half-hearted assault.

The Americans had, for the moment, redeemed themselves. They’d won a victory over hardened veterans of the panzerwaffe. Of course, subsequent counterattacks to exploit this success were clumsy and inconclusive. The Americans had learned to hold the field, but to actually attack the Germans successfully was another lesson.

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More importantly, the armies of the US, UK, and France had learned to work and fight together as a coalitional team. France, in particular, was no longer a “Vichy enemy.” Americans had learned to respect British experience, and British had learned to respect American competence, firepower, and battlefield grit.

This wraps up our article series on the American “Baptism by Fire” in Tunisia, 1943. For hard-core history buffs and wargamers, I hope I’ve provided lots of detailed food for thought on gaming these interesting battles where the balance between Axis and Allies was still (at least tactically) very much in doubt.

For those newer to historical wargaming, take heart. As this series shows, even the people who play at “1:1 scale” can be inexperienced. We all have to start somewhere – and practice, perseverance, and tenacity will always pay off in the end.

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As always, I’d like to thank BoW Content Manager @dracs and my editor @brennon – also @lancorz for the awesome front page graphics and Tom for the “behind the scenes” web support. Thanks as well to @dignity and @johnlyons for the great Weekender interview, and of course @warzan for the opportunity to publish on BoW.

Most of all, thanks to all of you for continuing to read, support, and comment on these articles. I can never express how much it means to be able to share all this with such a loyal and enthusiastic audience.

Now, why are you still sitting in that chair? Get out into the desert and win some battles!

"National loyalty aside, no less than three British generals of Eighth Army were forced to admit that Anderson’s formations were badly coordinated and unwisely deployed..."

"“Like Hell I’ll pull out,” he snarled, “and I will shoot the first bastard who does!”"