September 14, 2015 by crew
At last we come to the end of our Desert War article series, taking a look at the final battles of World War II North Africa through the eyes of 15mm Battlegroup. For those just joining us, check out our progress so far in Parts One, Two, Three, and Four. But for now let’s see how this epic campaign finally drew to a close, and how some of these final engagements can be brought to the tabletop.
Wounded But Deadly
After the Allied victory at El Alamein (Oct-Nov 1942), the shattered remnants of Rommel’s “Panzerarmee Afrika” rapidly fell back out of Egypt, through Libya, and all the way to the Vichy French colony of Tunisia. Part of the reason for such a long retreat was “Operation Torch,” where an entire Anglo-American army had simultaneously landed a thousand miles behind the Germans and Italians on November 8, 1942.
The idea was not only to squeeze the Axis off of the continent of Africa for good, but to partly assuage Stalin’s protests for a “Second Front” and to finally get American ground forces in action as soon as possible. There would be plenty of other political ramifications, especially with the French forces that still ran these colonies under the Vichy government.
It was these initial American landings in Morocco which formed the focus for our next Battlegroup game. After all, anyone who’s seen the movie “Patton” knows about the American disasters at Kasserine Pass and subsequent redemption at El Guettar. Bsides, who hasn’t seen enough “American vs. German” in miniature battles?
So instead we decided to take a look at an engagement that took place near Port Lyautey, where the northern wing of General Patton’s “Western Task Force” had come ashore. Regrettably, despite earnest efforts by Allied agents and diplomats before the invasion, Vichy French forces actually fought hard against the invading Americans.
The idea of two Allied nations in pitched (and bloody) battle for several days sounds strange, but sadly, it happened.
The politics here are complex. When France had to surrender to Germany in June 1940, a puppet government in the French city of Vichy was allowed to remain “autonomous,” which technically made this “Vichy government” (and its French colonies) an Axis power. By and large, French soldiers in these colonies never voluntarily took part in Germany’s battles, despite the status of their “official” government from which any army takes it orders.
However, whenever Great Britain invaded a Vichy colony like Lebanon or Madagascar, fighting was always fierce. Vichy French troops even fought against Free French troops in Syria. Far from any sense of “Axis loyalty,” this was more of a case of troops obeying official orders, combined with a simple case of “get your tanks off my lawn.”
When the Americans came ashore in Morocco, they too would learn this…the hard way.
Raw, inexperienced, and perhaps over-anxious to finally “show the Europeans how to fight,” the Americans struggled with the complexities and dangers of an amphibious invasion. Then they struggled with the Vichy garrison, which did NOT give up or immediately re-join the Allied cause, despite earnest diplomatic efforts beforehand.
Casualties were heavy, especially in the northernmost American landings at Port Lyautey, where we decided to stage out ninth Desert War game. Here, a force of French armour drove north to counterattack the flank of the Port Lyautey landing zone, and American tanks had to hold them back.
Desperately outnumbered, the American tanks fought furiously. But they probably survived thanks only to the 6-inch guns of light cruiser USS Savannah, and US Navy torpedo bombers dropping antisubmarine depth charges (of all things) on French tanks and artillery positions.
After three or four days, frantic diplomatic efforts finally paid off and the French were convinced to re-join the Allied cause. Fighting sizzled out and together the British and Americans (along with plenty of Free and formerly-Vichy French) pushed hard to the east, out of Morocco and Algeria, and to the final Axis hold out in Africa. Tunisia.
A New Battlefield
The battlefields of Tunisia presented a very different type of desert from the classic “sand seas” of Libya and Egypt. Here there was thicker vegetation, more towns, and considerable rain in the winter. In fact, this December quagmire of mud is one reason the Allies couldn’t swoop in and claim Tunisia right after Torch and El Alamein.
This desert was also much rockier and more mountainous, resulting in deadly battles over narrow defiles and passes. Such was the case at Sidi Bou Zid and Kasserine Pass, where raw American troops ran head-long into battle-hardened German panzers for the first time.
Both these February 1943 encounters were unmitigated disasters for the Americans, and for a while it seemed as if the Germans might stage yet another comeback.
Montgomery’s Eight Army, meanwhile, was trying to rush through Rommel’s defensive line, roughly along the Tunisia-Libyan border. This was the so-called “Mareth Line,” a system of old French fortifications built in the 1930s. But our friends, the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), found a way through the Tunisian mountains (the Tebaga Gap) that allowed Monty to partially outflank this line, which quickly crumbled.
Meanwhile, the famous General George S. Patton had taken over the US II Corps, which had just been handed such ignominious defeat at Kasserine Pass. With a mix of reorganization, motivation, and hard discipline, he was able to put these divisions back together, which eventually met and wrecked a German attack at El Guettar in March.
The battle didn’t go perfectly, and despite what we see in the movies, Patton wasn’t present until after the issue had been decided. Even so, it can’t be denied that the vast improvement in American performance and confidence is testament to Patton’s leadership, training, and inspiration of II Corps.
The British, meanwhile, had also broken through in the south. Pushing up through Tunisian towns like Enfidaville and Gabes, they soon linked arms with the British, French, and Americans closing from the west.
The remnants of Heersgruppe Afrika collapsed around the so-called “Bizerte Bridgehead,” repeatedly denied permission to make any kind of withdrawal from what was clearly a hopeless position.
One of the last engagements along this shrinking perimeter, however, has held special meaning to historians, armour enthusiasts, and wargamers. On April 21, 1943, the Germans scraped together some armour from the “Hermann Göring” and 10th Panzer Divisions to make a last-ditch spoiling attack near Madjez el Bab.
A Final Strike
Or course, the counterattack was beaten back. Among the losses was the soon-to-be famous Tiger 131, the first Tiger captured by the British. The Tiger was inspected by Churchill and King George VI, before being stripped apart for study by British technicians. It would be almost 70 years before the tank was put back together again…
By the end of April 1943, the rest of Axis forces bottled up in Tunisia were faring little better than Tiger 131. By the middle of May, it was all over. Only about 600 Germans or Italians ever escaped Tunisia. Some 250,000 others (two complete armies) had either been killed or taken prisoner in the final collapse, a defeat equal to Stalingrad just three months before.
The war in Africa was, at last, over.
The Allies, meanwhile, had forged an alliance ready to undertake the invasion of Fortress Europe. The British had won a great victory and at last had a hero. The Americans had been blooded and learned the practicalities of mobile warfare with startling speed.
The French had been brought back into the fold, no longer side-lined by the enforced neutrality of the Vichy Regime.
And so at last, our “Desert War: Gaming WW2 in North Africa” article series comes to a close. Once again I’d really like to thank Beasts of War for the opportunity to publish on their site. Also, I offer sincere gratitude to my editor @brennon for his understanding and patience, especially as I send him wave after wave of drafts and revisions.
Most of all, I’d like to thank the readers who’ve slogged through my walls of text, and kept the conversations going with such positive, constructive, and insightful comments. Until next time, everyone, happy desert gaming! Keep a full canteen and watch out for those sandstorms!
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"The idea of two Allied nations in pitched (and bloody) battle for several days sounds strange, but sadly, it happened..."
"The battlefields of Tunisia presented a very different type of desert from the classic “sand seas” of Libya and Egypt..."