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

March 12, 2018 by oriskany

We’ve all gone through the misery of playing a complex wargame for the first time. We just assume we’re going to get hammered the first few games. All we can hope for is that our veteran opponents might make a mistake? Show some hint of mercy? At least until we learn enough to make a better showing for ourselves?

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Now imagine this in actual combat, across hundreds of miles of desert, against the elite German “Afrika Korps.”

Although the Americans had entered World War II in December 1941, a full-scale showdown between the raw, green American Army and the grizzled, experienced German Wehrmacht didn’t actually take place for some time afterwards. Until such a battle occurred, no one really knew what would happen.

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Well, here are two things that wouldn’t happen. The hardened veterans of the Deutsches Afrika Korps (DAK) - supported by other units like the 10th Panzer Division and the Italian “Centauro” Armoured Division - would not “make a mistake,” and they’d show no “hint of mercy.”

Project Summary

In this article series, we’ll take a “wargamer’s look” at the 75th anniversary of the American Army’s first large-scale battles against the Germans in World War II. These engagements would take place in Tunisia in February and March 1943 - just part of the desperate drama to characterize this final act of the North Africa campaign.

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To play these games, we’ll use a brand-new sourcebook for the superlative Battlegroup system from IronFist Publishing. This is Battlegroup Torch, which is now available to pre-order, specifically detailing these last battles in the closing months of the desert war.

Working with Piers Brand (BOW: @piers), I was able to get a sneak peek at some of the scenarios, lists, special rules, and other materials for the Battlegroup Torch release. I don’t think it’s any secret that Battlegroup is my favourite WWII miniatures game, and I was very happy to hear about the new release just in time for this 75th-anniversary series.

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We’ll also be taking a look at this “American Baptism” through the command-tactical eyes of Avalon Hill’s Panzer Leader, specifically the “Desert Leader” supplement published by Brain Train. By using this larger-scale system, we’re able to take a wider view of the battles and really get a “scaled” look at how they actually play out.

Tunisian Crucible

A Summary Background

By the time the Americans blundered into this fiery initiation, North Africa had been an active theatre for some time. Ever since the Italians invaded Egypt in 1940, steadily-growing armies of Italian, German, British, Commonwealth, Free French, and other Allied troops had see-sawed back and forth across hundreds of miles of desert.

The German commander, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, had finally pushed his luck too far. Pinned down near a remote Egyptian rail station called El Alamein, he was decisively defeated in a series of battles raging from July through November 1942.

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Meanwhile, the Allies were preparing another decisive move in North Africa. While the British Commonwealth smashed Rommel’s “Panzerarmee Afrika” in Egypt and chased it back across Libya, a combined British-American task force was about to land far to the west in Morocco and Algeria.

The basic idea was to slam the back door on Axis holdings in North Africa, cutting off their retreat. Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia were Vichy French colonies, and thus under nominal Axis control. Rommel’s armies could not be allowed to escape into these territories, or the war in North Africa could drag on indefinitely.

Instead, “Operation Torch” would land a combined Anglo-American army at various ports in Morocco and Algeria. With these ports taken, a drive would then be mounted on Tunisia, closing on Rommel’s rear flank as he tried to retreat from Montgomery out of Libya.

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The ultimate objective of Operation Torch was the port of Tunis. Once Tunis had fallen, and with the ports of Benghazi and Tripoli already taken in Libya, Axis armies in North Africa would be cut off from any hope of supply, reinforcement, or evacuation. They’d be pinned down in the open desert and destroyed utterly.

However, Operation Torch faced two major uncertainties. Firstly, no one knew how the Vichy French garrisons in Algeria and Morocco would react. As French, they were allies, but these were Vichy colonies…taking orders from a provisional government that was forced to toe the line laid down in Berlin. Technically, they were Axis troops.

Second, how the American Army would perform in large-scale modern combat remained a massive unknown variable. They had the numbers, for sure, and were well-trained, solidly supported, and fabulously equipped, with the full weight of the American industrial machine behind them. They were also fresh, eager, and anxious for battle.

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But they were also undisciplined, impetuous, and perhaps most worrying…woefully inexperienced. There had been some combat in the Pacific and a detachment of Rangers had participated in the August 1942 Dieppe raid, but the troops (and more importantly, the officers) landing in Torch were completely new to the experience of combat.

Also remember that during this time, America didn’t maintain much of a standing army. When war came, a small cadre of regulars was massively reinforced by a flood of new draftees and volunteers. Officers had to be rapidly promoted (sometimes out of their depth) to command an army that had multiplied in size practically overnight.

Such concerns notwithstanding, Operation Torch was on. In October 1942, American convoys had to sail from as far away as North Carolina and Virginia, while British convoys sailing from the UK through the Strait of Gibraltar to reach the Algerian coast. On 8th November 1942, the landings finally took place.

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Sure enough, there were plenty of problems. The amphibious landings were a disorganized mess, especially in the American sectors. American airborne drops were so far off-target that the paratroopers never really got into action. Worst of all, the Vichy French resisted bitterly, and American casualties against these allied troops were heavy.

In fact, one of the American commanders, Major-General George S. Patton III, took something of a bloody nose from Vichy French units in Morocco, especially at Casablanca and against a Vichy counterattack at Port Lyautey. American landings on Oran were actually counterattacked, again resulting in heavy losses.

Finally, Vichy French resistance was defused, more through political work with pro-Allied French leaders in these colonies than any military brilliance on the part of the British or especially the Americans. Hitler retaliated against this “betrayal” by invading Vichy France, thus ending the facade of Vichy “autonomy.”

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Now the Americans and British raced eastward, trying to get into Tunisia and capture the all-important port of Tunis. Only 100 miles from Sicily, this port was the perfect supply point for Axis forces in Africa, and the final “back door” escape path for any German and Italian armies on the continent.

The Allies came close, and there were some small, sharp clashes of British, American, and “repatriated” Free French (formerly Vichy) forces against German defenders. But the Allies weren’t quite fast enough. American inexperience, Allied indecision, and torrential rains in December turned Tunisian desert into an uncharacteristic mud bath.

The Germans, in contrast, had acted with decisive resolve, quickly shipping reinforcements (eventually the whole Fifth Panzer Army) into Tunis to meet with Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika just pulling out of Libya.

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As a result, Tunisia was transformed almost immediately into a formidable Axis fortress. Two German armies and one Italian army would soon be combined into “Army Group Africa” - deeply entrenched in mountainous terrain and fortifications in the south, and well-supported via Tunis along very short and easily-defended supply lines.

The Allies had missed their opportunity to end the North African war quickly. Now a whole new campaign would be needed to clear the Axis out of Tunisia, where these new American divisions would really get a taste for what World War II was like on a large scale … against some of the best soldiers the war would ever see.

Western Tunisia: Opening Moves

As the Allies started their operations in Tunisia in January and February 1943, they quickly found they had their work cut out for them. Montgomery’s Eighth Army coming up from Libya would be stalled by the Mareth Line, an old system of French fortifications along the southeast Tunisian border.

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Meanwhile, Americans, British, and Free French forces approached from the west out of Algeria. These faced tough Axis opposition along a steep line of mountains that ran generally north-to-south down two great “spines” of the Tunisian landmass.

While Montgomery started to tangle with Rommel down at the Mareth Line, the Allies in the west made a series of badly-coordinated and half-hearted efforts to support him. These were handily defeated by units of the Fifth Panzer Army under Colonel-General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim.

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In late January, von Arnim started a series of counterattacks against the Allies in the west. The first strike came at units of the Free French XIX Corps at Faid. They called to the American commander of II Corps, Major General Lloyd Fredendall, for armoured support. But Fredendall hesitated, and the French were overrun.

By the time General Fredendall finally mobilized an understrength counterattack (just Combat Command B of the 1st Armored Division), it was too late. The Germans by then were deeply entrenched at Faid, and these faint-hearted American counter-strikes were easily brushed aside.

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By mid-February 1943, von Arnim was ready to hit the Americans the way he’d attacked the French. Striking out of his new position at Faid, he’d hit the American II Corps at Sidi Bou Zid on 14th February. This would be the first time in World War II that German and American ground forces had really come to blows on a large scale.

The results were, for the Americans, nothing short of tragic. But we’ll get into that in Part Two next week.

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Now it’s time for you to tell us about your experiences playing desert battles on the tabletop. If you’ve been playing with the “best toys” like German Tigers, British 17-pounders, and American M10 tank destroyers, congratulations, you‘ve been playing in Tunisia. So share your “war stories” and observations below!

Most of all, please come back next week as the Americans start to undergo their “school of hard knocks,” tempered by fire from an eager mob of “noobs” into the hardened army that would help win the Second World War.

"By the time the Americans blundered into this fiery initiation, North Africa had been an active theatre for some time..."

"Now it’s time for you to tell us about your experiences playing desert battles on the tabletop!"

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