Military history

Part Two

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4. PUSHING EAST

“We Live in Tragic Hours”

AT two A.M. on November 8, the American consul-general in Tunis, Hooker A. Doolittle, had rapped on the front gate of the governor’s palace, demanding to see the Vichy resident-general. Vice Admiral Jean-Pierre Estéva soon appeared, immaculate if unorthodox in full naval uniform and bedroom slippers. An elfin bachelor with a square-cut white beard, Estéva was known as the Monk for his ascetic habits, which included rising before dawn each morning to attend mass, and eating nothing before noon except dry toast and an orange. The son of a cork merchant from Reims, Estéva at the age of sixty-two was looking toward retirement so he could devote himself to his greatest passion: the magnificent Cathédrale Notre-Dame in his native town, where twenty-six French kings had been crowned. Doolittle’s breathless annunciation of the Allied assault seemed unlikely to smooth Estéva’s path to old age.

The admiral listened as Doolittle, whom one acquaintance described as “an Esquire fashion plate gone seedy,” predicted the imminent arrival in Tunisia of Allied legions so vast they would darken the sky with aircraft. “They had better hurry up, because the others will be here within forty-eight hours,” Estéva said dryly, and escorted his guest to the door.

Posing as a French farmer on his way home, Doolittle soon fled Tunis in a borrowed car with his Spanish maids and Pekingese dogs. Upon reaching the Allied lines he told anyone who would listen: “Hurry, hurry, hurry.”

There was no need for Admiral Estéva to specify who “the others” were, and he had actually underestimated German agility. Tunisia was only “a panther’s leap” from Axis bases in Italy, as the deputy Führer, Hermann Göring, had observed. At 10:55A.M. on November 9, the first Luftwaffe fighters touched down at the El Aouina airfield northeast of Tunis. Dive-bombers and transport planes soon followed, after making a low, intimidating pass over the city. Hastily mustered German troops—many of them only marginally fit for combat—stumbled down the ramps.

French troops ringed the field, and French armored cars on the runway greeted each landing plane with guns trained at the cockpit. This impasse lasted several hours until a Luftwaffe security force set up machine guns behind a hangar and laid mines around the French vehicles. Choosing to heed directives from Vichy rather than the confused gabble coming out of Algiers, Estéva ordered the cordon removed. By dusk, ninety planes had landed. German troops marched from the tarmac to bivouacs along the narrow Carthage road, singing “Lili Marlene” as they dug their revetments.

The Wehrmacht’s entrenchment in Tunis set the stage for a confrontation between German and Anglo-American armies that was to scorch two continents over the next two and a half years and cost several million lives. Here began the struggle for possession of the earth itself, or at least the western earth, an unremitting series of titanic land battles that would sweep across Salerno and Anzio, Normandy and the Bulge, broken only by brief interludes to cart away the dead and revivify the living.

Hitler had learned the full extent of the Allied invasion while stopped at a remote rail siding in Thuringia: he was on his way to Munich for a reunion of the old beer-hall Kämpfer. Within hours he recognized that if the Allies seized North Africa they could transform a peripheral expedition into a platform for the invasion of southern Europe. That would imperil Italy, his closest ally, and Axis possessions from France to Greece. “To give up Africa means to give up the Mediterranean,” he declared. It “would mean not only the ruin of our revolutions, but also the ruin of our peoples’ future,” Hitler subsequently wrote Mussolini. He signed the letter, “Yours in indissoluble unity.”

Already 230 of Germany’s 260 divisions were on the defensive. Some German strategists sensed that their war’s arc had swung from expansion to contraction, but Hitler refused to accept that Germany had lost the strategic initiative. Tunisia was to be the “cornerstone of our conduct of the war on the southern flank of Europe.” If secondary to the eastern crusade against Bolshevism, it was vital nonetheless. At his most grandiose, Hitler conjured new African offensives—to the west, to drive the TORCH invaders from Algeria and Morocco, and to the east, to drive the British Eighth Army across the Suez Canal. By late November, the Führer’s strategic vision would be articulated in a one-sentence order: “North Africa, being the approach to Europe, must be held at all costs.” That sentence condemned a million men from both sides to seven months of torment.

On Tuesday, November 10, Wehrmacht paratroopers arrived in numbers for the first time. A platoon from the 5th Parachute Regiment flew from Naples and immediately fortified the main road leading to Tunis from the west. Guns earmarked for Rommel’s army in Egypt were diverted to Tunisia and dragged forward, still wrapped in shipping paper. Fuel was so scarce that troops eventually used heating pellets made from grass and the residue from olive presses. Commanders hired French taxis as staff cars. Messengers traveled by Tunis street tram—a young Gefreiter carrying dispatches reported with delight that no one had made him buy a ticket.

Weak as the German vanguard was, the leaders of Vichy France’s 30,000 troops in North Africa were weaker. Ambivalence racked the French high command. On November 11, Hitler ordered German and Italian troops to occupy Vichy France; that same day, Admiral Louis Derrien, commander of the Vichy naval base at Bizerte, forty miles north of Tunis, told his subordinates, “I count on everyone to keep his calm, his sang-froid, and his dignity.” That night, after receiving new orders from Darlan in Algiers, Derrien decreed, “The enemy is the German and Italian…. Blaze away with all your heart against the foe of 1940. Wehave a revenge to take. Vive la France!” French officers drank champagne toasts, and all ranks sang the “Marseillaise” on the Bizerte docks.

This jubilation lasted less than an hour. At midnight, forty minutes after Derrien had issued his battle cry, he annulled it by order of Vichy. “November 8, we fight everybody,” he wrote privately. “November 9, we fight the Germans. November 10, we fight nobody. November 10 (noon), we fight the Germans. November 11 (night), we fight nobody.” Perhaps no passage written during the war better captured the agony of France and the moral gyrations to which her sons were subject.

On November 12, Derrien phoned Admiral Darlan, then still gripped by indecision, but received no clear direction. The increasingly listless Estéva was even more in thrall to Vichy. A German officer concluded that Estéva was capable “of only nodding his head. It seems that he is not quite equal to the tense situation.” Estéva agreed: “After forty years of obedience, I cannot begin to disobey orders now.” The first sea shipments of German troops and equipment—including seventeen tanks and forty tons of ammunition—arrived November 12. Derrien was scheduled to retire in a month, after forty-two years of service. Now, he predicted, “I shall be known as the admiral who delivered Bizerte to the Germans.”

Sadly, yes. By November 14, the Germans had inserted 3,000 men into Bizerte alone. They controlled all the important buildings in Tunis, where troops marched four abreast to occupy the Marshal Foch barracks downtown. The abandoned U.S. consulate became the Axis command post, notwithstanding German grumbling that Tunisian “office personnel cannot read or write.” To make the German contingent appear even larger, paratroopers were driven in circles around the city in armored cars loaned by helpful French commanders. The Tunisian bey—whose family had long ruled the country beneath the firm hand of French guardians—quickly pledged loyalty to Berlin. In gorgeous uniforms of scarlet, black, and gold, his bodyguard marched from the royal palace, using the newly fashionable goose step.

Soon enough, Derrien would receive a German ultimatum: surrender all French troops and ships in Bizerte within thirty minutes, or see 6,000 French sailors shot. He capitulated after extracting a single concession: the retention of a French company under arms to lower the garrison tricolor with honors. Derrien’s request to keep his own sword was denied.

A French court after the war would convict and imprison Estéva for “national unworthiness.” Although the admiral once asserted that “it is an honor to suffer for the high ideals of civilization,” his own suffering derived from baser stuff. Derrien, too, eventually drew life in prison; he would be freed less than two weeks before his death. After killing hundreds of American and British soldiers during TORCH, the French had failed to so much as scratch a single German invader. Only the French commander of the Tunis Division, General Georges Barré, refused to kowtow. With 9,000 troops and fifteen ancient tanks, Barré sidled westward into Tunisia’s wild hills, there to await developments.

The fire that consumed proud Carthage after Romans sacked it in 146 B.C. was said to have burned for seventeen days. French Tunis was a cold ember from the moment the first German shadow loomed. “We live in tragic hours,” Pétain observed. “Disorder reigns in our spirits.”

Conviviality reigned in the spirit of Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, known as Smiling Albert for his toothy grin and unquenchable optimism. On the morning after the Anglo-American invasion, Hitler had phoned Kesselring to give him “a free hand” in Tunisia. This was the Allies’ misfortune.

The son of a Bayreuth schoolmaster, Kesselring belonged to an ancient Bavarian clan whose fortune had been lost in the hyperinflation following World War I. Courtly and fluent in Italian, he had broad hips and a hairline in full retreat. He had been an artilleryman and balloon observer in the Great War, then had learned to fly at the age of forty-eight and soon ranked high in the Luftwaffe. One of the Reich’s ablest commanders, he was both daring—shot down five times in his career—and brutal, having orchestrated the terror bombings of Warsaw, Coventry, and many cities in between, as well as the air campaign against Russia. When German anti-aircraft gunners in Tunis fired at his plane by mistake, Kesselring rebuked them—for missing an easy target.

On November 10, Hitler formally seconded Kesselring to Rome as Mussolini’s deputy. With authority over Axis air and ground forces in the Mediterranean, the field marshal politely rebuffed Il Duce’s proposals to attack the Allies with poison gas and to transport war stocks in hospital ships. Instead, he focused on building a bridgehead around Tunis and Bizerte, dismissing complaints from subordinates that the Axis forces amounted to only “a drop of water on a hot stone” compared to the Allied host.

The Allies had achieved strategic surprise, Kesselring conceded, but could they exploit it? Why had they not also landed in Tunisia, which had nearly 800 miles of coastline? Kesselring approved the conscription of Tunisian civilians to build fortifications and unload Axis ships. But an impenetrable bridgehead was not enough. On November 13, he ordered his lieutenants to plan an offensive to the west. The only way to forestall the loss of Africa was to counterattack across the Tunisian mountains into Algeria. Smiling Albert meant to chase the Anglo-Americans back to their ships.

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