Military history

A Cold Country with a Hot Sun

FIVE hundred and sixty road miles separated Algiers from Tunis, and the first Allied troops cantered eastward in the rollicking high spirits obligatory at the beginning of all military debacles. Virtually everyone from private to general presumed the expedition would be a promenade. Much chatter was devoted to the likely date of arrival in Tripoli or even Naples. One soldier spoke for many in his bravado toward the Germans: “Those squareheads can’t fight. Hell, leave them to the Limeys, we’ll finish the Japs.” A young officer reported that the only anxiety in his tank battalion was “that all of the Germans would escape” before the Americans could prove their mettle.

Town mayors donned their frock coats and top hats to greet the Allied convoys with warm, incomprehensible welcoming speeches. Cheering crowds offered rough Algerian wine and hampers of tangerines. Jeep drivers, in vehicles named Kidney Buster, Miss Conduct, and Miss Demeanor, twined winter roses around their radio antennas, and pretended to enjoy the proffered local cigarettes, soon dubbed “Dung d’Algerie.” “Vive l’Amérique!” shouted the Arab children, to mostly British troops. To deal with the inevitable traffic fatalities a sliding scale of reparations was established, paid in the oversize French currency GIs called wallpaper: 25,000 francs ($500) for a dead camel; 15,000 for a dead boy; 10,000 for a dead donkey; 500 for a dead girl.

British troops dominated the initial convoys, camouflage cloths knotted in big bows atop their helmets like “Edwardian motoring veil[s].” The Algerian villages reminded some veterans of Flanders, with their shuttered hotels and their fishmongers in striped sweaters. For those traveling by rail, the narrow-gauge boxcars with neatly lettered signs—“Hommes 40, chevaux 8”—brought memories of the Western Front: there, too, the French railcars had fitted forty men or eight horses. So slowly did the Algerian trains chuff uphill that soldiers often hopped off to walk, brewing their tea from hot water in the engines as they ambled alongside.

For the Yanks, it was all new: the skinned goat carcasses dripping blood in roadside stalls; the Algerians hawking grass mats and bolts of blue silk; the cursing muleteers; the peasants leaning into their iron-shod plows; the buses propelled by charcoal engines lashed to the bumper and stirred by each driver with a poker. American units chosen for the vanguard strutted with pride. The 2nd Battalion of the 13th Armored Regiment rolled out of Arzew toward Algiers and beyond, their tanks stuffed with eggs and hidden bottles of Old Grandad. The 5th Field Artillery Battalion swung onto the road with guidons snapping; each battery presented arms to the 1st Division color guard, and “When the Caissons Go Rolling Along” crashed from the division band.

Eastward the caissons rolled, past Algerian villages with adobe walls loopholed for muskets, past groves of mandarin oranges “hanging like red lamps.” Past clopping French army columns of hay carts drawn by crow-bait horses, past mounted artillery officers in double-breasted tunics. Past stubbly wheatfields that had once served as Rome’s granary, and past aqueducts dismembered during the Vandals’ century of anarchic misrule and now bleaching like stone bones in the sun.

At dusk they bivouacked. Soldiers swam in the chill Mediterranean or washed from their helmets in the delicate ritual called a whore’s bath. They staged scorpion fights in gasoline flimsies or spooned whiskey into pet lizards to watch them stagger about. The evening mist rose from fields with a scent like fresh-mowed hay, which troops had been taught was the odor of deadly phosgene; at least one unit panicked, with shrieks of “Gas! Gas!” and a mad fumbling for masks before reason returned.

Soldiers sharpened their bartering skills with hand gestures, talking loudly in the distinctively American belief that volume obviates all language barriers; one sharp trader swapped a box of candy, piece by piece, for three bottles of perfume, a dozen eggs, a large portrait of Pétain, and a small burro named Rommel.

Pilfering by the impoverished locals was epidemic. Troops smeared fuel cans with bacon rind in hopes that the Koranic prohibition against contact with pork might deter thieves. “Allez!” the soldiers would shout—often their only French except for the hugely popular, “C’est la guerre”—after discovering that thieves had slashed the canvas top from a jeep to make shoes. A single parachute canopy was said to yield more than 500 sets of silk drawers. “If they could have carried it away,” a division history declared, “they’d have stolen the air out of tires.” Disdain for the Arabs grew by the hour. The Army’s chief quartermaster described his native workforce as “useless, worthless, illiterate, dishonest, and diseased.”

At dawn, the promenade resumed. One sergeant, perhaps confounded by the stink of human waste widely used as fertilizer, wrote home, “Every town over here smells like something dead.” The day would come when that was literally true. For now, though, the benign sun and doughboy camaraderie moved some men to lyricism. “The sky is almost unbelievably blue,” wrote an officer in the 1st Division, “and the nights are a poet’s dream.” In the gnarled hills that steadily mounted toward the Tunisian frontier, shepherds watched the columns draw near and heard the chorus of a battle hymn sung with sufficient verve to carry above the harsh grind of truck gears:

She’ll be coming ’round the mountain,

She’ll be coming ’round the mountain,

She’ll be coming ’round the mountain when she comes.

Thanks to Ultra’s decipherment of Axis codes, Eisenhower and his lieutenants knew precisely how many German and Italian troops were flooding into Tunisia. But poor understanding of these deployments’ significance compounded other, earlier miscalculations. Allied intelligence had predicted that up to 10,000 Axis soldiers could reach Tunisia within two weeks, but that these would be troops of “low category and without motor transport.” The Allied forecast as to “the probable scale of Axis intervention turned out to be an underestimate in every respect,” a British intelligence study later concluded, “with results that were to say the least unfortunate.” After a fortnight, the actual number approached 11,000; they included crack paratroopers and panzer grenadiers with heavy equipment and trucks, and they were soon followed by the tanks of the 10th Panzer Division.

There was much talk in Allied councils of speed in countering the Axis intervention, but little speed was applied. Eisenhower and Clark had planned that the seizure of Tunisia would fall primarily to the British. Having carried most of the load in TORCH, the Americans would provide an occupation force and reserves to guard against a German thrust through Spain into Morocco. Scant thought had been given to actions after the initial landings, and only sketchy staff work was available on terrain, logistics, and air support in Tunisia. But given German celerity in occupying Tunis and Bizerte, Allied leaders decided to hasten the move of American troops eastward to bolster the British. Three U.S. armored battalions and other units were to be dispatched disparately and then farmed out—fragmented—to British commanders who possessed scant armored forces of their own. This American muscle would add more than 100 tanks to the Tunisian front.

Proverbially, no military plan survives contact with the enemy. That is never truer than when there is no plan to begin with. No scheme existed for integrating U.S. units into British organizations, or for provisioning them, or for getting them to the front in the first place. Eisenhower would complain that his ad hoc orders to support the British with American troops “were not clearly understood nor vigorously executed.” To his brother Edgar he confided, “I suffer from the usual difficulty that besets the higher commander—things can be ordered and started, but actual execution at the front has to be turned over to someone else.”

“I get so impatient to get ahead that I want to be at a place where there is some chance to push a soldier a little faster or hurry up the unloading of a boat,” Eisenhower cabled Beetle Smith on November 16. Yet he remained in his Gibraltar grotto for nearly two weeks after the French surrender—far from Algiers and far, far from the battlefield. From his office, he railed against Estéva and other French commanders in Tunisia, who “without the slightest trouble could cut the throat of every German and Italian in the area and get away with it.” The Allies “could take all sorts of reckless chances,” Eisenhower added, but only if Estéva resisted and the French took chances of their own. His denunciations of the enemy were often mild, even prissy. “We will all be together in a fine headquarters one of these days,” he told Smith, “and really set out in earnest to whip these blankety-blank Huns!” Rarely did he convey savage determination to overcome all obstacles; to smash, to destroy, to butcher. He professed “a violent hatred of the Axis and all that it stands for,” but no hate lodged in his bones. He was not yet ruthless.

Nor was he yet much of a field marshal. Air and naval attacks were poorly planned and indifferently carried out. Few Allied aircraft had been allocated for reconnaissance or for assaults on Axis forces arriving by sea. Strategic bombing was launched only against targets in Italy and elsewhere outside North Africa, with no bombers initially available to batter Axis concentrations in Tunis or Bizerte. No naval attacks were launched against Axis convoys for three weeks. Not a single Axis ship was sunk on the run to Tunis in November.

Perhaps the biggest deficiency was transportation. Ignoring their logisticians, Eisenhower and Clark had chosen to devote the limited TORCH shipping space to tens of thousands of extra troops at the expense of vehicles and arms. For an American force designed as an occupation army, the decision was plausible. But the Oran convoy alone was pared by 10,000 vehicles before leaving Britain. Unloading snarls made matters worse: by November 12, 8,700 vehicles were planned to be ashore in Oran, the actual number was 1,800. Now, with the ostensible occupation army transformed into a strike force, most units were immobile. “Inevitably there was chaos,” the correspondent Philip Jordan wrote, “that sort of amateur bungling to which the army is liable when it tries to organize something outside routine.”

Ordnance officers wandered through Oran with $5,000 in silver ingots to buy trucks fueled with charcoal, or to hire horse-powered livery for hauling ammunition. The North African rail system proved particularly frail. Half the rolling stock was paralyzed for lack of fuel. Few French railcars were strong enough to carry medium tanks such as the American Sherman. Of the nine small trains that crept eastward from Algiers every day, two were required to haul coal for the railroad itself and one carried provisions to keep the local civilians from starvation; French, British, and American logisticians fought over the remaining six, which usually took nearly a week just to reach the Tunisian border.

Even success in snaring a train was no guarantee of movement. To demonstrate the new fraternity between former adversaries, U.S. Army public relations officers organized a festive departure in Oran for a French battalion heading to Tunisia. As newsreel photographers recorded the scene, American soldiers crowded the rail siding to exchange cigarettes with their French comrades and wave bon voyage—only to hear the stationmaster announce that delays in the east meant the train could not leave for at least another day. The engine and cars rolled a few hundred yards down the tracks, gayly huzzahed for the benefit of the cameras, then backed up after dark to await a better day to go to war.

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This muddle greeted Lieutenant General Kenneth A. N. Anderson, who on November 11 took command in Algiers of the newborn British First Army with orders to hie east. “I applaud your dash and energy,” Eisenhower cabled him on the twelfth. “Boldness is now more important than numbers. Good luck.”

For a commander of congenital pessimism—and Anderson’s was bred in the bone—this dismissal of mere “numbers” rang hollow. First Army comprised hardly a division, with four British brigades and a hodgepodge of American units. Even so, Anderson moved from the command ship Bulolo into the Hotel Albert and announced plans to “kick Rommel in the pants as soon as possible.” Then, alarmed that the phrase implied an insouciance he did not feel, he circulated a written addendum to correspondents: “The German is a good soldier and I expect hard fighting.”

Anderson had been born in India on Christmas Day, 1891, son of a knighted railroad executive who eventually packed him off to Sandhurst. Badly wounded on the Somme, he also had fought in Palestine, in Syria, on the Indian frontier, and at Dunkirk, where he commanded a division during the evacuation. He was clean-shaven, thin-lipped, and deeply religious, with untidy gray hair, small eyes, and—one American officer noted—“an air of grinning preoccupation.” He was said to lack “the jutting chin that gives force to personality” a British acquaintance wrote that “he looks more like a moderately successful surgeon” than a soldier. In dress he favored old-fashioned breeches and puttees; as his troops moved east, he could occasionally be seen peering under the tarpaulin of a rail flatcar to see what the train had brought him.

One British general damned Anderson with faint praise as a “good plain cook,” a bon mot that soon circulated through all the right clubs. Certainly he was the sort of gauche, abrasive Scot invariably described as “dour.” A sardonic subordinate nicknamed him Sunshine, while his American code name was GROUCH. Fluent in French and Italian, he could be silent in any language. Even his rare utterances were to remain private: he soon threatened to expel from North Africa any correspondent who quoted him. Eisenhower remarked that “he studies the written word until he practically burns through the paper.” Few guessed at Anderson’s perpetual struggle against what he called “a queer sort of inhibition, or shyness, which prevents me coming out of my shell…. Often I would like to expand, but find it very difficult. A queer thing, human nature.” It was no doubt God’s will, and he very much believed in God, just as he also believed “it is good medicine to one’s self-esteem to meet with serious setbacks at timely intervals.” Such palliatives awaited him on the road to Tunis.

Anderson’s most ambitious timetable on the eve of TORCH called for Allied paratroopers to be in Tunis and Bizerte by November 12, with reinforcements following immediately. The exigencies of invasion—including French resistance and the broadcast of American paratroops across half the continent—knocked that schedule askew. Instead, the slow overland movement of troops by road and rail would be paralleled in a series of shallow envelopments by seaborne forces along the Mediterranean coast.

A battalion of the Royal West Kent Regiment landed without opposition early on November 11, 100 miles east of Algiers, at Bougie, where the candle was said to have been invented. But heavy surf caused the Royal Navy to scuttle a similiar landing thirty miles farther east, at Djidjelli. This small setback carried large consequences. The inability to bring fuel to the Djidjelli airfield kept RAF Spitfires there grounded for two days, leaving the exposed force at Bougie virtually without air cover.

At 4:40 P.M. on November 11, thirty Ju-88s attacked Bougie harbor from the cover of low clouds, closely followed by German torpedo planes. Four bombs punctured the transport Awatea, followed by a torpedo that lanced her port side; at a 40-degree list she soon burned with greater fury than any Bougie chandler could have imagined. The destroyer Bicester picked up twenty-five survivors and played hoses on the transport’s glowing plates, pressing so close that flames caressed the destroyer and Awatea’s portside davits briefly fouled the bridge. After twenty minutes, even the doughty Bicester stood off. Gutted by a colossal final explosion, Awatea sank at eleven P.M.

Two bombs hit the monitor Roberts, wounding her badly. Worse befell the transport Cathay, which had 1,200 British soldiers aboard. Battered by near misses that dimpled her hull, Cathay then took a dud in the galley. That was enough to panic the quailing crew; they lowered boats without orders and rowed away from the abandoned and terrified troops. A rescue flotilla of landing craft managed to get nearly everyone off, although one lighter was bombed and a surgeon reported seeing a soldier with both legs blown off “swimming frantically using only his arms.” Shortly before midnight, Cathay caught fire; she burned all night before sinking.

November 12 was also bad. To better prepare for more air attacks at dawn, the anti-aircraft ship Tynwald weighed anchor at 4:45 A.M., only to strike a mine sown by a German plane. She sank in seven fathoms. A dawn attack did materialize. Bombs hit the transport Karanja, whose decks were packed with survivors from the Cathay; they again promptly lowered boats without orders. Sensing that the morning belonged to the enemy, Karanja’s captain ordered his vessel abandoned at 8:30 A.M. She soon sank.

Most soldiers and sailors demonstrated pluck. But no élan could obscure the fact that four British ships had been sunk and a fifth damaged before the strike force was barely beyond Algiers. Several vessels pressed into duty as hospital ships returned to Algiers harbor with the dead sewed up in canvas sacks and the wounded making a shambles of the mess deck tables. The British troops ashore at Bougie pivoted eastward with an occasional wistful look over their shoulders; among other losses, their greatcoats lay at the bottom of Bougie bight—with the wintry Tunisian Atlas looming ahead.

Things went better at Bône, 125 miles east of Bougie, where in the year 393 a council of bishops had first recognized the canon of the New Testament. Two destroyer transports landed an unopposed force of British and American commandos who sang the French anthem as they disembarked. Three hundred paratroopers, commanded by the infelicitously named Major R. G. Pine-Coffin, soon leaped to join them; a hard landing killed one man and injured a dozen others, including a concussed paratroop officer who would lie in a coma for four days, murmuring, “I’ll have a little more of the turbot, waiter.” As the sun set on November 12, this Allied force was only 185 road miles from Bizerte.

Unfortunately, Bône was also comparably close to Kesselring’s airfields in Sicily and Sardinia. Bombs blew up the rail station, the cinema, and the sidewalk bistro with its striped umbrellas. Bombs eviscerated the port elevator—a golden cascade of grain spilled across the wharf—and sent mothers scurrying for shelter across the cobbled streets with their grocery bags and perambulators. Of twenty-two piers in the port, eighteen were soon wrecked. The attacks so terrorized the locals that when six Allied coasters put in later in the week no Tunisian labor could be found to unload them. British soldiers pressed into service as stevedores composed a bit of doggerel for the occasion:

In this force we’ve just one moan:

Too little meat—and too much Bône.

Having chased Napoleon Bonaparte into exile, the British Army perhaps felt justified in ignoring certain of l’Empereur’s precepts. For example: the dictum that the most difficult maneuver involves marching widely separated columns against an enemy who has time to strike at them one by one before they can converge. Such an assault across a broad front was precisely what General Anderson and his lieutenants proposed. Moreover, they intended to do so with few tanks and little artillery in hilly terrain congenial to defense and ambush.

On November 14, Anderson ordered all available Allied troops eastward in hopes of attacking Bizerte and Tunis within a week. The British 36th Brigade—4,500 men from the 78th Division—would hug the coast on the Allied left. An equivalent contingent in the 11th Brigade would follow a parallel route twenty-five miles to the south, on the Allied right. In the Allied center a patchwork group of 2,600 tankers, riflemen, and parachutists, known as Blade Force, was to work the broken high ground between the two brigades.

The British plan would cut the Axis bridgehead in half and isolate Bizerte, which was to be captured after Tunis had fallen. American units would be fed into the attack as they arrived. For now, Anderson’s army numbered just over 12,000 men; “all available” troops amounted to barely one-tenth of those landed in TORCH. British armor featured the Valentine tank, an obsolete can with a three-man crew, a cross-country speed of eight miles per hour, and a gun that fired two-pound shells comparable to heaving loaves of hard bread at the enemy.

The plan was made; the plan was fixed; and amending the plan—despite evidence that thousands of veteran Axis troops were extending their bridgehead westward—“had no appeal to the orderly British mind.” Precisely what Anderson could have done otherwise, given his paltry force and stringy logistics, is debatable; but gathering his scattered troops into a compact, clenched fist would have been a start.

And then, they were in Tunisia. Crossing out of Algeria along the ancient border between Numidia and Carthage, the road switchbacked through stands of cork oak and mountain ash rich with the mossy scent of mist and wood smoke. The nights turned bitter, with icy winds and hail that forced men to tip their helmets over their faces like a knight’s beaver. Letters home began stressing the “north” in North Africa, which soldiers now described as “a cold country with a hot sun.” Slightly larger than the state of Georgia, Tunisia in winter seemed more like Michigan. On the rare occasions when open fires were allowed, the Americans huddled close in their blankets, dusted with snow. The shivering British pined for their lost greatcoats.

As marauding Messerschmitts became increasingly common, campfires vanished. Breakfast was eaten facing east, so every man could scan for fighters on strafing runs out of the sun. Supply was patchy, with absurd surpluses of hair oil and other inessentials, and desperate shortages of artillery rounds, fresh food, and commodities like cutlery. “The most important thing,” a British tanker advised, “is never to be parted from your spoon.”

To protect Anderson’s far southern flank, Eisenhower dispatched Edson Raff, whose American paratrooper battalion had regrouped after its dispersion across the Mediterranean in Operation VILLAIN. Raff’s Ruffians jumped—successfully this time—from thirty-three planes on the east Algerian town of Tébessa. He then herded them onto green passenger buses fueled by charcoal and placed a machine gun in each rooftop baggage rack. On a perfectly plumb Roman road they drove past pink stucco farms and neo-Palladian French villas to the remote Tunisian oasis of Gafsa, where the force soon grew to 2,500 men. Behind them, American combat engineers heading through the mountain pass called Kasserine found themselves detained at a border post by French customs officials who demanded that duty be paid on all matériel. After realizing that Frenchman and Arab alike were mesmerized by the power of official stamps, the engineers fabricated their own rubber imprimatur and “just stamped the hell out of everything.”

But most of the Allied force was farther north, in the two brigades lurching in loose tandem toward Tunis. Lancashire millworkers, Kentish clerks, laborers from Surrey—all came under the British 78th Division commander, Major General Vyvyan Evelegh. Known as Santa Claus for his ruddy face and imposing girth, Evelegh was a saddle-nosed, gap-toothed man in a beret, with the obligatory English officer’s mustache worn on his upper lip like a campaign ribbon. He was mercurial, with a loud, braying laugh that could quickly give way to scalding invective untrammeled by his tendency to stutter when enraged. Evelegh was said to be feuding with one of his subordinates, the commander of the elite 1st Guards Brigade, over the b-b-b-bloody foolish issue of seniority. It was also said that he was keen to seize Tunis before others of higher rank could swoop in and claim credit.

With Anderson’s approval, Evelegh decided to leapfrog 500 paratroopers ahead of the meandering brigades. The British 1st Battalion boarded planes in Algiers and on November 16 jumped on the border town of Souk el Arba. Five soldiers were wounded when a fumbled Sten gun accidentally discharged, and another was garrotted in midair by his own shroud lines; the entire town turned out for the dead man’s funeral and, following local custom, all 3,000 people insisted on shaking hands with the battalion officer designated as chief mourner.

They hurried onward by bus, forty miles to Béja, a hilltop town dotted with ruins from the days when local grain fields provided the bread to complement Rome’s circuses. After a miserable night in filthy weather, the battalion moved its command post into the local slaughterhouse on November 17. Five hundred men marched through Béja’s narrow streets in their soup-bowl helmets, then discreetly changed to red berets and marched around some more to simulate “a non-existent preponderance” for the benefit of any Frenchman or Arab of wavering loyalties. Fooled or not, the locals cheered from the balconies of their white houses and the parapets of Béja’s Byzantine towers.

They cheered again on November 18, when a British patrol to the northeast ambushed a small German column, killing six enemy soldiers before returning to Béja with nine scuffling prisoners and a captured German staff car paraded like a centurion’s booty. The ambush had occurred barely ten miles from Mateur, the gateway city to Bizerte. How close they were now! To British and American paratroopers, and to the two brigades slogging behind them, the prize seemed within grasp.

Then Stuka dive-bombers found Béja for the first of many, many raids—the Tommies called the attacks “bouncing”—and the cheers stopped. Bombs gilded the town with fire and peeled back the French mansard roofs along the Avenue de la Gare, exposing charred rafters and scorched wallpaper like something publicly naked and shameful. Bombs plowed the little gardens and reduced mud-wattle Arab houses to dust. Bombs ruined the ruins, Roman and Byzantine, and it became hard to tell antique reliquiae from modern wreckage. Béja was bounced so often that by the end of the week 300 Frenchmen and Arabs had been killed, and there was not enough lime in all Tunisia to unstink the dead.

Local enthusiasm faded for the Allied cause, or any cause, and even the shadow of a large bird sufficed to send citizens howling through the streets, in search of a refuge that did not exist. As Bône and Bougie had been and a thousand other towns between here and Berlin would be, Béja was caught in the crossfire between the Allies and their Axis enemies, victimized by the total war that had begun, this week, in this place.

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