Military history

Medjez-el-Bab

“WHOEVER has Medjez-el-Bab has the key to the door, and is the master of all Tunisia,” Hannibal supposedly declared. The quotation has the tin ring of apocrypha, but the sentiment had been true in the centuries before Christ and it was true in 1942. Modern Medjez-el-Bab was a dusty market town smelling of rosemary and juniper and fed by roads from every compass point, a place for flinty merchants to sell French colons the tobacco and salt with which they paid their Arab farm-workers. Traces of Rome, Byzantium, and even seventeenth-century Spain could be found in the town, whose name means “Ford by the Gateway.” It was in Medjez that Allied and Axis forces would first collide “with the grappling strength of fighters armed in bronze,” in Homer’s phrase, and it was around Medjez that much of the struggle over the next seven months would revolve.

Medjez-el-Bab’s strategic value derived from its position straddling the Medjerda River, thirty air miles from Tunis. Rising in the Algerian highlands, the Medjerda was a serpentine ditch wandering vaguely northeast for 125 miles before spilling into the Gulf of Tunis between Bizerte and the capital. It provided a rare portal through the Eastern Dorsal, the rugged mountain chain that stretched southward to wall off the coastal plain of eastern Tunisia. The Medjerda valley at Medjez was said to be among the half-dozen most fertile on earth: the fecund fields and irrigation ditches resembled California’s Central Valley. Shallow and mustard-hued, the river was less than a hundred yards wide, with sheer banks twenty feet high and dense rush brakes in the bottoms. An eight-arch bridge, built in the eighteenth century with stones from the original Roman viaduct, crossed the Medjerda at Medjez. It was the grandest of nine bridges spanning the river at intervals of six to ten miles.

At this bucolic place, the commander of the Tunis Division, General Barré, chose to make his stand. After declining to follow the collaborationist path of the Vichy admirals Estéva and Derrien, Barré had temporized, for a week, teasing the Germans with hints of capitulation while trading space for time. His 9,000 men had eased westward from Tunis into the hills, where they retrieved small caches of fuel and ammunition hidden two years earlier as a precaution after the German invasion of France. Badly armed with a few creaky tanks and a half-dozen artillery pieces pulled by mules, they were pinched between Allied forces approaching from the west and Axis troops pressing from the east—a perfect metaphor for the Vichy commanders collectively.

As British paratroopers on November 18 paraded their spoils through Béja, twenty miles away, the 3rd Battalion of the German 5th Parachute Regiment closed to within sight of Medjez-el-Bab. Troops in field-gray coats and coal-scuttle helmets fanned out along Highway 50, a narrow blacktop that hugged the Medjerda all the way to the stone bridge in Medjez. They drifted through eucalyptus brakes lining the river and skirted the cactus hedges that fenced the little farms east of town. Many had wrapped their rifle muzzles with newspaper to keep out the mud.

Although they were veteran soldiers who two weeks earlier had been training in Normandy for a possible invasion of Malta, the Germans were hardly more mobile or robustly armed than the plodding British or French. Messages to headquarters in Tunis complained at the lack of shovels, radios, hot food, machine guns, and field glasses. The battalion commander was a dark, heavy-browed captain named Wilhelm Knoche, who liked quoting Frederick the Great: “I have no need in my army for officers who lack luck.” Knoche’s luck had held so far in several parleys with French officers; after reviewing a map on which he had charted the positions of entirely fictitious regiments, the French had ceded to German forces the Medjerda valley towns of Djedeïda and Tébourba. But Barré refused to forsake Medjez. Now German patience, never robust, had expired. Field Marshal Kesselring issued new demands to “throw the enemy back to Bône” and to “end an intolerable situation by sending in the Stukas against the French divisions.” Knoche warned in a final parley: “Think what’s at stake. When I go, the apple falls.”

At four A.M. on November 19, a German diplomat carrying a truce flag drove into Medjez to a stucco house perched above the river. This time there was no parley, only an ultimatum. The French were given until seven A.M. to strike their colors. A French colonel replied in a theatrical huff that his honor and that of France had been insulted. Although Barré’s men were scattered across the Eastern Dorsal and only a few hundred troops defended Medjez, they would fight. The French had enough ammunition for a day of combat, provided that they were not required to shoot much.

Barré passed word to a British armored-car squadron near Medjez that an attack was likely in several hours. He also phoned French army headquarters in Algiers, announcing both his return to the Allied fold and the imminent destruction of his command.

A bad British plan promptly got worse. On November 18, Anderson had ordered General Evelegh not to commit his 78th Division until he finished concentrating the force. But in a flurry of frantic, pleading calls, French generals now demanded reinforcement. Shortly before six A.M. on November 19, Anderson’s headquarters told Giraud that “while everything will be done to assist,” fighter aircraft based at Bône were too far away to effectively intercede and no tanks were available.

Santa Claus was in a tight spot. The strategic worth of the Medjerda valley was evident. But German troops with tanks had also appeared on his left flank, a few miles from the Mediterranean coast. The fragmented Allied force was about to fragment further. Evelegh shoved several units toward Medjez, including the 500 paratroopers from Béja and twelve American howitzers of the 175th Field Artillery Battalion.

An apricot dawn spread through the valley, heralding a gorgeous autumn day. Farmers shambled out to feed their livestock, casting anxious glances at the 200 gray-clad Germans who in the night had entrenched along the Medjerda’s east bank, a thousand yards from Medjez. Captain Knoche moved his command post into a cemetery on high ground east of town. Seven A.M. passed, then eight, then nine, and the ultimatum began to resemble a bluff. But at 9:15 rifle fire crackled, followed by the brisk notes of a machine gun. Bullets swarmed back and forth across the river. Terrified residents ran from the town. “The war,” an American artillerist recalled cheerfully, “was on!”

West of town, several British soldiers waited roadside to guide an American artillery battery into firing positions. At a fair distance, they spied a churning column of dust. Soon the column resolved into four bouncing howitzers and their gun teams hurtling up to and then past the frantically waving Tommies. Over a small rise they boiled, and down the forward slope overlooking Medjez, where they lurched to a stop in full view of the Germans. Shooting that had been brisk now became furious. A British officer reported “guns of all calibers firing.”

British paratroopers and Derbyshire Yeomen hurried forward to extract their cousins. The mêlée subsided only when the truculent Yank gunners were persuaded of the merits of defilade. The British paratrooper commander, Lieutenant Colonel S.J.L. Hill, upon inquiring about the eccentric American approach, learned that the “gun teams had worked it out that one of them would be the first American to fire the first shot against the Germans in this world war. They had all started jockeying for position and racing each other down the road.” Colonel Hill accepted this explanation philosophically, as he did the reply from a young American who, when asked why he was firing at a church steeple in Medjez, said it was because he could “see if he hit it.” The answer, Hill concluded, “seemed fair enough.”

The balance of the day was less risible. At 10:45 A.M., 120 spahis appeared in crimson capes and turbans bound in camel’s hair. With a rumble of hooves and an ululant war cry, the double column broke into a gallop toward the stone bridge just as the first German dive-bombers appeared overhead. “Poor buggers were cut off by Stukas and ruined,” an American gunner noted. The planes heeled over in a nearly vertical dive, sirens screaming and silver bombs tumbling. In a swirl of smoke and flapping capes, fragments of horses and riders blew into the air. What the Stukas failed to destroy, German machine guns and mortars finished. A witness counted the bodies of ninety-six cavalrymen.

By late afternoon the Germans held everything east of the river except the train station. French colonials fought until their ammunition was gone and then the station fell, too. Yet even with Stukas attacking punctually every two hours, the Germans failed to dislodge Barré’s troops from the shops and houses on the west bank. Galling fire from the American 25-pounders curtained the bridge and repulsed each attempt to force it. Knoche, the German battalion commander, ordered a large patrol from his Number 10 Company to ford the river and outflank the defenders from the south. Wading through icy water to their necks, the Germans overran a French machine gun and captured several prisoners.

But the patrol was trapped, exposed to enfilading fire and unable to reach the bridge abutments. Now it was the Germans’ turn to be murdered. Venturing from the shelter of the riverbank, the company commander soon pitched to the pavement with a bullet in his brain. Allied machine guns scythed the rushes until the water ran red and German corpses drifted downstream like a gray flotilla. Only four men returned to the east bank.

Night fell. A German mortar hooted, and a few seconds later yet another detonation struck a town more hideous by the hour. Allied soldiers lay in their slit trenches studying the rectangular roof of sky overhead and the stars in their courses. French commanders tallied the butcher’s bill—nearly a quarter of Barré’s force had fallen—and issued another futile plea for armor, ammunition, and fresh troops.

At one A.M. on November 20, a staccato series of blasts ripped through four sectors of Medjez. Reinforced by two companies of Italian infantry, ten German patrols had swum the river with satchel charges and grenades. German machine pistols fired at every flitting shadow. Allied troops fell back, leaving intact the bridge, which they had prepared for detonation. Flames guttered in the dying town.

Colonel Hill summoned the senior French officer in Medjez and informed him that a general withdrawal would begin immediately. By 4:30 A.M. the town was abandoned. American gunners, along with British and French infantrymen, scuttled westward to a steep ridge halfway to Béja. Knoche’s troops, who had suffered only twenty-two casualties, swept into Medjez as soon as the Allies decamped. By dawn, the key to the door was in a German pocket.

This disagreeable news jarred General Anderson, whose grand assault on Tunis and Bizerte was scheduled to begin November 21. Anderson had resisted sending more Americans into Tunisia for fear that First Army’s fragile logistics would buckle beneath the strain, and now he doubted that the Allies could reach Tunis without heavy reinforcement. Given persistent supply problems and the difficulty in massing Allied combat power, he ordered a three-day postponement.

Anderson’s native pessimism was reinforced by a quick tour of the front, where he found irrefutable evidence of an Axis buildup that was swifter and stronger than anything anticipated in London or Washington. Neither side, however, could yet launch a sustained offensive. “Bits of war were threaded…like beads on a string,” wrote the reporter A. J. Liebling. Tunisia had become “a funny sort of front,” an American major said. “It’s about fifty feet wide—just across the road and a little on each side of it.”

But Axis forces were pressing in the north and infiltrating the southern flank, where the oasis at Gafsa had been recaptured. Kesselring’s new commander in Tunisia, Generalleutnant Walther K. Nehring—a veteran of Poland, France, and Russia, as well as Rommel’s Afrika Korps—declared, with an urgency rarely detected in Allied actions, “There is no time to lose…. Each man must be saturated with the fact that he must fight for his position to the last man.” Nehring now had 16,000 German and 9,000 Italian troops in Tunisia; they had swept in so fast that Allied intelligence, despite Ultra, had temporarily lost count and believed the number to be less than half that. The Allies for their part had forfeited surprise with a plodding, tactically suspect use of the Tunisian terrain; precious tanks, for example, had been diverted to the left flank, where mountains rendered them useless.

A churlish frustration took hold. British troops began referring to American soldiers collectively as “Alice,” and it was not a compliment. Anderson cabled Eisenhower at Gibraltar: “Roseate picture of speedy aid by an efficient French army is a figment of imagination.” Eisenhower’s naval chief, Admiral Andrew B. Cunningham, wrote to a friend, “Tunis is anyone’s who cares to walk in. But the Huns are beating us in the race.”

Never hesitant to play the field marshal, Churchill impatiently accused his military commanders of timidity and undue deference to logistics. “The Army is like a peacock—nearly all tail,” he grumbled. To which the chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Brooke, replied sharply, “The peacock would be a very badly balanced bird without its tail.” Unpersuaded, Churchill simply switched metaphors. “I intended North Africa to be a springboard, not a sofa,” he complained. While British commanders voiced doubts about the Yanks’ fighting qualities, some also harbored secret qualms about their own ranks. Churchill earlier in the year had expressed concern “that our soldiers are not as good fighters as their fathers were,” and Brooke worried that “half our corps and divisional commanders are totally unfit” because of “the losses we sustained in the last war of all our best officers.”

Eisenhower maintained a brave face, though nagged by a suspicion that the campaign was slipping away. “My biggest worry at this moment is that the Axis reinforcements, pouring into Tunisia from Sicily and Italy, are coming faster than I can kick troops up the line to the eastward,” he wrote General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, commander of the Army Air Forces, on November 21. A day later, in a memo to himself, Eisenhower added, “It would be wrong at present to assume that the Axis forces, now estimated to be 12,000, will be rapidly destroyed.” It was wronger than he knew: Nehring’s actual strength by November 25 was 25,000. The consequences of failure were hard to contemplate, but Eisenhower summed them up in a note to Beetle Smith: “If we don’t get Tunisia quickly, we surrender initiative, give the Axis time to do as it pleases in that region, encourage all our enemies in the area, individually and collectively…. This battle is not, repeat not won.”

Most disheartening was enemy air superiority. Axis planes in Tunisia already had available seven good airfields, in addition to bases on Sicily, Sardinia, and the Italian boot. Kesselring had assembled twenty squadrons of Stukas and fighters. They attacked relentlessly.

Allied fighters, by contrast, operated from crude dirt fields at such a distance—Bône, for example, lay 135 air miles from Tunis—that they could rarely loiter more than ten minutes over the battlefield. A Luftwaffe raid on November 21 destroyed more than a dozen planes on the ground in Algiers and forced all Flying Fortresses to safer fields near Oran; that meant a 1,200-mile round-trip bombing run to Tunis. Among the planes shot down was Eisenhower’s personal B-17, which he had donated to the bombing campaign.

Field conditions were primitive. Pilots often had to refuel their own fighters from five-gallon tins, using a chamois to filter the badly refined French gasoline. Few radar sets had been shipped to Africa, so the Allied early-warning network consisted of French gendarmes with telephones. By late November, only half the Allied planes in North Africa were still airworthy; American pilots also lost nearly twice as many aircraft to crashes and other mishaps than to combat, a ratio described by one commander as “rather appalling.” The Allied air command was disorganized, poorly coordinated, and split by rivalry and national chauvinism.

Troops learned to their sorrow that North Africa was not only cold but wet: Tunisia’s sixteen yearly inches of rain fell almost exclusively between November and March. Crews wielded sticks and shovels to scrape mud off aircraft wheels so pilots could at least taxi onto the run-ways. To keep the nose from burrowing into the muck, crew chiefs sat on the horizontal stabilizer, then hopped off as the plane gained speed. Aviation engineers tried laying matting of cork, bamboo, and steel; mud ate them all. “Such a loving type of mud works its way up to your arm pits,” a British soldier wrote.

On November 24, Anderson ordered General Evelegh to resume his advance on Tunis and Bizerte as swiftly as possible. Again the two brigades lurched eastward with Blade Force between them. On the left wing, eight miles from the Mediterranean coast, the 36th Brigade found an enemy reluctant to play its assigned role. Rather than remain fixed on the narrow road and await the British blow, German paratroopers simply backed up, sowing mines as they went. The Allies found themselves striking at thin air. Again the brigade surged forward; again the Germans backed up, as precisely as a minuet partner. So it went for more than two days, at a pachydermal pace of several hundred yards per hour.

Thirty miles to the south, on the Allied right flank, three British battalions in the 11th Brigade again closed on Medjez-el-Bab in a two-pronged assault reinforced by American gunners. Officers wagged their blackthorn sticks to inspirit the troops as they darkened their faces with burnt cork. From the southwest, the 5th Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment and the U.S. 175th Field Artillery attacked before dawn on November 25. Three miles from Medjez, they killed a dozen Italians and seized the heights called Djebel Bou Mouss—soon renamed Grenadier Hill. The new name stuck; Allied troops did not. A counterattack by German tanks from Medjez cleared the ridge in several hours. Brits and Yanks again retreated, this time to await reinforcement from an American armored battalion expected to arrive the next day.

The other prong of the Allied attack on Medjez came from the northwest. The 2nd Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers moved forward in trucks, then climbed out close to town. Blued by a hunter’s moon, the men marched along the road and rail embankment, silent except for their bootsteps and the creak of their kit. At 4:30 A.M., the Medjerda came into view, a quicksilver runnel beneath the black arches of the bridge. Across the river a first hint of dawn limned the horizon. Lieutenant Colonel L. A. Manly, the British battalion commander, strolled to the point and after an exchange of hand gestures and hoarse whispers pressed ahead to reconnoiter. Five hundred shadows in flawless assault formation followed across an open field.

All this was seen. Captain Knoche’s battalion watched from its emplacements, now reinforced with two 88mm guns and tanks from the 190th Panzer Battalion. Fighting in Crete and the Low Countries had made the German paratroopers expert in gauging distance at night. Mortar crewmen eyed the drifting shadows and adjusted their elevation knobs with the delicacy of safecrackers.

The first burst of machine-gun fire killed Colonel Manly. Five hundred British soldiers dropped as one, slithering across the ground in search of cover. Mortar tubes coughed, and German shells exploded behind the field, discouraging retreat. Then the shells walked forward, discouraging men inclined to stay put. Bullets gouged the earth with a plopping sound. Like doughboys going over the top—“jumping the bags,” their fathers had called it at the Somme—the Lancashires rose up and charged a German line glittering with muzzle flashes. Crashing through hedges near the bridge, they made for the river, plunging down the muddy slope and into the Medjerda, splashing chest-deep to the far bank with rifles held high.

They found no more sanctuary here than had Knoche’s Number 10 Company five days earlier. Bullets and mortar fragments frothed the water, and the ominous whipcrack of German 88mm shells sounded overhead. Wounded men pitched into the river; sometimes their comrades hauled them back to the bank, and sometimes they did not. Though badly disorganized by the fall of Manly and other leaders, two companies managed to scale the east bank and resume their charge across no-man’s-land in a din of shouts and tweetering whistles.

They were hacked to pieces. The sun, now fully risen and flush in their faces, so blinded the Tommies that they could no longer pick out even muzzle flashes. Officers bellowed orders that were only partly heard above the roar, as if the tail end of each sentence was shot away. Squinting men faltered and fell back, tumbling down the bank to the bullet-whipped Medjerda. There the Lancashires’ third company had fared just as poorly by remaining in the ditch; machine-gun and shell fire exterminated one platoon almost to a man. Bodies again drifted on the current, this time clad in British serge.

The attack was finished. An Allied artillery barrage provided covering fire for those still alive to recross the river and scramble up the west bank. They dragged the wounded by their collars in wide, bloody slicks. From the stucco husks that had once been houses, counterattacking German tanks and infantry hurried the retreating Tommies on their way. Along both sides of the Medjerda they left behind—another image from the Somme—“a landscape of dead buttocks.” This time the butcher’s bill came to 144 Lancashires, dead and wounded.

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