Military history

Fat Geese on a Pond

WITH both brigades stymied on the flanks, any hope for a breakthrough by the British First Army now fell to the provisional Blade Force in the center. Puny in size, with fewer than 3,000 troops, the unit nevertheless boasted more than a hundred tanks, half of them American. Now Blade Force hurried forward, crying, “Armor for Tunis!” and accompanied by Senegalese tirailleurs, “great ebony warriors with enormous teeth and bayonets a yard long.” Sensing softness in the Axis line east of the hill town of Sidi Nsir, Blade Force planned to rip the seam with its two tank battalions, the British 17th/21st Lancers and the U.S. 1st Battalion of the 1st Armored Regiment. Both were directed to create “a tank-infested area” in the Tine River valley, ten miles north of the Medjerda and roughly parallel to it.

This order greatly pleased the Americans, even if no one was quite sure what “tank-infested” meant or how to effect such a teeming condition. The 1st Battalion—part of a regiment created in the 1830s for the Black Hawk War and still heavily drawn from Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia—was commanded by the handsome thirty-five-year-old John Knight Waters. The son of a Baltimore banker, Waters had attended Johns Hopkins University for two years before persuading a Chicago congressman, in whose district he had spent a single day, to appoint him to the West Point class of 1931. Waters’s ambition to be a pilot was thwarted by imperfect eyesight; he settled for the cavalry and betrothal to the daughter of a crotchety major named Patton. “Waters, I don’t know you. Come back in three years,” Patton told the young lieutenant when asked for permission to marry. Waters bided his time, eventually winning both Patton’s deep affection and his daughter.

Waters’s fifty-four light tanks formed the spearhead of Blade Force because the larger American medium tanks landed in Oran would not fit through the narrow Tunisian rail tunnels and were en route to the front by sea. The “light,” fourteen-ton M-3 General Stuart was a fast, agile deathtrap with a 37mm gun known to American tankers as the “squirrel rifle.” Oddly top-heavy, like “a hat box about to fall from the top shelf of the hall closet,” the Stuart had a manually rotated turret and an engine that required a dozen vigorous turns with a hand crank to start. The four-man crew was cramped and virtually blind, viewing the hostile world through narrow glass-prism peepholes. On the frequent occasions when the intercom radio failed, tank commanders in the turret signaled direction changes to the drivers in the hull below with little kicks to the left or right shoulder; a kick between the shoulders meant “Stop,” a sharper kick meant “Advance.” A kick to the head meant “Back up.”

The battalion rolled northeast through the narrow Tine valley along a rough braid of goat trails. Whenever Stukas appeared overhead, Waters shooed the Stuarts into the nearest stand of cactus, where his driver vaulted from the hatch to hide in a ditch, muttering, “I’m scared to death, I’m scared to death.” On the afternoon of November 25, along the right bank of the Tine, scouts spotted enemy soldiers in a French farm compound that had been built to withstand Arab banditry. Gum trees rose above a rectangular courtyard enclosed by a thick stone-and-concrete wall with fighting parapets and musket loopholes. Outside the wall, Italian infantrymen peered from a network of trenches and saps.

Company A’s tanks dashed forward, circling the compound in a dusty, shrieking assault. Machine-gun fire chewed through the trenches and killed a few infantrymen, but the squirrel gun hardly blemished the stone wall. Waters ordered his mortar platoon and assault guns into action, and soon the crump and boom of mortar and field tubes joined the rippling tank fire. The cannonade broke a few red terra-cotta roof tiles and fired two haystacks, but otherwise had little effect. The defenders peppered the Stuarts with rifle and machine-gun fire, shattering many of the glass vision ports. Tank commanders furiously toed their drivers—left shoulder, right shoulder, left shoulder—but without infantry and artillery support the attack soon lost momentum. Waters pulled the company back down the valley, where the crews spent the late afternoon manicuring tank hulls that bristled with hundreds of embedded enemy bullets. The effect, one officer wrote, gave the armor plates a manly texture, “like a three-day growth of beard.”

Farther north, a British Lancers battalion rounded up 140 Axis prisoners, accepted a bleating sheep from a grateful farmer, then broke for tea. Stuka pilots evidently confused German signal flares with Allied anti-aircraft fire: a Lancer reported that Wehrmacht infantrymen repeatedly “sent up a stream of Very lights, which had the satisfying effect of bringing the bombs down amongst themselves, whilst we watched.” Mateur, the linchpin to the defense of Bizerte, lay only ten miles away.

But it was on the southern fringe of a landscape now properly tank-infested that the day’s strangest events unfolded. As his attack on the farm compound petered out, Waters ordered the seventeen tanks from his Company C to reconnoiter the bridges over the Medjerda River. Angling east from the Tine valley, a mile-long defile named Chouïgui Pass gave onto the flat, fertile plains, twenty miles from Tunis. The paved road through the pass veered southeast for five miles to the grain fields and orchards of the Medjerda valley. It was this route that Major Rudolph Barlow followed with the three platoons of Company C.

At thirty-five miles an hour, Barlow and his men skirted the town of Tébourba and followed Highway 55 for two miles to the narrow bridge spanning the Medjerda at El Bathan. A few bursts of coaxial machine-gun fire scattered the sentries; the Allies, so roughly handled at Medjez-el-Bab, now owned their own Medjerda bridge, twenty-two miles downstream from Medjez and deep behind the German line.

Suffused with cavalry panache, Barlow pressed ahead. His tanks rumbled northeast for seven miles along the left bank of the Medjerda, sheltered by olive groves, to the village of Djedeïda. Behind a ridge a few hundred yards ahead, a German plane lifted into the air, followed by another. Barlow sent forward a platoon under Lieutenant Wilbor H. Hooker while the rest of the company remained secluded in the olive trees.

Hooker and his tankers soon came galloping back. A new airfield “packed with planes” lay on the other side of the rise, Hooker reported. No sentries had been posted and the Luftwaffe seemed oblivious of the approaching Americans. Barlow ordered the tanks into a forage line, with two platoons abreast and a third trailing slightly behind. He radioed Waters and relayed Hooker’s report in a voice pitched to the occasion:

“Right in front of me is an airport full of German airplanes, sitting there, the men all sitting out on the gasoline barrels, shooting the breeze in the sunlight. What should I do?”

Waters had spent much of the day hiding in the cactus from these very aircraft. Now he nearly leaped in the air with incredulity. “For God’s sake, attack them! Go after them!”

Seventeen Stuarts surged up and over the crest of the hill, tracks churning the wheat stubble as they barreled down the front slope from the northwest. Tank commanders craned for a better view from the open turret hatches and spurred their drivers forward. Several dozen Messerschmitts, Stukas, and Junkerses crowded around the dirt airstrip, reminding one American officer of “fat geese on a small pond.” Some were taking gas at a makeshift fuel dump; others were being rearmed with bombs and belts of machine-gun bullets. Late-afternoon shadows stretched before the charging Stuarts as if racing the tanks to the bottom of the slope. A few Luftwaffe crewmen turned and waved, evidently believing the tanks were Italian.

Then the first bursts of machine-gun fire struck the parked planes and the mêlée began. Fuel drums exploded, spreading sheets of fire across the runway and engulfing German soldiers and planes alike. The boom of seventeen tank guns reverberated in the hills, as Barlow’s gunners hit their fire buttons as fast as loaders could shove rounds into the breech. Gunfire from the tanks created its own hot wind, flattening the brush and blowing a dark cloud of debris before the hulls.

The squirrel guns proved lethal to aircraft sheet metal. Planes blew up, planes disintegrated, planes collided with other planes making for the end of the runway. A Messerschmitt gained enough speed to lift off, only to be raked by machine-gun bullets and cartwheel, burning, to earth. Mud slowed the taxiing Junkerses long enough for American gunners to take languid aim and machine-gun the fuselages from propeller to vertical stabilizer. As for those still able to build speed, a tank commander at the far end of the runway raked departing planes with fire until a nearby grainfield was full of burning cruciforms.

Tanks lunged onto the runway. Terrified pilots in their leather headgear fled zigzag across the field, only to be shot down or crushed beneath the tracks. Several Stuarts rolled behind a row of parked aircraft, methodically shearing off their tails. Desultory German rifle fire, one tank crewman later recalled, hit the turrets and “bounced off like peas.” A few defenders tried to turn their 20mm anti-aircraft weapons into tank killers, but the Stuarts were too agile and the gunners died at their guns.

Tanks tacked back and forth across the airfield looking for things to kill. Spent brass rained down on the Stuart drivers and bow gunners, who wrapped towels around their necks and kept their collars buttoned tight to avoid burns from the hot casings. A few fighters had managed to get airborne when the attack began, and now they circled back for low strafing runs that ignited bedrolls and clothing bags lashed to the American hulls. Crewmen climbed from their hatches to beat at the flames, then pressed forward to kill some more.

In half an hour the fight was over. Barlow pulled his whooping tankers back up the hill. The raid had cost him one tank destroyed, several damaged, and two men killed by strafing, including a platoon leader.

He paused for a final look at the carnage below. Wreckage from more than twenty German planes lay scattered in a burning swath longer than a mile. Spikes of flame from detonating fuel and ammunition flared the length of the runway, illuminating scattered propellers, wheels, and fuselages. Bodies lay sprawled across the field. Barlow briefly considered pressing on to Tunis even at the risk of being cut off, but night had closed completely over the countryside and Waters wanted C Company to return. The tanks turned back toward Chouïgui Pass. Behind them, to the east, a pale orange glow reflected off the belly of the clouds above Djedeïda, like a false dawn.

Panicky, exaggerated reports that American tanks were nine kilometers—five miles—from Tunis vexed General Nehring to the point of despair on the night of November 25. Only a few irrigation ditches and two 88mm guns stood between Allied forces and Tunis harbor. From his command post in the erstwhile American consulate, Nehring spoke by phone to Kesselring in Rome and warned that he was forced “to tear open one tactical hole in order to stop another more serious one.” A panzer battalion that had been protecting Mateur would have to move south in the face of this latest threat to the capital. That opened the road to Bizerte. German commanders across the bridgehead were rifling through files and preparing to burn their secret papers.

Kesselring voiced sympathy for his field commander’s “state of understandable excitement.” The raid at Djedeïda, he agreed, “made a beautiful mess of things” and “suggested a certain limpness in German defenses.” But Nehring should not overreact. “It was a rather unpleasant incident, to be sure,” Kesselring said, yet their predicament was less bleak than Nehring believed. The field marshal now had a sense of his Allied foes: they were cautious and tentative, disinclined to bold tactical gambles. Remain calm, Kesselring urged. He promised to fly to Tunisia in the morning for a closer look.

Smiling Albert’s assurances seemed plausible. Recovery from a battlefield victory could sometimes be more difficult than recovery from defeat, and indeed the Djedeïda success found the Allies unprepared to exploit their winnings. Eisenhower, who had just moved his headquarters from Gibraltar to Algiers, showed no inclination to rush to the front to strike the coup de grâce that Kesselring was rushing to prevent. Anderson and Evelegh had locked themselves into a tactical disadvantage by failing to concentrate their forces for a single hammer blow at the brittle Axis defense. Logistical woes, airpower weaknesses, shortages of infantrymen, disintegrating weather—all conspired to bring the Allied advance up short. There was even confusion about whether the primary objective should be Bizerte, now code-named DIZZY, or Tunis, known as INCUR.

Yet Kesselring’s certitude failed to persuade Nehring, who concluded that the field marshal did not understand how precarious Tunisia had become. Luftwaffe pilots reported thirty enemy tanks heading north toward Mateur. Nehring had shown impeccable courage and combat skills both as an infantryman in the last world war and as a panzer leader in this one. But as commander of the Afrika Korps under Rommel, he had been badly wounded in an air attack two months earlier; the posting to Tunisia had disrupted his physical and mental convalescence, and his recovery was hardly expedited by the crash of the plane carrying him to Tunis.

Now Nehring’s confidence flagged. Shortly after hanging up on Kesselring, he ordered a general contraction of his line, into a tighter, more defensible bridgehead. In the Medjerda valley the line would shift seven miles, from Tébourba to Djedeïda; troops in the north would fall back to Mateur. All along the front, German and Italian soldiers gathered their weapons and ammunition, and silently began trudging east.

At daybreak on Thursday, November 26, Allied sentries in the hills west of Medjez-el-Bab were startled by a deep boom from the center of town. A white cloud corkscrewed above the river. Led by British infantrymen, a newly arrived battalion of American tanks cautiously pushed through the battered outskirts of Medjez. At the Medjerda, a forty-foot section of the humpback masonry bridge lay in the river where Wehrmacht demolitionists had just dropped it. The town was empty except for a few stray cats and a stamping mule. Unspeakable odors seeped from the rubble. American tankers were shocked to see that dead British soldiers from the failed assault earlier in the week had been stripped of every stitch by Arab looters. One soldier explained this behavior in a letter home: “It’s because they never had any bringing up.”

The key to the door was back in an Allied pocket. Battered though the town was—and it would look only worse in the succeeding months—American and British soldiers gaped in astonishment at their good fortune. Burial details dug graves for the dead. Combat engineers studied the broken span and began moving up a portable Bailey bridge, which would take less than ten hours to erect. Infantry and armored troops followed the river northeast toward Tébourba. The spoor of a retreating enemy—ration tins, empty ammunition clips, and bloody bandages—littered Highway 50. White concrete kilometer markers, two feet high and capped in red paint, counted down the distance to Tunis. Battalion cooks bustled about in their field kitchens, rummaging for something beyond the dreary daily hash and bully beef to mark the occasion: Thanksgiving Day, 1942.

A new confidence took root. For two weeks Eisenhower had bounced between hope and despair, and he seized on the news from Medjez to rekindle his optimism. “At this moment,” he wrote Patton, “our situation throughout [the] theater appears better than we had calculated it would.” In a message to Beetle Smith, he went even further. “I believe,” he predicted, “the enemy will be forced shortly to abandon either DIZZY or INCUR, so as to concentrate on the other.”

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!