THERE was no roasted peacock for Thanksgiving in John Waters’s 1st Battalion. Tucked once again into the Tine River valley, twenty-five miles west of Tunis, his tank crews settled for a breakfast of greasy mutton stew with hardtack, heated over gasoline-soaked dirt and washed down with thick tea. Their cigarettes long gone, the men rolled dried eucalyptus leaves in toilet paper and pretended they were Chesterfields.
Each soldier habitually watched the sky as he ate, smoked, scribbled a letter, or cleaned his weapon. Luftwaffe pilots now attacked on average once an hour, and the Americans had renamed the Tine glen “Happy Valley.” German troops had reoccupied Djedeïda airfield just hours after Wednesday evening’s raid, and once again Stukas landed and took off with the crisp efficiency of a taxi rank. Their plummeting attacks reminded one reporter of “swallows diving after midges on an evening at home.” Captain Evelyn Waugh of the British Army wrote of the Stuka, “Like all things German, it is very efficient and goes on much too long.”
German Me-109 fighters also lurked in the clouds or slipped along an adjacent valley before suddenly popping over the ridgeline in a terrifying whirlwind of bombs and bullets that bounced like scarlet marbles off the macadam. Officers tweeted their air-attack whistles and every man dove for the nearest slit trench. Virtually all road traffic now moved at night: a cavalcade of burned-out vehicles suggested the hazards of daylight driving. The relentless attacks so infuriated the U.S. troops that they fired at enemy aircraft “with any weapon we had in our hands, including a mortar,” one soldier reported. A gallows humor took hold: “Famous last words: ‘Don’t worry, boys, those are our Spitfires.’” The unofficial motto of Allied forces in Tunisia soon became “Dig or die.”
On the rare occasions when Allied planes dominated the skies, fratricide added to the ground troops’ torment. Word soon spread of an incident near Medjez-el-Bab, where a company of American tank destroyers was helping secure the town on Thanksgiving morning when eleven U.S. P-38 Lightnings flew over. Jubilant at the unexpected help from friendly fighters, the tank destroyer crews raced across the open terrain, waving and smiling. Built with distinctive twin fuselages, the P-38s languidly circled until the sun was behind them, then dropped to fifty feet and executed five textbook strafing runs in three minutes.
The attack all but destroyed the shocked company, which fired not a single retaliatory shot. Five men were killed—including the unit’s only World War I veteran—and sixteen wounded; nearly every vehicle and antitank weapon was destroyed or damaged. One outraged company commander in the 1st Armored Division ordered his men to shoot any airborne object larger than a goose. And another bromide circulated among American soldiers: “If it flies, it dies.” Allied pilots grew so accustomed to being fired upon by their own troops that the formula for recognizing enemy aircraft from the ground, “WEFT”—check the Wings, Engines, Fuselage, Tail—was said to mean “Wrong every fucking time.”
Despite such demoralizing episodes, the contraction of the Axis line permitted General Evelegh’s two brigades to nudge eastward a few miles along the Mediterranean road on the Allied left flank, and down the Medjerda valley from Medjez-el-Bab on the Allied right. But neither brigade lunged forward to rock the Germans back on their heels before they could dig in. In the Allied center, Blade Force remained static. Waters drove forty miles to Béja for consultations with the Blade commander, who told him to keep 1st Battalion in defensive positions along a three-mile stretch of Happy Valley. There were to be no more forays onto the plains of Tunis without orders.
Before dawn on November 26, Waters returned by jeep to his command post in a gritty walled enclosure known as St. Joseph’s Farm, half a mile south of the Tine. A brisk wind tossed the gum trees lining the river; on the far bank, an Arab farmer harrowed his field behind a brace of oxen. The tinkle of collar bells carried across the water. Camouflage netting and haystacks hid the American jeeps and radio antennae in the farm compound.
Blue grease pencil on a crude map showed the disposition of the battalion’s fifty-two surviving Stuart tanks: Rudolph Barlow’s Company C, still reveling in the previous day’s airfield rumble, plugged the eastern entrance to Chouïgui Pass, which angled to the right from Happy Valley two miles downstream of St. Joseph’s Farm; Major William R. Tuck’s Company B was hidden behind a low hill overlooking the Tine, just north of the pass; Major Carl Siglin’s Company A waited on a cactus-covered ridge a mile south of the pass, almost within hailing distance of Waters’s headquarters.
Shortly before noon, a sentry using a pair of French naval binoculars spotted a nimbus of dust several miles downriver. Waters loped up a hill and confirmed the approach of what he called “a beautiful column, preceded by some pathetic Italian reconnaissance armored vehicles.” Three German companies, including armor from the 190th Panzer Battalion, were rolling from Mateur to reinforce Axis troops retreating from Medjez-el-Bab. No sooner had Waters begun counting the enemy tanks than rounds came screaming into St. Joseph’s Farm. Men yanked down the camouflage netting, cranked the engines of their Stuarts, and heaved their bedrolls to the ground. The first tank battle of World War II between German and American forces had begun.
To buy time, Waters ordered three 75mm assault guns to occupy an olive grove along the river road. Mounted on armored half-tracks, they opened with a brisk cannonade of thirty rounds at a thousand yards’ range: the only effect was to raise more dust and provoke a retaliatory volley through the olive branches. On Waters’s order the howitzers hurried back to the farm, masking their retreat with a few smoke rounds. The approaching Mk IV Panzer tanks, Waters soon realized, had a new, long-barreled 75mm gun unknown to Allied intelligence. The new gun’s muzzle velocity of nearly 3,000 feet per second was twice that of American tank guns and had correspondingly greater penetrating power.
From the ridge southeast of the farm, Major Siglin, in a tank named Iron Horse, and eleven other Stuarts from Company A now charged down the hill to the valley floor. Machine-gun tracer rounds lashed the air in crimson flails. The Stuarts’ main guns barked and barked. An Italian armored car was struck, and lurched to a smoky stop.
Then the German panzers answered with a deep roar and a Stuart abruptly lurched up. Less than a hundred yards away, Lieutenant Freeland A. Daubin, Jr., commanding a platoon of three tanks on Company A’s right flank, saw “long searing tongues of orange flame” erupt from every hatch of the shattered tank and “silver rivulets of aluminum” puddle beneath the engine block. Sparks spouted from the barrel as ammunition began to cook. Thick black smoke boiled from the burning rubber tracks and bogey wheels.
Another Stuart was hit, and another. They brewed up like the first. Crewmen tumbled from the hatches, their hair and uniforms brilliant with flame, and they rolled across the dirt and tore away their jackets in burning shreds. Others were trapped in their tanks with fractured limbs, and their cries could be heard above the booming tumult as they burned to death in fire so intense it softened the armor plates. Even near misses from the German guns were devastating. A shell that failed to penetrate the hull still carried enough force—thousands of g’s—to shear off a Stuart’s rivet heads, which then richocheted inside the tank like machine-gun bullets. One tank commander later reported that a glancing shot gouged metal from the side of his turret “like a finger rubbing along a pat of butter, producing a brief rosy glow on the inside of the turret wall as the steel became white hot at the point of impact.”
Wreathed in gray smoke, the panzers closed to within 300 yards. Siglin’s Iron Horse and the other surviving Stuarts scooted up and back, their drivers blinded by smoke and dust as they wrestled their gearshifts and steering levers. Compared to the German tank guns, the Stuart 37mm “snapped like a cap pistol,” a platoon leader observed. “Jerry seemed annoyed.” Lieutenant Daubin on the right flank pumped more than eighteen rounds at a single German Mk IV; the shells simply bounced off the bard plates, which shed “sparks like a power-driven grindstone.” Daubin tap-danced furiously on his driver’s shoulders and shouted instructions to zigzag backward. At less than fifty yards, a panzer round struck the forward hatch and the Stuart’s front end buckled like a tin can hit with a hammer. The blast killed the driver and blinded the bow gunner. Bullets cut down the loader as he climbed from the hatch. Wounded but alive, Daubin tumbled to the ground and crawled into a ditch. His tank continued to roll backward from the battlefield, swallowed in flames.
In ten minutes half of Captain Siglin’s twelve tanks had been destroyed. But now Waters sprang the trap for which Company A had been bait. In their zeal to attack Siglin’s Stuarts, the Germans failed to notice Major Tuck’s Company B hidden behind the ridge just north of the entrance to Chouïgui Pass. As the Axis formation passed, less than a hundred yards away, Tuck and his tanks came pounding over the crest of the hill to fall on the enemy flank and rear. At point-blank range even the squirrel gun’s two-pound shell could punch through the thin armor on panzer engine doors and docks. The enemy tried to wheel around but it was too late. Dozens of American rounds ripped into the German tanks. Seven panzers were destroyed, including a half-dozen of the new Mk IVs.
The Axis survivors fled down the Tine, pursued by yelling, vengeful Americans. German infantry and two surviving tanks took refuge in the walled farm compound that Siglin’s company had unsuccessfully attacked the day before. This time the Americans forced the gates and rampaged through the garrison, shooting up the parapets before retreating back outside the wall. Other Axis troops were hunted down and killed in the vineyards above the river. After dark, the German commander withdrew the remnant of his force eight miles north to Mateur, where he was sacked and court-martialed for retreating without orders. “Our losses,” the German war diary for November 26 noted, “were considerable.”
So, too, were American losses, although Waters had essentially traded tank for tank. This first armored battle had ended in a draw. In the final mêlée at the farm compound, the intrepid Major Siglin had been killed by a tank round through the turret ofIron Horse.His body was returned to St. Joseph’s Farm for burial, a stark refutation of the old lie that the weakest fruit drops to the ground first. Perhaps the greatest tribute came from the British Lancers who arrived after the skirmish to find Happy Valley choked with pillars of black smoke from burning tanks. “The Americans had done well,” the Lancers’ historian later wrote. “A gallant effort.”
Once again the Allies had a sense of momentum. On the left flank, the 36th Brigade broke loose and cantered forward. In the center, Blade Force had cleaned out the Tine valley; Mateur, the key to Bizerte, lay just over the horizon. And on the right flank the race for Tunis would be decided by a series of pitched battles that now began almost within artillery range of the capital.
Ten miles south of Happy Valley, British infantrymen from the 1st Battalion of the East Surreys captured the Medjerda valley town of Tébourba before daylight on Friday, November 27. Tommies found half-cooked eggs and a beefsteak still sizzling in a police station kitchen vacated by enemy pickets. Two weeks earlier, Tébourba’s population had been 4,000; now a quick census tallied half a dozen Arabs, three Italians, a pig, a donkey, and some chickens. Bombs and artillery had smashed every building except for a few squat hovels and the Hôtel de France, facing the central square. Tébourba, the correspondent Drew Middleton reported, was “dusty and empty, as such towns are when war has rolled through them.”
Tucked into an oxbow of the Medjerda, Tébourba lay midway between Medjez-el-Bab and Tunis, within olive groves of beguiling geometric precision. The Surreys posted a company at the stone Medjerda bridge a mile south of town. Another company scrambled up Djebel Maïana, a steep, barren hill a mile to the east and soon renamed Point 186 for its height in meters. From it, the railway, the river, and Highway 50 could be seen running roughly parallel toward Djedeïda and beyond, as could Stukas landing at the reoccupied Luftwaffe airfield less than four miles away. The distant minarets of Tunis were also visible with the naked eye: thin, graceful fingers poking through the Mediterranean haze. Officers trooped up the hill amid the thistles and darting bank swallows to behold a view that “was to remain a haunting memory through many tough days ahead,” an American armor commander later wrote.
The Surreys were spread thin across a seven-mile arc, but euphoria was the order of the day. General Evelegh spoke of entering Tunis in twelve hours. Another British brigade—the 1st Guards—would soon arrive from Algiers with three battalions to fill out Evelegh’s 78th Division, and more American units from the 1st Armored Division were drawing close from Oran. The Surreys grabbed their blankets from trucks in the olive groves and agreed that a short rest was warranted before they pushed on. Visiting officers were guided up the hill for the inspirational vista. Among the tourists was the prime minister’s son, Randoph Churchill, a plumpish toff in a commando uniform who paused long enough to rebuke a soldier digging a foxhole in an olive grove: “My good man, do you realize that by digging a trench in that spot you may be killing a tree well over a thousand years old?”
At 11:30 A.M. the Germans returned—“Tanks! Tanks!” someone yelled—and euphoria vanished with the tourists. Seventeen panzers swarmed through the olive groves on both sides of Point 186 and shot up the Surreys’ trucks. For two hours, fighting raged from ranges of a hundred yards to a few feet. Shell fire and machine-gun bullets chewed through branches and into Tébourba, riddling the high cactus hedges and the few hovels previously spared. Eight British field guns defended the town; one by one they fell silent. So did the smaller 2- and 6-pounders. Welsh gunners danced over the dead to shove another shell into the breech and yank the lanyard. A Tommy promised a mortally wounded comrade: “We’ll be in Tunis eating bloody great oranges in a week.”
The British line buckled, then held, and at two P.M. the firing ebbed. Seven of eight guns had been knocked out, with the sole functioning 25-pounder now manned by a single sergeant. Eight wrecked panzers stood in a semicircle, the bent barrel of one just a few feet from the muzzle of the shattered British gun that had destroyed it. Debris littered the ground, including Chianti bottles and tins of Portuguese sardines blown from the German hulls. Nine surviving panzers lumbered back down the railway line toward Djedeïda, and Wehrmacht tankers who had escaped their burning wrecks darted among the cactus patches, firing pistols over their shoulders like fleeing robbers. Wreckage discomposed the perfect groves, and the shell-riddled corpses of thousand-year-old olive trees lay among those of Surreys killed in action.
There was not a moment to be lost, but a day passed before a counterattack could be organized. As the Surreys buried their dead, two more battalions—one British, one American—pushed forward. Their orders were to seize Djedeïda—the troops now called it “Deedahdeedah”—and punch on to Mateur the same day. Many soldiers skipped breakfast and lunch, believing that an empty digestive tract lessened the chance of contaminating a gut wound. At one P.M. on Saturday, November 28, two companies from the 5th Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment, known as the Northants, climbed onto nineteen tanks from the U.S. 2nd Battalion of the 13th Armored Regiment. A dozen or more Tommies clung precariously to each tank, and two more companies of Northants trailed on foot, 300 yards behind. They set off for Djedeïda along the rail embankment the retreating Germans had followed the day before.
For two miles the Anglo-Americans rolled in an attack wedge across undulating terrain dotted with orchards and gum trees. Larks and red partridges flushed from the underbrush in a whir of wings, but the only sign of human life was the clutch of officers watching with field glasses from Point 186, like spectators at a racetrack. Troops on the right flank almost brushed the Medjerda with their sleeves as the low, white profile of Djedeïda came into view. The American tankers drove General Lees—double the Stuart’s weight, with a 75mm gun in the hull, a 37mm squirrel rifle in the turret, and four machine guns. If bigger and more lethal, the Lee had distinct flaws. At more than ten feet tall “it looked like a damned cathedral coming down the road,” as one tanker complained. The larger gun could traverse just a few degrees—which meant it could fire only in the direction the tank was heading—and was set so low that virtually the entire hull had to be exposed in order to shoot.
Perfectly camouflaged, the German ambushers waited until the lead American platoon—four tanks abreast—drew to within three hundred yards. Then gashes of fire leaped from the hidden revetments. Half a dozen antitank guns rocked the General Lees and the cackle of machine guns swept the landscape. Tommies dove from the tanks; some ran for a shallow ditch fifty yards behind, while others sheltered behind the armor hulls or simply fell dead. Soon five Lees were burning and the rest pulled back, firing at cactus copses and gun flashes. Major Henry E. Gardiner, a thirty-seven-year-old Montanan commanding the tank force, dashed forward in a half-track with a medic to one of the stricken tanks. Opening the rear door, they dragged out one boy—he was “horribly wounded,” Gardiner reported, “having a huge chunk torn from his back and shoulder”—then retreated under searing fire when other wounded men on the battlefield waved them away.
The Northants swung to the right to outflank the enemy through the gum trees by the river. Gusts of German fire stopped them cold, and Stukas drove them to cover. Several tanks sought to force the same flank by following the rail line hugging the north bank of the Medjerda. As Lieutenant Eugene F. Jehlik searched for enemy gun pits from his open hatch, a German shell decapitated him. His headless corpse toppled into the tank onto his horrified crew, and the flanking attack collapsed. The ubiquitous Major Gardiner laid Jehlik behind a hillock, marking the body with a pair of upright shell casings for later retrieval.
There was nothing for it but retreat. The counterattack had failed completely, undone by a lack of surprise, of airpower, of artillery, of tactical nuance. Brits and Yanks “fought in each other’s presence rather than in close coordination,” the 1st Armored Division later concluded. After nightfall, Gardiner led two British medics and several stretcher bearers back onto a battlefield so well illuminated by burning General Lees that ambulances immediately drew German fire. Each tank, an American soldier observed, “burns like twenty haystacks.” The smell of charred flesh enveloped the flaming hulls—medics had yet to learn to approach these crematories from upwind—and across the killing ground, pleas for water mingled with whimpers from men too ruined even for thirst.
At an aid station in Tébourba, the dead were stacked in the shadows, and ranks of stretchers with wounded soldiers awaited evacuation. Burn victims lay with faces raw and black, their eyebrows gone and their skin hanging in curly shreds. Among those Gardiner brought out was Private Roy Bates, a twenty-two-year-old West Virginian who had waited nine hours for rescue in the company of dead crewmates. From a four-inch hole in his right thigh, a surgeon pulled a one-pound shell fragment, which Bates now clutched. “As soon as I get well,” he promised, “I’m going back up there and cram this down somebody’s throat.”
British soldiers, stone deaf from the din and with tears streaking their grimy cheeks, drifted back to a farm west of Point 186 designated as a rallying point for the Northants. “When they reached the farm they stumbled blindly toward the barn and pitched forward on their faces,” Middleton reported. An infantryman tormented by Stukas all afternoon shouted, “Who’ll give sixpence for a Spitfire?”—cynically echoing a Battle of Britain slogan that had encouraged schoolboys to donate pocket money for more fighters. Soldiers listening to the BBC hooted at reports that Allied troops were surging toward Tunis. One listener compared such communiqués to Alice in Wonderland: “a pack of lies but very interesting in spots.” Correspondent A. D. Divine reported seeing on a Roman column the inscription “D.M.S.,” an abbreviated supplication which he translated as “The dead salute the gods.” The sentiment seemed germane.
Toward midnight, a feeble attempt was made to reorganize the Northants for a night attack on Djedeïda, but the order was recognized as witless and soon cancelled. Evelegh’s two brigades had already suffered 580 casualties, exclusive of the Americans killed, wounded, and missing, and he considered it prudent to wait until morning before he tried again.
Regrettably, this decision by the British commander was not relayed to the U.S. 5th Field Artillery Battalion, which hurried toward the battlefield on November 28 with a dozen badly needed long-range howitzers and the conviction that Djedeïda belonged to the Allies. Luftwaffe pilots above Highway 50 dropped flares “so evenly spaced they looked like street lights,” an American officer wrote. A command tent outside Tébourba reminded one battery commander of “an old Frederic Remington painting my father had of the Civil War, all done in black and gray, of tense, hard-faced officers poring over a map.” There, at nine P.M., the gunners learned that German troops still held Djedeïda. But the British artillery chief, under whose command the Yanks now fell, insisted the town would capitulate by midnight. Lieutenant Colonel Warren C. Stout, commander of the 5th Field Artillery, was told to reconnoiter the terrain north of Djedeïda with an eye to placing his guns near the airfield.
At 9:30, Stout drove forward in a small convoy with four staff officers, three battery commanders, and ten enlisted men. His orders were clipped and precise: “Radio silence. Come forward on foot at all halts. This is our first mission under British command.” A rising moon in the east drenched the olive groves with light. In a stand of trees beyond Point 186, a British sentry flagged them down with a warning: “Tank battle at the next turn. Bad show, sir.” Moonlight glinted off Stout’s spectacles and gave his face a greenish hue. He told his men to “move forward according to plan.” A mile farther east the convoy halted again. Several charred General Lees burned south of the road. “It looks as if there’s been a major change in the situation,” a staff officer observed. Stout shook his head with the resignation of a man embracing his fate. “I have my orders,” he said.
Less than a mile from Djedeïda, Stout told his battery commanders to wait in the olive trees while he scouted ahead with a driver and two staff officers. The dim shape of his command car melted into the night. Half a minute later, the distant tree line “erupted in blue-white sheets of flame,” one of the battery commanders, Captain Joseph S. Frelinghuysen, later recalled. Yellow tracers converged on the road from both flanks. The wide-eyed officers heard the crack of an antitank gun, then silence. For forty-five minutes they waited, debating their course in voices pinched with anxiety, unable to raise Stout on the radio and unaware that in Tébourba, moments before the rest of the battalion was to start toward Djedeïda, the British had canceled the move on grounds that “the town was unsafe.”
At midnight, three gallant, foolish captains agreed to press ahead to search for Colonel Stout. Each took a jeep with a driver and a machine-gunner. A fourth officer declined to follow. “I wish you luck,” he said, “but I sure as hell disagree with you.” Creeping into the tree line, the jeeps had nearly reached the wreckage of Stout’s car when German gunners opened up again from both flanks.
“The world exploded in my face,” Captain Frelinghuysen later wrote. “The air reeked with raw gasoline mixed with cordite and TNT.” In less than a minute, the ambush was over. Several dozen German soldiers surrounded the jeeps. To Frelinghuysen, who had miraculously survived without injury, “their deep-flanged helmets and gray faces had a death’s head aspect.”
He and nine others were taken prisoner. Colonel Stout, his driver, and the two staff officers with him lay dead. The 5th Field Artillery had been stripped of its leaders before firing a single shell. The Germans also captured the 1st Armored Division’s radio frequencies, as well as secret recognition signals and documents detailing the American order of battle.
Dawn on November 29 brought a renewed attempt by Evelegh to punch through to Djedeïda. The battered Northants again attacked past Point 186 with a dozen American tanks. German defenders yielded the high ground they had occupied the previous day, but when the American tankers rushed forward, an ambush of antitank guns set four General Lees aflame and scattered the rest. On the left the Northants’ D Company took a ridge and disappeared; nothing more was seen of the unit until a few men strayed back an hour later. “Drag ass outta here,” a tall American gunner hollered. “There’s thirty German tanks comin’ this way.”
Not yet, but the point was taken. Bloody and bent, the Anglo-Americans fell back. The tank battalion had been reduced to twenty-five Lees, less than half strength, and the Northants were as undone as the Surreys had been two days earlier.
This Sunday—precisely three weeks after the TORCH landings began—marked the apogee of the Allied offensive for the next six months. For now, Tunis would come no closer than that mesmerizing white vision on the horizon. The attackers had been too few, too weak, too dispersed, too tardy. Now they were dispossessed of the initiative, which slipped like a turncoat across the battlefield from west to east. Churchill in London declared that Djedeïda had been captured. Soldiers who had failed to do just that guffawed at the BBC again, and the Tunisian theater edged into that inevitable condition of war in which anything might be believed, except what was uttered by persons in authority.
Captain Frelinghuysen and other artillerymen captured in the Djedeïda ambush huddled in the back of a German armored car during the short ride into Tunis. Down the tree-lined avenues they rode, sniffing the rich odors of coal smoke and animal dung. “We had achieved General Eisenhower’s objective,” Frelinghuysen observed dryly, “of reaching Tunis as fast as possible.”
At El Aouina airport, whence the captives were to be flown to prison camps in Italy, the Americans watched as Allied bombers briefly pummeled the field and flew away. At the all-clear signal, German soldiers heaved grappling hooks into a burning Junkers transport plane bombed moments after landing from Italy. Bulldozers dragged the wreckage off the runway. Landings resumed instantly, and Wehrmacht troops clattered down the aircraft ramps before the propellers stopped spinning. Only then did an ambulance pull up to the burning Junkers, and German rescue workers in asbestos suits begin pulling injured men from the wreckage.
Another captured officer turned to Frelinghuysen. “People who fight a war like that,” he said, “will be hard to beat.”
The southern prong of the First Army’s drive on Tunis had been parried, but the northern thrust toward Bizerte still offered hope. After more than a week of little progress, Evelegh’s 36th Brigade abruptly found itself racing eastward through the village of Sedjenane on November 27 and into the wild heath of the coastal uplands. At dawn on the twenty-eighth, the brigade was told to seize a crossroads ten miles west of Mateur by sunset; the order meant covering twenty-six miles on Route 7 at speeds unprecedented if not improvident.
Four thousand British troops gobbled a breakfast of bully beef and quickly broke camp. Led by the 8th Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, they climbed through the morning on a road barely as wide as a single lorry and tortured with hairpin turns. The cork harvest had left black scars around the tree trunks; stacks of curing bark awaited transport to market. Women in magenta robes thrashed their laundry in trickling creeks, while children wearing filthy kaftans rode the rumps of spavined donkeys. Squalls blew in from the Mediterranean, thickening a mud the Argylls likened to “a mixture of putty and glue.” Every few hundred yards, soldiers with shovels climbed down from their personnel carriers to scrape the wheel wells. Sappers exhumed a few mines planted by the retreating Germans. Despite such delays, the column had traveled fifteen miles by midday, pleasing the officers. Dotted with isolated crofts beneath a scudding sky, the countryside resembled the dramatic terrain at Inverness or Fort William. The Highlanders felt much at home.
Shortly before one P.M., the battalion pushed into a valley formed by two imposing hills on either side of Highway 7. On the left, Djebel el Azzag rose 1,300 feet. Olive trees covered the lower flanks, yielding at altitude to grasses through which the wind snaked like a thing alive. Lieutenant Colonel J. G. Mackellar, the Argylls’ commander, christened this slope Green Hill. On the right, south of the road, Djebel el Ajred soared even higher, to 1,800 feet, its summit shingled with bare rock. This, Mackellar called Bald Hill. At the far end of the valley the hamlet of Jefna perched in the crotch between the hills where the narrow-gauge rail line vanished into a tunnel. It was there that British scouts spied a few figures in field gray scurry into foxholes. The hills seemed “no more menacing than those previously passed that day,” an Argyll wrote, and the enemy troops appeared to be a small patrol of the sort seen all week.
Both presumptions were fatally wrong. Jefna and the adjacent hills had been meticulously prepared for battle with sheltered gun pits, interlocking fields of fire, and excellent camouflage. A German account called it “a Tunisian Verdun on a minor scale.” The valley was defended by five Italian antitank guns and the 21st Parachute Engineer Battalion, commanded by Major Rudolf Witzig. Boyish and rosy-cheeked, with eyes set so deep he appeared to be squinting from the cavern of his skull, Witzig had fought on Crete, in Russia, and in France. His greatest exploit, for which Hitler had personally handed him the Knight’s Cross, was the May 1940 assault on Eben Emael, a supposedly impregnable fortress vital to Belgian defenses. With several dozen new explosive devices called shaped charges, Witzig and seventy-seven men landed on the fort in ten gliders, and in twenty minutes routed the garrison of 800 defenders at a cost of twenty-six casualties. The fall of Eben Emael allowed German panzers to surge through a gap in the Belgian line, driving British and French forces toward Dunkirk. Now Witzig and his paratroops waited in ambush at Jefna and on the flanks of both hills.
The Argylls stopped for lunch. At 1:30 P.M., Colonel Mackellar, a chipper man with a dimpled chin, ordered A Company to push into the valley. Because of the stress on speed and on reaching the crossroads by dark, the Argylls sent no pickets up to the heights and ordered no reconnaissance scouts—precautions even the greenest subaltern should have taken. A few machine-gun bursts at suspected enemy positions failed to stir the disciplined Germans. The Argylls’ A Company edged down the draw with eight armored Bren carriers on the road and dismounted infantry stumping through a plowed field on the left. Mackellar followed with his other company commanders.
The column had nearly reached Jefna when, on Witzig’s signal, a solitary antitank round ripped into the lead carrier and the fusillade began. An Italian gun destroyed the last carrier, blocking retreat. Then machine-gun and mortar fire raked the column from west to east and back again, quickly demolishing the rest of the carriers and laying Argylls in bloody windrows. Within ten minutes, A Company was destroyed; only eight men would return to fight another day. Mackellar ordered his Y Company into the valley, where it was immediately pinned down. B Company then surged forward on the left with ambitions of cresting Green Hill, but it, too, was immobilized by fire, as was X Company after brief progress on the skirts of Bald Hill. With his entire battalion imperiled, Mackellar inched back down the road. There, in one of those win-some moments characteristic of British men-at-arms for centuries, his second-in-command whispered cheerfully, “Look, George, partridges!” A covey of seven birds fled into the brush.
Only darkness saved the Argylls from obliteration. Mackellar ordered his companies to rally half a mile back of the western mouth of the valley. Among the 150 casualties were three company commanders, shot respectively in the shoulder, chest, and thigh. A courageous battalion medical officer walked down Highway 7 with his stretcher bearers, calling into the gloom: “Is anyone there?” They brought back eight men, including a driver found in a carrier cab with both feet shot away. “If only I had even one foot, I could drive this damn thing out,” he said, and died, faithful to his stripes.
The brigade regrouped for a day, then tried again with a two-battalion assault at dawn on November 30. Shouting and waving, the Royal West Kents reached the scalded peak of Bald Hill at a cost of 161 casualties, only to be driven off by Witzig’s men, who had been reinforced during the lull. On Green Hill, a commando battalion failed even to reach the crest. Fighting was bitter, and some bayonets were thrust with such ferocity that they could not be pulled out again.
A British brigade of more than four thousand had been stopped by a force one-tenth its size. German casualties totaled fourteen killed, twenty wounded, and a man missing. Another high-water mark could now be chalked on Allied maps. For six months, the Jefna position would remain as impregnable in fact as Eben Emael had been in reputation.
Exhausted Tommies collapsed in their open bivouacs and slept on their arms in the streaming rain, slack-mouthed and undreaming. On Green Hill and Bald Hill, the scent of juniper and damp earth soon soured with rotting bodies; by spring they would be bleached clean, speaking bone to bone. Eight Bren carriers stood rusting on Highway 7 for half a year, spaced as evenly as kilometer posts. The 36th Brigade commander, described as a “gaunt and gangling figure who lacked joviality,” was sent home for being too old and too tired. He was fifty-three. Given the dual setbacks at Djedeïda in the south and Jefna in the north, General Anderson authorized Evelegh to suspend his attack while the First Army tried to gather itself, again.
Word of the aborted offensive reached every Allied unit except those that needed the information most.
In a pretty moment of optimism during the first drive on Djedeïda, Evelegh conceived two flanking attacks intended to distract an enemy believed to be buckling. On the north coast, 500 seaborne British and American commandos would land near Bizerte on various missions of mayhem. South of Tunis, a paratrooper battalion was to overrun an airfield and shield the right wing of the Allied drive into the capital. Both forces set off in buoyant spirits, unaware that the offensive had been canceled and that the brigades they were relying on for reinforcement would be nowhere near.
The commandos departed at last light on November 30 from the mossy fortress at Tabarka, on the coast near the Algerian border. Six British and four American troops, each comprising fifty men—plus eight Algerian donkeys engaged to carry the mortars—filled thirteen landing craft. Recruited mostly from the Iowa and Minnesota men of the 34th Division, the American commandos had trained with their British mentors so long that they smoked Players, drank Twinings, and wore British battle dress like lads from Yorkshire or Chelsea.
“Never give the enemy a chance,” the British Handbook of Irregular Warfare advised. “Every soldier must be a potential gangster.” Major Jack A. Marshall, an American troop leader, later recalled, “Commando duty attracted malcontents. About half of my men had been court-martialed at least once…. Several had been busted more than once.” The requirements for commandos included fitness, intelligence, the ability to swim, and immunity to seasickness.
Unfortunately none of these manly virtues inhered in the donkeys, which after sixty miles across choppy seas in a small boat were in no condition to walk, much less pack mortar tubes up the coastal hills. As the landing craft neared the beach at Sidi el Moudjad, the braying, biting, kicking, vomiting beasts were heaved over the side with commando curses so vivid that even the coxswains blushed. Three donkeys promptly sank; the rest somehow made shore, where they contributed nothing to the expedition.
Sixteen miles west of Bizerte, soaked to the armpits, the commandos headed inland at 3:15 A.M. on December 1. After being assigned sectors on the map in which to operate, the ten troops split up. Within minutes, they discovered what no map had disclosed: the hills were covered with heather so dense that one soldier likened himself to “an ant in a hairbrush.” Only by dropping to all fours and nosing along trails made by wild goats could the men cover even a mile in an hour.
For three days, the commandos blundered along the north coast, waiting for an Allied juggernaut that never arrived. Tipped off by locals to the intruders, German troops reacted with swift fury. Two troops—one British and one American—were ambushed shortly after landing, and only five Americans escaped. A German officer reported to Tunis that the commandos “were decimated in a short fire fight. We took fifty-two prisoners.” So impenetrable was the undergrowth that men simply knelt and fired by earshot, like Civil War soldiers in the Wilderness. Four commando teams raided a Bizerte airfield, destroying gasoline stocks and several parked aircraft; German soldiers newly arrived from Italy, still wearing their fine uniforms and singing as they counterattacked, drove them away. A troop captain who had edged to within four miles of downtown Bizerte was killed on the second afternoon; another was shot a day later. Unable to move his legs, he was carried on a stretcher rigged from two rifles and cotton rope. “Get the men away from this position,” he urged, and then died. His soldiers buried him on a lonely ridge.
The captain’s advice was finally heeded by Lieutenant Colonel Claire Trevor, the expedition commander, “a tall, Dracula-like figure with a bushy mustache” who “treated all men with equal contempt.” The surviving commandos rendezvoused north of Garaet Ichkeul, a shallow salt lake outside Bizerte. “Failure of the British attack from the south left us in confusion,” reported Jack Marshall, the American troop commander. “Radio silence could not be broken.” The men were exhausted and reduced to emergency rations. Soldiers listening to a radio receiver heard the propagandist Axis Sally promise the annihilation of “renegade U.S. and British commandos” in northern Tunisia; more disturbing was her accurate recitation of the names of men captured or killed in the past three days. Colonel Trevor proposed a final night raid on Bizerte, but after heated debate his troop commanders balked. On December 4, the men turned west, walking at night along a track so faint they sometimes had to grope for it with their hands. Two days later the commandos closed within Allied lines. The raid had cost 134 men killed or captured, more than half of them American.
If the commando foray had been “essentially fruitless,” in Major Marshall’s phrase, the paratrooper mission south of Tunis was a foolish, wanton mistake. Five hundred and thirty British paratroopers, dropped from forty-four American transport planes, were to “spread alarm and despondency.” Aerial reconnaissance, however, failed to disclose that the targeted German airfield had been abandoned, and no attempt was made to ring up sympathetic French farmers for intelligence even though the telephone system worked well. Nor could Anderson or Evelegh explain why an entire battalion should be risked on a target that could easily be bombed from the relative safety of 20,000 feet. “The fact of the matter was that the British army had no idea of how or when the new airborne capability should be used,” the mission commander subsequently concluded.
That commander was Lieutenant Colonel John D. Frost, who two years later would win renown at the disastrous “bridge too far” in the Dutch town of Arnhem. “We were not the least worried,” the tall, mustachioed Frost later wrote. “We imagined ourselves being Primus in Carthago, gloriously.”
There was no glory, of course, no triumphant entry into Carthage at the head of the Allied legions. Parachuting twenty-five miles below Tunis on November 29, the battalion then headed northward with a few commandeered donkey carts—“looking like a fucking traveling circus rather than a parachute battalion,” as one soldier later recalled. “There was a medieval look about us,” another man wrote, “with helmets slung at saddle bow, the jerkin-look of our belted smocks, and my Sten slung over my back like a crossbow.” Within hours, German panzers had cornered the paratroopers, who escaped one predicament only to fall into another and then another, each time losing more men to enemy fire. Tormented by thirst, Frost’s men licked split cactus leaves and sucked rainwater from their uniforms as they tacked to the west for three days in search of the Allied line.
Down to less than a hundred rifle rounds among them, the surviving Tommies at noon on December 3 flagged down an American patrol eight miles from Medjez-el-Bab. “Dr. Livingston, I presume?” Frost asked a puzzled Yank. At five P.M., the 180 men still able to stand formed ranks and marched into Medjez. Two hundred and eighty-nine paratroopers were dead, wounded, or missing. More than half the battalion had been destroyed in what would be the last significant airborne mission in the North African campaign, a harrowing, heroic gesture of singular futility.