IN late November, Eisenhower and Clark made a two-day visit to what they stoutly referred to as “the front,” although getting there did not even involve venturing into Tunisia. The expedition—Clark called it “a Boy Scout trip”—began badly on November 28, when the jeep leading the generals’ armored Cadillac struck and killed a twelve-year-old Algerian boy who stepped into traffic. Regrets were issued, and the convoy drove on. Unable to find Anderson’s headquarters before sunset, the group blundered about in the dark until the same star-crossed jeep skidded into a ditch, injuring five soldiers. Eisenhower and Clark spent the night with a bewildered French family in Guelma, forty miles south of Bône, then tracked down Anderson at first light. After several hours of earnest discussions in a farmhouse, the American generals piled back into the Cadillac and returned to Algiers. Miserably ill and wheezing like a man who had been gassed, Eisenhower fell into bed to run the war from his room at the Villa dar el Ouard.
He had much to think about. Foremost was the shocking news from the Toulon naval base, where seventy-seven French ships had been scuttled in one of the greatest acts of self-immolation in military history. In occupying Vichy France on November 11, German forces had stopped short of the base and, for more than two weeks, sought the fleet’s voluntary submission. Darlan at the same time continued to urge his old rival, Admiral Jean de Laborde, to sail his fleet to North Africa and throw in his lot with the Allies. De Laborde temporized until German patience snapped. In the early hours of November 27, SS panzer troops stormed the Toulon base gates. De Laborde ordered signal blinkers on the yardarms to flash the fatal message: “Scuttle! Scuttle! Scuttle!”
French sailors opened the sea cocks, grenaded their boilers, and smashed all radios and navigation instruments. The intruders finally reached the fleet flagship at Jetty No. 6, where an interpreter on the wharf yelled in broken French: “Admiral, my commander asks you to give up your ship intact.” An indignant de Laborde gestured to the deck settling beneath his feet and roared, “The ship is sunk!” Among the vessels lost were three battleships, seven cruisers, and thirty-two destroyers. Eisenhower characteristically saw the silver lining: at least the prize had not fallen into enemy hands.
Of greater concern to the commander-in-chief was the Tunisian front, which he better understood after viewing it, albeit from a distance of 120 miles. Eisenhower concurred in Anderson’s decision to suspend the offensive, but he harbored doubts about his First Army commander. He could look past Anderson’s brooding reticence—that “queer thing, human nature,” in the Scottish general’s phrase. But Anderson’s Caledonian pessimism cut against the American grain and contributed to the mood swings that so buffeted the Allied camp. Anderson “is apparently imbued with the will to win, but blows hot and cold by turns, in his estimates and resulting demands,” Eisenhower wrote Marshall on November 30. Clark had been particularly offended by what he called “the Anderson setup.” American troops, Clark urged, “should be withdrawn from his command and organized in a separate sector of the front under their own commander.” For now, Eisenhower resisted such a blow to Allied unity. He was learning, as he would later write, that “nothing is more difficult in war than to adhere to a single strategic plan” and to resist the “constant temptation to desert the chosen line of action in favor of another one.” To Marshall he added, “Everything is coordinated to the single objective of taking Tunisia. We are devoting everything to Anderson’s support.”
Some things about the war had become clearer, including Allied intelligence miscalculations. Before TORCH, planners had estimated that the Germans would have 515 warplanes available to help defend Tunisia; the actual number exceeded 850, plus nearly 700 transport planes. By contrast, Anglo-Americans in the forward areas had only two small British fields and, at Tébessa, fifty-four U.S. P-38s, of which only forty could actually fly. A new battlefield ditty, sung to the tune of “The White Cliffs of Dover,” included this verse:
There’ll be Stukas over the vale of Tébourba
Tomorrow when I’m having tea.
There’ll be Spitfires after, ten minutes after,
When they’re no bloody use to me.
To Eisenhower’s surprise, American tanks and armored tactics also seemed wanting. U.S. Army doctrine held that tanks ought not fight other tanks, but should leave that job to specialized tank destroyers while armored formations tore through defenses and ripped up the enemy rear. Regulations had prohibited the development of tanks heavier than thirty tons, and until 1941 tank armor was constructed only to stop small-arms fire. Allied armor was simply overmatched. The inconsequential M-3 Stuart caused one American general to muse that “the only way to hurt a Kraut with a 37mm is to catch him and give him an enema with it” the half-track mounted with a 75mm gun was already known as a “Purple Heart box.” American tanks were so flammable they were dubbed Ronsons, after a popular cigarette lighter advertised with the slogan “They light every time.” American armor crews, moreover, knew little about reconnaissance, worked poorly with the infantry, and showed an alarming propensity for blind charges, now known as “rat racing.”
All of these issues required the commander-in-chief’s urgent attention, as soon as he could rise from his sickbed. For the moment, he dictated a wheezy message to Marshall: “My immediate aim is to keep pushing hard, with a first intention of pinning the enemy back in the fortress of Bizerte and confining him so closely that the danger of a breakout or a heavy counter-offensive will be minimized.”
Even as this pretty delusion flew to the office of the Army chief of staff in Washington, the “heavy counter-offensive” Eisenhower intended to forestall was already in motion. On the same day that he and Clark drove east from Algiers, Kesselring flew south from Rome. In Tunis, he upbraided Nehring for excessive caution and for the abandonment of Medjez-el-Bab, which he called “a definite change for the worse.” Axis troops were pouring into Tunisia at a rate of a thousand a day, but aerial reconnaissance on November 29 counted 135 British and American tanks in Tunisia east of Béja. Soon the Allies would be too strong to unseat. After inspecting the Medjerda valley on the afternoon of the twenty-ninth, Kesselring issued orders at 5:45 P.M. that “every foot of ground must be defended to the utmost, even dying for it.” The bridgehead must be widened, he added, to “play for time.”
Nehring gave the task to the newly arrived commander of the 10th Panzer Division, Major General Wolfgang Fischer, who had been training in France after combat duty in Russia. “Attack the enemy troops in the vicinity of Tébourba,” Nehring told Fischer, “and destroy them.” Tanks rolled directly from the Bizerte quays to the front. Mules and horses pulled captured French 75s toward Djedeïda. German 88mm guns used for anti-aircraft protection were stripped from the airfields, to be used as antitank weapons in the west. Fischer scurried about the countryside in an armored car that served as his command post; his staff rode motorcycles. Quickly they fashioned four strike groups with sixty-four tanks and fourteen armored cars for a spoiling attack scheduled to open on December 1. Only thirty German soldiers remained in Tunis. Everything would be risked on this throw of the dice.
From decrypted German messages on Monday, November 30, Anderson learned that the Germans intended to take the offensive. At 4:52 on Tuesday morning, a “special priority signal” notified Allied commanders that the 10th Panzer Division had been ordered to attack Tébourba at dawn. If the warning ever reached frontline troops, it had little effect. At eight A.M., two V-shaped German formations personally led by Fischer slammed into the village of Chouïgui from the north and northeast. Blade Force—including John Waters’s tank battalion—crumpled under the assault and fled south to the Medjerda valley.
“All around us men were running back down the road shouting, ‘Jerry is counterattacking!’” a British private recalled. Fischer followed with the deliberation of a natural killer. From a hill to the west, the journalist A. D. Divine watched the approaching dust clouds—“incandescent, enormous, and beautiful”—and listened as the heavy throb of engines drew closer. Then the panzers lurched over a ridgeline and, “using the folding of the ground, raced from one dead area to another” as they spilled into the river valley.
Fischer’s tanks had closed to within a few hundred yards of Highway 50 west of Tébourba when British artillery opened fire. Standing outside their tanks for a cigarette break, German crews cocked an ear at the tearing-silk sound of incoming shells; unhurried, they stubbed out their butts, remounted, and trundled off in search of defilade. At least for the moment, Fischer’s attack from the north had been checked.
Two German infantry groups attacked Tébourba early Monday afternoon from the east and southeast. The first pushed out of Djedeïda only to be stopped by the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Hampshire Regiment, which had replaced the decimated Northants two days earlier. Fischer vented his disgust at the Wehrmacht infantry in a scathing message to Nehring: “Not the slightest interest existed, no aggressive spirit, no readiness for action…. It is impossible to fight successfully with such troops.” Nor did the attack from the southeast succeed in capturing the stone Medjez bridge at El Bathan. There the East Surreys held their ground, with little help from the American 5th Field Artillery Battalion, whose officers now mostly lived in a German prison camp. Out of ammunition and unable to raise the British artillery commander for orders, the Americans retreated to Medjez-el-Bab without permission rather than risk the capture of their guns.
As darkness fell on December 1, the Allied hold on Tébourba was more precarious than Fischer’s pique implied. German forces invested the town from three sides. If the panzers from the north severed Route 50, three Allied battalions around Tébourba would be cut off. To forestall such a disaster, Evelegh ordered forward 4,000 troops from Combat Command B (CCB) of the 1st Armored Division, the first sizable American force to reach the Tunisian front.
They came running. After two tedious weeks on the road from Oran, the CCB troops were truculent and confident, even though most of the division was still en route from Liverpool. For 700 miles across Algiers and into Tunisia, wherever British traffic controllers had posted road signs warning of soft shoulders—“Keep clear of the verges”—pranksters with black paint altered them to “Keep clear of the virgins.” As reinforcements poured into Medjez-el-Bab, a British staff officer thrust his head into a command vehicle and exclaimed, “Thank God you’ve arrived!” Yes, reinforcements had arrived in strength, including the Americans: Germans and virgins beware.
The CCB commander was Brigadier General Lunsford E. Oliver, a fifty-three-year-old, Nebraska-born, West Point–trained engineer known as Bugs. His brigade—designated a “combat command” as part of an Army organizational brainstorm—comprised six battalions, two of which were already in northeast Tunisia as part of Evelegh’s armored spearhead. Oliver put his headquarters in a red-roofed farmhouse five miles north of Medjez. John Deere machinery stood in the barnyard, and the irrigated fields were full of lemon, almond, and apricot trees. On the morning of December 2, he dispatched the commander of his 13th Armored Regiment, Colonel Paul McD. Robinett, with orders to organize Allied tank units around Tébourba and repulse the German counterattack.
Robinett was delighted to take over. Battlefield command would give him a chance to demonstrate his personal credo: “Always do whatever you can to keep your superior from making a mistake.” At five feet four inches, with a cavalry strut and a cowcatcher chin, he was known alternately as Little Napoleon, Little Caesar, and Robbie. His Army career included membership on the Olympic equestrian team, study at the French cavalry school at Saumur, and service as a strategic planner and intelligence officer for George Marshall. He had long offered a dollar to any soldier who could outshoot him; only one man—a deadeye pistoleer from the 3rd Infantry—had ever collected. A prodigious cusser in his youth, Robinett now prided himself on having “learned to cleanse my mouth.” A forty-eight-year-old bachelor from the Ozark foothills of Missouri, he was arrogant and querulous—“fussy like an old maid,” a 1st Armored officer said. “He annoyed everyone.” Within days he would annoy the British high command, which considered him “all talk and grouse.” The dismissal sold him short: for all his niggling, he was a capable tactician who knew the art of war.
Robinett arrived on a ridgeline four miles west of Tébourba just in time to see the Americans butchered. Before General Fischer could resume his attack, thirty Stuart tanks had barreled forward without artillery support. German pilots saw them coming, and the attack was repulsed with heavy losses at a cost of only four panzers. Then a company of General Lees had been ordered by a battalion commander to make a frontal assault despite the bitter objections of the company commander. Following the rail line two miles west of Tébourba, the tanks charged at midday across open ground without reconnaissance against an enemy of uncertain strength.
Within twenty minutes, eight Lees stood in flames. So efficient were German antitank gunners that panzer crews stood in the open, pulling on their meerschaums without bothering to mount their own tanks. “They appeared to be watching the show,” one lieutenant reported. German 88mm rounds—already known as “demoralizers”—zipped chest-high across the ground, leaving a trail of spinning dust devils. Survivors gathered the wounded and left the dead to burn. Apart from stirring British admiration—“the most intrepid chaps I ever saw,” one Tommy said—the attack had accomplished nothing. Upon hearing the news, Bugs Oliver commented, “The boys stuck their necks into a noose.”
Now the noose was cinched around Tébourba, as Robinett could see from his ridgetop command post. Plumes of oily smoke spiraled from the wrecked Lees a mile below and from the wrecked Stuarts farther north; the Germans would tally Allied thirty-four tanks and six armored cars destroyed that day, and 200 Anglo-Americans captured. Every few minutes another enemy gun jounced down the road from the north, then vanished into a haystack or a farm shed. Robinett counted at least twenty-five panzers, and many more no doubt remained hidden. The roar of new German machine guns—each MG 42 could spit 1,500 rounds a minute—carried up the ridge with a sound one soldier likened to “the hammers of the devil.”
Robinett had seen enough. As John Waters and other commanders reported in, he realized that two of the three American tank battalions had been reduced to half strength. Blade Force apparently no longer existed. With timely, vigorous leadership—Robinett had himself in mind, of course—and the proper massing of armor, the Allies might well have blunted the German attack before it gained momentum. But this infernal rat racing and confused command structure had crippled First Army. Without sufficient airpower, the capture of Tunis remained a pipe dream. Robinett also concluded that Anderson, Evelegh, and now Oliver lingered too far in the rear to control the battlefield.
He scrambled down the hill for the careening drive through the olives back to Medjez. He would recommend an Allied retreat. Tébourba must be abandoned.
Oliver agreed, and so did the British; but not until the next day, after more men had been lost and the task had become harder. Tébourba was held by Lieutenant Colonel James Lee with nearly 700 Hampshires and 500 East Surreys. While American tanks were being roughly handled north of town on December 2, British infantrymen fought for their lives 2,000 yards west of Djedeïda. General Fischer himself led the German infantry, personally capturing fifteen soldiers, whom he drove to a Bizerte prison camp before returning to the front with two fresh companies of panzer grenadiers.
Fischer also deployed the Wehrmacht’s latest secret weapon, sent by Hitler with a guarantee that it would be “decisive” in the Tunisian campaign. No one had ever seen a tank like the Mk VI Tiger: developed as a birthday present for the Führer the previous spring, it was a sixty-ton monster with an 88mm main gun and frontal armor four inches thick. The first Tiger to arrive at Bizerte seized up on the dock; the second broke down on the road west. But four others rumbled to Djedeïda under Captain Nikolai Baron von Nolde, who sported the gym shoes he always wore in combat. Crushing everything in their paths, at mid-morning on December 2 the Tigers and several smaller tanks slammed into the British line.
From a range of twenty yards, a Tiger obliterated a platoon on Colonel Lee’s left flank; one corporal ringed by Germans was last seen “swinging round and spraying them with a tommy gun.” The panzers then wheeled south to rake the battalion headquarters at White Farm, killing six signalmen. On the British right, a company holding the north bank of the Medjerda counterattacked with bayonets, but by midday they, too, had been overrun. Seven men survived. German losses also were heavy. When Nolde stepped into the open to deliver an order to another captain, a British antitank round ripped away both of the baron’s legs in their gym shoes; a sniper’s bullet killed the second German captain. “The situation is very unpleasant,” a Wehrmacht lieutenant wrote in his diary. “A wounded Tommy is lying fifty meters in front of us in the branches and leaves, but it is only possible to bring him in after dark. He has been shot through the lung.” At midnight, the Hampshires pulled back two miles to form another line between the river and Point 186. Surreys anchored both flanks.
If Wednesday had been unpleasant, Thursday was worse. Marking their own lines with white flares, the Germans greeted the day with Stuka attacks and four hours of artillery and mortar fire. By noon they had outflanked and captured Point 186. “Throughout the morning extremely fierce and confused fighting took place,” a Hampshire captain reported. Fischer’s dispatch to Tunis concluded: “Indications are that the enemy is being softened and is beginning to yield.”
A British major, H. W. Le Patourel, led a futile counterattack to retake the hill; last seen in heroic silhouette with a pistol and grenade, he would posthumously win the Victoria Cross only to reappear, wounded but alive, in an Italian prison hospital. At dusk on December 3, two German pincers met at the Tébourba train station to complete their double envelopment. Reduced to forty officers and 200 men, Lee formed a defensive square around the battalion command post. “It was Dunkirk all over again,” a Surrey later recalled.
General Anderson had, in fact, commanded the Surreys at Dunkirk as a brigadier, and perturbations seized him, too. In a message to Evelegh he declared:
Commander is dissatisfied with the position 78th Division is getting itself into. It is not sufficient, indeed it is highly dangerous, for it to allow itself to become hemmed-in in a narrow sector round Tébourba…. To allow the enemy to entrench themselves on the Chouïgui ridge, overlooking Tébourba, would be very nearly fatal.
“More elbow room,” Anderson added, “or he will have us out.”
Too late. At seven P.M. Lee ordered his surviving men to fix bayonets and strip the dead for extra weapons. Disembodied German voices called for surrender—“We will treat you well.” A Hampshire answered: “Bollocks!” Beneath the frosty brilliance of Very flares, the men pivoted to the west and formed a line with their right flank on the rail tracks. “Give it to them when you’re close enough,” Lee advised. Then, firing his Bren, he loosed a great roar—“Charge!”—and they plunged toward Tébourba. Two German panzers and an infantry company cut down the first screaming ranks before yielding to the surge. Tommies swept past the roofless church and into the broken town. Pausing long enough to form ranks they marched down the deserted main street counting cadence—“Left, right, left!”—only to discover that enemy troops had severed Highway 50 to the west. Tébourba had been abandoned at Evelegh’s behest, but once again critical orders had failed to reach those who most needed to know them.
Even Colonel Lee was deflated. He ordered the men to cut their way out in small groups. Into the darkness they slipped in twos and threes. Some drowned in the Medjerda; others crawled along the railbed cinders beneath the vermilion arcs of machine-gun bullets. “Looking back to Tébourba,” an officer later wrote, “we could see many fires and the streaks of tracer as the enemy tried to shoot up what survivors remained.” The once handsome market town was now as ugly as an exit wound.
At noon on December 4, Fischer phoned his division headquarters. “Tébourba taken,” he reported tersely. “Heavy losses inflicted on the enemy. Valuable booty.” An American lieutenant who watched the Tommies drift into Medjez-el-Bab over the next couple of days reported to Robinett: “But for occasional curses and groans of the wounded, they came on in silence—damn well-trained.” A reporter for The Times of London found the survivors “savagely angry with the enemy.” “One night in Glasgow,” a soldier proposed, “and then I’ll go back to the bastards.”
At a field hospital in the rear, dying men arrived so pale that the dirt on their foreheads stood out as vividly as Lenten ashes. Surgeons worked without pause through the night and the next day, donating their own blood for transfusions when stocks ran low. Henry Gardiner, the American major whose tankers had been fighting around Tébourba for a week, arrived with an arm full of shrapnel from the latest battle. He found a foul-smelling ward tent “illuminated by candlelight. The shadows were long and grotesque. Two men in adjoining cots were completely swathed in bandages except for one small hole” for their mouths. “From time to time they would feebly paw the air.” One soldier borrowed a long cigarette holder, “and this enabled him to smoke, since the cigarette was kept just beyond the range of the gauze.”
Several miles to the east, a German doctor called, “Next up!” from his table, then lopped off the leg of another ruined boy. A British prisoner working in an Axis surgery later described how “with delicate respect they placed the amputated limb among the severed members in the darkest corner.”
The East Surreys had departed England six weeks earlier with 793 men; they returned to Medjez with 343. The Hampshires, even more undone, counted 194 survivors out of 689. Yet another foreign field would remain forever England. Among the casualties was Colonel Lee, who had been wounded and captured in the final debacle. Of 74 British field guns around Tébourba, 53 were lost. Fischer’s tally of Allied losses during the three-day fight included 55 tanks, 300 other vehicles, and more than 1,000 prisoners. Reporter Philip Jordan wrote, “There is an air of uncertainty up here at advance H.Q. and staff officers half-laughingly—but only half—are wondering if we are going to be surrounded…. How rapidly the atmosphere changes.”
Colonel Robinett, insufferably eager as always to preserve his superiors from their own folly, took it upon himself to inform George Marshall directly of Allied failings. Sitting in his command post on the heights west of Tébourba, he wrote the chief a confidential letter that would eventually find its way to an angry Eisenhower:
The coordination of tank attacks with infantry and air attacks has been perfect on the German side. On our own it is yet to be achieved…. Men cannot stand the mental and physical strain of constant aerial bombings without feeling that all possible is being done to beat back the enemy air effort…. They know what they see, and at present there is little of our air to be seen.
Yet for all his bumptious gall, Robinett possessed an unsparing analytical mind. He recognized that he himself was culpable in the rout, having failed to organize a night counterattack that might have saved more Surreys, Hampshires, and Americans. He “had not foreseen the possibility and had no plan for such a contingency,” he later admitted. “Frankly, I was too new at the game.”
“My dear C-in-C,” Anderson wrote Eisenhower on December 5, “the fighting on 3 December resulted in a nasty setback for us.” With the thin satisfaction of a pessimist whose apprehensions have been confirmed, Sunshine catalogued his army’s infirmities: “heavy dive bombing attacks” “faulty use of the field artillery” “faulty handling of the U.S. medium tanks.”
“There was abroad a sense of careless dash and a failure to adopt proper action and tactics when faced by a serious assault by tanks, until too late,” he added. “The affair at Chouïgui the day before with Blade Force should have shown the red light, but evidently did not do so.” Some battalions now mustered fewer than 350 men, while the “enemy has already [reinforced] and can continue to reinforce far more rapidly than I can.” Logistics remained spotty, with a “collection of wheezy French lorries” hauling supplies. In consequence the offensive must again be suspended for at least four days.
“I am very sorry,” Anderson concluded, “but there it is.”
Fischer and his 10th Panzer Division had no intention of waiting. Sensing a weak link in CCB, the Germans attacked along a one-mile front at seven o’clock on the cool, clear morning of December 6. Two waves of Stukas hammered the 1st Battalion of the 6th Armored Infantry Regiment, which had dug in three miles southeast of Tébourba, below the crest of Djebel el Guessa. Wehrmacht paratroopers worked up a saddle to gain the ridgeline, and in twenty-five minutes the American left flank had been turned. A confused, terrified .50-caliber gunner turned his weapon against one of his own platoons, and dead soldiers soon lay like sprats in a tin; a single man survived. Then panzers struck the American right, crushing soldiers in their foxholes and mortally wounding a company commander. He would die in a German ambulance and be buried in a shallow grave on the road to Tunis.
As the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel William B. Kern, struggled to save his unit from extermination, Battery C of the 27th Armored Field Artillery Battalion opened fire on twenty panzers at a range of just under a mile. This sally distracted the Germans, who now slewed on the gunners. Giving ground slowly, the artillerymen retreated into a rocky amphitheater with their half-track-mounted howitzers. The panzers came on, each tank trailed by a field-gray cloud of infantrymen on foot or motorcycle. At 10:50 A.M. the battery commander, Captain William H. Harrison, first radioed for help. His frantic pleas ended at 11:20 with this transmission:
For Christ’s sake, isn’t there anything besides C Battery in this First Armored Division? We’re putting up a helluva fight, but we can’t hold out all day. Please, please send help!
Help had been ordered forward by General Oliver at eight A.M., but for unexplained reasons the 2nd Battalion of the 13th Armored Regiment failed to get word. Not until one P.M. did Lieutenant Colonel Hyman Bruss and his tanks cover the six miles along the Medjerda to Djebel el Guessa. Compounding tardiness with tomfoolery, Bruss split his force, conducted no reconnaissance, and ordered the tanks to “charge up the valley as quickly as possible.” Reinforced with five new Shermans from Patton’s units in Morocco, the General Lees arrived at flank speed with no inkling of where Colonel Kern’s men were, much less the enemy. German gunners waited until the Shermans, five abreast, closed to a quarter mile.
Fifteen minutes later every Sherman and most of the General Lees stood in flames. “Shells were cutting through the wheat on either side of us,” Lieutenant Philip G. Walker later wrote. “I walked from tank to tank trying to make them fire and retire. They seemed petrified. I cursed and insulted, climbing on tanks and shouting.” An explosion killed a soldier in the turret beneath Walker’s feet. Shell fragments peppered his arm, eyelid, and right temple. “I was swearing and crying from frustration and pain. Took a shot of morphine and felt better.”
More American tanks blundered into the kill zone after giving German gunners time to reposition and reload. The disaster was complete. Wearing full-length sandwich boards painted with huge red crosses, Wehrmacht medics traipsed from hulk to flaming hulk, salvaging a few wounded. In the confusion, Kern’s battalion had escaped destruction, but still suffered 219 casualties. All five Battery C howitzers were destroyed, the last at ranges of twenty yards or less, with thirty-nine casualties among the gunners including the valiant and now captured Captain Harrison. Eighteen tanks were lost. On Robinett’s recommendation, Oliver sacked Colonel Bruss. His crippled battalion would go to Henry Gardiner, as soon as the major returned from the hospital.
Rain began that night and fell incessantly for three days. Cold, sodden soldiers wondered, as their fathers had in the Great War, whether the Germans could make it rain whenever they pleased. Although Fischer’s troops had also been stung, the galling defeat at Djebel el Guessa infected First Army with a despondency that spread at viral speed. Now known as Stuka Valley, the Medjerda glen seemed sinister, even demonic. German psychological operations spooked the men further, especially the tactic of firing all small arms at dusk and lofting flare after flare as if in prelude to an attack. The “total effect was in fact terrifying and this was a factor in the combat,” the CCB intelligence officer noted.
Latrine rumors became virulent: the Germans had shot prisoners, used poison gas, enlisted Arab cannibals. More and more Arab looters and collaborators were shot or had their houses blown up by Allied vigilantes; rarely was there a legal process that did credit to Anglo-American jurisprudence. French troops hanged Arab bodies from balcony rails in Béja as a crude warning, and commandos burned an entire Arab village in retaliation for the alleged shooting of a French forester. Anxious soldiers exchanged stories of things they had seen, or at least heard about: of a bushwhacked sentry found with his eyeballs strung like beads; of a British soldier who had dared chat up an Arab woman and was found sliced into fleshy strips laid out to spell “Beware” of a jeep driver who, decapitated by an 88mm shell, drove for another thirty feet, fifty feet, half a mile, clutching the steering wheel in a death grip. German panzers were reported “like an escaping murderer, at a score of points at once,” one correspondent wrote. Infiltrating enemy tank crews were said to be master sculptors, capable of disguising a Mk IV as a Sherman with a few handfuls of mud. Soldiers collected good-luck amulets—shrapnel was especially popular, the view being that like repelled like—and every pocket became a potential reliquary.
“In an attack half the men on a firing line are in terror and the other half are unnerved,” the British theorist J.F.C. Fuller had written. Some First Army troops confused smoke shells with billowing enemy parachutes; others betrayed their positions by trying to shoot down German flares. Disquiet seeped into the upper ranks as well. Evelegh had pulled back British and American troops another four miles closer to Medjez-el-Bab, but Oliver protested daily that CCB was too vulnerable. Anderson was ready to quit Stuka Valley altogether. He floated the idea in a “most secret” message to Eisenhower on December 8.
“Reason is necessity to rest and refit troops and make them ready to resume offensive,” Anderson wrote. “Present positions are too exposed and widespread.” Building a new line fifteen miles west of Medjez could “prove to be the wisest course,” he suggested, although “I regret giving up Medjez-el-Bab.” In a subsequent note late that night, Anderson told Eisenhower, “There are limits to human endurance.” Lest the commander-in-chief miss the point, Anderson added in another message on December 9: “The spirit is willing but the flesh has reached its limit.”
Even before Eisenhower’s reply came back from Algiers, CCB was told to prepare to retreat toward Béja under Operation HAIRSPRING. Thirty minutes later, the retreat was canceled. Juin and Barré had learned of the British plan. The French generals were horrified. Did General Anderson not know the strategic value of Medjez? Had he not heard the wisdom of Hannibal—that Medjez was the key to the door? Throwing his left-handed salute, Juin stalked off to phone Giraud, who then hectored Eisenhower into countermanding the order.
A new plan emerged: the British 1st Guards Brigade would move up to occupy Medjez, while CCB and Evelegh’s troops pulled back just west of the town to be, in Anderson’s phrase, “reinforced, rested, reclothed, and refitted.” The move was scheduled for the night of December 10.
Omens and auguries haunted the valley. Villagers with a few pathetic possessions bundled on their backs fled into the hills from farm hamlets near Djebel el Guessa. A drunk German deserter blundered into Allied lines with tales of grenadiers massing in the hollows. The rain stopped, but standing water drowned the trails. Every field became a quagmire. The air was heavy and unstirring.
At eight A.M. on December 10, General Oliver went forward to reconnoiter. Soon afterward, French pickets came pelting through the lines bellowing, “Tank Boche! Tank Boche!” Two panzer columns with an estimated total of sixty tanks advanced on either side of the Medjerda. By noon the enemy on Route 50 had been stopped by American tanks and a dense minefield near the village of Bordj Toum, ten miles downriver from Medjez-el-Bab. The parallel force on the south side of the river clumped through the mud to attack Colonel Kern’s 1st Battalion, now retrenched midway between Tébourba and Medjez on the craggy heights of Djebel Bou Aoukaz, known as the Bou. Kern held, and the Bou remained in American hands.
But a greater threat loomed from the southeast. Fischer dispatched his 7th Panzer Regiment with artillery and thirty tanks on a bold flanking sweep to take Medjez from the rear. Through Massicault they rolled, Tigers among them, smashing ten of John Waters’s remaining Stuarts and half-tracks. Waters retreated with his remnants through Medjez-el-Bab and across the Bailey bridge spanning the Medjerda. By early afternoon the enemy was at the gates, two miles from town, with a chance to bag the whole of Combat Command B. Only an intrepid French force of zouaves, tirailleurs, and artillerymen held them at bay.
Holding a poor map in his lap and a capricious radio microphone in his left hand, Robinett sat in a farmhouse three miles southwest of Medjez, trying to piece together a battle he could neither see nor hear. He had been unable to reach Oliver, and repeated pleas to Evelegh’s headquarters for reinforcement by American Shermans went unanswered. Medjez appeared doomed, but at 1:30 P.M. Robinett ordered the 1st Battalion of his 13th Armored Regiment to attack due south from the Bou in an effort to catch the flanking Germans from behind.
It nearly worked. A company of Stuarts fell on seven surprised enemy armored scout cars and destroyed them with a smoking broadside at fifty yards. But then the panzers appeared—“the whole top of the high ground was alive with them,” an American captain remarked—and the counterblow stopped in mid-career. Squirrel-gun rounds bounced off the panzer glacis as usual, and the wider German tracks provided more purchase in the mud. Outmaneuvered and outgunned, American commanders were reduced to aiming at the panzers’ gun sights in a futile effort to blind them.
Nineteen Stuarts were lost, their crewmen machine-gunned as they climbed out of their stricken tanks. Two dozen surviving Yanks hid in a ravine, then scuttled north to swim the Medjerda. At 4:30 P.M., Robinett ordered all remaining American troops around the Bou to cross the one-lane bridge at Bordj Toum after dark and pull back to Medjez on Highway 50.
Moments after this order went out, Oliver returned to the command post, muddy and exhausted from a harrowing day spent dodging German patrols. Collapsing into a chair, he listened in anguish to Robinett’s account of 1st Battalion’s counterattack. His eyes brimmed with tears. “My God, why did you attack with the light tanks?” Oliver said. “You have ruined me!”
Robinett pulled himself to his full, unimposing height, jaw thrust out, gaze level and unblinking. “No, General,” he answered. “I have saved you.”
He had indeed, although salvation was ephemeral on the night of December 10. Medjez had been preserved for the moment, but more than three battalions of American troops remained at risk. Oliver chose not to venture down the valley again; bucking the traffic that would soon jam the road from Bordj Toum to Medjez seemed more than his frayed nerves could handle. Instead, the evacuation was left to the senior officer on the Bou, a forty-three-year-old West Pointer from Ohio, Lieutenant Colonel John R. McGinness. Oliver lay down on a straw mat pulled from an olive press and dozed off.
Rain was falling again, heavy as birdshot, as the long columns debouched from the ravines around the Bou. Blackout lights—cat’s-eye slits—gleamed from the trucks and half-tracks inching toward the river and the macadam highway that would carry them to safety. A flare arced across the sky a mile to the northeast, hissing for half a minute before winking out. Somewhere in the dark near the Bordj Toum rail station, 300 German infantrymen and two dozen panzers had bivouacked after a day of brutal combat so close that artillery gunners fought with rifles as infantrymen. Somewhere also in the dark two platoons of British soldiers waited for the Americans; Evelegh had first pledged to hold the bridge until at least 10:30 P.M., then, under pleas from CCB, had extended the deadline to four A.M. and eventually to dawn.
A CCB infantry platoon crossed the narrow Bordj Toum bridge, followed by a company of General Lees. Tank tracks creaked across the plank deck only inches from the edge on both sides. As the Lees swung onto Highway 50, German voices sang out near the rail station. A few yellow muzzle flashes stabbed the darkness, followed by a machine gun’s stutter. An officer ordered his infantrymen back toward the bridge for better cover until the gunfire could be sorted out.
But panic had been building for a week, fed by stories of headless drivers and eyeballs on strings. Another sputtering flare projected—as Robinett later observed—“new terrors into the minds of the weak.” If minds were weak, legs remained strong: the cold light revealed silhouetted men sprinting back across the bridge, their eyes glazed with fear. “The Krauts! The Krauts!” Fear raced down the column like a lit fuze. A panting officer splashed through the mud to Colonel McGinness’s jeep. His words tumbled out: Germans had broken through; no Brits could be seen; panzers were said to block the bridge already.
A casual stroll to the front of the column would have disproved it all. No breakthrough had occurred. The British, while modest in strength, were standing their ground not far from the bridge. The panzers were wrecks, knocked out in earlier fighting. The shots had been inconsequential.
But McGinness was not the man to vanquish bogeys. Ignoring reasoned pleas from his subordinates and taking counsel only of his fears, he issued the fateful order: “Turn the column around.” The battalions would return to Medjez on an unpaved goat path along the south bank of the river.
The first few vehicles at the column’s tail, now its head, managed to reverse course and plow west through bumper-deep mud. But each passing set of wheels and armored tracks churned the mire more. After a few hundred yards, vehicles began to bog down—first the tanks, then the half-tracks and guns and jeeps and trucks. Swearing, sweating soldiers stuffed bedrolls and ration cases beneath the wheels and tracks. They hacked at the mud with shovels and picks until their hands bled, while drivers gunned the engines and groped for traction in the muck. Clutches burned out. Axles and transmission rods broke. Tracks slipped from their bogey wheels. Gas tanks ran dry.
At 1:30 A.M. an aide shook Oliver awake. Smelling faintly of olive residue, the general read with disbelief the radio transmission from McGinness. The column had mired. Most vehicles were stuck, and McGinness had “ordered their abandonment and destruction.” Oliver tried to raise the column by radio. No one answered.
The sopping dawn revealed a spectral, half-buried procession strung out for three miles along the swollen Medjerda. Thermite grenades had melted through engine blocks, leaving silver puddles of metal congealing in the mud. A few soldiers, ignoring the abandon-ship order, continued to rock their trucks back and forth in a stubborn search for grip. Some troops had tossed away their rifles and wandered into a boggy field; like dead men they slept where they fell, swaddled in mud. Hundreds of others staggered westward eight miles into Medjez, too weary even to watch for Stukas. Officers organized foraging parties to gather straw for the shivering troops.
McGinness stumbled in at noon, spattered and bedraggled. Although Patton, upon hearing of the debacle, proposed a firing squad, Oliver simply sacked him—making McGinness the second battalion commander from the 13th Armored Regiment relieved in three days. “I never felt so bad in my life,” Oliver said. Eisenhower also considered firing Oliver, but would instead send him home for promotion and eventual division command. Robinett, promoted to brigadier general, soon succeeded him as CCB commander.
He would take over a ghost unit. The miring at Bordj Toum had cost eighteen tanks, forty-one guns, and 132 half-tracks and wheeled vehicles. Buried to the headlights, most of the carcasses were too deep for even the Germans to salvage. With more disbelief than anger, Anderson observed, “It was a crippling loss.” In two weeks at the front, CCB had lost three-quarters of its tanks and howitzers, and comparable portions of half-tracks and trucks. Never having anticipated such grievous losses—especially not the destruction of 124 tanks and the complete wearing out of the rest—the Americans had no system to provide quick replacements. Many dismounted armor crews were reduced to traffic duty for weeks; one battalion had six tanks left. Two days after Bordj Toum, Anderson declared CCB no longer combat worthy.
It was humiliating, and nearly past imagining for the cocky young men who had rolled out of Oran and Algiers only a month before. A. D. Divine, the South African–born journalist who had spent many weeks with the Americans, shrewdly assessed their shortcomings:
The faults were clear enough: the greatest of them was an initial lack of appreciation of the possibilities of the enemy; a certain indiscipline of mind; a tendency towards exaggeration…. Men used the skyline because the view was better from there. Men neglected camouflage because it might smack of overanxiety. Men failed to dig slit trenches because the work was hard.
Other deficiencies could hardly be blamed on green soldiers. Virtually no bazookas had been shipped to Tunisia; Patton had plenty in Morocco, a thousand miles from the front, where he was testing their penetrating power against live goats placed in a light tank. Another three weeks would pass before ordnance officers discovered that American tank crews had gone into combat with training ammunition rather than more explosive, more lethal armor-piercing rounds. And not only had German tanks, tactics, and airpower proved superior, so too had the enemy’s field glasses, tank sights, smokeless powder, and machine guns.
Even more important, little cohesion obtained among Allied formations or even between American units. They had fought not as an army, but as a disjointed confederation. Neither leaders nor the led had yet proven themselves, despite flashes of competence and many acts of valor. British command had been as deficient as American command. In a crucial phase of the campaign, when every rifle squad counted—infantrymen were particularly valuable in seizing hilly redoubts and holding passes—whole battalions had been thrown away, beginning with those in Operations RESERVIST, TERMINAL, and VILLAIN, and extending through the destruction of the Argylls, the Hampshires, the Surreys, the commandos, Frost’s paratroopers, and now McGinness’s 2nd Battalion, which lost all but ten vehicles.
Eisenhower again chose to be optimistic. “We are having our troubles; so is the enemy,” he wrote in a note to himself on December 10. “If we can make up our minds to endure more and go farther and work harder than he does…we can certainly win.” History would reveal the correctness of his appraisal, but he could hardly foresee the pain implicit in the phrase “endure more and go farther.” A month of fighting had ended, the first in what would be thirty months of pitched battle between the Allies and the Axis. All the players were now onstage. Although the combat in these initial weeks had been small scale—companies and battalions hurled against other companies and battalions—soon the bloody epic would embroil regiments, divisions, corps, and, eventually, armies.
There was yet time for the Allies to regroup, to punch through, to seize the whole of the African shore and avoid the deadlock of World War I trench warfare. But that time was short.