Military history

6. A COUNTRY OF DEFILES

Longstop

FOR eleven days in mid-December, both sides licked their wounds along the Medjerda valley. War clawed out a no-man’s-land between Medjez-el-Bab and Bordj Toum, seven miles wide and crowded with shades. Patrols went out and patrols came back, or failed to. Sniper bullets whizzed about like small, vexing birds. Shells rustled overhead, and smoke drifted from the gun muzzles in stately gray hoops above poplar groves now smashed to splinters. Concussion ghosts rippled the pup tents, like pebbles in a pond. Anything that moved drew fire, but Arab farmers still scratched their fields with ancient plows, veering around the shell craters; sentries squinted from their dugouts and debated whether the furrows were shaped like an arrow to signal enemy pilots. “Hovering there on that borderland that divided the two hostile armies,” a correspondent later wrote, “was like standing on a window ledge of a high building waiting to commit suicide.”

Medjez was wrecked, but German guns continued to make the rubble dance—the British called it “their shelling programme.” Whenever a dud landed, French soldiers murmured, “Fabriqué à Paris!” in tribute to saboteurs toiling among the forced laborers at home. Life moved underground. A Grenadier Guard battalion occupied the shaft of an abandoned lead mine, and “it was only after some days that they discovered a complete family of Arabs living in darkness at the far end.” Foxholes and trenches—“coffin slits,” to the Tommies—scarred the landscape like pox. British sappers proudly turned the eastern approaches to Medjez into “one bloody great mine.”

By December, 180,000 American troops had arrived in northwest Africa. Yet fewer than 12,000 of them could be found at the Tunisian front, plus 20,000 British and 30,000 ill-equipped French (who now counted as 7,000 in the Allied calculus). Together they lived at the sharp end. Blackout rules for the long winter nights meant everyone turned in at six P.M. and rose at four A.M. Canned stew and biscuits were “donkey dung” and “armor plating.” Soldiers softened their hardtack by dipping it into ersatz coffee brewed from pulverized dates, with the color and taste of ink. GI toilet paper was rough-hewn enough to be used for double-sided stationery, and troops caught up on their correspondence even as they battled ferocious dysentery.

“No shave, no bath, very little food, no beds, no liquor, no women, no fun, no nothing,” an American soldier wrote his sister. A platoon leader in the 18th Infantry Regiment apologized for not sending Christmas presents; he had spent his last $50 on eyeglasses for nine of his men after Army stocks ran short. “Thanks for giving me the grandest gifts of all,” added Lieutenant Robert M. Mullen, “faith and love.” In three months he would be dead. Mail finally arrived for some troops—many had received nothing for two months or more—and Christmas packages often implied a certain homefront incomprehension of life in the combat zone: bathrobes, slippers, and phonograph records were particularly popular.

A redhead in a knit cap, slender as a thread at 100 pounds and given to drink and melancholy, showed up with a typewriter to educate America. Ernest Taylor Pyle had recently become a war correspondent after writing more than 2 million words as a roving reporter during the Depression. From Tunisia he wrote:

There are none of the little things that make life normal back home. There are no chairs, lights, floors, or tables. There isn’t any place to set anything, or any store to buy things. There are no newspapers, milk, beds, sheets, radiators, beer, ice cream, or hot water. A man just sort of exists…. The velvet is all gone from living.

The lull allowed Brits and Yanks to take each others’ measure in circumstances other than abject bloodletting. Scruffy GIs noticed that no matter how foul the weather, the Tommies shaved every morning, religiously; in their trousers, collarless shirts, and broad suspenders, they reminded one American officer of “old-fashioned workingmen cleaning up on a Saturday night.” Every British officers’ mess seemed to have a Christmas goose fund, to which each man contributed 200 francs and extensive advice. Yanks soon adopted the expression “Good show!”—although always uttered sardonically. Because British sutlers provided many staples for both armies, the Americans at times fed on treacle pudding and oxtail stew with jointed bones. Steak-and-kidney pie in British “compo” rations inspired a field kitchen ditty:

We’ve eaten British compo,

We like the meat the best,

We know a cow has kidney,

But where in hell’s the rest?

Across the killing fields, the Germans and Italians also took stock. Axis troop strength in the Tunisian bridgehead had reached 56,000, with 160 tanks, roughly equal to the Allies but with the added benefit of Luftwaffe air superiority and good defensive terrain. From the Mediterranean coast twenty miles west of Bizerte, the line extended just east of Medjez-el-Bab and then down the entire length of Tunisia. German soldiers held the northern sector, with the 10th Panzer Division shielding Tunis, and the Italian Superga Division held the south. Nowhere was the enclave deeper than forty miles, and no shoulder-to-shoulder manning of such a long front would have been possible even if Nehring had been so inclined.

General Nehring’s success in blunting the Allied offensive failed to atone for the abandonment of Medjez and his persistent pessimism. Without warning, his replacement had arrived on December 8: Colonel-General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim, whom Hitler whisked from a corps command in Russia to take over the newly formed Fifth Panzer Army in Tunis. Nehring flew home. With a bird of prey’s beaked nose and stern countenance, the fifty-three-year-old Arnim issued from a Prussian family that had been producing officers for the Fatherland since the fourteenth century. Having compiled a distinguished record in both the Great War and this one, he gave Kesselring a diligent, quick-thinking field commander. On December 13, Arnim announced that since Allied forces around Tébourba had been obliterated, the Fifth Panzer Army would go over to the defensive to await the next blow.

Defense meant fortifications, and fortifications required laborers. Sixty thousand Jews served nicely. Mostly artisans and tradesmen, Tunisian Jews were a tiny minority with a long pedigree; on the island of Djerba—said to be the original of Homer’s Land of the Lotus Eaters—tradition held that the small Jewish community had arrived after the sack of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II in 586 B.C. Under a Vichy-inspired statute, Tunisian Jews had been banned from teaching, banking, and other professions since 1940. When the Axis invaded, life soured even more.

On November 23, German troops had arrested a number of Jews in Tunis, including the president of the Council of the Jewish Community. On December 9, the city’s grand rabbi was ordered to provide overnight a list of 2,000 young Jews for a labor corps; when the rabbi requested a delay, the quota was increased to 3,000. All were to appear with tools. After only 120 workers showed up, Axis troops rampaged through the streets and synagogues in various Jewish quarters, seizing hostages. A secret OSS assessment reported: “Equipped with tools and food by the Jewish community, 3,600 laborers were finally drafted.” Hundreds worked under Allied bombardment in Bizerte and at the Tunis airfield. Hundreds more dug defensive trenches for Major Witzig near Green and Bald Hills, and for General Fischer’s men west of Tébourba. Others were press-ganged to tend the horses and mules that hauled ammunition.

In mid-December, the Council of the Jewish Community was told that as “allies of the Anglo-Saxons,” Jews were expected to provide 20 million francs to cover bomb damage in Tunis. A rapacious Tunisian bank loaned the money at 8 percent interest, taking Jewish land and property as collateral. The Germans also began plundering Jewish gold, jewelry, and bank deposits. Meanwhile, the clang of picks and shovels could be heard in the rugged hills above the Medjerda valley.

Prodded by Eisenhower, Anderson sent word to Algiers that the Allied offensive would resume on the night of December 23–24. By then, enough supplies could be stockpiled at the Tunisian railhead for a week of hard fighting, and a full moon would light the way. Evelegh’s 78th Division, with American help, would secure the left flank on the high ground above the Medjerda, while the British 6th Armoured Division, just arrived from Britain, blasted through to Tunis on the southern lip of the Medjerda valley.

“This means a most un-Christian Christmas, but perhaps this will be forgiven in view of all the facts,” Anderson told the commander-in-chief. He agreed with Eisenhower that the Allies could not allow “passive acceptance of a strong Hun bridgehead,” although he put the odds of seizing Tunis at “not more than 50–50, I think. But it is also certainly not an impossible task. Far from it. With good planning and execution, stout hearts and fair weather, we will do our utmost to gain success. If we deserve God’s help, we will gain it.”

At the same time, Anderson urged Eisenhower to keep his eye fixed on Tunis. Several schemes had floated from Allied Forces Headquarters for operations in southern Tunisia; none would contribute to the paramount objective of capturing the capital and severing the Axis lifeline to Italy. First Army was already “living hand to mouth, with reserves temporarily exhausted,” Anderson warned, and he planned to throw 80 percent of his strength into the Christmas Eve offensive. “The essence of any plan,” he advised Eisenhower, “must be to concentrate maximum strength at the chosen point of attack.”

Before launching his offensive, Anderson first had to capture an annoying German outpost on an annoying Tunisian hill six miles down the Medjerda valley from Medjez-el-Bab. Djebel el Ahmera had been seized by Fischer’s men after the debacle at Bordj Toum bridge. Two miles long and 800 feet high, the hogback ridge appeared to have been welded at a right angle onto the prevailing hill mass: it jutted into the valley within a few hundred yards of the river, creating a bottleneck at the gap where Highway 50 and the rail line to Tunis passed. The British named the hill Longstop, a cricket term.

Longstop offered omniscience. From its crest, nothing in the Medjerda valley could move undetected—not a rabbit, not a man, certainly not a tank. Scented with thyme, covered with heather and scrub juniper, the hill had a dark and forbidding mien even in sunlight. It was so rocky as to seem bony, with powdery soil that covered a climber as flour covers a miller. Although modest in height, Longstop was intricately complex, with a thousand secret folds and dips. Olive groves bearded the lower flanks; a few gum trees stood sentinel on the crest. One British officer considered the terrain “so foul, broken, blasted, and inhospitable that the Devil himself was surely the principal agent in its creation.” Longstop exemplified why another officer called Tunisia “a country of defiles.”

Had the British spent less time execrating the hill and more time studying it, subsequent events might have been different. For two critical errors preceded the attack by the 2nd Battalion of the Coldstream Guards. First, Allied intelligence believed the hill was held by a single German company with four to eight machine guns; in fact, enemy strength approached a battalion and included three companies from the 69th Panzer Grenadier Regiment commanded by Colonel Rudolf Lang, another sinewy veteran of Eben Emael.

Worse yet, the British had misread both ground and map. Longstop was actually two hills: Djebel el Ahmera dominated the main crest, separated by a ravine from the slightly lower Djebel el Rhar to the northeast. To capture one without the other was to capture neither. This second knoll was unseen by British reconnaissance, which was conducted by telescope at a distance of seven miles. Even so, Djebel el Rhar was plainly marked on Allied maps, and infantrymen had rambled across the hills for two weeks in November and early December. “We failed to realize its tactical importance,” the Coldstreams later acknowledged. The error proved most unfortunate.

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As required by the unwritten rules of military calamity, the initial attack went well. Nearly a week of fine weather had dried the ground and lifted spirits. The Coldstreams were keen to close with the enemy in their first fight since Dunkirk two and a half years earlier, and they tramped forward in bright moonlight that filtered through scudding clouds. At 11:15 P.M., on Tuesday, December 22, a barrage by sixteen British guns confirmed for the Germans the Allied assault that Luftwaffe reconnaissance had detected earlier. For fifteen minutes the artillery barked. Muzzle flashes reddened the olive leaves and white smoke spiraled up like spun moonbeams where the shells struck Longstop’s crest. Then the cannonade lifted, and four Coldstream companies pushed off.

An undefended col on the northwest face of the hill fell immediately. The crest proved tougher. A sudden constellation of German flares was followed by machine-gun bursts and grenades that cascaded down the slope. Slipping on the scree and shooting from the hip, the Coldstreams scrambled toward the top even as a company commander and sergeant major fell dead. German pickets from the green 754th Infantry Regiment counterattacked with bayonets, then scuttled back through the heather with a few parting shots. Coldstreams followed—the terrain was so jumbled that some tried to navigate by stars glimpsed behind the thickening clouds—then dug in among the rocks. On the right flank of the hill, next to Highway 50, another Coldstream company seized a rail station known as the Halt, then promptly lost it to a German counterattack.

No matter: Coldstreams held the high ground, including the highest, at Point 290. All major objectives on Longstop had been taken in two hours. The Coldstream commander chose not to bring forward his reserve company or to reattack the Halt. Soon, as planned, an American battalion from Terry Allen’s 1st Infantry Division would arrive to relieve the Coldstreams, who would get a day’s rest in Medjez before joining the main attack down the valley.

Officers set their command post beside a small white mosque on Longstop’s south face. Word arrived that the Yanks were making their way up the hill, slowly. Occasional mortar rounds gave way to silence broken only by the raspy whispers of British sergeants and the chink of entrenching tools in the bony ground. Djebel el Rhar squatted in the darkness, unseen and unsensed, 800 yards beyond Point 290. Rain began to fall.

An hour passed, then two. The moon set, the darkness deepened, the rain intensified. Finally, at three A.M. on December 23, the sound of the American challenge and countersign carried up the hill in stage whispers: “Brooklyn?” “Dodgers.” “Brooklyn?” “Dodgers.” A Coldstream sergeant shushed the newcomers as they emerged from the gloom. Bulling through the waist-high heather, each GI was as wet as if he had fallen into a lake. The Americans, one Tommy complained, always seemed as noisy as “Blackpool beach on a summer Sunday afternoon.”

The relief in combat of one battalion by another is difficult for kindred units in daylight and fine weather; between strangers of different nationalities at night in a downpour, the task is infinitely harder. The British guides posted to intercept the American companies either missed them completely or were uncertain where they should go. The commander of the 1st Battalion of the 18th Infantry Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Robert H. York, lost his way near the Halt and was pinned down by enemy machine-gun fire. He eventually stumbled into the Coldstream command post near the white mosque, but with his staff officers still wandering the night and 800 of his infantrymen scattered across the hill. At 4:30 A.M., their duty done as they defined it, the Coldstreams decamped. Back through Medjez-el-Bab they hiked in squelching boots, sleepless and hungry. A thousand men sang “Good King Wenceslas” as they marched.

Dawn on Longstop revealed the full peril of the American battalion. Half the hogback remained in German hands. The Coldstreams had abandoned several forward positions before American troops arrived, and enemy soldiers quickly reoccupied them. Told by the British that only a few Wehrmacht troops remained to be mopped up, Colonel York learned from enemy prisoners that in fact an entire battalion of panzer grenadiers invested Longstop, with reinforcements coming. Flashes of field gray and an occasional coal-scuttle helmet could be glimpsed among the boulders to the east.

Then the enemy struck. “They just appeared out of nowhere,” Captain Irving Yarock later recalled. Panzer grenadiers on the right flank near the Halt surrounded Company A, which in the night had become separated from the rest of 1st Battalion. Grenadiers built fire lanes with their mortar and machine-gun fire, paring away and destroying one piece of the company at a time before starting on another wedge. One American officer and thirteen enlisted men escaped death or capture.

Along the hill crest, German gunfire rattled “like a boy drumming a stick along an endless iron fence,” wrote one chronicler. Brown mortar smoke foamed over ridges “leaping with light” from enemy artillery. Rock splinters sliced the eyes and noses of men unable to dig in more than a few inches. Shell fire severed telephone wire; messengers dispatched from the battalion command post simply vanished. “The mud would foul your rifle after a few clips, and you’d throw it down and crawl around hollering for another rifle,” Sergeant Charles C. Perry of Company C later said. “There were extra rifles—by the dozens—after the first day and night of Longstop.”

Pinned in a cactus patch a thousand yards behind his Company B, York pleaded for artillery counterfire. British gunners responded slowly, uncertain of the Yank positions and hampered by the incompatibility of British and American radios. A few shells finally detonated in delicate white puffs that reminded an observer of “a gigantic white chrysanthemum.” Hardly deterred, the Germans by three P.M. had seized all positions held before the original Coldstream attack, including Point 290. By last light, the 1st Battalion had edged back into defensive positions on Longstop’s west and south faces.

The Coldstreams had just finished a late breakfast on December 23 when the first call for help came from the Americans. Disbelief yielded to angry disgust. Couldn’t the Yanks even hold a hill that had been gift-wrapped for them? Impenitent, the 18th Infantry commander, Colonel Frank Greer, appeared at the British command post near Medjez-el-Bab to warn that York’s exhausted, depleted men were at risk of losing the hill altogether. There was no alternative: the only available reserves were the exhausted, depleted 2nd Coldstreams, who trudged back toward Longstop with what one man described as “the…bored indifference of a man who goes to work he does not love.”

Not until dusk did the British vanguard reach the col below Longstop’s northwest face. Rain had transformed the Medjerda valley into a vast brown sea too quaggy even for mules. A brace of bullocks was harnessed to pull a few guns forward. Wheeled vehicles bogged down 5,000 yards from the hill. Even tracked carriers could get no closer than Chassart Teffaha, a farm hamlet two miles away. There, in a damp cellar that stank like a slaughterhouse, surgeons worked by candlelight over boys beyond surgeoning; stretcher bearers dumped another load and headed back into the night without even bothering to fold stretchers stiff with blood. One in every four riflemen was converted into a coolie, shouldering heavy green ammunition boxes and crates of mortar rounds. Up the scree they trudged in the rain. Dead men slumped in their shallow trenches, some already green and bloated, others as alabaster and dignified as lunar princes. A Coldstream officer later in the war would speak for the living in describing “the release of fear, the release of the bird under the ribs” that every sane man felt on the slopes of Longstop Hill that night.

A lull persisted past dawn and into Thursday afternoon, December 24. Then Allied artillery opened again, with a barrage calculated to dump 750 shells in a hundred-yard square around Point 290. In the valley below, one witness wrote, “guns flashed from every cluster of trees. The shells shrieked through the rain and clouds.” At five P.M., the Coldstreams attacked on a 1,200-yard front with modest help from American riflemen. Stalking and grenading, the troops swept across the ridgeline, bellowing at the enemy, who bellowed back. Those watching from below followed the Coldstreams’ progress by the ascending rivulets of red tracers. Tiny figures vanished into hollows, then reappeared, climbing steadily. A white flare bright as a nativity star signaled the recapture of Point 290.

From that pinnacle, in the failing light, the Coldstreams at last saw Djebel el Rhar: half a mile across a deep gully. The final peak, a Coldstream major lamented, “had never been appreciated.” There was nothing for it but to press on. A gallant platoon skittered down the ravine and up the far slope to the crest. German defenders killed the officers and sergeants, and shredded the rest with mortar fire.

The German shelling paused briefly, then resumed with a cannonade that would continue until morning. Too much had been wagered to stop now. Eight British and American companies occupied all of Djebel el Ahmera and one flank of Djebel el Rhar, ground that had cost them more than five hundred casualties, including the Coldstream battalion commander and adjutant. German losses also had been heavy, but Arnim and Fischer drove to Colonel Lang’s command post east of the hill to demand resistance to the last man: the Tunisian bridgehead itself was at stake. More Wehrmacht infantrymen, and tanks from the 7th Panzer Regiment, had been ordered forward.

At 7:15 P.M., General Evelegh reported to the British high command that Longstop was “in our possession, in most places.” He was confident—as only Santa Claus could be—that the rest of the hill would fall by Christmas morning.

The rain slowed to a drizzle, then stopped for the first time in two days. A monstrous, blood-orange moon drifted behind the breaking clouds. Backlit by desultory shell fire, British victualers darted up with tins of cold plum pudding for men who spooned it down behind their pathetic fieldstone parapets. Flares rose to define the dead. Another mortar barrage crumped across Point 290—German gunners had the range to the inch—and a Cockney voice shrieked, “Get this man out! Get this man out!” Medics hurried forward with stretchers rigged from rifles and phone-wire lashings.

A hunched figure in a trench coat scuttled from foxhole to foxhole, handing out razor blades. “Muddy Christmas,” the American chaplain murmured. “Muddy Christmas.”

Eisenhower had yet to set foot in Tunisia, but an acerbic message from Marshall on December 22 had sent him hurrying eastward:

Delegate your international problems to your subordinates and give your complete attention to the battle in Tunisia.

At 6:15 A.M. on the twenty-third, unable to fly because of foul weather, Eisenhower climbed into the armored Cadillac and sped from Algiers in a five-vehicle convoy. Rain tattooed the highway blacktop, already slick with mud from trucks shuttling to the front. The commander-in-chief wore what he called his goop suit: overalls hiked to the armpits, with cuffs buttoned around his shoes; a heavy field jacket; and a knit cap with a hooded visor. He carried a zippered purse with his lucky coins, and a swagger stick that concealed a wicked dagger in the handle. Slumped in the rear seat with reading glasses perched on his nose, he flipped through a stack of reports or stared morosely at the sopping countryside.

He suspected that the Tunisian campaign had already stalemated. The thought grieved him: deadlock would be broken only by a static, protracted slugging match. That was precisely what the combined British and American chiefs had urged him to avoid in a message earlier in December: “Losses in the initial assault may be heavy but should be less than those that are bound to occur if you become involved in a long, drawn-out attrition battle.” Did anyone in Washington or London really understand what a close-run thing the race for Tunis had been? In a note to Churchill, Eisenhower suggested that if the Allies had landed in Africa with an extra half-dozen transport companies—perhaps 600 additional trucks—“this battle could have been over.”

He hardly bothered defending the deficiencies in his army and his own generalship. “The best way to describe our operations to date,” he wrote his friend Major General Thomas Handy, “…is that they have violated every recognized principle of war, are in conflict with all operational and logistic methods laid down in textbooks, and will be condemned, in their entirety, by all Leavenworth and war college classes for the next twenty-five years.”

Even so, he continued “praying steadily to all the Gods-of-War.” Perhaps Anderson’s new offensive would turn the tide. If not, he would have to consider the advice Churchill had offered in a private message on December 16: “Engage and wear [the Germans] down, like Grant and the Confederates in 1864.” Grant’s casualties in 1864, as Eisenhower well knew, had exceeded 200,000. Was the prime minister ready for the Wilderness? Spotsylvania Courthouse? Cold Harbor?

As always, he contemplated the art of generalship through the lens of his own shortcomings. “Through all this I am learning many things,” he wrote in a mid-December note to himself. One lesson was “that waiting for other people to produce is one of the hardest things a commander has to do.” Even more important, “an orderly, logical mind [is] absolutely essential to success”:

The flashy, publicity-seeking type of adventurer can grab the headlines and be a hero in the eyes of the public, but he simply can’t deliver the goods in high command. On the other hand, the slow, methodical, ritualistic person is absolutely valueless in a key position. There must be a fine balance…. To find a few persons of the kind that I have roughly described is the real job of the commander.

Shortly after noon, the convoy rolled into Constantine, ancient seat of Numidian kings. The city resembled a Tibetan lamasery, with great limestone walls—described by one visitor as “cubes of frozen moonlight”—and a thousand-foot gorge, the most dramatic in the Atlas Mountains. Constantine supposedly had withstood eighty sieges in antiquity, but it was helpless before the onslaught of Allied clerks, camp followers, and brass hats who were building a vast supply dump. Eisenhower stretched his legs, gaped at the ravine—the stench of tanneries wafted from the bottom—and drove on.

Even as they neared the Tunisian border, the worries of Algiers were hard to leave behind. His problems with the French persisted, despite Marshall’s facile advice to “delegate your international problems.” On December 17, General Giraud had again demanded supreme command in North Africa; he still refused to allow French soldiers to obey Anderson’s orders, and without informing Eisenhower he kept shipping colonial troops to a front that could not sustain them. The logistics pipeline was so sclerotic that all rail loadings at ports and supply depots had been suspended for four days in mid-December. Inventories were hopelessly muddled, a problem compounded by the mingling of British and American units. To calculate ammunition needs, World War I data had been used until ordnance officers discovered that modern divisions, although comprising half the manpower of their Great War counterparts, used more than twice as many shells and bullets. And absurd problems continued to arise. A convoy had just arrived from Britain with a huge consignment of tent pegs—and no tents. One AFHQ message to Washington pleaded, “Stop sending stockings and nail polish.” As if Eisenhower did not have enough worries, Marshall this very day had asked him to find a suitable meeting place in Morocco for Roosevelt, Churchill, and the Allied military brain trust. “Do not discuss any of this with British until clearance is given from here,” the chief added.

Increasingly, the strain showed in the furrows on Eisenhower’s broad brow and in the violet rings beneath his eyes. “It is easy for a man to be a newspaper hero one day and a bum the next,” he wrote his son on December 20. One aide described him as “a caged tiger, snarling and clawing to get things done.” Staff officers treated him with the hushed deference usually reserved for convalescents or lunatics. “I am very much worried over the terrific pressure being put on him more or less to do the impossible,” Marshall had written the week before. Privately the chief wondered whether Eisenhower hesitated to drive his troops because a majority of casualties would necessarily be British. Roosevelt’s impatience was less nuanced: “Why are they so slow?” he asked.

The strain on Eisenhower also revealed itself more sharply. When the American air chief, Major General James H. Doolittle, who had won the Medal of Honor for leading a retaliatory raid against Japan earlier in the year, tried to explain why Axis planes dominated the Tunisian battlefield, Eisenhower snapped, “Those are your troubles—go and cure them. Don’t you think I’ve got a lot of troubles, too?” During a recent lunch at the Hôtel St. Georges, Eisenhower had asked a staff officer to call diners and waiters to attention. “Tell everybody here,” he added, “that anyone who wants my job can damned well have it.” On December 17—the day Giraud had demanded his job and a day after Churchill’s Civil War analogy—he told his aide Harry Butcher, “Damned if I’m not about ready to quit. If I could just command a battalion and get into a bullet battle, it would all be so simple.”

Following an overnight stop at Guelma, the motorcade pressed into Tunisia the next morning. At two P.M. on Thursday, December 24, after picking up General Anderson in Aïn Seymour, Eisenhower arrived at a remote farmhouse outside Souk el Khémis on the north bank of the Medjerda, twenty miles west of Béja. Soldiers peered through teeming rain from their haystack burrows. Harrows and a tractor had been conspicuously positioned to suggest agricultural rather than military purposes. Jeeps and the Cadillac were banned from the barnyard lest their tracks betray the headquarters of V Corps, formed earlier in the month under Anderson’s subordinate, Lieutenant General Charles W. Allfrey, to coordinate the Allied advance on Tunis.

Eisenhower and Anderson clumped through mud ankle deep to find the farmhouse parlor crowded with wet, spattered officers. Robinett and his CCB battalion commanders had been invited for a pep talk, which Anderson now delivered in a grim monotone. (“He seemed greatly depressed,” Robinett commented later.) Eisenhower appeared no happier. Groping for words, he offered neither censure nor praise for CCB’s earlier travails, nor inspiration for battles yet to come. Robinett and his men filed past to shake hands with the generals, then vanished into the rain to wonder why their leaders seemed so gloomy.

The same melancholy prevailed for the next two hours, as Anderson and Allfrey spread a large map to review the battlefront for the commander-in-chief. Winter rains would worsen in January and February, Anderson said. Interrogated “natives” told him so. He had “ordered trials of moving various sizes of equipment” through the mud, but “nothing could be moved satisfactorily.” No offensive was likely for at least six weeks, until the ground dried.

Eisenhower nodded. Earlier in the day, he had seen four soldiers futilely try to wrestle a motorcycle from the muck. There was no avoiding the obvious: a winter stalemate was at hand. Sensing the commander-in-chief’s bitter disappointment, Anderson offered to resign. A successor, someone with a brighter outlook, might have more luck with the Germans and the French. Eisenhower dismissed the proposal.

Perhaps CCB could move south, Eisenhower suggested, where the weather was drier and the ground firmer. Robinett could be reunited with the rest of the 1st Armored Division, which would soon reach Tunisia. Anderson’s earlier plea “to concentrate maximum strength at the chosen point of attack” was ignored, along with his Presbyterian musings about only the deserving earning God’s help.

The current offensive would be postponed indefinitely—with the exception of the current attack on Longstop Hill. The hill must be captured to eliminate the German salient near Medjez. The First Army log noted: “Decision was made to defer advance on Tunis owing to weather.” Eisenhower excused himself from the conference to dictate a message to London and Washington: “Due to continual rain there will be no hope of immediate attack on Tunis. May be possible later by methodical infantry advance. Am attempting to organize and maintain a force to operate aggressively on southern flank.”

Rain drummed off the farmhouse roof. Soldiers wrapped themselves in their gas capes and burrowed deeper into the haystacks. The dark afternoon slid toward dusk, and a wet, cold, miserable Holy Night.

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