Military history

8. A BITS AND PIECES WAR

“Goats Set Out to Lure a Tiger”

THE almond trees bloomed early in central Tunisia, sweetening the January air with white blossoms that soon carpeted the ground as if strewn for a wedding. Arabs trotted to market on their braying donkeys, carrying faggots of firewood or panniers heaped with green onions. Veiled women peered through the iron grilles in their front doors at soldiers hurrying along the roads. War and rumors of war flared along the Eastern Dorsal, but mostly there was an intense bustle, as though scene-wrights were building a proscenium on which great battles were to be staged once the curtain lifted. Men died—in firefights and in minefields and in plane crashes; at the temporary American cemetery in Maktar, grave markers were fashioned from the wooden slats of ration crates after the stack of crosses purchased from a local monastery ran out. But deaths remained few enough for the fallen to be unique and even flamboyant, like the American officer shot dead by a sniper in his jeep outside the Ousseltia Valley: while the jeep was being towed back to Allied lines, its brakes stuck, the vehicle caught fire, and soldiers for miles along the front could see what appeared to be a corpse riding a comet across the Tunisian pan.

As a first line of defense in extending the Allied battle lines south of the Medjerda River, the Anglo-Americans had entrusted the Eastern Dorsal to the French. General Juin’s 35,000 troops formed a frayed picket line for 200 miles down to the Saharan oasis at Tozeur. Relations between the French and British were even more strained than those between Brits and Yanks. “British senior officers are what they are,” Juin wrote Giraud. “What we think in them is stupidity or obstruction is often only the result of a slowness in, or absence of, imagination.” A British colonel described his French counterpart in Tunisia as “a comic-opera soldier on the stage, 45 years’ service in the Foreign Legion, covered with medals held on to his tunic by two bits of cotton…. We get on like fighting cocks.”

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The French possessed almost no antitank weapons, but Allied planners considered most of the Eastern Dorsal too mountainous for German armor. Besides, the French lacked almost everything else, too: ammunition, artillery, uniforms, boots. Horses pulled trucks, men pulled wagons. Artillerymen wagged signal flags to communicate between batteries, as their forefathers had in Napoleon’s legions. Morale slumped; some French soldiers pleaded for American helmets, to fool the Germans into thinking they were facing better-armed U.S. troops. Scattered on the lonely ridgelines, A. J. Liebling wrote, the French units resembled “goats set out to lure a tiger.” An American liaison officer reported to Eisenhower that the French were “somewhat discouraged” because “it seems to be a question of running or being overrun.”

“This past week has been a succession of disappointments,” Eisenhower confessed to his diary after returning to Algiers from Casablanca. “I’m just writing some of them down so as to forget them.” The abandonment of SATIN was one; he cited, as well, the “signs of complete collapse” by the French.

Other disappointments went unlisted. Neither Roosevelt nor Churchill had been effusive in his praise at Casablanca, and Eisenhower felt unappreciated. “His work and leadership had been taken rather for granted,” Butcher wrote on January 17. The “absence of clear-cut words of thanks from the president or prime minister showed that they had their noses to the political winds.” Harry Hopkins told Butcher at Casablanca that taking Tunisia would prove Eisenhower “one of the world’s greatest generals,” but without such a victory his fate was uncertain. “Such is the life of generals,” Butcher mused. Some British journalists had begun speculating that the commander-in-chief might be sacked, and editorial writers at home also voiced impatience. “Mud is a silly alibi [for the] failure of the Allied forces to deliver a knockout blow,” an Oklahoma newspaper opined. In a note to a West Point classmate, Eisenhower wrote, “There is no use denying that at times discouragement has piled on top of discouragement.”

The abrupt scuttling of SATIN sent Allied planners back to the drawing board. There would be no drive to the sea, at least not until Montgomery’s Eighth Army was in Tunisia to lend support. Instead, Fredendall’s II Corps was to conduct raids and keep the enemy off-balance until better weather allowed a coordinated offensive. “We must keep up a bold, aggressive front,” Eisenhower wrote Marshall, “and try to keep the Axis forces back on their heels.”

At a commanders’ meeting in the Constantine orphanage on January 18, the commander-in-chief laid out this new strategy, calling it “offensively defensive.” Juin listened closely, then warned, “The Germans will not remain inactive.” Eisenhower replied with the exasperation of a man who had had a difficult week: “I don’t want anything quiescent on this goddam front during the next two months.”

In this the Germans accommodated him, beginning that very day. Axis troops already occupied the mountain passes in the north, including the portals at Jefna and Longstop Hill that gave on to Bizerte and Tunis. Now they set out to capture the four main gaps through the Eastern Dorsal in central and southern Tunisia. Control of the passes would enlarge the Axis bridgehead and safeguard the coastal corridor linking Arnim’s Fifth Panzer Army and Rommel’s troops, who were closing into Tunisia from Libya. It would also guarantee Tunis’s water supply—a reservoir forty miles southeast of Medjez-el-Bab—and keep the initiative in the Axis camp. (Eisenhower on January 11 had asked his staff about cutting off drinking water to the capital; he was told that because of heavy rains and multiple sources “no action can be taken against the water supply of Tunis.”) Field Marshal Kesselring had not abandoned his ambition of driving the Anglo-Americans back through Constantine and Bône, but first he needed firm possession of the Eastern Dorsal.

On the afternoon of January 18, after a feint by fifty panzers toward British lines in the north, Tiger tanks and 5,000 Axis infantrymen slammed into the French around the reservoir. The enemy swarmed like wasps into the Ousseltia Valley, which controlled the critical pass to the holy city of Kairouan. Reporter A. D. Divine described French troops “retiring from crest to crest, fighting like mountain goats in an area of rock and shaley slopes.” Within a day the equivalent of seven French infantry battalions had been cut off on the ridgelines. Juin reported that he was “not hopeful.”

General Anderson ordered a British infantry brigade to counterattack from the north, then asked Fredendall to dispatch Robinett’s CCB from the 1st Armored Division to block further Axis advance in the south. At 5:15 P.M. on January 19, from his lair in Speedy Valley, Fredendall phoned Robinett with an order so circumspect it seemed delphic:

Move your command, i.e., the walking boys, pop guns, Baker’s outfit and the outfit which is the reverse of Baker’s outfit, and the big fellows to “M,” which is due north of where you are now, as soon as possible. Have your boss report to the French gentleman whose name begins with “J” at a place which begins with “D,” which is five grid squares to the left of “M.”

Robinett later observed that translating this message, so freighted with mystery and confusion, probably took “about as much of my time as it did of the opposing German commander’s.” The corps commander’s desires having at last been divined, 3,400 men and three dozen CCB tanks marched fifty miles to Maktar while Robinett reported to Juin at Djerissa. On the morning of January 21, American tanks rumbled down a perilous corkscrew road into the Ousseltia Valley, filled with “a lake of morning mist, beautiful, almost ethereal,” Divine reported.

Three days of desultory fighting followed, with neither side robust enough to win a decisive advantage. Five battalions from Terry Allen’s Big Red One joined Robinett, who theoretically was under French command but continued to receive contradictory orders from Fredendall, including one message that required nine hours to decode. “An excellent example of lack of coordination in the high command,” a CCB assessment concluded, although the maverick Robinett was never wholly displeased at any confusion among his superiors that enlarged his autonomy.

By January 24 the battlefield had stabilized with the German line three to eight miles west of where it had been a week earlier. American casualties exceeded two hundred. Jubilation swept Speedy Valley at a report that more than four hundred Germans had been captured, but the whooping subsided when a second dispatch reduced the figure to fewer than forty.

French casualties were catastrophic, with prisoner-of-war losses alone close to 3,500 and some battalions pared to 200 men. “The French can no longer be counted on for much,” Truscott reported.

Even Giraud now recognized the idiocy of his refusal to integrate French units into the Allied command structure. On January 24, with French concurrence, Eisenhower gave Anderson command of the entire Tunisian front, including French and American units. Fredendall’s 32,000 men in II Corps would join the 67,000 British and American soldiers already in First Army, rather than reporting directly to Eisenhower through Truscott.

Until dry weather arrived in the north, and the drive on Tunis resumed, II Corps was to “act defensively” in protecting the Allied right wing. Eisenhower had decreed on January 18—and he repeated the order on January 26 and February 1—that the 1st Armored Division was to remain concentrated in a tight fist as “a mobile reserve” capable of countering any Axis attack in lower Tunisia.

He had no sooner issued these orders than he undercut them by authorizing the extended diversion of CCB to reinforce the Ousseltia Valley and by encouraging Fredendall to “blood” the rest of Old Ironsides in various raids. Instead of being “well concentrated,” as Eisenhower advised, the division was soon scattered across southern Tunisia.

As in the initial planning for SATIN, Eisenhower had issued ambiguous directives and then failed to ensure that his orders were properly executed. Again he was distracted by matters large and small: planning had begun for the invasion of Sicily, with Patton chosen to command the American forces; Churchill and his retinue intended to visit Algiers in early February, despite warnings of a plot to assassinate “the Big Cigar Man” a variety show produced by Irving Berlin was scheduled to tour North Africa with 300 troupers; some American officers were drinking excessively, and, Eisenhower wrote Beetle Smith on January 26, “barracks used by our soldiers are not kept as neat and homelike in appearance at they could be.”

Some of these issues required a supreme commander’s attention, but they compromised Eisenhower’s efficacy as a field general. Once again he considered moving to Constantine to take direct command of the front; once again he decided that the press of business in Algiers precluded the move. Instead he watched from afar and issued plaintive edicts urging that “every man do his best.”

“As much as we preach simplicity in the Army,” he wrote a friend in Washington in late January, “I sometimes feel it is the one thing most frequently violated in my own thinking.”

Orlando Ward, who ostensibly commanded the 1st Armored Division, watched the splintering—again—of Old Ironsides with deepening dismay. Orders to Robinett in the Ousseltia counterattack had bypassed Ward completely. He had little to do except draft plans that the corps commander seemed determined to ignore. “Fredendall and his staff continue to command this division in detail—even arranging platoons,” Ward scribbled in his diary.

Ward proposed recapturing another of the key Eastern Dorsal passes with a strong attack on Maknassy, nearly a hundred miles south of the Ousseltia fight and fifty miles due east of Gafsa on the road and rail line to Sfax. On January 23 Fredendall summoned Ward to Speedy Valley, where the clamor of pneumatic drills from the tunnel project echoed through the frozen hills. Fredendall in fact liked the Maknassy proposal, which would put American troops in striking distance of Rommel’s line of retreat up the Tunisian coast, and he scheduled the attack for January 30. But first he wanted to launch a raid against Sened Station, a miserable whistle-stop in a shallow bowl midway between Gafsa and Maknassy.

Ward shifted uneasily. Such a raid would “give our hand away” and alert the Germans to American designs on Maknassy, he warned. Fredendall dismissed the objection with an impatient wave and told Ward to “knock the shit out of the Italians at Sened Station” the next day. Ward saluted, uttered a terse “Will do,” and left Speedy Valley to return to his headquarters, six miles to the southeast.

At four A.M. on January 24, a raiding party of 2,000 American troops departed Gafsa in trucks for the twenty-eight-mile trip to Sened Station. Shortly before noon, artillery fire opened on the crossroads. Within three hours, the village had fallen, a hundred Italians lay dead or wounded, and nearly a hundred other bewildered prisoners had been rounded up. The raiders returned to Gafsa in time for dinner. American casualties totaled two wounded.

Fredendall was in high feather. At 3:30 P.M. he phoned Truscott in Constantine. “Remember that force I sent toward Maknassy looking for trouble? They ran into some stuff and smeared it. As soon as I get the details I will give them to you. I thought you might like to have some cheerful information from down here.” At 9:30 P.M., Fredendall called again to boast that among the enemy captured was an Italian brigadier general. (Under closer scrutiny, he proved to be a lieutenant.) “Trump that if you can, damn it!” the corps commander exclaimed.

There was little celebrating at Ward’s command post. A few prisoners had been captured, but now the Germans were aware of American eyes on Maknassy. Moreover, the 1st Armored Division was currently split into three parts and scattered across a hundred miles; Allen’s Big Red One covered an even bigger arc. Allied units were so fragmented that Jack Thompson, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, had begun calling the Tunisian campaign “a bits and pieces war.”

“Whole staff completely disgusted with the high command as inefficient and meddlesome,” Ward confided to his diary on January 28. “I agree, but we can’t talk that way. We must absorb and hide our misgivings no matter what they are.”

As a postscript he added: “Fed up but conscience is very clean.”

General von Arnim duly noted the dustup in the far south and immediately reinforced both Maknassy Pass and the unfortunate garrison at Sened Station. But the mountain pass thirty miles north of Maknassy worried him more. Bisected by Highway 13 as it angled from Kasserine in the west to Sfax on the eastern coast, Faïd Pass was a narrow defile between razorback ridges and red shale chimneys twisted into fantastic shapes. French strategists considered Faïd vital in controlling central Tunisia, as Medjez-el-Bab was in controlling the north. Arnim called it “my nightmare”: barely 500 yards deep and half a mile wide, the pass gave on to the broad, flat coastal plain to the east and the broad, arid Tunisian plateau to the west. The ubiquitous Colonel Raff had seized Faïd from 200 Axis defenders in early December; more than a thousand French troops held it now, the last significant gap in the Eastern Dorsal still in Allied hands.

That was about to change. The 21st Panzer Division had rearmed after repairing to Tunisia from El Alamein at the van of Rommel’s retreating army. On January 30, battle groups from the division struck Faïd Pass in a three-pronged attack as precise as a pitchfork. One French outpost reported being duped by Germans wearing U.S. Army uniforms and shouting, “Do not fire. We are Americans.” Rippling fire from thirty panzers drove the French back yard by yard, and body by body, until by late afternoon the valiant defenders were encircled.

In the noisy perpetual shade of Speedy Valley, tearful French officers pleaded with Fredendall for help. The two battalions besieged at Faïd could hold out only a few hours more. The Americans must counterattack immediately, in force. “This is the most important point in the line,” one French officer said. “It must be held.”

Fredendall was reluctant to abandon his planned drive on Maknassy, which was scheduled to begin in a few hours with another 2000-man raiding party. He believed that the attack would siphon Axis troops away from Faïd. But French pleas, and a vague directive at mid-morning from Anderson to “restore” the situation at Faïd, forced his hand.

Prompt, decisive action could well have saved Faïd Pass and altered the grim course of the Tunisian campaign in the coming weeks. Fredendall instead ordered a mincing sequence of half-measures destined to make a bad predicament truly dire. He began at 9:30A.M. by ordering the 1st Armored Division’s Combat Command A to counterattack Faïd Pass but without weakening defenses around the town of Sbeïtla on the road to Kasserine. Part of CCA headed east along Highway 13, but at a glacial pace slowed further by air attacks—first by Stukas, then by misdirected American fighters. At 2:30 P.M., still seven miles short of the pass, the CCA commander, Brigadier General Raymond E. McQuillin, decided to bivouac for the night and delay his attack until the next morning.

McQuillin’s nickname was Old Mac, and it was all too apt. Born in 1887, he was placid and fusty, with a snowy crown and the straight posture of a Kentucky long rifle. A bachelor cavalryman, McQuillin in a long career had served as a White House aide in the 1920s and later commanded the Signal Corps Buzzer School. “As a man he was wonderful and warm, but as a commander he was a 20th-century George Armstrong Custer, in many ways a genuine blockhead,” one 1st Armored officer said.

Having granted the enemy an extra half day to winkle out the remaining French, Old Mac spent the night pondering the maps and blaring radios in his cramped command half-track. He was joined by Truscott, who had come forward from Constantine as Eisenhower’s man on the ground, and Ward, a spectator in his own division’s fight. Neither visitor sensed trouble, although portents abounded: McQuillin’s tardiness; French distemper at the sluggish American response; and feuding between McQuillin and the senior infantry officer assigned to the counterattack, Colonel Alexander N. Stark, Jr. Stark, commander of the 26th Infantry from Allen’s Big Red One, was known as Old Stark for reasons no more flattering than those informing Old Mac’s moniker. He had won the Distinguished Service Cross in World War I, but was a heavy drinker, and staff officers routinely searched his jeep for hidden bottles. “It was nerve-racking,” his operations officer later recalled. “I thought, ‘This man has got to be sober.’…He should never have been in a position like that.”

The American assault began at seven A.M. on Sunday, January 31, just late enough for the sun peeping over the Eastern Dorsal to catch the attacking GIs flush in the face. An intelligence officer warned McQuillin that the Germans had emplaced 88mm anti-aircraft guns as antitank weapons above the western approaches to Faïd Pass, but Old Mac “strongly rejected the validity of the report,” a 26th Infantry officer recorded.

Truscott and Ward drove 800 yards north to climb Djebel Lessouda. A mile long and 2,000 feet high, the hill lay on the desert pan like a whale on a beach. Prickly pears planted for livestock fodder covered the lower slopes in neat rows. Breathing hard, the two generals climbed a steep shale incline glittering with flecks of mica. The crowing of cocks and a cur’s insistent bark carried from the shabby hamlet of Poste de Lessouda, where McQuillin’s command post occupied a cactus patch along Highway 13.

In the panorama from Lessouda’s eastern flank, both Truscott and Ward noted similarities to the terrain of the American high plains. Here in Tunisia, reporter Philip Jordan wrote, was “that half-world where cultivation does not quite know where to cease or the desert to begin.” Seven miles to the south lay the dark green cedars and white stucco houses of Sidi bou Zid, once an important camel market and now a somnolent town of 500 Arabs and a few French farmers. Seven miles to the east, the Eastern Dorsal rose like an ocean swell. From Poste de Lessouda the blacktop ran taut as a bowstring through the nick in the ridgeline that marked Faïd Pass.

Gazing east with their field glasses through the morning haze, Truscott and Ward saw a dozen Sherman tanks and a battalion of Stark’s infantrymen following Highway 13 toward the pass; pushing out of Sidi bou Zid farther south, a battalion from Ward’s 6th Armored Infantry tramped across irrigated vegetable fields cut by the narrow ravines, or wadis. An artillery battery spoke just below Djebel Lessouda, and moments later white puffs flowered around Faïd.

The American force looked puny in the expanse of the Tunisian plain, and puniness against Germans in the desert usually proved fatal. Given ample time to entrench, the enemy had fortified Faïd Pass with machine guns, mortars, and the 88mm guns whose existence McQuillin had denied. Lieutenant Colonel Gerald C. Kelleher, commanding the 1st Battalion of the 26th Infantry, led his 700 men to within a mile of the pass and then veered left to outflank Faïd from the north. Gunfire rippled from the hills. The battalion scaled one ridge, then a second, only to be pinned down for the rest of the day by an impenetrable wall of Axis fire from the third crest. After dark, Kelleher ordered his men to creep back down to the plain. American cannoneers found the exhausted battalion commander wandering across the desert and revived him with a supper of French toast and syrup, commodities hoarded for just such an emergency.

For Company H of Ward’s 1st Armored Regiment the day was shorter but worse. In this, their first combat, the tankers were ordered to stage a frontal assault on the pass with seventeen Sherman tanks and a few tank destroyers. Strafed by Messerschmitts roaring down the defile, the tanks pressed into the pass, firing through the morning glare at muzzle flashes real and imagined.

Then the trap was sprung. German antitank gunners opened up from three sides. “The velocity of the enemy shells was so great that the suction created by the passing projectiles pulled the dirt, sand, and dust from the desert floor and formed a wall that traced the course of each shell,” Lieutenant Laurence Robertson later recalled. Shells zipped through the American formation, trailed by thick coils of dust tinted bright green by the tracer magnesium burning on the German rounds. Within ten minutes, more than half the American tanks were ablaze; flames licked from the hatches and exhaust vents, and each wounded Sherman frothed with its thirty pounds of chemical fire retardant.

Back the surviving tanks raced, as fast as reverse gear could carry them, swerving to keep their thick frontal armor toward the German muzzles. Wounded soldiers lay like trophy deer on the hull decks. Tankless tankers clumped through the mud, chased by swarms of green tracers. When two self-propelled howitzers sank in quicksand to their barrels during the retreat, gunners detonated thermite grenades on the engine blocks within view of the disheartened brass watching from Djebel Lessouda. The survivors shambled into Sidi bou Zid, where French troops shared out a dinner of dates and heavy black bread sliced with a bayonet.

The failed counterattack had cost nine tanks, 100 casualties, and whatever mutual trust had existed between tankers and infantrymen. The enmity between McQuillin and Stark carried into the lower ranks, with each unit convinced the other had left it in the lurch. The parallel attack farther south had also collapsed under Stuka attacks and heavy panzer fire. McQuillin swallowed his discouragement and scheduled another attack for February 1 at one P.M., when the sun would be at a less hostile angle. “McQuillin, put everything into it tomorrow and accomplish your mission,” Ward urged in a message at 9:15 P.M. on Sunday. “I am counting on you.”

No use. Two infantry battalions surged up the ridgeline three miles south of the pass early Monday afternoon. German gunners “held their fire until we were practically at the foot of the objective,” an officer wrote. “The men got a terrific raking over by the enemy as they fell back.” One commander signaled McQuillin, “Too much tank and gun fire…. Infantry can not go on without great loss.” Fifteen panzers swung out from Faïd Pass and enfiladed the infantry with fire on the left flank until checked by countercharging American Shermans. “They shook us like we had been dragged over a plowed field,” one sergeant wrote. McQuillin’s message to Ward was equally terse: “Failed to accomplish mission.”

Faïd Pass was gone, and with it the Eastern Dorsal. More than 900 French defenders were dead or missing; the 1st Armored alone suffered 210 casualties. Recriminations followed. McQuillin bitterly accused Stark of ineptitude, although his own generalship was wanting. General Giraud dispatched a scathing message to Fredendall, protesting the butchery of French troops. The II Corps commander parried a proposal for yet another assault by telling Anderson, “To retake it will be too expensive, but I can contain the pass.” Anderson concurred.

About the only solace for the Allies on this Monday afternoon was the fatal wounding of General Wolfgang Fischer, whose leadership of the 10th Panzer Division had helped win the day for the Axis at Tébourba and Longstop Hill in December. Wandering into an improperly marked minefield west of Kairouan, Fischer’s staff car detonated an Italian “devil’s egg” that blew off both the general’s legs and his left arm. He called for a notebook and managed to scribble a page and a half to his wife, of which the last words were “It will soon be over.”

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