Military history

“A Good Night for a Mass Murder”

AS commander-in-chief of Allied forces, Eisenhower had been given far greater powers than Marshal Foch possessed in 1918. Yet adjustments made at Casablanca in the Allied command structure threatened to circumscribe that authority in ways Eisenhower had only begun to appreciate. The lifelong staff officer with impeccable instincts about where real power lay—the master bridge player who always knew how many trump remained in play—had nevertheless been slow to realize that the British had outflanked him.

Under a proposal from General Brooke, the combined chiefs on January 20 had agreed that a single general would command both Anderson’s First Army and Montgomery’s soon-to-arrive Eighth Army in Tunisia. That commander would be Eisenhower; but three British deputies would handle daily sea, air, and ground operations since Eisenhower, as Brooke confided to his diary, had neither “the tactical or strategical experience required for such a task.” Admiral Cunningham and Air Marshal Sir Arthur W. Tedder took the sea and air jobs respectively. The ground commander, due to assume command in February, would be General Harold R. L. G. Alexander, who since August had been Montgomery’s superior as head of the British Near East Command. This arrangement cheered the Americans, especially Marshall, since Eisenhower remained top dog.

It pleased the British more. In his diary entry for January 20, Brooke wrote:

We were pushing Eisenhower up into the stratosphere and rarified atmosphere of a supreme commander, where he would be free to devote his time to the political and inter-allied problems, whilst we inserted under him our own commanders to deal with the military situations and to restore the necessary drive and co-ordination which had been so seriously lacking of late!

Unaware of Brooke’s disparagement, Eisenhower was happy to have help. But two subsequent decrees from the combined chiefs undercut the commander-in-chief by empowering his subordinates with independent authority. Like a patsy suddenly aware that he has been duped, Eisenhower composed a furious message of protest; only after pleading by Beetle Smith did he tone it down.

But on February 8 he sent two cables to Marshall, warning against “a popular impression of an overriding British control of this great area and operation…. I believe that such publicity as is given in the U.S. should stress the American grip on the whole affair.” The empowering of his subordinates, he added, smacked of British rule-by-committee; it violated the sacred U.S. Army principle of unity of command under a single authority; and it threatened to reduce Eisenhower to a figurehead.

“As far as I am concerned, no attention will be paid” to such intrusions from Washington or London into the AFHQ command arrangements, he wrote, because “I would consider it a definite invasion of my own proper field.” With that off his chest, Eisenhower wanted to see how the new structure worked in practice. In a press conference on February 10, he briefed reporters and graciously praised his new British deputies. In truth, as Butcher noted, he was “burning inside.”

Promotion helped mollify him. On February 11, Eisenhower received his fourth star, becoming the twelfth full general in the history of the U.S. Army; Ulysses S. Grant had been the first. Marshall’s prodding had overcome Roosevelt’s reluctance despite the lack of progress in Tunisia. The promotion was political, reflecting a grudging need to give the American commander-in-chief stature at least equivalent to his British deputies.

Upon hearing the news, Eisenhower summoned his domestic staff to the living room at Villa dar el Ouard. Orderly, houseboy, cook, and two waiters braced at attention on the cold tile floor as he promoted each on the spot. That night he sat by a crackling fire, sipping a highball and accepting congratulatory toasts from his new American logistics deputy, Brigadier General Everett S. Hughes, a pouchy-eyed artilleryman. On the phonograph Eisenhower repeatedly played his favorite record, “One Dozen Roses,” crooning the lyrics:

Give me one dozen roses

Put my heart in beside them

And send them to the girl I love.

He had weathered Darlan, Casablanca, and the disappointing winter campaign. But given palace intrigue in Algiers—not to mention London and Washington—some believed his neck remained on the block no matter how many stars peppered his shoulders. “I think Ike is doomed,” Hughes had confided to his diary in late January. “Too many conflicting forces at play.”

Then there was that woman. Tongues had begun to wag about Eisenhower and his willowy driver, Kay Summersby. Nicknamed Skibereen after her Irish hometown, Summersby had worked in England as a model and movie extra before enlisting as a military driver in London; she had been assigned to Eisenhower the previous summer, joining him in Algiers in mid-January after surviving the U-boat sinking of her transport ship off the African coast. At thirty-four, discreet, divorced, and comely, she served not only as the commander-in-chief’s “chauffeuse,” but also as his bridge partner and riding companion. When she turned out in boots, flying jacket, and helmet, Eisenhower teasingly accused her of trying to look like Patton. She was engaged to one of Fredendall’s staff officers, a young engineering colonel from New York, but tongues wagged anyway. One drollery circulating in North Africa had the commander-in-chief’s sedan stalling on a lonely road. Summersby tinkers under the hood until Eisenhower appears with the toolbox from the trunk. “Screwdriver?” he supposedly asks, to which she supposedly replies, “We might as well. I can’t get the goddam motor fixed.”

“Discussed Kay,” Everett Hughes had written in his diary. “I don’t know whether Ike is alibi-ing or not. Says he wants to hold her hand, accompanies her to house, doesn’t sleep with her. He doth protest too much, especially in view of the gal’s reputation in London.” On February 12, after the “Dozen Roses” performance the previous evening, Hughes scribbled, “Maybe Kay will help Ike win the war.”

Skibereen was behind the wheel of Eisenhower’s armored sedan when his eleven-vehicle convoy slipped from Algiers shortly after midnight on February 12. “You’re taking too many trips to the front,” Marshall had cautioned Eisenhower after Casablanca, eight weeks after rebuking him for inattention to the Tunisian campaign. “You ought to depend more on reports.” In fact, this was only the commander-in-chief’s second visit to Tunisia, and the first time he would be close to enemy artillery range. Heavy rain drummed off the car roof. A fierce winter storm lashed the Atlas, knocking down tents and filling slit trenches with icy water. Soldiers burrowed into their bedrolls and dreamed of spring. “I never knew the wind and sand could really be so miserable,” Corporal Charles M. Thomas of the 19th Engineer Regiment wrote in his diary on February 13.

The cavalcade stopped for the night in Constantine before pressing on toward Tébessa at dawn. The conversation in the Cadillac’s rear seat centered on whether to retreat to the Grand Dorsal in the event of an enemy attack. Truscott, who had joined the convoy in Constantine, advised against it. He believed Gafsa and Sidi bou Zid should be defended to protect the American airfields now operating south of Kasserine.

“In one respect only have Axis forces demonstrated superiority: the ability to concentrate superior means in local areas and to retain the initiative,” he had written Eisenhower in a recent memo. Truscott meant to be encouraging, but the ability to concentrate combat power and keep the initiative lies at the heart of modern warfare. By Truscott’s own analysis, the Axis was winning. In other respects he was simply wrong: German armor, tactical airpower, and battlefield leadership had also been superior. But Truscott’s reluctance to concede acreage had influenced Eisenhower’s decision to overextend the Allied line.

At 1:45 P.M. on Saturday, February 13, the convoy eased down the serpentine gravel road into Speedy Valley. The rain and sleet had stopped, but heavy overcast lent the encampment a monochromatic melancholy. II Corps officers dashed about, throwing salutes and ducking in and out of the tent igloos. Eisenhower climbed from the sedan and stretched his cramped limbs. No one seemed certain where to find General Fredendall or General Anderson, who had agreed to rendezvous here.

Eisenhower cocked an ear. A deafening clamor of pneumatic drills washed through the gulch. Little railcars brimming with rock spoil rolled from several shafts punched into the ravine wall. Soldiers in mining helmets lugged heavy timbers and stacks of wooden shingles. A staff officer explained how engineers for several weeks had been excavating a corps headquarters that would be impervious to air attack. The project was nearly three-quarters complete. Nonplussed, Eisenhower asked whether they had first helped construct frontline defenses to the east. “Oh,” the officer answered cheerfully, “the divisions have their own engineers for that!” Muttering to himself, Eisenhower stalked into a briefing tent. A lieutenant colonel used a pointer and a large map streaked with blue and red crayon to show how II Corps was arrayed.

Fifteen minutes later Fredendall strolled in, his boots crunching the crushed stone floor. He was in high spirits with a bounce in his step and a smile on his face. Bill Darby’s 1st Ranger Battalion had just conducted a nearly flawless raid on an Italian outpost near Sened Station, the sort of nugatory jab Fredendall loved. At 1:30 in the morning, after a twelve-mile hike across the desert, the Rangers crept to within 200 yards of the enemy camp. One of Darby’s company commanders had told his men, “We’ve got to leave our mark on these people…. Every man uses his bayonet as much as he can—those are our orders. And remember this: We’re only bringing ten prisoners back—no more and no less.”

Screaming Rangers had attacked on a half-mile front, ignoring Italian pleas of “Non fiermati!” as they raced among the tents gunning down men struggling to pull on their trousers. The Americans suffered only one killed and twenty wounded, with enemy casualties estimated at seventy-five. Eleven Italians had been captured—someone miscounted—and, by one participant’s account, at least one wounded prisoner was executed during the return march to avoid slowing the column. (“I did what I was ordered to do,” one Ranger explained years later. “That was a long time ago. I get a little nervous sometimes when I start telling about some of it.”) Fredendall had just returned from Gafsa, where he had passed out to the participants a dozen Silver Stars. The Rangers joked about how it had been “a good night for a mass murder.”

Anderson walked in right behind Fredendall. The British commander looked even more morose than usual. He had spent the past half hour in another frigid igloo with Fredendall’s G-2—intelligence chief—who had minced no words in telling Anderson why First Army’s estimates of enemy intentions were misguided. Tall and athletic, with brooding eyes and a hussar’s mustache, Colonel Benjamin Abbott Dickson possessed an extraordinary mind and a relentless impiety. At West Point, Dickson had been nicknamed Monk because of his middle name and his atheist resistance to mandatory chapel. Resigning his infantry officer’s commission after World War I, he had studied mechanical engineering at MIT, held several inventor patents for laundry equipment and warehousing machinery, then reentered the Army in 1940 as an intelligence officer. Monk Dickson was able, loyal to Fredendall, and, now, convinced that bad things were brewing in southern Tunisia.

“Rommel can be expected to act offensively in southern Tunisia as soon as rested and rearmed,” Dickson had warned on January 25. He further cautioned that Axis infantry could hold off Montgomery’s pursuing Eighth Army near the Libyan border, allowing Rommel to use his tanks “as a striking force” against the Americans. Dickson believed any attack was likely to come through Gafsa or perhaps Faïd Pass, rather than farther north as AFHQ and First Army intelligence insisted, and it was this divergence of views that had led Anderson to seek out Dickson for cross-examination. Before joining Eisenhower, the British general ended the interview with a sour compliment: “Well, young man, at least I can’t shake you.” Anderson later told Fredendall, “You have an alarmist and a pessimist for a G-2.”

For over two hours, Anderson reviewed the disposition of his army for Eisenhower: British V Corps in the north; the French in the center, stiffened by Anglo-Americans; Fredendall’s II Corps in the south. Enemy ambitions remained obscure. Bad weather and Luftwaffe air superiority had prevented extensive air reconnaissance. Ultra decrypts from earlier in the month suggested a possible Axis attack out of Kairouan against French forces, but that was likely to be a limited operation intended to grab better defensive terrain. As a precaution, Anderson was keeping his reserves concentrated in the north, including Robinett’s CCB and much of Allen’s Big Red One. Any thrust through Faïd Pass or Gafsa was likely to be a diversion.

Eisenhower nodded. “General disposition of forces was satisfactory to General Eisenhower on 13 February,” Fredendall’s operations officer later reported. The commander-in-chief himself would cable Marshall that Anderson’s plan was “as good as could be made pending the development of an actual attack and in view of the great value of holding the forward regions.” As for Fredendall, Eisenhower was impressed “by his thorough knowledge of his battlefront.”

“He seems keen and fit,” Eisenhower added, “and I am placing a lot of confidence in him.”

An urgent phone call summoning Anderson back to his headquarters in northern Tunisia broke up the conference as late-afternoon shadows swallowed Speedy Valley. Eisenhower and Truscott pared their motorcade to four vehicles; Kay Summersby, a bit awkwardly, remained at II Corps with her affianced colonel. At six P.M., after some quick sightseeing around Tébessa—it was not every day a man could contemplate the ruins of Solomon the Eunuch—the convoy sped southeast forty-five miles for a view of the American airfields at Thélepte and Fériana, then swung northeast another forty miles to the 1st Armored Division command post at Sbeïtla.

Ward and Robinett waited in a small tent tucked into a cactus patch. Old comrades greeted one another by candlelight with affection accrued through years of keeping faith in the feeble interwar Army and now enhanced by a sense of common destiny in this perilous land. Ward and Eisenhower had been a year apart at West Point. As for Robinett, upon first meeting Eisenhower in 1929 he had been so smitten by the engaging young major that, he later confessed, “I hoped to win your friendship.”

Ward quickly sketched the disposition of the 1st Armored, including the marooning of Drake and Waters on the two hills near Faïd Pass. He was cheerful and precise, masking the turmoil churning within. Earlier in the evening Ward had poured out his heart to Robinett about II Corps’ meddling, but to Eisenhower he avoided criticizing Fredendall even as he made clear that he had been stripped of virtually all authority in his own division; Ward had last controlled CCB, for example, in Northern Ireland. With 294 tanks and substantial artillery, the division was hardly impotent, but the units were scattered along a sixty-mile crescent.

Then Robinett took the floor, jaw jutting. He had scouted the approaches at Fondouk enough to curtly dismiss Anderson’s preoccupation with an enemy thrust in the north. “The only evidence of an attack in this area is nervousness in higher headquarters,” he told Fredendall in a message on February 12. He repeated that to Eisenhower, then condemned the current placement of CCA troops around Faïd Pass. They were isolated, “in no sense mutually supporting,” Robinett said. The Eastern Dorsal had “lost its importance for the time being and should be given up without squandering additional means in the hope of covering up past losses.

“Only a question of prestige gives the position any importance,” Robinett added, “and prestige is little compared with the troops.” Given superior German tanks and antitank guns, the entire Allied position was “impossible.” In short, the situation was grave. He sat down.

This analysis was greeted with the politesse reserved for an idiot savant or a tiresome house pet. Eisenhower looked thoughtful and said nothing. Truscott glowered and said nothing. A French officer who had joined the conference broke the silence: “Now that General Eisenhower is here and the Americans are in force, the situation will be restored.” But even he seemed unconvinced.

The conference ended with salutes and farewells. Robinett mounted his jeep for the frigid drive north to CCB’s bivouac in Maktar. Eisenhower promised to take up the issues he had raised—tomorrow. “The yielding of ground,” Robinett later observed, “even worthless, untenable ground, involved too much loss of face.” Eisenhower and Truscott climbed back into the Cadillac, this time with Ward wedged between them, for the thirty-mile drive east to Sidi bou Zid. It was eleven P.M.

Another cactus patch, another command post, another briefing. In a cramped personnel carrier roofed with a tarpaulin, McQuillin offered a brief summary of the latest intelligence. No changes had been observed in German positions around Faïd Pass; the enemy had “not been very active.” Colonel Hains, commander of the 1st Armored Regiment, followed with a more detailed sketch of CCA’s dispositions. Hains pointed out that the 1,700 men around Djebel Ksaira were especially vulnerable. A few portents could be divined, Hains added. For example, small scouting parties south of Faïd Pass had been attacked by German aircraft, suggesting that the enemy was hiding something. A French farmer reported that Axis pickets had prevented Arab field hands living across the Eastern Dorsal from traveling west to work. Allied pilots flying over the coastal plain earlier in the day had strafed a fleet of more than 300 enemy trucks—enough to carry an infantry regiment—but the trucks had been empty.

Eisenhower had sensed enough unease among his commanders in the past twelve hours to feel perturbations himself. (“Ike would swap stars for divisions,” Ward scribbled in his diary.) But he limited his comments to the issue of minefields around American positions. Why had it taken so long to lay mines? Why were there so few? The Germans needed only two hours to prepare a new position against counterattack. Here it had taken more than two days. “Get your mine fields out first thing in the morning,” he snapped. Sidi bou Zid must be held.

Otherwise he said nothing. The CCA war log noted that Eisenhower “listened to a description of our situation and dispositions without comment.”

He stepped from the personnel carrier. The overcast sky had brightened, with clouds backlit by the moon. A few hundred yards to the northwest stood the vaguely biblical silhouettes of palm trees and squat, flat-roofed buildings in Sidi bou Zid. As Eisenhower listened, an infantry captain addressed his men: “We do not pray for victory, nor even for our individual safety. But we pray for help that none of us may let a comrade down—that each of us may do his duty to himself, his comrades, and his country, and so be worthy of our American heritage.” Eisenhower’s eyes welled with tears.

Colonel Drake appeared, summoned by McQuillin from Djebel Ksaira to be decorated for his valor at Sened Station two weeks earlier. While waiting for the ceremony to begin, Drake asked McQuillin, “General, what will we do if the enemy attacks from the pass in the east?” McQuillin shushed him. “Don’t bring that up.” Now Drake stood at rigid attention as Eisenhower plucked a Silver Star from his pocket and pinned it to the colonel’s fatigue jacket. “Drake,” he said, “I think you’re going to go a long ways.” It was the most prescient remark he had made all day.

At 1:30 on Sunday morning, Eisenhower took a brief stroll in the desert, mindful of the prickly pears. Even his zippered goop suit and heavy gloves could not repel the high desert cold. It would take the rest of the night to drop Ward at Sbeïtla and return to Speedy Valley, and another long day to reach Algiers. He had much to contemplate. Ten miles to the east, he could barely discern a serrated notch in the black ridgeline where Faïd Pass pierced the Eastern Dorsal. He climbed into the warm sedan and headed in the opposite direction.

A week later, when the moment for excuses and scapegoats had arrived, Eisenhower would remind Marshall that it “would naturally be a delicate matter for me to interfere directly into tactical dispositions.” No one asked whether it was not less delicate to permit the destruction of his men. In truth, Eisenhower—preoccupied with strategic and political issues, and having no personal combat experience—had simply failed to grasp the tactical peril on that Valentine’s Day morning. In trying to serve as both supreme commander and field general, he had mastered neither job. The fault was his, and it would enlarge him for bigger battles on future fields. But it was not his fault alone. Mistakes clattered down the line, along with bad luck, bad timing, and the other handmaidens of havoc.

A dearth of frontline intelligence from patrols, pilots, and prisoners meant that since February 8 virtually all information about enemy intentions had come from Ultra decrypts. Yet the Germans had changed plans several times, and much of the scheming by Kesselring, Rommel, and Arnim had been done tête-à-tête, without resort to radio transmissions vulnerable to Allied interception. On February 13, Ultra disclosed that the 21st Panzer Division had been ordered forward, and that Sunday was to be “A-day” for an operation by Arnim’s Fifth Panzer Army. Having rushed back to his headquarters from Speedy Valley to assess this news, Anderson issued a warning, which arrived at II Corps as coded message No. 915 at 1:29 A.M., just as Eisenhower was pinning the Silver Star on Drake: “Urgent. Absolute priority. Information from First Army leads to belief attack will take place tomorrow.” Alerts flashed through the Allied command.

But the warning did not specify the avenue of attack. Other intercepted messages revealing that Luftwaffe fighters would arrive Sunday morning at Kairouan reinforced the near certitude in AFHQ and First Army that the attack would come in the north. Yet another message circulated through II Corps that “Rommel has been reported critically ill in a Tunisian hospital and was probably thereafter evacuated from Tunis by air.”

Fantasy obscured fact; small errors compounded large. More than 100 enemy tanks from the 10th Panzer Division had moved south toward Faïd Pass without Allied pilots seeing them. American scouts reported that a small defile below Faïd Pass was “impassable for armored vehicles,” but they had failed to detect enemy engineers feverishly regrading the trail. Lieutenant Colonel Waters, before snatching a few hours of sleep in his rocky den on Djebel Lessouda, sent a patrol with a radio to Faïd Pass, but the patrol stopped three miles short of the Eastern Dorsal. “I didn’t go out to check them,” Waters later admitted. “My error.” Despite a stiff wind blowing from the west, the patrol soon heard a faint rumble from the direction of the pass, like the slow roll of kettledrums—or the thunder of massing tanks. Dutifully reported, the noise was dutifully noted, and a few CCA supply vehicles were dutifully dispatched toward the safety of the rear.

A cold drizzle added to the misery of soldiers huddled without campfires, hot food, or hope in a better tomorrow. GIs stuffed rags in their rifle muzzles and wrapped the bolts in oilskin. Skittish sentries barked the code-word challenge—“Snafu!”—at suspicious shadows and strained to hear the proper countersign: “Damned right!” Southeast of Djebel Ksaira a patrol of five tanks and two dozen men led by Lieutenant Laurence P. Robertson laagered for the night in the lee of the Eastern Dorsal with their Shermans parked back-to-back like the spokes of a wheel. Robertson ordered the engines switched off one by one at ten-minute intervals to create the illusion that the platoon was drawing farther away rather than stopping.

Below Djebel Lessouda, ammunition handlers dumped an extra hundred rounds at each howitzer in Battery B of the 91st Field Artillery Battalion. The battery commander, Captain W. Bruce Pirnie, Jr., thought the gesture “seemed sort of silly. We had spent a quiet ten days in our position.” Everyone hoped that any disturbance of the peace would be brief. General Eisenhower himself had predicted as much in a message to the War Department earlier in the day: “Axis cannot risk at this moment to embark on operation which might mean heavy losses of men and equipment.”

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