Military history

None Returned

WITH Anderson’s decision to shorten his southern flank and evacuate Gafsa, GIs took a last quick wash in the hot-spring Roman baths and headed northwest. It was Sunday night, February 14. Soon Highway 15 was jammed with overloaded refugee carts, bleating livestock, and 180 Army trucks. A tearful bordello owner who introduced herself as Madame LaZonga pleaded with American officers for deliverance. Deliverance came. At midnight Madame rode out of town on the back of a General Stuart with six young women she identified as her daughters, all waving like beauty queens on a Columbus Day parade float. Combat engineers blew up the power station, “plunging us into total and rather sinister darkness,” one British officer noted. Then they wedged six tons of ammonal, plastic explosives, bangalore torpedoes, guncotton, and “great quantities of cortex” into a subterranean gallery beneath Gafsa’s sixteenth-century citadel. The blast, at six on Monday morning, was audible for thirty miles. “Rocks three feet in diameter flew more than a hundred feet into the air,” an engineer captain reported proudly. The explosion also demolished nearly three dozen houses; the bodies of thirty residents were recovered immediately, and eighty people remained missing when Axis troops arrived a day later.

The sprawling air bases at Fériana and Thélepte, forty-five miles up Highway 15, were next to be abandoned on Anderson’s order. Evacuation of the 3,500 troops had begun at eleven on Sunday night. For the benefit of future German occupants, a departing officer tacked up a large wall map showing the latest battle lines around Stalingrad, where Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus of the Wehrmacht’s Sixth Army had just surrendered.

Thirty-four Allied airplanes grounded for repairs were scuttled with thermite grenades. An engineer who had been detailed to destroy 50,000 gallons of gasoline recounted, “Before I finished the Germans were attacking the field. I was the last one out…. They were shooting at me, but there was an awful lot of smoke and they couldn’t see me very well.” The enemy nevertheless captured fifty tons of aviation gas and oil, and the engineer was not, it so happened, the last one out. The evacuation order failed to reach Company C of the 805th Tank Destroyer Battalion, which instead heeded a previous command to attack the approaching enemy. Repulsed, utterly, the company suffered seventy-five casualties and lost all twelve tank destroyers along with sixteen other vehicles.

A battlefield bromide cautions: “Never believe a straggler and rarely believe a casualty.” Both breeds had begun trickling in to 1st Armored Division headquarters, and their collective tale of prodigious German strength fell on deaf ears. Colonel Hightower arrived at Ward’s command post in the Sbeïtla cactus patch on Sunday night. He was, a witness reported, “badly used up and declared that his battalion had been wiped out.” Hightower confirmed that Tigers were involved in the attack along with scores of other panzers. Messages from Djebel Lessouda and Djebel Ksaira provided detailed if fragmentary intelligence about enemy tanks, guns, and troop concentrations.

Yet a mood of benighted denial had settled over the Allied high command, which no eyewitness testimony could dislodge. Anderson visited Robinett at Maktar and proposed borrowing a single tank battalion to drive the enemy from Sidi bou Zid. A French proposal to fling all of CCB into the counterattack was rejected by the British as imprudent given the suspected German legions waiting to pounce in the north. Shortly after eight P.M. on Sunday night, Anderson sent Fredendall a message:

As regards action in Sidi bou Zid: concentrate tomorrow on clearing up situation there and destroying enemy…. Army Commander deeply regrets losses suffered by CCA, but he congratulates them on their fine fight, is confident they will decisively defeat the enemy tomorrow, and is sure that the enemy must have suffered losses at least as heavy as their own.

This hallucination whisked through Speedy Valley without challenge and on to Ward. He and his operations officer, Hamilton Howze, then wrote the order to counterattack with a force weaker than the one already routed: a tank battalion, a tank destroyer company, an infantry battalion from CCC, and a few artillery tubes. “I didn’t like it much,” Ward told his diary, but he neither protested the order nor tried to enlarge the contingent. Howze, who admitted to knowing little about armor tactics, later acknowledged an enduring shame “for not contesting the order more strongly, even at the cost of my commission.”

The tank battalion chosen to lead the counterblow had never seen combat. Fitted with new Shermans and commanded by Lieutenant Colonel James D. Alger, a twenty-nine-year-old West Pointer from Massachusetts, the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Armored Regiment held battle honors dating to the Black Hawk War. But in this war the unit was green as grass. Ward told his diary: “Alger was more or less on his own.”

Robinett stood by the road in Maktar as the tanks rolled south, stripped for battle. “Off we went across the desert,” a lieutenant later recalled. “We knew not what we were getting into.” As for young Alger, Robinett reported that he “saluted and smiled as he passed.”

Half a mile south of Highway 13 and midway between Sidi bou Zid and Sbeïtla, Djebel Hamra provided a fine grandstand from which to watch the enemy get his comeuppance, and by midmorning on Monday, February 15, a covey of officers and correspondents had scaled the 2,000-foot crest. McQuillin arrived along with the CCC commander, Colonel Robert I. Stack. So did Hains and Hightower and the ubiquitous Ernie Pyle, with his “signature belch, inventive profanity, [and] wondrous hypochondria.” At Ward’s headquarters in Sbeïtla that morning, an officer had assured Pyle, “We are going to kick hell out of them today and we’ve got the stuff to do it with.”

The day was dry and sunny. A mirage shimmered like spilled mercury around Sidi bou Zid, a dark green smear thirteen miles distant. Beyond the town, the hazy lavender trapezoid of Djebel Ksaira sat on the horizon. Djebel Lessouda loomed to the left, tethered to the long ribbon of Highway 13. A landscape that from a distance seemed flat as a billiard table was in fact corrugated with subtle folds and dips. Even from Hamra’s Olympian summit the plain teemed with Arab farmers plowing their fields behind plodding black bullocks. Birdsong and the smell of dung rose on the morning thermals.

Just before one P.M., Alger’s battalion appeared on a camel track from the north. The column wheeled with parade-ground precision around a lone gum tree and headed southeast for Sidi bou Zid at eight miles per hour. Dust plumed behind each Sherman. Tank destroyers flared to the flanks, and an infantry battalion followed in trucks and half-tracks, trailed in turn by a dozen artillery tubes. From a radio truck blared “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” clearly audible on the hillcrest, where a lieutenant who was immune to the prevailing confidence of his seniors murmured, “‘Into the valley of death rode the six hundred.’”

Alger had been told to push beyond Lessouda and Ksaira “and then hold until friendly infantry could withdraw” from the hills where they were trapped. Ward’s staff drew his route with blue pencil and a straight edge on the only map available, a 1-to-100,000 scale sheet on which each mile of terrain was represented by less than an inch of paper. Drivers were to use Ksaira’s north nose as a homing beacon. No reconnaissance was conducted, and Allied intelligence put enemy strength at only sixty tanks. This was less than half their actual number.

At 1:40 P.M., twenty Stukas materialized like swallows in the brilliant air; they caused little damage but deranged Alger’s formation and confirmed that German commanders knew of the counterattack. Alger again paused after hearing a radioed warning that American planes planned a counterstrike on Sidi bou Zid. When no friendly planes appeared, he pressed on, neatly overrunning a half-dozen enemy antitank guns hidden along a wadi near the hamlet of Sadaguia.

Ward sat in his command post listening to radio traffic and eating lunch from a wooden tray. At 2:45 he heard CCC report: “Tanks now approaching Sidi bou Zid…. Enemy’s lack of reaction suspicious but, on present indications, enemy force must be small or sucking us in.” On a sheet of lined paper he scribbled a message for Drake to be dropped by airplane: “Daisy Mae join Lil Abner in the moonlight. He will give you a lift. Ward.” Howze also sent a radio message alerting the men on Djebel Ksaira to their imminent salvation: “Keep your eye peeled and be ready to jump on the bandwagon.”

No sooner did these optimistic messages go forth than a flare arced over Sidi bou Zid, “like a bright diamond in the afternoon sun,” A. D. Divine reported from Djebel Hamra. Muzzle flashes winked near the town; twenty seconds later, enemy artillery airbursts spattered the American gun batteries. Alger reported the telltale dust feathers of approaching enemy tanks on his left and, ten minutes later, his right.

Into the trap they had ridden, into the valley. “Brown geysers of earth and smoke began to spout,” wrote Pyle. He was astonished to see Arabs go on plowing, as if declining to acknowledge disfigurement of the day’s tranquility. An ammunition carrier detonated, “with flames leaping and swaying. Every few seconds one of its shells would go off, and the projectile would tear into the sky with a weird swhang-zing sort of noise.” Divine, standing at McQuillin’s elbow, reported that “within a matter of minutes the golden dust that trailed [Alger’s tanks] like banners had turned black. Blue smoke and red smoke from the German signals mingled with it…. We saw the counterattack falter and break and shatter.”

The killing was confined mostly to an onion field a thousand yards square and two miles west of Sidi bou Zid. Tank rounds by the hundreds skipped across the furrows, many of them striking armor plates with electric blue flashes. By 4:30, American tanks were brewing up from Company D in the north, Company E in the center, and Company F in the south. Subsequent tests would show that the Sherman’s main gun could not penetrate a Tiger’s frontal armor even at point-blank range, while a Tiger could puncture a Sherman a mile away. Less scientific but no less relevant was the calculation by an American soldier that medium tanks once holed took twenty minutes to burn up and that “it takes ten minutes for a hearty man within to perish.” Battle din muffled the sounds of those hearty men within, as if they were screaming underwater.

At 4:50 P.M., Colonel Stack radioed Alger. What was happening? What did the battalion need? “Still pretty busy,” Alger answered laconically. “Situation is hard. No answer to second question. Further details later.” Moments later a German round severed his radio antenna. Another struck the gun barrel and jammed the turret; four more in quick succession blew through the engine and turret, killing the radio operator and triggering dreamy clouds of fire retardant. Leaping from the hatch with two crewmen, Alger sprinted north across the desert. Within half an hour he was a prisoner, soon to join John Waters in a German camp.

Stack warned Ward that getting to Lessouda and Ksaira looked doubtful: “May not be able to reach position indicated to you by sundown.” Five minutes later he ordered his infantry battalion to hold in place rather than risk encirclement. At six P.M., the attack was canceled outright, and all survivors began pulling back. Four Sherman tanks kept in reserve rallied below Djebel Hamra to await their fifty-two sisters. But, as the battalion war diary recorded, “None returned.”

“As dusk began to settle, the sunset showed red on the dust of the Sidi bou Zid area,” McQuillin later reported. “There was no wind, and the frequent black smoke pillars scattered over the terrain marked locations of burning tanks.” He counted twenty-seven tanks aflame, but “the heavier dust cloud near Sidi bou Zid no doubt obscured more that were afire. It was easy to recognize a burning tank due to the vertical shaft of smoke.” Throughout the evening the desert leaked beaten, smoke-stained tankers. “I found myself all alone wandering amongst the dead and wreckage,” recounted one soldier. “The night had a dead silence except for a few howling dogs.” German salvage teams fanned across the shell-plowed field, scavenging weapons by the light of flaming tanks and hosing brains and gore from the few Shermans that had failed to burn.

By morning, CCA would estimate casualties from the past two days at 1,600 men. Nearly a hundred tanks had been sacrificed, along with fifty-seven half-tracks and twenty-nine artillery pieces. Also lost, after such obviously inept generalship, was whatever confidence the ranks still held in the high command.

Listening to the bray of voices from the radio, Ward refused to give up hope. At 10:30 Monday night, he told Fredendall, “We might have walloped them or they might have walloped us.”

Anderson had no illusions. “We are dangerously dispersed,” he warned Eisenhower in a message. “It is wise to consider in good time whether we should not voluntarily withdraw to the main ridge of the Grand Dorsal.” The “awful nights of fleeing, crawling, and hiding from death,” in Ernie Pyle’s words, had begun.

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