Military history

“We Know There’ll Be Troubles of Every Sort”

ROMMEL’S army had slipped from Kasserine back across the central Tunisian plateau toward the Eastern Dorsal. As February yielded to March, the opposing lines took roughly the same shape they had held before the Valentine’s Day offensive knocked the Americans nearly into Algeria. The Axis territorial gain amounted to a fragile salient in lower Tunisia; it bowed as far west as Sbeïtla and Gafsa on flat, indefensible terrain that Rommel knew he could not hold against a determined attack. Commanders on both sides recognized that a final campaign in Africa would be fought on a shrinking battlefield—for now, the eastern third of Tunisia. Here, in a ragged rectangle fifty miles wide and 300 miles long, two Allied armies would confront two Axis armies in a climactic struggle for control of the continent and the southern Mediterranean.

In the north, Arnim’s Fifth Panzer Army secretly prepared to widen the bridgehead around Tunis and Bizerte by recapturing some of the territory held since early winter by Anderson’s First Army. In the south, Rommel regrouped his Panzer Army Africa and pondered how to stop Montgomery’s Eighth Army, which in the past four months had traveled more than a thousand miles from Egypt to begin pushing into Tunisia from western Libya.

And in the center, where II Corps remained under Anderson’s tactical command, the Americans buried their dead, turned their backs to Kasserine Pass, and waited to see who would lead them forward.

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The Carthaginians of antiquity—notoriously poor losers—had often punished their defeated generals with crucifixion. Whether Eisenhower had this cautionary Tunisian precedent in mind is uncertain, though he was, it is true, a devoted student of the Punic Wars. In any case, to avoid an equivalent fate for himself he had begun looking for scapegoats while the ashes of Kasserine were still warm. In a message to Marshall he minimized his losses, asserting with some legitimacy that “this affair is only an incident” in the broader African campaign. Yet the reeling defeat and 6,000 American casualties sent morale plummeting throughout the theater; sixty ambulances had shuttled the evacuated wounded to hospitals from the Oran airfield. “It’s pretty discouraging,” Eisenhower’s deputy Everett Hughes wrote in his diary. “I can’t make heads or tails of the whole war. We have men but no organization. Who does what?” Censorship kept the home front ignorant of the full extent of Allied losses, but Eisenhower knew that soon enough the truth would out and alarm would spread.

First to go was his intelligence officer, Brigadier Eric E. Mockler-Ferryman, whom Eisenhower believed had relied excessively on Ultra to divine enemy intentions. The brigadier went quietly. “If a man is not wanted,” he observed, “argument won’t change the situation.” Eisenhower asked London to send him a British replacement “who has a broader insight into German mentality and method.” Lesser heads soon rolled, too, among them Stark’s. He was sent home on March 2 and would later serve with distinction in the Pacific. McQuillin’s relief came soon after Stark’s. Tunisia, as Paul Robinett observed, was fast becoming “a professional graveyard, particularly for those in the upper middle part of the chain of command.” Alexander strongly considered cashiering Anderson; unable to persuade Montgomery to relinquish the Eighth Army chief of staff as a replacement, he instead decided to keep Anderson but to “watch him very closely.”

Orlando Ward also awaited the ax. As he told his diary, “F and I do not have enough room.” “F,” of course, was the crux. For months Eisenhower had handled Fredendall with the tongs appropriate for a presumed Marshall protégé, even while privately voicing regret at not sending Patton to Tunisia instead. The commander-in-chief had also, inconveniently, twice written notes commending the II Corps commander for his leadership during Kasserine, and had praised him to Marshall as a “stouthearted” battle captain worthy of a third star. If, as Moltke once claimed, a general needed to lose an entire division before becoming truly experienced, then Fredendall’s seasoning was well advanced.

But reports from the front could hardly be ignored. Ernie Harmon was scathing. “He’s no damned good,” he told Eisenhower on February 28, on his way back to Morocco. “You ought to get rid of him.” Fredendall was a “common, low son-of-a-bitch,” Harmon added, “a physical and moral coward.” Truscott reported that II Corps was unlikely to “ever fight well under his command.” Even Alexander chimed in. “I’m sure,” he told Eisenhower, “you must have a better man than that.”

A final verdict came from an officer who had just arrived in Africa, another West Point classmate from ’15 sent to help however Eisenhower deemed fit. On March 5, during a break at a command conference near Tébessa, Eisenhower asked Major General Omar N. Bradley to step onto the porch of the mansion where they were meeting.

“What do you think of the command here?” Eisenhower asked, pulling furiously on a cigarette.

“It’s pretty bad,” Bradley replied. “I’ve talked to all the division commanders. To a man they’ve lost confidence in Fredendall as the corps commander.”

The deed was done quietly, in a brief encounter at Youks-les-Bains airfield. Fredendall would receive his third star, command of a training army in Tennessee, and a hero’s welcome home. Soon enough, Eisenhower would develop the capacity to cut a throat without remorse or emollient, but not yet. Fredendall had been given a soft landing, Eisenhower told Harmon, to avoid shaking public confidence in the high command, and that certainly included himself. To Marshall he explained that Fredendall “has difficulty in picking good men” and “has shown a peculiar apathy in preparing for a big push.”

Fredendall stole away from Le Kouif at 3:30 A.M. on March 7, after distributing his liquor cache to the staff. Rather than tempt fate by flying to Algiers, he chose to leave in a civilian Buick in the dead of night when no enemy fighters could find him, although “there was something wrong with the shock absorbers and we bounced all the way,” his aide reported. Along the road, Fredendall and his traveling party would stop for a picnic lunch of K rations and a piquant French burgundy he had been saving.

“Glory be,” Ward wrote. But the most trenchant epitaph came from Beetle Smith: “He was a good colonel before the war.”

Patton was hunting boar in the Moroccan outback when a dust-caked messenger on motorcycle flagged him down with orders for the front. A few hours later, he arrived at the Maison Blanche airfield, outside Algiers, where he and Eisenhower had a brief conference over the hood of a car. The commander-in-chief expected Patton to command II Corps for only three weeks or so before resuming his preparations for the invasion of Sicily. “Your personal courage is something you do not have to prove to me, and I want you as a corps commander—not as a casualty,” Eisenhower lectured. “You must not retain for one instant any man in a responsible position where you have become doubtful of his ability to do his job…. I expect you to be perfectly cold-blooded about it.”

Patton had been brooding over the still uncertain fate of his son-in-law—he would personally comb Djebel Lessouda for John Waters’s grave—and in any case, dispassion was hardly in his nature. He “damned the Germans so violently and emotionally that tears came to his eyes three times during the short conference,” Butcher reported. Eisenhower agreed that the man hated the enemy “like the devil hates holy water.”

Omar Bradley, who was to become Patton’s deputy, sketched an indelible portrait of his first appearance at the Le Kouif primary school:

With sirens shrieking Patton’s arrival, a procession of armored scout cars and half-tracks wheeled into the dingy square opposite the schoolhouse headquarters of II Corps at Djebel Kouif on the late morning of March 7…. In the lead car Patton stood like acharioteer. He was scowling into the wind and his jaw strained against the web strap of a two-starred steel helmet.

“He is indeed picturesque,” Ward told his diary. One captain spoke for many young officers: “Patton sure scares the shit out of me.”

Both reactions pleased him, and he wasted no time leaving his bootprints on II Corps. One definition of military morale is a will to fight that is stronger than the will to live; the Americans plainly needed inspiriting. “Bedizened with stars and loaded with guns,” Robinett observed, Patton “came with Marsian speech and a song of hate.” Again and again he vowed, “We will kick the bastards out of Africa.” For this task, he needed officers who “can sweat, get mad, and think at the same time.” And he needed men with “an adequate hatred of Germans.”

They soon developed a more than adequate hatred of Patton. A flurry of orders intended to stiffen discipline caused an uproar throughout the corps. Every lieutenant was now required to prominently display his gold or silver rank insignia, known as “aiming stakes” for the propensity of enemy snipers to single out recognizable officers. Military policemen, derided as Patton’s Gestapo, routinely fined drivers for improper tire pressure or low oil levels. Failure to wear leggings incurred a $15 fine—“We don’t even have underwear let alone puttees,” one pilot wailed—and to be without a necktie cost $10. It was said that graves registration units would not bury a man killed in action unless he was properly garbed in cravat and leg wraps. Unpolished boots and unfastened chin straps, even in the latrine, also drew fines. Every evening Patton returned to the school with an armful of confiscated knit watch caps, which he detested as slovenly accoutrements of the slipshod.

Determined and energetic, he could also be boorish and abusive, incapable of distinguishing between the demands of a disciplinarian and the caprices of a bully. “Terry, where is your foxhole?” he asked Allen during a visit to the 1st Division. When Allen pointed to a slit trench outside his tent, Patton unzipped his fly and urinated in it, signaling his contempt for passive defenses. Fidgeting and yawning during a meeting at Le Kouif with twenty officers of the Big Red One, he abruptly accused them of cowardice and demanded that the “yellow-bellies…get in there and do a little fighting.” When Allen’s chief of staff pointed out that the concussion of artillery blasts could break the neck of a soldier whose helmet was fastened, Patton erupted in a spittle-flecked tirade, barking that “when he wanted advice from a colonel he damn well would ask for it and otherwise he damn well didn’t want it.” After another officer had a close brush with an enemy patrol, Patton declared, “You might have gotten killed. When I want you to get killed, I will tell you.”

Nicknames stuck to him like steel to a magnet: Gorgeous George, Flash Gordon, Necktie Patton, Old Chewing Gum. The most flattering, Old Blood and Guts, soon mutated into Blood and Bull, or Our Blood, His Guts. Some admired him as a force of nature—“smart, blasphemous, fit, and glamorous…but born in the wrong century,” as one British officer put it. Most simply tried to stay out of his way, as they would shun a dangerous storm. A believer in reincarnation, he might have been an embodiment of William Tecumseh Sherman, as described by Walt Whitman: “a bit of stern open air made up in the image of a man.” Bradley concluded that Patton was simply “the strangest duck I have ever known.”

Morale improved, perhaps because of Patton, perhaps despite him. Beginning on March 8, II Corps was no longer part of Anderson’s First Army but directly under Alexander and his 18th Army Group as part of the field marshal’s reorganization. The American divisions—the 1st Armored and 1st, 9th, and 34th Infantry—coalesced in a way that had been impossible the first four months of the campaign. While forestalling any renewed German attack with thick minefields—in March, more than 12,000 antitank mines were planted every day—the divisions regrouped and trained intently for several weeks. “We’ve been given a wet ball on a muddy field,” said Allen, who was much inclined to football metaphors. “Watch us run with it.”

Ted Roosevelt recorded on March 1 that he had changed clothes for the first time since January 14. Clean pants, hot food, and timely mail did wonders for the soul. Driving from encampment to encampment in Rough Rider, Roosevelt shambled among the tents, shouting hail-fellow exhortations. After the men had scrubbed their filthy uniforms with gasoline and lined up for delousing, he helped pass out medals right and left, roaring approval in his foghorn voice before speeding off to another bivouac.

“I’ve always thought that it was nonsense to say Americans don’t like medals,” he wrote Eleanor. “I knew I liked them. I wanted to get them, put them on, and walk up and down in front of you and say, ‘Look what a hell of a feller you’ve married.’”

But Roosevelt’s sobriety in other letters captured the mood of many men who now understood that they were in a fight to the death for the duration. “I guess nations going to war must go through a stumbling period before they purge the incompetents,” he wrote:

I think this is a five-year war. It won’t be over until another winter has passed, until we are firmly on the Continent, and until Germany is faced with still another winter…. Now we know too much. Now we know that the world we knew is a long time dead. We know there’ll be troubles of every sort.

Patton had immediate troubles of an administrative sort, which would plague him and other American commanders to the end of the war. Problems with replacement soldiers sent to fill casualty-depleted ranks had been evident even before Kasserine. Now, as thousands more trundled into Tunisia, it was clear that the War Department was repeating the blunders of 1918, when the Army’s personnel system had broken down completely.

Soldiers were viewed as interchangeable parts, like spark plugs or gaskets. As parts wore out or broke, new parts were shipped to keep units running close to full strength. Plausible in theory, this assembly-line model had several pernicious flaws. The urgent demand for replacements in mid-February led the Army to strip soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division and 2nd Armored Division in Morocco. Many of those transferred were capable, but few commanders could resist the chance to dump their troublemakers and bunglers, too.

Worse yet, the War Department had assumed that airpower would so lighten the infantry’s burden that losses would be less than they had been in World War I. Remarkably, no one foresaw that riflemen would be chewed up much faster than, say, cooks or typists. Moreover, combat simply wore down units. Senior generals came to realize that divisions should not be left in the line longer than thirty to forty days without rest; to fill the ranks with inexperienced replacement soldiers who lacked emotional ties to their new comrades did nothing for combat efficiency.

These defects, and more, began to appear in Tunisia. Because of the urgent demand for combat replacements, many of the men shoved forward had not finished basic training, and many were physical or disciplinary derelicts. They were handled, Eisenhower’s personnel chief admitted, like “sacks of wheat.” One study estimated that 80 percent had not qualified in their basic weapons. Of 2,400 men sent to the 34th Division, an extraordinary number were overage and in poor physical shape. One batch of 250 men included 119 who were thirty-nine or older. Nineteen thousand trained U.S. armor force replacements would arrive in Africa, but the crying need for rear-echelon service units meant most became drivers, stevedores, and ammo handlers. Rather than trust the vagaries of Army personnel officers, savvy commanders began sending their agents to replacement depots to pick out new soldiers, one officer wrote, “somewhat as one would buy a horse.”

No less worrisome was a surge in mental breakdowns. Every man exposed to extended combat had become “a bit windy of shellfire,” in a British reporter’s phrase. Before Kasserine, “psychiatric reactions” accounted for a fifth, and sometimes more than a third, of all battlefield evacuations. Now, in the spring of 1943, more than 1,700 men would be admitted to the psychiatric ward of a single hospital, the 95th General, and many thousands of others were showing symptoms of instability. Eisenhower worried in a memo to Patton that “an increasing number of these cases are now being reported.”

First known as shell shock because of the Great War misapprehension that neuropsychiatric disorders derived mainly from concussions suffered in artillery barrages, the syndrome in Tunisia was renamed combat exhaustion, a term borrowed from the British. Soldiers also called it war fatigue or old sergeant syndrome. The Army’s chief psychiatrist described a typical patient: “He appeared as a dejected, dirty, weary man. His facial expression was one of depression, sometimes of tearfulness. Frequently his hands were trembling or jerky.” By the end of the war more than 500,000 men from the Army ground forces alone would be discharged for psychiatric reasons—this despite ruthless culling during induction physicals, when 12 percent of the 15 million draftees examined were rejected as mentally unfit. For every six men wounded, another became a neuropsychiatric casualty.

Individual cases in North Africa were often poignant, sometimes horrifying. A 1st Division soldier “beat his head against our foxhole ’til his skin on his forehead was just hanging in strands. He was foaming at the mouth like a madman.” A twenty-year-old infantryman, the only survivor in a truck hit by a mortar shell, loped into the night with a pair of suspenders in search of a tree from which to hang himself. Another unhinged twenty-year-old agitatedly recounted how he had positioned the bodies of two dead soldiers, one German and the other American, as shields during an artillery barrage. Men by the hundreds, then by the thousands, had tremors or paralysis in their limbs, dysfunctional bowels, vacant stares. Some tried to scoop foxholes in their hospital cots with hands and feet, tearfully whimpering that “Herman the German” was stalking through the ward.

At first, serious cases were evacuated far from the front, often to the United States or England, where they lost touch with their units, suffered a sharp loss of self-esteem, and often exaggerated their problems. An Army study concluded that commanders fostered “an attitude closely akin to the old Puritan approach toward the venereal problem—the ostrich attitude, the ‘we don’t discuss it’ idea, or ‘it just isn’t so.’ Unfortunately it is very much so…. The front-line soldier wears out in combat.”

Doctors soon learned to treat patients as far forward as possible. Treatments in North Africa included electroshock; large doses of barbiturates, to induce deep sleep for two to seven days; and sodium pentothal, intended to bring repressed demons to the surface. Nearly three-quarters of treated soldiers resumed military duties in some form, but less than 2 percent returned to combat.

The lessons emerging from Tunisia were clear to Army psychiatrists: “the average soldier reached his peak effectiveness in the first ninety days of combat and was so worn out after 180 days that he was rendered useless and unable to return to military service.” Another study noted that “no man is removed from combat duty until he [has] become worthless. The infantryman considers this a bitter injustice…. He can look forward only to death, mutilation, or psychiatric breakdown.” After months of stress, of close calls, of witnessing the unspeakable, even the bravest men wondered, as one fighter squadron commander did, “Am I becoming uncourageous?” Modern combat could break any soldier.

That was not a conclusion acceptable to the U.S. Army, and it was certainly anathema to the new II Corps commander. Patton had little tolerance for human limits. In his cosmology, combat exhaustion was an illegitimate diagnosis for cowards to hide behind.

Visiting a field hospital near Fériana shortly after his arrival in Tunisia, Patton displayed the choler that would cost him his command a few months later, in Sicily, when he brutally slapped two hospitalized soldiers. Strolling from bed to bed, murmuring comfort, he asked one wounded soldier how he had been hurt. The man replied that he had been shot while trying to surrender.

Patton whirled away, his face contorted with disgust. “Serves him right,” he said bitterly. “That’s what he gets for giving up.”

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