Military history

“One Needs Luck in War”

DAWN was just a gray rumor in the east on February 26 when the creak of panzer tracks carried across the sage grass and limestone hills to the farming village of Sidi Nsir. Midway between Mateur and Béja on Highway 11, City Sneer—as Allied troops inevitably called it—anchored the center of the British line, which extended seventy miles from Cap Serrat, on the north coast, to Bou Arada, below the Medjerda River valley.

The usual sunrise sounds of singing larks and lowing cows abruptly ceased at 6:30 A.M., when four German battalions slammed into the British defenders. Stucco walls disintegrated beneath an artillery barrage and the urgent staccato of machine-gun fire merged into a single prolonged burst. By late morning, thirty tanks, including fourteen Tigers—all commanded by Colonel Rudolph Lang, conqueror of Longstop Hill on Christmas Day—had flanked the British gunners and closed to within 600 yards. “Self and three men left,” one lieutenant radioed. “It can’t be much longer. Good-bye and cheerio.”

Eight similar attacks had occurred across the British front in an offensive code-named OCHSENKOPF, or Ox Head. Local successes at Sidi Nsir and elsewhere notwithstanding, the assault was ill-conceived and would only hasten the Axis destiny in Tunisia. Originally designed by Arnim as a modest attack on Medjez-el-Bab, the plan blossomed under the fertilizing influence of Kesselring’s optimism to become a major offensive intended to seize Béja and once again widen the Axis bridgehead around Tunis.

As commander of the new Army Group Africa, Rommel had just been given authority over both his own army and Arnim’s, but he was informed of OCHSENKOPF almost as an afterthought. Foremost among its deficiencies, the offensive was uncoupled from the attack at Thala several days earlier, allowing the Allies time to regroup. Rommel was flabbergasted, and he railed against “the nincompoops at Comando Supremo.” As one officer observed of both sides in the Tunisian campaign, “It was a small war with too many generals.”

It was not the nincompoops who would die, of course, but Wehrmacht teenagers and fuzz-cheeked Tommies. For more than two weeks the fighting flared up and down the line in bursts of fine savagery. General Allfrey rushed reinforcements here and there across the V Corps front. By March 1, Lang had only five battleworthy panzers left, and his own soldiers were calling him Tank Killer.

The Germans fared somewhat better in the far north. Arnim personally surpervised a westward lunge by eight battalions, which swarmed out of their Jefna revetments past the curing bones of the dead left on Green and Bald Hills the previous November. Italian soldiers and German parachute engineers led by Rudolf Witzig, the hero of Green and Bald, deftly flanked the British and French at a mining hamlet named Sedjenane, which fell on March 3. After driving the unfledged 46th Division troops back ten miles, Arnim pushed them another ten by closing to within a few thousand yards of Djebel Abiod, the northern gateway to Béja. Anderson considered abandoning Medjez-el-Bab, on the assumption that the town’s fall was “almost inevitable” if the enemy attack enveloped the British left. Alexander not only refused to give up Medjez but forbade further retreat.

Cruel mountain fighting in bitter weather followed. Sniper fire so devastated the ranks of British junior officers that platoon and company commanders—disdaining Patton’s new rules for the Americans—removed their brass rank insignia, exchanged revolvers for rifles, tucked binoculars into their tunics, and tried to avoid any visible gesture that implied leadership acumen.

In the end Arnim was too weak and scattered to exploit his gains. The British line fell back twenty miles in the north, ten miles in the center, and very little in the south. That lost yardage would have to be won back, hill by bloody hill, before any drive on Tunis could resume. British casualties were heavy, including 2,500 men taken prisoner and sixteen tanks destroyed. But Arnim’s losses were more grievous, because he could afford them less. Although he claimed his casualties numbered only about a thousand, the British counted 2,200 German prisoners, with perhaps as many more killed and wounded.

Moreover, nearly 90 percent of the panzers used in OCHSENKOPF were destroyed or disabled. The bridgehead had been extended, slightly, but the Axis line was thin and brittle. The offensive accomplished little other than to infuriate Rommel and discomfit Anderson.

“It was not a happy period,” Anderson later acknowledged. “Things went wrong too often.”

Rommel was still seething at the nincompoops as his scout car labored in a nimbus of golden dust up a corkscrew mountain road at two P.M. on March 5. The beautiful failure at Thala—how close they had come to real victory!—lay ten days and two hundred miles behind. Now he was back where he felt most comfortable, in the desert, with his Afrika Korps, scanning the eastern horizon for the dusty spoor of Montgomery’s army. This was splendid country, a dominion of refracted light and arid space, far different from the fatherland, different even from Kasserine. He had stopped brooding long enough to admire the irrigated orchards and greening wheat fields and exclaim: “What a colony this would make for us Germans!”

From the crest of this nameless ridge, marked on the map as Hill 715, the turquoise Mediterranean shimmered twenty miles due north. Libya lay seventy miles to the east, but the British were much closer, perhaps fifteen miles, in a sinewy line that stretched north to south before Médenine, a verdant market town fed by a dozen roads from every compass point including the Saharan south. “The world could be so beautiful for all men,” Rommel had written to Lu two days before. “There is so much that could be done—especially here in Africa with its wide-open spaces.”

Yes, this would have made a fine colony; but the field marshal knew it was not fated, not for the Germans and certainly not for the Italians, though they coveted the land even more. He had again urged abandoning this corner of Tunisia and the Mareth defensive line behind him, shortening the perimeter he and Arnim held from 400 miles to 100. But the nincompoops would not agree, and while they stroked their chins in Berlin and Rome, he intended to strike.

Operation CAPRI was a spoiling attack, designed to wreck Eighth Army’s assembly areas and forestall the British offensive everyone knew would soon come. If CAPRI failed—and already OCHSENKOPF in the north had forced a two-day delay—“the end of the army in Africa would be close,” Rommel warned. There was “no point in harboring any illusions.” On the plain below, 31,000 men with 215 guns and 135 tanks—including the 10th, 15th, and 21st Panzer Divisions—jostled forward for the attack set to begin at dawn. Tank crews kicked a soccer ball around within sight of British pickets in a show of unconcern.

Concern was warranted. If “things went wrong too often” for Anderson in the north, now they went spectacularly right for Montgomery in the south. Since the capture of Tripoli on January 23, little fighting had occurred on Eighth Army’s front, other than halfhearted skirmishes intended to distract Rommel during Kasserine. Deliberate at best, Montgomery had intended to take another month before forcing his way into central Tunisia with a set-piece assault on the Mareth Line.

But Ultra decrypts in late February revealed Rommel’s intended attack at Médenine. In a redemption for British intelligence after the sour disappointment of Kasserine, Allied eavesdroppers soon knew the precise size, location, and timing of CAPRI. Montgomery stopped plodding and rushed his army forward to reinforce the single division exposed as his Médenine vanguard. Forewarned, he was now forearmed, with 300 British tanks, 817 artillery and antitank guns, twice Rommel’s air strength, and three seasoned divisions entrenched along a twenty-five-mile front.

Thick mist lingering after a rainy night masked the panzers as they spilled from their wadis at six A.M. on March 6. British troops were just tucking into their sausages and tea when a canopy of Nebelwerfer shells screamed overhead. The German attack went badly from the beginning. Commanders in the 21st Panzer fell for the ruse of bully beef tins laid out to simulate a minefield five miles west of Médenine. Swerving left, they veered beneath the frowning British guns and offered their flanks to stabbing volleys that left a dozen tanks in flames—all within view of Rommel on his height. 15th Panzer two miles north and 10th Panzer two miles south fared no better against the bristle of antitank guns. “It is an absolute gift,” Montgomery wrote, “and the man must be mad.” By ten A.M. the armored attack had stalled. Surviving panzers “wandered rather vaguely,” the British 201st Guards Brigade reported, looking for defilade from the steel sleeting through their ranks.

Gunfire faded to a mutter. Then a second assault at 2:30 P.M. offered 10,000 Axis infantrymen the dubious honor of a more prominent role in the attack. A Coldstream Guardsman reported:

A great many little figures appeared over the distant crest, all in formation. With a shriek and a thud the entire corps artillery came down…. When the smoke cleared, other little figures appeared with stretchers.

One Highlanders history called it a “wonderful shoot,” with field-gray troops “dropping like ninepins.” Montgomery, who kept a photo of Rommel above his desk, saw little to impress him in this attack. “The Marshal has made a balls of it. I shall write letters,” he sniffed, and retired to his trailer to do precisely that.

Médenine was “the first perfect battle,” a British major exulted. Thirty thousand artillery and antitank shells had gutted the Afrika Korps without British tanks ever leaving the sideline. Montgomery’s losses were a trifling 130. Rommel suffered 635 casualties, mostly German, and the destruction of fifty-two tanks, more than a third of his armored force. Scots Guard patrols that night slipped across the battlefield to blow up crippled panzers before they could be recovered, leaving behind fragments “none of which was larger than a card table.”

Rommel had ventured forward during the day before returning to his bivouac on Hill 715. The slaughter had been so lopsided, the battle so plainly anticipated by the British, that the field marshal suspected treachery, perhaps from the Italians, a suspicion Kesselring came to share. Neither ever imagined that the Allies were decoding his mail. “This operation was pointless from the moment it turned out that we had not taken the enemy by surprise,” Rommel said. “A great gloom settled over us all.”

Now came another slap, this one from the Berlin high command, which that night again rejected the field marshal’s plea to radically contract the Axis line. “To withdraw both armies into one cramped bridgehead around Tunis and Bizerte would spell the beginning of the end,” Hitler decreed.

If hardly unexpected, the decision was devastating. For the army group to remain in Africa was “now plain suicide,” Rommel declared. By the time he worked his way down Hill 715 on March 7, he had decided the moment had come to take his long-deferred sick leave in the Austrian Alps. No one wanted him in Tunisia, certainly not those running the war at Comando Supremo. “During the drive back to headquarters,” his command diary recorded, “C in C [commander-in-chief] decides to begin his health cure right now—at once.” He spent a day saying goodbye to his Africans: a pale, thin figure yellowed by jaundice, his face and neck splotched with angry boils. “C in C makes emotional farewell,” his aide wrote. “The whole thing stinks.”

“I hadn’t seen him for some weeks and was shocked at how unwell he looked,” his reconnaissance commander, Hans von Luck, later recounted. “He was visibly weak…and completely worn out.” Campaign maps were strewn around his trailer, memento mori of his lost cause. Rommel stood and shook hands. Tears flooded his eyes. “The tears of a great man now cast down,” Luck added, “moved me as much as anything I saw in the war.”

At 7:50 A.M. on March 9, he boarded a plane at Sfax for the flight to Rome. For over a month, his departure remained secret from the Allies, and they kept swatting at his ghost; but he never set foot in Africa again. “He was gradually consumed by the fire which glowed within him,” wrote his chief of staff. Even Kesselring’s optimism dimmed. Médenine was “the last trump in our Tunisian hand,” he subsequently concluded. “We could no longer hope to keep the war out of Europe and away from Germany for another year. One needs luck in war. Rommel without doubt had been deserted by his lucky star for quite some time.”

Over tea during a visit to Hitler’s secret command post in the Ukraine, Rommel futilely urged the Führer to shrink the Tunisian bridgehead to a defensible inner keep. Hitler dismissed the notion with a rant. “If the German people are incapable of winning the war,” the Führer declared, “then they can rot.” To his young son, Rommel confided, “Sometimes you feel that he’s not quite normal.”

“Dear General Arnim,” Rommel wrote on March 12:

A further withdrawal of forces is not approved for the present…. I am only sorry that the Führer has refused my urgent request to be allowed to return immediately to Africa. He has ordered me to begin my course of medical treatment at once. My thoughts and concern are now as before with Africa. Long live the Führer!

He was doomed and he knew it, and so too was the unspeakable cause he had served. “Our star was in decline,” Rommel later wrote. The glory was gone forever. He told his son, “I’ve fallen from grace.”

On Friday, March 12, as Rommel lamented his plight, Eisenhower wrote his own son at West Point: “I have observed very frequently that it is not the man who is so brilliant [who] delivers in time of stress and strain, but rather the man who can keep on going indefinitely, doing a good straightforward job.”

A “good straightforward job” was now called for, and in this homely requisite the Americans found their genius. If the winter campaign in North Africa had revealed Eisenhower’s infirmities, just as it revealed those of his army, spring would elicit strengths of character and competence in both the man and the host he commanded. Eisenhower had been naive, sycophantic, unsure of his judgment, insufficiently vigorous, and a more titular than actual commander. The U.S. Army had been sloppy, undisciplined, cavalier, insufficiently vigorous, and a more titular than actual army. These traits did not abruptly slough away, molting into brilliances of generalship and élan. But new martial lineaments emerged, and they became the stuff of victory and liberation.

After months of sailing with the wind in his face, Eisenhower now found a fresh breeze at his back. His health returned. Alexander and Patton shouldered many of his battlefield burdens. Axis weakness and the weight of Allied material strength became increasingly evident. The praise he craved was forthcoming—from Churchill, who publicly extolled his “selflessness of character and disdain of purely personal advancement,” and from President Roosevelt, who sent word: “Tell Ike that not only I, but the whole country is proud of the job he has done. We have every confidence in his success.” With his equilibrium restored and his job apparently secure, Eisenhower’s leadership ripened with the season.

“I have caught up with myself and have things on a fairly even keel,” he assured Marshall in early March. He sensed the power of a few fixed ideas compellingly preached, and these became tenets of the armies he commanded, even if sometimes practiced more in the breach than the observance. Foremost was Allied unity. “German propaganda is trying to convince the world that [the] British and Americans are at each other’s throats in this theater,” he told Alexander in a handwritten note. “We’ll show them.” He also radiated certitude of victory, which he saw in raw terms: good triumphing over evil after a struggle to rival the primordial brawl of angels. “We have bitter battling ahead, even in Tunisia,” he wrote an old friend on March 21. “Beyond this is the more serious, long-termed prospect of getting at the guts of the enemy and tearing them out.” To his brother Edgar he asserted, “We’re going to clear the Axis out of Africa—and that’s something!”

He was busier than ever, but more focused. “Political questions are not plaguing me as much as formerly,” he told Edgar. He announced that visitors to Algiers were unwelcome unless vital to victory. “American Legion commanders, princes, and others of that stripe are nothing but a deadly bore,” he wrote Marshall. “I am cutting everybody off my list [who] has not something specific to do with winning the war.” He took a personal interest in fielding better mine detectors, better tank sights, even better colored smoke for battlefield signaling.

Endearingly modest, he retained the homespun authenticity that was part of his charisma; men would do much to evoke that remarkable grin. “Eisenhower’s genius seems to be that of a good chairman,” the reporter Philip Jordan, once a harsh critic, told his diary in the weeks after Kasserine. “I have changed my views of this man: he has something.” To a former schoolteacher in Abilene, who had once had trouble distinguishing between the six Eisenhower boys, the commander-in-chief wrote on March 5: “I was third in line and the homeliest of the lot, if that will assist your memory.” The award of his fourth star, he told his son John, “doesn’t amount to a tinker’s damn in the winning of this war—and that is all that concerns me.” Whatever his relationship with Kay Summersby, he clearly pined for Mamie. “I miss her so much that every letter from her is worth more than anything else to me.”

More and more of his time was spent on HUSKY, the invasion of Sicily tentatively scheduled for a fair moon in mid-June, and he now looked over the horizon toward the next campaign, as a commander-in-chief must do. He formed a secret group called Force 141—the number was that of a meeting room in the Hôtel St. Georges—to draft and redraft nine separate plans for the assault. “HUSKY planning is most involved and difficult…[and] presents intricacies and difficulties that cause me a lot of headaches,” he told Marshall. He scrutinized lessons from TORCH regarding landing craft, shipping schedules, paratrooper operations, and a hundred other elements.

With one eye on Sicily, he kept the other on Tunisia. Perhaps his chief contribution in the spring campaign was to ensure that the matériel needed to finish the job was at hand. After the war a belief would take root that the successes of the American Army were attributable to overwhelming material superiority—brute strength—while setbacks could be chalked up to poor generalship. But modern war was a clash of systems: political, economic, and military. The engine of an enemy’s destruction could be built only by effectively integrating forces that ranged from industrial capacity to national character to educational systems that produced men able to organize global war.

“The battle,” Rommel famously observed, “is fought and decided by the quartermasters before the shooting begins.” The shooting had begun months before in northwest Africa, but now the quartermasters truly came into their own. The prodigies of American industrial muscle and organizational acumen began to tell. In Oran, engineers built an assembly plant near the port and taught local workers in English, French, and Spanish how to put together a jeep from a box of parts in nine minutes. That plant turned out more than 20,000 vehicles. Another new factory nearby assembled 1,200 railcars, which were among 4,500 cars and 250 locomotives ultimately added to North African rolling stock.

In late January, Eisenhower had pleaded with Washington for more trucks. Less than three weeks later, a special convoy of twenty ships sailed from Norfolk, New York, and Baltimore with 5,000 two-and-a-half-ton trucks, 2,000 cargo trailers, 400 dump trucks, 80 fighter planes, and, for ballast, 12,000 tons of coal, 16,000 tons of flour, 9,000 tons of sugar, 1,000 tons of soap, and 4,000 submachine guns, all of which arrived in Africa on March 6. “It was,” an Army account noted with justifiable pride, “a brilliant performance.”

In World War I, more than half of all supplies for American forces were obtained abroad, including nearly all artillery and airplanes. In this war, almost everything would be shipped from the United States, including immense tonnages sent to the Russians, British, French, and other allies. The demands of modern combat were unprecedented. Although a latter-day infantry division was half the size of its Great War predecessor, it typically used more than twice as much ammunition—111 tons on an average fighting day. In Africa, total supply requirements amounted to thirteen tons per soldier each month.

Can do. From late February to late March, 130 ships sailed from the United States for Africa with 84,000 soldiers, 24,000 vehicles, and a million tons of cargo. Although the U.S. II Corps lost more armor at Kasserine than the Germans had massed at the beginning of the battle, those losses were replaced immediately. Other matériel appeared just as fast, including 500 miles of extra communications wire shipped to the front from Algiers less than a day after it was requested. When Patton requested—no, demanded—new shoes for his entire corps, 80,000 pairs arrived almost overnight. So much ammunition arrived in Tunisia that it was stacked in pyramids and thatched with branches to simulate an Arab village.

The Americans’ “genius lay in creating resources rather than in using them economically,” a British study observed astutely. Room was found in cargo holds for countless crates of Coca-Cola, to the disbelief of British logisticians. A train supposedly hauling rations to Béja for 50,000 men was found upon arrival to carry one sack of flour, a case of grapefruit juice, a boxcar of crackers, and sixteen boxcars of peanut butter. Truck chassis and truck cabs were loaded on different ships and dispatched to different ports if not different continents; so were artillery projectiles and artillery charges, radios and radio batteries, and many other components whose utility is rarely improved by divorce. Quays became so cluttered with arriving cargo that ships could not even load ballast for the return trip home and began carrying it with them on the outbound voyage. Inventories were confused beyond computation: not until the summer of 1944 would the Army be able to tally with some confidence precisely what had been shipped to North Africa.

“The American Army does not solve its problems,” one general noted, “it overwhelms them.” There was prodigal in economy—of time, of motion, of stuff—but beyond the extravagance lay a brisk ability to get the job done. After Kasserine, American aviation engineers built five new airfields around Sbeïtla—in seventy-two hours. More than one hundred fields in all would be built during the Tunisian campaign. The enemy would not be “solved” in Tunisia. He would be overwhelmed.

The German military had pioneered modern military logistics, but as the war entered its forty-third month Wehrmacht victualers could not keep pace with the Allies on all fronts simultaneously. With so much effort devoted to the Eastern Front, and with the overmatched German navy occupied elsewhere, supply lines to North Africa depended heavily on the Italian fleet.

That was a flimsy reed. One-third of the Italian merchant fleet had been interned when Rome entered the war; by September 1942, half of the remainder was at the bottom of various seas. Then things got worse. From the beginning of TORCH to May 1943, the Italians would lose 243 ships and boats on the Tunisian run—most to Allied air attack—with another 242 damaged. The Sicilian Channel was described by one German officer as a “roaring furnace,” and to Italian sailors it became “the death route,” the most dangerous sea passage in the world. Italian captains often feigned engine trouble to avoid it; the skipper of one transport carrying 600 mules for the Wehrmacht’s 334th Division headed out three times, turned back three times, and never did reach Africa.

Ships not yet sunk were often immobilized for lack of fuel. Allied bombers battered Italian shipyards so relentlessly that at any given moment two-thirds of all escort vessels were unfit for service. Enthusiasm for “the Germans’ war” dwindled with each new casualty list, and Italians increasingly worried over the dolorous prospect of defending their homeland.

As spring advanced, nights grew shorter, offering less cover to those sneaking across the Mediterranean. The heavily armed, shallow-draft vessels known as Siebel ferries gave some relief, and ninety had braved the furnace by late January. But German logisticians calculated that they needed four times that number, and steel shortages kept the ferry fleet small. Before his departure, Rommel warned that “to create the build-up necessary for a defense against a major attack” in Africa would require shipping 140,000 tons of supplies each month; that was double the amount received in January and February combined, even before Allied interdiction intensified. By contrast, the Allies in March moved 220,000 tons just through the ports around Oran.

Other woes also plagued German logisticians. The relentless Allied air raids so unnerved Arab dockworkers that stevedores had to be imported from Hamburg. The ports being damaged, more and more supplies had to be hauled by a fleet of 200 Ju-52 transport planes, but each plane carried less than two tons. Trains used to move matériel within Tunisia required coal imported from Europe; as supplies dwindled, crews turned to local lignite, which greatly reduced locomotive efficiency. When even lignite grew scarce, the only alternative was a feeble mixture of oil cakes and sediment from the olive harvest. Cheap Tunisian wine was distilled into a thin fuel.

These tribulations stirred mild interest in the German high command and at Comando Supremo, where, as one account noted, “paper divisions had the strength of real ones,…ships and convoys were never sunk, and…armies, at least on paper, were always up to strength.” Even as the Allies crumpled at Kasserine, an inspection team from Berlin reported that if Axis ships kept sinking at the current rate none would remain afloat by early summer. Alarms from Africa grew shrill. Arnim warned that “if no supplies reach us, all will be up in Tunisia by 1 July.” The Axis bridgehead, he added, was becoming “a fortress without ammunition and rations.”

In Berlin and Rome promises were issued and broken, re-issued and re-broken. Without stripping the other battlefronts or resurrecting the Italian navy, little could be done. Even less was done. “Hitler wanted to be stronger than mere facts, to bend them to his will,” Kesselring’s chief of staff observed. “All attempts to make him see reason only sent him into a rage.”

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