AN old Arab song warned:
Gafsa is miserable,
Its water is blood,
Its air is poison.
You may live there a hundred years
Without making a friend.
Miserable it was, a flyspecked phosphate camp of 10,000 souls. Jugurtha, who led the Numidian revolt against Rome in the second century B.C., once hid his treasury here because the town was so remote. After changing hands four times in the past three months, Gafsa had become even more wretched; the budding groves of pomegranates and apricots could hardly redeem the misery of war. As Montgomery prepared to give battle 120 miles southeast at Mareth, General Alexander had ordered the Americans to liberate Gafsa yet again. The attack was code-named Operation WOP, in homage to the 7,000 Centauro Division soldiers occupying the town and nearby hills. GIs composed their own tribute, a ribald ditty titled “The Third Time We Took Gafsa.”
If seizing Gafsa seemed insufficiently ambitious for Patton’s II Corps, which had swelled to 88,473 men—precisely the size of Sherman’s army in Carolina at the end of the Civil War—the modesty of the assignment reflected Alexander’s disdain for American fighting prowess. Alexander had two strategic options. He could use II Corps and Anderson’s First Army to drive a wedge between the Axis forces across the Eastern Dorsal, isolating Arnim’s army in the north from the First Italian Army in the south; each would in turn be ground between the Allied millstones. Or, he could squeeze Axis troops into a shrinking bridgehead around Tunis, with Montgomery’s Eighth Army crushing the enemy to pulp.
Alexander chose the latter course. The inexperienced Americans, he believed, could not withstand the panzer counterattacks sure to follow any attempt to split the bridgehead. “I do not want the Americans getting in the way,” Montgomery privately told Alexander. Instead, he added, the cousins should “get the road ready for me to use” by lifting mines and fixing potholes.
Montgomery was insufferable, as usual, but Alexander’s decision was defensible in the wake of Kasserine: the memory of terrified Yanks scorching up the Thala road remained vivid. With Eisenhower’s concurrence, he twice warned Patton to avoid “pitched, indecisive battles” where “we might get into trouble.” Alexander considered Patton “a dashing steed,” but he did not want him dashing into Montgomery’s path. Patton would be kept on a tighter rein than Montgomery and even Anderson. Allen’s 1st Division was ordered to “assist the advance of the British Eighth Army from the south” by building a supply dump in Gafsa and protecting Montgomery’s left flank as he drove toward Sfax and then Tunis. Only scouts would venture southeast of Gafsa toward Gabès, although if things went well Ward’s 1st Armored Division might later push on due east through Sened Station to Maknassy. Of Patton’s four divisions, the greenest pair—the 34th and 9th—would remain in reserve.
Patton was incensed at being relegated to a weak supporting role, but he swallowed his pride and prepared to attack. Word of his third star had arrived on March 12. “I am a lieutenant general,” he told his diary. “Now I want, and will get, four stars.” A day later, as if recalculating the azimuth of his character, he added, “I am just the same since I am a lieutenant general.” No man felt a more vivid kinship with the great captains of yore, and Patton now likened the Gafsa offensive to Stonewall Jackson’s flank attack in support of Longstreet at the Second Battle of Manassas in 1862. Tromping about in high brown boots and a fleece-lined coat, he told his commanders he wanted “to see more dead bodies, American as well as German.” To his troops he declaimed:
Fortunately for our fame as soldiers, our enemy is worthy of us. The German is a war-trained veteran—confident, brave, and ruthless. We are brave. We are better-equipped, better fed, and in the place of his blood-glutted Woten, we have with us the God of Our Fathers Known of Old…. If we die killing, well and good, but if we fight hard enough, viciously enough, we will kill and live. Live to return to our family and our girl as conquering heroes—men of Mars.
He was rolling now. On March 16 Patton summoned all staff officers to his dank command post in a shot-up Fériana hotel. With a scowl made even fiercer by the cold sore erupting on his upper lip, he announced: “Gentlemen, tomorrow we attack. If we are not victorious, let no one come back alive.” He excused himself, then retired to pray. To Bea he wrote, “I am always a little short of breath before a match.”
That night, military policemen wielding flashlights hooded with red cellophane waved the convoys down rain-slick Highway 15 on the forty-five-mile approach march to Gafsa. The floor of each vehicle was sandbagged, to absorb mine blasts. Arab tents on the hillsides glittered like cobwebs in the dim moonlight. “The hardest thing a general has to do,” Patton told his diary, “is to wait for the battle to start after all the orders are given.” At eleven P.M. he heard the rumble of artillery. “Well, the battle is on,” he scribbled. “I am taking off my shoes to go to bed.”
There was no battle, although the American press in its eagerness to forget Kasserine would tout Operation WOP as if it were Second Manassas. Twelve hundred Italians and a German reconnaissance battalion slipped away to the east at dawn, unmolested by Ward’s CCA, which was delayed by heavy rain and failed to sever the escape road to Sened Station as planned. Ted Roosevelt waited on a low ridge while bombers plastered Gafsa and scouts drove sheep over the road to test for mines. After hours of listening to confused voices crackle from the radio, Roosevelt impatiently bolted forward. Rough Rider led a convoy of jeeps—“like a small flotilla of ships bumping through the wadis,” one witness wrote—into Gafsa to find the enemy gone. By 12:30 P.M. the town was declared secure.
“The Dagoes beat it,” Patton wrote. He and Allen, who wore riding breeches and a field jacket, drove down from Fériana to find only stunned civilians emerging from their cellars. An old woman in black wailed on a broken balcony, her grief sweeping across the ruined town. A month of Axis occupation and the morning’s bombardment had finished the destruction begun by American demolitionists during the Kasserine retreat. Italian and Arab pillagers had wrecked nearly every house belonging to Gafsa’s 500 French residents and 800 Jews—smashing furniture, tearing doors from their hinges, and stealing rugs, faucets, and bathtubs. Cattle and camels had been driven off; not for months had date caravans arrived in the fondouk, and the grain market in the Halle aux Grains stood forlornly empty. Items not stolen or smashed had been thrown down cisterns, including family photo albums. After the previous Axis occupation, French troops had shot Arab looters and left their bodies in the square; now they began rounding up the usual suspects again.
Within hours, the Americans had once more made the town theirs. Chaplains celebrated a mass to honor St. Patrick’s holy day. Later in the week, Patton claimed as his headquarters the yellow brick gendarmerie with its blue tile floor. In an abandoned mine shaft, soldiers on patrol discovered ore cars, which they rode down the tracks like a roller coaster, shrieking in merriment. Madame LaZonga and her “daughters” soon returned from Tébessa to reopen the bordello, contributing to venereal disease rates in Tunisia that had reached 34 cases per 1,000 white soldiers and a staggering 451 per 1,000 black soldiers. Patton ordered the brothel off-limits to U.S. units, but French colonial troops offered to rent their helmets and tunics as disguises. The II Corps provost marshal and intelligence chief both reported that when asked by a sentry if he was out of uniform, one patron in a kepi answered, “No, suh, ah sure isn’t. I’se a Moroccan.”
Patton knew the value of publicity, and he wasted no time wooing the correspondents who trailed him to Gafsa. Charming and voluble, he hosted press dinners featuring Viennese steak and good coffee; each hack received a dessert pack of cigarettes and a roll of Life Savers. A radio report broadcast to the United States just before midnight on March 17 told listeners: “If any American officer ever had the will to win, that man is Lieutenant General George S. Patton. He certainly won the first round today…. Apparently the Nazis saw him coming and ran.”
But even Patton could hardly persuade himself that this was the campaign of a Stonewall Jackson. “The great and famous battle of Gafsa has been fought and won,” he sarcastically informed his diary. To reporters he said, “I’d feel happier if I knew where the Germans were. As long as I know where they are I don’t mind how hard they fight.” Already frustration had set in. On the evening of March 17 he called Terry Allen and snapped, “You should have kept going until you found somebody to fight.”
On the nineteenth, as Montgomery prepared to attack Mareth, Alexander modified his orders to the Americans. Patton was to extend his two-pronged offensive to the east. After seizing Sened Station, Ward’s tanks and an infantry regiment were to press on twenty miles to Maknassy, then dispatch raiders to shoot up a Luftwaffe airfield across the Eastern Dorsal at Mezzouna. Farther south, Allen’s Big Red One would edge into the hills beyond Gafsa. Darby’s 1st Ranger Battalion had already captured El Guettar, a palmy oasis ten miles southeast of Gafsa on Highway 15. Italian troops melted into the rugged djebels along a gravel track dubbed Gumtree Road, which ultimately led a hundred miles to Sfax.
No one who met him ever doubted that Bill Darby was born to command other men in the dark of night. He exuded certainty, one officer said, “that he could lead anyone into combat and bring them back safely.” Handsome and good-humored, he often joked that he hailed from an Arkansas family so poor that his father had slopped the children at a hog trough. Except for minor missions at Arzew in November and at Sened in February, his battalion had seen little fighting, and many bored Rangers had transferred to conventional units for fear the war was passing them by. Some had sold their British mountain boots in Algeria to pay for wine or harlots. Now they would regret it, because Terry Allen had a dark-of-night mission for them. After falling back from Gafsa, several thousand Italians had occupied an impregnable defile in the hills east of El Guettar. A frontal assault by the Big Red One down Gumtree Road would cost hundreds of casualties, and American units veering southeast on the paved road to Gabès would also expose a flank to enemy artillery from the same defile. Isn’t there some way, Allen had asked Darby, to loop behind them without attacking into the teeth of Italian defenses?
On the evening of March 20, a serpentine column of 500 Rangers and seventy mortarmen veered northeast off Highway 15 three miles outside El Guettar. They had taped their dog tags to prevent clinking and blackened their skin with dirt and spit. Up the scree they tramped, stumbling over unseen obstacles on an unblazed trail. More than a thousand boots scraped the rock with a soft hiss that one soldier likened to “the sighing of the sea.”
For ten miles they snaked over the fissured shoulder of Djebel Orbata, a 3,700-foot bluff looming above Gumtree Road. They crossed flumes and saddles; to scale the sandstone cliffs, they clasped wrists to form human chains. Their hands were bloodied, their fatigues shredded. At one A.M., the moon rose. Among those struggling to keep up was a bald, middle-aged socialite named Ralph M. Ingersoll, who had been managing editor of Fortune and The New Yorker, and then general manager of Time, Inc. Now he was just another footsore engineer lieutenant.
No one will ever believe how beautiful it was on that march after the moon came out [he wrote]…. The deep valleys, the jagged peaks, the play of moonlight and shadow in the gorges, the delicate translucent puffs of clouds that drifted slowly across the edge of the moon as it rose higher and arched across the sky—all these were themes in a symphony in gray and silver tones…. Going over the saddle of a hill, you could see the line of men for several hundred yards ahead, winding down the hillside, figures in soft silver armor.
By first light on the twenty-first, Ingersoll and the mortarmen had fallen behind; the night seemed less enchanting after more sweaty miles lugging the heavy tubes. But the Rangers were where they wanted to be: a thousand yards above Gumtree Road, overlooking the sleeping Centauro encampment. The Italians in the narrow gorge had left their flank unguarded. Some Rangers dozed while awaiting the attack order, and when Darby woke them they “scrambled to their feet…rubbing fists in their eyes like sleepy children.” He studied the tents and trenchworks below, then announced, “Okay, men, let’s have a shoot.” The Rangers fixed bayonets and scuttled down the hill. “You wait and see,” another soldier murmured, “they won’t bring no prisoners back.”
The brisk bugle notes of “Charge” echoed along the sierra, now aglow with the ferrous tints of dawn. Morning shadows limned the valley with blue piping. “Give them some steel!” Darby cried. The Rangers clattered forward in a whooping semicircle. Bullets scythed the Italian officers’ mess, set for a breakfast no one would eat. Soldiers in their underwear poured from the tents, flushed by grenades. “Nice shooting,” Darby called over the radio. “We need a little cold steel over there on the hill mass to the south…. They are making a nuisance of themselves up there.” Ingersoll arrived in time to hear mortar rounds belch from their tubes. Rangers kneeling behind the rocks reminded him of soldiers in a Civil War print shooting along “a tumbledown stone fence in Virginia instead of Tunisia.”
Along the valley’s north wall, white flags began to flap. Prisoners were taken, and an Italian-speaking Ranger chaplain persuaded more to surrender. Blue smoke draped the valley, thick with “odors of hot guns and dust stirred from the muzzle blasts,” one Ranger reported. Dead Italians littered the camp, their waxy faces frozen in surprise. A few German artillery rounds replied, but by noon the fight was over. The delayed arrival of the heavy mortars had allowed some Italians to escape up the road, but many others, in ragged overcoats patched with coarse twine, were captured. Between the Rangers and Allen’s troops, now pressing up Gumtree Road, the prisoner haul exceeded a thousand.
Kitchen trucks drove up with a barrel of hot stew, which the men ladled into their canteen cups or helmets. By four P.M., the Rangers were back in their bivouac. Allen’s three infantry regiments continued forward along a fifteen-mile crescent southeast of El Guettar before digging in for the night.
“Few Germans in front of II Corps,” Patton’s intelligence officer, Monk Dickson, reported. “Rommel [sic] probably will attack us with whatever he has left after dealing with Eighth Army. Probably not earlier than 24 March.”
In five days, the Americans had covered seventy-five miles, taking Gafsa, El Guettar, and Sened Station, while reclaiming more than 2,000 square miles of territory—at a cost of fifty-seven battle casualties. “It’s all going like maneuvers,” Terry Allen mused. “It can’t be right.”
Ted Roosevelt woke on Tuesday, March 23, to the harsh cough of machine-gun fire. Flipping the blanket from his bedroll, he sat up with the creaky deliberation of a fifty-six-year-old man nursing a bum knee, arthritic joints, and a fibrillating heart. He had kept his boots on for the scant warmth they offered. For months he had been miserably cold, “the cold of the desert,” he called it. To Eleanor he had written three days earlier: “There’s but one thought I keep to me: Aren’t we too old to be called on to grapple with the enemy? Should not flaming youth leap into the breach—shouldering us aside—so that we can sit in the sun?”
Leaning on a cane, he stumped up the ridge with his gamecock hobble. He could tell by the high rate of fire that the machine guns were German; their sound now mingled with the answering chatter from American weapons. A sentry barked the password challenge—“Three?”—and was answered with the countersign: “Strikes!” Moonlight coated the landscape in quicksilver, and fog drifted across the desert pan below. But a rosy glow in the east showed that dawn was coming fast. Gun flashes rippled like heat lightning. Roosevelt found the 18th Infantry Regiment’s command post on Hill 336—“Wop Hill”—and lowered himself into a chest-deep slit trench.
“The battlefield lay at my feet, a circular plain about seven miles in diameter,” he would write Eleanor two days later. “I could see it all.” The American line formed a fifteen-mile fishhook. The 1st Division’s three regiments—16,000 men—occupied Keddab Ridge from north to south. The 26th Infantry held the north flank near Gumtree Road, on Roosevelt’s left. Part of the 16th Infantry and a battalion from the 18th Infantry held the center. A few hundred yards to his right, the ridge petered out in a narrow valley bisected by Highway 15, which ran from El Guettar eight miles in the rear past the American line and on toward Gabès over the horizon. Across the highway to the south, the land lifted again and the American line resumed. Only a few hours earlier, Roosevelt had dispatched two battalions from the 18th Infantry to extend the line onto the lower slopes of 3,000-foot Djebel Berda. On ground so rugged that guns had to be winched into position, the battalions tied in with Darby’s Rangers, whose entrenchments swung to the west and provided the long American shank with its barbed hook.
The chink of tools caught Roosevelt’s attention. Soldiers were furiously hacking slit trenches out of the rocky ground, regardless of the ants and scorpions infesting the ridgeline. Small white-petaled daisies covered the slope, straining toward the rising sun. The Big Red One had planned to attack this morning, under yet another change of orders from Alexander. Eighth Army’s difficulties at Mareth had caused Montgomery to reconsider his contempt for the Americans. Just three days before, he had dismissed the Yanks in his diary as “complete amateurs.” Now he needed their help.
Patton was asked to threaten the Axis flank by attacking down Highway 15 toward Gabès. During the night, American artillery had moved forward to provide covering fire for Allen’s infantry even as intelligence reports warned that panzers were moving toward II Corps for a possible spoiling attack. From the swelling thunder of guns and the shells now snapping overhead, Roosevelt could guess that the enemy had stolen a march and struck first. Under orders from Kesselring, who recognized that an American thrust down the Gabès highway would trap the First Italian Army at Mareth, Arnim dispatched the strongest of his three armored divisions—the storied 10th Panzer—to counterattack before Patton moved.
A voice carried up Hill 336. “Here they come!” Roosevelt peered into the dust and glare, his weak eyes watering at the strain. The terrain along the Gabès road was brutally open, offering little cover other than tuft grass and a few olive trees. Then suddenly, as if materializing from the dust itself, the panzers appeared: a fleet in rectangular formation bulling up the highway. Hundreds of Wehrmacht infantrymen clattered from trucks behind the tanks, then trotted forward with their rifles at port arms. To one officer the apparition resembled “a huge iron fort moving down the valley.”
Sheaves of orange fire leaped from the front edge of the formation. “The enemy tanks numbered in three digits,” one sergeant later recalled, “but no one had the heart to count them.” Roosevelt had the heart, fibrillating or not: on his right flank, before smoke obscured the enemy echelons, he counted twenty-four panzers breaking toward the gap traced by Highway 15. There were, in fact, more, although the entire 10th Panzer was down to fifty-seven tanks and a comparable number of armored cars and half-tracks. Two other armored prongs veered toward the American left, followed by grenadiers and a flatbed Volkswagen hauling extra ammunition. Bellowing encouragement above the battle din, Roosevelt ordered another tank destroyer battalion forward from Gafsa and then radioed commands to his artillerymen. Waves of gull-winged Stukas attacked the ridge, swooping so low that officers emptied their pistols skyward before diving for cover. “I felt I could reach up my hand and grasp them,” Roosevelt later told Eleanor. The panzers churned out banks of white smoke to hide themselves and the grenadiers. Soon even the sun vanished. “The plain,” Roosevelt reported, “became a smoky, dusty dream.”
On the American left flank, smoke and dust were the least of it. By eight A.M., two U.S. artillery battalions—the 32nd and the 5th—were in mortal peril after being caught in the exposed forward positions they had occupied in anticipation of attacking rather than being attacked. “Many human silhouettes coming over a ridge in front,” one platoon leader reported. For reasons uncertain—simple confusion was always possible—the II Corps staff had also ordered the 1st Division to cancel plans for stacking extra ammunition with the guns; true to character, the division mostly ignored the corps order, but shells ran short anyway. Gunners sloshed cans of water to cool their glowing barrels while others struggled from the rear with ninety-six-pound rounds on their shoulders. Darting among shallow folds on the battlefield, German soldiers barked, “Hitler kommt! Surrender!” Artillerymen fired a few final point-blank salvos, spiked their guns with grenades, and fought in retreat as riflemen.
Two infantry battalions to the left of Roosevelt’s command post also fared poorly. Panzers slammed into the 3rd Battalions of both the 18th and 16th Infantry Regiments, grinding slit trenches beneath their tracks. Both units gave ground and retreated across Keddab Ridge before stiffening at a broad wadi behind the American line; the hand-to-hand fighting was as brutal as that on Longstop Hill three months earlier. One company—K of the 18th—kept the grenadiers at bay with synchronized showers of hand grenades and shouts of “Come on, you Hun bastards!” By late morning, the company had tossed 1,300 grenades and suffered more than sixty casualties. In a small oasis near the wadi, Terry Allen—hair disarranged, necktie long ripped off—summoned reinforcements from Gafsa and supplies from as far away as Tébessa. As the sound of German tank fire drew near, a staff officer proposed moving the division command post. “I will like hell pull out,” Allen answered, “and I’ll shoot the first bastard who does.”
Desperate as the fight was along Keddab Ridge, it was the southern German thrust down Highway 15 that most imperiled the 1st Division. Not far from Roosevelt’s perch, the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion anchored the segment of American line overlooking the road. Thirty panzers struck so quickly that one company buckled and fell back with heavy losses while another, also mauled, fought until its ammunition racks were empty. German tanks poured into the gap and had nearly broken through to turn the American flank when Company A opened fire at 2,200 yards; the 75mm volley staggered the panzers, which veered south only to mire in boggy ground and a minefield along a dry lake bed. Fire intensified from both the tank destroyers and Allen’s artillery. With each hit, the men on the ridgeline roared their approval, none louder than leather-lunged Roosevelt. By midmorning the panzers had seen enough of the gap the Americans now called Death Valley. “They hesitated, turned around, and retreated,” Roosevelt reported. “The men around me burst into cheers.”
Twenty-four of thirty-six guns from the 601st were lost. Collectively, the battalion had fired nearly 3,000 75mm shells and almost 50,000 machine-gun rounds. The unit commander, to whom Patton had sent word that “I expect him to die if there is an attack,” survived to notify Allen that his battalion no longer existed. Lost, too, were seven new M-10 guns from the 899th Tank Destroyer Battalion, which rushed into battle from Gafsa only to be ambushed on the valley floor at ten A.M. (“Gallant but green,” Roosevelt commented after watching the sally.) Yet the 10th Panzer had been cut up even worse. American artillery, tank destroyers, and mines knocked out thirty-seven enemy tanks; some were towed away by German salvage teams, but others burned furiously. The enemy retreated eastward to regroup. American soldiers huzzahed themselves hoarse.
The first act was over, but the Germans never settled for simple one-act dramas. Allen and Roosevelt tidied up the line. Wounded men thrashed on their stretchers. More guns hurried forward. Nineteen U.S. jeeps, harried by Stukas and long-range artillery, sped to the rear for more ammunition; thirteen made it back, wallowing like overloaded scows beneath crates of bullets and shells.
With sirens screaming from his motorcycle escort, Patton drove up from Fériana—not before taking time to berate a soldier for being ill-shaven and legging-less, although he had just left the line to fetch more ammunition. Patton had wondered where the Germans were. Now he knew. “I want to fight the champ,” he said. “If you lose, you’ve lost to the champ and it’s no disgrace. If you win, you’re the new champ.”
At three P.M., a British radio intercept team working with II Corps deciphered a transmission from a 10th Panzer reconnaissance unit. Six German battalions would renew the attack at four P.M. At 3:45 another intercepted message warned: “Angriff bis 1640 verschoben.” The attack had been postponed until 4:40 to allow German artillery to reposition. Patton deemed the intelligence urgent enough to warn his subordinates in uncoded messages of the imminent assault and then the brief delay. At 4:15 Allen ordered his signalers to broadcast a message over a 10th Panzer radio frequency: “What the hell are you guys waiting for? We have been ready since four P.M. Signed, First Division.” Patton, who had arrived at the division’s command post, shook his head. “Terry, when are you going to learn to take this damned war seriously?”
Patton’s uncoded warnings and Allen’s taunt alerted the Germans to their security lapses, and 10th Panzer soon changed its codes. “We couldn’t read German mail for quite a long time after that,” Allen’s intelligence officer later acknowledged. The British were furious at the American indiscretion, but for now the Yanks stood ready. At 4:45 two grenadier battalions, a motorcycle battalion, an artillery battalion, and two panzer battalions with some fifty tanks appeared on the lip of Highway 15, just over two miles from Keddab Ridge. Patton and Allen moved up to join Roosevelt in his slit trench on Hill 336, as if, one officer suggested, watching “an opera from a balcony seat.”
This time the panzers hung back, milling in a miasma of brown dust beyond range of the tank destroyers. A. J. Liebling likened the tanks’ balky advance to “diffident fat boys coming across the floor at a party to ask for the next dance, stopping at the slightest excuse, going back and then coming on again.” The German grenadiers showed no such hesitation: straight for the American line they marched. The crackle of small arms and the deeper boom of heavy guns grew in fury. “The men walked upright, moved slowly, and made no attempt at concealment or maneuver,” one battalion commander later reported. “We cut them down at fifteen hundred yards. It was like mowing hay.”
American gunners for the first time had experimented with ricochet fire—deliberately skittering their shells across the ground through enemy formations, with devastating results. Now they used a “scissors and search” pattern: some tubes adjusted their fire from longer ranges to shorter, others reversed the pattern. They swept the battlefield with steel as multiple sprinklers water a garden. Darby watched from Djebel Berda in the south as American time-fuze artillery shells—set to burst a few feet above the ground—rained on the enemy formations. “Eerie black smoke of the time shells showed that they were bursting above the heads of the Germans,” he wrote. “There was no running, just a relentless forward lurching of bodies.”
The fight descended into something between war and manslaughter. Roosevelt, who had ordered the time-fuze barrage, thought the battle “seemed unreal.” Gaps appeared in the grenadier ranks. The faces and uniforms of those still standing turned brown with grit as if the doomed men had already begun returning, earth to earth, dust to dust. Roosevelt later wrote:
Just in front of me were four hundred men, a German unit. We took them under fire and they went to ground behind some sand dunes. The artillery went after them with time shells, air burst. In no time they were up running to the rear. Black bursts over their head, khaki figures reeling and falling.
Enemy soldiers bunched behind one hill in such numbers that the formation seemed to spread like a shadow. Then Allied artillery found the reverse slope. “The battalion broke from cover and started to run for another wadi in the rear,” reported Clift Andrus. “But none ever reached it.” At 6:45 P.M. an 18th Infantry observation post reported: “Our artillery crucified them.” Shells fell at seven-yard intervals across the retreating shot-torn ranks. “My God,” Patton murmured to Roosevelt, “it seems a crime to murder good infantry like that.”
Survivors rejoined the panzers to withdraw eastward in the haze and long shadows. How many men the Germans lost remains uncertain, but the 10th Panzer Division, already badly reduced before the battle, was essentially halved again. An Ultra message on March 25 listed twenty-six serviceable tanks in a unit that now was a panzer division in name only. Allen’s losses for the week totaled 417, half of them on March 23, and two dozen guns. The American Army had won a signal victory, defeating a veteran German armored division that had terrorized opponents in Poland, France, Russia, and Tunisia. “The first solid, indisputable defeat we inflicted on the German army in the war,” Omar Bradley called it. True, El Guettar had been a defensive battle, fought from entrenchments without the brio of the armored sweep Patton so longed to lead. True, too, poor habits persisted—of security, indiscipline, and that annoying tendency to charge into enemy kill sacks. Yet the 1st Division had demonstrated agility—quickly shifting from thrust to parry in the face of the German spoiling attack—as well as fortitude and stunning firepower. “The Hun will soon learn to dislike that outfit,” Eisenhower predicted in a congratulatory message.
Ted Roosevelt, who embodied the division’s temperament for better and for worse, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. “I never expect to see anything like this again, a battle played at my feet,” he wrote Eleanor. But he did, fifteen months later, at a place called Utah Beach, where he would win the Medal of Honor for the same cool leadership he had demonstrated on Keddab Ridge.
But the last word goes to a young soldier killed in the final exchanges at El Guettar. His unfinished letter home, found next to his body, began: “Well, folks, we stopped the best they had.”