Military history

“Search Your Soul”

FORTY miles northeast, a battle of comparable intensity and consequence was brewing as the left tine of Patton’s two-pronged offensive sent Axis troops reeling across the Eastern Dorsal.

Orlando Ward’s attack had begun well enough, despite a gully-washing flash flood that swept away tents and rifles on a three-foot wall of water. With more than 20,000 troops—the 60th Infantry Regiment had joined Ward’s 1st Armored Division—he also commanded 277 tanks, nearly half of them Shermans. Sened Station fell on March 21, soon followed by the nearby hilltop hamlet of Sened, where a garrison of 542 Italians defied a “surrender or be annihilated” ultimatum until the first cannonade provoked a frantic wagging of white flags. At dawn on March 22, scouts discovered that Maknassy, twenty miles east, had been abandoned. Ward’s troops began pouring into the town later that morning.

Then he stopped, and in that decision lay deep trouble. Under Alexander’s March 19 plan, Ward was to occupy Maknassy and remain there except for launching Operation BUSTER, a battalion-sized tank raid on the German airfield at Mezzouna, fifteen miles east on the road to Sfax. As he drove down Highway 14 into Maknassy that Monday morning, the twenty-second, Ward considered his options. Irrigation had converted the desert here into a vast citrus and olive orchard. Maknassy was a pleasing farm center, with date palms and shuttered shops lining a single paved street 300 yards long. Five miles east of town, the groves ended and the flat terrain rose abruptly to a snaggle-toothed ridgeline several hundred feet high; beyond this modest escarpment lay Mezzouna and the open coastal plain.

A French liaison officer had urged Ward to grab the heights quickly or risk “very serious and costly fighting.” But little intelligence was available. Ward did not know that only a few Italian companies held the Highway 14 gap, or that German reinforcements were hurrying forward. With orders anchoring him in Maknassy, he felt little incentive to seize the high ground or risk pointless casualties; only thirty-one Americans had been killed or wounded in getting this far. Just the day before, Patton had urged Ward “to use more drive” and to personally hug the front lines. Although fuming in his diary that “Ward simply dawdled all day” in occupying Maknassy, Patton chose not to go forward himself. Rather, he sent a staff officer, who concurred in Ward’s decision to fully assemble his forces before moving on the hills. Ward collected field glasses from staff officers and distributed them among his tank commanders. It was the sort of gesture at which he excelled.

Ward also had other worries. The 60th Infantry, on loan from the 9th Infantry Division, had not distinguished itself. The regiment seemed sluggish, and there had been friction with Ward’s tankers. Colonel Frederick J. de Rohan, the regimental commander, was dueling with his executive officer for the unit’s loyalty. “The regiment was divided right down the middle,” one officer later recalled. Some officers had the gall to sign a petition requesting De Rohan’s removal. Moreover, a War Department inspector reported that malaria had plagued the regiment since the landings at Port Lyautey, with 468 cases tallied and insufficient stocks of quinine to treat them.

Then there was the Robinett problem. In the month since Kasserine, Ward’s trust in his CCB commander had evaporated. “Robby has let his ambition run away with him and is cutting my throat,” Ward wrote his wife in late February. Even Robinett’s staff officers considered him disloyal for his habit of disparaging Ward and undermining him with the II Corps staff; one officer pronounced Robinett “a little dictator.” Ward lamented the “consummate conceit and selfishness” of a man who had become “a terrible thorn in my side.” He seethed, but confrontation was not his way. He also recognized that whatever demons of ambition possessed Robinett, he was among the most tactically competent tank officers in the U.S. Army. “Robinett personification of ‘I,’” Ward confided to his diary on March 9. “He is most difficult, but able.” Eisenhower, too, had taken notice. In a “Dear Pink” letter to Ward on March 12, the commander-in-chief cited reports that “Robinett was exceedingly difficult to handle. Don’t ever be afraid to use the iron inside the glove, if it has to be done.” Eisenhower had his own grievance to nurse: Robinett’s critique of the Army’s deficiencies, written privately to Marshall after the Tébourba debacle in December, had finally reached Algiers. Now the commander-in-chief, too, was seething, perhaps because the criticisms were legitimate even if the out-of-channels tattling was not. In a note to Marshall, Eisenhower called Robinett “a puzzling man.” Notwithstanding Robinett’s combat record, the best of any frontline commander, he added: “I will never recommend him for promotion until he learns to control his tongue. He seems intelligent but entirely without judgment, except in a tactical sense.”

Finally, Ward had his Patton problem. “George Patton is taking over with a vim,” Ward had written Eisenhower. “Personally, I am a new man.” That enthusiasm was not reciprocated by the new corps commander, who told his diary, a week after replacing Fredendall, that “1st Armored is timid.” On March 18, he wrote Bea, ominously, “I may have to relieve a general.” Ward’s finer qualities—professionalism, penetrating intelligence, decency—impressed Patton not at all. “Ward has not done well,” he scribbled after Maknassy fell. “No drive.” Patton became increasingly shrill, demanding that Ward “get up off his ass.”

In a phone call one evening the corps commander grew incensed when Ward mentioned his good fortune in losing no officers in combat that day. “Goddammit, Ward, that’s not fortunate. That’s bad for the morale of the enlisted men,” Patton snapped. “I want you to get more officers killed.”

Ward was dumbfounded. “Are you serious?”

“Yes, goddammit, I’m serious. I want you to put some officers out as observers well up front and keep them there until a couple get killed.”

Characteristically, Ward looked for a silver lining. In his diary on March 22 he wrote: “Patton impatient but fair.”

Alexander’s new orders to II Corps on March 22—the revision that prompted Terry Allen’s plan to attack from El Guettar, preempted when 10th Panzer attacked him first—set in train an ordeal no soldier in Old Ironsides could have foreseen. To further threaten the Axis flank, 1st Armored was directed to continue eastward. Having just chosen not to seize the Maknassy heights, Ward received instructions from Patton to capture the hills that very night. Patton made clear that this was the opportunity every true swashbuckler craved: a chance to rampage through the enemy rear with 300 tanks.

At 11:30 P.M., after a thirty-minute bombardment by three dozen guns, two infantry battalions broke cover from the orchards east of Maknassy and scuttled across half a mile of moonlit grassland. By 3:30 on Tuesday morning, one battalion—the 1st of the 6th Armored Infantry—had seized its hilltop objective against feeble opposition. The other battalion—the 3rd of the 60th Infantry—was stopped cold. Mines and machine-gun fire pinned the men to the exposed slopes of Djebel Naemia, an L-shaped ridge overlooking Highway 14 in the throat of the pass. Shortly after sunrise, the battalion commander warned Ward that he faced at least an entrenched enemy battalion.

He was actually facing only eighty German infantrymen—the remnants of Rommel’s former Begleitkompanie, his personal bodyguard—and a few engineers. With primitive ferocity that dispirited an American force ten times their size, the Germans pelted their attackers with bullets, stones, and a cascade of dislodged boulders. A single 88mm gun was used both to repel the attackers and to dissuade Italians trying to surrender. At noon Ward renewed the attack, this time with tanks. Four Shermans impaled themselves on mines, but American momentum nearly carried the pass until another steel-and-stone counterattack threw the Yanks back.

Having forfeited surprise and audacity at the outset, Ward then compounded his tactical sins: he failed to strike with sufficient strength. This was poor tank country—the broken ground of the hills funneled armor into the vulnerable roadbed, and the rocky terrain made tanks throw their tracks. But Ward had used only two of his six infantry battalions in the initial assault. With every hour, the defenders grew stronger. Now the Americans faced none other than Colonel Rudolf Lang, who had been personally ordered by Arnim to take command on the Maknassy heights. Eager to avenge his failed attack on Béja during OCHSENKOPF, Lang arrived Tuesday morning to find Italian soldiers scampering to the rear. After ordering the 88mm crew to “use all means…to prevent even one single additional man or vehicle from moving toward the east,” Lang—soaked in sweat, eyes glowing with anticipated glory—loped into the pass to rally a defense that was soon celebrated in Wehrmacht lore as a German Thermopylae.

Eight Tigers helped. Gefreiters cheered as the monstrous tanks lumbered up the highway from Mezzouna. Long-range artillery also arrived, along with nineteen smaller panzers and portions of two grenadier battalions. Soon Lang had 350 German defenders to face a reinforced armored division. As for his timorous allies, he later reported: “Although they were strong in numbers it was no longer possible to depend upon the Italian troops. Those who did not run away as soon as the enemy attacked, surrendered.”

A third American attack, at dusk on the twenty-third, failed with heavy losses, including the 3rd Battalion commander, who was shot in the leg. That night German flares drenched the slopes with cold light; at each new starburst a thousand men fell flat as one, moving no more than marble men would move until the magnesium hissed out. Red and orange tracers poked the terrain from every angle like heated needles, and snipers sidled through the shadows. Luftwaffe pilots dropped strings of butterfly bombs, antipersonnel explosives with yellow wings that revolved to arm the detonator. They “floated to earth like colored lanterns strung in a row,” one soldier noted. “It was beautiful and uncomfortable.”

Ward attacked again at seven o’clock Wednesday morning with eight battalions, including tanks. Enemy pickets let the American scouts close to within twenty yards before cutting them down with grenades that ignited the tuft grass. Some fled the fire, while others tried to smother the flames with field jackets and were shot dead. Leaving his command post three miles west of Maknassy, Ward worked his way under artillery fire to the narrow-gauge rail tracks that snaked along Highway 14 at the base of Djebel Naemia. Men by the hundreds crouched in culverts or ditches, or straggled through the orchards.

He worked the lines, rallying his troops. “Come on! Come on! It’s not hurting you!” he cried. “We’ve got to make that rise in the ground directly to the front.” Some followed; most did not. Mortar and machine-gun fire soon drove every man to ground again. Mines stopped an American tank attack on the right flank. A more sweeping envelopment—also on the right, where Ward thought he saw sufficient defilade to shield his Shermans from German antitank fire—failed, too. There was no defilade, only counterattacking panzers. Repeated attacks by four U.S. infantry battalions gained hardly an inch.

Casualties piled up by the score, then by the hundreds. Apathy stole over the battlefield, and no amount of hectoring could budge the men from their burrows. In a captured enemy diary, U.S. intelligence officers found an entry that spoke for both sides:

Here one can find out what it means to spend a whole day with one’s nose in the dust. This is a miserable place; not a tree, not a shrub around; just a little grass, and the rest is sand, stone, and lime…. We are grimy from head to foot.

A 1st Armored supply officer observed: “This here is a shootin’ gallery, and we is the ducks.” Nonplussed, Ward watched the fighting from a sheltered hillock near the highway before returning to his command post early in the afternoon.

Patton had again spent the day with Allen’s division, reveling in its repulse of the panzers at El Guettar. Upon returning to his own command post, still in the dank Fériana schoolhouse, he wolfed down his supper and started a letter to Bea. At seven P.M., a staff officer, Lieutenant Colonel Russell F. Akers, brought the latest reports from Maknassy. In forty-eight hours Ward had made no progress. “What’s wrong with that goddam 1st Armored Division?” Patton fumed. Akers suggested, somewhat unjustly, that the stalemate reflected Ward’s tendency to lurk fifteen miles behind the front lines. Patton picked up a field phone. “Get me General Ward,” he snapped, then slammed down the receiver and returned to his letter. The phone rang with Ward on the line.

“Pink, you got that hill yet?” Patton listened for less than ten seconds before interrupting. “I don’t want any goddam excuses. I want you to get out there and get that hill. You lead the attack personally. Don’t come back ’til you’ve got it.” He again slammed down the receiver.

Before going to bed, Patton wrote in his diary: “Now my conscience hurts me for fear I have ordered him to his death.”

Ward stood with the pallid dignity of a man consigned to the gallows. He eased a helmet over the remaining strands of his once-red hair, picked up a carbine, and at eight P.M. headed back toward Djebel Naemia.

He stopped first at the 6th Infantry command post, in a malodorous tent tucked into the trees east of Maknassy. There on a litter he saw Lieutenant Colonel William B. Kern, the regiment’s 1st Battalion commander, who had fought so ably from Oran to Kasserine; a machine-gun bullet had destroyed his right eye. Dusted with sulfa powder and sedated with morphine, Kern was bound for a field hospital in the rear. Ward patted his shoulder and pressed on.

More than 2,000 men in three 6th Infantry battalions were to attack shortly after midnight. To catch the enemy off guard, no advance artillery barrage would be fired. Ward moved to the front of the 2nd Battalion, clutching his carbine as the troops stifled their surprise at seeing a major general take the point. At 12:30 on Thursday morning, March 25, the column set off for Djebel Naemia, a hulking black presence to the northeast. Twelve hundred yards from the ridge, the column divided, with one company angling left and two others, led by Ward, skirting the right flank. Rifle fire chattered from the redoubt ahead. Ward paused to harangue a faltering sergeant. “Sergeant, could you go back home and face your mother, sweetheart, and friends, and tell them that you did your duty to your country and your comrades, and look them in the eye? No, you couldn’t,” Ward said. “The thing for you to do is to move forward.” The sergeant moved forward.

But not far. German crossfire sent the battalion scurrying for cover. Ward ran with eight men across the first and then the second of three knolls on Djebel Naemia’s south face. His carbine jammed and he tossed it aside. “Damn it, men,” he yelled to the cowering figures behind him. “You’re not going to let a 51-year-old man run your tongues out? Let’s get up that hill.” Ward’s aide, Captain Ernest C. Hatfield, wondered whether the general was deliberately seeking martyrdom.

The third knoll was too much. “The machine gun fire was terrific and was grazing the ground about twenty inches high while other machine guns were firing about forty inches off the ground,” Hatfield later reported. A bullet slammed into the leg of a dispatch runner lying between Ward and Hatfield. A shell fragment clipped the corner of Ward’s eye and the bridge of his nose. Blood quickly masked his face, spreading in a crimson bib down the front of his fatigues.

By first light, the attack had stalled. A few men reached Naemia’s crest; German mortars drove them off. Ward crawled down the hill at seven A.M. to direct tank fire at German strong points, but an hour later the exhausted battalions pulled back and dug in a thousand yards from the ridge. Wounded soldiers flooded the aid stations. Ward ordered the attack suspended, then rode to Maknassy in an ambulance with a boy who had lost a foot and another who was missing half his face.

Robinett and Omar Bradley were at the division command post when Ward arrived at eleven A.M. His appearance shocked them. Dried blood and sulfa powder caked his face. Scratches and purple bruises covered his legs and hands. A machine-gun bullet had traced a line across the back of his field jacket “as if he had been swiped with a red-hot poker,” Robinett observed. While a doctor patched the eye wound, Hatfield brought a cup of tea from the field kitchen. Asked how he felt, Ward replied, “Damned inadequate.”

In Fériana later that day, Patton read the latest dispatches from the fighting front before sitting down to scribble another letter home. In his jagged, canted hand he told Bea, “I think I have made a man of Ward.”

Two days later, on the twenty-seventh, Patton appeared at the division command post to pin a Silver Star on Ward’s chest. The corps commander was “calm, pleasant, and logical,” Ward noted in his diary. But in a scathing private meeting before the ceremony, Patton accused Ward of indolence and excessive dependence on his staff. “I have little confidence in Ward or in the 1st Armored Division,” Patton wrote in his diary the next day. “Ward lacks force. The division has lost its nerve and is jumpy. I fear that all our troops want to fight without getting killed.”

The stalemate east of Maknassy showed no sign of breaking, particularly after Patton shifted some tanks from Old Ironsides to Terry Allen’s force in the south. In a message to the division, Ward decried “skulking and straggling…. Search your soul,” he urged, “and make the enemy pay with his life for threatening the life of our country.”

Yet his own days in Tunisia were numbered. By early April, the division’s losses since the recapture of Sened Station would reach 304 killed in action, 1,265 wounded, 116 missing, and forty tanks destroyed—with little to show for them but Patton’s ingratitude. Although the division would claim 2,000 enemy killed or wounded, and another 960 captured—plus another 2,000 captured by the 1st Armored troops attached to Allen—those figures were certainly inflated. Eisenhower wrote Marshall that Ward “has not been fully able to recover from initial shocks and exhibit the necessary sturdiness of purpose.” He lacked “the necessary veneer of callousness.”

There was truth in that. Ward had a delicacy ill-suited to a job requiring iron resolve and lead-from-the-front vigor. Even Colonel Lang, watching the Americans from the other side of Djebel Naemia, had been surprised by their timid initial approach to the Maknassy heights; a more forceful attack, he concluded, could have shortened the Tunisian campaign by weeks. In his view, the Americans appeared reluctant to risk heavy casualties in a decisive battle, preferring to crush their foes with material superiority even if that meant extending the fight. There was truth in that assessment too.

A letter from Alexander to Patton on April 1 sealed Ward’s fate. “With some diffidence,” the army group commander had concluded that “Ward is not the best man to command the American 1st Armored Division.” (Alexander was less diffident in a private note to Brooke, pronouncing Ward “quite useless.”) Patton immediately asked Eisenhower to recall Ernie Harmon, who had returned to Morocco after his brief duty with II Corps at Kasserine. Averse to direct confrontations with his peers, Patton delegated the hatchet work to Omar Bradley. “Look, Brad, you’re a friend of Pink Ward’s,” he said over breakfast. “Go up there and tell him why I’ve got to let him go.”

A few hours later Bradley arrived at Ward’s command post in the Maknassy orchard. He had been a year junior to Ward at West Point and in the same cadet company; he believed the firing unjust. In concocting a plan designed mainly to accommodate Montgomery, then changing it repeatedly, Alexander had hardly demonstrated brilliance. As for Patton, he had provided more snarling criticism than useful tactical advice or infantry reinforcements. Ward had been unlucky, Bradley believed. But luck in war was a general’s one indispensable virtue.

In his tent, Ward greeted Bradley with a serene smile, as if expecting the news. Patton had decided to make a change, Bradley said without mentioning Alexander’s letter. There would surely be important work for Ward at home or in another theater. Harmon would arrive within a day to take over. Nearly in tears, Bradley shook hands and hurried back to Fériana. Ward said little.

“Bradley gave me order for my relief,” he wrote in his diary. “He much upset, more than I.” In a handwritten note to the division he announced: “The undersigned hereby relinquishes command of this splendid division to Major General Harmon. I beg you to render unto him the splendid support and loyalty that you have given me.”

Harmon would arrive on April 5, strafed en route by Messerschmitts and then by Patton, who, upon being asked whether he wanted Harmon to attack or defend, roared in reply, “What have you come here for, asking me a lot of goddamned stupid questions? Get the hell out of here and get on with what I told you to do, or I’ll send you back to Morocco!” Ward waited in Maknassy with his bag and his bedroll. He saluted his successor and said, “The party is all yours, Harmon.”

If outwardly gracious, Ward churned inside. He resented the British, Fredendall, Eisenhower, and Patton, whom he considered overrated as a tank commander. Had things gone better in Tunisia, he believed he might have been chief of staff someday. Other indignities would nettle him in coming days. Robinett sent a generous if hypocritical farewell message offering “my deepest gratitude to you for your many tolerances” and admitting, “Frankly, I am tired and need a change of pasture.” Eisenhower in Algiers was pleasant even while telling Ward he was “not mean enough.” Mark Clark privately tried to prevent Ward from receiving the Distinguished Service Cross for his valor on Djebel Naemia. A board reviewing the case concluded that “the facts do not warrant the award of the DSC”—beyond the less exalted Silver Star already awarded—and, Clark wrote Eisenhower, “I concur in that recommendation.” Ward received the DSC anyway.

Ward was a good soldier—his conscience, as he so often said, was clear—and he accepted all slights with equanimity. “My record, I am afraid, has dubbed me stupid and brave,” he confided to a friend. “It probably takes a stupid man to get himself into such fixes.” By mid-April he would be home in Denver. There was indeed important work for him, first as commander of the Army’s tank destroyer and field artillery schools, and then as commander of another armored division, which would seize Munich in April 1945. In the American Army few relieved commanders got a second chance to lead men in combat; Ward was an exception because he was exceptional. But first he had to do penance for his virtues as well as his sins.

“Ward was too sensitive, both to criticism from his immediate superior and to the loss of his friends and subordinates on the battlefield,” Eisenhower wrote Marshall. “In all else he seems tops.”

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