Military history

Night Closes Down

WITH the Americans unable to reach the enemy’s rear through the Maknassy heights, Alexander revised his orders to Patton for a third time. At noon on March 25—as Ward was having his bloody eye doctored and Montgomery prepared to launch his left hook at Mareth—II Corps was told to shift the weight of its attack to the south. The 9th Infantry Division would join Allen’s 1st Division in cutting a hole through enemy defenses southeast of El Guettar so that tanks drawn from Ward’s 1st Armored could lunge down Highway 15 toward Gabès. The offensive was designed to harass German forces facing Montgomery by again threatening to split the Axis armies and trap the Mareth defenders from behind.

As ordered by Patton, Allen shortly before midnight on the twenty-fifth pulled Darby’s Rangers and two battalions of the 18th Infantry Regiment off Djebel Berda on the extreme southern flank of the American line. They were happy to leave: a frenzied German counterattack the previous evening had driven them back 2,000 yards. The Rangers returned to Gafsa to loll in the hot springs and play volleyball; the 18th Infantry looped north to Gumtree Road and now anchored the left flank of Allen’s division, which occupied a nine-mile front north of Highway 15. The 9th Division shuffled forward to take the positions south of the highway vacated by Darby and the 18th.

If any gods were watching from their djebel eyries and saw disaster brewing, they declined to intervene on behalf of the mortals in olive drab. Patton’s plan, concocted in response to Alexander’s hasty change of orders, was badly flawed. German infiltrators now occupied the highest ground on Djebel Berda, including a key promontory designated Hill 772; they could see virtually every American movement. Instead of first securing this pinnacle and the connecting ridges, the Americans chose to skirt them in a hell-for-leather attack by the two infantry divisions on either side of Highway 15.


Moreover, the 9th Division was short-handed, ill-informed, and poorly equipped for the battle ahead. Of the division’s three infantry regiments, one—the 60th—had been diverted to Ward’s quixotic fight at Maknassy and another—the 39th—had spent most of the past five months on guard duty in Algeria. Delays in moving forward postponed the attack a day, until Sunday, March 28; as always, the Germans used the extra time wisely. The 9th Division’s bespectacled commander, Major General Manton S. Eddy, whose domed forehead and chin wattles gave him the mien of a “big galoot who looks like a country school teacher,” was in fact energetic and imaginative; to encourage military discipline, he had once issued a three-day pass to a private for saluting an empty staff car. But his troops had neither heavy artillery, nor armored bulldozers, nor sufficient compasses, nor experience in attacking fortified ramparts.

An intelligence estimate based on reports from departing 1st Division officers posited that the ground was “but lightly held by the Germans,” or by Italians who would quail at the sight of American bayonets. That was wrong. Poor maps, based on 1903 French survey sheets, implied that the topography ahead was mostly flat. That, too, was wrong. Though badly reduced in the failed March 23 attack, the 10th Panzer and Italian Centauro Divisions had regrouped, and now had the benefit of fighting defensively in a badlands terrain of box canyons and knife-blade ridges. Particular care was lavished on fortifying Hill 369. A steep massif two miles south of the highway; it rose 500 feet above the desert, with a greater presence than its modest height suggested. For a command post, German engineers excavated five dugouts from the solid rock; each was ten feet square and roofed with tile and dirt. Machine guns occupied three forty-foot knolls north of the hill facing the road, while infantrymen infested trenches carved from the talus. Ten 75mm antitank guns were sited around the hill, backed by three even deadlier 100mm guns spaced 100 yards apart. After dark, Wehrmacht trucks drove forward with cans of muscatel for the defenders.

Hill 369 prevented all travel down Highway 15, and it was the 9th Division’s objective. Uncoiling from wadis at the base of Djebel Berda, a column of four U.S. battalions marched east at 3:30 A.M. on March 28. A medical officer described dawn “lighting up the opposite mountain range in gold and purple and black, with a brilliant blue sky.” That was the last pretty thing many of those men saw. At 5:35 A.M. Germans firing pistol flares and machine guns ambushed the 2nd Battalion of the 47th Infantry, which had unwittingly veered south into a hilly labyrinth. Within fifteen minutes Company E alone, on the point, lost 179 men. Surrendering officers tied handkerchefs to their carbine muzzles. Those who continued to fight, died. “The last I saw of him,” a lieutenant later reported of one rifleman, “he was laying on the ground holding his intestines in both hands.” Troops in field gray rounded up 242 prisoners, including the battalion commander, eight other officers, and Eisenhower’s junior aide, who had been sent to the front for seasoning. An American patrol later found only stiffened bodies and a sweet stench rising from the crepuscular wadis. Shaking his fist and pulling on his pipe, the 47th Infantry commander stalked through his command post, muttering, “You sons of bitches. You sons of bitches.”

Worse yet, another battalion had also wandered off course and was so thoroughly lost that not a word was heard from it for thirty-six hours. The two remaining battalions in the assault attacked what they presumed was Hill 369 but was in fact Hill 290, a lesser eminence a mile closer to the highway and not shown on the map. The hill held, and German artillery, guided to the centimeter by observers on Djebel Berda, combed the wadis with fire. Men burrowed into any depression they could find, urinating in canteen cups and defecating in helmets. The wounded pleaded for help, mimicked by English-speaking Germans trying to lure medics into the open. One soldier later wrote in his diary: “Just lay in my hole and beat the dirt with my fists.”

Alexander visited II Corps and professed satisfaction despite all this. Patton’s fury, however, knew no bounds. He gave Eddy a tongue-lashing that stunned the division commander. “In all my career I’ve never been talked to as Patton talked to me this morning,” he told one of his colonels. “I may be relieved of command.” Eddy kept his job but was shaken enough to throw good money after bad. He ordered a single battalion, the 2nd of the 39th Infantry, to advance down Highway 15 and take Hill 369 in a dawn assault.

Off they went again, this time in trucks, somehow persuaded that the Germans were weary from a long day of winning and that only Italian stragglers waited to be routed. With a slamming of tailgates and rattling of equipment, the men clambered from the trucks at first light on March 30, only to again mistake unmapped Hill 290 for Hill 369. A single star shell inaugurated the enemy ambuscade, followed by the usual machine-gun hellfire. The battalion broke. Most fled back down the asphalt highway; others not dead or captured hid until darkness let them slip away the next night.

North of Highway 15, things had hardly gone better for Allen’s 1st Division. The 18th Infantry advanced several miles down Gumtree Road on the left flank, but otherwise all progress was measured in yards or inches. The wedge of land between Gumtree and the highway was soon stained white with artillery splashes and trussed in endless skeins of Signal Corps wire. The 26th Infantry surgeon’s diary for March 29 reported: “Snipers and machine gunners had every wadi covered and our casualties were terrific until everybody decided to hole up until dark…. We baked in the hot sun from 11:30 A.M. until dark.” Daylight evacuations were fatal, and the wounded bled to death or died of shock waiting for nightfall.

Darkness brought its own misery. “You fight all day here in the desert and what’s the end of it?” one GI wrote. “Night just closes down over you and chokes you.” A dispatch from the 26th Infantry reduced the battle to four words: “This place is hell.” A two-battalion attack by the 16th Infantry, abutting the 9th Division, went nowhere and cost 105 casualties in ten minutes. One officer reported that Allen “fussed and fumed, lit one cigarette after another, [and] was beside himself.” Some even said his stutter returned.

Late on March 29, Alexander revised the American attack plan a fourth time: an armored spearhead drawn from the 1st Armored Division was to bull through the enemy defenses down Highway 15. Given Axis fortifications, this scheme had little chance of success, and it is uncertain how much time Alexander had taken to study the ground. His order included precise instructions on how to deploy the American battalions. Patton replied with a huffy message to army group headquarters:

I feel that I must respectfully call General Alexander’s attention to the fact that in the United States Army we tell officers what to do, not how to do it, that to do otherwise suggests lack of confidence in the officer…. I feel that for the honor and prestige of the U.S. Army I must protest.

With Patton’s protest delivered and his honor redeemed, the attack went forward at noon on March 30 with seven battalions under Colonel Clarence C. Benson, who until that morning had never met several of his subordinate commanders. “From a hundred wadis and ditches tanks began to debouch onto the center of the valley,” the correspondent Alan Moorehead wrote, “…as though one was looking at a battle fleet steaming into action over a green, flat sea—a wonderful sight.” Whip antennae swayed to the rhythm of the pitching tanks. Dark ranks of infantrymen rose from their holes to trail the Shermans. After a 5,000-yard running start on a half-mile front, Benson’s juggernaut ran into a minefield and then blistering fire from German guns in a feral patch the Americans now called the Hot Corner. Puffing on his corncob pipe 300 yards back, Benson soon realized that the enemy had been reinforced, first with Afrika Korps grenadiers and then with the 21st Panzer Division.

“I saw tanks hit by shells burst into flames,” correspondent John D’Arcy-Dawson reported. “The turret was thrown back and small figures leaped to the ground, running between falling shells toward jeeps which bounded forward to pick them up.” Moorehead added: “Ambulances began to stream back from the other direction. Over everything sounded the same quick staccato coughing of the guns.” With five tanks in flames, Benson retreated. Trying to chivvy the enemy from their works, he warned, was “like digging potatoes.”

At 12:30 the next afternoon, Benson Force tried again, but made just modest headway before the fuming guns drove them back minus another eight tanks. Grim councils of war followed. “We seem to be stuck everywhere,” Patton told his diary on March 31.

The Axis line drew back two miles in the north and a mile in the south, then held fast. A two-battalion attack on Hill 772—belatedly recognized as the battlefield linchpin—failed, with grievous losses. “Nasty grim mountain fighting,” Patton told Eisenhower. On April Fool’s Day, Alexander ordered another change—his fifth—reinstating the original plan for two infantry divisions to pry open a gap for the tanks. Weary dogfaces continued to gnaw at the djebels but to little profit. The 9th Division log for April 2 acknowledged: “No movement of any importance during the day.”

Tens of thousands of mortar and artillery rounds fell on both sides. The 9th Division would expend more than a million rounds of rifle and machine-gun ammunition at El Guettar. The 47th Infantry added another seventy-five stretcher bearers to the regiment’s original sixteen; the 39th Infantry added sixty. Even the squeal of ambulance brakes at night drew fire. The dead were stacked like sawed logs in a truckbed and hauled to Gafsa for burial.

In little more than a week of fighting, the 9th Division suffered 1,812 casualties—more than 10 percent of the division. Five of six battalion commanders were lost. Casualties in the 47th Infantry alone totaled 868, more than a quarter of the regiment. Eddy later considered El Guettar the division’s toughest battle of World War II, not to be eclipsed by combat in Sicily and Normandy. The 1st Division’s losses approached 1,300. Stanhope Mason, the Big Red One’s operations officer and eventual chief of staff, also deemed El Guettar the “most severe battle of the three years of warfare,” a remarkable assessment for a division whose destiny led to such killing fields as Sicily, Normandy, and Aachen.

The stuck-everywhere period lasted a week. Nearly every man now felt the deep weariness that Ernie Pyle called “cell-by-cell exhaustion.” II Corps had done what was asked, luring two panzer divisions and more away from Eighth Army’s front. Montgomery had broken through at Mareth, captured Gabès, and now besieged the enemy at Wadi Akarit on the coast, due east of the Americans. But that was cold comfort. As hopes faded for a breakthrough to the sea, a peevish frustration took hold—“everybody ordering everybody else,” as one major put it. Ted Roosevelt wrote Eleanor: “We let the opportunity get away.”

Patton took it badly. His choler turned to rage on Thursday morning, April 1, when his favorite aide, Captain Richard N. Jenson, died in an air raid while visiting Benson’s command post, four miles east of El Guettar. Eight Stukas attacked out of the sun, killing three men, wounding Brigadier Dunphie—the British hero of Thala—and just missing Bradley with a bomb that detonated fifteen feet from his slit trench. The concussion killed Jenson instantly. “Every bone in his body was broken and the skin wasn’t scratched,” one officer reported.

Patton stood on the portico of the Gafsa gendarmerie as Jenson’s body arrived in the rear seat of a jeep. He drove immediately to the town cemetery, where twenty other dead boys lay wrapped in mattress covers awaiting burial. New crosses and Stars of David were stacked in a nearby tent. Tears coursing down his cheeks, Patton uncovered Jenson’s face, kissed him on the forehead, and snipped a lock of hair, which he saved for the dead man’s mother. After kneeling to pray, Patton rose and without a word drove back to his office.

“Forward troops have been continuously bombed all morning,” he wrote an hour later in a scathing report to the Allied high command. “Total lack of air cover for our units has allowed German air force to operate almost at will.”

At 10:45 P.M. Thursday, the New Zealander who commanded the Allied tactical air forces, Air Vice Marshal Arthur Coningham, replied in a message so widely distributed that even the Pentagon historian’s office received a copy. Patton’s complaint was “inaccurate and exaggerated,” a “false cry of wolf,” the waspish Coningham wrote. Noting that 353 Allied fighters had flown on April 1—more than two-thirds of them over II Corps—he added that Patton’s message “was first assumed to be seasonal 1st April joke…. It can only be assumed that 2nd Corps personnel concerned are not battleworthy in terms of present operations.”

Coningham’s condescension and conclusions were offensive; his facts, however, were fundamentally sound. By no longer attempting to provide a permanent air umbrella over Allied troops, British and American squadrons could now concentrate on Axis airfields, shipping, and other rear-echelon targets, where the havoc they wrought was vast but mostly invisible to the ground forces. The number of Luftwaffe sorties had peaked at 370 on February 24, dwindling since then to fewer than seventy-five a day. The slow, vulnerable Stuka was nearly extinct and was making its final battlefield appearances.

None of that mattered to Patton, whose convulsive fury at the insult tripped alarm bells in Algiers. At Eisenhower’s insistence, Coningham issued a twenty-seven-word retraction, notifying all the original recipients that his message was “to be withdrawn and cancelled.” At noon on April 3, the two most senior Allied airmen in North Africa, Air Marshal Sir Arthur W. Tedder and Lieutenant General Carl Spaatz, arrived in Gafsa on an appeasement mission. Patton had just finished pounding the desk in outrage when three Focke-Wulf fighters roared over Gafsa at 200 feet, spitting bright yellow needles from their wings. After strafing the streets, the planes returned for a final bombing run, during which a melon-sized fragment blew through the conference room where the generals were now sprawled on the floor. Plaster tumbled from the walls as Patton dashed outside to empty his revolvers at the fleeing bandits. Dusting himself off, Tedder asked how such a flamboyant demonstration had been arranged. “I’ll be damned if I know,” Patton replied, “but if I could find the sonsabitches who flew those planes, I’d mail each one of them a medal.”

Coningham arrived the next day on his own peace sortie. The helmeted Patton sat behind his desk, stern as a hanging judge. Voices were raised, fists thumped. “Pardon my shouting,” Patton shouted, “but I too have pride and will not stand for having Americans called cowards…. If I had said half what you said, I would now be a colonel and on my way home.”

Coningham subsequently issued an effusive apology. Patton responded with a gallant message, telling the New Zealander, “To me you exemplify in their most perfect form all the characteristics of the fighting gentleman.” Still he stewed. Singling out two particularly irritating British units, he told his diary, “I hope the Boches beat the complete life out of the 128th Brigade and 6th Armored Division. I am fed up with being treated like a moron by the British…. Ike must go.”

How intense his animus had become that he could, however fleetingly, wish in a single breath for the destruction of his closest allies and the downfall of his closest friend.

If choler infected the American camp, so did an even deeper and darker emotion. Ernie Pyle now noticed in the troops “the casual and workshop manner in which they talked about killing. They had made the psychological transition from their normal belief that taking human life was sinful, over to a new professional outlook where killing was a craft.” The American combat soldier had finally learned to hate.

His blood was up. He was fighting for his life, and killing then for him was as much a profession as writing was for me. He wanted to kill individually or in vast numbers…. The front-line soldier wanted [the war] to be terminated by the physical process of his destroying enough Germans to end it. He was truly at war. The rest of us, no matter how hard we worked, were not.

What Rommel called Krieg ohne Hass, war without hate, had prevailed in the desert for more than two years. If more myth than battlefield reality—no armies bent on mutual annihilation can avoid malice—a perverse chivalry had obtained, producing “a clean, straight, dispassionate war with no Gestapo, no politics, no persecuted civilians, no ruined homes,” as one correspondent romanticized it. The British in 1942 even felt obliged to institute hate training by stressing enemy brutality and spattering slaughterhouse blood around assault training courses.

The Americans were less imaginative but just as ineffective. Various exhortations had touted the virtue of antipathy. “You are going to get killing mad eventually—why not now?” Lieutenant General Lesley J. McNair, chief of Army ground forces, had urged in a national radio address in November. A training memorandum from AFHQ in Algiers urged commanders to “teach their men to hate the enemy—to want to kill by any means.” Patton told his corps in mid-March, “We must be eager to kill.”

But the infliction of nearly 6,000 casualties in three weeks—including 845 dead—did what no speechifying could do. “Perhaps these American troops will suddenly get their blood up and find their feet,” Alexander wrote Brooke on April 3. “I say ‘perhaps’ because, unlike us, they are a mercurial people and are either up or down.”

The blood was up in these mercurial people. They were further inflamed by wide-eyed atrocity tales of Germans bayoneting prisoners. At El Guettar “we really learned to hate,” a sergeant in the 26th Infantry later wrote. “The hatred for the Krauts carried through to the rest of the Tunisian campaign, Sicily, France, Belgium, through Germany, into the Harz mountains, and Czechoslovakia.” An officer in the 6th Infantry concluded, “A soldier is not effective until he has learned to hate. When he lives for one thing, to kill the enemy, he becomes of value.”

“They lost too many friends,” Pyle observed with his usual penetrating simplicity. “Soon it was killing that animated them.”

A very thin membrane separates the sanctioned rancor of war from sheer barbarism, and in North Africa shooting at Arabs became a sport in some units. Troops convinced themselves that the natives were either in cahoots with the enemy or subhuman; they were called wogs—the slang came from the British, who rated Tunisian Arabs a “serious menace”—and they lived in “woggeries.”

“We became ruthless with the Arab,” a 1st Division soldier wrote. “If we found them where they were not to be, they were open game, much as rabbits in the States during hunting season.” Another soldier explained: “Here Arabs live all over. Some we shoot on sight, some we search, and some we make a deal with to buy eggs and chickens.” Soldiers boasted of using natives for marksmanship practice, daring one another to shoot an Arab coming over a hill like a target in an arcade. Others fired at camels to see the riders bucked off, or shot at the feet of Arab children “to watch them dance in fear,” as one 34th Division soldier recounted.

At a training camp in Algeria, sentries were told they could fire on anyone “dressed in white and not promptly responding to the password.” Natives suspected of espionage or sabotage were usually turned over to the French for summary justice, but not always. “We made them dig their graves,” one 1st Division soldier reported. “We lined them up and shot them.” British commandos near Green Hill in the north burned woggeries whose inhabitants were suspected of aiding the Germans. “It is not pleasant to stand round blazing huts while women and children scream outside,” one witness acknowledged.

After Kasserine, during a move from Sbiba toward Fondouk, “I saw men from another outfit shoot Arabs just to watch them jump and fall,” Edward Boehm later recounted. Boehm was a lieutenant from Montana, with Battery C of the 185th Field Artillery. “I could hear them yell and laugh each time and there was nothing I could do about it…. I saw them do it, like you’re shooting gophers. I could hear them: ‘Wow, I got one!’ Those guys were murderers.”

Such atrocities were committed by a very small percentage of American troops, but provost marshal and judge advocate files reflected a disturbing indiscipline. When a truck convoy bound for II Corps with replacement troops stopped for lunch in Affreville, Algeria, some soldiers got drunk on local wine and started firing at Arabs along Highway 4. One private shot dead a man on his donkey, wounded a second, and then killed another before boasting that he “got three out of five Arabs.” Given a dishonorable discharge, he was sentenced to twenty years at hard labor.

But other crimes went unavenged. On March 31, Giraud sent Eisenhower a letter citing incidents “in which U.S. and British troops have molested, assaulted, and killed natives.” Several weeks later, a secret AFHQ memorandum reported that Giraud’s chief of staff “again called our attention to a situation which has come up repeatedly in the past month. This is the continuing cases of rape in the forward areas…against Arab women.” Another internal AFHQ memo regarding “crimes committed by American troops in the forward areas” reported that an additional military police battalion had been dispatched to keep order.

Some of the most appalling incidents involved depredations in the northern Algerian village of Le Tarf, seven miles from the Tunisian border. In mid-April, drunken troops from an American engineering company reportedly terrorized Le Tarf for two days. Witness statements in a French investigative document sent to AFHQ recounted gang rapes of six Arab women, all of them named, including a thirty-year-old suffering from typhus, a forty-five-year-old widow, a fifty-year-old, and a fifty-five-year-old and her daughter-in-law. A fifteen-year-old and a forty-year-old widowed mother reported escaping after a chase by predatory soldiers. Several Arab men alleged being beaten with rifle butts and fists.

“The people of the district, European as well as native, are now living in fear of the daily occurrences caused by the troops,” a local official wrote. A French investigator reported visiting the American company, which had bivouacked two miles up the road; he was assured that the unit in question was not involved. If American authorities examined the French allegations—and AFHQ files indicate that at least a preliminary investigation was launched—their findings have vanished. During World War II, 140 U.S. soldiers were executed for murder and rape, but if justice was meted out for the ravaging of Le Tarf, the records remain silent.

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