TED Roosevelt was among the first to sense the enemy’s withdrawal. “It has a soft feel up and down the front this morning,” he wrote on Tuesday, April 6. At Wadi Akarit, fifty miles east of the 1st and 9th Division front, Eighth Army had attacked the new Axis line with a tank advantage of 462 to 25. The “apocalyptic hurricane of steel and fire,” as General Messe described the British assault, took more than 5,000 Italian prisoners, so many as to constitute a nuisance; they were used as foot-stools by Tommies scrambling out of the antitank ditches. Messe told Arnim he could hold until Wednesday night, but only by flinging “the last man into the furnace.” Instead, most of the surviving troops—including nearly every German—slipped away to the north after dark on Tuesday, while those facing the Americans also fell back before their escape route was severed. Non è stata una bella battaglia, Messe lamented: this was not a good battle.
It was not especially good for the British, either. Eighth Army suffered 600 dead and 2,000 wounded, yet still failed to annihilate the enemy or prevent his flight. On Tuesday night, Alexander issued his sixth and final change of orders to the Americans: II Corps was to attack in the morning without regard to armor losses, in a last attempt to ram the Axis flank. On a paper scrap torn from a notebook, Patton scratched a message in his runic cursive for Colonel Benson: “Attack and destroy the enemy; act aggressively. GSP, Jr.”
They swung at air. As the enemy melted away, Hill 772 and Djebel Berda finally fell. So did Hill 369, after a ferocious U.S. artillery bombardment. Soon the desert along Highway 15 was covered with “American tanks, half-tracks, mobile guns, jeeps, [and] trucks, surging eastward in line abreast like a Spanish fleet, with pennants and flags flying.” A thousand prisoners were seized, bringing the total captured by II Corps at El Guettar to 4,700. But only one in ten was German, and the bulk of the enemy army was only a dusty pall on the northeast horizon. In his diary Patton wrote: “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.”
The Maknassy heights also fell, finally, and American pursuers had a bit more luck near Mezzouna and along Gumtree Road. Colonel Lang got away, but a half-dozen U.S. tanks raked a German rearguard convoy, and marauding Allied fighter-bombers tormented the retreating columns. Among those caught in the open was the 10th Panzer Division operations officer, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a tall, brilliant aristocrat who during duty in the Soviet Union was so alienated by German barbarism that after arriving in Africa in February he had quietly begun agitating for a military coup to oust Hitler. On Wednesday afternoon, fighters strafed Count Stauffenberg’s staff car with 20mm cannon fire. Gravely wounded, he was rushed to a field hospital in Sfax, where his right hand was amputated at the wrist and tossed into the garbage still wearing a ring; surgeons also removed his left eye and took two shattered fingers from his left hand. Evacuated to Italy, Stauffenberg was placed on a hospital train bound for Munich. His long recuperation gave him time to concoct the bomb plot that nearly killed Hitler on July 20, 1944.
Within an hour or two of Stauffenberg’s wounding, American scouts and British Eighth Army troops spied one another across the desert for the first time. “Hello, Limeys!” the Yanks shouted, notwithstanding that the troops so hallooed were Indian. No matter: the army of the west and the army of the east had joined, despite a five-month Axis campaign to keep them apart. As other British and American troops met, they seemed unlikely kinsmen. Two weeks at El Guettar had reduced the Americans’ uniforms to tatters and the men wearing them to scarecrows. Two years in Africa had made the bleached and bronzed British resemble “Ay-rabs in jeeps,” as the Yanks called them, garbed in a heterogeneous array of khaki shorts, short-sleeve blouses or bare backs, and headgear that ranged from berets to burnooses.
That first meeting produced handshakes and broad grins but few memorable utterances. “This is certainly a pleasant surprise,” a British sergeant said amiably. To which Private Perry Searcy of Kentucky replied, “Well, it’s good to see somebody besides a Nazi.”
The cousins were together, and no enemy would sunder them again.
Eisenhower was jubilant. “We are at last operating on a single battle line and have placed the enemy in a position that, to say the least, is highly embarrassing for him,” he wrote to his son, John. “I have been aiming for this for a long time and, frankly, I must say that I experience a definite feeling of happiness and delight.”
Success in Tunisia reinforced Eisenhower’s conviction in the righteousness of the Allied cause, a theme he articulated most ardently to his closest correspondents with robust, primitive patriotism. “My single passion is to do my full duty in helping to smash the disciples of Hitler,” he told John. Although his men fought—as all men at arms fight—primarily for one another, Eisenhower saw other, “priceless things for which we are fighting.”
It seems to me [he wrote in early April] that in no other war in history has the issue been so distinctly drawn between the forces of arbitrary oppression on the one side and, on the other, those conceptions of individual liberty, freedom, and dignity, under which we have been raised in our great Democracy…. I do have the feeling of a crusader in this war.
He was just as fervent in championing Allied unity, which he considered the keystone of imminent victory in Tunisia and the eventual larger victory beyond. “We are establishing a pattern for complete unity in Allied effort—ground, air, navy—that will stand the Allied nations in good stead throughout the remainder of this war,” he wrote to General A.D. Surles at the War Department. Again and again he reiterated “my policy of refusing to permit any criticism couched along nationalistic lines.”
Enforcing this policy was not easy. Proximity to the British had only deepened the latent Anglophobia of many American generals—Patton, Clark, and Bradley among them. If the British were more circumspect in their disdain, the Yanks suspected with good cause that they were being patronized. “The only way in which we can get things really tidied up,” Air Marshal Tedder wrote on March 26, “is by showing the Americans the right way to do things and letting them see where they are wrong.” Alexander concurred, telling Montgomery three days later: “I have taken infinite trouble with them—and mind you one has to deal very carefully with them because they are not one of us…. I have grave doubts that these soldiers are really doing their duty as we understand it.”
Even Eisenhower had to swallow hard. On March 30 he flew to the Eighth Army command post south of Gabès to confer with Montgomery. Both men followed their public display of conviviality with private binges of character assassination. “His high-pitched accent and loud talking would drive me mad,” Montgomery complained to Alexander. “I should say he was good probably on the political line; but he obviously knows nothing whatever about fighting.” For his part, Eisenhower warned Marshall that Montgomery “will never willingly make a single move until he is absolutely certain of success.” The hostility—and it had just begun—was aggravated by Montgomery’s juvenile demand that he be sent an American B-17 Flying Fortress for his personal use: he had occupied Sfax ahead of schedule and thus won a gentleman’s wager with Beetle Smith. “Montgomery to Eisenhower. Entered Sfax 0830 this morning. Please send Fortress,” he cabled on April 10. The plane was sent (it would crash three months later), but the commander-in-chief seethed. “Goddam it, I can deal with anybody except that son of a bitch,” he complained. Montgomery was “a thorn in my side, a thorn in my side.”
As if to compensate for such forbidden sentiments, Eisenhower proselytized like a man possessed by the true faith. “Every subordinate throughout the hierarchy of command will execute the orders he receives without even pausing to consider whether that order emanated from a British or American source,” he decreed. In a conference with Alexander and Patton, he confided that he did not think of himself “as an American but as an ally.” Patton told his diary, “Ike is more British than the British.”
Yet in his ecumenical zeal, Eisenhower neglected the role his countrymen were to play in the last act of the Tunisian drama. II Corps officers had long speculated that the British intended to have Anderson’s First Army capture Bizerte and Montgomery’s Eighth Army capture Tunis. Those suspicions were confirmed when Alexander’s staff unveiled a plan for the endgame that excluded II Corps except for the 9th Division, on the assumption that it would be too hard to supply British and American forces simultaneously around the shrinking Axis bridgehead. “Both Patton and I were speechless with rage,” Bradley later wrote. “But since we were under strict orders from Ike to do what Alexander told us to do, we raised no objections.”
Incapable of holding his tongue for long, Patton sent Bradley to Algiers in late March for a private talk with his old West Point classmate. Eisenhower seemed unaware of the British plan and, in Bradley’s view, not terribly interested. Bradley offered several arguments: that leaving three experienced American divisions on the sidelines was tactically foolish; that seconding the 9th Division meant returning to the bad habit of mixing national units; that the United States and its army had earned the right to be in on the kill.
“This war’s going to last a long time, Ike. There’ll be a lot more Americans in it before we’re through,” Bradley added. “Until you give us the chance to show what we can do in a sector of our own, with an objective of our own, under our own command, you’ll never know how good or bad we really are.”
Eisenhower nodded and studied the wall map in his St. Georges office. That afternoon he cabled Alexander, urging “a real effort to use the II U.S. Corps right up to the bitter end of the campaign.” Over the next two weeks a new plan evolved in which part of the American force—but not the 1st Division, and only half of 1st Armored—would capture Bizerte. Demonstrating his skills as a staff courtier, Eisenhower deftly took credit for the revision. Alexander’s original plan “seemed to me a bit on the slow, methodical side,” he wrote Marshall, “and, in addition, appeared to contemplate the eventual pinching out of the U.S. II Corps…. Alexander sees eye to eye with me.”
To Patton on April 5, Eisenhower wrote: “General Alexander has told me that your corps is not to be pinched out of the coming campaign.”
Well laid though the plans were, they would not survive contact with the enemy. The greatest threat yet to Eisenhower’s vision of Allied comity had begun to unfold in a dusty village called Fondouk.
One final chance remained to intercept the fugitive remnant of General Messe’s army before it reached the sanctuary of the Tunis defenses.
Midway between El Guettar and Tunis, the Marguellil River threaded a narrow pass through the Eastern Dorsal where Fondouk—a few adobe hovels and a mosque—straddled Highway 3 as it sliced toward Kairouan twenty miles to the northeast. Less than a thousand yards wide, the defile was bracketed on the north by a stony pinnacle named Djebel Rhorab and on the south by an equally stony escarpment named Djebel Haouareb. The shallow river wandered in muddy braids through the pass within the steep-banked wadi it had worn. Prickly pear and drooping olives dappled the 300-foot hills; so, in the splendor of a North African April, did marigolds, and crimson poppies like blood pooling on the rocks.
Germans infested these slopes, and had for months. They had blasted gun positions from the shale and built bivouac dens in the cliffs, appointed with stoves, beds, and occasional crucifixes. Gunners registered their artillery on the open approaches from the west and calibrated their mortars on all the dead spaces below the ridges. Fields of fire were nearly perfect. The defenders included two battalions of the 999th Africa Division, whose ranks were filled with court-martialed soldiers considered “suitable for rehabilitation” by fire. Many were convicted black marketeers, demoted officers, or Schwarzschlächter, “black butchers,” who had illegally slaughtered livestock for food. Forbidden to wear national emblems, they sported no breast or cap eagles, no cockades or collar patches, no belt buckle insignia of “Gott Mit Uns.” Discounting the formidable rehabilitative powers of German sergeants, British intelligence considered the units inferior.
This was a mistake, as American troops could attest. One halfhearted effort had already been made in late March to force Fondouk Pass. In harmony with the II Corps demonstrations at Maknassy and El Guettar, which were intended to siphon Axis forces from Montgomery’s front, Patton on March 25 had ordered the 34th Infantry Division to “go out in that area and make a lot of noise, but don’t try to capture anything.” The division’s three infantry regiments—the 168th, 133rd, and 135th—had finally been reunited, and a homebody strain of Iowa and Minnesota still ran through them. But rough handling at Kasserine left residual scars both physical and psychic. In a March 11 message to his officers, Major General Ryder, the tall Kansan who commanded the 34th, decried “this military creeping paralysis present in our division” and the want of “offensive spirit.”
The first foray at Fondouk had proved Ryder’s point. Moving forward on a night so impenetrable—“dark as a stack of black cats,” one soldier said—that a guide with a lit cigarette walked ten feet in front of each vehicle, the division attacked with four battalions on a 3,000-yard front at six A.M. on March 27. By midafternoon, after struggling uphill beneath the frowning guns, the assault stalled 500 yards short of Djebel Haouareb. German machine guns roared through the next night, spitting lime-green tracers so thick that soldiers claimed to have read a newspaper by the light. A renewed attack on the morning of the twenty-eighth collapsed, as did various infantry maneuvers over the next three days. At the 15th Evacuation Hospital near Sbeïtla, every square inch of the admissions tent, four ward tents, both surgical tents, and the evacuation tent was covered with bleeding boys from Fondouk, and nurses turned away more ambulances. As Patton had requested, the division made a lot of noise and captured nothing, at a cost of 527 casualties. Most losses fell on the star-crossed 168th Infantry, just replenished after the Sidi bou Zid debacle. Now its ranks needed filling again.
Belatedly, Alexander realized that only a much bigger force could crack the Fondouk gap. Caution and conventionality—jabs, short hooks, and frontal assaults—had characterized the six weeks of his generalship in Tunisia. Nearly 90,000 Americans had been used to peck at the Eastern Dorsal in three different spots, while a comparable force in Anderson’s First Army had mostly sat on its haunches for the past month. Just as Colonel Lang had concluded that a more forceful American attack at Maknassy heights would have unhinged the defenders there, so senior Axis commanders came to believe that the African campaign could have ended a month sooner had Alexander struck a quicker, bolder blow at Fondouk.
Now he tried to make amends. The 34th Division would join with the British IX Corps and French troops, more than tripling the Fondouk force. Infantrymen would prise open the gap along the Marguellil River, allowing the British 6th Armoured Division to sweep onto the coastal plain toward Kairouan. Messe’s army, fleeing Montgomery and Patton in the south, was to be intercepted and destroyed before it merged with Arnim’s Fifth Panzer Army in the north.
At eleven A.M. on Tuesday, April 6, trailing a banner of dust, Lieutenant General John Crocker arrived at Ryder’s camouflaged tent in an orchard nine miles southeast of Fondouk. The British corps commander had arrived in Africa a few weeks earlier with a reputation that had grown steadily since his capable command of a tank brigade in France in 1940. Direct and sane, Crocker nevertheless harbored prejudices against the Americans. Some were trivial: he was credited with a caustic bon mot—“How green is our ally”—and he disliked the common Yank habits of eating only with a fork and smoking at table. More important, he considered U.S. forces so weighted with equipment that it “handicapped their strategic mobility.” American officers tended to be “very ignorant and the staff had little idea of how to operate forces.” Americans also seemed given to fantasy, retrospectively elevating the Kasserine debacle into a victory. To his wife a few weeks earlier, Crocker had written that in dealing with Americans “it is necessary to watch your step and wrap anything that one has to say which is the least critical or which savours of advice in the most tactful language.” They were “a queer lot with many nice ones…. So far as soldiering is concerned, believe me, the British have nothing at all to learn from them.”
It was regrettable that Crocker thought so, because his plan for Fondouk was flawed. Earlier in the week, he had proposed seizing Djebel Rhorab in the north with the British 128th Infantry Brigade, while Ryder’s men attacked in the south toward Djebel Haouareb, scene of their recent repulse. Now, however, fifteen officers in Ryder’s stuffy tent huddled around a large map mounted on plywood—colored paper squares represented the various battalions—to find that Crocker had amended the scheme in hopes of accelerating the armored push toward Kairouan. Djebel Rhorab was only weakly held, Crocker asserted, so British infantrymen would initially swing farther north, “denying” the hill to the enemy but not actually occupying it until the American attack was well under way. American artillery could blanket the hill with smoke shells, but not with high explosives lest they hit the arriving British troops.
Ryder was stunned. Just a week earlier, his division had been blistered with fire from Rhorab, which jutted to within 500 yards of Crocker’s proposed avenue for the American attack. Surely the Germans had since reinforced an already formidable position. “I had a plan based on our conference of a few days ago,” Ryder replied evenly, “but now I have none.” He pointed out the vulnerability of his troops, which would face galling fire from both north and east. Crocker waved away these objections. Speed and maneuver would overwhelm the thin defenses. Ryder stared at Crocker with pursed lips, then shrugged. Eisenhower’s orders seemed clear enough: subordinates were to salute and carry on, disregarding nationality.
Now another officer spoke up, en français. General Louis-Marie Koeltz, commander of the French XIX Corps, knew this ground from personal heartache. The Germans had routed his troops here in January to capture the high ground they now occupied. In his sky-blue uniform and gold-spackled red kepi, Koeltz pointed out that the American approaches were “entirely flat and completely exposed except for a row of cacti.” His own reconnaissance showed that a frontal attack would fail. Blue eyes flashing, tidy mustache twitching in his ruddy face, Koeltz added, “We could take out Djebel Rhorab from the north, because in this region the infantry could be supported by tanks.” The rolling terrain and dense olive groves there would offer attackers more cover than the naked ground approaching Djebel Haouareb.
Crocker listened politely, then reaffirmed his plan. “My intervention had no effect,” Koeltz later said. “Having to express myself in French, I may not have been well understood.”
It went badly, of course. Fatalism settled over the 34th Division, which collectively bought $26 million in life insurance that spring, mostly on the eve of the Fondouk offensive. Chaplains stayed busy hearing confessions or ministering to the doubtful. A head count at church services one Sunday in April tallied almost 7,000 worshippers, nearly half the division. In a handwritten note, Alexander told Eisenhower that troops in the 34th Division “seem reasonably confident about tomorrow’s operation, and I do hope it will go well.” To Brooke, however, he pronounced them “soft, green, and quite untrained…. Is it surprising then that they lack the will to fight?”
As the 135th Infantry commander later conceded, no officer in the division favored this attack, “but no one was saying so to the others.” British planning was derided as “brittle and axiomatic…inflexible.” Ryder had been wary of the British since the invasion of Algiers and now, unjustly, he believed that they “wished to win the war with American troops and matériel.” At Fondouk, that meant expending the 34th Division so the 6th Armoured could bust through to Kairouan unscathed.
Perhaps, Ryder mused, the division could tiptoe past Djebel Rhorab before dawn. He successfully petitioned Crocker for permission to advance his attack from 5:30 A.M. on April 8 to three A.M. His men laced toilet paper in their helmet nets so they might see one another in the dark, while rehearsing the challenge—“Grocery?”—and countersign—“Store.” They picked at a final meal of hardtack and “thousand-bone” oxtail soup, then nibbled the single slice of white bread served each man for dessert. At eight P.M. on Wednesday night, the regiments packed into trucks for assembly areas west of Fondouk. A half-ton truck for carrying out the dead trailed the convoy, bold white letters on its side proclaiming: “The Stuka Valley Hearse—Death Rides with Us.”
At 2:30, in a shallow wadi, each rifleman dumped his overcoat and collected two extra bandoliers of ammunition. Colonel Ray C. Fountain, a former federal bankruptcy referee in Des Moines who now commanded the 133rd Infantry, informed his officers: “I have been told that there will be tremendous aerial bombing support which will flatten everything—something we haven’t seen to date.”
There would be no bombing, tremendous or otherwise. Poor communications and confusion over the new attack time led to cancellation of the air strikes. As the two assault regiments pressed forward on a two-mile front, a battalion on the far left got lost in the darkness, veered into the river bottoms, and so completely undid Ryder’s timing that not until 5:30, the original H-hour, did the assault begin in earnest.
They found themselves in the beaten zone almost immediately. “A wave of flying dust and steel and lead was always before us,” one soldier recalled. Daylight revealed 6,000 American infantrymen creeping through tuft grass too short to hide a cat. “We were like a pea on a plate,” a sergeant reported. At 7:30, as plunging fire from Rhorab on the left and Haouareb straight ahead intensified, orders came to pull back 2,000 yards for another bombing raid that never materialized. By the time the troops moved forward again the Germans had their range. Gales of artillery swept the field; machine-gun rounds snipped the long-stemmed poppies, and antitank shells ricocheted end over end through the cactus like a buzzsaw. “We continued to move forward toward the enemy, standing erect like the British regulars charging up Bunker Hill,” a young officer wrote.
Not for long. By noon all forward movement had stopped, 700 yards from Djebel Haoureb. Frantic men scraped at the dirt with bayonets and mess-kit lids, then lay motionless except to flick away the hot shell fragments burning through their twill uniforms. “The mere raising of an eyebrow attracted enemy fire,” one sergeant in the 135th Infantry reported.
It never got better, not for two days. Tanks rumbled up in the early afternoon to inspirit the infantrymen, but instead attracted more fire. Within minutes four Shermans were flaming and the rest pulled back. Renewed attack orders at three P.M. went unheeded; the men “did little more than look up…and dig a little deeper,” a lieutenant noted. Fifteen more tanks arrived at five P.M., but no rifleman would follow them, and soon another half-dozen burning hulls brightened the valley’s long shadows.
General Crocker was fixated on when to unleash the 6th Armoured Division toward Kairouan, and he persuaded himself that perhaps Djebel Rhorab had been neutralized or even abandoned. It had not. By midafternoon, enemy skirmishers halted British infantrymen more than a mile from the crest. Throughout the next day—April 9—a Guards battalion fought a ferocious “boulder-to-boulder” battle that left every officer in two British companies dead or wounded. At 3:30 P.M., thirty-four hours after the Allied attack began, Djebel Rhorab fell. More than one hundred German prisoners were captured, but a like number escaped. The Welsh Guards’ losses alone totaled 114, a hefty price for a hill considered inconsequential.
A hard night for Ryder’s men had been succeeded by another hard day. “The hill looked bigger than ever,” a lieutenant in the 133rd Infantry wrote of Djebel Haouareb. In the American ranks, “not a soul could be seen moving.” Troops went to ground and would not rise except to skulk rearward on various pretexts. “There was no cover or concealment,” a company commander in the 135th Infantry reported. “Mortar and artillery fire was so heavy that the dust cloud formed by the shell fragments looked like a smoke screen.” Three American tank attacks outran all artillery and infantry cover, and were forced to beat a quick retreat. One battalion commander asked to be arrested rather than press the fight another hour; his request was granted. Acts of valor were as conspicuous for their singularity as for their gallantry. “We are going to get on top of that mountain and brew tea on the backs of those dead Germans,” one private bellowed. His platoon leader replied, “Private, you are now a sergeant. Let’s go.”
They went—but there would be no tea-brewing, not yet. Alexander himself broke the impasse by ordering Crocker to crash the pass with an armored spearhead, the faltering Americans be damned. Word filtered down the ranks that the “gap must be forced…like a covey of partridges flying over the guns.” “Goodbye,” one squadron commander told a comrade. “I shall never see you again. We shall all be killed.”
Not all, but enough, including the prescient commander. No sooner had the 17th/21st Lancers pressed forward a few hundred yards—the unit’s heritage included an alarmingly similar charge at Balaklava in 1854—than the lead Sherman radioed: “There’s a hell of a minefield in front. It looks about three hundred yards deep. Shall I go on?” The reply came immediately: “Go on. Go on at all costs.” Mines ripped the front ranks, and fifteen German antitank guns took most of the rest. Crews spilling from their flaming turrets were machine-gunned before they touched the ground. Thirty-two tanks were lost. Two surviving Shermans clattered to the rear with dazed Tommies clinging to the hulls. Some men were burned so badly that their smoldering battle dress set fire to blankets in the armored carriers hauling them to an aid station.
Foolhardy or not—tank men would debate the matter for years—the audacious assault won through. Another squadron, the 16th/5th Lancers, followed on, veering to the left along a narrow, navigable lane that angled into the Marguellil wadi. “The tank rocked like a tug in the high sea,” a British captain wrote. “On we went, engines revving, Browning rattling, guns crashing, being flung backwards and forwards and from side to side.” Bulling through the fenny bottoms, the tanks began to emerge late Friday afternoon more than a mile beyond Fondouk village. American infantrymen trailing far behind on the southern slopes were amazed to see the Tommies pause to build tea-brewing fires in the lee of their Shermans even while shrapnel rattled off the hulls. The unhinged enemy—seven Axis battalions eventually fought at Fondouk, including the rehabilitated though much reduced convicts—slipped away at dusk through the wheat and wildflowers. Others remained at their guns, stone dead and half-buried in spent brass. “Their faces were as smooth and white as marble statues,” one Yank lieutenant recalled.
Once again, the breakthrough came too late. The retreating Italians in Messe’s army had tramped past Kairouan on the night of April 8–9, silhouetted against the domes and minarets. Feeling little pressure from Montgomery or Patton, the Germans trundled through the next night, looting local hotels of linen, cutlery, and mattresses as they went. After learning that remnants of the 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions lurked somewhere ahead, Crocker chose to lay up for the night rather than push into the coastal plain in darkness. By ten o’clock on Saturday morning, April 10, more than a hundred British Shermans had cleared Fondouk Pass to grab 650 prisoners and destroy fourteen enemy tanks. But the bulk of the enemy army escaped to the north in another of those tawny dust clouds that receded just beyond artillery range.
That evening Kairouan fell, and Allied troops marched through the five gates piercing her crenellated walls. “Lovely fluted domes looked like white velvet on a scarlet carpet, so thick were the poppies in the fields beneath them,” wrote the correspondent Philip Jordan. A British sergeant offered a less romantic view of the city, though it dated to A.D. 671 and was considered the fourth holiest in all Islam: “To us it looked just the usual wog town.” Arabs stared impassively from shops in the labyrinthine souk, but French children handed sprays of pink mimosa to the liberators, and Jews wept with joy at being told they could remove their yellow stars. Tommies pinned the discarded stars to their own caps or handed out matches so the Jews could burn them.
Burial details combed the Fondouk battlefield to collect the dead before looters stripped them; grave robbers had become so bold that chaplains carried carbines. The British had lost thirty-nine tanks and an uncertain number of men in addition to the Welsh Guard casualties on Djebel Rhorab. “Always that terrible, torpid stench of burned flesh,” wrote the Reverend G. P. Druitt, chaplain of the 16th/5th Lancers. He had just removed a charred corpse from a wrecked Sherman. “It seems to hang in one’s nostrils for days.”
American losses in the past three days totaled 439, including more than one hundred killed in action. Wrapped in white mattress covers, the dead were lined up for trucking to another new cemetery. “It is only by the grace of God that I am here to write this today,” a soldier in the 135th Infantry told his parents in Minnesota. In the evacuation hospital, surgeons worked all night, steam rising from each incision in the cold air. The stoicism of British tankers particularly impressed the medicos. “You couldn’t make them complain even when you had to strip the burned skin off their hands and faces,” the 109th Medical Battalion reported. Among the wounded Americans was Robert Moore, commander of the 2nd Battalion of the 168th Infantry, who had been tossed from a slit trench by the German bomb that killed his radio operator. Temporarily blind and deaf, Moore was evacuated to the rear where a soldier who had known him in Villisca described him a week later as “still very dazed and shaky…a sad and worried man. He spoke several times of his wife Dorothy and of daughter Nancy and wondered if he would ever see them again.”
A great opportunity had been lost. Messe’s troops closed on the Tunis bridgehead at Enfidaville, forty miles south of the capital and the most formidable position occupied by the Axis since the loss of El Alamein five months earlier. Now the Tunisian campaign would become a siege. How long it would last was anyone’s guess, and the setting wanted only battering rams and boiling oil dumped from the ramparts to complete the medieval ambiance. Fondouk had been an ugly battle for the Allies, particularly after the frustrations of Mareth, Médenine, El Guettar, Maknassy, and Wadi Akarit. Alexander’s strategy had been plodding, Crocker’s tactics impoverished, American battleworthiness suspect. A bad plan was badly executed, and the long stern chase up the Tunisian littoral had come up short despite the capture of 6,000 Germans and 22,000 Italians in the past month.
Yes, a great opportunity had been lost, but there was always time for recriminations. Crocker fired first. In an ill-advised philippic to a group of officers visiting from Algiers on Sunday morning, April 11, he declared that “all commanders from Major General Ryder downwards in the 34th U.S. Division were too far in the rear of the troops they commanded” and that leadership “by junior officers was very weak indeed.” Holding the 34th wholly responsible for the failures at Fondouk, he recommended it be withdrawn from combat duty for retraining in the rear “under British guidance.” One of the visiting American generals, Harold R. Bull, was so alarmed at Crocker’s “severe and caustic” comments that he immediately flew back to Algiers to warn Eisenhower.
Worse yet, Crocker or someone close to him had fed similar remarks to four war correspondents. Dispatches soon published in the United States suggested that “Rommel” had again made fools of the Allies. Time magazine reported in its April 19 issue that Fondouk was “downright embarrassing” for the Americans and had “afforded a sharp comparison between British and U.S. troops…. All day the British worked their way efficiently along the ridges; all day the U.S. troops tentatively approached but never stormed the first of their heights.”
Ryder declined to rise to the bait, saying only, “The British were damn good.” But bad feelings percolated through all ranks. Crocker’s battle plan was likened to the Light Brigade’s charge or the costly British frontal assault against General Andrew Jackson at New Orleans in January 1815. “I do not believe the British know any more about how to fight an armored division or how it should be organized than we do,” said Ernie Harmon, the new commander of the 1st Armored Division. Chaplain Druitt of the 16th/5th Lancers evinced little Christian charity in telling his diary that the Yanks “have failed to take their objective as usual…. It is infuriating. We’re missing the bus completely owing to the American failure.” A British gunner passing an American convoy flipped an obscene gesture and barked, “Going to fuck up another front, I suppose?” And Tommies at mess sang a new ditty:
Our cousins regret they’re unable to stay
For the Germans are giving them hell.
Eisenhower was both depressed and angry. The undeniable defects in American combat skills, while hardly as irredeemable as British caricatures suggested, left him feeling as low as “whale tracks at the bottom of the sea,” Patton reported. The failure of military censors to suppress the damaging reports in Time and elsewhere so infuriated the commander-in-chief that he briefly advocated sacking his censorship chief. But he took no action against Crocker. To Patton and Bradley, he wondered aloud whether his orders to American commanders to accommodate the British “had been taken so literally that they had been too meek in acquiescing without argument to orders from above, which they felt involved use of poor tactics.” Ryder’s supposed “soft-heartedness” in refusing to cashier incompetent subordinates also bewildered him. And Eisenhower was not above a little petty spite. “Ike says Alex isn’t as good as he thinks he is,” his deputy Everett Hughes wrote in his diary. “He is up against some real fighting now.”
There was irony in all this carping, visible only from the high ground of history. On average nearly a thousand Axis prisoners were tramping into Anglo-American cages every day. Allied forces were about to secure their fifth great battlefield conquest in a year, with a triumph that would join Midway, El Alamein, Guadalcanal, and Stalingrad as a milepost on the road to victory. More than 200,000 Axis troops were now penned like sheep in a Tunisian fold measuring roughly fifty by eighty miles, just large enough to bury two enemy armies. An entire continent would soon be reclaimed and an entire sea, the Mediterranean, converted into an Anglo-American lake. If American troops still seemed callow at times, one need only consider how far they had come since the bumblings of TORCH and imagine how far they would go once the greatest industrial power on earth had fully flung itself into total war.
That Eisenhower felt dispirited simply affirmed Wellington’s maxim that “nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.” To Marshall, he wrote: “I realize that the seeds of discord between ourselves and our British allies were sown, on our side, as far back as when we read our little red school history books.” There was sense in that, just as there was in Eisenhower’s prediction that “this war is not going to be won until we are in the heart of Europe.” Between now and then, however many months or years it took, the task of keeping the Allied coalition unified in pursuit of a common goal would remain among the great military challenges of modern history. Chauvinism, vainglory, frustration, and grief—all these were centrifugal forces, pushing the alliance apart. As Eisenhower had only begun to appreciate, unity required perpetual vigilance and the skills of a master diplomat.
As for the troops at Fondouk, they glanced at the windrows of corpses in their white shrouds and looked away. Yesterday had never happened. There was only tomorrow, and the killing required tomorrow in order to reach the next day. Sergeant Samuel Allen, Jr., a former college student who had led his own swing band in the palmy days of peace, tried to explain in a letter home the flinty nihilism that made young men at war seem so old when they contemplated the dead.
“We have found that it is best to forget about those friends, not to talk about them,” he wrote. “They don’t even exist.”