Military history

12. THE INNER KEEP

Hell’s Corner

ONE hundred thousand strong, the Americans pounded north on four trunk roads beginning Sunday, April 11, as the Allies maneuvered to attack the Tunisian bridgehead. Dust whitened the convoys, giving the troops a spectral pallor despite their sunburns and the grit that blackened every frayed collar. They needed haircuts and shaves and baths, but more than anything they needed rest. The veterans—and most of them now qualified—possessed what Lincoln had inelegantly called “the tired spot that can’t be got at.” Ernie Pyle, who was with them as usual, wrote: “They were dead weary, as a person could tell even when looking at them from behind. Every line and sag of their bodies spoke their inhuman exhaustion…. They were young men, but the grime and whiskers and exhaustion made them look middle-aged.” A sergeant wrote to his family in Iowa: “It’ll soon be five months that a pup tent has been our home. Five months since I’ve even so much as sat at a table while eating.”

North they pounded for 150 miles, another vehicle roaring by every thirty-seven seconds around the clock, precisely as planned, 30,000 vehicles all told, on highways that had carried Carthaginian elephants, Roman chariots, and Byzantine chargers. The desert fell behind. Once again, they were back in the northern hills where many had fought in November and December. The mid-April wheat was thigh high. Rock roses and ladies’ fingers bloomed along the roads, and poppies spread like flame on the slopes in “hilarious, shouting bands of color.” Gorgeous banks of blue convolvulus resembled wood smoke in the middle distance, or, to the jaded eye, a foaming mortar barrage. Hawthorne budded. Apples blossomed. The songs of cuckoos spilled from the thickets.

God’s bounty meant nothing to these men. Beneath the vernal landscape every soldier now saw topography, just as a pathologist can see the skull beneath a scalp. A streambed was not a streambed but defilade; pastures were not pastures but exposed fields of fire. Laurel thickets became ambush sites, and every grove of cork trees might hide a German 88. No soldier could look at this corrupted terrain without feeling that it had become sinister and deeply personal.

Not even a Tunisian spring could hide the battle scars. Refugees trudged on the road shoulders, floured by the dust of the passing trucks. Only rubble remained where for centuries there had been towns with names like Sidi bou Zid and Sbeïtla and Medjez-el-Bab. Once-pretty Béja, with its rambling walls and hilltop Byzantine towers, was posted with yellow signs warning all pilgrims of typhus.

To Béja they were headed, or near it, as part of the grand scheme for the coup de grâce devised by Eisenhower and Alexander. The plan went like this: More than 300,000 Allied troops in some twenty divisions, with 1,400 tanks and as many artillery tubes, would attack in three main groups along a 140-mile arc that extended from Enfidaville south of Tunis to the Mediterranean coast west of Bizerte. Montgomery’s Eighth Army would strike from the south with six divisions, angling for the capital while also preventing the Axis from converting Cap Bon—a large, stony peninsula east of Tunis—into an African Bataan that could hold out for months. From the southwest, roughly parallel to the Medjerda River valley, Anderson’s First Army would attack toward Tunis with six British and three French divisions. And on the far left flank of the Allied line, the Americans would drive on Bizerte from the west with four U.S. divisions and three French battalions known collectively as the Corps Franc d’Afrique. “We have got them just where we want them,” Alexander told his men, “with their backs to the wall.”

Getting the Allied divisions where they were wanted had required settling several fraternal squabbles. Influenced by Crocker, Alexander had intended to banish the U.S. 34th Division from the line for extensive retraining even as he acceded to Eisenhower’s request that II Corps participate in the kill. He also was reluctant to commit all of the 1st Armored Division, “owning to its present low state of morale and training.” Also, Allen’s 1st Infantry Division was to withdraw to prepare for HUSKY, the invasion of Sicily.

Patton howled. The Americans now had 467,000 troops in northwest Africa, more than 60 percent of the Anglo-American army. Most were earmarked for HUSKY or were part of the immense Yankee logistical apparatus. But Alexander proposed taking the Tunisian laurels with a force almost wholly British. “Frankly, I am not happy,” Patton wrote Alexander on April 11. If the U.S. Army appeared to be “acting in a minor role, the repercussions might be unfortunate.” A day later he wrote again, proposing that the 34th Division be kept with II Corps to “restore its soul” and warning that because it was a National Guard unit “its activities assume local interest of great political significance.” In other words: congressmen from Iowa and Minnesota would react poorly to any humiliation of their boys by British officers. At Patton’s request, Bradley carried this second letter to Alexander’s headquarters in Haïdra. “Give me the division,” Bradley told the field marshal, “and I’ll promise you they’ll take and hold their very first objective.”

Intrigued, Alexander brushed off his staff’s objections and told Bradley, “Take them, they’re yours.” After further negotiation, all four American divisions in II Corps were to be included in the attack: American logisticians had demonstrated that they could supply U.S. troops without disrupting the British lines to Anderson’s army, in part by using 5,000 trucks to stock dumps near Béja and by hiring balancelles—fishing smacks—to ship ammunition from Bône. Patton had also objected to again subsuming II Corps into Anderson’s command after it had been reporting directly to Alexander for more than a month. Anderson did little to woo back the estranged Yanks when, upon reviewing their plans for capturing Bizerte, he flicked his swagger stick at the map and said, “Just a childish fancy, just a childish fancy.” (“I’ll make that son of a bitch eat those words,” Ernie Harmon later vowed; Patton informed his diary, “I would rather be commanded by an Arab.”) Again Alexander acquiesced, authorizing the II Corps commander to appeal any disagreeable order from Anderson directly to Alexander. Running counter to the usual rigidity of combat etiquette, this arrangement was not merely unorthodox but even improper.

So the Yanks were coming, lots of them, although British troops still constituted nearly two-thirds of Alexander’s army group. If in his quest to transcend chauvinism Eisenhower remained aloof from issues of national honor, Marshall did not. Citing a “marked fall in prestige of American troops,” he warned Eisenhower on April 14, “Please watch this very closely.” The need to prove that U.S. troops were the battlefield equals of any—a compulsion dating to World War I—remained a powerful force in the American military psyche.

The actors had taken their positions. Now the curtain was set to rise for the last time in Africa. Two brawny Allied armies would attack two eviscerated Axis armies, with the British angling from the south and southwest, and the Americans driving from the west.

On April 18, II Corps officially relieved British troops around Béja. But when the U.S. command post went up in tents on a farm two miles northwest of town, one man was conspicuously absent: G. S. Patton, Jr. As Eisenhower had long intended, Patton had quietly surrendered the corps command in order to complete preparations for Sicily, now less than three months away. In forty-three days he had become a national hero, fought the best German tank forces to a draw, and gone far toward building a reputation as “our greatest fighting general,” in Franklin Roosevelt’s phrase. Yet—as perhaps even he realized—his tenure had been checkered at best. For all Patton’s melodramatics, his influence on the esprit and discipline of II Corps was marginal. Even when allowances are made for the restrictions imposed by Alexander, he had demonstrated little tactical flair at El Guettar, Maknassy, or the first Fondouk. Sweeping envelopments by rampaging tanks, he was discovering, were nearly as rare in this war as they had been in the last.

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Despite Eisenhower’s praise for “the outstanding example of leadership you have given us all,” Patton would leave Tunisia with his thirst for glory unslaked. His frustration can be seen in his orders to inflate the estimates of damage inflicted on Axis forces by II Corps: padding the body count, this would be called in a later war. According to three accounts left by senior staff officers, Patton disputed the initial assessments of enemy losses. “It wasn’t ‘colorful’ enough—didn’t make the operation look big enough,” Lieutenant Colonel Russell F. Akers, Jr., the corps assistant operations officer, privately told Bradley’s aide after the war. “Result: we doubled figures on equipment damaged, destroyed, or captured intact.” Patton’s chief intelligence officer, Monk Dickson, recorded the following conversation in mid-April:

Patton: Your estimates of enemy killed and wounded are absurd. We handed them ten times that many casualties.

Dickson: Sir, we counted all their graves that we could find, interrogated both medical and combat people, and checked their rolls…. Experienced soldiers are hard to kill.

Patton: Add another cipher to both totals.

Dickson: Sir, I can not conscientiously do it.

The II Corps after-action report sent to Algiers asserted that 800 German graves had been counted on the road from Gafsa to Gabès. Enemy equipment that II Corps claimed was destroyed on the ground and from the air between March 15 and April 10 included 128 tanks, 850 other vehicles, and 300 artillery tubes and machine guns—numbers that are certainly inflated, whether or not at Patton’s behest. Because the final report was still in preparation when Patton left, Akers added, the departing commander “gave me his signature on a piece of paper, which I traced onto the stencil when it had been cut.”

As he left Gafsa, Patton picked a bouquet of nasturtiums and laid them on Dick Jenson’s grave. Nearly 800 other American boys were buried there with the young captain. He wept at the sight, never bad behavior in a general. His final diary entry before he left Tunisia was vintage Patton:

As I gain in experience I do not think more of myself but less of others. Men, even so-called great men, are wonderfully weak and timid. They are too damned polite. War is very simple, direct, and ruthless. It takes a simple, direct, and ruthless man to wage war.

On Thursday morning, April 22, Patton’s successor arrived by jeep on the crest of a leafy hill outside Béja. He was a bespectacled six-footer, with a high, convex forehead and thin hair that had been graying since his cadet days. Now he was fifty, just. The jut of his jaw was often mistaken for a sign of pugnacity; in fact, a boyhood skating accident had shattered his teeth and left him with a lifelong reluctance to smile for photographers lest they make, as he put it, a “permanent record of that jumbled mess.” He wore a tatty field jacket and canvas leggings, making him “the least dressed-up commander of an American army in the field since Zachary Taylor, who wore a straw hat,” one witness observed. Unscrolling the map of northern Tunisia that he carried under his arm, he clipped it to an easel, then turned to the small band of correspondents who had come to take his measure and hear his plan.

Omar Nelson Bradley had moved to center stage; there he would remain for the duration and beyond. He descended from hardscrabble Missouri farmers and one itinerant schoolteacher, his father. Eisenhower had contributed a generous accolade for his classmate’s yearbook entry at West Point: “True merit is like a river, the deeper it is, the less noise it makes.” Like Patton, Bradley could be simple, direct, and ruthless, but the similarities ended there. Profanity offended him and he had never even tasted alcohol until the age of thirty-three; his teetotaling wife, Mary, flew into a rage at the spectacle of intoxication—hardly rare on Army posts. His cultivated image of homespun humility—he was “the G.I. General”—was not so much wrong as incomplete; he also possessed an intolerant rectitude and a capacity for dissimulation that in lesser men might devolve into deceit. Hunting was his great passion—when he was stationed at Fort Benning he often tramped into the Georgia swamp before breakfast to shoot the heads off water moccasins; in Tunisia he settled for rocks tossed into the air by his aides. He had a born infantryman’s feel for terrain, with a detailed mental map of every significant swale and ridge from Béja to Bizerte. Of the fifty-nine members of the West Point class of 1915 who became generals—’15 was “the class that stars fell on”—Bradley had been first to win the rank. Arabs, assuming that “Omar” was a Muslim name, were pleased that one of their own had achieved such stature in the American Army. Patton wryly complained that Bradley was simply “too damned sound.”

With map unfurled on the easel and pointer in hand, Bradley quickly explained the impending campaign in his flat, sodbuster twang. “He laid down his schedule with no more panache than a teacher outlining the curriculum for the new semester,” recalled A.J. Liebling, among those squatting at his feet. Mateur was the key to Bizerte. The 9th Division would take the far left flank along the sea—skirting Green and Bald Hills, where the British had found so much trouble. The other two U.S. infantry divisions—the 1st and 34th—would attack farther south, through Sidi Nsir and the hill country below it. The 1st Armored Division would exploit any breakthrough onto the coastal plain leading to Bizerte.

Bradley neglected to mention that his first act as corps commander—even before he repealed Patton’s necktie directive—had been to disobey a direct order from Eisenhower. In a patronizing “Dear Brad” message on April 16, the commander-in-chief noted that “the southern portion of your sector appears to be reasonably suited for tank employment and it is in that area that you will be expected to make your main effort.” This proposed route, through the narrow Tine River valley, was such an obvious German ambush site that II Corps had dubbed it the Mousetrap. Certain that such an attack invited disaster, Bradley simply ignored the proposal and ordered his commanders to avoid the Mousetrap. He likened the job ahead to “hunting wild goats.” By hugging the high ground—“djebel hopping,” he called it—troops were to avoid the vulnerable bottlenecks that had cost so many lives in the past five months. The attack would take time; there were many djebels to hop and many goats to hunt. Axis sappers had spent months fortifying the hills with pneumatic drills, concrete, countless mines, and six artillery battalions. In the II Corps sector, the enemy now mustered an estimated 12,000 infantry troops, and that number would more than triple in the next two weeks.

Bradley took a few questions, climbed back into his jeep, and vanished down the hill. Reduced to half a page with a single map, his battle concept was sent to the British V Corps, which abutted the American zone on the south. General Allfrey studied it and then shook his head. “This chap Bradley,” he was reported as saying, “obviously knows nothing about commanding a corps.”

Although the endgame was just beginning on the ground, it had been under way for weeks in the air. Overwhelming Allied air superiority might be hard to see from the bottom of a slit trench at Béja, but it was all too visible to the Axis wretches caught in Allied bombsights. Thousands of tons of high explosives had been dropped on ports, airfields, and marshaling yards across northeast Tunisia, Sicily, and southern Italy, with thousands more to come. Bizerte had been hit so hard that not a single structure in the city was habitable. “We attacked Bizerte with the intention of blotting it off the map,” said one Army Air Forces general. That was not boast but fact. Raids on Tunis concentrated on docks and airfields, but the pummeling still killed 752 civilians and wounded more than a thousand; pinpoint accuracy was out of reach for B-17s flying at 23,000 feet through flak so heavy the route became known, bitterly, as the Milk Run. A single raid on Palermo blew up an ammunition ship, sank seven other freighters, and generated waves powerful enough to toss two coastal lighters onto the quay; the port was immobilized for weeks. In another raid, three Italian destroyers ferrying a panzer battalion to Tunisia were sunk. Six men survived to tell the tale.

Allied minelayers north and east of Tunisia became so proficient that Axis vessels were forced to cross the Sicilian Straits through a single swept channel a mile wide and forty miles long. Ultra eavesdropping revealed ship manifests and sailing times in such detail that Allied targeteers could select their prey on the basis of which cargo they most wished to see on the Mediterranean floor any given day. A solitary, pathetic scow carrying fuel or tank shells might draw fifty attacking planes. American aircrews calculated that on average twenty-eight tons of bombs sufficed to sink a midsized merchantman; a typical formation of eighteen Flying Fortresses dropped twice that tonnage, and crews came off the target singing “It’s Better to Give Than to Receive” over their intercoms. In March alone, more than three dozen Axis ships had been sunk on the Tunisian run, and with them nearly half the military cargo and fuel intended for Arnim’s forces.

Consequently, Kesselring turned to air transport more and more. By early April, 200 or more flights a day—organized in wave-skimming convoys called Pulks—carried men and matériel to Africa. The Allies responded, beginning on April 5, with Operation FLAX, a series of ruthless fighter sweeps and bombing raids. On their first FLAX mission, U.S. pilots bushwacked fifty Ju-52 transports and their escorts; in what was described as a “general air mêlée,” seventeen German aircraft were shot down at a cost of two American planes. Bombers also dropped nearly 11,000 twenty-pound fragmentation bombs on targets in Bizerte and Italy. By day’s end, Luftwaffe losses reached thirty planes in the air and many more on the ground.

Worse was to come. On April 18, Palm Sunday, four squadrons of the American 57th Fighter Group—the Black Scorpions, the Fighting Cocks, the Exterminators, and the Yellow Diamonds—joined a Spitfire squadron over Cap Bon for the final patrol of the day. Sixty fighters were “spaced up into the sky like a flight of stairs, each line of four planes abreast making a step,” according to a contemporary account by Richard Thruelsen and Elliott Arnold. “The bottom of this flight was at four thousand feet. The Spits, at the top, were at fifteen thousand feet.” Purple shadows were stretching across Cap Bon when the pilots suddenly spotted several V-formations of Ju-52s and six-engine Me-323s six miles off the coast. “They were flying the most beautiful formation I’ve ever seen,” one pilot said later. “It seemed like a shame to break it up.”

Splitting into pairs, the marauders attacked from the right rear, quickly disarranging the perfect Vs and picking off the stragglers. A pilot described his first victim: “A short burst left his port engine burning. The flame trailed the whole length of the plane. The center or nose engine was also on fire.” Blazing planes cartwheeled into the violet water or crashed on the Tunisian beach. “The sea turned red and a great circle of debris bobbed in an oily scum,” a witness reported. “From the beaches rose the tall black columns of a dozen funeral pyres.”

Thirty-eight Luftwaffe planes were destroyed. Twenty more were shot down the next morning, then another thirty-nine on April 22, including many carrying cargoes of fuel that burned like winged hellfire during the languid, corkscrew descent into the Mediterranean. In less than three weeks, FLAX destroyed 432 Axis aircraft at a cost of thirty-five Allied planes; the losses included more than half the German air transport fleet. A flyboy cockiness invested Allied airfields. “If Kesselring goes on making mistakes like this, we’re not going to get much of a reputation,” Air Marshal Tedder observed. At Göring’s insistence, Axis flights took place only in darkness; with spring days ever longer, there were only about sixty sorties each night to bring Arnim supplies and reinforcements.

Although a quarter-million Axis men crowded the bridgehead, only one-third of them were genuine combat troops. Most others were noncombatants from the Italian logistical tail that had been organized for an army with pretensions to a vast colonial empire, or rear-echelon soldiers from divisions destroyed in Rommel’s long retreat across Africa’s northern rim. Reduced to fewer than a hundred guns, the Italian army “was in agony,” one general observed. Arab black-marketeers did a brisk business in safe-conduct passes sold to Italians keen on slipping across no-man’s-land. Allied pilots and artillerymen papered the Axis ranks with propaganda sheets encouraging defection and dissent; these were the initial barrages of nearly 4 billion leaflets—equivalent to 4,000 truckloads—that would be printed in the Mediterranean in the next two years.

Axis reserves were still ferried to Tunis at a rate of about 2,000 men each day, but most frontline units were beyond reconstitution. The 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions had roughly 5,600 men each, while the 90th Light Africa was down to 6,000 and the 164th Light Africa numbered only 3,000. The Italian Centauro and Spezia Divisions had been obliterated, and three others had been reduced, collectively, to eleven scarecrow battalions. General Messe warned that “the repulse of a large-scale enemy attack is impossible with the amount of ammunition on hand.” By late April, a Luftwaffe anti-aircraft unit had trouble scrounging the thirty-five gallons of fuel a day it needed for its radar sets. A German staff officer noted that “an armored division without petrol is little better than a heap of scrap iron” an armored division without tanks was even less. The Axis armor fleet numbered fewer than 150 tanks, barely a tenth the Allied force. The 15th Panzer had four tanks fit for battle. Arnim rejected several counterattack proposals as pointless “butting at the mountains.” When a senior officer visiting from Berlin accused Army Group Africa of “squinting over its shoulder,” Arnim tartly replied that he was “squinting for ships.”

As early as December, the German high command had discreetly considered what transport would be needed for a complete evacuation of the Tunisian bridgehead, but those contingency plans had been shelved in light of Kesselring’s unflagging optimism. When Kesselring later proposed a “comb-out” of extraneous personnel, Hitler refused on grounds that selective evacuation would hurt morale. Although Allied intelligence estimated that in early April the Axis could still remove 37,000 men a day from Tunisia, not until mid-month did a limited, belated evacuation begin of the mangiatori—“useless mouths.” Mouths unfortunate enough to be considered essential got little to eat: an Italian soldier’s diary indicated that his daily ration comprised half a mess tin of cold rice, a couple of potatoes, and a slice and a half of bread.

If his virtual abandonment of the African army seems daft in hindsight, Hitler as usual could spin a logically coherent strand within the larger web of his lunacy. On April 8, he and Mussolini met in a castle near Salzburg to conspire. Il Duce’s former strut was gone. Every Allied step closer to Tunis was a step closer to Rome. Naples and other cities in the south were being pummeled from the air. Strikes and peace demonstrations racked Turin and Milan. Depressed and feeble, Mussolini renewed his plea for a separate peace between Berlin and Moscow; the Axis could then turn full force toward the Mediterranean, holding Tunisia while falling on the enemy rear through Spain and Spanish Morocco.

Hitler dismissed this scheme. Of Mussolini’s proposals, only standing fast in Tunisia interested him. After the disaster at Stalingrad, recent German successes in the Kharkov counteroffensive—three Soviet armies had been obliterated in less than a month—had revived the Führer’s craving for complete victory over the hated Russians. As long as the Anglo-Americans concentrated their strength on the periphery of the Axis empire, they could not attempt major operations elsewhere. Tunisia, he told Mussolini, was shielding Italy and the rest of southern Europe. The Führer also recognized that the final loss of North Africa would further undermine Mussolini at home, perhaps fatally, imperiling both the defense of the Italian homeland and the Axis itself. Tunisia must be defended to the last ditch.

Il Duce’s backbone was stiffened by Hitler’s rhetoric. He agreed that the bridgehead should hold “at all costs”—that portentous phrase used so glibly by those far removed from the firing line. “Everything can happen if we persist,” he told Kesselring in Rome on April 12, “and therefore we shall hold.” The next day—Tuesday, the thirteenth—Arnim was told there would be no mass evacuation.

Appalled at what he called “this liquidation,” Arnim later acknowledged “the greatest desire to call it quits and to ask to be relieved.” Instead, he saluted the order, began cobbling together infantry battalions from his cooks and clerks, and turned to the task of digging that last ditch.

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