Military history

Hammering Home the Cork

AS the Allied armies converged on the bridgehead, their engagements increasingly occurred simultaneously. For narrative simplicity, they may be considered one at a time, beginning with Eighth Army in the south.

Montgomery’s horde swaggered toward Tunis as cocksure as a street fighter eager to put an opponent on the pavement one last time. Tommies sorted through booty abandoned by retreating Axis troops, including American swimsuits captured at Kasserine and a box of Italian regimental silverware left on the road like an oblation. A cool swank pervaded the ranks and even the muddle-headed cries of “Vivent les Américains!” from liberated villagers failed to prick the high spirits of an army that had its quarry’s scent.

Montgomery had known since April 11 that Alexander intended First Army to make the main Allied thrust toward Tunis. Gentler terrain clearly favored an armored blow from the southwest rather than due south, where the coastal plain narrowed to a funnel barely a mile wide and frowned upon by hills that were high, steep, and twenty miles deep—“bald rock faces, gullies, and abominations,” as the official British history put it. This Montgomery could accept; he had urged Alexander to “concentrate all your strength” for “an almighty crack” in one spot, and as requested he donated his own 1st Armoured Division and an armored car regiment to First Army toward that end.

But Montgomery was not a man to relinquish laurels easily, particularly to those he considered his military inferiors, which included virtually everyone. “It would be all right if Anderson was any good, as he could do it all,” he wrote in his diary on April 12. “But he is no good.” To Alexander on April 16 he cabled: “All my troops are in first-class form and want to be in the final Dunkirk.” Although, under Alexander’s plan, Eighth Army was to contribute little more than a hearty feint, Montgomery still hoped to beat Anderson to the Tunisian capital by “gate crashing” the Axis bridgehead with a four-division assault on the rocky massif above Enfidaville.

It is axiomatic in mountain warfare that the second-highest crest is often worthless ground, but Eighth Army now launched a campaign to capture a chain of second-highest hills. After years in the desert, the abrupt change in topography was pleasing to the eye—for 1,800 miles these men had dreamed of green hills and wildflowers—but tactically confusing. Montgomery’s increasing reliance on brute force played badly here: even overwhelming firepower had a limited effect on sloping, fissured terrain that sheltered defenders and swallowed vast tonnages of bombs and artillery shells. Eighth Army units were badly understrength after the travails of the past year, and up to one-quarter of the remaining infantrymen would be needed to haul ammunition over ground often too rugged even for mules.

Such handicaps seemed manageable to the British, because their intelligence had concluded that the Enfidaville fortifications were lightly held, with six or eight demoralized German battalions and some hapless Italians supposedly facing the X Corps sector. (Soon that estimate of enemy forces would triple.) But Montgomery was convinced he could “bounce the enemy out of Enfidaville,” just as he believed he had little to learn from the amateurs in First Army and II Corps, despite their six-month apprenticeship in Tunisian hill fighting. Now arrogance and error would reap the usual dividends.

Even the second-highest crests had substantial foothills that served as watchtowers shielding the inner keep. Among these, three miles west of Enfidaville, was Takrouna, a 600-foot limestone knob crowned with a domed mosque, an old Berber fort, and adobe houses on three levels. General Messe himself took a hand in arranging its defenses, manned by 300 Italian infantry troops. “In an endeavor to rouse the spirit of emulation,” Messe later explained, “I included a platoon of Germans in the garrison.” Freyberg’s New Zealanders—specifically, the Maori tribesmen of his 28th Battalion—attacked this “rotting stalagmite” just before midnight on Monday, April 19. For two days, the battle scorched Takrouna’s pale faces, up and down rough-hewn steps, through secret tunnels, and in and out of one blood-spattered room after another.

Reinforcements hurried forward on both sides. By Wednesday morning, there was “never a moment that the top of Takrouna was not half-hidden by shellbursts [and] tracer shells streaking in a slight arc across the valley and ricocheting crazily among the houses,” one commander later wrote. Italian troops shinnying up a rope tossed grenades into a makeshift Maori dressing station full of wounded soldiers, prompting reprisals that included chasing enemy soldiers over the precipice at bayonet point and tossing two prisoners after them. “One of those grim moments,” an official New Zealand account conceded, “when all control is lost.”

“Sergeants were promoting themselves to platoon sergeants, corporals to sergeants, and so on. In many cases they were no sooner promoted than they were wounded,” a battalion commander, wounded himself, later recalled. Harrowing fire reduced two Maori companies to fewer than twenty men each, and nine of twelve company commanders in the attack were killed or wounded. Takrouna finally fell—General Horrocks considered it “the most gallant feat of arms I witnessed in the course of the war”—but at a Pyrrhic price. Kiwi losses amounted to 459 men, including 34 officers. More than seven hundred prisoners were captured, three-quarters of them Italian.

But that was it: this far and no farther. A simultaneous attack by the 4th Indian Division against Djebel Garci, five miles to the west, captured a few tactically insignificant acres at a loss of another 500 men. Both valor and bloodlust equaled those on Takrouna. A Gurkha platoon commander, who had suffered a dozen wounds to his head alone, played dead before rejoining his men in the dark to renew the attack. “My hands being cut about and bloody,” he recounted, “I had to ask one of my platoon to take my pistol out of my holster and to put it in my hand.” Gurkhas—short, swarthy Nepalese warriors said to tire only when strolling across flat ground—reportedly took no prisoners, delighted in decapitating enemies with their long, curved kukri blades, and calculated Axis losses by the number of enemy wristwatches adorning Gurkha arms at the end of any fight. But they met their match on Garci, where knives and stones supplemented rifles and artillery. “In the darkness men grappled and slew each other,” an Indian witness reported. “Every gain drew a counterattack from desperate men pledged to hold the heights at all costs.”

For the first time, the enemy seemed willing en masse to fight to the last cartridge. A new, homicidal desperation fired the battlefield, stoked by the savage intimacy of boulder-to-boulder combat and the Axis recognition that the next step back would put them in the sea. Men grew gray for lack of sleep. Stretcher bearers stumbled up and stumbled back, their legs rubbery and palms blistered raw. By April 22, Axis shelling seemed heavier than ever and the Tommies lay low all day to “wait for the enemy to get over his ill temper,” one commander said. A Scots officer reported that his Highlanders had stopped carrying bagpipes into battle because the pipers were invariably hit and pipes themselves had grown too dear, at £80 a set. News of Eighth Army’s difficulties elicited an uncharitable schadenfreude in the Allied ranks. “Let’s radio Monty,” Bradley quipped, “and see if he wants us to send him a few American advisers to show his desert fighters how to get through those hills.”

Weary and distracted by preparations for HUSKY, Montgomery now threatened to make a bad situation worse with an abrupt change of plans. If his men could not force their way through the hills, he would fling them up the narrow coastal road in an effort to reach Bou Ficha and then Tunis. After issuing orders to suspend the mountain attacks and prepare for a frontal assault up Highway 1, Montgomery flew to Cairo for three more days of Sicily planning. He returned on Easter Monday, the twenty-sixth, with a raging case of tonsillitis, to find his subordinates—particularly the division commanders Bernard Freyberg and Francis Tuker—in surly rebellion at a plan that appeared to put the army commander’s personal ambition ahead of tactical prudence. Irritated and feverish, Montgomery took to his caravan bed. “The big issues are so vital that we have got to force this through here,” he croaked. Horrocks threw up his hands in exasperation. “Of course we can break through,” he snapped before storming from the trailer. “But there won’t be much left of your fine Eighth Army when we have done it.” Montgomery just grunted as the door slammed.

Even the most irresistible force occasionally encounters an immovable object, and for Montgomery Enfidaville was that object. After years of fighting and the months-long tramp across Africa, Eighth Army had “rather a sad and stale air,” a British intelligence officer later wrote. Montgomery and his staff “appeared to have lost interest. They never liked mountains.” A positioning attack to seize a ridgeline between Takrouna and the coast road foreshadowed the calamity to come if Montgomery persisted with his plan. The green 56th Division entered the line on April 26 after a grueling 3,300-mile overland trip from Iraq, and immediately suffered a battalion commander killed and the division commander badly wounded. The spooked survivors stampeded as if they meant to run all the way back to Kirkuk. “As they went up the slope I saw them waver, turn, and retreat,” an artillery officer later recalled. “It was only the second time I had seen our infantry running; the first was at Mareth…. It reminded me of the infantry in open order advancing on the first day of the Somme.”

Another Somme was the last thing the British Army needed, and to his credit Montgomery recognized the futility of persisting with this approach. “Am not, repeat not happy about present plan for finishing off this business,” he cabled Alexander at sixP.M. on April 29. “Can you possibly come and see me tomorrow?” He was ready to let Anderson carry the fight by transferring two more divisions to First Army; the move would eliminate Eighth Army from the race for Tunis and essentially end its role in the African campaign. Such was war. Glory would have to be won in other fights on other fields. While waiting for Alexander to arrive, Montgomery dashed off a private note to Brooke in London. “I could almost burst into tears at the tragedy of the whole thing,” he wrote. “I have no doubt we shall put it right in the end, but we have lost a great opportunity, and we have lost a lot of good chaps.

“I sometimes feel,” he added, “I am beginning to need a short rest.”

As usual in Tunisia, Montgomery’s criticism was less a meditation on his own army’s performance than a churlish broadside at Anderson and First Army. He dismissed Anderson’s plan for capturing Tunis as “a partridge drive” with “all the seeds of failure.” Rather than concentrating that almighty crack at a single vulnerable point in the enemy’s thin line, First Army was dispersing its power in multiple attacks across a forty-mile front. If the French in the south and Americans in the north were included, that frontage stretched to ninety miles.

The merit of Montgomery’s appraisal soon became clear, which of course afforded him satisfaction in direct proportion to Anderson’s misery. The latter’s plan had little nuance. Among other failings, he had inadequately exploited Allied airpower: having planned haphazardly, he frittered away his overwhelming strength in seventy different air attacks on forty-four separate targets. Yet with three armored and ten infantry divisions at his disposal, Anderson came to the reasonable conclusion that the fuel-starved Germans would be unable to parry multiple thrusts.

Operation VULCAN was just that: multiple thrusts. First, the IX Corps of General Crocker—fresh from the Fondouk unpleasantness—would attack on the British right to draw enemy forces from Allfrey’s V Corps on the left. Then, sixteen hours later, Allfrey would thunder toward Tunis down the Medjerda valley, where Anderson rightly believed “the enemy’s vitals” could be found. Finally, a day later, the Americans on the far left flank would begin their surge toward Bizerte, although they were not expected to actually reach it. Even less was expected from the French XIX Corps, wedged between the British First and Eighth Armies as a sop to Allied unity. Anderson intended to destroy Arnim’s Fifth Panzer Army before wheeling south to take the First Italian troops from the rear as they faced Montgomery. The offensive was to last nine days. “We are going to annihilate finally the armies of von Arnim and Rommel—all of us together,” he told his troops, still flailing at the Desert Fox’s long shadow.

Kenneth Anderson was incapable of making a plan without diffidence—that “queer thing human nature” kept intruding—and VULCAN was no exception. “The plan’s all right, but will the troops fight?” he asked General Evelegh. The 78th Division commander, whose men had been fighting and dying since those first grim weeks in November, hardly knew how to answer. At length he replied stiffly, “One can only plan in the expectation that they will.”

The Germans struck first, as they so often did, with a spoiling attack code-named FLIEDERBLÜTE—Lilac Blossom—and timed by Kesselring for the night of April 20 as a birthday tribute to Hitler. Five battalions from the Hermann Göring Division, first formed as a state police unit in 1933, attacked south of Medjez-el-Bab with tanks from the 10th Panzer. Singing as they advanced, the enemy nevertheless achieved enough surprise that one British artillery officer in his tent, annoyed at the racket, hollered, “Go away, James, and stop making so much noise.” But dawn exposed the attackers to galling machine-gun and artillery fire that tore great gaps in their ranks. By nightfall on the twenty-first, the line had been restored, with 450 Germans captured and thirty-three panzers destroyed. British losses were modest, and Anderson’s timetable for VULCAN was undisturbed but for a four-hour delay in a single division.

Crocker launched his corps with a great belching of guns at 3:40 A.M. on Thursday, the twenty-second. By late the next day—Good Friday—he had shoved the 6th Armoured Division into the breach, punching ten miles through the German line and rousing hopes of a rampage to the sea. But the attack stalled. Murderous antitank fire and Wehrmacht counterattacks at a scabrous hill called Djebel Bou Kournine led to stalemate. The British 1st Armoured Division ended up almost where it had started, and other advances were limited to a few hard miles. A Tommy at Bou Kournine wrote:

Men have begun drifting back in small groups, most of them badly shaken. They talk of crawling up sheer precipices to find every level expanse swept by machine gun fire; of wounded rolling all the way to the bottom; of tripwire mines and boobytraps on handgrip ledges; of areas automatically illuminated on approach by flares and bulbs, immediately drawing fire; of premature rifle shots from stumbling men, supposed to have given the game away; and of walls and caves and all sorts of cunning defensive devices on the summit, piled round the dead of previous assaults.

On April 26, Anderson ordered IX Corps to halt the futile, costly attack. Search parties scuffed through the ripening wheat at night, feeling with their feet for corpses; they soon stopped, having discovered that German sappers often mined fallow fields and then sowed grain so that the new crop would camouflage their handiwork. Wounded men filled the aid stations, their faces blued by starlight and shock. General Crocker joined them the next day, after being struck in the chest by debris from a new British antitank weapon; eager to show his troops that the gadget could penetrate a captured Tiger, he had instead set fire to a grainfield and put himself in the hospital. There he would remain for the rest of the campaign.

So it was up to Allfrey and V Corps. As planned, on the night of April 21 three battalions from Medjez-el-Bab had crept through the barley and olives to a staging area north of the Medjerda. They went to ground before dawn in gullies near the hamlet of Chassart Teffaha. Each man lay motionless in the scorching sun all the next day, alone with his thoughts and a clear view of the objective looming two miles to the northeast: Longstop Hill. As in late December, Longstop barred all traffic through the Medjerda valley and would have to be captured before any tank column could push up Highway 50 to Tébourba and Tunis beyond. Unredeemed even by April marigolds and gauzy sunlight, the double-peaked hill seemed more sinister than ever. Skeletons in moldering uniforms sat in the crevices where they had died during the Christmas battles, as if, one British general later wrote, “the ghosts of good soldiers gathered to watch.”

Allfrey’s attack opened at eight P.M. on the twenty-second, with a cannonade answered weirdly by a spring storm that whipped through from the north in a spectacular lightning display. Four hundred tubes roared from gun pits around Medjez, and the infantrymen rose from their holes to scramble up the lower slopes. “The flashes of those guns, we hoped, were visible in Tunis as a sign of the wrath to come,” BBC correspondent Howard Marshall reported. “Stripped to the waist, the gunners kept up their stream of fire while our infantry advanced close behind the barrage.” The imperturbable Alexander was among those watching through field glasses from a Medjerda meadow, “like a crowd of spectators watching climbers on the face of the Eiger.” Magnesium flares and artillery detonations illuminated tiny dots ascending the slope, followed at a distance by the slightly larger dots that were pack mules. These periodically broke in terror for the bottom: “fractious, four-legged children of Satan,” a soldier-turned-muleteer called them.

Good Friday dawned with the attack behind schedule and the assault battalions exposed. A reporter in Medjez noted that “the whole ridge seemed on fire.” Djebel el Ahmera—the western peak of the double-crested pinnacle belatedly discovered at Christmas—was to be seized by the 8th Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on the theory that the Scots would find inspiration in terrain so like home. Instead, German gunners shortly after noon caught the command group in an open field, and their barrage slaughtered the battalion staff and its pipe major.

Heatstroke felled many of those the German shells missed. Soon half the battalion was down. The other half was exhausted, but enraged after a Wehrmacht prisoner whipped out a concealed machine pistol and gunned down several Jocks before being riddled with bullets himself. For the next several days, few prisoners were taken. “The Argylls had been roused to a state of berserk fury,” observed Major J. T. McK. Anderson, who would win the Victoria Cross for his heroics at Longstop. “We just had a hate—at the Germans, the hill, and everything.” Major Anderson’s bayonet charge with thirty howling comrades finally captured el Ahmera; with the piper dead, the men settled for a windy harmonica player. But Longstop’s second crest—Djebel el Rhar, every bit as recalcitrant as it had been in December—fell only on Easter Monday, after British tanks crawled toward the summit. “The hill was an infernal sight, smoking and reeking,” a reporter wrote. Three hundred grenadiers were permitted to surrender, their Zeiss binoculars and tins of beef tongue immediately seized as spoils of war.

Longstop had fallen, this time for good, but V Corps was running out of steam as surely as IX Corps had in the south. The Argylls had been reduced by two-thirds. More than five hundred men of the British 1st Infantry Division were killed, or wounded, or went missing in a Good Friday assault along the right bank of the Medjerda, and 329 more were lost the next day in just two battalions. Twenty-nine of forty-five tanks reinforcing the infantrymen were destroyed or damaged; they were among 252 British tanks the Germans claimed in the last ten days of April.

Nowhere in Africa was the fighting more ferocious than on Djebel Bou Aoukaz—the Bou—a 700-foot hogback ridge four miles from Longstop and across the Medjerda. Three Guards battalions attacked the Bou and its spurs for more than a week while the Germans “threw everything but their cap badges at us.” Day after day the rush of artillery and the cackle of machine guns rocked the hill; soldiers lay at night in their slit trenches with their pathetic parapets, hand-built of scree, inhaling the “pungent scent of rosemary and evergreen torn by shell splinters and freshened by the rain.” When grenade supplies ran out the Tommies tossed rocks at the enemy, “just to keep them on the move.” Bodies in the Bou’s ripening fields were marked with rifles stuck bayonet-first in the ground, with a soupbowl helmet hung from the butt; the grave-diggers sent to collect the fallen one night reported that a hay field had sprouted “a forest of rifles.” By the end of April, the 1st Irish Guards had been reduced to eighty men including a stretcher bearer who would eventually lose his wounded leg to a surgeon’s knife but for now hobbled up and back, declaring, “I have no time for the gangrene.” The 5th Grenadier Guards suffered almost 300 casualties in holding one ridge, including thirteen of sixteen officers, under shelling of such intensity that one lieutenant was reduced to observing: “There is no doubt about it: they are very keen to get this hill.”

The hill remained in British hands, but the rest of the bridgehead still belonged to the enemy. By April 29, both Alexander and Anderson recognized that the V Corps offensive had stalled. Allfrey had advanced six miles in an arc on either side of the Medjerda, roughly the same distance gained by Crocker’s corps, but he was still twenty-five miles from Tunis. The next day—Friday, the thirtieth—Anderson told Eisenhower that First Army in the past week had suffered 3,500 casualties, including roughly 900 killed.VULCAN had cost one man for every three yards gained. Many companies were reduced to fewer than two dozen soldiers of all ranks.

If British losses were heavy, so were German and Italian, and there was always consolation in that. Arnim now had sixty-nine functioning panzers in all of Africa. His reserves consisted of a single depleted tank battalion.

But still there was no Allied breakthrough, only heartache and death. Anderson rejected a truce proposal from the Hermann Göring Division to collect the dead, and at night the chinking of shovels from surreptitious burial details could be heard across the fields and orchards of the no-man’s-land. A British chaplain who found a long-dead Guardsman near the Bou later described trying to inter the man quickly before dawn. “One arm was sticking straight up,” the chaplain wrote. “We couldn’t get it in the shallow grave. Every time we forced it down, it jumped up again, a gleaming white hand in the darkness.

“It is terribly hard to break a dead man’s arm.”

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