WITH both British armies brought to a standstill, the final drive in the Tunisian campaign may fairly be said to have begun with the Americans. Omar Bradley’s initial assault in the north was no less frustrating than those of the British—and certainly no more valorous. But once started the attack was never stopped, even when daily progress was measured in inches, and the drive that began Good Friday can be seen as a continuous, two-week victory march to the sea that finally brought the U.S. Army battle honors fairly won.
“We are sitting in an old busted farmhouse, writing by candlelight,” Terry Allen wrote Mary Fran on April 22. His black hair tousled, cigarette dangling from his lips, he wore the same frayed green shirt and trousers he had worn at Gafsa and El Guettar, now so mended by his orderly that the ensemble looked more like a quilt than a uniform. The aluminum stars on his shoulders were still those plucked from an Italian private two months ago. Even candlelight could not soften the tension in Allen’s face or erase the crow’s-feet etched deeper than ever around his eyes. Having turned fifty-five on April 1, he looked older. He had been to mass to pray for himself and his men, including those whom he inevitably had ordered to their deaths. “I’m hoping and praying that my scheme of maneuver is OK,” he wrote. “The strain is rather tough and I’ll be glad when this mess is over.”
The guns finished his thought. Searing white flashes leaped from the pits and rippled along the ridgelines like heat lightning. The barrage, A. B. Austin wrote, “[filled] the hollows with light. It was if the hill waves really were pitching and rolling.” A single 105mm howitzer firing at its maximum rate could lob 4,000 pounds of shells in an hour over a 43,000-square-yard area; American gunners now massed more than 300 guns, spitting eleven tons of steel each minute. The shells were fitted with new radar sensors that made the rounds detonate forty feet or so above the target, for optimal killing dispersion. After every concentration the gunners whooped, “Count your children now, Adolf!”
The infantry surged forward in Friday’s first light, “a long, slow line of dark-helmeted forms silhouetted in the flash,” Ernie Pyle wrote. As Eddy’s 9th Division swept across a broad, twenty-eight-mile front on the left flank, Bradley threw the heft of his attack against the right with the 34th and 1st Infantry Divisions and the 6th Armored Infantry Regiment forming a thirteen-mile crescent on a northeasterly vector. The Big Red One shook out three regiments abreast, each with a two-mile frontage, lurching toward hills designated only by their height in meters, plucked from a map—350, 407, 400, 469, 575, 394, 346, 444. Ten enemy battalions awaited the assault, backed by Tigers. Guns boomed, mortars crumped, great gouts of orange and red streaked the hilltops, and smoke lay in dirty banks across the battlefield.
Within two hours they were in trouble if not in perdition itself, and Allen’s prayers appeared to have gone unheard. Hill 350, looming above the southwest entrance to the Mousetrap, proved especially grievous for the 2nd Battalion of the 18th Infantry, which suffered 224 casualties on Good Friday alone. Her sister battalion, the 3rd, tallied another 138 assaulting Hill 407 two miles to the north; the commander wept at his losses. In the division center, artillery fell short for a long hour, inadvertently killing or wounding seventy men in the 16th Infantry. Soldiers found every slope seeded with antipersonnel mines, many of the kind known as Castrators or Bouncing Bettys because they sprang belt-high before detonating. In one company of the 26th Infantry, all the officers and the first sergeant were killed or wounded. A soldier in the 26th, hearing agonized shrieks from a wounded comrade, later reported: “I rolled over to him and he looked at me and pleaded, ‘Help me. Please shoot me.’” The boy soon died, unassisted.
Into this maelstrom on Friday morning rode a short, sharp-featured visitor from Washington who promptly concluded that the troops lacked the requisite passion for closing with the enemy. Lieutenant General Lesley J. McNair had come to Tunisia to assess American battleworthiness, for which he was responsible as commander of U.S. Army ground forces. Unsociable, enigmatic, and half-deaf, a blue-eyed Scot from Minnesota, McNair had been the youngest American general in France in 1917. An artillerist and accomplished mathematician who carried a slide rule as other men carried pipes or Bibles, he liked to describe himself as a simple “pick-and-shovel man,” but one associate likened him to “a Presbyterian pulpit speaker—all irony and intellect.” “You may do the wrong thing,” McNair often advised, “but do something.”
Now McNair did something, and it was indeed the wrong thing. Arriving at Allen’s “old busted farmhouse” at five A.M., he strode past the steaming manure pile in the courtyard, gulped down a cup of coffee, then argued bitterly with Ted Roosevelt—who showed up in Rough Rider—over the prudence of a three-star general’s continuing closer to the battlefront. Undeterred, McNair eluded the officer assigned to escort him and pressed forward in a jeep with a large three-star placard on the bumper, bouncing toward the sound of the guns. After sweeping through the 26th Infantry on the left flank, he sped south to the 16th Infantry, grousing that “nowhere did I find anything other than 100 percent lethargy. There was not a bit of fight in the entire outfit.”
McNair grew more liverish that afternoon, when he found much of the 2nd Battalion pinned down behind a hill and soldiers braying at him to “get the jeep the hell out of the area.” Muttering at this “sorry picture of a fighting outfit” and ignoring more advice to stay back, McNair climbed the ridgeline to an artillery observation post, where he opened a large map to study the terrain. A dozen German shells landed harmlessly behind him before the thirteenth burst with a fierce crack on the crest, killing a company first sergeant. One steel fragment sliced through the rear lip of McNair’s helmet, slowing enough so that it lodged in his skull instead of penetrating his brain; another gouged an eight-inch gash in his neck and shoulder, severing an artery. As blood soaked his open map, McNair observed, “I miscalculated my defilade.” Rushed by jeep to the division clearing station for treatment with plasma and sulfa—the general grumbled when a surgeon scissored away his $16 tailored shirt—he was then hauled by Dodge ambulance over a camel track to an evacuation hospital north of Béja. Bradley soon appeared to pin a Purple Heart—accidentally upside down—on McNair’s pajamas. Flown to a hospital in Oran before evacuation to Washington, McNair continued to complain that “American soldiers are not fighting.”
That was untrue—a damned lie, really. Some 500 U.S. soldiers would be killed in Tunisia during Easter week, with another 2,000 wounded; no Pentagon calumny could diminish their sacrifice. While Allen’s men struggled in the south to advance a few thousand yards a day, on the left flank General Eddy’s 23,000 troops—his own 9th Division and 4,000 from the Corps Franc d’Afrique—pushed forward in vegetation so dense the men often had to crawl.
The 47th Infantry bulled through the sword grass along Highway 7 until Green and Bald Hills loomed into view. Charred wreckage from the three failed British attacks on the Jefna fortifications littered the roadbed and lower slopes. Rather than launch yet another frontal assault, the 47th began to gnaw at the German fringes on the morning of the twenty-third, demonstrating and distracting while her two sister regiments looped north to outflank the enemy in terrain long considered impassable.
Impassable it proved to be, at least at first. Division von Manteuffel—5,000 Axis soldiers in nine battalions—held the twenty-mile front between Jefna and the sea in fortifications so deep that some bunkers required ladders to enter. The 39th Infantry’s attack north of Highway 7 started poorly when a German patrol bushwacked and captured 150 men, including the regimental commander, Colonel J. Trimble Brown. Less than an hour later, an intrepid captain, who had seen Brown and his band led away after surrendering their rings and watches, counterattacked with Company G, killing or wounding forty-five Germans, freeing the prisoners, and saving the day if not Colonel Brown’s battle plans, which unfortunately disappeared with the fleeing enemy. Shortly before midnight Eddy relieved Brown, who collected his bag and bedroll before heading to the rear.
So it went day after day. Savage fighting raged across more nameless hills—432, 438, 513, 382—at such close quarters that soldiers struggled to stay awake for fear their snores would attract grenades. Peaks were captured and lost, captured again and lost again. Fog hugged the hollows, making them even more opaque and sinister. One officer likened the terrain to “being led into a dark theater after the movie had started.” American gunners shattered enemy counterattacks with barrages of white phosphorus shells dumped so near to friendly lines that GIs stumbled out of the smoke with chemical specks burning holes in their uniforms. Muezzins’ calls to prayer from hilltop mosques drew gunfire from skittish troops convinced that the criers were signaling the Germans. Taking no chances, U.S. counterintelligence agents created a zone “free from Arabs” by forcibly evacuating a 400-square-mile swath east of Béja. Eddy’s victualers procured 350 mules and fifty tons of fodder to haul supplies where no jeep could travel, and each pack train returned with dead boys trussed over the saddles.
The enemy held fast to Green and Bald, but north of Highway 7 the line slowly bent back. By April 27, the 39th Infantry was two miles north of Green Hill and threatening to envelope the entire Jefna redoubt. The 60th Infantry—though still licking its wounds from Maknassy a month earlier—pressed even farther east on the other side of the Sedjenane River; by month’s end the regiment would cover twelve miles, almost half the distance to Bizerte. The Corps Franc d’Afrique edged along the coast with three battalions of men considered too politically volatile for the main French army; among the commanders were a reputed Spanish admiral, a Jewish doctor, and an anti-Vichy colonel who had been jailed in Morocco for helping Patton during TORCH. But most colorful by far was a company of goums, Moroccan tribesmen in filthy robes and sandals cut from old tires. As conventional soldiers the “goons”—as the Americans inevitably called them—were hopeless, routinely raiding Arab villages and carrying off native women. Still, they had their uses, particularly when word spread among the enemy that goums received a bounty for every ear collected, reportedly flicking them onto the paymaster’s table as if counting off ten-franc notes. Many an Axis corporal slept with his cap pulled low. Silently the goums returned from their midnight raids with sandbags full of what may have been dried figs, though GIs eager to trade for souvenirs preferred to believe they were Axis ears.
“One more hill!” the American officers told their men each morning, always with the ironic inflection required when comrades lie to one another. Every captured pinnacle brought better artillery observation and thus a better opportunity to pulverize the next ridge with well-aimed fire. The infantry—having learned the hard lessons of El Guettar and Maknassy—maneuvered around the flanks to force the enemy back yet again.
“One more hill!” It was not true, not yet, but every man could sense truth beneath the fiction.
No hill loomed larger than the flattop called Djebel Tahent locally but better known to the Americans as Hill 609. Arnim’s troops had retreated half a dozen miles across the II Corps front only to dig in deeper than ever, and by Monday, April 26, Bradley recognized that 609 was the linchpin of Axis defenses. Three miles northeast of Sidi Nsir on the American right, 609 dominated the countryside by virtue of its height and location: almost two thousand feet above sea level, it frowned down on all direct approaches from Béja to Mateur. A desolate mesa 800 yards long and 500 yards wide crowned the hill, which was dramatically faced with fifty-foot limestone cliffs on the south and east. From the summit, a man with a telescope could pick out individual house windows in Mateur twelve miles away and the hazy smudge of Bizerte another twenty miles beyond.
Except for a small olive grove 500 yards from the southern slope, the terrain offered little cover to attackers, while the limestone palisades provided countless knobs and crevices to hide defenders. Storks nested in fissures that formed natural chimneys up the cliff walls; machine guns now nested in scree at the base. Wind tossed the yellowing wheat on the lower slopes, making the hill undulate like a great breathing thing. Neighboring heights—461, 490, 531, 455—provided intertwined fields of fire manned largely by Barenthin Regiment soldiers drawn from the Wehrmacht’s parachute and glider schools, who, in Alexander’s assessment, were “perhaps the best German troops in Africa.”
Anderson proposed simply ignoring the hill. In a phone call to Bradley’s Béja command post on Tuesday morning, the British commander advised: “Never mind the enemy opposing you at Sidi Nsir. When you have him on a hilltop, try always to get around him. I don’t want you only to push the enemy back, but to get behind him and capture him before he can establish a bridgehead around Bizerte.” Almost as an afterthought, Anderson requested the transfer of an American infantry regiment to reinforce the stalled First Army farther south.
Bradley was appalled, and privately concluded that Anderson was “in far over his head as an army commander.” In a hastily arranged rendezvous that afternoon at Allen’s battered farmhouse, Bradley clipped his map to an easel and explained to Anderson why 609 could not be wished away. The Big Red One had made enough progress to have an exposed left flank just a couple of miles southwest of the hill, from where German gunners had now begun to flay Allen’s troops with fire. The 1st Division was more than two thousand men understrength, including a shortfall of sixty officers; new lieutenants received a fifteen-minute orientation lecture, then were shoved straight into the line. Allen lacked the muscle to bull ahead against the five enemy battalions on his front without risking a catastrophic counterattack from Hill 609 that would roll up his left wing. Furthermore, bypassing the hill meant returning to the vulnerable valleys and again drawing fire from every hilltop Gefreiter with a mortar tube. “All this depends upon our taking Hill 609,” Bradley concluded.
Allen nodded vigorously, head swiveling to keep the cigarette smoke from his eyes. Anderson squinted at the map for a long minute, then also nodded. As for the loan of an infantry regiment, Bradley refused. “We’d like to help you, but you’re asking me to do something I will not agree to without direct orders from Ike.” To his staff he added, “This campaign is too important to the prestige of the American Army to take such risks.” Eisenhower soon concurred, telling his corps commander, “Stand your ground, Brad.”
To seize the hill, Bradley turned to troops whose self-esteem and reputation may have been the lowest in the U.S. Army. Since the fiasco at Fondouk three weeks earlier, the 34th Division had spent every day in intense remedial training, practicing night attacks, tank-infantry tactics, and—led by the division commander, Charles Ryder—marching fifty yards behind rolling artillery barrages. Now Bradley told Ryder: “Get me that hill and you’ll break up the enemy’s defenses clear across our front. Take it and no one will ever again doubt the toughness of your division.”
Nine battalions from the 34th swept toward Sidi Nsir along a 6,000-yard front on April 27. A mendacious German deserter had claimed that Hill 609 was held by only a war-worn rear guard, which could be overrun by a determined platoon of fifty men. “There was excitement in the air and the tone was for an immediate attack,” one captain later recalled. But Ryder recognized that what he called the “checkerboard of interlocking defenses” required that his men reduce the adjacent hills before attacking 609 itself.
Troops picked at their C rations, filled their canteens, and smoked last cigarettes. At dusk, each soldier tied a white cloth to the back of his helmet so the man behind could follow him in the dark. Engineers marked paths through enemy minefields with white tape or rocks wrapped in toilet paper. Every few minutes, platoon leaders huddled under their blankets with red-lensed flashlights to check their compasses. “For the love of heaven and hell,” a company commander’s voice called in the darkness, “get going.” As they edged into the killing zone, the ripping-canvas sound of a German machine gun split the night, joined by a second and a third. “Our men were crouched gray shapes, running, falling flat, firing, running again,” one witness reported. Mortar rounds burst in the saddles between the hills, and yellow flares blossomed overhead. The men again fell flat, still as death except for the writhing wounded. Mines and booby traps detonated with a short, flat pop; more men writhed. “We lay there awaiting dawn, listening to the cries of a wounded man about a hundred yards down the side slope,” a soldier later recalled. “[He] weakened and finally became silent.”
Two attacks failed with heavy casualties, but by midday on Wednesday, April 28, Hills 435 and 490 had fallen between Sidi Nsir and 609. Four German counterattacks were repulsed. All day the valleys rumbled with artillery fire; the crack of shells splitting rock carried from the hilltops. Hundreds of men fell sick in apparent reaction to Atabrine, a synthetic antimalaria drug dubbed “yellow magic” and recently distributed in lieu of quinine, the world supply of which Japan controlled almost exclusively. Many would have preferred malaria. Weak and nauseated, they vomited down the front of their uniforms and fouled their trousers with uncontrollable diarrhea before rising on command in Thursday’s wee hours to stumble forward again.
Fog muffled every footstep as the 3rd Battalion of the 135th Infantry advanced 2,000 yards from Hill 490 to El Kradra, an Arab hamlet beneath the south wall of 609. Watching at first light, Drew Middleton reported that he could trace “the path of these soldiers through the wheat just as you would follow the path of Pickett’s charge through the summer wheat at Gettysburg.” But an attack against Hill 531 on the right was thrown back—the defenders wired together bundles of “potato masher” grenades and dropped them on GIs scaling the escarpment—and delays on the other flank left the battalion at El Kradra vulnerable to a German counterattack. Muzzle flashes erupted across the face of 609 like “tiny sparks, and the wind brought us the angry chatter of a machine gun,” Middleton noted. In disarray, the battalion retreated 400 yards from the village to shelter in the olives. Fleas from the village huts so tormented some men that they stripped to their shoes, helmets, and ammunition belts, then dunked their infested uniforms in gasoline. Hundreds of shells crashed across the crest of Hill 609—“it resembles an erupting volcano,” one soldier said—but the Germans held fast and the American momentum ebbed.
Ryder’s troubles at 609 had increasingly discomfited Terry Allen, who complained that his 16th Infantry was catching “unshirted hell” in artillery and mortar salvoes fired from the hill. At two P.M. on April 28, he had ordered all three 1st Division regiments to halt until the 34th Division could better protect his left flank. In a querulous phone call to Ryder, Allen asked how much longer the 34th needed to capture Hill 606.
“Don’t you mean Hill 609?” Ryder replied.
“No, I mean Hill 606. My division artillery has put enough fire on that hill to knock it down three meters.”
Another morning of inactivity on Thursday was more than Allen could bear. The corps’ casualties in the offensive now exceeded 2,400 men, and nearly half of those came in the Big Red One; while enemy losses were uncertain, only 400 prisoners had been captured since Good Friday. The 34th Division had been reduced to firing white phosphorus shells into the bunchgrass around 609 so that sharpshooters could pick off Germans flushed by the flames. Convinced that his own division’s fortunes were being dragged down by Ryder’s failure, Allen on Thursday stopped pacing long enough to order the 16th Infantry forward again. The unit was to seize Hill 523, another fortified butte a mile due east of 609. Allen proceeded despite trenchant protests from the regimental commander, Colonel George A. Taylor, who considered the attack rash.
Impatience cost Allen dearly. In a moonless drizzle shortly after midnight on Friday, April 30, the 1st Battalion of the 16th Infantry crossed a wheat field from the south, climbed Hill 523, and by 4:45 A.M. had captured eleven Germans while killing or routing several dozen more. But dawn brought a quick reversal: in the gray light, figures in coal-scuttle helmets darted through a nearby earthquake fissure to surround the hill. The subsequent mêlée with Barenthin Regiment troops was “more like a street fight than a battle at any distance,” one survivor reported. “We couldn’t call for artillery because the forces were so close.” The brawl, he added, disintegrated into “fist fights, coupled with grenades.”
When the crack of artillery finally carried to Colonel Taylor’s command post, a clerk noted in his log that “the sound is sweet to our ears”—then realized that those were German guns. Ted Roosevelt ordered a tank company up the hill, but mines and 47mm fire destroyed three Shermans in a narrow draw—the lead tank took more than two dozen hits—and others were repulsed short of the crest. Through breaks in the smoke, the bitter end could be seen from a nearby observation post, which at noon reported to Taylor: “The Heinies are all over that hill.” By 12:30 the Germans had marched away more than 150 prisoners, including the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Charles J. Denholm; another hundred dead and wounded Americans were left behind. In the next twenty-four hours, Hill 523 was to change hands three more times.
Hill 609 would change hands only once, finally. Despite skepticism from his armor commanders—“No one in his right mind would consider putting tanks in mountains,” one colonel warned—Bradley persuaded Ryder to order seventeen Shermans up the west slope at dawn on April 30. Clouds of infantrymen trailed behind, often grabbing the skirt of a tank with one hand while firing their rifles with the other. “God bless all of you,” a company commander from the 133rd Infantry told his men. “We must succeed or die trying.” Some did die: Private First Class Edward S. Kopsa of Grundy Center, Iowa, fell with a shell wound so gaping that his heart could be seen beating. “Tell my mother,” Kopsa said, and the beating stopped. But within two hours, the tanks had covered almost a mile, machine guns rattling and main guns roaring. The reek of gunpowder saturated air that was already full of primitive shrieks and cries for help. By midafternoon, American soldiers had scrambled up a goat trail to gain the summit, where they winkled the defenders from their breastworks. Additional battalions enveloped the hill from both flanks, and among the first reinforcements to top the crest were Iowans from the 2nd Battalion of the 168th Infantry, including Company F of Villisca and Company E of Shenandoah. Feeble German counterattacks on May Day were shattered with artillery and automatic-weapons fire, and all along the line scouts reported enemy forces retreating or surrendering.
“Jerries approach our troops, some run, some fall on their faces, most of them are weary, haggard, wild-eyed, terrified men who swing arms above heads,” the 16th Infantry reported. “A panorama of defeat, as vehicles, mules, and men walk toward the [GIs] with white flags fluttering.” Others feigned surrender with white-flag ruses—Staff Sergeant Clarence T. Storm, whose wife worked in the Villisca five-and-dime, was among those killed by such treachery—and the GIs’ disdain for the enemy grew murderous. “For twenty-four hours,” Bradley noted, “few prisoners came in from the 34th Division’s front.”
The summit of 609 resembled hell’s half-acre, a fire-scoured wasteland of spent brass, bloody bandages, and, oddly, family photos, as if those about to die had pulled them from their wallets for a last farewell. The dead Germans in their rock redoubts reminded one soldier of Civil War photos showing bloated corpses along the rail fences at Antietam. The tabletop “was literally covered with bodies,” another wrote. “The stench was terrible.” Although the hill was “pitted with shell craters, thick as currants in cake,” few holes were deeper than six inches: solid rock underlay the thin soil. After futilely trying to bury the dead in these shallow craters, GIs tossed them into earthquake rifts and a bulldozer plowed them over. “Those who went through it,” wrote Ernie Pyle, “would seriously doubt that war could be any worse than those two weeks of mountain fighting.”
The 34th Division had redeemed itself, although such fine notions seemed vacant in the immediate aftermath. Ryder put his losses at 324 men. The American dead were hauled from the hill in truck beds. “All you could see,” an artilleryman later remembered, “was their shoes hanging off the tail gate.” Across the valley, a staff officer in the 16th Infantry summoned a lieutenant preparing to lead a patrol back up Hill 523. “I don’t believe I would take any prisoners on 523.”
“No,” the lieutenant agreed, “no prisoners will be taken.”
But except for dead men and Colonel Denholm’s map, the hill was empty. The enemy was gone. As Bradley had foreseen, the capture of Hill 609 unhinged enemy defenses across the entire front, from the Mediterranean to the Mousetrap. American troops bayed in pursuit. A reporter watching from 609 wrote, “At our feet every road was thronged with troops, guns, and supplies, pouring northward.”
Outside Béja, Bradley sat on a metal stool in his tent, reading dispatches. He studied the map on the easel, now crisscrossed with blue and red crayon marks showing an enemy in full retreat and pursuers close behind. He was in good humor, chuckling often and, as his aide later recounted, “smoothing the sparse gray hair on his head and thinking aloud.” Fresh reports arrived from the 9th Division in the north, the 34th and 1st in the south, and the 1st Armored Division, preparing to blow down the Tine valley on two mine-cleared routes named Broadway and Riley Street. The enemy appeared to be falling back as much as fifteen miles to the far side of Mateur. When another dispatch noted signs of a possible counterattack, Bradley nodded.
“Let ’em come,” he said. “We want to kill Germans.”
Mateur fell on May 3, three days ahead of Alexander’s estimate. The 91st Reconnaissance Battalion entered the deserted town from the south and west at 11:30 A.M. just as German demolitionists blew up the last bridge across the Tine to the east; by early evening, Army engineers had a new span in place. A dozen roads and rail lines converged at Mateur, and its capture ended any Axis hope of concentrating against the British, who were still struggling in the Medjerda valley twenty miles to the south.
The land here flattened out before rising again in a final set of foothills that cradled two large lakes between Mateur and Bizerte. Swallows scissored the brilliant air, rich with the odors of manure and fresh-cut hay, and poplars marched along the road shoulders in perfect ranks. In a white manor house flanked by cypresses, troops found a biography of Bismarck open on the desk; soon they surmised that the mansion for months had served as General Hasso von Manteuffel’s division headquarters. American scouts sat on a knoll overlooking the Tine, singing “Moonlight on the River Colorado.” Others got drunk in a Mateur wine cellar, and the 1st Armored commander ordered them shot at sunset. “General,” a staff colonel urged him, “I think we ought to let the men live until sunrise. It’s customary.” General Harmon reluctantly agreed, and on reflection commuted the sentence. Wounded Americans and captured Germans shared a farmhouse aid station near Mateur, “smoking, cursing, or grimacing.” A GI who arrived by ambulance with a bullet in his lung gestured at a column of prisoners and murmured, “Tell the sons of bitches to go to hell.”
Many thousands had retreated to the last bastion, the Lake Ichkeul hills. American gunners, wearing Barbasol shave cream as sunblock and head nets against the swarming flies, plastered them with artillery that ignited the dry grass. “Arab shacks and straw burned with great fury, sending clouds of smoke into the air,” an officer noted. A company of Shermans from the 13th Armored Regiment was sent to overrun trenches sheltering a German rear guard. “Some of the enemy were buried alive when the side of the trenches collapsed under the weight of the medium tanks,” another officer reported. “Others were mowed down by the tankers’ machine guns.” Commanders urged them forward. “Here is our chance,” Eddy told the 9th Division. “Don’t let it slip away—push on!” Harmon ordered his tank crews to drive “like shit through a tin goose.”
The 1st Armored Division had been held on a very short leash for weeks, and its hour was about to arrive. The terrain now favored a pursuit by Old Ironsides’ 200 tanks, and Alexander scheduled the final assault on Bizerte for May 6, at the same time as a massive attack by First Army to break through to Tunis. Once again, though, the German defenses looked formidable, with antitank gunners on the approaches to Bizerte said to be “dug in to their eyebrows.” Hamilton Howze, who had returned to a line unit after Ward’s departure, later wrote: “In the time of waiting I confess I found out what fear is: it is a monkey’s paw that squeezes your liver in a heavy grip.” On a visit to Harmon’s command post southwest of Mateur, Bradley stood in a grainfield scanning the countryside. “Can you do it?” he asked Harmon.
“Yes, but it’s going to be expensive,” Harmon replied. “I’d guess fifty tanks to finish the job.”
“Go ahead. It’ll cost us less in the long run if we cut him to pieces quickly.”
Yet Harmon nursed his own doubts. If the 34th Division had been the Army’s most troubled combat unit before the victory at Hill 609, Old Ironsides after Kasserine and Maknassy was a close second. Harmon had spent his month in command trying to rebuild what he deemed “a crybaby outfit,” still fractured by divided loyalties to Ward and Robinett and “honeycombed with dissension.” But he had alienated many with his brusque approach, exemplified by a memo in mid-April that castigated the division for “lack of discipline, lack of system, and a general sloppy appearance.” And at dusk on April 13 he had summoned every officer to the slopes of Djebel Lessouda, where the charred wreckage from Sidi bou Zid lay scattered in the shadows. Harmon delivered a shrill rebuke, which, in Robinett’s description, “damned all past performance of duty, sparing none.” He concluded with a raspy warning: “The division will get to Mateur, but maybe you won’t.” Some men had the temerity to boo; most trudged off in dejection. “His speech was not very well received,” a lieutenant later wrote. “We all went to bed that night very much hurt.”
Now they had reached Mateur; but the biggest prize still lay ahead, in Bizerte. On May 5 Harmon drove to Robinett’s headquarters and led the CCB commander into an open field for a private conversation. With his massive skull and barrel chest, Harmon towered over his pint-sized subordinate. “Will the damned tanks fight?” he demanded.
“Damned right they will fight, as some are doing now,” Robinett snapped. “They have always fought and will fight again.” Never content to leave well enough alone, he then berated Harmon for questioning “the courage of these men.” Harmon turned on his heel and returned to his jeep, while a furious Robinett tromped back to the tent and composed a message to all ranks: “Towards the rear anonymous individuals have said that we are ‘not battle worthy.’ This insult to our glorious dead and to you, the courageous living, shall not be forgotten nor left uncontested.”
After that unpromising prelude, Harmon held a final planning conference for his lieutenants at the division command post a few hours later. The attack was set for first light the next morning, Thursday, May 6, with CCB in the vanguard. But Robinett’s behavior during the past month continued to gnaw at Harmon. Robinett “seems to think only in terms of defense and is definitely casualty conscious,” Harmon privately informed the War Department. “I do not feel that he has the qualities of leadership that are necessary in an armored division.” Six months of combat had worn him down. As he watched Robinett drive away from the conference toward his own command post, Harmon muttered to himself: “Hell, that fellow isn’t going to fight for me tomorrow.” The judgment was harsh and probably wrong, but Harmon’s mind was made up. Summoning his driver, he raced after Robinett to relieve him of command.
Harmon had nearly overtaken the jeep on the poplar-shaded road when the rush of German artillery split the air. A shell exploded a few feet behind Robinett, shredding his left leg and flinging him and his driver from their seats. More rounds crashed through the trees as soldiers appeared from the CCB encampment and bundled their wounded commander into an ambulance, which zigzagged through shell fire to the camouflaged command tent around the next bend.
Minutes later, Harmon pushed aside the canvas flaps and walked in “looking hard as rock.” A glance at the mangled leg told Harmon that Robinett’s war was over. Robinett looked up with glassy eyes. He had already relinquished command of CCB to Colonel Benson. In an hour he would be driven to the field hospital in Béja, vomiting in agony; a regimental band waited to serenade him with “The Missouri Waltz.” A flight to Algeria and evacuation to the United States would be followed by many months of medical rehabilitation and a lasting hitch in his bantam strut.
“You are about to win a great victory,” Robinett told Harmon thickly before stretcher bearers carried him to the ambulance, “and I only regret that I cannot be present to share the battle with my men.”
Harmon shook his head. “Poor bastard,” he muttered, then turned and strode from the tent.