Military history

Tunisgrad

THE most intense artillery barrage ever seen in Africa erupted in gusts of white flame at three A.M. on May 6. More than 400 Royal Artillery guns cut loose simultaneously on targets along Highway 5, five miles south of the Medjerda River. Here First Army had concentrated for the great lunge on Tunis, now code-named Operation STRIKE. “The muzzle flashes lit up the gun pits with a dancing yellow light, and the shells, tearing overhead at a rate of five or six hundred a minute, burst a few seconds later on the opposite slope like the flowering of a field of ruby tulips,” a young officer wrote.

Determined to bury the enemy beneath “stunning weights of metal,” gunners plotted one shell for every six feet of enemy frontage. (At El Alamein, the figure had been one shell for every thirty feet.) Shells shrieked “over our heads in an endless stream, so close, it seemed that you could almost strike a match on them,” a witness declared. After half an hour the barrage lifted momentarily, then fell with redoubled vigor, marching eastward by 100 yards every three minutes. Seventy-two suspected enemy artillery batteries that had been pinpointed by gun flashes or aerial surveillance received lavish attention: each hostile battery was hammered on three occasions with two-minute concentrations by as many as thirty-two guns. The effect was “a roof of shells…destroying every living thing that moves.” More than a few inanimate targets were also destroyed, including, as a scout sorrowfully reported, an oak vat containing 8,000 gallons of red Tunisian wine.

Behind the guns at 5:40 A.M. came the planes, again with a bombardment unprecedented on the continent. More than 2,000 Allied sorties would be flown this Thursday, beating a path from Medjez-el-Bab to Tunis. Fighters and bombers so thick they eclipsed the rising sun concentrated on a four-mile square around Massicault and St. Cyprien along Highway 5. Insult followed injury: clouds of propaganda pamphlets warned enemy survivors that they had been duped by “Rommel” and left to die alone in Africa.

Well before dawn, the infantry had surged forward on a 3,000-yard front, guided by a Bofors gun that fired three red tracers on a fixed line every five minutes. At Alexander’s insistence, First Army had been reinforced with two divisions and a Guards brigade from Montgomery’s horde. They had arrived more than 30,000 strong from Enfidaville over the past few days, fire-blackened tea tins banging against their yellow fenders; although headlights were authorized for the move, after years of blackout not one vehicle in five had working bulbs. No fraternal love was lost between the mountain tribe and the desert tribe—the two British armies were “as different as chalk from cheese,” General Horrocks conceded—and Tommies in the 78th Division went so far as to paint signs on their vehicles: “We have no connection with the Eighth Army.” But the added weight lent irresistible momentum to Anderson’s attack, and by daybreak the British 4th Division and the 4th Indian Division had pried a gap two miles wide through enemy defenses.

Four tank battalions rushed through. Defenders not killed by artillery or air attack died at their posts or broke for the rear, tossing aside their rifles as they ran. Despite advance knowledge from intercepted radio messages about where the British would likely attack, Arnim was powerless; the Fifth Panzer Army had been reduced to fewer than seventy tanks, little ammunition, and even less fuel. By eleven A.M., British armor had penetrated 5,000 yards beyond the gap, with light losses. Anderson initially had proposed having his tankers linger to mop up stragglers, but Alexander overruled him. The tanks were to “drive with all speed and energy on Tunis,” Alexander ordered. “The rapier,” he later explained, “was to be thrust into the heart.”

“The whole valley before us became a heaving sea of flame,” wrote the American journalist John MacVane. “Over a dozen roads and trails, plumes of floury dust rose from the columns of vehicles.” The stink of cordite and crushed wheat was nauseating enough to bring some men to their knees. Through “a thick pall of smoke and dust resembling ground mist,” drivers bumped along in second gear, navigating by compass heading. The correspondent Alan Moorehead described seeing Alexander racing forward “at almost reckless speed, both his hands tight on the wheel and his face whitened like a baker’s boy with white dust.”

Allied eavesdroppers intercepted German radio messages sending medics into the line as riflemen; the walking wounded soon were ordered to join them. Another message, from Arnim’s quartermaster, requested that no more ammunition be dispatched from Italy because there was no fuel with which to distribute it in Africa. A third message reported that the 15th Panzer Division had been “laid low…. Its bulk must be considered as annihilated.” As German resistance disintegrated, the British vanguard was urged to press on with a prearranged code word: “Butter.” Soon radios across the front were chirping: “Butter, butter, butter.” By dusk, two armored divisions had reached Massicault, eight miles beyond the infantry and a day’s march from Tunis. On a hilltop west of the capital a British colonel reported, “I can see the lily-white walls of that blasted city.”

Eighteen Royal Navy destroyers patrolled the Sicilian Straits to prevent any last-moment Axis decampment. The ships’ superstructures had been painted an unmistakable royal red after three accidental bombings by overzealous Allied planes. All waters within five miles of the Tunisian coast were declared a free-fire zone, and Eisenhower’s naval chief soon reduced his order of the day to seven words: “Sink, burn, and destroy. Let nothing pass.”

The righteous wrath of such orders fell heavily on 464 American and British prisoners-of-war embarked on the freighter Loyd Triestino for passage to Italian stockades. Marched through the wrecked docks of Tunis on the night of May 5, each man before boarding received a quarter-loaf of sour bread, a tablespoon of canned meat, eight prunes, and a scoop of Red Cross macaroni. Among the Yanks were Lieutenant Colonel Denholm and the 150 men from the 16th Infantry who had been captured on Hill 523. German guards confiscated the prisoners’ cash—always tendering a proper receipt in return—and limited their interrogations to wistful queries about whether captured Axis troops were being sent to camps in Canada or the United States. The 3,000-ton scow cast off at five A.M. on May 6, slowly steaming from a harbor so crowded with the protruding masts of sunken ships that one prisoner thought it looked “almost like a forest.”

Three hours later the first Allied planes attacked, sinking a destroyer escort and driving Triestino to a cove sheltered by cliffs on Cap Bon’s northwest shore. Terrified prisoners cowered in the dank hold as near misses opened seams in the hull and cannon fire riddled the upper decks. German anti-aircraft crews answered, and after a second attack blue smoke draped the listing vessel. Suffering from dysentery and limited to three filthy heads on the exposed weather deck, the men ripped up planks in the hold so they could defecate into the bilge. “The air,” Denholm later reported, “was very bad.”

With his ship slowly sinking, the Italian captain hauled anchor and wallowed back toward Tunis early on May 7. A third Allied attack put a bomb into the forecastle; it was a dud. More marauders swarmed above the ship as she neared Tunis harbor, with each near miss bringing frenzied shouts from the soldiers locked in the hold. “The ship seemed to jump out of the water, then settle back with a kind of quiver, which wasn’t good,” a lieutenant later recalled. “Not one of us doubted the transport was going to sink. We began beating the cage and yelling to be released.” A fourth attack was too much for the thirty Italian crewmen, who “went completely to pieces,” cut away the lifeboats, and—“hopping around like fleas”—dove into the water after them. The crewless captain steered for La Goulette, a fishing village below Carthage, and beached the Triestino on an even keel several hundred yards from shore. He and the German gunners freed the howling prisoners and then rowed off in the remaining lifeboat.

At least half a dozen more attacks occurred through the long afternoon. Only poor marksmanship and extraordinary good fortune spared the ship: more than one hundred bombs fell and every one missed except the dud. Tommies struck the Italian flag and Denholm’s men laid out large red crosses on the weather deck with upholstery ripped from the ship’s saloon. Pilots either failed to see the warnings or considered them a ruse; the attacks continued, forcing the men back into the fetid hold. A crude raft was launched toward La Goulette, but the wind blew it seaward. That night several Tommies swam ashore seeking help, and an intrepid Frenchman in a motorboat carried a plea to approaching Allied forces to stop the attacks. At last Triestino’s ordeal was over. Denholm reported more than four thousand cannon and machine-gun holes in her hull. Miraculously, only one man had been killed, three wounded.

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Harmon’s 1st Armored surged east in a light rain on the late afternoon of May 6. CCA angled toward Ferryville on the southwest shore of Lake Bizerte, while CCB sliced due east to control the roads between Bizerte and Tunis. German antitank guns were rooted out one by one; having predicted the loss of fifty tanks, Harmon in the event lost forty-seven. North of the two lakes, Eddy’s 9th Division clattered down Highway 11 with orders from Bradley to “get the hell into Bizerte” and prevent sabotage of the port.

By Friday morning the enemy was reeling, leaving a wake of incinerated vehicles and charred German corpses. The reporter A. B. Austin recorded that “the women of Tindja and Ferryville were loading their perambulators with the bright, brassy German shell-cases. Flower vases? Umbrella stands?” A U.S. tank commander rumbled into Ferryville playing the William Tell Overture on his ocarina over the radio network. Cheering crowds waved tricolors at both the passing Shermans and Harold V. Boyle of the Associated Press, who stood in a jeep, waving and declaiming: “Vote for Boyle / Son of toil / Honest Hal / The Ay-rab’s pal!” More cheers followed, and the slogan “Vote for Boyle!” became a standard greeting from the curbside throngs to baffled troops trailing the vanguard. Also puzzling was an enigmatic graffito soldiers began noticing on walls and road signs. Of uncertain origin, as ambiguous as it was ubiquitous, the phrase would follow them to the heart of Germany two years later. It read: “Kilroy was here.”

With the 9th Division headed for Bizerte and 1st Armored tanks effectively cutting the Axis bridgehead in half, the Big Red One had little to do in the Tine River valley eight miles south of Mateur, and there lay trouble. Terry Allen was a fighting man with a compulsion to fight; inactivity was his bane. Ordered by Bradley to hold in place and prevent a counterattack by the Barenthin Regiment across the Tine, Allen on the night of May 5 concocted a plan to root enemy troops from the hills east of the river. His 18th Infantry Regiment commander opposed the scheme; so did Ted Roosevelt and several senior staff officers who argued at eleven P.M. that if left unmolested the Barenthin troops would feign a counterattack and withdraw east to flatter terrain. Allen wavered, prayed over the matter, and at midnight ordered the attack forward.

At 4:20 A.M. on May 6, the 18th Infantry surged from the Tine across Highway 55 and up the grain-gilded slope marked on Army maps as Hill 232. By 5:30 a flanking battalion was lost in the dark and several assault companies had been pinned down by scything machine-gun and mortar fire. “Bullets were singing all around now,” Private Max B. Siegel of the 3rd Battalion told his diary. “Our boys were not doing so good. Many were hit and calling for medics…. I seen a few boys running back. I tried to keep low.” Engineers finished bridging the Tine at seven A.M. but the span collapsed with a great crack after only four tanks had crossed. The 3rd Battalion commander stumbled back with fewer than three dozen shocked, silent men. Others lay motionless in the wheat until nightfall, to avoid drawing artillery fire. By four P.M. all battalions and tanks had splashed back across the Tine. Losses in the 18th Infantry totaled 282 men. The Barenthin slipped away in the night.

Allen was chastened, and even loyalists doubted his judgment. “My bloody foolish commander,” complained Lieutenant Colonel John T. Corley, who in a storied combat career would win the Distinguished Service Cross twice and the Silver Star eight times. “We got the shit beat out of us…. It’s the vanity of the commander. He wanted to be in on the kill.”

Early on Friday afternoon, Bradley and Eisenhower arrived in the leafy glen west of the Tine where the 1st Division had moved its headquarters. A warm drizzle slicked the roads, and camouflage netting billowed in the breeze. A shot-up farmhouse across the swale had served as a German supply dump, and the yard was strewn with gray tunics and Afrika Korps sun helmets. This was Eisenhower’s third trip to the front since the Good Friday offensive began, and Harry Butcher thought he resembled “a hen setting on a batch of eggs…wondering if they will ever break the shell.” He had approved the final plan for Sicily on May 3, and now awaited concurrence from the combined chiefs in London and Washington. With more time to devote to the endgame in Tunisia, he had seen a great deal that was heartening. “We are learning something every day,” he wrote a friend, “and in general do not make the same mistakes twice.” While admitting to Marshall only the slightest need for rest—“When this affair is all cleared up, I am going to take a twenty-four-hour leave where no one in the world will be able to reach me”—to Butcher he proposed getting “good and drunk when Tunisia is in the bag.”

In truth he was sleeping badly, often waking at four A.M. to pace and fret, puffing through a pack of cigarettes before breakfast. Although victory in Africa approached, there was still much to unsettle a commander. “The fighting since April 23 has had a definite influence on our thinking and calculations,” he wrote Marshall. “Even the Italian, defending mountainous country, is very difficult to drive out, and the German is a real problem.” The portents were unmistakable, for Sicily and whatever battlefields lay beyond. “The Tunisian fight appears to offer a good indication of what we can expect when we meet the German in defensive positions,” Eisenhower added, “especially where the terrain is favorable to him.”

But only to his closest confidants did Eisenhower acknowledge the deeper impact of his extended stay at the front. Here, where the consequences of combat were most vivid, the weight of command felt heaviest. To his brother Arthur he wrote of visiting “the desperately wounded” and of seeing “bodies rotting on the ground and smell[ing] the stench of decaying human flesh.” He had ordered so many men to their deaths, thousands upon thousands, with many thousands yet to die. He sought refuge in duty and pro patria resolve, as commanders must. “Far above my hatred of war is the determination to smash every enemy of my country, especially Hitler and the Japs,” he told Arthur. He also immersed himself in nitty-gritty decisions concerning supply and personnel, as if his own willful intercession in minutiae could hurry the war to its end. That very week, he had proposed the Army quartermaster design a better winter uniform of “very rough wool, because such material does not show the dirt.” To Marshall on Wednesday he noted, “We have discovered that our older men—that is the 50- to 55-year-old fellow—does not wear out physically as quickly as might be imagined.”

Now the fifty-five-year-old Terry Allen stumbled from his tent, where he had been roused from a dead sleep on the ground. He looked not only worn out but catatonic, and he spoke in monosyllables. His eyes were glazed, his hair mussed. As Eisenhower and Bradley slipped on their reading glasses to study the map, Allen tersely described the previous night’s attack on Hill 232. Casualties were high. Some companies were hardly bigger than platoons. His men were tired after months of combat.

Eisenhower peered over his spectacles. The British, he pointed out, had chased Rommel across the desert for several months from El Alamein to the Mareth Line, with little water or rest. They, he added, had “taken it.” Allen replied irrelevantly that his unit in the Great War had attacked every day for weeks. The conference ended. Allen tossed a weary salute as the two generals left. “How much better it would have been if Allen had been thoroughly cheerful, buoyant, and aggressive,” Butcher scribbled in his diary.

Eisenhower shrugged off the unfortunate encounter. “I found the II Corps in wonderful spirit. The 1st Division has suffered a great deal of attrition,” he wrote Marshall a few hours later. But Bradley seethed. The attack on Hill 232 was “a foolish one and undertaken without authorization,” he later declared. While Allen was among the Army’s most competent leaders—Alexander would go so far as to tell Drew Middleton he “was the finest division commander he had encountered in two wars”—Bradley found him “the most difficult man with whom I have ever had to work,” an incorrigible rebel “fiercely antagonistic to any echelon above that of division.” He was disturbed by Allen’s truculent independence and the Big Red One’s self-absorption—the “Holy First,” some called it—particularly because the 1st Division was expected to play a pivotal role in Sicily.

For his part, Allen privately considered Bradley “a phony Abraham Lincoln.” Two men could hardly have been more dissimilar: the abstemious, restrained, cerebral corps commander and the carousing, emotional, impetuous division commander. But Bradley had both the rank and the commander-in-chief’s ear—Eisenhower had just recommended him for a third star—and this boded ill for Allen. “From that point forward,” Bradley later wrote of the Tine River debacle, “Terry was a marked man in my book.”

As Eisenhower and Bradley drove back to the new II Corps headquarters below Hill 609, Lieutenant Colonel Charley P. Eastburn radioed the 9th Division command post. “Believe road to Bizerte wide open,” said Eastburn, commander of the 894th Tank Destroyer Battalion. “Request permission to proceed and occupy the town.” The reply from Eddy came swiftly: “Go ahead. Good luck.” Mustering three companies, including more than a dozen tanks, Eastburn forded a creek past a demolished bridge, then wheeled back onto Highway 11. Shortly before four P.M. the cavalcade rattled past the stone gateposts at Bizerte’s western edge.

They entered a dead city. The ancient port of 70,000 souls lay empty, gutted by more than two dozen 4,000-pound bombs and many tons of lesser explosives. “Bizerte was the most completely wrecked place I had ever seen,” Ernie Pyle wrote. Italianate houses lay disemboweled, their porticos smashed. Charred palm trunks, stripped of fronds, lined the corniche. Shops had been bombed and then looted, and a stench of rot and plaster dust hung in the rain. The town had been without running water for three months. Typhus was here and cholera threatened.

Warehouses and shipyards lay in rubble. Bombs had wrenched a 100- ton crane from its foundation, tossing it across a dry dock. All that remained of a large Catholic church was three scorched walls and debris heaped in the nave. “You walked through the great stone front door, right out under the open sky again,” a soldier recalled. To escape the bombing, German soldiers had retired months before to tents west of town; in recent days, they had returned to blow up the remaining docks, power plants, and even fishing smacks that Allied bombers missed.

As Colonel Eastburn paused in the downtown shambles to ask a drunk Frenchman for directions to city hall, machine-gun bullets abruptly ricocheted off the pavement and 88mm shells cracked overhead. Muzzle flashes from German rearguard troops winked in the rubble 500 yards across a shipping channel originally dug by Phoenician colonists to connect the salt lagoon of Lake Bizerte with the Mediterranean.

Eastburn’s Shermans returned fire with a smoky roar; other gunners hammered away at the Wehrmacht snipers infesting rooftops and a steeple. More Frenchmen popped from their cellars to toast the liberators with upraised wine bottles, huzzahing each tank volley even as slabs of stucco sheared from the walls and sniper bullets pinged about. “Quite ridiculous,” a British liaison officer muttered. “Quite ridiculous.” In the Café de la Paix, a soldier banged out “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” on a tuneless upright despite the bark of a Sherman main gun down the street. “Everybody was standing up straight at attention, partly humming, partly singing because nobody knew all the words,” according to one account. “This café was part of another planet.”

By dawn, the last Germans had died or fled. The Corps Franc d’Afrique was trucked forward to Bizerte for the honor of formally capturing the town. Behind the French procession, American soldiers followed in a jeep, with a busty mannequin liberated from a lingerie shop. The men belted out a new barracks ballad that eventually would reach two hundred stanzas, all of them salacious:

Dirty Gertie from Bizerte,

Hid a mousetrap ’neath her skirtie,

Made her boyfriend’s finger hurtie…

A few miles to the east, scouts reported “hundreds of vehicles being burned on the flats, while overhead the sky was brilliant with tracer ammo being fired in anticipation of surrender.” Harmon’s Shermans rolled to the edge of the Gulf of Tunis, took aim at a few Germans trying to escape by barge or skiff, and blew them out of the water. The end was near.

Tunis fell at 3:30 P.M. on May 7, almost as Eastburn entered Bizerte. The Derbyshire Yeomanry and 11th Hussars, drawn respectively from the First and Eighth Armies, raced into the city so fast that Royal Air Force fighters mistook the vanguard for fleeing Germans and attacked three times. Snipers fought a bitter delaying action downtown, puncturing the tires on British armored scout cars; reduced to their rims, the vehicles rattled across the cobblestones in a blaze of sparks. Unlike Bizerte, much of Tunis beyond the wrecked port remained unscathed and many of the city’s 180,000 residents had remained through the occupation. Delirious French throngs now capered through the rainy capital, tossing flower garlands at the liberators or spraying them with scent from atomizer bottles. French vigilantes chased departing Germans with muskets and horse pistols, singing the “Marseillaise.”

“The streets were full of civilian traffic. Astonished Germans were seen on the pavements, walking out with their girlfriends,” a Rifle Brigade commander later wrote. “The populace was screaming itself hoarse in true French style…. To the enormous amusement of the battalion, I was embraced from behind by a highly colored French female of ample proportions and acquiescent tendencies.” Tommies found Wehrmacht officers drinking schnapps at the Majestic Hotel bar or awaiting shaves from an Arab barber. Muffled explosions rumbled from garages along Rue el Jebbar as Germans grenaded their cars; others roared through the streets like gangsters on the lam with tires squealing and guns blazing. “Get out your weapons, boys,” one sergeant ordered. “Jerry’s still obstinate.” Tracers crisscrossed the boulevards, and Shermans fired point-blank at suspected redoubts. Hussars reported capturing the city’s collaborationist governor, “complete with Buick and girlfriend,” and above the roar of one firefight a Cockney voice bellowed, “Stop that shooting, you bloody fools. It’s one of ours.”

East of the city, near the white chapel where St. Louis had died of plague while leading the last Crusade in 1270, columns of black smoke billowed from burning fuel dumps. Wehrmacht soldiers spiked their big guns and piled small arms to be crushed by panzer tracks. At El Aouina airfield the only thing still functioning was a windsock.

Into the city came “endless streams of lorries pouring ahead three abreast, full of exuberant troops…. Men were singing and shouting.” General Barré, the first French general to fire on the Germans in Tunisia, was given the honor of marching into the capital at the head of his troops. Logisticians and camp followers trailed closely: vengeful Frenchmen, jubilant Jews, souvenir hunters, quartermasters reserving the best buildings for their bosses, and journalists who enraged Anderson by describing the capture of Tunis as a “left hook by Eighth Army.” “Cannot this pernicious rivalry be stopped?” he cabled Eisenhower. “We are all one army and working for one cause.” (“God,” Everett Hughes told his diary, “I wish we could forget our egos for a while.”)

Ten teams from a counterintelligence unit known as S Force also swept through town carrying a list of 130 targets, including the suspected Gestapo and SS headquarters at, respectively, 168 and 172 Avenue de Paris, and a house on Rue Abdelhouab used to train Arab saboteurs. Also warranted for arrest were scores of civilians, whose descriptions and purported offenses were equally vague: “Scarzini, Italian dentist,” on Avenue Bab Djedid, for instance, and “Ramdam, a Tunisian egg merchant,” in La Goulette.

For months, Eisenhower had worried that Axis troops would convert the Cap Bon peninsula into a diehard redoubt. But once Bizerte and Tunis fell, fuel shortages and Allied alacrity prevented Arnim from regrouping. Bradley’s soldiers cut the last Bizerte-Tunis road at daylight on May 9, effectively ending American combat operations in Tunisia. Now there was nothing to do but smoke out renegades and escort prisoners to their cages. German officers under a flag of truce asked Harmon for terms; in reply, he quoted Grant at Fort Donelson: “Unconditional surrender. We propose to move immediately upon your works.” For good measure he added, “We will kill all who try to get away.”

Few tried. Soon every American truck and jeep sported a German helmet as a hood ornament. “Winning in battle is like winning at poker or catching lots of fish,” Pyle wrote. “It’s damned pleasant and it sets a man up.”

II Corps casualties in the preceding two weeks had exceeded 4,400, nearly half falling on Allen’s 1st Division. Enemy dead in the final fortnight were estimated at 3,000 in the American sector, with another 41,000 captured. Booty included 30,000 small arms—almost enough to corduroy the roads, as Sheridan had done with Confederate muskets near Appomattox. The wheezy declamations that commanders had issued earlier in the campaign now yielded to eloquent brevity; Bradley’s two-word cable to Eisenhower on May 9 read simply: “Mission accomplished.”

For the British farther south, the end was less tidy, although the Axis troops still holding the Enfidaville line lacked enough gasoline to fall back forty miles on Cap Bon unless they abandoned their heavy weapons. Kesselring at his headquarters in Rome ordered U-boats to haul fuel and matériel to Tunisia—each could carry twenty tons—but only one reached the African coast, where the skipper failed to find a suitable beach for his cargo of ammunition. On the night of May 8, German commanders signaled Axis ships lying offshore to jettison their fuel barrels, wanly hoping that a few would drift to shore on the tide. An announcement from Berlin that remaining Axis troops “will be withdrawn in small boats” brought derisive hoots from the German and Allied camps alike. Alexander’s intelligence officer repeated Churchill’s bon mot of 1940, when a German invasion of England had been expected: “We are waiting, so are the fishes.”

The jig was up. The Fifth Panzer Army, which had occupied the northern swath of bridgehead from Tunis to Bizerte, recorded a last entry in its war diary at 3:23 P.M. on May 8: “The mass of our tanks and artillery is destroyed. No ammunition, no fuel left. Intention: fight to the last round…. In loyal performance of duty, the last fighters of the Fifth Panzer Army greet the homeland and our Führer. Long live Germany.” The 90th Light Division ordered troops to smash all equipment, including wristwatches.

At Hammam Lif, a coastal resort ten miles southeast of Tunis, British tanks and infantrymen with fixed bayonets swept through six parallel streets on May 9, cleaning out snipers. The fighting surged up and down staircases and across rose gardens in the milky dawn. More than a dozen tanks outflanked the enemy with a bold sally along the strand, “kicking up waves like a steamboat as they circled through the water,” one journalist reported. Two other squadrons bulled through town, turrets swiveling from side to side, as Arab mourners in a funeral cortège scattered into the alleys and giddy Frenchmen sprang from their cellars to offer the Tommies wine and pastry. In the blue-and-white summer palace of the bey of Tunis, a British lieutenant found the assembled Tunisian cabinet in the wrecked throne room. The bey soon emerged from an inner chamber and, with the sangfroid of a host welcoming guests to tea, politely inquired after the health of the British king and his queen. Perfectly well, thank you, the lieutenant assured him, then ordered the bey arrested for collaboration. Much keening was heard from the royal concubines, but his bodyguards, resplendent in scarlet and black, surrendered their weapons without protest and then looted the palace.

Like Terry Allen on the Tine, Montgomery had found consignment to the periphery a deeply frustrating fate. On the night of May 10 he launched his 56th Division against Zaghouan, twenty miles northwest of Enfidaville; the attack cost nearly 400 British casualties, a setback as unfortunate as it was unnecessary. On Tuesday the eleventh, Cap Bon was cleared, and Axis resistance dwindled to isolated pockets in the tortured hills above Enfidaville. In a dozen liberated towns, jubilant French civilians unfurled their tricolors and draped the Tommies with honeysuckle. On May 12, for the first time since November, soldiers were allowed to build campfires; Sherwood Rangers celebrated with victory cocktails made of equal parts gin, wine, whiskey, and condensed milk. “Looking back on the last six months,” a captain wrote to his father, “it seems as if one has been holding one’s breath, and you have just let it go for the first time.” A Grenadier Guard on the evening of May 12 described “the plain dotted with points of light, each reflecting dimly the shape of a Sherman tank; the tramp of feet as the Germans marched away to imprisonment; the sea shining in the moonlight; and the hills resounding as the Germans who were still at liberty fired their remaining ammo dumps.”

On Cap Bon, Anderson turned to General Horrocks and said, “I have waited a long, long time for this.”

The prisoners came by the hundreds, then the thousands, then the tens of thousands; eventually there were more than 200,000, waving white flags made of mosquito netting or their underwear. They came in neat columns of field gray, singing “Lili Marlene” with that annoying German trick of clipping the last note of each line. They came as a bedraggled mob of mangiatori, singing sad Neapolitan ballads, or in sauntering platoons of Italian paratroopers, overcoats draped on their shoulders like the jackets of boulevardiers on the Via Veneto. They came in dun-colored Afrika Korps trucks with palm tree insignia stenciled on the tailgates; or in alcohol-burning buses piled high with baggage and pet dogs; or in chauffeured Mercedes sedans, colonels and generals dressed in gorgeous uniforms with Iron Crosses at their throats and boots so beautifully buffed that, one GI said, “you would have thought the bastards were going to a wedding.”

“Germans were everywhere,” Ernie Pyle reported. “It made me a little light-headed.” Many surrendering soldiers were light-headed, too: with drink. A Derbyshire Yeomanry patrol on May 9 reported: “Found nineteen German officers dining off champagne. Champagne rather dry.” Others groveled, waving handkerchiefs and sweetly yoo-hooing, “British Tommy! British Tommy!” Lacking a sword to present in surrender, a military hospital commander handed his captors a case of dental instruments. As Barenthins and Manteuffels and Hermann Görings shuffled to their cages, GI guards issued orders in a hybrid tongue of English and Yiddish, then sang their own song:

Are ve not der Supermen?

Ya, ve iss der Supermen, super-dooper Supermen…

A few escaped, in dinghies or by lashing themselves to the undercarriages of the last overloaded Axis planes to leave. Ultra eventually disclosed that only 632 men were evacuated in the final days; Allied sailors netted another 700 at sea, including a German platoon that had cut down telegraph poles “on which,” a Grenadier Guards account noted, “they sat astride and began to paddle hopefully” toward Italy. Stragglers from the 15th Panzer Division across the Medjerda River were persuaded to surrender by a couple of well-placed warning shots; finding the water too deep to wade, the men were ferried into custody on the dray horses of Arab farmers, who charged the Germans fifty francs per trip.

Into the stockades they swarmed—“the Herrenvolk like chickens in a yard,” A. D. Divine wrote. To each new batch of prisoners, General Koeltz, the French corps commander, proclaimed, “The anguished of yesterday salute the vanquished of today!” Among the booty seized by King’s Dragoon Guards were instruments from the 21st Panzer Division band, including a piano with all but two of its eighty-eight keys intact. German musicians serenaded the camps with “Roll Out the Barrel,” and Wehrmacht officers organized songfests and soccer leagues and vaudeville troupes with costumes improvised from camouflage netting.

As recently as May 5, Eisenhower had assured Marshall that “the Axis cannot have more than a total of 150,000 men in Tunisia.” That was wrong by nearly half; the surrendering host included acres of rear-echelon troops and Italian colonial officials. Within a week the prison population would grow to 225,000 and beyond, stuffed into camps built to hold 70,000. For reasons ranging from shipping shortfalls to poor delousing facilities on the piers of New York, the Allied system for transporting prisoners to Algeria and Morocco, and then to Britain or the United States, had showed signs of strain even before Tunis collapsed. Now things got much worse.

Carefully calibrated guard-to-prisoner ratios—one for every twenty Italians and three for every twenty Germans—were immediately scrapped; even so, the hordes eventually required 8,600 guards, equivalent to half a division. Prisoners were shoehorned into boxcars without latrines or sufficient water for the tortuous trip across Africa. One GI described Italian troops in trucks “packed together like sardines, urinating and vomiting.” Liberty ships became prison barges, with life rafts improvised from empty oil drums, but many prisoners were also crammed onto Algerian coasters, where they were tormented by thieving Senegalese guards and overwatched by French officers who nibbled chocolate on the bridge and tossed morsels to the lunging men below.

For some, that was the least of it. U.S. Army provost marshals documented at least twenty-one Axis prisoners shot dead in the summer of 1943, some by American guards, others by French colonial guards; some accidentally, others trying to escape, and a few under circumstances never adequately explained. An Army investigation of mistreatment in French camps also documented Italian prisoners forced to work fourteen-hour days as railroad laborers. Among other allegations: “constant threat of attempted sodomy by Arab guards” “no blankets for three months…forty men without shoes for three months…eleven men in a cell with one window. Arabs and children spat through the window and threw stones.” Italian prisoners who managed to escape “prefer anything, even death, to being returned to the French,” the investigators added. “At Camp #131, when 58 prisoners were ordered returned to the care of the French, men groveled on the ground, begging that Americans intercede and refuse their return. One asked to be shot. Finally had to be forced into French buses.” A British general also observed French jailors “using their prisoners to clear minefields, while we consider it contrary to international law. They don’t worry too much about feeding them either.”

Neither starvation, nor mine-clearing, nor spittle, nor sodomy would befall the Axis generals, only the ignominy of defeat in a bad cause. In late April and early May, certain senior officers had conveniently fallen ill with maladies that required their return to Germany for treatment; among the invalids were division commanders Friedrich Weber and Hasso von Manteuffel. A few were also ordered home or otherwise escaped. But the Allies bagged more than a dozen generals. Four from the Wehrmacht and two from the Luftwaffe surrendered to II Corps. They were fed C rations and beans on May 10 before being ushered into Bradley’s intelligence tent—known as the Playhouse—where Monk Dickson plied them with whiskey and cigars during a long chat around a plywood mapboard. The commander of the 15th Panzer reportedly wept as he observed, “The Americans have fought like sportsmen.”

The biggest fish were caught farther south. At 11:15 A.M. on May 12, Mussolini authorized the capitulation of the First Italian Army. He offered Giovanni Messe the consolation of promotion to field marshal, then added in a message: “As the aims of your resistance can be considered achieved, your Excellency is free to accept an honorable surrender.” Dickering followed, with white-flag emissaries dispatched to coax terms from the British, who offered the choice of unconditional surrender or annihilation. Ten minutes before the British deadline, Messe struck his colors. Taken into custody, he complained bitterly about the small size of his prison-camp tent. One witness described him slumped in the back seat of a staff car, “heavy and stern. He had tried standing up in his car and saluting as his captured countrymen marched past, but soon got tired and sat down again and let the endless stream of Italian soldiers go their way without a nod of recognition.”

With fuel scavenged from a barrel found washed up on the beach, Arnim and his coterie had retreated to remote Ste.-Marie-du-Zit, twenty miles north of Enfidaville, where they camped with General Hans Cramer and the remnants of the Afrika Korps. Hitler’s orders to “fight to the last bullet” had provoked animated theological discussions. “What does the last bullet mean in a modern war?” Arnim asked his staff. As Gurkha riflemen swarmed over the next hill on May 12, Arnim decided it meant the last tank shell, which had long been expended. White flags sprouted across the encampment. Cramer sent a final radio message informing Berlin that the Afrika Korps “has fought itself to the condition where it can fight no more.” Arnim personally put a torch to Rommel’s trailer, which the Desert Fox had bequeathed him in April, and dispatched a bullet-headed colonel to find the British headquarters.

He soon returned with Generals Allfrey and Tuker—commanding, respectively, the British V Corps and 4th Indian Division—in his staff car. Hundreds of Wehrmacht soldiers stared impassively, their heads swiveling as the British commanders climbed from the car and walked through the camp. In a narrow ravine, Arnim and Cramer stood erect outside the last intact Afrika Korps caravan, still camouflaged with artfully arranged branches. Both German generals wore long-waisted tunics with green breeches, high-peaked caps, and polished riding boots. Especially compared to Tuker—who sported threadbare drill trousers and scuffed desert boots, and who impishly introduced himself as “General von Tucher”—Arnim looked as if he had “turned out for a Potsdam parade, spotless and immaculate,” one witness said.

Declining to use his capable English, Arnim spoke French to inform the British that he “could not alter Hitler’s orders” by surrendering all remaining forces in North Africa. Allfrey brusquely promised to “blow them off the map,” and gave Arnim fifteen minutes to pack for prison. All personal weapons were to be surrendered immediately. “He took this badly,” Allfrey later recalled, “pulling out his automatic and throwing it down in a temper.” Tuker cheerfully demanded his pocket knife, which Arnim, now “very red in the face,” tossed on a table with a clatter. As his staff officers formed ranks at a right angle to the caravan, Arnim delivered a brief speech, his voice cracking, then walked down the formation to offer handshakes and Heils.

“He then got in his car and stood up in front, saluting his men as he was driven off,” Allfrey recalled. “I did not like the man…and was glad to see his back.” Down the valley the car sped with a British escort before turning onto the Tunis road, past the charred ruins of a once-mighty army and the tramping columns of prisoners, who tossed stiff-armed salutes and chanted, “Von Arnim! Von Arnim!” He was flown to Algiers and a camp erected on a muddy soccer field. Eisenhower snubbed Arnim by refusing him an audience, thus establishing a precedent of not speaking to a German general until the final surrender at Reims two years later. A British lieutenant colonel commandeered Arnim’s limousine—a Steyer Daimler said to have twenty-eight forward and six reverse gears—while the surviving trailer was shipped to India for display as a curiosity during charity fund-raisers. As for Arnim, a GI bard composed a quatrain that perfectly captured the scorn Allied soldiers now felt for their conquered foe:

Jürgen T. von Arnim wore an iron-plated monocle

But he could not see behind him—now wasn’t that ironicle?

He fought a rear-guard action and he did it very bitterly

With booby traps and Teller mines and gallant sons of Iterly.

His petulant refusal to surrender the final forces mattered little; the Axis army had imploded. At 1:16 P.M. on Thursday, May 13, Alexander sent Churchill a message of singular grace: “Sir, it is my duty to report that the Tunisian campaign is over. All enemy resistance has ceased. We are masters of the North African shores.”

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