Military history


ROSES perfumed the morning air in Tunis on Thursday, May 20, 1943. A brilliant sun climbed through a cloudless sky, and shadows melted to narrow black stains on the pavement. By eleven A.M., the temperature in the shade was ninety-two degrees—“too damn hot to cuss,” one soldier wrote—but crowds six deep lined Avenue Maréchal Gallieni and the broad, palmy Avenue Jules Ferry for the victory parade that would end the North African campaign. Children squirmed to the front or shinnied up trees. Sidewalk vendors peddled little French, British, and American flags. An anticipatory hum ran through the throng “like a jolly football crowd,” Harold Macmillan told his diary. “Every street was packed; every window in every house was packed; every roof was packed.”

Shortly before noon, the massed pipes and drums of the Scottish regiments hove into view with a great wheezing of bags and swishing of tartans. In stately half step the pipers advanced to the still empty reviewing stand, then wheeled in a countermarch to take positions across the boulevard, skirling for all they were worth. The clack of hob-nails on pavement followed, and an honor guard of immensely tall Grenadier Guards marched into position with, an American officer reported, “the same precision and utter indifference as to what was going on around them as they used to show while changing the guard at Buckingham Palace.” Heat soon began to thin the Grenadier ranks as those weak with dysentery dropped to one knee or abruptly heeled over. The regimental sergeant major “used all his cunning to remove each sick man in turn without any spectator becoming aware of it,” the Guards historians noted.

A convoy of limousines and open sedans pulled up to the reviewing platform. In riding breeches and knee boots, clutching a swagger stick, his arms akimbo, Eisenhower took his place in the front row next to the immaculately vacuous General Giraud. The commander-in-chief’s principal lieutenants—Cunningham, Alexander, Tedder, Anderson—arrayed themselves behind him. Macmillan and Robert Murphy occupied a final rank, beaming and waving in their tropical suits like civil servants on holiday. Lesser lights filled lesser platforms on the flanks. Bradley and Patton were relegated to a peripheral bleacher crowded with minor French bureaucrats; Patton sourly noted that he was assigned a spot next to a “very large French ecclesiastic with a purple sash around his middle, which was probably necessary to support his well-developed stomach and also act as a background for a tremendous cross with an amethyst in it.”

At noon, the crowd’s mood darkened momentarily when booming gunfire was mistaken for an air raid, but the cannonade simply signaled the start of the parade. Redoubled cheers greeted the Foreign Legion band, which tramped past in white hats and red epaulets, playing a suitably martial march, and the appearance of a color guard triggered an ecstasy of saluting across the reviewing stands. General Juin followed at the head of the French troops, a contingent deliberately inflated to impress Arabs and other suspected disloyalists. For more than an hour they marched past ten abreast, a vivid comic-opera procession of képis and berets, turbans and peaked caps, scarlet pantaloons and wasp-waisted blue tunics. Crimson-cloaked spahis stood in the stirrups of their white chargers, saluting with upraised sabers. Algerians and Moroccans and Senegalese tirailleurs padded past, some shod and some not. Behind them came shambling, bearded goums in striped robes—their leather pouches provoked nudges from GIs determined to believe that each sack held a cache of enemy ears—and high-stepping Legionnaires whose ranks were full of blond Germans and Poles.

After the French came the Americans. A band crashed through “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” and the 34th Division’s 135th Infantry Regiment—chosen for their valor at Hill 609 to represent all American infantrymen—swept past, rubber-soled shoes clapping softly on the pavement. The men had burned their vermin-infested combat uniforms and now wore new, olive-drab wool blouses, buttoned at the collar with the sleeves rolled down. Steel helmets half hid their faces. General Harmon thought the troops shuffled like “Arkansas backwoodsmen,” and Patton complained that “our men do not put up a good show in reviews. I think that we still lack pride in being soldiers, and we must develop it.” Thousands of spectators disagreed. From the sidewalks and the balconies came shrieks of “Vive l’Amérique!” and young men dashed into the street to pump the hands of their liberators.

Then pipers, again. The faint strains of “Flowers of the Forest” trailed the last Americans, and the British wheeled into view, almost 14,000 men arrayed nine abreast and led by General Evelegh. Each marcher had received instructions as meticulous as a battle plan, including the commandment: “Brasses will be polished.” They were gleaming. The men wore shorts and knee socks, with berets or forage caps, and their blouses were open at the throat and rolled to the elbow to give an effect of sinewy limbs and tanned faces. Macmillan beamed at the “swinging striding outstepping men,” and an American colonel admitted that “the British made much the better show.” On they came, nine by nine by nine, Maoris and Aussies and Sikhs and Coldstreams, a precise twenty yards separating each contingent. Commanders snapped a smart “eyes-right” salute as they clapped past the main reviewing stand, and great flocks of Spitfires and Flying Fortresses roared overhead, wagging their wings in homage.

The parade straggled to a merciful finish with yet another refrain of “Glory of the Trumpets” and Sherman tanks clanking behind the British infantry. As the last gun tubes and limbers passed the reviewing stands, hoarse spectators shinnied down from the trees and emptied the balconies. Hundreds of Italian prisoners-of-war who had been paroled to watch the parade—cheering each new formation with manic enthusiasm—complained bitterly as guards herded them back behind barbed wire. Eisenhower and his lieutenants climbed into their cars for the short trip to the resident-general’s mansion, where Juin would host a luncheon for seventy people sitting at one long table; afterward, they would meet the new bey, uncle of the ousted collaborator, in a ceremony described by Harry Butcher as “complete with gold throne, eunuchs, and native Tunisian troops.” Patton and Bradley, still miffed at their exclusion from the main reviewing stand, headed back to Algeria to resume training for Sicily. The parade, Patton grumbled, had been “a goddamned waste of time.”

Even after two and a half hours in the molten sun Eisenhower showed no sign of wilting. A reporter described him as “lean, bronzed, and loose-limbed. He was happy as a schoolboy…taking the salutes as the units passed. When the parade drew to an end he smoked, laughed, and joked with the various leaders.”

In truth, he had been peevish and distracted, notwithstanding the gleeful announcement from his West Point classmates that they were renaming him Ikus Africanus. “All the shouting about the Tunisian campaign leaves me utterly cold,” he confided to Marshall. The concept of a victory parade appalled him, and he had tried without success to convert the event into a sober commemoration of the dead. He still slept badly. If he seemed jolly, jolliness was among the many masks the commander-in-chief had learned to wear.

No soldier in Africa had changed more—grown more—than Eisenhower. He continued to pose as a small-town Kansan, insisting that he was “too simple-minded to be an intriguer or [to] attempt to be clever,” and he retained the winning traits of authenticity, vigor, and integrity. He had displayed admirable grace and character under crushing strain. But he was hardly artless. Naïveté provided a convenient screen for a man who was complex, shrewd, and sometimes Machiavellian. The Darlan affair had taught him the need to obscure his own agency in certain events even as he shouldered responsibility for them. The failings of Fredendall and other deficient commanders had taught him to be tougher, even ruthless, with subordinates. And he had learned the hardest lesson of all: that for an army to win at war, young men must die.

“One of the fascinations of the war was to see how Americans developed their great men so quickly,” a British general later observed. None more than Eisenhower. In the fall of 1942, the general continued, he had been “a well-trained and loyal subordinate” to his more experienced British colleagues. Now he was a commander. His son, John, later wrote: “Before he left for Europe in 1942, I knew him as an aggressive, intelligent personality.” North Africa transformed him “from a mere person to a personage…full of authority, and truly in command.”

Even as victory was claimed and commemorated, a few loose ends remained to tie up.

The tiny Mediterranean island of La Galite was liberated by a battle flotilla sailing from Bône; a British naval officer reported that a shipboard ceremony with the islanders was repeatedly interrupted “by the need to salvage firstly the delegates’ hats, which they kept throwing into the air and the wind blew into the sea, and secondly the mayor, who fell overboard.” Allied salvage crews combed Tunisia for scrap and abandoned Axis matériel, but reported finding “not a great deal of value. Most of the weapons have been effectively rendered useless.” Mine-clearing occupied thousands of engineers, and mines would continue killing civilians and soldiers, including Colonel Richard R. Arnold, Kay Summersby’s fiancé. Arnold died in an explosion at Sedjenane on June 6. Sixty years later, Tunisian authorities were still digging up an average of fifty unexploded bombs, shells, and mines every month.

The French high command wasted no time embarking on what the OSS secretly described as “a ruthless campaign against Moslems and, to a lesser extent, Italians” in Tunisia. The six-month Axis occupation had won widespread Arab allegiance with effective propaganda, anti-Semitic edicts, and economic measures, including some land redistribution and a doubling of wages, paid with stolen Bank of France notes. In retribution for suspected Arab perfidy during the occupation, “a general reign of terror was instituted, in which arbitrary arrests and torture of Moslems became frequent occurrences,” the OSS disclosed. Detention camps on the island of Djerba allegedly held 3,000 Arabs, with beatings, killings, and mass executions reported; gendarmes and other rogue officials were “running amuck in the interior and…beating and imprisoning personal enemies.” Among other reparations, French officials demanded 25 million francs from Arabs in Sidi bou Zid to compensate French farmers whose land had been plundered. Such actions were contrary to united nations ideals, the OSS observed, and served “to discredit not only the French authorities but U.S. and British prestige as well.”

Preoccupied with the imminent invasion of Sicily, Eisenhower and his lieutenants paid little attention, and most Allied troops could not have cared less. Recuperation before the next campaign absorbed every man, and the days were spent sleeping, fishing with hand grenades in Lake Bizerte, and, soon, training. Among some, a powerful nostalgia took root. Even discerning men like Spaatz and Tedder soon romanticized northwest Africa as war at its best: a facile, unencumbered campaign of human proportions fought by a doughty band of brothers.

Gimlet-eyed GIs and Tommies had no such illusions. Irony and cynicism infested the ranks. “I am Jesus’ little lamb,” soldiers told one another, “yes, by Jesus Christ I am.” Ernie Pyle had already seen enough misery to ask darkly, “When you figure how many boys are going to get killed, what’s the use anyway?” However realistic they were about war, the troops nurtured other fantasies, including the conviction that many units had done their bit and would now go home. “Dame Rumor with her thousand tongues is running wild through all the camps in Africa,” one soldier warned. The arrival of many new troops in Tunisia fed the belief that veterans would at least get home leave. Among the newcomers was the 3rd Infantry Division, now commanded by Lucian Truscott; the division’s ranks included a baby-faced farm boy from Texas with a fifth-grade education, an addiction to dice, and an affection for the Army because “they let you sleep until 5:30.” Private First Class Audie L. Murphy, not yet nineteen and weighing in at 110 pounds, would become the most decorated American combat soldier in history, but not even the appearance of his like would free most troops from compulsory service for the duration.

Charles Ryder was so alarmed at his men’s self-delusion that he assembled all officers and sergeants on a hill near Mateur in mid-May, and told them:

There are many rumors out there that the 34th Division [troops have] fought their battles, done their time, and are going back to the States. But, gentlemen, I am here to tell you today that the 34th Division will not go back until the war is over…. As this war goes on it will get progressively worse and there will be progressively harder objectives to take, and more casualties as the German lines tighten. We shall fight in Europe, and we shall find that in comparison, the Tunisian campaign was but a maneuver with live ammunition.

It was the truth, and the truth hurt enough for one soldier to quip, “Ol’ General Ryder’s so homely that probably his wife doesn’t care whether he gets back or not.”

Most of their leaders, too, would go on to the Italian campaigns, or northern France, or both. They included Eisenhower, Bradley, Patton, Clark, Alexander, and Montgomery; they would face, again, Kesselring and Rommel. For some, however, the end in Africa effectively ended their hour on the stage. Among them was Anderson, who graciously wrote Eisenhower on May 12: “It will ever remain one of the proudest memories of my life, whatever the future may hold in store, that I have been so intimately connected with the U.S. Army.” The future held little for Anderson. Vilified beyond redemption by Montgomery and others, he returned to a knighthood in England but was stripped of his army command before Normandy. He ended his career as a postwar governor of Gibraltar.

Among those who did go home was Robert Moore, hardly recognizable as the erstwhile Boy Captain since his wounding at Fondouk. Moore’s orders assigned him to training duty in Georgia. Of the men in Company F, whom he had led out of Villisca two years earlier, “there sure are not many of us left,” he wrote his family on May 12. “Not more than seven or eight of the original outfit. It will be a happy day when I see you all, won’t it?”

July 15, 1943, was happy indeed. Moore stepped from the Burlington No. 6 in Villisca at 9:30 A.M., clutching the camel-hide briefcase his men had given him as a farewell gift. Into his arms leaped his seven-year-old daughter, Nancy; a newspaper photographer captured the moment in a picture that would win the Pulitzer Prize. Fire bells rang to announce the homecoming and American flags lined Third Avenue in front of the family drugstore. Bob Moore was to serve honorably for the rest of the war and beyond, remaining in the Iowa National Guard until retiring as a brigadier general in 1964, a year before the drugstore closed. When he died in 1991, the mourners at his funeral sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and told stories about how young Bob had once led his battalion to safety through German lines during the battle of Kasserine Pass. The message board outside the Presbyterian church read simply: “Old soldiers never die.”

Young ones do, and in North Africa they had died by the thousands. Allied casualties in TORCH and the subsequent Tunisian campaign exceeded 70,000; if laid head to toe they would have stretched eighty miles, from the Algerian border to Tunis. The toll included 38,000 British—two-thirds in First Army and one-third in Eighth Army—of whom more than 6,200 were killed in action and 10,600 were missing or captured. French casualties exceeded 19,400, half of whom were dead or missing. When French Algerian units returned to their hometowns beginning in mid-May, the troops lined the main streets for a roll call. Each man answered until the name of a dead comrade was called. Then, reporter John D’Arcy-Dawson wrote, a deep voice replied, “Mort!” The drums rolled, while the spectators removed their hats, and the women bowed and crossed themselves.

To more than a thousand American casualties in TORCH were added 18,221 more from mid-November to mid-May. These included 2,715 killed in action, nearly 9,000 wounded, and more than 6,500 missing. As always, infantrymen took the brunt. (Although infantry units accounted for 14 percent of the U.S. Army’s overseas strength in the war, they suffered 70 percent of the casualties.) The 34th Division alone sustained more than 4,000 dead, wounded, and missing—one-quarter of Ryder’s force—and Allen’s 1st Division suffered nearly as many.

Some units were simply shattered. The 1st Battalion of the 6th Armored Infantry, which arrived for TORCH with 734 men, incurred 455 casualties in the next six months, or 62 percent. The battalion’s A Company had four commanders in that half year, an indication of how the campaign devoured junior officers. Leadership losses also decimated British ranks: of six battalion commanders involved in the first dash to Tunis in November, the last still in command was killed by one of the final shells fired in May. Similarly, the 8th Argylls had suffered forty-nine officer casualties since landing at Bougie, 150 percent of the battalion’s officer allotment.

Axis casualties remain uncertain. Confusion on both sides of the line in the campaign’s final month resulted in contradictory tallies of prisoners captured, graves counted, and wounded soldiers treated. The German dead in Tunisia have been estimated at more than 8,500, with 3,700 Italians also killed. Combat wounded typically outnumber the dead by a factor of three or four, so an additional 40,000 to 50,000 Axis wounded can be surmised.

Ambiguity also shrouded the number of German and Italian prisoners of war. Allied records in late May listed 238,243 unwounded prisoners in custody, including nearly 102,000 Germans. Arnim thought the total prisoner count closer to 300,000—he, of course, among them—while Rommel’s former chief of staff put the German figure alone at roughly 166,000. A quarter million appears to be a reasonable estimate of those captured. Goebbels privately called the fall of North Africa a “second Stalingrad,” telling his diary, “Our losses there are enormous.” True enough, although half as many German divisions were destroyed as at Stalingrad, and prison camps in Tunisia bulged with rear-echelon dregs.

Yet for one side the campaign had ended in humiliation and disaster; for the other, in triumph and hosannahs. Whatever the precise tally of Axis casualties, the number of enemy armies obliterated was certain—two—and so was the number of enemy soldiers still fighting in North Africa: zero.

At a price of 70,000 casualties “one continent had been redeemed,” in Churchill’s phrase. But more than territory could be claimed. The gains were most profound for the Americans, in their first campaign against the Wehrmacht. Four U.S. divisions now had combat experience in five variants of Euro-Mediterranean warfare: expeditionary, amphibious, mountain, desert, and urban. Troops had learned the importance of terrain, of combined arms, of aggressive patrolling, of stealth, of massed armor. They now knew what it was like to be bombed, shelled, and machine-gunned, and to fight on. They provided Eisenhower with a blooded hundred thousand, “high-grade stock from which we must breed with the utmost rapidity,” as one general urged.

Still, they had far to go. Truscott worried at “too much satisfaction with a mediocre performance,” and a tendency by some commanders to gloss over deficiencies. Bradley believed the campaign “showed American soldiers unwilling to close with the enemy—that was his greatest worry,” reported Truscott, who added, “Why not at least be honest with ourselves?” Some lessons—such as the critical choreography between tankers and riflemen—were soon forgotten and would have to be relearned for the usual fee in blood. North Africa, the historian Eric Larrabee once noted, provided “a place to be lousy in, somewhere to let the gift for combat and command be discovered.”

It was also a place where many things that flowered later in the war first germinated. Some were soul-stirring, such as the return of France to the confederation of democracies. Some were distressing: the anglophobia of Bradley, Patton, and others; Alexander’s contempt for American martial skills; and various feuds, tiffs, and spats. More profound was a subtle shift in the balance of power within the Anglo-American alliance; the United States was dominant now, by virtue of power and heft, with consequences that would extend not only beyond the war but beyond the century.

It was the discovery of those “gifts for combat and command” that remains most beguiling sixty years later. “There are three things that make a man fight,” Ryder observed. “One is pride in himself, another is pride in his organization, and the third is hate. The 34th has all of them.” A terrible beauty, then, born in Africa. Most Yanks had arrived in Morocco and Algeria convinced that they were fighting someone else’s war; now they were fully vested, with a stake of their own. Drew Middleton noted that after Tunisia “the war has become a grudge fight, a personal matter.”

Many felt a new clarity about the war and about themselves. “There’s nothing over here to fog your vision of right and wrong,” an Iowa boy wrote his parents. A corporal in the 13th Armored Regiment, formerly a haberdasher in New York, told his girlfriend: “In years to come, after it is all a distant memory, I’ll be able to hold my head as high as the next man’s and my eyes level.” And they were incorrigibly optimistic. “We didn’t know how to think about losing,” wrote one soldier, a former shoe salesman. “We didn’t have the temper of mind which encompassed the loss of the war.” A British major who had accompanied the Yanks since their first landings in Morocco concluded that the Americans “are unlike anyone else in the speed with which they put things right, if and when they are ordered, persuaded, or led to do so.”

Africa provided affirmations of duty, of camaraderie, and of survival, even if articulated in the sarcastic idiom of the dogface. “I am not willing to die,” a sergeant wrote his sister. “Dead, I would be of no further use to the government.” Yet sometimes the cynicism sloughed away, revealing what every man was really fighting for: the right to go home. One soldier wrote: “We all feel we’ve got something to fight for and something to live for, and we go along every day with the hope and the prayer on our lips that we can soon be on our journey home.”

Africa was the first step on that long journey. “There was, for the first time in the war, a real lifting of spirits,” Churchill later wrote. Less than a year earlier, the Axis had been advancing inexorably on all fronts; Rommel’s drive into Egypt had filled the Cairo rail stations with refugees while panicky British diplomats burned documents in their gardens. Now only in the U-boat campaign did the Axis retain anything like a sustained offensive, and that was waning: the first Allied convoy to complete passage of the Mediterranean since 1941 left Gibraltar on May 17 and reached Alexandria without loss nine days later.

Hitler had lost the strategic initiative, forever. Even Kesselring sensed an insuperable momentum in the Allied camp. “It was in Tunisia,” he later observed, “that the superiority of your air force first became evident.” A Swiss newspaper reported that in Berlin people were “walking around as though hit in the head.” The blow was more painful in Italy, which had lost its colonies and its self-delusions. As Allied bombing intensified, the Fascists seemed increasingly impotent. A German general in Rome reported in May that “in Europe there is at present only one Italian armored battalion, equipped with totally obsolete French tanks, ready for action in Sicily…. If the enemy has an initial success, the fatalism so prevalent at present will lead to the most disquieting results.” Mussolini was said to be so unnerved that he could eat only milk and rice.

Yet Tunis—like Stalingrad, El Alamein, Midway, and Guadalcanal—lay on the outer rim of the Axis empire. In the winter of 1942–43, the Germans had transferred seventeen divisions from western Europe to the Eastern Front, an act suggesting that the campaign in North Africa had done little to influence the titanic struggle waged by the Russians (although the Mediterranean action proved a serious drain on the German air force). Hitler would assert in early July that the battle in Tunisia had “succeeded in postponing the invasion of Europe by six months,” while also keeping Italy in the Axis camp and forestalling a sudden Allied thrust over the Alps through the Brenner Pass.

As the historian Michael Howard has noted, the Führer overestimated Allied capabilities: not even Patton dreamed of driving the length of Italy to abruptly appear in Munich. But the campaign had bought the Axis some time by keeping the Mediterranean closed an extra half year; by straining Allied shipping and constraining strategic planning; by sucking Allied troops and supplies into the Mediterranean and away from any cross-Channel expedition; and, most ominously, by giving Kesselring months to begin reinforcing the Reich’s southern flank.

The protracted campaign in Tunisia certainly delayed other European operations, beginning with HUSKY. There was nothing for it but to soldier on. “War is a burden to be carried on a steep and bloody road,” Marshall observed, “and only strong nerves and determined spirits can endure to the end.”

And what if Tunis had fallen in that first heady rush in November? The invasion of Sicily and then the Italian mainland would likely have been accelerated by months, perhaps allowing the capture of Rome in 1943. But Allied shipping and airpower limitations make it hard to conclude that D-day at Normandy could have been mounted much earlier than June 6, 1944—or rather, mounted successfully.

It remains far from clear that such an acceleration, even if possible, would have been prudent. If TORCH provided one benefit above others, it was to save Washington and London from a disastrously premature landing in northern Europe. Given the dozens of Wehrmacht divisions waiting behind the Atlantic Wall, France would have been a poor place to be lousy in. TORCH had been a great risk—“the purest gamble America and Britain undertook during the war,” the official U.S. Army Air Forces history concluded—but it deferred the even greater gamble of a cross-Channel invasion until the odds improved.

For now, the victors celebrated their victory. For the Anglo-Americans, Churchill wrote Eisenhower, the triumph was “an augury full of hope for the future of the world. Long may they march together, striking down the tyrants and oppressors of mankind.”

Many shared his sentiment. “Together we had all faced death on a number of occasions and this experience had created between us a bond which could never be taken away,” a British captain in the 78th Division wrote. “We had gone to the brink and come back.”

Among those who had not come back was a young American stretcher bearer, Caleb Milne, who was killed by a mortar round on May 11 while giving first aid to a wounded soldier. In a final, prescient letter to his mother, Milne described the Tunisian campaign as

a vivid, wonderful world so full of winter and spring, warm rain and cold snow, adventures and contentments, good things and bad. How often you will have me near you when wood smoke drifts across the wind, or the first tulips arrive, or the sky darkens in a summer storm…. Think of me today, and in the days to come, as I am thinking of you this minute, not gone or alone or dead, but part of the earth beneath you, part of the air around you, part of the heart that must not be lonely.

Kilroy had been here, and now he prepared to move on. Beyond Tunis harbor, just over the horizon, another continent waited.

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