18. The Battles for North Africa

ERWIN ROMMEL HAD BEEN SENT to North Africa to mount a successful holding operation. He had managed to turn what the Germans regarded as a sideshow into a major theater of the war. By the use of daring and tactical initiative he had carried the reluctant Italians along with him and made even them look like winners. Time and circumstance had aided him immeasurably, and he had hit the British when they were at their lowest ebb in the eastern Mediterranean. As soon as they were able to regroup and rebuild their ruined forces after the Greek disaster, they struck back, and in their turn overran the Western Desert. Then, over the end of 1941, both sides settled down; it was a matter of supply, and the one that could build up fastest in the Western Desert would gain the edge and the initiative.

Here Rommel was at a disadvantage. The Germans were throwing everything they had into first stopping the Russian winter offensive, and then reopening their own drive deeper into Russia. Relatively little of their material was sent south. Rommel was left to his own resources. The British, on the other hand, put their major effort into the Mediterranean. At enormous costs of shipping and supplies they tried to give Auchinleck enough of a shot in the arm that he could continue his offensive. Yet even though the British put more into Egypt than the Germans sent to Libya, within the theater itself they faced great difficulties. It was Rommel who was pushed back on his bases, and the British who now had the long tenuous supply line out from Alexandria all the way to El Agheila. As they built up their dumps along the coastal road, Rommel got a helpful convoy in early January of 1942. Two weeks later, still thin but seizing the moment, he jumped off on his second offensive.

The British were caught on the hop and were quickly pushed back out of the Cyrenaican hump; they lost large amounts of the supplies so painfully carried forward; rations, ammunition, trucks, and fuel now were gratefully used by the Germans and Italians. The retreat ended temporarily on a line just west of Tobruk, the Gazala-Bir Hacheim Line, and the rapid withdrawal went down in the troops’ folklore as “the Gazala gallop.”

Once again both sides paused to gather their breath. Now it was Rommel who was the more distant from his supplies, and he noted with concern that the British were still building up more rapidly than he. Rather than await the inevitable swing of the pendulum, he decided to attack again and he reopened his offensive on May 26.

The Gazala-Bir Hacheim position was about thirty-five miles long, running south from the coast into the desert. The British field commander, General Neil Ritchie, had extensively fortified it with minefields, wire, and a series of infantry strongpoints. The southern end of the line was held by the Free French brigade dug in around Bir Hacheim. Ritchie’s idea was that he would use his armor to shore up his strongpoints, and keep the Axis forces from breaking through. He also kept a heavy concentration of armor behind his open southern flank to catch the Germans should they break around it. The British had a substantial superiority in tanks, about 700 to 560 of the enemy, and nearly half of those 560 were light Italian vehicles. Besides that, during the course of the battle the British got the first 200 American Grant tanks, which outgunned the Germans.

The battle that began on May 26 was a remarkable one. Rommel’s infantry and some armor put in a straightforward attack against the main British line. While they did that, his mobile armored force moved south, around Bir Hacheim, and then fought its way into the rear of the British line. The British slugged it out every inch of the way, and with their main line four-fifths surrounded, still refused to budge. Rommel was then forced to bring his armor back into the main line—from the British side of it—and hold onto a strongpoint of his own, aptly named “the Cauldron,” resisting the attacks of Ritchie’s armor while he managed to resupply. Meanwhile, he sent everything he could spare south against the now isolated Bir Hacheim. The cut-off French held for ten days against heavy attacks led by Rommel personally, then, out of supplies, the survivors broke out and faded into the desert. It was after Bir Hacheim that de Gaulle changed the name from “Free French” to “Fighting French,” and their stand brought the French credit with the Allies they had not so far enjoyed.

With Bir Hacheim secured and with his armor regrouped, while the British had frittered theirs away in piecemeal attacks on the Cauldron, Rommel was ready for the climax. On June 11 he broke through to the eastward. The British armor managed to hold him for two days while most of the infantry scooted out of their strongpoints, then the whole affair gathered momentum, and the pursuit dashed off to the eastward. Ritchie ended the battle losing more than 90 percent of his tanks. The Germans leaped forward and this time grabbed Tobruk before the British could organize it for a siege, gaining several thousand prisoners and immense amounts of stores. Hitler responded by promoting Rommel to field marshal, and it looked as if the end of the North African campaign were in sight.

As the British 8th Army streamed in disarray toward Alexandria, General Auchinleck moved in and took over the army command. His position was almost intolerable from several points of view. He was faced with disaster to his front, and to his rear, relations with Churchill were becoming increasingly acrimonious. Churchill constantly wanted to intervene in the course of the battle, he was the bane of his military advisors at home, and he was now falling out with Auchinleck as he had with Wavell; at one point he inspired an anguished Brooke to cry out, “I tell you you must either back your Commander-in-Chief or sack him!” and “to back him or sack him” became a constant problem. Just now Churchill would do neither the one nor the other.

In spite of this Auchinleck pulled the situation together. He slowed Rommel just across the frontier at Sollum, and more seriously with a stand at Mersa Matruh, and then stopped him definitively at El Alamein. The Germans had finally run out of steam, and the position stabilized at the end of June, with the British on a very strong line between El Alamein on the coast road and the Qattara Depression, a great impassable sinkhole thirty miles to the south. It was a far better anchor than Bir Hacheim, and they were safe for the moment. They were also a mere sixty miles from Alexandria.

Midsummer of 1942 brought alluring prospects for the Axis. For a few moments German troops gazed on the Caspian Sea, and at times it looked again as if Russia would collapse. Japanese carriers were raiding Ceylon, and Rommel was on the doorstep of the East. The situation has conjured retrospective visions of the three great Axis Powers meeting each other somewhere in the depths of south-central Asia. Such visions are of course but an illusion. The Japanese forays into the Indian Ocean were no more than diversions, the Russians recovered in the late summer, and Rommel never got past El Alamein. On a straight calculation of so much, energy, matériel, and manpower required per mile of conquest, the Axis simply did not have the goods. But that knowledge too is retrospective. At the moment, practically the whole world was locked in the throes of the greatest war ever seen, and the future boiled down to thousands of young men in cylinders in the sky, steel compartments in the sea, and holes in the ground.

For the British the supply buildup had to be done all over again. All the material so painfully shipped to Egypt, trucked and carted forward with such immense effort, was now being enjoyed by the Germans and the Italians. Once more the convoys made their way around the western hump of Africa, past the Cape of Good Hope—old Bartholomeu Diaz wanted to call it the Cape of Storms, but the fifteenth-century Portuguese had their public relations men too—up through the Red Sea, and into the teeming ports of Egypt. Malta was reinforced as well, the unsinkable aircraft carrier that became the single most-bombed target in the world, and every day the fighters and bombers sallied forth to harry Rommel’s convoys. Both sides raced against time to tip the balance their way in Egypt.

Refusing either to back him or sack him, Churchill kept pestering Auchinleck for an offensive. “The Auk” demurred; he did not feel ready, and through July and August his troops sparred ineffectually with the enemy. Neither side yet had the advantage. In mid-August, Churchill lost patience and made up his mind; Auchinleck went, and a new team came out to try its luck in the desert graveyard of reputations. Churchill had never been unreservedly behind Wavell, and was even less so behind Auchinleck, but the new commanders were his stars, General Sir Harold Alexander as area commander, and Lt. General Bernard Montgomery as the 8th Army commander. They told Churchill exactly what Auchinleck had, that they were not ready to advance yet. This time he listened, and gave them the support they wanted. Montgomery promised that when he did move, he would win.

Rommel moved first again. At the end of August he launched the battle of Alam el Haifa, his attempt to break through the El Alamein position. The plan was a straight replay of the Gazala-Bir Hacheim battle, but this time the British were ready for him. Once again they had built up faster than he, though the two sides were nearly equal in armor. Montgomery did have one startling advantage not enjoyed by his predecessors: he had a copy of Rommel’s operation order.

The Germans were still unaware that the British code-breakers were reading their signals. Up to this time the cryptographers in London had been able to provide useful snippets of information to the commanders in the field, but now a whole spate of signals between Rommel, Field Marshal Kesselring in Rome, and the German high command gave the British not only Rommel’s complete order of battle and a count of his available supplies, but also a full outline of his tactical plan as well. With this in his pocket, Montgomery was able to astound his staff by stepping up to the map and saying that Rommel would do this and the British would do that, and the battle would be over. Montgomery never mentioned the code-breaking in his memoirs, but to be fair to him, at the time they were written it was still a state secret.

Anyway, all went exactly as planned—by the British. Rommel hit the southern end of the line hard on the last day of August. It floated back, and the Germans turned north. Instead of running into soft rear areas, they encountered armor and infantry dug in deep on the Alam el Haifa ridge. Here Montgomery’s true talent showed up; he had assessed Rommel’s trick of gulling the British armor into attacking him in the open, and then destroying it with his anti-tank guns. This time the British refused to be drawn, Rommel had to go forward, and it was his armor that took a beating. Under heavy air attacks, he was forced to pull back, and by the 7th the British were still holding their original line, with only a few dents in it. The battle was over. So were Rommel’s offensives.

Churchill immediately took up the old refrain of an offensive, but Montgomery would not be rushed. He was not an improvisor and he wanted everything to be ready. Alexander backed him, and he had the prestige of Alam el Haifa behind him as well. Therefore, while the supplies piled up and the troops trained, the British got ready. This time there were to be no half measures.

For six weeks the matter hung fire, both sides preparing as best they could for what both knew was coming. The only constraint Churchill now put upon the timing was that the battle must come before the first week of November, because the Allies were planning at that time to invade French North Africa; when they did, they wanted the French to be in no doubt as to who was winning the war.

The battle that opened on the night of October 23-24 was the greatest so far fought in North Africa. The British and Commonwealth troops, about 200,000 strong, outnumbered the Germans and Italians in men and tanks by two to one; they enjoyed complete air superiority. They started with an intensive, World War I-style bombardment by more than 800 guns, and then, in the darkness, the British crashed into the Axis positions. The attack opened with the Australians moving along the coastal road. To their left the Highland Division, bagpipes wailing in the night, drove toward the desert ridges. To their left again were New Zealanders, then South Africans, Indians, and a Greek brigade, more British, and the French down on the end of the line. The Germans and Italians held hard; they had dug in extensively, they had laid minefields and strung wire and sited their anti-tank guns. For three days the British bludgeoned their way forward, only to be held to no real gain. On the fourth day Rommel sent his armor out in a vicious counterattack, but the British tanks and aircraft stopped it cold.

Montgomery had hoped to break his armor through, set up blocking positions, and then mop up the enemy infantry. The Germans were holding too hard for that, and the battle resolved itself into a straight slugging match. Finally, on the night of November 2, the New Zealanders broke into the clear, shored up a corridor through the main line of resistance, and British armor rolled on into the open. Late on the 2nd, Rommel acknowledged his battle was lost. He began to pull out, then made the mistake of asking Hitler if it was all right. The order came back next day to hold fast, no retreat. It was a mistake and Rommel knew it; reluctantly he canceled his withdrawal order, and the result was that the whole position fell to pieces, units facing in every direction, some moving, some trying to hold on. Aided by this confusion, the British punched another hole in the line on the 4th, caught an Italian armored division in flank as it moved up from the south, and wiped it out after it had put up a gallant stand. The rest of the Italians, cut off to the south, were left to their fate and the Germans, disregarding Hitler’s orders, began to fade away. On the 5th, Hitler said they could go after all.

Montgomery paused to pull his winded troops together. The battle cost him 13,000 casualties and more than half his tank force but he was quickly reinforcing and bringing in new material. The Axis lost twice that many men and half that many tanks and could afford neither.

Now the hunt was up. On the 7th, the British just barely missed cutting off the retreat; on the 11th, they crossed the Libyan frontier. For 1,400 miles, all the way to Tunisia, the 8th Army and the Desert Air Force harried the Axis and snapped at their heels. The Germans never really put a position together. The Royal Navy kept leapfrogging supplies forward from port to port. The fliers moved their airfields as fast as the armor went, and at one point even flew in and set up a temporary airfield ahead of the retreating Germans. Time and again the British armor lanced into the desert, racing to get ahead of the Germans and cut them off. They never quite succeeded, for the fleeing enemy could travel faster along the coast road than the British could through the rough scrub and shale of the desert. Repeatedly, though, they cut the tail of the column, and the Axis retreat was marked by a long suppurating trail of broken-down vehicles, abandoned when their fuel ran out, guns left behind, aircraft parked on overrun fields. Australians drank the wine stored by gourmet commanders, and Indians marched thousands of prisoners back eastward. It was one of the greatest and most exhilarating pursuits in history, and the old familiar desert names appeared in the communiques one after another: Tobruk on November 13, Benghazi on the 20th, El Agheila in mid-December, Sirte on Christmas Day—not for two years had the British been close to Sirte—and the climax, Tripoli, on January 23, 1943. By the end of the month the British were into Tunisia, and closing up on the end of the long desert campaign. El Alamein was one of the great turning points of the war, fairly won and exploited to the full. The only sour note in the whole symphony was that they had failed to bag Rommel himself. In February he and the tattered remnants of the mighty Deutsches Afrika Korps sought refuge behind the Mareth Line, an old French fortification in southern Tunisia, and turned at bay. The Desert Fox was cornered at last, but he was still going to fight.

The Allied invasion of French North Africa, the other half of the pincer that was to wreck Axis hopes in the Mediterranean, was the product of a great deal of discussion and even argument among the Allied leaders. As soon as the Americans entered the war they sent planning staffs to Britain, and projected a great troop buildup for an invasion of France at the first possible moment. At the Arcadia Conference, the British broached the idea of wrapping up North Africa, and the Americans reluctantly agreed. As their forces buildup began to gather momentum, they tried to shelve the idea at the Bolero Conference in London. The British clung to it, pointing out that they must come to grips someplace as soon as possible, that to be able to use the Mediterranean would ease their shipping problems. The argument went on for months, and at one point the American Joint Chiefs of Staff became so unhappy they urged a reordering of American priorities and a major emphasis on the Pacific instead of Germany—an attitude dear to many American hearts anyway, and one always lurking beneath the surface.

Assorted evidence of German strength in France refused to deter them. For example, to test some of their preconceptions about invasion plans, the British mounted a major raid on the French port of Dieppe in August of 1942. Up to this point the Allies believed they might have to land at a port, as supply over open beaches for an invasion force was considered impossible. The Dieppe raid was carried out by a force of nearly 7,000 men, 5,000 of them Canadians who had been in Britain since 1940. The whole raid was a shambles. The Canadians barely got off the beach in front of the town, and in nine hours of heavy fighting they suffered well over 3,000 casualties in killed, wounded, prisoners, and missing. It was a costly way to prove the Allies could not invade Europe in the immediate future, and the Canadians, who had been asking for action for two years, still have bitter memories of the way they got it.

The decision to go to North Africa was eventually kicked upstairs to Roosevelt, and he came down unequivocally on the British side. Politically, he believed it was imperative that American ground forces come into combat with the Germans at the earliest possible moment, and obviously North Africa was the only reasonable place to do it in 1942. That the invasion of French North Africa may have delayed the invasion of France for a year remains arguable; both the Russians and the American public demanded more action by the Western Allies and demanded it immediately, and that determined this issue. The British got their way: North Africa it was. Operation Torch was set for early November of 1942.

With General Eisenhower appointed as commander of the invasion forces, the British and Americans then fell to arguing over where they should land. Roles were reversed now, and the British, whose caution led to North Africa instead of France, now wanted to move as far east as possible. They wanted a landing near the border between Tunisia and Algeria that would enable them to move rapidly east into Tunisia, and grab it before the Germans and Italians could rush troops in to hold the territory. The Americans, who had wanted to go boldly into France, now wanted to go cautiously into Africa. They were afraid Spain would come in, or that Axis air power would catch them at sea in the Mediterranean. They therefore wanted to land on the Atlantic coast of French Morocco, and move from there. The British thought this was pretty wasteful, and would just involve the Allies in another campaign such as they were already waging in Egypt.

Eventually they compromised. A Western Task Force, entirely American in composition, would sail from the United States and land off Casablanca on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. A Center Task Force, also American, sailing from Britain, would land inside the Mediterranean at Oran. An Eastern Task Force, British and American, would land at Algiers. The first two would prevent a German move through Spain and across the straits into Spanish Morocco; the third would dash east and secure Tunisia before the Germans could get there. The British agreed that all three operations should look as American as possible, in the hope that the French would not resist them.

That was the big question: would the French fight? The French said they would. The Vichy French government had been a faithful collaborator in the Hitlerian New Order, and one reason they had forestalled German occupation of the rest of France, as well as their North African empire, was that they had managed to convince the Germans they were capable of defending their territory against the Allies and willing to do so. When the British had seized Syria in 1941, the French had fought; when the British took over Madagascar in May of 1942, as a means of guarding their approaches to India, the French had fought again. They had lost both times, but their weak forces had still done the best they could. So there was little doubt they would fight the British; it was an open question whether or not they would fight the Americans. No one knew the answer to that, not the Germans, not the British or Americans, indeed not even the French.

French soldiers at the time faced an extraordinary moral dilemma. They were servants of the state, sworn to defend it; the accidents of war had made the legitimate French government a tool of the conqueror, yet it was still the official French government. It took a special kind of person to throw aside the norms of a lifetime, to make the lonely decision that there was a higher loyalty, a higher duty, than that he had always acknowledged, and in the name of some abstract moral principle to work against his own government. Thousands did make that decision, but the vast majority continued to work within the comfortable parameters of routine and convention.

Nor was it a purely academic decision. The German occupiers did not say anyone was free to choose as conscience dictated. Half of France remained unoccupied, a hostage to good behavior. It would stay that way only as long as the French Empire behaved itself and resisted the blandishments of de Gaulle or the Allies. If a French pilot in North Africa defected and flew his plane to Gibraltar, his family in France was going to suffer for it.

The French government was little help. Pétain was contemptuous of the Germans but wrapped up in his own delusions and determined to get along. Imperceptibly, he moved more and more fully into Hitler’s orbit. He was helped along this path by Pierre Laval, the malign influence who was France’s most eminent collaborator with the Germans. A third figure in the power equation was Admiral Jean Darlan, the head of the French Navy. Darlan had done much to build up the prewar navy, and considered it his private fief. In his last “free” order to the fleet before the capitulation in 1940, he had ordered it to scuttle itself rather than fall into the hands of the Germans, if they ever subsequently attempted a takeover. But he was publicly anti-British, and no one knew how he, or the fleet still loyal to him, would react in the event of an Allied invasion of French North Africa.

In spite of all these convolutions, there were officers, especially at the middle and junior levels, who were desperate to bring France back into the fight. As the United States had never broken off diplomatic relations with Vichy, but maintained consular services in the French Empire, American officials and these middle-grade officers gravitated together. Out of these contacts came some degree of collusion and incomplete plans that the French would stage a near-coup, seizing power and allowing the Allies to get ashore unopposed.

These plans failed to reach fruition because the Allies could not, at the last moment, bring themselves to trust the French completely; they kept secret the date of their landings. The result of the whole imbroglio was a large degree of confusion, some very unhappy fighting, and a good deal of residual recrimination.

Things went best at Algiers. The Anglo-American Eastern Task Force, commanded by the American general Charles Ryder, arrived on the morning of November 8, just as pro-Allied officers had seized temporary control of the city. By chance, Admiral Darlan was in Algiers, visiting his son, and the Vichy forces under his overall direction regained command of Algiers at mid-morning. The damage was already done, however, and the British and Americans were securely ashore by then. They had landed on both sides of the city and were rapidly closing in on it. Fighting ended at nightfall, when the Vichy remnants surrendered. Darlan was taken by the Allies, and he then ordered all French units to cease fighting. When this order was received in metropolitan France an angry Pétain quickly disavowed it and ordered the French to continue the struggle. This sort of confusion continued for the next three days.

The Central Task Force under General Lloyd Fredendall landed at Oran. The plan here was the same as at Algiers, landings on both sides of the city and a pincer movement to isolate and capture it. The flank landings were both made successfully; an attempt to push two destroyers loaded with troops straight into the harbor was practically wiped out. The Americans also made parachute drops against the inland French airfields, but the paratroops missed their target by nearly twenty miles. Nonetheless, the Allies had naval and air superiority; the French made some fairly determined counterattacks on the 9th, and surrendered at midday on the 10th.

The heaviest fighting was on the ocean side, where General George S. Patton’s Western Task Force, coming all the way across the Atlantic, went ashore near Casablanca. Again the landings flanked the city, and the assault waves, in one of the few instances of the war, waded ashore carrying American flags, in the hope that the French would not fire on them. The hope proved illusory, and the defenders, mostly French colonial troops, fought hard before they were pushed back and the landings secured. There were substantial French naval units in Casablanca, and trapped as they were, they fought. Five ships were sunk, and the incompleted battleship Jean Bart engaged in a losing gunnery duel with the American Massachusetts. Allied planes raked the harbor and took on the obsolete Vichy Air Force—American pilots in American planes versus French pilots in American planes bought back in 1940. Finally, after hard fighting, the French surrendered on orders from Algiers early on November 11.

The landings were but a prelude to a whole series of problems: What would the Germans do to France, what would happen to the French fleet, what sort of deal would the Allies make with the French in the empire, and what would the Germans do about that? The answers were not long in coming.

In Metropolitan France the German response was a quick takeover. Disregarding the protestations of loyalty by the Vichy government, the Germans immediately moved troops across the demarcation line, and swept south over hitherto unoccupied France. Vichy collapsed precipitately, its little remaining credit gone forever. The army, known as the Armistice Army, dissolved with no show of resistance. From now on, the facade was stripped away, and France, like all the other defeated territories, was laid open to the direct rule of the Germans. The Vichy hand had been played out.

The French fleet in its southern base at Toulon, however, remained true to its chief. It takes several hours to fire off boilers and raise enough steam for a ship to get underway. The French ships were helpless, unable to move. Rather than have the vessels fall into the hands of the Germans, the crews scuttled the ships. It was a sad, negative act of self-destruction, but it kept the fleet out of German hands.

Difficult as the decision to scuttle the fleet was, it was nothing compared to the complexities of the power situation in North Africa. The French Empire, though weak in modern equipment, contained large numbers of trained troops. There were several aspirants for the right to lead them, thereby bringing France back into the war and ranging her alongside the Allies. First there was de Gaulle, deliberately kept in the dark on the North African operation and shunted into the background by the Americans. De Gaulle was the one man who could claim to have been on the side of the angels from the very beginning, but he had no credit among the former Vichy officials. In his place the Americans flirted with General Henri Giraud, whom they initially liked better. But the man who had the support of the Vichyites was Admiral Darlan. It was a three-way standoff: de Gaulle was pure, but anathema to the Vichyites; Darlan was Vichy’s hero, but the Allies distrusted him; Giraud immediately proved utterly inept, so neither side wanted him.

Eventually, the Allies decided Darlan was their man, and Eisenhower, coming over to North Africa, agreed to recognize him as “head of the French state” in return for committing French troops to the war against the Germans. There was an immediate protest from the American and British publics against dealing with a man who had so openly connived with Germany, and Darlan began to be a considerable embarrassment. That embarrassment was removed on Christmas Eve when the admiral was shot by a young assassin. The assassin was captured and precipitately shot in his turn by the French authorities. In an incredibly confused welter of plot and counterplot, the assassin seemed to think he was acting on behalf of the Count of Paris, current claimant to the throne of France, who had been serving in the French Foreign Legion, as royal pretenders were not allowed to serve in the regular forces of the republic. Whatever the details, it was the Gaullists who profited by Darlan’s removal; de Gaulle quickly outmaneuvered Giraud and ended up the holder of the reins of French power.

All of that was but a sideshow. The primary problem was what the Germans would do. As usual, they reacted rapidly. The key to saving the situation in the Mediterranean was the control of Tunisia, which at its closest point is a mere hundred miles from Sicily. The French military commander in Tunisia, General Georges Barré, received a string of orders from both Pétain in France and Darlan in Algiers which not only flatly contradicted each other, but even contradicted themselves from one message to the next.

While the French dithered, the Germans acted, and on the 9th the first German units began arriving by air from Sicily. Barré’s outclassed forces pulled back out of Tunis and retreated westward to meet the British, frantically trying to leapfrog troops forward from Algiers. But Tunis is farther from Algiers than it is from Rome, and the Allies hardly had a firm operating base in the confusion of Algiers anyway. The Germans handily won the race and by the third week in November had created a thin line running along the mountain spine of Tunisia from Cape Serrat in the north about halfway down the country to El Guettar. The Allies managed to move the British along the coast, so that as they came up against this German line, they had the British 1st Army in the north, then a wide sector held by weak French patrols in the mountains, and then Americans coming into the line at the southern end.

Through November and into early December, the British made a try for Tunis, but German air superiority and then the advent of the winter rains stopped them. The Germans then launched attacks against the thin French patrols in the central sector, who had to be shored up by the diversion of arriving American armor. January was spent in sorting out the Allied forces on the one side, and in the arrival of Rommel’s remnants from Egypt on the other. By early February the Germans believed they had the situation in hand; their lines were secure, and they decided they could risk an attack. They chose the weak U. S. IInd Corps sector. The American public and leaders had wanted to get their troops in combat in the European theater; now they were going to get more than they had bargained for.

The Battle of Kasserine Pass was a limited engagement for the Germans; they wanted to buy time and shake up their enemies. There was not a great deal more than that that they could hope to achieve. For the Americans it was a confused nightmare, a baptism of fire that showed them they were newcomers in a tough league.

Early on the morning of February 14, the Germans opened an assault with two armored divisions, supported by fighters, dive-bombers, and mobile artillery. The Americans expected it, but not in such strength. The Germans cut off an infantry regiment and wiped it out; the Americans counterattacked with an armored regiment, and the Germans wiped it out too. The American Stuart tanks failed even to dent the heavier Germans, and the medium Shermans soon showed their shortcomings as well. In five days of steady driving, the Germans made nearly seventy miles, through Kasserine Pass toward the town of Tebessa. They lost their momentum, however; Rommel disagreed with the Tunisian commander, Jurgen von Arnim, and the Americans gradually regrouped. The Germans finally ran out of push on the 22nd, having achieved little more than a large-scale raid, and soon the lines were back where they had been before the battle. It cost them about a thousand casualties, and they inflicted well over 6,000 on the Americans. It was a small affair as battles went in World War II, but it marked two things: it was the end of American military innocence, and it was also the end of German offensive action in North Africa.

From then on it was a matter of squeezing. Montgomery linked up with the American tail of the Allied Tunisian line, and the Germans were henceforth in a pocket. Hitler thought he could hold it and he kept putting troops in, running the gauntlet of Allied air power across the Sicilian Narrows. Rommel went home sick, and left von Arnim to fight it out. Late in February, Montgomery got around the Mareth Line—his direct assault failed—and the Germans fell back; by mid-April all they held was the northeastern tip of the country. Hitler still thought he could hang on. The final Allied attack opened on April 22. The Germans and Italians held firm under heavy, steady pressure for ten days, but then they began to weaken. The Luftwaffe pulled out, leapfrogging its planes and whatever it could salvage, back to Sicily. French and Americans, now on the left of the line, pushed into Bizerte on May 7, and British troops entered Tunis. Too late, the Germans were trying to scuttle out. Convoys of the transport planes were badgered across the narrows by the R. A. F. and the Royal Navy, who hoped in vain the Italian fleet would come out to the rescue.

The final resistance collapsed on the 13th, when the Italian 1st Army, the last cohesive unit, laid down its arms. More than a quarter of a million prisoners went into the cages, the biggest Western Allied haul yet and an entirely appropriate match for the great Russian victory at Stalingrad. The southern shore of the Mediterranean was free at last, and the Hitlerian empire reduced to Fortress Europe.

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