The TORCH campaign in Tunisia


Background


On 8 November,1942 Allied forces landed in Morocco and Algeria in Operation ‘Torch’. They moved overland in an attempt to quickly seize Tunisia and its port cities of Bizerte and Tunis. A total of 107,000 British and American troops were landed against feeble French resistance and political infighting between ‘Free’ and ‘Vichy’ French leaders. The landings of such a large force on beaches spread over 700 miles from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean was an organizational, equipment and logistical feat only America could pull off at this stage of the war. By the end of 1942 the Allied force (British led First Army) had failed in its attempt to capture Bizerte and Tunis and drive south to link-up with Montgomery’s British Eighth Army and crush Rommel’s German-Italian Panzer Army between them. The failure was mostly due to the slowness with which the Allies moved as well as the distances to be covered. Coalition warfare was difficult but at least the Allies heeded the principal of war ‘unity of command’ by placing all forces under a single commander on the ground (First Army). But still harmony did not always exist in the coalition. German reports indicate that captured British and French officers spoke contemptuously of the Americans as ‘our Italians’ (probably forgetting their own sometimes dismal performance against the Germans). And there was much resentment of the American swagger, brashness, “can do” attitude and abundance of every kind of supply and comfort. The British First Army in Tunisia with British, French and American troops halted in December to regroup and reorganize rather than driving forward. They were also anticipating a German-Italian attack from the Axis forces pouring into Tunis.

 


From the coast south to Gafsa stood the British V Corps, French XIXth Corps and US II Corps. Facing them were von Arnim’s 5th Panzer Army in Tunis and Rommel’s German-Italian Panzer Army still barely in Libya and falling back in front of Eighth Army.


When the ‘Operation Torch’ landings had started on 8 November the Germans and Italians did not waste time (unlike the Allies). By 9 November airlifted troops started arriving in Tunis and Bizerte and by 13 Nov those important seaports were occupied without interference from local French units. Under the ever energetic Field Marshal ‘Smiling Al’ Kesselring, C-In-C (Oberbefehlshaber, OB) South, a new panzer army was being built up in Tunisia and would be called 5th Panzer Army (von Arnim). Forces and supplies flowed to Africa. The Germans confiscated French shipping and even took down and shipped heavy cranes from French ports to Tunis and Bizerte to replace those destroyed by Allied air attacks. Rommel with much bitterness wrote: “What we found really astonishing was to see the amount of material that they were suddenly able to ship to Tunisia, quantities out of all proportion to anything we had received in the past.” In all fairness a look at a map will show that Tunis and Bizerte are much closer to Italy than Rommel’s former major port in Libya – Tripoli. In addition, the unloading facilities, road and rail nets were superior and it did help that there was little or no distance to move the incoming forces and supplies as the front was but 25 miles away. When Rommel had been soldiering in Cyrenaica and Egypt with his Panzer Army he was between 600 and 900 miles from his supply base at Tripoli (A single transport truck, Opel ‘Bliz’, needed about 140 gallons of gas for a one way trip to bring fuel or ammo from Tripoli to the DAK in Egypt!). Rommel was in a foul mood over this supply business but Kesselring was correct that the build up in Tunisia took priority to hold First Army at bay. It should also be mentioned that there were over 10,000 tons of supplies including rations and ammo (but little fuel) in Tripoli that Rommel was about to give up. Rommel’s position was that he could not defend his desert flank without fuel for counterattacks. He did not wish to be pinned to the city and the coast and eventual surrender. A good point by the wily old Fox.

Although Rommel’s retreat back out of Libya into Tunisia brought him closer to the new 5th Pz Army it also resulted in serious political and command problems. Libya was an Italian colony they could not surrender without a fight. The Italians (Commando Supremo) demanded from Hitler and obtained overall responsibility for Tunisia. Field Marshall Kesselring was OBSOUTH but technically was under the Italians while receiving orders from OKW. In Africa the two army commanders von Arnim and Rommel were of equal status but not of like mind nor did they like each other. They both reported to Kesselring. As a final insult to Rommel, Hitler agreed that once Rommel’s army left Libya and arrived in Tunisia it would be renamed the First Italian Army under an Italian general. Rommel wrote to his wife: “…. I shall be giving up the command of the army to an Italian, for the sole reason that ‘my present state of health does not permit me to carry on.’ Of course it’s really for quite other reasons, ….” Actually the Italians were appalled that Rommel would retreat past Tripoli giving up the Italian colonial capital stuffed with military supplies. Coalition warfare was raising its ugly head again. So for the German and Italian effort we see a breakdown of a principle of war: unity of command. As an aside, it is interesting to note that in a meeting between Goering, Rommel and Mussolini in late November, 1942 Goering inferred that Rommel was in head-long retreat and had left the Italian forces on their own and Mussolini said, “That’s news to me; your retreat was a masterpiece, Marshal Rommel.”


Kesselring was very optimistic about possibilities in Africa and relayed his opinion to OKW and Commando Supremo while Rommel was not and recommended evacuation of the armies to the continent. In mid-February when Kesselring met Rommel in Africa his impression was that Rommel was “very dispirited” and while it was true it may have been due to the friction with vonArnim and vonArnim’s refusal to support Rommel’s operations at Kasserine. Kesselring said at this time: “We are going to go all out for the total destruction of the Americans. They have pulled back most of their troops to Sbeitla and Kasserine…we must exploit the situation and act fast.” He told Rommel. “I think after Gafsa we should thrust into Algeria to destroy still more American forces.”

The Axis planned to strike the American II Corps as the two German armies came closer together in Tunisia. An offensive action would keep Italy in the war, reduce Allied forces and, hopefully, stop Eighth Army and push back First Army. Most important was keeping the war from France and Italy. In addition, Rommel saw danger in the possibility that the Americans might strike form Gafsa to the sea to split the Axis armies. Rommel need not have worried about that, as there was no George Patton at 2nd US Corps – yet. Time was vital and Rommel said: “The Americans had as yet no practical battle experience, and it was now up to us to instill in them from the outset an inferiority complex of no mean order.”

In southern Tunisia 5th Pz Army would strike US II Corp’s trip-wire at Sidi Bou Zid with 10th and 21st Pz Divisions of over 200 panzers and a handful of Tigers. Further south Rommel’s units would strike through Gafsa perhaps as far as Tebessa but that attack would come after the Sidi Bou Zid action so that vonArnim could detach his 21st Pz Div to reinforce Rommel’s army. Meanwhile Rommel’s forces would need to remain on the defensive facing Montgomery’s Eighth Army to the east. The Germans were displaying their understanding of the principles of war economy of force and mass.

The main enemy in Tunisia, US II Corps, was defending with three combat commands of 1st Armored Division reinforced with infantry from 34th Inf Div initially (later 1st Inf Div and 9th Inf Div plus some British & French units). 1st AD had 202 medium tanks (M3 ‘Lee’s’ and M4 ‘Sherman’s’) and 92 light tanks (M3 ‘Stuart’s’). The Germans attacked early on 14 February 1943 at Sidi Bou Zid. The Luftwaffe controlled the skies and Stukas were everywhere. This action caused the Americans in the south at Gafsa to evacuate that city on 15 February greatly surprising Rommel. His forces quickly followed-up and occupied Gafsa. Upon entering Gafsa to cheering crowds of Arabs and to exploding US ammo and fuel supplies a change came over Rommel as reported by Kesselring. He states after Rommel viewed Gafsa and he saw the captured and abandoned equipment he suddenly decided this attack had great possibilities. The old Rommel, the Desert Fox was back and attacking. It is said the American troops were telling each other, “He’s coming!” Next Rommel sent out probes southwest and northwest. Seeing that Rommel had already taken Gafsa von Arnim declined to send him 21st Pz Div. Rommel drove his forces to Kasserine where he still hoped to find vonArnim’s panzer division moving towards him. He decided to throw everything at Tebessa from where Arabs reported the Americans blowing up fuel and ammo depots. But von Arnim was moving away from Rommel! The next day, 16 February, was lost in indecision among the complicated Axis chain of command. But in the north von Arnim forged ahead and captured Sbeitla while Rommel drove through Kasserine. However the Americans were learning and despite some panic from inexperienced troops their defense was firming up and reinforcements were rushing forward. A German ‘Enigma’ message at this time sent to Rome and decoded by ‘Ultra’ indicated that the American troops had shown poor fighting qualities.

Rommel sent a message to Kesselring proposing his use of von Arnim’s two panzer divisions along with his own (15th) and Italian armored units for a drive into the rear of the Americans at Tebessa and then a move north to Bone (Algeria) and the sea. Rommel was thinking big again. Kesselring, always the optimist, agreed but von Arnim dragged his feet and held back some of his units from Rommel (like the Tiger tanks). It may be that Rommel was at fault here for not taking vonArnim to the mat as Kesselring had given him the authority for this operation. Then Commando Supremo got involved and proposed instead a more limited thrust to Le Kef. By the time this was straightened out the opportunity had been lost for such an ambitious plan.


For the Germans the lack of unity of command and the lack of decisive action after Sidi Bou Zid were fatal. If perhaps one general had been unequivocally placed in charge of both armies then decisive results might have occurred. Added to those problems was the lack of sufficient force at one critical point thereby creating a lack of mass in either direction. This was clearly vonArnim’s fault. Another principle of war has been violated - mass.

 


The German efforts at Sidi Bou Zid and Kasserine would not result in the major Allied defeats hoped for although the American losses were serious. Over 4000 US POW’s, 1000 (300 dead) plus other casualties, 235 tanks 95 halftracks and 110 self-propelled guns and recon vehicles lost. Axis losses were 989 killed/wounded/missing, 20 panzers, 6 other armored vehicles and 6 self-propelled guns. These figures reflect the importance of controlling the battlefield after combat. The German/Italian forces actually lost other equipment but it was recovered and repaired as they moved forward (generally battlefield recovery was a special trait highly developed in the German panzer and mechanized units through much of the war). Rommel’s views after the battles are interesting – and remember they were written during the war (1944) in France while recovering from wounds, not after the war. They contrast with much of what some British commanders said after the war about the American panic at Kasserine Pass. Rommel said, “The Americans were fantastically well-equipped …”. He went on, “ What was really astounding was the speed with which the Americans adapted themselves to modern warfare. In this way they were assisted by their extraordinary sense for the practical and material and by their complete lack of regard for tradition and worthless theories.”

On artillery he said, “…extremely well-placed American artillery and mortar fire.” And, “Buelowius’ men had been astounded at the flexibility and accuracy of the American artillery which had put a great number of tanks out of action.” On American resiliency, “The tactical conduct of the enemy’s defence had been first class. They recovered very quickly after the first shock…”. Comparing the Americans to the British he said, “The Americans profited far more that the British from their experiences in Africa, thus confirming the axiom that education is easier than reeducation.” In addition he added, “Although it is true that the American troops could not yet be compared with the veteran troops of the Eighth Army, yet they made up for their lack of experience by their far better and more plentiful equipment and their tactically more flexible command.” Finally Rommel says, “In Tunisia the Americans had to pay a stiff price for their experience, but it brought rich dividends. Even at that time, the American generals showed themselves to be very advanced in the tactical handling of their forces,”


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