24 November 2012

The Desert War: 1943 - Patton finishes the job

As 1943 began, the Germans were beginning a full scale strategic retreat that would only end with the fall of Berlin. However, they were going to make sure that the Allies paid for every mile they took.

In the west of North Africa, an offensive into Tunisia had bogged down under a German counter-attack. To prevent another one, Rommel now ordered a counter-offensive in the west.

When looking at the closing stages of this campaign, it is important to remember the vast differences in experience levels of the two sides. The German forces had been at this particular conflict for about two years - the American troops had no experience of desert warfare at all and had only come into the war in December 1941. What experience they had in a modern environment was against the Japanese - half a world away and in very different terrain. The senior commanders of the US Army had seen action before... but that had been in 1918 during the relatively brief involvement of the United States on the Western Front. The US Army had been allowed to deteriorate considerably in the 20 years of peace, mostly due to lack of money from Congress.

Thus it was entirely logical to go for the much weaker forces.

Faïd Pass and Sidi Bouzid

On 30 January, German forces under the command of Hans-Jürgen von Arnim launched an attack at the Faïd Pass, occupied by French forces. The local commander called the Americans of General Lloyd Fredendall's II Corps for assistance, but they were too slow to react to a swift German attack.

SW of this pass was Sidi Bouzid, a major communications and supply hub of the US II Corps. It's at this point that one should make that Fredendall really didn't know what he was doing. Prone to informality and using his own slang, he created confusion in a situation where clarity was essential. He did not visit the front line, overruled local commanders and ignored advice about mutual support.

As he did here - the American defences were spread on two hills wide apart. They were not in a position to help each other. On 14 February, 140 tanks from two Panzer Divisions attacked through the pass under cover of a sand storm, most of the American vehicles had been destroyed or driven west. A US counter-attack the following day suffered heavy casualties under air and tank attack, its gains were only temporary as the US forces were forced to the Kasserine Pass west of Sbeitla.

Kasserine Pass

Rommel now proposed a strike into French Algeria to further undermine the US forces before the British could arrive from Libya, aiming for Tébessa, a major supply dump. Berlin approved this, but changed the single strike into two separate ones. Rommel was unhappy, but he continued with the assault anyway. There had been no large scale contact between US and German forces, but he was confident that he could defeat the Americans.

21st Panzer went against Sbiba Pass; totally inadequate American forces collapsed within minutes. Rommel himself led the forces heading for the Kasserine Pass. The Americans fell back en masse, allowing equipment to be captured - the sheer success then slowed the Germans down as they had to detach troops to mop up the pockets of resistance.

On 22 February, with Rommel's objective clear, British forces replaced the Americans in the line and the Afrika Cops now faced much stronger resistance. Behind their lines, the Allies put together a large artillery force and then used it to launch a pre-emptive artillery attack on the German positions, destroying many tanks.

Rommel was now facing the British coming in from Libya, so he ordered a retreat that was sped up by a massive USAAF airstrike. On the 25th, Kasserine Pass was recaptured, but at a heavy price - 10,000 Allied casualties for only 2,000 Axis ones.

Patton and El Guettar

While the situation was now stabilised, the series of defeats eliminated any remaining confidence in Fredendall. Eisenhower relieved him of command with the recommendation he be assigned to a training unit - he would spend the rest of the war in the United States.

His replacement was George S. Patton, one of history's great generals and one of the Second World War's bigger egos. An Olympic pentathlete (he came 5th in the first event in 1912 and would have been in the 1916 games had they not been cancelled) and an expert swordsman in particular, he launched the first US armored vehicle raid in the Mexican Expedition of 1916-17. When the US went to France in 1918, he was assigned to the Tank Corps, where he was wounded and decorated.

After that war, he moved back to horse cavalry as the US forces were shrunk in size, but returned to armour just before the US entered this war. He entered North Africa commanding the landings in Morocco.

Patton believed in strict discipline and being seen at the front - he was also more than a bit of a bigot (of course, this was still a segregated Army and a largely segregated country).

With his arrival as commander, the Allied forces began to prepare for another offensive against the Axis forces in Tunisia. This was launched on 17 March, with US forces reaching El Guettar. The Italian forces retreated and fortfied the surrounding hills, as well as blocking the nearby pass. The Germans then launched a counter-attack on 23 March - they had initial success, but then got stuck in a minefield, which allowed the US to destroy 30 of their tanks and force a withdrawal.

The Americans began to push back, but on reaching Hill 369, the battle turned into a stalemate. The hill was captured after four days of fighting, but the Germans had arrived and things weren't getting easier.

Then the British arrived from the east, linking with the American forces. By this point, a badly ill Rommel had left the theatre to recover, handing over to von Arnim - he would not return.


What the Axis forces really needed now was an evacuation - Hitler refused to do so; continuing to supply the forces there by air. The Americans were now in a position to interfere with this supply run and appointed James Doolittle (of the Doolittle Raid) to run Operation Flax. Starting on 5 April, US and later British fighters attacked the aerial convoys, inflicting heavy losses on the German aircraft, especially their transports. Göring, faced with these losses, eventually terminated all flights into Tunisia, evacuating nearly all the local Luftwaffe presence by early May.

On 22 April, the final Allied offensive, Operation Vulcan, was launched. Stiff German resistance resulted in heavy casualties, but the Allies too the positions one by one, overwhelming the enemy or making them run out of supplies. On 6 May, Tunis and Bizerte were taken.

A week later, the remaining Axis forces in Tunisia, now in a tiny coastal pocket, surrendered - 240,000 prisoners were taken, meaning the British now had more German prisoners in their country than British prisoners in Germany for the first time since the war began.

The Mediterranean route was now clear. The job was done.

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