Rommel in Tunisia I

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As recently as February 1, General Eisenhower, the Allied Commander-in-Chief, had considered abandoning the Eastern Dorsal and pulling back toward the higher, western mountain range known as the Grand Dorsal. But now he thought better of such a retrenchment: the ethos of the U. S. Army resisted surrendering even an acre of ground fairly won. New orders called for clinging to as much forward territory as possible while the Allied armies prepared for “sustained, aggressive action in the month of March.”

Meanwhile the troops buried their dead and again dug in down the length of Tunisia. One company war diary spoke for many brave men: “We could not help wondering whether the officers directing the American effort knew what they were doing.”

Erwin Rommel did know what he was doing. And he would not wait until March.

At eight A.M. on February 12, musicians from the 8th Panzer Regiment band gathered outside a dusty yellow trailer parked beneath camouflage netting near coastal Highway 1 south of Sfax. Citrus perfumed the morning air, masking the usual army odors of canvas and hot oil. Hoisting their tubas and cornets, the bandsmen struck up a serenade for their commander to mark the second anniversary of his arrival in Africa. Then they switched to a brisk march inspired by the struggle of the past two years: “We are the men of the Afrika Korps…”

The trailer door swung open and Field Marshal Rommel stepped into the sun. Against the morning chill he wore a soldier’s greatcoat with red lapel facings, gold buttons, and “Afrikakorps” stitched on the cuffs. He was lean and sunburned, like his men, with lips perpetually cracked and crow’s-feet etched around eyes long accustomed to squinting. Hatless, he looked older than his fifty-one years. A widow’s peak jagged across his broad cranium, and the hair brushed back above his ears lay sleek as feathers. Every soldier in the encampment could see the toll of the past two years in Rommel’s face, the anguish of 10,000 German and Italian graves left behind in Egypt and Libya when Panzer Army Africa had crossed into Tunisia two weeks earlier.

“My dear young friend,” Rommel had told a staff officer a few days before, “if you only knew how long it’s been since I’ve been able to sleep.” Kesselring, who considered Rommel’s nerves all but shot, later observed, “The very last armored infantryman knew of the doubts that were rending the heart of his commanding general.” So few of Rommel’s original “Africans” remained—only 4 of the 1,000 who had come with the 8th Machine Gun Battalion, for example. After the impromptu band concert, the field marshal returned to the trailer to write to his wife, Lucie-Maria:

It’s two years to-day since I arrived on African soil. Two years of heavy and stubborn fighting, most of the time with a far superior enemy…. I have endeavoured to do my duty, both in my own sphere and for the cause as a whole…. We must do our utmost to beat off the mortal dangers that beset us. Unfortunately it’s all a matter of supplies. I hope that my decision to remain with my troops to the end will be confirmed. You will understand my attitude. As a soldier one cannot do otherwise.

“Rommel, Rommel, Rommel!” Churchill had exclaimed the previous summer. “What else matters but beating him?” Like most of history’s conspicuously successful commanders, he had an uncanny ability to dominate the minds of his adversaries. The son and grandson of school-teachers, he was short and a bit jowly; his face had a bronzed reserve, as if he were already wearing his death mask. A Württemberger from Swabia in the German southwest, with neither Prussian blood nor the crimson trouser stripe of a General Staff alumnus, he embodied several traits of his native region: self-reliance, thrift, decency, and a dour common sense. A much decorated infantryman in the Great War, he remained skeptical of the newfangled tank until the blitzkrieg in Poland imbued him with a convert’s passion. He rocketed from lieutenant colonel to field marshal in four years, his reputation burnished by Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry; the young division commander’s dash across Flanders and down the French coast to Spain in 1940 was featured in the film Victory in the West, which Rommel also helped direct. He still carried one of Goebbels’s flunkies on his staff in Africa to stoke his own mystique, which Kesselring considered “the equivalent of one good division.”

Rommel’s first successes in Africa manifested the audacity, tactical brilliance, and personal style—he occasionally hunted gazelle with a submachine gun from a staff car—that contrasted so invidiously with British lumpishness and won him the sobriquet of Desert Fox. The campaign had seesawed back and forth across 1,500 miles of the African littoral, with Rommel eventually chasing the British Eighth Army back toward the Nile in the summer of 1942. Then came El Alamein, that clanging defeat. Ever since, he had been retreating, under languid but insistent pressure from Montgomery. Life magazine called him “a fugitive leading a fugitive army.”

“Day and night I’m tormented by the thought that things might go really wrong here in Africa,” he had written Lucie a few hours before crossing into Tunisia at dawn on January 26. “I’m so depressed that I can hardly do my work.” Insomnia, headaches, low blood pressure, rheumatism, exhaustion, intestinal distress: he was not a well man. Before hurrying back to Egypt for the emergency at El Alamein, Rommel had been medically evacuated to convalesce in the Fatherland; in the four months since then his health had not returned.

At a recent staff conference, a subordinate thought the field marshal “gave the impression of a broken man. We hardly recognized him.” Only in the past few days had he showed renewed signs of aggression; his lieutenants hoped that the greening hills of Tunisia would lift him from his torpor. But the real tonic for the old fox was a scent of fresh prey from beyond the Eastern Dorsal: the Americans.

Rommel understood more than most how tenuous the Axis grasp on North Africa was. Through the end of January, more than 100,000 German and Italian troops had arrived in Tunisia from Europe, with reinforcements of roughly a thousand a day still coming. As Rommel’s Panzer Army Africa finished moving into southern Tunisia, the bridgehead numbers would swell to 190,000 soldiers and over 300 tanks, a temporary advantage of fourteen Axis divisions to nine for the Allies.

Yet many of Rommel’s German units were at far less than half strength, with barely 30,000 combat soldiers; in January alone, he suffered more than 2,000 casualties in rearguard fighting against the British—and a total of five soldiers had arrived as replacements. Some units were pitifully weak: the 90th Light Africa Division reported only 2,400 troops, the 164th Light just 3,800. Equipment shortages were even more grievous. Authorized 386 tanks, he had but 129, of which only half were ready for combat. Instead of 747 antitank guns, his men had 182; instead of 3,797 machine guns, they had 1,411. Only one-sixth of his artillery strength remained intact.

Rommel may have “exercised an almost hypnotic influence on Hitler,” in Kesselring’s words, but the Führer was not so beguiled as to provide anything like the quantities of arms and fuel needed for his army. The demands of Stalingrad, now entering its epic final act, as well as an increasingly lethal Allied interdiction campaign in the Mediterranean, meant that only a fraction of the necessary matériel and manpower made it to Africa. As Rommel had told Lucie, it was all a matter of supplies.

True, Rommel’s army included almost 50,000 Italian troops, the remnants of Mussolini’s imperial force in Libya. Thirty thousand more had been shipped to Tunisia from Italy. But the bridgehead also included a huge number of noncombatants, including colonial civil administrators and camp followers swept along by the retreating army. An official German account estimated that by late February 350,000 Axis men would be in Tunisia, of whom barely one-third could be considered true combat soldiers.

Rommel increasingly blamed the Italians for his woes, and his disdain reflected the attitude of the German high command. Easily caricatured, Italian soldiers in fact showed flashes of ferocity and tactical competence in North Africa, particularly in infantry skirmishes. Yet most Italian troops were badly trained, ill equipped, and poorly led. The best Italian divisions had already been smashed in Russia or while fighting the British in Africa. Il Duce’s army, one German general concluded, “was in agony.” The standard Italian rifle dated to 1891; Italian grenades were so capricious that British troops were warned never to use them; troops moved by foot or not at all, because there were few trucks. Many Italian recruits were so unlettered that drill instructors tied bandannas around their left arms to teach them left from right. Even an Italophile like Kesselring asserted, “The Italian is easily contented. He actually has only three fashionable passions: coffee, cigarettes, and women…. The Italian soldier is not a soldier from within.” The Panzer Army Africa war diary for February 11 noted, “Combat value of the almost totally untried Italian units is the great question…. Experience has unfortunately shown that any optimism is uncalled for.”

In these and other matters, Rommel had a natural ally in Arnim. A meeting at a recent conference south of Gabès had been their first since both were young captains in the Weimar Republic eighteen years earlier. They had not cared much for each other then, and that distaste lingered. But Rommel’s strategic assessment had a blunt simplicity: the high command must either provide sufficient supplies to the two African armies or abandon Tunisia altogether. The Axis cause in Africa was “a house of cards.” He fervently hoped that “sober calculations would win over political dreams.”

Arnim agreed. Hitler had promised him six to seven additional divisions, which had yet to materialize. A quarter of his combat strength was Italian, and of the 150,000 tons of supplies he and Rommel estimated they needed jointly every month, far less than half was actually arriving. There had even been talk of shipping to North Africa a penal brigade of homosexuals. “We cannot afford a second Stalingrad,” Arnim told Rommel. “Right now the Italian fleet could transport us back.”

But such talk of decampment fell on hostile ears in Berlin and Rome, where relinquishing North Africa was seen as inviting an Allied invasion of southern Europe. Kesselring considered Rommel a weary defeatist eager to repair to Tunis or perhaps the Italian Alps. Promises of more guns, more men, more this and more that, trickled south from the Axis capitals; there would be no abandonment of Tunisia. Hitler in mid-February left for his Eastern Front command post in the Ukraine, where thoughts of North Africa rarely penetrated. Some officers in the Wehrmacht high command had voluntarily placed themselves on restricted rations as a gesture of solidarity with the encircled army at Stalingrad: 2½ ounces of bread a day, 6½ ounces of horsemeat, a half-ounce of sugar, and a single cigarette.

If the troops in Tunisia were to avoid a similar diet, the bridgehead would have to be widened beyond the current fifty-mile coastal strip. Soon Rommel and Arnim would have to defend a 400-mile front against an enemy steadily growing in power, with new tanks, heavy howitzers, antitank guns, and fighters. Allied strength would quickly grow from nine divisions to twenty. In the past month the Anglo-Americans had flown more than 11,000 air sorties over Tunisia, an intimation of things to come.

On January 19, the high command in Berlin had first floated the idea of attacking through Gafsa and Sbeïtla toward Tébessa and from there “either by an advance on Bône or Constantine bring on a collapse of the hostile northern front.” Rommel believed the greatest potential threat to the entire Tunisian bridgehead was an American lunge from Gafsa toward Gabès to sever the two Axis armies. If the Germans were to survive in Tunisia—and the field marshal had such grave doubts that he had privately ordered an English dictionary—they must “break up the American assembly area in southwest Tunisia.” The leisurely pace of Montgomery’s pursuit would allow Rommel’s troops at least a fortnight of mischief in Tunisia while a rear guard barricaded the door at Mareth, a fortified line near the Libyan border. After crushing the Americans, Panzer Army Africa could swing back south to repel the British Eighth Army.

Kesselring agreed, and the attack plan quickly coalesced. Arnim’s Fifth Panzer Army would strike first in Operation FRÜHLINGSWIND—Spring Breeze—a thrust by two panzer divisions through Faïd Pass on Sidi bou Zid. Spearheaded by more than 200 Mark III and Mark IV tanks, plus a dozen Tigers, FRÜHLINGSWIND was designed to “weaken the American by destroying some of his elements and thereby confuse and delay his advance.” Rommel’s Panzer Army Africa, including the Afrika Korps, would then strike farther south through Gafsa in Operation MORGENLUFT, Morning Air. When reinforced by a portion of Arnim’s army, Rommel—who had designs on the vast Allied dumps at Tébessa and Speedy Valley—would have 160 tanks. “We are going to go all out for the total destruction of the Americans,” Kesselring declared.

On February 12, as the panzer regiment band played for Rommel, Arnim fixed his initial attack for dawn on Sunday, February 14, Valentine’s Day. It would fall precisely thirteen weeks—a quarter of a year—after the first TORCH landings. In his own encampment, Rommel finished writing orders to shift several units from the Libyan border to a staging area northwest of Gabès that night.

The predatory glint had returned to his eyes. He again emerged from the trailer to greet the officers who had come to Africa with him in February 1941 and were still fighting under his command; now numbering but nineteen, they had been invited to pay their respects in a brief, sentimental reunion. The band once again struck up the familiar march, and the old fighters sang, in voices thick with emotion:

In the scorching sands of Africa, the German panzers struggle,

For our people and for our Fatherland….

We are the men of the Afrika Korps.