Rommel in Tunisia II

Nordafrika, Rommel, Bayerlein

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The front remained preternaturally quiet for more than a week after the Maknassy expedition collapsed. For a few francs, Tunisian boys carried messages between American and Italian sentries encouraging each other to surrender; the Italians sometimes did, slipping through the lines with a battered suitcase, a sheaf of pornographic photos, and the address of a cousin in Brooklyn or Detroit. A circuit-riding U.S. Army chaplain conducted services in the shadow of the Eastern Dorsal for troops whose devotions had fallen into arrears; his assistant played “Rock of Ages” on a portable piano and handed each congregant a few sticks of chewing gum, as if they were communion wafers. Red Cross volunteers appeared in blinding snow and dust storms with drums of hot coffee dispensed from a rattletrap truck known as Clubmobile California.

II Corps had suffered more than 700 casualties in the past month, and the first replacement troops filtered into Tunisia from depots in Casablanca and Oran. Many lacked rifles or entrenching tools. One group of 190 replacements included 130 charged with absence without leave or other offenses. A number of “involuntary AWOLs” also showed up—misfits deliberately dumped by their officers, often in a bar or brothel, shortly before their units had sailed from Virginia or Britain.

Some 450 replacements arrived in the 168th Infantry. Very few were trained infantrymen. As the new commander of the 2nd Battalion, Robert Moore took 125 of them to make good his losses at Sened Station only to find that some lacked even rudimentary marksmanship training. When Moore asked one private if he could shoot a Browning Automatic Rifle, the soldier replied, “Hell, no, I’ve never even seen one.” The 168th also received six truckloads of bazookas the night of February 12. “We had never heard of them before,” an ordnance officer later recalled, “but we had a piece of paper that explained how to fire them.” Colonel Drake scheduled the first rocket-gun training class for Sunday morning, February 14.

Quiescence at the front gave Allied generals a chance to ponder the tangled command structure in North Africa. On February 10, Eisenhower and others at the Hôtel St. Georges each tried to sketch an organizational chart of AFHQ. Every attempt failed in a barrage of crumpled paper. Eisenhower glumly suggested that the organization had become “too complicated to be placed on paper.” But the muddle seemed more annoying than lethal. Ultra intercepts of messages from Rommel and Arnim revealed the depth of Axis supply difficulties. Allied intelligence concluded that although Axis infantry battalions outnumbered Allied battalions fifty-five to forty-two in Tunisia, the Allies held a 381–241 advantage in artillery tubes and a 551–430 advantage in tanks. The enemy seemed more likely to improve his defenses and husband his reserves than take the offensive. This judgment, shared by Eisenhower and Anderson, was measured, reasonable, and wrong. Among other defects, it failed to consider the native aggressiveness of Kesselring and Rommel.

Commanders in Tunisia of course took nothing for granted, and seven possible counterattack plans had been drafted in case of a German offensive. To devise a common strategy, Generals Allen and Roosevelt hosted a conference in a French farmhouse in the Ousseltia Valley with Paul Robinett and French officers. Allen was in high dudgeon, his division still splintered and now broadcast the length of Tunisia. “He sucked in his breath as he talked, making a hissing sound familiar to all who knew him,” Robinett reported. “The conference was far from orderly, for everyone was trying to talk at once…. Allen was doing very well with his sketchy French, but Roosevelt tried to improve it.” Robinett came away shaking his head. “We can’t win a war with a debating society,” he told his intelligence officer. “We’re just asking for trouble.” Ready as usual to speak his mind, Robinett wrote to Anderson on February 9, criticizing Allied dispositions and warning that “the enemy could probably concentrate four armored divisions in Tunisia.” He also told Fredendall that armor should be fought in mass, “not daubed all over the landscape.”

Daubed it was. Anderson still had the British V Corps under General Evelegh in the north. Below Evelegh, the French sector had been shored up by British and American confrères, including the 133rd and 135th Infantry Regiments of the 34th Division. Part of the Big Red One remained with the French in Ousseltia, and Robinett’s Combat Command B covered the French southern flank with 110 tanks. Even farther south were CCC and then McQuillin’s CCA, responsible for blocking Faïd Pass with help from Drake’s 168th Infantry, which had moved north after the fiasco at Sened Station. “The generals of three nations had borrowed, divided, and commanded one another’s troops until the troops were never quite certain who was commanding them,” a 1st Armored officer observed.

Nor were commanders certain whom they were commanding. On February 6, Orlando Ward drove eighty miles to Speedy Valley from his new headquarters in a cactus patch outside Sbeïtla. Fredendall and many staff officers had shaved their heads, perhaps in defiance of the piercing cold. (“They seemed to expect to be admired,” one II Corps lieutenant wrote.) Ward had begun to wonder whether Fredendall drank too much; nevertheless, he was delighted to hear—between TNT detonations in the ever deepening tunnels—that he was to oversee American defenses at Faïd Pass. He returned to his cactus redoubt to learn that the appointment had been revoked without explanation. As his aide recorded in a diary, Ward “was both angry and disappointed.”

With good faith gone, hostility spread between Speedy Valley and the 1st Armored encampment. “Infuriated, insulted, disappointed—there’s no contrary emotion that I did not have,” Ward’s operations officer, Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton H. Howze, later said. “One of the most miserable experiences of my life…. It was an unholy mess.” Howze, destined for four-star rank, recalled developing “such a detestation for Fredendall that it was hard to control, simply because of the way he treated General Ward.”

The greatest insult arrived February 11, in an order entitled “Defense of Faïd Position.” Feeling pressure from Anderson to avoid yielding more ground, Fredendall explicitly dictated the positioning of units down to individual companies. Two prominent hills within sight of the pass were to be occupied, Fredendall wrote: “Djebel Ksaira on the south and Djebel Lessouda on the north are the key terrain features in the defense of Faïd. These two features must be strongly held, with a mobile reserve in the vicinity of Sidi bou Zid.” In a postscript scribbled in longhand, he added: “In other words I want a very strong active defense and not just a passive one. The enemy must be harassed at every opportunity. Reconnaissance must never be relaxed—especially at night. Positions must be wired and mined now. L.R.F.”

Standing in his small command tent, Ward held up the paper to catch the light. He read the order carefully, then slapped the field table with the flat of his hand. “It’s wrong,” he said. “It’s wrong. He’s telling me how to suck eggs.”

Fredendall had visited Sbeïtla only once and his knowledge of the Faïd terrain was derived almost exclusively from a map. When the commander of Ward’s 1st Armored Regiment, Colonel Peter C. Hains III, saw Fredendall’s plan he said simply: “Good God.” Troops placed on the two hills would be marooned if a fast-moving attack swept around them. The hills were mutually visible ten miles across the desert but not close enough for defenders on one to help their comrades on the other. These directions resembled a World War I defense, Hains thought, without an appreciation for the speed and power of modern tank divisions.

Ward’s objections to “Defense of Faïd Position” seemed to have more to do with the protocol breach of a superior dictating minute troop dispositions than with the tactical plan itself. He protested, but not loudly. “Neither he nor I perceived with sufficient alarm the bad dispositions,” Howze later acknowledged.

Orders were orders. Poring over the directive, McQuillin instructed his engineers to lay barbed wire and mines across the entire CCA front, roughly forty miles. “Hell,” observed a perplexed young lieutenant, “there isn’t that much barbed wire in all of North Africa.” Lieutenant Colonel John Waters was given command of the new outpost on Djebel Lessouda. Patton’s son-in-law had become executive officer of the 1st Armored Regiment after his battalion, eviscerated in the fighting before Christmas, had retired toward Algeria for refitting. To convert Djebel Lessouda into a Tunisian redoubt, Waters would receive 900 troops, including a company of fifteen tanks, a four-gun artillery battery, and Robert Moore’s 2nd Battalion.

On February 12, Ward drove to Lessouda, where he and Truscott had watched the failed attack against the Faïd Pass two weeks earlier. The chink of shovels on rock echoed along the escarpment as Moore’s infantrymen clawed out fighting positions in crevices and behind shale parapets. Moore considered the battle plan “excellent to defend against a flood,” less useful in stopping Wehrmacht tanks; having commanded the battalion for barely a week, he kept the thought to himself. His Company E had been peeled away and placed on the desert floor as a forward picket line. Each day the brass shoved the company farther east until it now spanned a five-mile front in the shadow of Faïd Pass, more than an entire battalion should have covered. McQuillin advised stringing empty ration cans filled with rocks as an alarm tripwire. “Sir,” Moore replied, “you can hear tanks coming for miles. How would you hear rocks in a can?” When Moore suggested that certain signs presaged an Axis offensive, McQuillin lost his temper. “Poppycock!” he replied. “The attack is not coming through Faïd Pass.”

Ward found Waters’s command post tucked into a ravine halfway up the slope, with a view of Sidi bou Zid to the south and the pass in the east. “Waters, I’ve got orders here from Fredendall directing where you’re supposed to put all your platoons on and around this mountain,” Ward began. “Never have I seen anything like this before. Here I’m a division commander…”

Ward paused, groping for words. “My division has been taken away from me. All I have left is a medical battalion. I have no command. I can’t tell you what to do.”

Waters nodded sympathetically. Intelligence analysts seemed to think that any attack would likely fall forty miles to the north, again aimed at the French near Pichon or the Ousseltia Valley, but Waters had doubts. Enemy activity seemed to be increasing across the Eastern Dorsal. “General McQuillin, let me ask you a question, sir,” Waters had said after returning from a reconnaissance mission. “Suppose tomorrow morning I wake up and find that I’m being attacked by an armored division coming through Faïd Pass?” Old Mac had scoffed. “Oh, Waters, don’t suggest that.”

Now Ward was pouring his heart out. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” Ward repeated. “I’m desperate. I don’t know what to do.”

There was nothing for it but to entrench and hope for the best. Ten miles southeast of Djebel Lessouda and east of Sidi bou Zid, Moore’s sister unit—the 3rd Battalion of the 168th Infantry Regiment—dug in under the stern eye of Colonel Drake on Djebel Ksaira. Bent like a horseshoe, with the open end facing north toward Highway 14 and Faïd Pass, Ksaira had been shelled so punctually each day by enemy howitzers—at eight A.M., one P.M., and six P.M.—that Drake’s troops joked about German gunners being union men working a daytime shift. To complement Waters’s 900 men on Lessouda, Drake in the vicinity of Ksaira had nearly 1,700, including the regimental band and a fair number of soldiers without rifles.

The last hot food had been served February 10. The men were restricted to cold rations and a single canteen of water per day. Drake no longer issued edicts against eating with elbows on the table: his thoughts had become less culinary than sanguinary. Any soldier leaving the line under fire without permission was to be “killed at once,” he ordered. There would be no quarter for the enemy, either. “Teach all personnel to hate the Germans and to kill them at every opportunity,” he declared. “I will notify you when I want prisoners taken.”

Engineers laid mines along the base of Ksaira. Artillerymen near Lessouda registered their guns on known features around Faïd. Patrols ventured into the Eastern Dorsal each night, poking at the pass and smaller cuts in the ridgeline. At the tip of the spear, in front of Company E, a single strand of barbed wire was hung with rock-filled cans.