Rommel in Tunisia speaking with troops riding a captured American built M3 half-track.
It was clear to everybody but Hitler, Mussolini, and Kesselring, however that the Afrika Korps could not hold off the invaders forever. The Allies already held a huge advantage in manpower and equipment, with more arriving steadily, and they would not remain inexperienced for long. While the fighting along the Tebourba Line was still in progress, Hitler established the Tunisian second front by summoning a Prussian general named Jürgen von Arnim from Russia and christening his new unit Fifth Panzer Army. Amim’s command relationship to Rommel was left unclear, adding yet another layer of friction to the already muddled Axis command structure.
By the time Arnim relieved General Nehring on December 9, German and Italian transport commands were taking full advantage of the major port facilities and all-weather airports at Tunis and Bizerte. By the end of the year, seven infantry battalions, two armored reconnaissance companies, batteries of field guns, and scores of tanks-including a few of the giant Panzer VI Tigers-had been landed. By the time the climactic battles of the coming campaign were joined, the Axis had a force of 100,000 men on the ground, including the newly arrived and formidable 10th Panzer Division.
If half of these reinforcements had been directed to Rommel two months earlier, he might have been eating Christmas dinner at Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo. Instead, almost out of gasoline, he was virtually immobilized. One of his staff officers estimated his November troop strength at 25,000 Italians of questionable reliability and 10,000 Germans, and his armored resources at only 100 tanks. The long Mersa Brega Line was impossible to defend with such meager forces, but Rommel doubted his ability to mount a successful retreat to Buerat, the next defensible position. Even to withdraw, he would need 400 tons of fuel a day, 50 tons of ammunition, another 50 tons of food and supplies. It was a lucky day when he received a fourth of that amount, and there was little hope of improvement. During December alone, 5,883 tons of fuel, 262 tons of ammunition, and 447 tons of other supplies were sunk en route to Libya. Again, although Rommel did not know it, an unseen adversary was Ultra, which allowed the British to decode Axis radio messages about the routes the convoys were planning to take.
Rommel was still being bombarded with unrealistic orders from the OKW and Comando Supremo: “Resist to the end in Mersa Brega.” “There will be no retreat from Tripoli.” Rommel had foreseen this impasse on the day he flew back to Africa from his disastrous interview with Hitler. “I realized that we were now completely thrown back on our resources,” he wrote later, “and that to keep the army from being destroyed as the result of some crazy order or other would need all our skill.”
Time and again, the great master of the counterattack had impotently watched British thrusts and flanking maneuvers that he could have demolished if only he had been mobile. He saw his troops fight off encirclement again and again while waiting for enough fuel to allow them to retreat through the final gap. His half-starved forces continued the retreat by filtering the Italian infantry back from the Mersa Brega Line in late November, with the last defenders abandoning it by December 13. By Christmas, even the rear guard was at Sirte, a few miles east of Buerat.
“We vamped up a Christmas tree out of a wooden pole in which we had bored holes to carry camel-thorn branches,” a survivor recalled. “We decorated the tree with silver paper, and we improvised candles of a sort. As Christmas fare, each of my men received three cigarettes-we had been hoarding them for some time. The contents of a light mailbag of letters from home were handed out. The letters were the best of Christmas presents.” A few miles away, the New Zealand patrol that was shadowing the retreat settled down for their own Christmas dinner featuring turkey and roast pork, fresh vegetables, plum pudding, and two bottles of beer for each man.
Rommel had a slight respite at Buerat: A violent winter storm at Benghazi had broken up docks and smashed or sunk many British resupply vessels, slowing Montgomery’s pursuit. But by mid-January, Rommel’s depleted units were on the move again. He had been ordered to transfer his favored 21st Panzer Division northward to Arnim’s command; the remaining troops, hounded by the New Zealanders’ repeated flanking movements, reached the Tarhuna-Homs Line on January 19 and Tripoli on the 23rd.
Pushed along by cold winds, they finally crossed into Tunisia on February 4. Only 100 miles remained before they reached the Mareth Line, an easily defended natural corridor between the sea and a range of barren hills. There, the 1,500-mile retreat would end, and the Afrika Korps would turn to face the British. Rommel found time to write to his wife: “I simply can’t tell you how hard it is for me to undergo this retreat and all that goes with it. Day and night I’m tormented by the thought that things might really go wrong here in Africa. I’m so depressed that I can hardly do my work.”
The next day, Comando Supremo informed him that due to his poor state of health, he was to be relieved of command once his troops reached Mareth. An Italian, General Giovanni Messe, was being transferred from the Russian front to replace him. The orders incongruously left up to Rommel the actual date of the transfer of command.
Even after the Afrika Korps reached the Mareth Line, there could be little rest for the weary troops. The prewar complex of hills and marshes linked by crumbling French fortifications needed extensive preparation prior to the inevitable Eighth Army attack. But there was an even more urgent crisis. To Rommel’s rear, Allied forces had reached the town of Gafsa, less than 100 miles from the coast. Before them loomed the Eastern Dorsal, a 200- mile-long mountain range running north to south, parallel to and about 60 miles inland from Tunisia’s east coast. Once the Allies poured through the Eastern Dorsal passes, Arnim’s forces to the north could easily be severed from Rommel’s, and the hard-won Tunisian bridgehead lost for good. Comando Supremo finally approved Rommel’s proposal to mount a major, two-pronged Axis offensive. Under Operation Frühlingswind (Spring Wind), Arnim’s Fifth Army was to drive westward to secure and seal off the Allied approach at Faid and Sidi-Bou-Zid. Operation Morgenluft (Morning Air), with German and Italian components blocking the American advance at Gafsa itself, was supposed to push the Allies back to the Western Dorsal, another mountain range separated from the Eastern Dorsal by a wide plain.
Arnim at least would be starting his drive from near the point of attack, with the relatively well-supplied 10th and 21st Panzer divisions. But for Rommel, the offensive meant a 100-mile march from the Mareth Line, and almost as far again to secure his goals. He was woefully underequipped. The 90th Light Infantry Division was without field guns, defenseless against armored attack; fighting had severely reduced the strength of its regiments. The entire 164th Infantry had only one battery of field guns. Somehow, Rommel summoned the will to mount the offensive. Perhaps he took courage from his belief that 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.” Or perhaps Kesselring had hinted to him that if all went well, Rommel might yet be given overall command of the North African theater.
The Allied forces that he and Arnim would engage were not only untested in combat but also hampered by a command structure even more cumbersome than Comando Supremo’s. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was commander in chief, but he was too tied down with political and logistical problems to take charge of operations. His field commander was General Sir Harold Alexander, a brilliant, quick-thinking British tactician. The northern end of the line was under the control of Kenneth Anderson, a Scottish general who had hardly distinguished himself in the November race for Tunis. The center was held by the French, with antiquated equipment and leaders who refused to serve under any English general, insisting on their own chain of command. The southern sector, where the coming action was to take place, was primarily the preserve of the U. S. II Corps. It had its own problems, notably in the person of its commander, Major General Lloyd Fredendall, an erratic, overbearing officer who preferred to direct battles from a bombproofed headquarters fifty miles behind the front, and who was barely on speaking terms with his senior subordinate, Major General Orlando Ward of the 1st Armored Division. So on both sides of the line, animosities, backbiting, and failures to communicate would play major parts in the bloody encounter that lay ahead.