The terms of the 1940 French surrender specified that the colonies of France remain nominally independent albeit subject to the government in Vichy. This meant that them was not a single German or Italian soldier in Morocco or Algeria to resist the Allied landings. Some of the American troops, expecting to he welcomed as Liberators, waded ashore with loudspeakers blaring, “Ne tirez pas. Nous sommes vos amis. Nous sornmes Americains.” (Don’t shoot. We are your friends. We are Americans.)
It was not to be that simple. The French colonies were under military administration, and while few of the officers were pro-Nazi, many were anti-British. If they threw in with the Allies, Vichy France would be occupied and the colonies’ theoretical independence would end quickly. Foreseeing this dilemma, Winston Churchill had proclaimed that the first North African conflict would be the “battle to have no battle with the French.”
Accordingly, in the hope of gaining French support, the American general Mark Clark had boated ashore from a British submarine for a secret meeting with Robert Murphy, United States counselor to the Vichy government, and a pro-American French general. They met at an isolated villa on the Algerian coast. Clark could not be specific about his plans; consequently, when the assault troops began their encircling movements around the three invasion sites, the French response was whatever the local commanders decreed. In some places, they ordered troops to surrender without a fight, but in Algiers, two British destroyers attempting to deliver American infantry came under withering fire from shore batteries; one ship was sunk, the other had to withdraw. In Oran, two more ships loaded with troops were surprised by French patrol boats and sunk, resulting in heavy loss of life. A planned linkup with British paratroopers at the airports around Oran went awry; a total of 39,000 troops of the U. S. II Corps came ashore, but it took forty-eight hours for the soldiers to wrest control of the city. In Casablanca, where the landings were commanded by Major General George S. Patton, resistance was even stronger. The 35,000-ton French battleship Jean Bart opened up with four fifteen-inch guns while a task force of seven destroyers, eight submarines, and a cruiser attacked the troopships as the men tried to board their landing craft.
Despite the resistance, all three cities were occupied by November 11. But that did not solve the crisis of alliances. Local French commanders did not know whose orders to follow, or where they would come from. Normally, the military commander in Algiers was General Alphonse-Pierre Juin, whose sympathies were pro-Allied. But by a twist of fate, the Vichy regime’s number-two man, the pro-Petain, anti-British admiral Jean Francois Darlan, had just arrived in North Africa to visit his ailing son.
Murphy sent a French officer to fetch Darlan to Juin’s headquarters on an urgent matter of state. It was a trap: As soon as he arrived, he was gently arrested and pressured to switch his allegiance. Within hours, Darlan ordered all French resistance to cease. In instant revenge, ten German and six Italian divisions took control of previously unoccupied southern France, and a German advance guard flew into Tunis to protect the port from capture. Nevertheless, within three days a provisional government that would collaborate with the Allies had been established in North Africa with Darlan at its head, and within a week most of the French forces in the region who had not surrendered to the Germans were joining the Allies.
The swiftness with which the landings had been secured and the relative ease with which the French had been turned around gave the Allies a false sense of confidence. Within a few weeks, they thought, the drive to capture Tunis and Bizerte could be completed, laying the groundwork for an invasion of Europe. But they underestimated the speed and intensity of the Axis reaction, and perhaps just as serious, they miscalculated how difficult it would be to fight in Tunisia. The terrain is mostly steep and mountainous. The flat valleys vary from marshy to barren and are vulnerable to enfilading artillery. The passes are narrow, with dense brush that facilitates ambushes. Paved roads were few, so whoever controlled the junctions could dictate the course of battle. The broken terrain allowed defenders to pull back from ridge to ridge while covering the valleys below.
The weather in November 1942 was windy and cold, with low-hanging clouds that hindered air support. Driving, seemingly endless rains turned the earth to a clay paste that sucked the boots from infantrymen’s feet and mired the tanks to the tops of their treads. It was not much like the glamorous, freewheeling desert war the troops had heard about, with fifty-mile daily advances and wide-sweeping encounters waged like naval battles over sand. The combat-hardened Germans, some of whom had been transferred to Tunisia from the Russian front, would quickly adapt to these harsh conditions. But the unseasoned Americans and British, barely off their ships, were in for some ugly surprises.
Even before the landing sites were under Allied control, the German high command had awakened to the magnitude and significance of the threat. While the French were still dithering over which side they were fighting on, the Luftwaffe secured Tunis airport and began landing fighter planes, Stuka dive bombers, and Junkers troop carriers. By November 15, a regiment was on the ground; by the end of the month, 15,000 men had arrived. The OKW ordered Lieut. General Walther Nehring, who was recovering from an arm wound suffered while fighting with the Afrika Korps the previous summer, to organize them immediately into a defensive force.
The race for Tunis had begun. On paper it was an absurdly unequal struggle: Nehring estimated the enemy’s total strength at between nine and thirteen divisions, although only a fraction were available for immediate attack. Against them, even with local air superiority, the Germans’ two patched-together paratroop battalions were not enough to maintain a front, but only a series of defensive strongpoints. The Allied offensive was assigned to the Eastern Task Force that had captured Algiers. It was rechristened British First Army, although it also included the U. S. 1st Armored Division. This force had re-formed within three days of coming ashore and was already moving eastward by land, by air, even by sea. A small amphibious group had been assigned to capture harbors along the north coast as a first step toward isolating Bizerte and Tunis.
At first the Allies advanced swiftly, for Nehring had no choice but to make his stand at defensive strongpoints close to his coastal starting point and supply base. That meant his best option was to try to block the Allies at the gates of Bizerte and Tunis. He assigned the paratroop-engineer battalion commanded by Major Rudolf Witzig to dig in along the road from Mateur to Djebel Abiod, southwest of Bizerte. They did so, stopped the advance units of the British 78th Infantry Division, and in a brilliant rearguard action, brought them to a halt at the mouth of a road and rail tunnel. The British were pinned down there until January.
General Nehring faced another threat that demanded immediate attention. The coastal town of Gabes, some 200 miles south of Tunis, was defended by only a few ill-equipped French troops under the command of General Joseph Welvert. If the British and Americans reached the coast here, Nehring’s opportunity to join forces with Rommel’s army was gone, and with it any chance of a real counteroffensive. The only hope was an airborne assault by Lieut. Colonel Koch’s 5th Paratroop Regiment, one of the first to arrive at Tunis. Their first attempt, on November 17, was waved off after it encountered heavy machine-gun fire. They landed successfully the next day. The French fled, and the Germans secured the airport.
Three days later, the first American tank patrols arrived at the edge of Gabes. A handful of Koch’s paratroopers held them at bay long enough for two battalions of the Italian Superga Division to reinforce them. The Americans fell back. Gabes and a coastal perimeter were safe for the moment.
While these skirmishes were taking place, more Axis troops were arriving in Tunis and Bizerte by plane and ship, and the Luftwaffe was providing invaluable air cover. For the defense of Tunis itself, Nehring was able to call upon a new regiment under the command of Colonel Walther Barenthin. It arrived November 20 and immediately set out to reinforce the thinly held front-stretching from Mateur, twenty miles south, to the crossroads town of Tebourba, nineteen miles west of Tunis.
In the first assault, on November 26, the entire British 36th Brigade of Guards, enough men to cut a swath all the way to Bizerte, slammed into one of Barenthin’s battalions. But suddenly the British withdrew and began digging defensive breastworks of their own. An Arab sheik had falsely warned the British that they were facing a regiment of crack paratroopers from Crete. It was not the first time, or the last, that Arabs would help the Germans confound the Allies. They would barter and sell food to either side, and strip the dead of their weapons and uniforms impartially, but on the whole they preferred Germans to the friends of their colonial masters.
The British tried again three days later, but by this time Barenthin had been reinforced and was able to throw them back. On Barenthin’s flank, however, Koch’s paratroopers had put the entire defensive perimeter at risk by probing miles beyond Tebourba to the town of Medjez-el-Bab. Then they ran directly into elements of the British 36th Brigade and the U. S. 1st Armored Division. A fierce seesaw firefight raged back and forth through the town, and the Germans found themselves overpowered. Once they were beaten back, the road to Tebourba and beyond was open. The Americans quickly exploited the break: A battalion of M-3 light tanks commanded by Lieut. Colonel John K. Waters sped right past the town and, to their own amazement, overran an undefended airport containing thirty-eight Messerschmitt and Junkers aircraft. The Americans destroyed all but two of the planes, along with their hangars and machine shops.
It looked as though the Allies might be in Tunis by the end of November but then they learned about the Germans’ 88-mm guns. Probably the best artillery piece used in the war, the 88 had been designed as an antiaircraft gun, but with its barrel lowered, it was devastating against tanks. “It could go through all our tanks like butter,” said one British soldier.
For the next few days there was heavy fighting all up and down the line. Nehring had to detach an infantry unit to surround an assault force of 500 amphibious troops that had landed near Cape Serrat, west of Bizerte; another German company supported by Italian infantry captured some 500 British paratroopers who had jumped in south of Medjez-el-Bab, looking for a weak spot in the Tunis defenses. The heaviest fighting continued around Tebourba itself, but here, the beleaguered Nehring was finally getting some real help. Strong elements of General Wolfgang Fischer’s 10th Panzer Division were landing at Bizerte and Tunis, ready to move in any direction. Their weaponry included the first contingent of fifty-six tonne Tiger tanks, impenetrably armored and carrying 88-mm guns of their own.
Everything that could move was thrown into the battle, which raged for four days. The outnumbered Germans won decisively. Entire Allied units -the British 11th Brigade and the U. S. Combat Force B-lost all their equipment; the U. S. 18th Infantry suffered heavy losses, and one British battalion was wiped out; 1,100 prisoners were taken; 134 Allied tanks, 40 guns, and 47 planes were lost. It was a serious setback for the Allied timetable and morale. On Christmas Eve, the Allies tried for the second time to capture Djebel Ahmera, known to them as Longstop Hill, which overlooked Tunis and controlled two important roads leading into the city. In a hideous, rain-soaked night battle, this assault too was thrown back. The race for Tunis had been won by the Axis.