If the tide of World War II can be said to have turned at any one point in time, that point occurred in November 1942. In the foul jungles of Guadalcanal, as the last Japanese counterattack was hurled back, the United States took a permanent grip on the initiative in the Pacific. In Russia, the ferocious struggle for Stalingrad turned against Hitler as the Red Army encircled 300,000 German troops. And in North Africa, the twin successes of El Alamein and Operation Torch opened wide the gates of opportunity to the Allies.
This opportunity for quick, complete victory in North Africa had to be grasped immediately, however. The first chance came along the coast road west of El Alamein, as Rommel’s beaten troops fled before the victorious 8th Army. If Montgomery could throw an armored flanking column across the road ahead of the remnants of the Panzerarmee, the job begun at such cost at El Alamein would be finished in one stroke.
Montgomery’s painstaking battle plan had included a force to pursue the beaten enemy – Montgomery never doubted that the enemy would be beaten – but the three divisions he named a corps de chasse were sucked into the battle and badly mauled. At the very moment of victory, he had to improvise a new corps de chasse, one that was neither stocked with extra fuel nor rested and fresh for the chase.
“The essence of an armoured pursuit,” wrote a historian of the campaign, “is speed and boldness to the point of fool-hardiness.” Such a pursuit was, in fact, a perfect example of Rommel’s theory of boldness – a driving, headlong rush with much to gain and no real threat to the army if it failed. But this was not Bernard Montgomery’s way. He was a master of the set-piece engagement, superbly skilled at planning and preparing an army for battle and in balancing and adjusting forces on the battlefield. It was against his nature to take military risks, to indulge in what he called “mad rush” tactics. Nor, perhaps, was the Rommel legend quite dead. Even in defeat the Desert Fox’s reputation inspired caution among his pursuers.
The result was a series of frustrating near-misses. At first the very size of the 8th Army was a handicap, and the monumental traffic jam that developed as the corps de chasse tried to shake free cost some twelve hours. One trap misfired when a British column cut in toward the coast road too soon; another failed when the pursuers stopped for the night while their quarry kept moving. The New Zealanders were held up half a day by a mine field that turned out not only to be a dummy, but a dummy laid by the British themselves during the Gazala Gallop.
Most frustrating of all was the plight of the 1st Armored Division, which made a long dash through the desert toward Matruh – the site of Rommel’s dazzling victory the previous June – only to run out of gasoline twice and lose the race. On the evening of November 6, with Rommel’s hopes for escape already growing brighter, the heavens opened wide and rain deluged the two armies. On the desert tracks, the corps de chasse was immediately axle-deep in mud. On the paved coast road, the Panzerarmee limped on in the rain – and was finally out of reach.
So one Allied opportunity was lost, but another soon appeared in its place – Tunisia. By quickly seizing and holding this very defensible country, the Torch army could sever Rommel’s supply line and leave him hopelessly trapped. Tunisia, in fact, had once been on the list of Torch’s D-day objectives, but with all the other uncertainties, it seemed too much of a gamble to attempt an amphibious landing under the very nose of the Axis air force in Sicily. Still, the need to strike fast for Tunisia never left Eisenhower’s thoughts. “This single objective was constantly held before all eyes,” he wrote.
There were some 15,000 French troops in Tunisia, poorly armed but strong enough to deny the country to the Axis at least temporarily – if they would fight. Admiral Darlan, however, shrank from ordering the Tunisian garrison to shoot at Germans, even after ordering the shooting at the Allies in Algeria and Morocco to stop. Nor could the French commanders of the garrison bring themselves to put aside notions of military honor and loyalty to Marshal Pétain to act on their own.
As the hours slipped away and General Clark tried to pin down the squirming Darlan, the Germans scraped up men and guns and hurled them across the Sicilian narrows. French units sat in their weapons pits around the Tunisian airfields and watched impassively as scores of Junkers transport planes spiraled down and landed. Soon a thin line of German troops held the primary northern ports of Tunis and Bizerte and the defensive ground around them and began to trickle southward to “hold the door open” for Rommel.
(It took months to straighten out the troublesome political tangle centered in Algiers. The uproar in the United States and Britain over the so-called Darlan Deal ended only when Darlan was assassinated on Christmas Eve of 1942 by a young French patriot. General Giraud then took over, but he proved to be, in President Roosevelt’s tart phrase, “a very slender reed” to depend upon. Finally, General de Gaulle brought order out of the confusion. Free French forces were rearmed and eventually played an important role in liberating their homeland from Nazi rule.)
The door of opportunity was still ajar, for the German beachhead was very weak, and the Allies were racing hard for Tunis. More than 550 miles of rugged, mountainous country lay before them. “Get there somehow, and get there quick” was their motto, a war correspondent wrote. “No one quite knew what enemy, if any, was ahead or to the flanks, but morale was up to the limits and there was an infectious air of excitement. . . .” Infantrymen and paratroopers, U.S. Rangers and British commandos, rushed on, never knowing if there would be fuel or ammunition – or food – for the next day.
By mid-November, the Allies were well across the Tunisian border but facing stiffening resistance. The Axis poured men into Tunisia at the rate of more than 1,000 a day, a pace the Allies could not match. The Luftwaffe harassed the advancing columns. Nevertheless, a British force pushed to within a dozen miles of Tunis before it was forced back. The race was in its last lap, the outcome was hanging in the balance – and then the rains came.
The soil of northern Tunisia has a peculiar consistency, and overnight it turned into one great soft sea of mud. “Tunisian mire has a flypaper quality all its own,” wrote Hollywood producer Darryl Zanuck, a colonel in the Signal Corps. “There are no puddles and you don’t slip or splash; you just sink in sort of gentle-like and stay there.” General Eisenhower toured the front before a major attack he had scheduled for Christmas Eve. Everywhere he looked the army was bogged down; at one point he watched as four soldiers tried to get a single motorcycle out of a mud hole, became swamped themselves, and finally left the machine mired deeper than when they began. Bitterly disappointed, he called off the attack. The race for Tunis was over.
The stalemate in Tunisia during the winter of 1942–43, like the siege of Tobruk in 1941, was bloody and monotonous and frustrating; but instead of the heat and dust of Tobruk, the troops in Tunisia lived in cold and mud. It was a winter full of those little incidents of war that seemed especially senseless when neither side could gain an advantage. Correspondent Alan Moorehead recorded one such incident, in a village called El Aroussa, in January, 1943.
“The morning broke unusually clear, and I wandered into the village,” Moorehead wrote. “In the main street half a dozen Tommies were washing in the horse trough, and I fell into conversation with them. They were Londoners, adolescent boys on their first campaign and enjoying a good deal of it. Their backs and chests as they washed were very white, but their faces had gone scarlet through exposure. . . . They were friendly and shy and very determined to do well in the war. . . .
“As I walked back to my camp the Stukas came over. . . . It seemed for a moment that they were going to sail by the village, but at the last moment they altered direction, opened their flaps, and dived. The bombs tumbled out lazily, turning over and over in the morning sunshine. Then with that graceful little jump and a flick, each aircraft turned upward and out of its dive and wheeled away. . . .
“I walked over to the centre of the village, keeping care to stay away from an exploding ammunition lorry. A barnlike building had taken a direct hit, and the coiled barbed wire [stored there] had threshed about wildly in a thousand murderous tentacles. The blast had carried these fragments across to the water trough, and now my six young friends were curiously huddled up and twisted over one another. It is the stillness of the dead that is so shocking. Even their boots don’t seem to lie on the ground as those of a sleeping man would. They don’t move at all. They seem to slump into the earth with such unnatural overwhelming tiredness. . . .”
In the desert to the east, meanwhile, the retreat of the Panzerarmee continued. The British pursued doggedly, relentlessly, unable to catch up to Rommel but giving him no rest either. On November 23, for the third time in less than two years, he was back at El Agheila. There the Panzerarmee held for three weeks, gravely wounded but still dangerous, while Montgomery stock-piled supplies for an attack. On December 13, as the British barrage began, the Desert Fox pulled out.
After another three-week pause at Buerat, some 200 miles to the west, the retreat continued. Tripoli could not be defended, and on January 23, 1943, the 8th Army marched into the city. Since the days of Wavell and O’Connor, British soldiers had dreamed of taking Tripoli, seemingly as unreachable as a desert mirage. Now, wrote a correspondent, they “stood with wonderment and emotion beside the playing fountains” – and then marched on westward. On February 12, the second anniversary of Rommel’s arrival in North Africa, the rear guards of the Afrika Korps withdrew across the Libyan border into Tunisia. The Axis dug in at the formidable Mareth Line.
This kind of retreat had gone against all Rommel’s instincts. His orders had been to withdraw as slowly as possible, holding off the 8th Army as long as possible. Rommel favored either withdrawal from North Africa (given Axis supply problems, he believed the campaign was a lost cause) or the classic strategy of an army threatened with entrapment: rapid concentration to defeat the enemy forces in detail before they could combine against him. Every mile Rommel retreated shortened his supply line and lengthened the 8th Army’s, allowing him to retreat a great deal faster than the British could chase him. The Desert Fox had wanted to hurry to Tunisia, connect with General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim’s 5th Panzer Army there to rout the still-weak Torch army, and then turn on the 8th Army while it dangled at the end of its long supply line.
He flew to Germany to raise these matters of strategy with Hitler. The reaction was, in Rommel’s words, “like a spark in a powder barrel. The Führer flew into a fury. . . . I began to realize that Adolf Hitler simply did not want to see the situation as it was and that he reacted emotionally against what his intelligence must have told him was right.”
Rommel was still determined to seize the initiative if he could. In February 1943, leaving his infantry in the Mareth Line to hold off Montgomery, he led the Afrika Korps northward for an assault on the Americans in the narrow “waist” of Tunisia. On February 14, the panzers sprang forward to the attack.