Chouïgui Pass 1942

Newly delivered Stuart tanks undergo testing in the North African desert.

The wreckage of German aircraft near Tunis. Major Barlowe’s C Company attacked the airfield containing the same fighters and bombers that had flown against Lieutenant Daubin’s platoon earlier in the day.

Charging Stuarts

With both brigades stymied on the flanks, any hope for a breakthrough by the British First Army now fell to the provisional Blade Force in the center. Puny in size, with fewer than 3,000 troops, the unit nevertheless boasted more than a hundred tanks, half of them American. Now Blade Force hurried forward, crying, “Armor for Tunis!” and accompanied by Senegalese tirailleurs, “great ebony warriors with enormous teeth and bayonets a yard long.” Sensing softness in the Axis line east of the hill town of Sidi Nsir, Blade Force planned to rip the seam with its two tank battalions, the British 17th/21st Lancers and the U.S. 1st Battalion of the 1st Armored Regiment. Both were directed to create “a tank-infested area” in the Tine River valley, ten miles north of the Medjerda and roughly parallel to it.

This order greatly pleased the Americans, even if no one was quite sure what “tank-infested” meant or how to effect such a teeming condition. The 1st Battalion—part of a regiment created in the 1830s for the Black Hawk War and still heavily drawn from Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia—was commanded by the handsome thirty-five-year-old John Knight Waters. The son of a Baltimore banker, Waters had attended Johns Hopkins University for two years before persuading a Chicago congressman, in whose district he had spent a single day, to appoint him to the West Point class of 1931. Waters’s ambition to be a pilot was thwarted by imperfect eyesight; he settled for the cavalry and betrothal to the daughter of a crotchety major named Patton. “Waters, I don’t know you. Come back in three years,” Patton told the young lieutenant when asked for permission to marry. Waters bided his time, eventually winning both Patton’s deep affection and his daughter.

Waters’s fifty-four light tanks formed the spearhead of Blade Force because the larger American medium tanks landed in Oran would not fit through the narrow Tunisian rail tunnels and were en route to the front by sea. The “light,” fourteen-ton M-3 General Stuart was a fast, agile deathtrap with a 37mm gun known to American tankers as the “squirrel rifle.” Oddly top-heavy, like “a hat box about to fall from the top shelf of the hall closet,” the Stuart had a manually rotated turret and an engine that required a dozen vigorous turns with a hand crank to start. The four-man crew was cramped and virtually blind, viewing the hostile world through narrow glass-prism peepholes. On the frequent occasions when the intercom radio failed, tank commanders in the turret signaled direction changes to the drivers in the hull below with little kicks to the left or right shoulder; a kick between the shoulders meant “Stop,” a sharper kick meant “Advance.” A kick to the head meant “Back up.”

The battalion rolled northeast through the narrow Tine valley along a rough braid of goat trails. Whenever Stukas appeared overhead, Waters shooed the Stuarts into the nearest stand of cactus, where his driver vaulted from the hatch to hide in a ditch, muttering, “I’m scared to death, I’m scared to death.” On the afternoon of November 25, along the right bank of the Tine, scouts spotted enemy soldiers in a French farm compound that had been built to withstand Arab banditry. Gum trees rose above a rectangular courtyard enclosed by a thick stone-and-concrete wall with fighting parapets and musket loopholes. Outside the wall, Italian infantrymen peered from a network of trenches and saps.

Company A’s tanks dashed forward, circling the compound in a dusty, shrieking assault. Machine-gun fire chewed through the trenches and killed a few infantrymen, but the squirrel gun hardly blemished the stone wall. Waters ordered his mortar platoon and assault guns into action, and soon the crump and boom of mortar and field tubes joined the rippling tank fire. The cannonade broke a few red terra-cotta roof tiles and fired two haystacks, but otherwise had little effect. The defenders peppered the Stuarts with rifle and machine-gun fire, shattering many of the glass vision ports. Tank commanders furiously toed their drivers—left shoulder, right shoulder, left shoulder—but without infantry and artillery support the attack soon lost momentum. Waters pulled the company back down the valley, where the crews spent the late afternoon manicuring tank hulls that bristled with hundreds of embedded enemy bullets. The effect, one officer wrote, gave the armor plates a manly texture, “like a three-day growth of beard.”

Farther north, a British Lancers battalion rounded up 140 Axis prisoners, accepted a bleating sheep from a grateful farmer, then broke for tea. Stuka pilots evidently confused German signal flares with Allied anti-aircraft fire: a Lancer reported that Wehrmacht infantrymen repeatedly “sent up a stream of Very lights, which had the satisfying effect of bringing the bombs down amongst themselves, whilst we watched.” Mateur, the linchpin to the defense of Bizerte, lay only ten miles away.

But it was on the southern fringe of a landscape now properly tank-infested that the day’s strangest events unfolded. As his attack on the farm compound petered out, Waters ordered the seventeen tanks from his Company C to reconnoiter the bridges over the Medjerda River. Angling east from the Tine valley, a mile-long defile named Chouïgui Pass gave onto the flat, fertile plains, twenty miles from Tunis. The paved road through the pass veered southeast for five miles to the grain fields and orchards of the Medjerda valley. It was this route that Major Rudolph Barlow followed with the three platoons of Company C.

At thirty-five miles an hour, Barlow and his men skirted the town of Tébourba and followed Highway 55 for two miles to the narrow bridge spanning the Medjerda at El Bathan. A few bursts of coaxial machine-gun fire scattered the sentries; the Allies, so roughly handled at Medjez-el-Bab, now owned their own Medjerda bridge, twenty-two miles downstream from Medjez and deep behind the German line.

Suffused with cavalry panache, Barlow pressed ahead. His tanks rumbled northeast for seven miles along the left bank of the Medjerda, sheltered by olive groves, to the village of Djedeïda. Behind a ridge a few hundred yards ahead, a German plane lifted into the air, followed by another. Barlow sent forward a platoon under Lieutenant Wilbor H. Hooker while the rest of the company remained secluded in the olive trees.

Hooker and his tankers soon came galloping back. A new airfield “packed with planes” lay on the other side of the rise, Hooker reported. No sentries had been posted and the Luftwaffe seemed oblivious of the approaching Americans. Barlow ordered the tanks into a forage line, with two platoons abreast and a third trailing slightly behind. He radioed Waters and relayed Hooker’s report in a voice pitched to the occasion:

“Right in front of me is an airport full of German airplanes, sitting there, the men all sitting out on the gasoline barrels, shooting the breeze in the sunlight. What should I do?”

Waters had spent much of the day hiding in the cactus from these very aircraft. Now he nearly leaped in the air with incredulity. “For God’s sake, attack them! Go after them!”

Seventeen Stuarts surged up and over the crest of the hill, tracks churning the wheat stubble as they barreled down the front slope from the northwest. Tank commanders craned for a better view from the open turret hatches and spurred their drivers forward. Several dozen Messerschmitts, Stukas, and Junkerses crowded around the dirt airstrip, reminding one American officer of “fat geese on a small pond.” Some were taking gas at a makeshift fuel dump; others were being rearmed with bombs and belts of machine-gun bullets. Late-afternoon shadows stretched before the charging Stuarts as if racing the tanks to the bottom of the slope. A few Luftwaffe crewmen turned and waved, evidently believing the tanks were Italian.

Then the first bursts of machine-gun fire struck the parked planes and the mêlée began. Fuel drums exploded, spreading sheets of fire across the runway and engulfing German soldiers and planes alike. The boom of seventeen tank guns reverberated in the hills, as Barlow’s gunners hit their fire buttons as fast as loaders could shove rounds into the breech. Gunfire from the tanks created its own hot wind, flattening the brush and blowing a dark cloud of debris before the hulls.

The squirrel guns proved lethal to aircraft sheet metal. Planes blew up, planes disintegrated, planes collided with other planes making for the end of the runway. A Messerschmitt gained enough speed to lift off, only to be raked by machine-gun bullets and cartwheel, burning, to earth. Mud slowed the taxiing Junkerses long enough for American gunners to take languid aim and machine-gun the fuselages from propeller to vertical stabilizer. As for those still able to build speed, a tank commander at the far end of the runway raked departing planes with fire until a nearby grainfield was full of burning cruciforms.

Tanks lunged onto the runway. Terrified pilots in their leather headgear fled zigzag across the field, only to be shot down or crushed beneath the tracks. Several Stuarts rolled behind a row of parked aircraft, methodically shearing off their tails. Desultory German rifle fire, one tank crewman later recalled, hit the turrets and “bounced off like peas.” A few defenders tried to turn their 20mm anti-aircraft weapons into tank killers, but the Stuarts were too agile and the gunners died at their guns.

Tanks tacked back and forth across the airfield looking for things to kill. Spent brass rained down on the Stuart drivers and bow gunners, who wrapped towels around their necks and kept their collars buttoned tight to avoid burns from the hot casings. A few fighters had managed to get airborne when the attack began, and now they circled back for low strafing runs that ignited bedrolls and clothing bags lashed to the American hulls. Crewmen climbed from their hatches to beat at the flames, then pressed forward to kill some more.

In half an hour the fight was over. Barlow pulled his whooping tankers back up the hill. The raid had cost him one tank destroyed, several damaged, and two men killed by strafing, including a platoon leader.

He paused for a final look at the carnage below. Wreckage from more than twenty German planes lay scattered in a burning swath longer than a mile. Spikes of flame from detonating fuel and ammunition flared the length of the runway, illuminating scattered propellers, wheels, and fuselages. Bodies lay sprawled across the field. Barlow briefly considered pressing on to Tunis even at the risk of being cut off, but night had closed completely over the countryside and Waters wanted C Company to return. The tanks turned back toward Chouïgui Pass. Behind them, to the east, a pale orange glow reflected off the belly of the clouds above Djedeïda, like a false dawn.

Chouïgui Pass

There was no roasted peacock for Thanksgiving in John Waters’s 1st Battalion. Tucked once again into the Tine River valley, twenty-five miles west of Tunis, his tank crews settled for a breakfast of greasy mutton stew with hardtack, heated over gasoline-soaked dirt and washed down with thick tea. Their cigarettes long gone, the men rolled dried eucalyptus leaves in toilet paper and pretended they were Chesterfields.

Each soldier habitually watched the sky as he ate, smoked, scribbled a letter, or cleaned his weapon. Luftwaffe pilots now attacked on average once an hour, and the Americans had renamed the Tine glen “Happy Valley.” German troops had reoccupied Djedeïda airfield just hours after Wednesday evening’s raid, and once again Stukas landed and took off with the crisp efficiency of a taxi rank. Their plummeting attacks reminded one reporter of “swallows diving after midges on an evening at home.” Captain Evelyn Waugh of the British Army wrote of the Stuka, “Like all things German, it is very efficient and goes on much too long.”

German Me-109 fighters also lurked in the clouds or slipped along an adjacent valley before suddenly popping over the ridgeline in a terrifying whirlwind of bombs and bullets that bounced like scarlet marbles off the macadam. Officers tweeted their air-attack whistles and every man dove for the nearest slit trench. Virtually all road traffic now moved at night: a cavalcade of burned-out vehicles suggested the hazards of daylight driving. The relentless attacks so infuriated the U.S. troops that they fired at enemy aircraft “with any weapon we had in our hands, including a mortar,” one soldier reported. A gallows humor took hold: “Famous last words: ‘Don’t worry, boys, those are our Spitfires.’” The unofficial motto of Allied forces in Tunisia soon became “Dig or die.”

On the rare occasions when Allied planes dominated the skies, fratricide added to the ground troops’ torment. Word soon spread of an incident near Medjez-el-Bab, where a company of American tank destroyers was helping secure the town on Thanksgiving morning when eleven U.S. P-38 Lightnings flew over. Jubilant at the unexpected help from friendly fighters, the tank destroyer crews raced across the open terrain, waving and smiling. Built with distinctive twin fuselages, the P-38s languidly circled until the sun was behind them, then dropped to fifty feet and executed five textbook strafing runs in three minutes.

The attack all but destroyed the shocked company, which fired not a single retaliatory shot. Five men were killed—including the unit’s only World War I veteran—and sixteen wounded; nearly every vehicle and antitank weapon was destroyed or damaged. One outraged company commander in the 1st Armored Division ordered his men to shoot any airborne object larger than a goose. And another bromide circulated among American soldiers: “If it flies, it dies.” Allied pilots grew so accustomed to being fired upon by their own troops that the formula for recognizing enemy aircraft from the ground, “WEFT”—check the Wings, Engines, Fuselage, Tail—was said to mean “Wrong every fucking time.”

Despite such demoralizing episodes, the contraction of the Axis line permitted General Evelegh’s two brigades to nudge eastward a few miles along the Mediterranean road on the Allied left flank, and down the Medjerda valley from Medjez-el-Bab on the Allied right. But neither brigade lunged forward to rock the Germans back on their heels before they could dig in. In the Allied center, Blade Force remained static. Waters drove forty miles to Béja for consultations with the Blade commander, who told him to keep 1st Battalion in defensive positions along a three-mile stretch of Happy Valley. There were to be no more forays onto the plains of Tunis without orders.

Before dawn on November 26, Waters returned by jeep to his command post in a gritty walled enclosure known as St. Joseph’s Farm, half a mile south of the Tine. A brisk wind tossed the gum trees lining the river; on the far bank, an Arab farmer harrowed his field behind a brace of oxen. The tinkle of collar bells carried across the water. Camouflage netting and haystacks hid the American jeeps and radio antennae in the farm compound.

Blue grease pencil on a crude map showed the disposition of the battalion’s fifty-two surviving Stuart tanks: Rudolph Barlow’s Company C, still reveling in the previous day’s airfield rumble, plugged the eastern entrance to Chouïgui Pass, which angled to the right from Happy Valley two miles downstream of St. Joseph’s Farm; Major William R. Tuck’s Company B was hidden behind a low hill overlooking the Tine, just north of the pass; Major Carl Siglin’s Company A waited on a cactus-covered ridge a mile south of the pass, almost within hailing distance of Waters’s headquarters.

Shortly before noon, a sentry using a pair of French naval binoculars spotted a nimbus of dust several miles downriver. Waters loped up a hill and confirmed the approach of what he called “a beautiful column, preceded by some pathetic Italian reconnaissance armored vehicles.” Three German companies, including armor from the 190th Panzer Battalion, were rolling from Mateur to reinforce Axis troops retreating from Medjez-el-Bab. No sooner had Waters begun counting the enemy tanks than rounds came screaming into St. Joseph’s Farm. Men yanked down the camouflage netting, cranked the engines of their Stuarts, and heaved their bedrolls to the ground. The first tank battle of World War II between German and American forces had begun.

To buy time, Waters ordered three 75mm assault guns to occupy an olive grove along the river road. Mounted on armored half-tracks, they opened with a brisk cannonade of thirty rounds at a thousand yards’ range: the only effect was to raise more dust and provoke a retaliatory volley through the olive branches. On Waters’s order the howitzers hurried back to the farm, masking their retreat with a few smoke rounds. The approaching Mk IV Panzer tanks, Waters soon realized, had a new, long-barreled 75mm gun unknown to Allied intelligence. The new gun’s muzzle velocity of nearly 3,000 feet per second was twice that of American tank guns and had correspondingly greater penetrating power.

From the ridge southeast of the farm, Major Siglin, in a tank named Iron Horse, and eleven other Stuarts from Company A now charged down the hill to the valley floor. Machine-gun tracer rounds lashed the air in crimson flails. The Stuarts’ main guns barked and barked. An Italian armored car was struck, and lurched to a smoky stop.

Then the German panzers answered with a deep roar and a Stuart abruptly lurched up. Less than a hundred yards away, Lieutenant Freeland A. Daubin, Jr., commanding a platoon of three tanks on Company A’s right flank, saw “long searing tongues of orange flame” erupt from every hatch of the shattered tank and “silver rivulets of aluminum” puddle beneath the engine block. Sparks spouted from the barrel as ammunition began to cook. Thick black smoke boiled from the burning rubber tracks and bogey wheels.

Another Stuart was hit, and another. They brewed up like the first. Crewmen tumbled from the hatches, their hair and uniforms brilliant with flame, and they rolled across the dirt and tore away their jackets in burning shreds. Others were trapped in their tanks with fractured limbs, and their cries could be heard above the booming tumult as they burned to death in fire so intense it softened the armor plates. Even near misses from the German guns were devastating. A shell that failed to penetrate the hull still carried enough force—thousands of g’s—to shear off a Stuart’s rivet heads, which then richocheted inside the tank like machine-gun bullets. One tank commander later reported that a glancing shot gouged metal from the side of his turret “like a finger rubbing along a pat of butter, producing a brief rosy glow on the inside of the turret wall as the steel became white hot at the point of impact.”

Wreathed in gray smoke, the panzers closed to within 300 yards. Siglin’s Iron Horse and the other surviving Stuarts scooted up and back, their drivers blinded by smoke and dust as they wrestled their gearshifts and steering levers. Compared to the German tank guns, the Stuart 37mm “snapped like a cap pistol,” a platoon leader observed. “Jerry seemed annoyed.” Lieutenant Daubin on the right flank pumped more than eighteen rounds at a single German Mk IV; the shells simply bounced off the bard plates, which shed “sparks like a power-driven grindstone.” Daubin tap-danced furiously on his driver’s shoulders and shouted instructions to zigzag backward. At less than fifty yards, a panzer round struck the forward hatch and the Stuart’s front end buckled like a tin can hit with a hammer. The blast killed the driver and blinded the bow gunner. Bullets cut down the loader as he climbed from the hatch. Wounded but alive, Daubin tumbled to the ground and crawled into a ditch. His tank continued to roll backward from the battlefield, swallowed in flames.

In ten minutes half of Captain Siglin’s twelve tanks had been destroyed. But now Waters sprang the trap for which Company A had been bait. In their zeal to attack Siglin’s Stuarts, the Germans failed to notice Major Tuck’s Company B hidden behind the ridge just north of the entrance to Chouïgui Pass. As the Axis formation passed, less than a hundred yards away, Tuck and his tanks came pounding over the crest of the hill to fall on the enemy flank and rear. At point-blank range even the squirrel gun’s two-pound shell could punch through the thin armor on panzer engine doors and docks. The enemy tried to wheel around but it was too late. Dozens of American rounds ripped into the German tanks. Seven panzers were destroyed, including a half-dozen of the new Mk IVs.

The Axis survivors fled down the Tine, pursued by yelling, vengeful Americans. German infantry and two surviving tanks took refuge in the walled farm compound that Siglin’s company had unsuccessfully attacked the day before. This time the Americans forced the gates and rampaged through the garrison, shooting up the parapets before retreating back outside the wall. Other Axis troops were hunted down and killed in the vineyards above the river. After dark, the German commander withdrew the remnant of his force eight miles north to Mateur, where he was sacked and court-martialed for retreating without orders. “Our losses,” the German war diary for November 26 noted, “were considerable.”

So, too, were American losses, although Waters had essentially traded tank for tank. This first armored battle had ended in a draw. In the final mêlée at the farm compound, the intrepid Major Siglin had been killed by a tank round through the turret of Iron Horse. His body was returned to St. Joseph’s Farm for burial, a stark refutation of the old lie that the weakest fruit drops to the ground first. Perhaps the greatest tribute came from the British Lancers who arrived after the skirmish to find Happy Valley choked with pillars of black smoke from burning tanks. “The Americans had done well,” the Lancers’ historian later wrote. “A gallant effort.”

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