The desert pendulum had at last stuck, pointing west. There were now only two more battles for 8th Army to fight, and by this time the Allied air forces were so strong–during March an average of more than 700 sorties were flown every day– that the Luftwaffe was unable seriously to challenge them for mastery of the air. Allied superiority was not confined to one particular sphere of operations. It was all-embracing. Attacks on Axis aircraft on the ground, in the air, neutralizing airfields, sinking convoys at sea, to say nothing of the support given to the advancing Armies. ‘Never before,’ said de Guingand, ‘had our Desert Air Force given us such superb, such gallant, and such intimate support.’ The Axis command was compelled to admit that they could put up no effective fight against such relentless concentrations.
While 8th Army was battling its way through the Mareth Line, Patton’s II US Corps was not idle. Indeed they greatly helped Montgomery by drawing 10th Panzer Division away from Mareth. By 17 March II Corps had occupied Gafsa. Patton’s unconventional and flamboyant methods were recalled by Alan Moorehead. When he first saw Patton he noted the weather-beaten face, the pearl-handled revolver and the remark he made to his ADC–‘Go down that track until you get blown up, and then come back and report.’ In fact the Germans had already evacuated Gafsa, and the Americans simply motored into it. El Guettar, 15 miles further east, was entered next day, and Maknassy on 22 March. A week later Alexander directed II Corps to drive forward to the Gabes road, a mission well suited to Patton’s thrusting spirit. He in turn gave the job to the 1st us Armoured Division. The United States Official History shows how the Americans were to learn, as the British had before them, that armoured strength, however courageously pressed forward, could not prevail in the face of a properly organized anti-tank defence.
The task was given to Benson Force which contained two tank battalions, a reconnaissance unit, two artillery battalions, some engineers, two infantry battalions and a tank destroyer unit. The attack began on 30 March, but did not get far. It was a familiar story. The German artillery and anti-tank weapons, well sited, mobile and used in conjunction with minefields, were just too strong. By day the leading American tanks were knocked out, and the only way to get on was to clear lanes through the mines with infantry at night
Even Patton was reluctant to order tanks to advance against such successful and expensive enemy tactics, although he toyed with the idea of sacrificing a complete tank company to blast a hole in the defences. Instead he instructed Benson to wait for air support and coordinate his attacks accordingly. In fact Benson made slow, costly progress in a series of tank-infantry actions, but the fact was that in ground so totally unsuitable for decisive fire and movement, sheer weight of artillery and numbers of tanks could not do the trick. Such skilled and determined resistance imposed on the Americans a bit by bit advance. There was no question of grand armoured exploitation.
The fact that Patton’s Corps did not make much progress was less important than the threat which they offered to the right flank of General Messe’s 1st Panzer Army, a threat which brought about the move of 21st Panzer Division to reinforce 10th Panzer Division opposite Patton, and so lighten the defensive capacity of Wadi Akarit, which Montgomery now had to overcome. The dividend of Alexander’s ability to ring the changes, thrust right-handed, left-handed or both-handed as he chose, was about to be reaped.
8th Army closed up to the Wadi Akarit position on 29 March. Montgomery decided on yet another set-piece attack by 30th Corps with 10th Corps held ready to dash forward once the last natural obstacle to his breaking into the Tunisian coastal plain had been removed. His proposal to attack on the night 4–5 April fitted well with Alexander’s plans for getting hold of the Gabes gap. Alexander intended first that Montgomery should be assisted once more by pressure from US II Corps, and then to use his main reserve, 9th Corps, to capture the Fondouk gap and get behind von Arnim’s southern corps. As might have been expected at a time when things were going badly for them, Axis counsels were divided. Kesselring wanted to hold Akarit as the last defence line in the south, and beat off any threat to the area east of Maknassy-El Guettar with armoured counter-attacks. Mussolini, on the other hand, had already authorized withdrawal to Endfidaville. Von Arnim meanwhile declared that without the fuel and ammunition, which, like Rommel before him, he so urgently needed–on 1 April he mentioned 8,000 and 10,000 tons for these two commodities as being essential requirements by German forces alone–defeat was unavoidable. He even admitted to ‘squinting over his shoulder for ships’. Like Rommel he had to make do with promises. Nevertheless the Akarit position was held, and strongly. In addition to two Panzer Grenadier Regiments, 90th and 164th Light Divisions were in the line together with four Italian divisions. 15th Panzer Division was in reserve.
The ground was mountainous, and once again it was necessary to blast a hole through the defences. Manoeuvre by itself would not do the trick. Here in these mountains was to be seen yet another change in the conduct of a battle. Montgomery’s History of Warfare contains a curiously relevant passage in which he discusses Greek tactical ideas in relation to mountainous country. He condemns the battles as mere slogging matches in which fire and movement played no part. There was no opportunity for manoeuvre, no master planning, no skilful generalship. This is not inapposite when we examine what happened at Wadi Akarit, except, of course, that there was, as customary in a Montgomery battle, plenty of fire–450 guns’ worth–and that at the lower level, notably General Tuker’s with his famous 4th Indian Division, generalship was sound. Tuker did not like Leese’s Corps plan, which was to go for and seize Roumana, and pointed out that Djebel Tebaga Fatnassa, being the key to the whole position, must be taken first. Furthermore, since the enemy was weak in infantry, the very thing needed to hold these mountainous features, whereas 8th Army was strong, and his own 4th Indian Division peculiarly suited by temperament and training to mountain fighting, Tuker guaranteed that he would take Fatnassa. 50th and 51st Divisions could then capture Roumana and the positions between Roumana and Fatnassa. All this was good advice. It was adopted, and as things turned out the decision to attack Fatnassa first, then the other objectives, with three divisions at night with no moon and as early as 5–6 April surprised the enemy. Montgomery’s signal to Churchill of 6 April contained this sentence: ‘I did two things not done by me before, in that I attacked centre of enemy position, and in the dark with no moon.’ The Nelsonian ace of using his subordinates’ ideas was up Montgomery’s sleeve too, and much of the credit both for the concept of this attack and its execution must go to Tuker and his magnificent Division.
1/2 Gurkhas were in the van of 7th Brigade and almost at once struck into the Italians of Pistoia Division. In helping to open the door which led to Axis defeat, Subedar Lalbadur won the Victoria Cross:
The dense darkness of that boulder-studded ravine hid a great feat of arms. Under command of Subedar Lalbadur Thapa, two sections of Gurkhas had moved forward to secure the only pathway which led over the escarpment at the upper end of the rocky chimney. This trail reached the top of the hill through a narrow cleft thickly studded with enemy posts. Anti-tank guns and machine guns covered every foot of the way, while across the canyon, where the cliffs rose steeply for some 200 feet, the crests were swarming with automatic gunners and mortar teams. Subedar Lalbadur Thapa reached the first enemy sangar without challenge. His section cut down its garrison with the kukri. Immediately every post along the twisted pathway opened fire. Without pause the intrepid Subedar, with no room to manoeuvre, dashed forward at the head of his men through a sheet of machine gun fire, grenades and mortar bombs. He leapt inside a machine gun nest and killed four gunners single-handed, two with knife and two with pistol. Man after man of his sections were stricken until only two were left. Rushing on, he clambered up the last few yards of the defile through which the pathway snaked over the crest of the escarpment. He flung himself single-handed on the garrison of the last sangar covering the pathway, striking two enemy dead with his kukri. This terrible foe was too much; the remainder of the detachment fled with wild screams for safety. The chimney between the escarpments was open, and with it the corridor through which 5th Brigade might pass. It is scarcely too much to say that the battle of Wadi Akarit had been won single-handed several hours before the formal attacks began.
By 0830 on the morning of 6 April most of Fatnassa was in the hands of 4th Indian Division. On their right 51st Highland Division’s attack had also gone according to plan, and Roumana was captured. 50th Division’s progress had been slower, but even so Horrocks, commanding 10th Corps, was sufficiently satisfied that a big enough hole had been made by 30th Corps for his own to pass through. He asked Montgomery for permission to do so, permission that was granted, yet it did not happen, at least not in time to finish off 1st Panzer Army at Wadi Akarit. Once again they were allowed to get away. German skill in plugging gaps with tanks and anti-tank guns obliged 10th Corps to pause, and as so often before the Axis commander authorized withdrawal just at the time when 8th Army issued orders for continuing the advance. It was a story often repeated during 8th Army’s successful exit from Alamein. Time after time the door seemed to have been pushed open by one formation for another, and equally time after time they somehow or other did not manage to get through it. There were three explanations possible for such failure. Either the door had not been properly opened, or the exploiting units were not sufficiently pushing, or the problem of dealing with the enemy’s rapidly thrown together anti-tank screen, well beyond the door, unsuspected, unanticipated and thus unplanned for, simply had not been tackled, still less solved. Of the three, the last is most likely to hold water. This omission reflected two weaknesses in the higher echelons of command–inability either to cope rapidly with the unexpected or to call for their almost overwhelming close air support at the critical moment which arbitrated between partial and complete success.
Yet Wadi Akarit had once more taken heavy toll of the Axis forces. Messe had withdrawn them back to Enfidaville, but in admitting to serious losses gave his view that it had not been una bella battaglia. From 8th Army’s position in the ring, it might have been a good battle; the three divisions of 30th Corps had all fought well. But of them all it was the Indians’ exploits in the mountains which rang loudest through the world. Even Tuker, who knew his men so thoroughly, marveled at their skill and courage. Good battle though it was, however, it was another win on points. The knock-out eluded them still.
But the ring was tightening. It was Army Group Africa which was at bay now. 1st and 8th Armies had linked up near Gafsa on 7 April and again near Kairouan four days later. Their operations became even more closely reciprocal, and with the Axis forces thus besieged, one of the questions facing Alexander was with which hand the final blow should be delivered. Montgomery understandably enough wanted his own Army to be the one, and as he closed up to Enfidaville on 11 April, he sent a signal to Alexander asking for another armoured division so that he would be strong enough to direct the next main operation. He requested that 6th Armoured Division be put under his command at once. Alexander thought differently. He wished to make use of the easier country in front of 1st Army and go for Tunis from the west. By this means he hoped to cut the Axis forces in half, drive some of them to the south to be further mauled by 8th Army, and allow the remainder to be mopped up in the north. His reply to Montgomery, therefore, far from giving 8th Army another division, took one away, 1st Armoured Division was to reinforce 9th Corps for part of the main effort by 1st Army, while 8th Army exerted maximum pressure to help. Alexander’s directive of 16 April laid down that offensive operations to destroy or take all enemy forces in Tunisia would now get under way, and that the pressure would be such that together with naval and air forces, no enemy would be able to withdraw by air or sea.
Alexander’s plan was that, whilst 8th Army contained Messe’s forces at Enfidaville, 5th and 9th Corps of 1st Army would conduct the main attack up the Medjerda Valley to Tunis; meanwhile II US Corps would make for Bizerta and the French for Pont du Fahs. 1st Army, in short, and more particularly 5th Corps, was to provide the relentless pressure, although before it was all over, 8th Army had to hand over still more reinforcements. Naval and air forces had a good deal to congratulate themselves on. It was not just that they were now required to prevent the enemy’s withdrawal–a mission they accomplished with almost total success; it was that they had been of infinite consequence in bringing about the very situation where the enemy had no alternative, except annihilation, but to attempt the withdrawal which they were to prevent. All Hitler’s efforts to increase the monthly tonnage of supplies to Tunisia failed. The principal reason for more and more sinkings was that the Allied air forces, notably those of the United States, had grown so strong that in March 1943 two thirds of the Axis ships sunk by air attacks were accounted for by us aircraft. Allied submarines also enjoyed many kills off Sicily and the west coast of Italy. Nor was this all. British and American aircraft were savaging the Axis air transport fleet. On 22 April, for example, out of 21 of the huge Messerschmitt 323s carrying ten tons of fuel each, losses from the interception of Allied fighters were so heavy–16 of them were ‘hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky’–that Göring vetoed all transport flights to Africa, until Kesselring persuaded him to relax so absurd a ruling. But only a quarter of the former sortie rate was ever again realized. The effect of all this was that in March and April sea tonnages transported were 43,000 and 29,000 compared with an average of 60,000 to 75,000 in previous months. The measure of the shortfall becomes clear when we read that even these latter, higher figures were as much as 100,000 tons per month lower than what was actually needed. Air transport, which managed 8,000 tons in March, 5,000 in April, could not make up the sum. Some reinforcements of soldiers got to Africa, but far from being able to turn the Axis tide, they at once created the need for yet more supplies, and in the end simply swelled the Prisoner of War camps.
On the other hand Allied supplies flowed in with a regularity that spoke highly of their leaders’ cooperation and machinery. Malta’s days of starvation were over for good, and having been so instrumental in winning the battle for North Africa, the island was now to figure largely in the next great Allied enterprise in the Mediterranean–the invasion of Sicily. If by severing Axis sea communications, whilst preserving their own, Allied naval and air forces had made an overwhelming contribution to the armies’ operations, their reward was in sight. The armies’ clearing of the North African shores, the opening of the Mediterranean to Allied shipping, not having to sail to the Middle East and India via the Cape of Good Hope, the advantage gained from those precious commodities, time and tonnage–the value of these prizes was incalculable. Naval forces under Admiral Cunningham had yet one more great moment of triumph just ahead of them. They stopped the enemy escaping. The entirety of Cunningham’s success is recalled for us on the last page of Heinz Schmidt’s memoirs: Six hundred and sixty three escaped. They went by air.
Before they went, however, and before the gigantic haul of men and material fell into Allied hands, there were three weeks of hard fighting to be done. This was to be an Army Group battle –the first in North Africa. In fact it was a series of smaller ones. Alexander’s general offensive, Operation Vulcan, allotted these tasks to his subordinates:
First Army will:
(a) Capture Tunis.
(b) Cooperate with 2 US Corps in the capture of Bizerta.
(c) Be prepared to cooperate with Eighth Army should the enemy withdraw to Cap Bon Peninsula.
2nd US Corps will:
(a) Secure suitable positions for the attack on Bizerta, covering the left flank of First Army.
(b) Advance and capture Bizerta with the cooperation of First Army on the right flank …
Eighth Army will:
(a) Draw enemy forces off First Army by exerting continuous pressure on the enemy.
(b) By an advance on the axis Enfidaville-Hammamet-Tunis prevent the army withdrawing into the Cap Bon Peninsula. …
This was what was supposed to happen and very broadly it was what did happen, but not without much shifting of weight, pausing, re-grouping and trying again. 8th Army took Enfidaville on 20 April, 1st Army re-took Longstop Hill on 26 April, and the 1st us Armoured Division captured Mateur on 3 May. Then Alexander made his arrangements for the last attack. In the north was the whole of II US Corps, in the south 8th Army less 4th Indian Division, 7th Armoured Division and 201st Guards Brigade, and in the centre 1st Army, with 9th Corps comprising the three formations taken from 8th Army, plus the 4th Infantry and 6th Armoured Divisions. It was 9th Corps under Horrocks which was to deal the final blow. On 6 May, it did, supported by over 2,000 bomber and fighter bomber sorties and more than 1,000 guns. It was blitzkrieg on the grand scale. Ironmongery of this sort could hardly miscarry. Tunis was occupied the same day, Bizerta the next. Finally 6th Armoured Division broke through the Hammam Lif to Hammamet.
8th Army’s battle for Djebel Garci and Enfidaville preceded Vulcan by four days, and in these actions 4th Indian Division and the New Zealanders showed again what matchless soldiers they were. At Garci 5th Indian Infantry Brigade was invited to capture the Djebel itself, and during the savage fighting for it, Jemadar Dewan Singh sustained one of the bloodiest and most exciting encounters which even the famed Gurkha warriors could boast. It was while he was scouting forward by himself:
I was challenged in a foreign language. I felt it was not the British language or I would have recognized it. To make quite sure I crept up and found myself looking into the face of a German. I recognized him by his helmet. He was fumbling with his weapon so I cut off his head with my kukri. Another appeared from a slit trench and I cut him down also. I was able to do the same to two others, but one made a great deal of noise, which raised the alarm. I had a cut at a fifth but I am afraid I only wounded him. Yet perhaps the wound was severe, for I struck him between the neck and the shoulder.
I was now involved in a struggle with a number of Germans, and eventually, after my hands had become cut and slippery with blood, they managed to wrest my kukri from me. One German beat me over the head with it, inflicting a number of wounds. He was not very skilful, however, sometimes striking me with the sharp edge but oftener with the blunt.
They managed to beat me to the ground where I lay pretending to be dead. The Germans got back into their trenches.… My platoon advanced and started to hurl grenades among the enemy. But they were also falling very near me, so I thought that if I did not move I really would be dead. I managed to get to my feet, and ran towards my platoon. Not recognizing me, I heard one of my platoon call: ‘Here comes the enemy ! Shoot him!’ I bade them not to do so. They recognized my voice and let me come in.
My hands being cut about and bloody, and having lost my kukri, I had to ask one of my platoon to take my pistol out of my holster and put it in my hand. I then took command of my platoon again.
Battles for Tunisian Djebels were apt to be costly, and the Garci-Enfidaville affair caused 8th Army many casualties. All battalion commanders in Kippenberger’s brigade, for example, were wounded. Nor did 1st Army find the steep, bare hills north of Medjez, such memorable features as Tangoucha, Longstop, the Kefs and the Djebel Ang, easier going. 38th Infantry Brigade, part of the renowned 78th Division, had much savage fighting to do there. The brigade commander, Russell, described the battle area as a series of ‘impossible fortresses’. When he later went over the battle-field accompanied by the Corps Commander, the general asked him how on earth the men had managed it. He found himself equally at a loss, but was convinced that it never would have been done at all but for first class troops led by the very best junior commanders.
Brigadier Russell might have added that his brigade was composed of Irish riflemen and fusiliers.
Further north II US Corps advanced and went on advancing. The US 1st Armoured Division, off the leash at last, swept into Mateur on 3 May, with its eye on Ferryville and beyond, whilst the 9th Infantry Division was directed on Bizerta. Perhaps the most spectacular and tactically valuable stroke was that of the British 6th Armoured Division in penetrating the German defences at Hammam Lif and driving on to Hammamet, so frustrating enemy hopes of evacuation from the Cap Bon Peninsula. Even before this was done, scenes of victory, so often to be repeated in the towns of Europe, were being enacted. A troop leader of the 17th/21st Lancers remembered being amongst the first British soldiers to reach St Germain. The fact that the enemy were only 2,000 yards away and sending shells at them and that he in his tank was firing back did not deter the French civilians. They climbed on to his tank, put flowers round it, thrust roses and bottles of wine at him. One girl even embraced him from behind while he was giving a fire order to his gunner. Outside the tank delighted watchers picked up the empty shell cases as they were thrown through the revolver port and sent a flow of wine bottles back in. Flags waved, tricolours were unfurled, women wept, firearms were discharged in the air. The hysteria of liberation took over.