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Bardia to Enfidaville

The Tactical Picture

The Tactical Picture

It is a commonplace to say that tactics are much affected by topography. In this last corner of Africa held by the Axis, the configuration of the ground as usual pointed to the manner in which page 287 the enemy positions could be most readily overcome. From the tangle of mountains in eastern Algeria, themselves the eastern end of the long Atlas chain, there runs north-east into Tunisia a series of parallel spurs, each spur a range of mountains in itself. Allowing for some simplification, there are three main spurs. The most northern runs in general towards Bizerta, the central one towards Tunis, and the southerly towards Cape Bon. Between the northern and the central spur lies the valley of the Medjerda River—a true river—a gorge in its upper reaches above Medjez el Bab, but there opening out into an extensive plain stretching to Tunis. Between the central and the southern spur is the valley of the Miliane River, with the defile of Pont du Fahs towards its upper end. The natural lines of advance thus run from the south-west to the north-east.

The southern spur culminates east of Pont du Fahs in Djebel Zaghouan, and the spurs of this mountain in their turn form the backdrop to the advance northwards through the Sahel, and present an obstacle to further advances. From this point there is no clear way to the north except for the ever-diminishing strip along the coast, a strip which is commanded all the way by the hills on its western side. There are indeed some roads to Tunis, but they wind through and across a tangle of hills and valleys, are all defiles, and give every advantage to the defender. To attempt to penetrate this area would be rather like charging into a gigantic maze.

But on the side of Medjez el Bab the country slopes gently and evenly downwards to Tunis and Bizerta, and moreover opens out more and more as it nears the city. This was the area in which the superiority of the Allies in manpower, and in air and ground resources, could be used to best advantage, and could more than compensate for the use of an obvious line of approach. Rommel says, ‘This area Medjez el Bab was an ideal place for motorised forces to assemble for an attack on Tunis and consequently represented an “Achilles Heel” for our front.’1

To return to the events of the period—on 11 April Montgomery advised Alexander that he was going to try and ‘gate-crash’ the enemy position round Enfidaville during ‘this moon period’.2 He asked that 6 Armoured Division should be placed under his command in order that all operations ‘between the mountains and the sea’ could be directed by him. Alexander's reply, received the same day, said that the main effort in the next phase would be made by First Army, which was already preparing for an attack to be launched on 22 April. The most suitable area for the employment page 288 of armour was now in the plain west of Tunis, and he required one armoured division and one armoured car regiment to join 9 Corps as early as could be arranged. The message ended with the words, ‘Hope you can develop maximum pressure possible against Enfidaville position to fit in with First Army attack.’

The 1st Armoured Division and King's Dragoon Guards were chosen for the transfer, and started their move in the next few days.

Alexander's initial intention had been to use Eighth Army for a final assault on Tunis, but he records in his despatch how he abandoned this idea, partly on the grounds of topography and partly because an advance from the south would tend to concentrate the enemy in hilly, difficult country, rather than divide it for ultimate annihilation. He therefore decided to use First Army for a thrust to Tunis from the west, driving a strong wedge into the heart of the enemy position. He then proposed to leave the smaller body of enemy troops to the north of this wedge to be mopped up by the force on the spot, mainly 2 US Corps, and to use his main force, First Army, to drive the remainder against the line firmly held by Eighth Army, which would conduct a ‘holding attack’. First Army was to be the hammer, Eighth Army the anvil.

The revised intention was communicated to Montgomery by Alexander's message of 11 April. It now appears, for the evidence is not conclusive, that Montgomery was not satisfied with the part that Eighth Army was to play in the final offensive. The Eighth Army plan of operations was roughed out on 14 and 15 April, the 10 Corps' operation order being issued on the 15th. This outlined a major attack that would conclude with an advance up the narrow coastal strip to Hammamet, it being Montgomery's expressed belief that the Axis High Command would go to Cape Bon, and that was where Eighth Army would go. General Freyberg was in accord with this plan, and thought that it was correct both tactically and from the point of view of the prestige of the formations engaged.

Alexander then issued his final directive on 16 April. Eighth Army's role was extended and comprised, as well as the earlier task of drawing enemy forces from First Army by the exertion of continuous pressure, the additional task of advancing on the axis Enfidaville-Hammamet-Tunis to prevent the enemy withdrawing into the Cape Bon peninsula. This obviously departed from his original concept, for clearly Eighth Army, with the resources then at its disposal, could not provide a firm base in the Enfidaville area upon which the Axis forces could be driven by First Army, and at the same time advance on Tunis by way of Hammamet. Nor, on the other hand, has any evidence been traced which suggests that Montgomery intended to advance on Tunis. Available sources indicate that his page 289 concept of the combined operations of First and Eighth Armies was that the joint offensive of the two armies would result in an enemy concentration in the Cape Bon peninsula, where he hoped Eighth Army would be well placed to overcome it.

But however much the final plan resulted from dissatisfaction with the earlier role, it is probable that the insistence of Eighth Army that it be in at the kill led directly to it being asked to do more than was possible with the troops then available, and perhaps more than was expected by General Alexander. For Montgomery was expressing the opinion of the rank and file, attuned now to success. Eighth Army as a whole was keen to be in at the finish, and General Freyberg spoke for his division when he said that the plan correctly considered the prestige of the formations involved.

First Army was ordered to capture Tunis, to co-operate with 2 US Corps in the capture of Bizerta, and to be prepared to co-operate with Eighth Army should the enemy withdraw to Cape Bon. The US Corps was to capture Bizerta.

The full resources of the Tactical Air Force were to be available to assist the land operations.

No dates appear in the directive, but it was already understood that First Army was to attack on 22 April. It was then arranged that Eighth Army should attack on 19–20 April in order to ‘draw enemy forces off First Army by exerting continuous pressure on the enemy.’

1 Rommel Papers, p. 409.

2 Full moon was 19 or 20 April.