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Bardia to Enfidaville

Comparative Strengths

Comparative Strengths

The following table gives some idea of the comparative strengths of the Allies and the Axis at this time.

Allies Axis
Divisions—armoured 4—strong 3—very weak
Tanks—all types 1,193 About 130
Divisions—infantry 15 9 or 10—very weak
Artillery—field and medium 1,472 475
Artillery—anti-tank 2,659 525
Fighting strength 470,0001 90,000
Aircraft—all types 3,310 545

As examples of the low strengths of the Axis divisions, 164 Light Division was only 2500 strong, Trieste 1000, and Spezia 500. The strongest Axis division numbered only 7000.

Yet against these figures must be weighed a contemporary estimate of a total of 185,000 Axis troops and the final bag of about a quarter of a million prisoners.

1 But see p. 173, note 1.

page 290

By this time (mid-April) the United States 2 Corps (four divisions) had moved to the northern end of the Allied line facing Bizerta. First Army (six British and three French divisions) was astride the Medjerda and Miliane valleys, and Eighth Army (six divisions1) covered the remainder of the front.

The allocation of the enemy's formations between 5 Panzer and 1 Italian Armies was reasonably well known to the Allies. The situation towards the end of April was as follows:

5 Panzer Army 1 Italian Army
German infantry divisions 4 2
Italian infantry divisions 1 3
Panzer divisions 2 1
Tanks 91 35
Battle strength 50,000 40,000

In other words, the Axis forces were already noticeably stronger in the west than the south, and the enemy, realising his danger, had strengthened his forces in the west at a very recent date. In the circumstances there would not appear to be any chance that he would move troops back again, and the task assigned Eighth Army, of drawing enemy troops from First Army, appears to be realistic only when it is remembered that at the time it was believed that both 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions would be used as at Mareth and Akarit, as mobile reserves to seal off penetration on either front.

There persisted, however, a belief that the enemy would not stand, and that the attack would at the most be a steady advance against rearguards pulling back to main positions on higher ground, ending at Bou Ficha. This belief ran right through the Army at the time, and had its effect on corps, division and brigade planning, but as the days went on the attitude changed a little. At the last it was thought that there would be resistance, although even then the degree of resistance was underestimated.

Throughout the whole of its career to date the Eighth Army had fought in the desert. It had become accustomed to fast movement (both forward and backward), deep penetrations, wide frontages, open flanks, open country with no natural obstacles except wadis and soft going and the occasional escarpment, and a terrain that on the whole was flat. Broken country had been found in the approaches to Tripoli, in the Matmata Hills, and at Wadi Akarit, but none of these positions had any depth.

1 Includes 51 (H) Division, withdrawn for pre-Sicily training, and 56 (London) Division, still en route from Iraq. The latter's divisional sign was a black cat, deriving from the story of Dick Whittington, Lord Mayor of London.

page 291

The Army was now confronted with something new, mountainous country with no clearly defined lines of advance. The front edge of this irregular belt overlooked the approaches from the south, and had natural defensive depth for 30 miles; and if the objective was to be Cape Bon, then it was more than thirty. The terrain now gave all the advantages to the defence, and greatly reduced the effectiveness of Eighth Army's superiority in air, armour and artillery.

Eighth Army approached this last corner of Tunisia flushed with victory and full of confidence, for the farther it had advanced the speedier had been its victories. There was only this last pocket of enemy troops to brush away and the Army would have completed the task it had begun at Alamein.

This attitude can be easily understood, but it was not accompanied by a realisation that the same methods which had given victory in previous months were not now strictly applicable. There was a failure to appreciate that tactics suitable to the desert were not necessarily suitable to the hills. Montgomery was conscious that an advance north from Enfidaville was more difficult than one north-east from Medjez el Bab, and after a while was an advocate of a more passive role for Eighth Army; but initially he planned for a final victory on his own front, an understandable ambition. We find him using words to the effect that nothing short of the capture of the enemy Supreme Headquarters would suffice, that he was not in the least interested in the west, that the Axis High Command was at Cape Bon and that was where the Eighth Army would go. On 18 April he stated that the bulk of the Axis forces was on Eighth Army's front, which proved to be incorrect, and became progressively more so as the days went on.

This strain of optimism and invincibility ran right through the Army, and the effects are clear in the various operation orders. The enemy, on the other hand, was aware of the defensive strength of his position at Enfidaville, had thinned out already, and had no real fears for that part of his line. But Eighth Army did not appreciate that it was faced by a new problem requiring a new solution.

About two months earlier when Rommel was attacking towards Kasserine, the German forces found themselves suddenly in hilly country. After stating that one particular attack collapsed, Rommel says, ‘The trouble was that they had gone the wrong way about it. After fighting for so long in the desert the officers had suddenly found themselves confronted with a terrain not unlike the European Alps.’1 The error then made by the Germans—to try to advance along the valleys without attacking the hills—was not one that was likely to be made by British troops experienced in fighting on

1 Rommel Papers, p. 403.

page 292 the North-West Frontier of India, but the incident shows that Eighth Army was not alone in making errors when the terrain changed.

The truth was that the era of deep penetrations in the attack had ended and was to be replaced by penetrations of a few thousand yards at a time, with a greater density of troops, and a slower rate of progress. Such were the inevitable concomitants of warfare in hilly country. The New Zealand Division had seen something of these problems in Greece, and was later, after a shaky start, to deal successfully with them in Italy, as indeed was the whole Eighth Army. But for the moment the answer was elusive.