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Bardia to Enfidaville

Tunisian Front

page 74

Tunisian Front

WHILE the operations at El Agheila and Nofilia were running their course, westwards in Tunisia matters had not been going well for the Allies. Increasing German pressure, mostly from tanks and dive-bombers, gradually forced the British troops back to Medjez el Bab, some 35 miles from Tunis. The Allies still had the equivalent of only two divisions, while the Axis had four (three German and one Italian). This withdrawal caused a delay in the Allied plans for a counter-offensive, which was finally launched on 22 December. The British 5 Corps (6 Armoured and 78 Divisions) commenced attacks on a pronounced feature, Djebel Ahmera—later known as Longstop Hill—near Medjez; and it was intended that both United States and French troops should join in. But there had already been heavy rain, later becoming torrential,1 and this interfered drastically not only with the fighting but with the movement of supplies.

Between 22 and 24 December General Eisenhower toured the forward area, and as a result postponed the offensive indefinitely, ordering his forces to reorganise and settle down for the winter. The line then ran from El Aouana to Medjez el Bab and Bou Arada, with scattered bodies of troops on a line running south to Pichon. Longstop Hill remained in German possession. The gallant attempt to carry Tunis by storm had failed, albeit by very little. The Allied forces, now in a state of some disorganisation as a result of having been sent into battle piecemeal, needed a period of some months before they would be ready for further offensives.

Towards the end of January 1943 the Allied line from north to south was held by the British 5 Corps, now consisting of 46 and 78 Divisions and a composite division known as ‘Y’, the French 19 Corps of two divisions, and 2 United States Corps of two page 75 divisions (but being built up to four). There had been some confusion within the Allied line owing to the intermingling of nationalities and to the reluctance of the French to place their troops under British command; but on 26 January General Eisenhower issued firm orders that Lieutenant-General K. A. N. Anderson, commanding the First Army, would take over tactical command of the whole front. The final arrangement thus gave First Army three corps, 5 British, 19 French and 2 United States. The Axis strength was by that time the equivalent of five German divisions, including two armoured, and one and a half Italian.

So for a period there was stalemate in the north; but in the south the front was more fluid and allowed of some movement. The gradual build-up of United States troops in this area, based on Tebessa, was sufficient even as early as mid-January to make the Axis nervous about an Allied offensive towards Gabes and Sfax; and for this reason 21 Panzer Division was later sent from Tripolitania to that area.

1 In November 1957 the author represented New Zealand at the unveiling of the War Memorial at Medjez el Bab, which commemorates all those reported ‘Missing’ anywhere in Tunisia. But on the day arranged for the ceremony the rain came down in torrents, in a matter of hours the wadis between Tunis and Medjez were running bank high, and the ceremony had to be postponed after many of those attending (who had all come out from Tunis) had been marooned on the side of the flooding farthest from Tunis. All those present from the First Army — in the majority — were able to say to old Eighth Army types, ‘Now you know why we couldn't get on in December 1942’.