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Bardia to Enfidaville

The Enemy Attempt at Disruption

The Enemy Attempt at Disruption

From the time that they were faced with fighting on two fronts, the Axis commanders—Rommel of the German-Italian Panzer Army, and von Arnim of 5 Panzer Army, the title of the Axis forces in Tunisia—had been apprehensive about an Allied thrust towards Gabes or Sfax from the west, for if successful, this would cut the Axis forces in two. The presence of Allied forces at Gafsa and Faid, even if weak in numbers, was a persistent threat. Rommel had not objected, in early January, when one of his star divisions (21 Panzer Division) was sent to Sfax. It is thus not surprising that after the fall of Tripoli the Axis commanders thought that the time had come to deal with this particular danger, for they were now concentrating in a central position and could take advantage of being on interior lines.

As a result of the flare-up over the withdrawal from the Homs-Tarhuna position, Rommel was in bad odour with his Italian superiors; so it was not surprising when on 26 January he was told that because of his bad health he would be released from command as soon as his forces reached the Mareth Line, and was to be succeeded by the Italian general, Messe. He had no illusions himself about the real reason, and in the first rush of anger asked that Messe should come over as soon as possible, for in his own words, ‘I had little desire to go on any longer playing the scapegoat for a pack of incompetents’.2

However, this feeling did not affect his conduct of the immediate operations, and from 23 January the German-Italian Panzer Army continued to withdraw in good order to the Mareth Line. By the middle of February all the Italian forces were in the line, but page 129 the German forces remained mobile. Messe arrived on 2 February; but then Rommel showed no haste to go off ‘on leave’, waited for a direct order to hand over, and left the unfortunate Messe hanging about with no definite job. Rommel now had a new interest and wanted to see it through, for the Axis appreciation was that it would take Montgomery some time to reorganise and replenish the British forces at Tripoli, so that for once time, however short, was on the enemy's side.

A side issue of this period is the disappearance of Marshal Bastico, who resigned his appointment as Governor of Libya at the end of January. Strangely enough, Rommel speaks of him in a kindly manner in retrospect, and gives him credit for much helpfulness. In his final report Bastico was very critical of Rommel, who in his opinion had lost his nerve after the Battle of Alamein, and thought only of retreat back to the Gabes Gap. Possibly some of Bastico's bitterness springs from Rommel's failure to give the importance to Libya which Bastico naturally thought it deserved. On the other hand, Bastico's failure to realise the strategic necessity of a withdrawl to Gabes Gap, as the Axis called the Akarit position, is fairly typical of the military myopia of Rommel's Italian superiors.

At this time—early February 1943—the control of the two Axis armies was being exercised direct by Comando Supremo in Rome. There was no other official form of co-ordination. The higher direction of the Axis campaign in North Africa is a major subject in itself, a fascinating study of conflicts of ambition, national pride and incapacity, and of failure to find a satisfactory solution. Hitler's view that he was the Supreme Leader of the Axis opposed Mussolini's view that he was an equal partner: the Germans' contempt for their ally, sometimes thinly-veiled and leading to a dislike of having to acknowledge any form of Italian command: the exact position of Kesselring, who was sometimes only a Senior Supply Officer, and then was in and out as commander of all German troops in the Mediterranean, sometimes with tactical control and sometimes not: geographical factors which made German troops dependent on Italian rail and sea facilities: the fact that most of the fighting took place on what was technically Italian soil, but where the effective striking force was German—all these led to a situation where often it could be said that no one knew who was commanding what. It was thus inevitable that there should be great confusion, never more noticeable than now when there were two armies in North Africa. All the German post-mortems on the campaign name the ‘command muddle’ as one of the main causes of their defeat.

page 130

However, in February the situation was that Hitler had conceded that control of operations in Tunisia would be an Italian responsibility, although Field Marshal Kesselring, as German Commander-in-Chief, South, was inserted between the Italian Comando Supremo and the two German army commanders, Rommel and von Arnim. By representations to Comando Supremo, and by constant personal visits from Rome to the respective battle headquarters in Tunisia, Kesselring was able to ensure that German tactical demands were met. Vital orders had still to be issued by Comando Supremo, and this made Kesselring's task as much that of ambassador-at-large as Commander-in-Chief, South, for both von Arnim and Rommel made direct overtures to Comando Supremo, and neither of them willingly subordinated the interest of his own particular project to that of the other.

The immediate Axis intention in Tunisia was that the Eastern Dorsal, the range covering the coastal plain, should be secured, and to this end von Arnim planned to drive the Allies from the wedge they held in the Sidi bou Zid area. Rommel's intention was to drive 2 US Corps from Gafsa, and this operation would not get fully under way until von Arnim's thrust had achieved sufficient success to enable him to release some ninety tanks from 21 Panzer Division. Initially, von Arnim would have under command both 21 and 10 Panzer Divisions, with just over 200 tanks, as well as the new heavy tank battalion with a dozen Mark VI Tigers, while Rommel would start his Gafsa operation with 70 tanks, 53 from 15 Panzer Division and the rest Italian. These decisions were made on 9 February, and the operations began soon afterwards. Greater success than anticipated persuaded Rommel that if only he could get command of the three panzer divisions he could burst through to Tebessa, with Bône, and the consequent withdrawal of First Army and 2 US Corps to Algeria, his ultimate objective.

Consultations between Kesselring, von Arnim and Rommel, together with Rommel's direct approach to Comando Supremo, resulted in a formal directive which Rommel interpreted as giving him Le Kef as his initial objective, the capture of which would involve most of his force and thus prevent his attempt at a wide outflanking drive from Tebessa to Bône. Moreover, von Arnim was given complementary tasks in the north, and although both 10 and 21 Panzer Divisions had been transferred to Rommel's command, only part of 10 Panzer was released and Rommel did not exert his authority to secure the remainder. Splitting his force, Rommel attacked towards Sbiba and Kasserine on 19 February. Successful only at Kasserine, Rommel again split his force and thrust simultaneously towards Tebessa and Thala. By 22 February page 131 he decided that success had eluded him, and ordered withdrawal. His action, however, together with von Arnim's continued aggression in the north, postponed effective co-operation between First Army and 2 US Corps on one hand, and Eighth Army on the other.1

On 23 February, Comando Supremo announced plans that had been long maturing. Just as the Allies had instituted unified command for the land forces by the establishment of Eighteenth Army Group, so the Axis grouped all their forces into Army Group Africa, which included 5 Panzer Army and the German-Italian Panzer Army, or First Italian Army as it had been designated during Rommel's absence at Kasserine. Although it had been planned that von Arnim was to command Army Group Africa, Rommel was persuaded to accept command on the basis that he would relinquish it to von Arnim at a time of his own choosing. In the meantime von Arnim would command 5 Panzer Army and Messe 1 Italian Army, while Rommel retained under his direct command the three panzer divisions. The immediate task for Army Group Africa was the disruption of Eighth Army's concentration before the Mareth Line, and the panzer divisions were reserved for this purpose. Fifth Panzer Army would carry on with offensive operations in the north aimed to delay for as long as possible any effective co-operation between the two Allied armies.

2 Rommel Papers, p. 391.

1 For analysis of these operations see Howe, Northwest Africa: Seizing the Initiative in the West (US Army in World War II series).