The Tunisian Campaign consisted of a series of battles which took place in Tunisia between the Axis and Allied Forces of World War Two. Although initially the Germans and Italians had some success, the Axis’ supply problems led to defeat. In the end over 230,000 Italian and German soldiers were taken prisoners.
For the first two years of conflict in North Africa, the British on one side, and the Germans and Italians on the other, battled for control of Egypt and Libya. The defeat at El Alamein forced the Axis forces to retreat into a trek through Libya and into Tunisia, with the British in pursuit. At the same time, in November 1942, came Operation Torch, an Anglo-American invasion of French Algeria and Morocco. After the success of this operation the Axis forces found themselves pressed in Tunisia from the east and west.
The speed of the German response to Operation Torch surprised the Allies. Two thousand troops were landed at Tunis, the German capital in Africa and thus the ultimate objective. It soon became clear that Hitler intended to contest North Africa despite Rommel’s defeat 1,000 miles to the east. Although the commander of the British First Army, Lieutenant-General Kenneth Anderson, was to reach Bône by land, thereafter the winter rains set in and he found himself at the end of a long supply line fighting on too wide a front – 50 miles – to be able to seize Tunis. Eisenhower’s order to Anderson to give up the drive on Tunis proved correct, however much consternation it created in the British High Command concerning the Supreme Commander’s fitness for the post.
Concerned about a possible collapse of Italy and an attack on Europe from the south, Hitler was now determined to allocate resources to the North African campaign on a scale far greater than ever before in the war. At a time of enormous tension on the Eastern Front, he diverted desperately-needed troops and equipment to Tunisia. It must be noted, furthermore, that he thought of the campaign in Tunisia as more than a holding operation. The situation of the Afrika Korps had always been difficult as long as supplies could not be sent across the short route from Sicily to the ports of Tunis and Bizerta. Now the Korps could work together with the new army being built up in Tunisia.
Some French troops, nominally under General Henri Giraud but actually commanded by General Alphonse Juin, were participating on the Allied side, but the French forces in Tunisia — obedient to orders from General Phillipe Pétain in German-occupied France — had missed their opportunity. This meant that Pétain had performed his last major service for the Germans: there had to be a major campaign for Tunisia and hence no Allied landing in the West in 1943. All of France could look forward to an additional year of German occupation.
Rommel, driven across the Tunisian border early in February 1943, had the Afrika Korps prepared to make a stand at the Mareth Line, its first major attempt to halt Montgomery since El Alamein. As these units dug in, however, Rommel flew westwards to perform one of his stunning counterattacks, in a series of five engagements collectively known as the Battle of Kasserine Pass. Inexperienced, the American units were pushed back some 85 miles from their initial positions, suffering heavy casualties.
Although Rommel’s counterattack finally petered out on the road to Thala called Highway 17, it was not before he had almost broken through to the straight roads and flat country which led to the Le Kef supply depots only 40 miles away. ‘I felt strategic fear,’ the highly competent commander of the French forces in the region, General Alphonse Juin, later admitted, ‘for if Rommel broke through, all of North Africa was doomed.’ The Germans were not about to thrust the Allies all the way back to Casablanca, but they could possibly have turned the tide in Tunisia. Because the line held in the end, Rommel had to withdraw his forces.
American General Lloyd Fredendall had been forced back 85 miles in seven days. The blame for Kasserine must be shared by Anderson, Eisenhower and Fredendall, and the last was swiftly replaced by General George Patton. The defeat at the Kasserine Pass ended any mood of over-confidence, and reminded each component of the Western alliance of the importance of close cooperation. ‘Our people from the very highest to the very lowest have learned that this is not a child’s game,’ Eisenhower reported to Marshall. Yet it must be remembered that the Kasserine Pass was recaptured only days after the defeat.
After Kasserine, Rommel was promoted to become Commander-in-Chief of Army Group Africa. Ultra, the machine the British used to decipher German messages, revealed his intention to use all three of his weak Panzer divisions to strike Montgomery’s Eighth Army, approaching the Axis Mareth line in southern Tunisia. The German push at Medenine was easily thrown back; Rommel, a sick man, left Africa for the last time.
While Patton attacked Rommel’s rear – and with fine covering artillery support defeated the veteran German 10th Panzer Division at El Guettar – the Eighth Army attacked the Mareth Line, but got bogged down in the minefield. Montgomery nonetheless took the port of Sfax shortly afterwards. After the failure of his first assault, Montgomery conducted a successful outflanking operation deeper inland, but the Germans were able to withdraw intact to new positions at Wadi Akarit.
The final part of the campaign saw Mark Clark’s II Corps – Patton had passed on the command in order to plan for the invasion of Sicily – attacking the northern sector of the Axis defensive position, and some particularly tough fighting by the US Army for a defensive position called Hill 609. Anderson’s First Army and Montgomery’s Eighth Army also played crucial roles, which were reallocated by Alexander to ensure that the British and Americans jointly took the glory for expelling the Axis forces from Africa.
General Omar Bradley took Bizerta on 7 May, the same day that the British finally entered Tunis. There was plenty of glory to be shared by the end of the campaign. Rommel’s successor, General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim, was captured, along with no fewer than 230,000 other POWs. ‘The Tunisian campaign is over,’ Alexander cabled Churchill. ‘We are masters of the North African shore.’
Victory had required almost five months’ more fighting than the Anglo-American High Command had anticipated after El Alamein and Torch. But Hitler’s reinforcement of failure rendered the success, when it came, correspondingly greater. Initial American hubris was punished by Wehrmacht skill. But Eisenhower and his colleagues displayed sense and humility in learning the necessary lessons. Weakness of command, tactics, equipment and junior leadership were addressed to some effect before the Allied armies began to cross the Mediterranean.
The obvious lengthening of the North African campaign required a new look at the strategy the Western Allies might follow. The Allied leaders decided that an invasion of Sicily should follow on the final victory in North Africa as part of the plan to knock Italy out of the war. An invasion across the Channel in 1943 was, in effect, ruled out in favor of one in 1944; there was as yet no prospect of an adequate number of American divisions in England or the shipping and landing craft for a major landing in France. The preparations for such an operation, however, were to go forward, at the vehement insistence of the Americans.