During the period when II Corps, with three of its divisions, was engaged in the battles for Gafsa, Maknassy, and El Guettar, the 34th Infantry Division, and later the British 9 Corps, was attempting to gain the important gap through the Eastern Dorsal near Fondouk el Aouareb. If the Allies could thus succeed in driving the enemy out of his mountain defenses they would be in a position to threaten Kairouan and possibly cut off the enemy's forces in the southern portion of the Tunisian bridgehead.
General Alexander's plan of 25 March specified that the 34th Infantry Division should attack as early as possible on the axis Sbeïtla-Hadjeb el Aïoun-Fondouk el Aouareb, to seize the heights on the Eastern Dorsal south of the gap, and Djebel Trozza (997), which is about eight miles west of it. (Map 17) "This ground will be firmly held," the directive stated, "to enable mobile forces to operate from there into the Kairouan plain."1 General Patton later passed on these instructions to General Ryder, Commanding General, 34th Infantry Division, in an evening conference at Fériana on 25 March.2 His directions to Ryder were brief and clear. The 34th Division was to make what amounted to a large-scale demonstration. Seizing Kairouan was not desired. The attack was to gain the pass and, after intermediate objectives there had been occupied, to make strong demonstrations in the direction of Kairouan.3 The means and method were left to Ryder's discretion.
By moving a regiment on the night of 25-26 March, and a second on the following night from the area of Sbeïtla to the vicinity of Hadjeb el Aïoun, and leaving one regiment at Sbeïtla for defense, General Ryder could attack at daylight on 27 March. He left the 133d Infantry (less one battalion stationed at AFHQ in Algiers) to defend Sbeïtla, and sent the 135th and
First Attack on Fondouk
27 March 1943
168th Infantry into the attack. The 175th Field Artillery Battalion was to support the 168th Infantry; the 125th and 185th Field Artillery Battalions were to support the 135th Infantry; and battalions of the 178th and 36th Field Artillery Regiments were to remain in position near Sbeïtla, subject to call. Units of the 813th Tank Destroyer Battalion and the 751st Tank Battalion were to assemble near Hadjeb el Aïoun and be in reserve on the right wing of the attack. Antiaircraft batteries of the 107th Coast Artillery were attached to the field artillery. The routes of approach through a secondary pass east of Hadjeb el Aïoun or via the western side of Djebel Trozza were to be covered by reconnaissance elements.4
The opening at Fondouk el Aouareb, through which First Army had expected an enemy attack on 14 February that actually came through Faïd pass, is about sixteen miles northeast of Hadjeb el Aïoun at a gap where the Marguellil river goes through the eastern mountain chain. The shallow stream flows from the northwest and in an elbow turn swings eastward at the pass through a wide, marshy valley. North of the opening is the Djebel ech Cherichera (462) and its foothills. Immediately to the south, several precipitous knobs along parallel ridges of the Djebel el Aouareb (306) lead to a higher hill mass. The Zeroud river winds its way around them at a distance of 10 to 20 miles south of Fondouk. The gap at the village of Fondouk el Aouareb narrows to about 1,000 yards and the ground appears, except for occasional mounds, almost flat both east and west of it. Just west of it, on the northern side of the stream, is the Djebel Aïn el Rhorab (290), a steep-sided ridge above a large native village and spring. From this hill all of the roads from the west and
DJEBEL AÏN EL RHORAB as seen from Fondouk el Aouareb.
southwest that meet in the pass en route to Fondouk el Aouareb can be observed and brought under fire. All the roads converging on the village from these directions are dominated also by the massive Djebel Trozza, with a crest over 3,000 feet high. These roads run over a bare, undulating plain cut by wadies but devoid of important vegetation except for widely scattered cactus patches and small olive groves. In the spring, the time of these operations, desert flowers of brilliant hue abound. The attack on 27 March approached the pass from the southwest along the Hadjeb el Aïoun˝Fondouk el Aouareb road, which became the boundary between the two participating regiments.5
The defenders were in positions on the hills. The zone of which this portion was a critical part was controlled by the Italian XXX Corps (General Sogno) headquarters at Sousse, through Group Fullriede at Kairouan. The forces were neither numerous nor exceptionally well equipped, and were rather thinly strung from outposts near
Pichon southward to the Zeroud river. Hills northwest of Fondouk el Aouareb toward Pichon were held by two companies of the 1st Battalion, 961st Infantry Regiment, each with three rifle platoons, one platoon with two heavy machine guns and two mortars, and one antitank platoon with two guns. This unit (of the 999th Africa Division) consisted chiefly of court-martialed German soldiers to whom combat duty was permitted for the purpose of rehabilitation. The defense of Fondouk el Aouareb gap was its first important battle.
Along Djebel ech Cherichera and northeast of it was the 190th Reconnaissance Battalion, reinforced with some artillery. To the south, along the crest of Djebel el Aouareb, the 27th Africa Battalion was stationed, and from there to Djebel Hallouf (481), the Headquarters, 961st Infantry Regiment (Kampfgruppe Wolf), was ready. It consisted of the 1st Battalion (-) and the 2d Battalion, 961st Infantry Regiment, reinforced with artillery and antitank guns. As reinforcements for his sector, Colonel Fullriede could also draw on the 34th Africa Battalion, the 2d Battalion, Italian 91st Infantry Regiment, and some native Arab troop units. The enemy expected an attack in view of the information gleaned on 26 March from prisoners.6
The 34th Infantry Division's two regiments organized with the somewhat more experienced 168th Infantry (Colonel Butler) on the right nearer the enemy's principal hill positions and the 135th Infantry (Colonel Ward) on the northwest.7 At 0600, 27 March, the attack opened on a four-battalion front. Each regiment echeloned its leading battalion and put a second battalion behind the outer company of the assault unit. The troops reached the first phase line four hours later in good order and without coming under hostile fire. The steeply sloped hills of the Eastern Dorsal crossed their path of approach obliquely, with Hill 306 on Djebel el Aouareb, the first objective, still several miles away. The next phase of the advance shortly brought the leading elements within range of shelling from both the hills to the east and those to the northwest in the vicinity of Djebel Trozza. Most fire fell at first on the 168th Infantry. American artillery drove off an enemy reconnaissance group of scout cars and two light tanks which approached from the northwest and also struck two squads of the 135th's Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon at close range. Then, as the volume of fire from the hills intensified, the 135th Infantry, ahead and on the left, stopped a little before 1400. The men sought cover from both the frontal and enfilading fire of heavy machine guns, artillery, and mortars. The 1st and 2d Battalions, 168th Infantry, heading for somewhat separated objectives on their part of the front, were only partly successful.
As nightfall drew near, the 2d and 3d Battalions, 135th Infantry, attacked abreast in fading light. They succeeded in penetrating the enemy's main line of resistance, but in the darkness which now prevailed the unit commanders lost control and could not hold their gains. A gap developed during this attack between the 135th Infantry and the 168th Infantry on its right.8
Another attack next morning after a heavy artillery preparation carried the advance elements to the base of the main ridge but neither then nor later did assaulting forces risk enough troops to gain full possession of the exposed upper slopes. Infiltration tactics were unsuccessful. Three days of small infantry attacks followed, and during this period the northern flank of the 135th Infantry was under persistent enfilading fire by flat trajectory weapons which swept the reverse slopes of forward ridges and severely hampered daylight movement. Several battalion officers were wounded, requiring the transfer of Lt. Col. Albert A. Svoboda, regimental executive officer, to command the 2d Battalion, and the regimental S-1, Capt. Ray Erickson, to be Svoboda's operations officer, while the executive officer of the 1st Battalion, Maj. Garnet Hall, was shifted to command the 3d Battalion. These vital changes occurred while the units were thoroughly engaged, and weakened the regimental staff. Farther south, elements of the 168th Infantry gained some isolated crests. On the morning of 31 March, a mobile armored force struck an enemy group lurking in the cactus and olive groves on the northwestern slopes of Djebel Touil (665), about five miles south of the main battle area, and drove them out despite strong fire from adjacent hills and an attack by Axis dive bombers. This operation was thought to have forestalled, at the cost of two tanks, an enemy blow at the 168th Infantry's southern flank.9
The 34th Infantry Division's attack was stopped short of Fondouk el Aouareb gap on 28 March and never actually reached it. Furthermore, General Ryder adhered to General Patton's oral instruction to make a lot of noise but not to run grave risks merely to gain ground.10 Co-ordination and control were defective. The Germans in consequence derived a low estimate of American soldiers. "The American gives up the fight as soon as he is attacked. Our men feel superior to the enemy in every respect," a German inspector reported on 2 April.11
On the nights of 31 March˝1 April and 1-2 April, with the division's combat condition reported as only "fair," the infantry units fell back well out of the range of the heavy machine guns and artillery in their protected emplacements on the Djebel Aïn el Rhorab, the Djebel el Aouareb, Djebel el Djeriri (374), and Djebel Hallouf, to defensive positions four miles to the west. There they waited and rested.12
The Second Attack at Fondouk el Aouareb Falters
Benefiting from his first attempt at Fondouk el Aouareb, during which he realized, after testing its defenses, that he had committed too small a force, General Alexander directed that the new effort should be part of a much broader push extending for fifteen miles from Fondouk el Aouareb northeastward along the mountain chain to the northern extremity of Djebel Ousselat
(887). For the whole offensive, General Koeltz's French XIX Corps (under British First Army) and the British 9 Corps commanded by Lt. Gen. Sir John Crocker (directly under 18 Army Group) were to be used. British combat units for the prospective operation could not get into position before 7 April, when not much time would be left for the break-through if the enemy was to be intercepted on the coastal plain.13 The 34th Infantry Division (from U.S. II Corps), the British 6th Armoured Division, 128th Infantry Brigade, and two squadrons of the 51st Royal Tank Regiment (temporarily released by British First Army) comprised General Crocker's command.14
The ultimate objective, at one time to confine the enemy's retreat to the coastal road east of Kairouan, was redefined before the attack began as interception and destruction of retreating forces.15 American and British infantry were expected to open the pass while the British armor went through in order to carry out its mission on the coastal plain, and while French and other British units swept the enemy from the hills north of Fondouk el Aouareb gap.
On the day before the attack, General Crocker, at General Ryder's headquarters near the village of Djebel Trozza, held a command conference which was attended by his principal subordinates and by General Koeltz. The British 9 Corps plan was set forth and the plans for each of the participating major units then explained. General Crocker had established the northern boundary of the 34th Division's zone along the southern edge of the Marguellil river, thus splitting the gap itself, as well as the approach from the west, into American and British areas of attack. (Map 18) In conformity with preliminary understandings, General Ryder's plan prescribed the employment of all three of his regiments (including the two-battalion 133d Infantry) and more armor and artillery than in the first attack, after making a sideslip to the northward from their current positions southwest of the gap.16 The assault would be made squarely eastward toward the heights south of Fondouk el Aouareb. Its left flank would depend for protection upon a simultaneous attack by the British 128th Brigade aimed at denying to the enemy the use of Djebel Aïn el Rhorab. The ground over which the 34th Division would attack was so open as to make the frontal assault on Djebel el Aouareb's steep and craggy slopes a formidable task. But the additional enfilading fire to be expected from Djebel Aïn el Rhorab could be positively devastating.
At the command conference on 6 April, General Ryder learned for the first time that the British 128th Infantry Brigade would attack initially the heights east of Pichon, and then move southward toward Djebel Aïn el Rhorab, which it could reach at best only after the passage of several hours of
Battle for Fondouk Gap
8˝9 April 1943
daylight. Later recollections of the discussion which followed are somewhat conflicting, but General Ryder's misgivings concerning the exposed northern flank of his attack, however clearly he may have expressed them, produced no change in the corps orders. General Crocker and his chief of staff, Brig. Gordon MacMillan, then believed, as they did after the operation, that Djebel Aïn el Rhorab was much less strongly held than the heights east of Pichon and was not a serious menace to Ryder's attack. General Ryder's division could not add the seizure of Djebel Aïn el Rhorab to its other responsibilities or even gain permission to reply to fire received from it, except to cover it with smoke shells during the critical opening phase.
The whole operation, as British 9 Corps planned it, would occur in three phases. First, the British 128th Infantry Brigade would seize crossings over the Marguellil river west of the village of Pichon early on the night of 7-8 April, thus enabling engineers to construct bridging for tanks and other vehicles before daylight. At dawn it would continue to the east to gain the heights beyond Pichon, then turn southward toward Fondouk el Aouareb gap to neutralize or occupy Djebel Aïn el Rhorab. The second phase would consist of parallel attacks by the 128th Infantry Brigade and the 34th Infantry Division on opposite sides of the river to drive the enemy from the heights. In the third phase, the British 6th Armoured Division was to pass through the gap.17 The decision whether the tanks of the 26th Armoured Brigade would be sent through first or be preceded by the 1st Guards Brigade was deferred until the course of the battle had clarified the nature of the defense to be overcome. Moreover, if General Crocker should have to use the 1st Guards Brigade to clear Djebel Aïn el Rhorab, it would of course leave no alternative to a decision to use British armor at the head of the column through the gap.18
With the start of operations so near, and with the elements of British 9 Corps assembling within sight of Djebel Trozza on 5-6 April, General Ryder faced an extremely difficult situation. His troops had just failed in one attack against the objective which they were now to assault for the second time. It would be extremely difficult to get them in motion again once they had been pinned down by heavy enemy fire. They might succeed, of course, despite their inexperience in night attack, in crossing to the hills under cover of darkness, but once they were there, they could no longer be aided by an air bombardment.19 Air bombing was more desirable than artillery fire because the enemy could take shelter behind great boulders on the reverse slopes of Djebel el Aouareb's several ridges and emerge unhurt when the artillery fire was lifted. Any daylight advance on the American side of the Marguellil river would be, as noted, in serious jeopardy while the enemy could fire from Djebel Aïn el Rhorab. General Koeltz, whose corps had been driven out in January after holding
Fondouk el Aouareb gap for a time, and who had planned several times to retake it, knew the terrain very well. He could appreciate General Ryder's conviction, a conviction also reached by Maj. Gen. Harold R. Bull on arrival at General Ryder's command post during the afternoon before the attack, that the U.S. 34th Infantry Division was being committed under a faulty plan which threatened to result in failure. But it was now too late to revise the entire scheme of attack.20
General Ryder balanced the factors affecting his part of the attack and concluded that he should get his assault battalions on the objective before dawn. He obtained consent from 9 Corps to advance his attack from 0530 to 0300. Corps concluded that the preparatory air bombardment of Djebel el Aouareb should be cancelled, and notified the division just before midnight, 7-8 April, that no such bombing would take place. The leading infantry units were then marching in a northeasterly loop to the line of departure at a large wadi running generally north and south some 5,000 yards from the base of the hills. At 0220, a liaison officer left division headquarters with orders to cross the line of departure at 0300.21
The attack was to be made by two regiments in column of battalions, the 135th Infantry on the north and the 133d on the south. Each regiment put its 3d Battalion ahead on a 1,500-yard front. The 1st and 3d Battalions, 168th Infantry, were at first to protect the tank and artillery assembly areas, and to patrol toward Djebel Touil. The 2d Battalion was held in reserve near the division command post. One company of the 751st Tank Battalion was to assemble south of the line of departure for commitment with the assault infantry on division order, while the remainder of the tanks, with the 813th Tank Destroyer Battalion (less one company), were held farther to the south for commitment on that flank or elsewhere as required. To the south and rear of the line of departure, six battalions of artillery were set up for massed fires. Farther to the rear, the 36th Field Artillery Regiment (less 1st Battalion) was emplaced. The deep northern flank was protected by a company of the 813th Tank Destroyer Battalion and the 2d Battalion, 168th Infantry. Eventually this infantry battalion would be released by the division to the 133d Infantry on the southern wing of the assault. The 135th Infantry was directed to smoke appropriate targets on its left flank by mortars, but Djebel Aïn el Rhorab would be out of mortar range.22
Upon arriving at a co-ordinating line about 1,500 yards from the base of Djebel el Aouareb the two leading battalions on the assault line were expected to pause for reorganization while the Commanding Officer, 3d Battalion, 135th Infantry (Major Hall), fired a flare as a signal for the beginning of artillery preparation fire. Because of communications difficulties the two battalions did not attack until about 0530, instead of at 0300 as ordered. Hall's battalion veered to the north on the way to the co-ordinating line, causing a gap to develop between it and the 3d Battalion, 133d Infantry. At
0630, the artillery men saw the signal and began shelling the objective. At the same time the enemy opened up on the attacking infantry with mortar and machine gun fire. To fill the gap, 1st Battalion, 135th Infantry (Lt. Col. Robert P. Miller), hurried forward across the flats toward the assault line as the rising sun shone from behind the enemy, and as hostile fire from the left and the front quickened.
At this juncture, General Ryder learned that the artillery had been signaled when the troops were still considerably short of the line specified in the plans and when in fact most of them were still west of the 2,000-yard bomb line. He therefore tried at about 0745 to have the infantry stopped, the artillery alerted to mark the target by smoke shells, and an air bombing mission reinstated for the half hour from 0800 to 0830. Some of the infantry had to pull back. The enemy in front quieted down on the south and center but remained very active on the north, and on the northern flank, as the minutes ticked off but the air attack failed to materialize. The strike was postponed one hour and, at 0930, was abandoned altogether. The artillery then repeated its preparation with smoke and high explosive, and the infantry resumed its advance.23
The attack started forward by bounds under increasing enemy fire which in spots raised a cloud of dust almost as opaque as a smoke screen. Every attempt to reply brought a quick response from well-registered enemy artillery. The men then reacted as General Ryder had anticipated they would. They dug shallow trenches, found dry wadies, or lay behind sand hummocks for cover. Troops comprising the northern wing of the attack could not be induced to go forward into a curtain of fire such as they had never previously encountered.24 Elsewhere the attack also dragged to a stop.
The British 128th Infantry Brigade, supported by Churchill tanks of the 51st Royal Tank Regiment, attacked at the designated time through Pichon to the heights east of the village but fell somewhat behind schedule. Turning south at 1500, the brigade stopped about a mile and a half from Djebel Aïn el Rhorab in the latter part of the afternoon, after the enemy on Djebel Aïn el Rhorab switched his heavy mortar fire northeastward to oppose its progress. About 1600, when the 34th Infantry Division, supported by American tanks, renewed its attack toward Djebel el Aouareb the British 26th Armoured Brigade passed through the division's area, much to the Americans' surprise and confusion. American infantry reached some of the enemy's positions at the base of the hills but could not hold them. The 135th Infantry units, after withdrawal, were partly interspersed among vehicles of the British armored force, which remained deployed in attack formation. Reorganization under enemy observation and under the increased fire attracted by these vehicles was necessary before the regiment
could again engage, as it did early next morning, in co-ordinated action. At all points, the first day's attack at Fondouk el Aouareb gap had been thwarted.25
When General Keightley, 6th Armoured Division commander, returned to his command post about 1830 from a reconnaissance toward the pass, he found orders from General Crocker to create or discover a path through the enemy's mine field during the night, to push the tanks through early next morning, and to protect his own left flank from enemy guns and mortars on Djebel Aïn el Rhorab by sending one battalion of infantry to take it before daylight.26 Crocker insisted that Djebel Aïn el Rhorab was lightly held or possibly even abandoned and must not be "re-occupied." Actually, it was strongly defended by a small force which was to be reinforced. Keightley sent the 3d Battalion, Welsh Guards (3/WG), to patrol as far as Djebel Aïn el Rhorab that night and to attack as early as possible in the morning. When General Crocker discovered at daybreak, 9 April, that Djebel Aïn el Rhorab was just about to be attacked but that a path through the mines had not been opened, and the enemy's defenses had not yet been fully tested, he sent the 26th Armoured Brigade into the pass, ordered the entire Guards Brigade, if necessary, to occupy Djebel Aïn el Rhorab, and directed the 128th Infantry Brigade to assist them.
At 0900, 9 April, before General Crocker's orders had been executed, thirty-one of General Ryder's tanks were on the 34th Division objective ahead of his infantry in an attack without benefit of artillery preparation, but the infantry remained pinned down under intensified ground fire and an enemy dive-bombing, so that the whole effort went for naught. Five tanks were lost. A second attempt about 1130 on a narrower portion of the front reached the lower slopes of Hill 306 but was then smothered by fire, mainly from the north flank.27 The remaining tanks were then sent to the rear, out of range. The British 6th Armoured Division would apparently have to punch its own way through the gap.28
Djebel Aïn el Rhorab was captured during the afternoon, 9 April, by the 3d Battalion, Welsh Guards, supported by tanks of the 2d Lothians, and was mopped up with the help of the 3d Battalion, Grenadier Guards (3/GG). They took over 100 German prisoners from the 26th and 27th Africa Battalions. The 135th Infantry was still receiving fire from the left as late as 1430, but they were ordered not to reply.29
On 8 April the enemy was forced to commit his reserves to prevent the Allies from breaking through to the Kairouan plain. Shortly before Djebel Aïn el Rhorab was captured by the British, Colonel Fullriede reinforced the two companies of the 27th Africa Battalion defending Djebel Aïn el Rhorab and the hills to the north of it by sending into the line the 26th Africa Battalion. On 9 April, as the situation further deteriorated, he committed one company of the 334th Reconnaissance Battalion with
the mission of regaining the lost ground on the djebel. The antitank company (armed with seven self-propelled antitank guns and a captured and converted American armored car) took up positions to the south of the Marguellil river and the Kairouan road. Further to strengthen the antitank defenses of the pass area north of the river, the German commander borrowed six self-propelled 47-mm. antitank guns from the Italian 135th Armored Battalion and two 88-mm. dual-purpose Flak guns. In the thickly mined pass were at least thirteen heavy antitank guns on the southern side of the river and two more north of it. Through this gantlet the British armor was waiting to run.30
Failure to obtain the pass on 8 April for the unimpeded passage of the British 6th Armoured Division threatened to frustrate the purpose of the whole effort, which, as already pointed out, has been running on a very close schedule from the first. The Chott Position at the Akarit wadi had been defended only briefly. The Italian First Army was already streaming northward over the coastal plain, on the roads leading east of Kairouan. Although the German Africa Corps was nearer the mountain chain, it could still be intercepted only if the Allied armored units were on the plain south of Kairouan before 10 April.
British 6th Armoured Division Breaks Out at Fondouk el Aouareb
While the 3d Welsh Guards and the U.S. 34th Infantry Division were attacking, the British 26th Armoured Brigade spent the morning of 9 April and the first half of the afternoon in a successful effort to penetrate the enemy's deep but irregular belt of mines across the gap. The 17/21 Lancers with some Royal Engineers found a lane which permitted one small tank unit to get through about 1215 before being stopped by fire from Fondouk el Aouareb village, 400 yards beyond the mine field. As British along with a number of American troops boldly tried to clear another lane farther south, the 16/5 Lancers discovered a twisting and difficult path which involved crossing the stream bed to the northern side, working along that bank for almost a mile, and then turning south to recross the Marguellil on the far side of Fondouk el Aouareb village. Allied counterbattery fire during this protracted and courageous action took its toll of the enemy's antitank guns, but they in turn knocked out enough British tanks to bring the total to a considerable figure. The Coldstream Guards were ordered to clear the enemy from those heights nearest the gap, originally in the U.S. 34th Infantry Division's zone. The American zone was then narrowed in order to transfer this area to the British 6th Armoured Division. Armored units began to emerge on the eastern side of the mine field between 1500 and 1800, 9 April. The enemy in the hills facing General Ryder's troops prepared to join the main northward retreat during the night.
The 1st Battalion, 133d Infantry, attacked to gain the summit of Hill 306 and adjacent ground after dark, 9-10 April. The Americans reached the crest while a few of the defenders were still there, and drove them off. By noon, 10 April, elements of the 34th Infantry Division including the 168th Infantry, which had relieved the
133d Infantry, held the dominating hills on either side of the Marguellil river. The British armored units were by that time seeking out elements of the enemy near Kairouan, which they entered next day after the enemy's units had withdrawn.
The Enemy Slips Past Kairouan
The Italian First Army's Italian elements, making good use of the holding action at Fondouk el Aouareb, had passed across the Kairouan plain on 8-9 April before the British 6th Armoured Division could block their path. But the enemy needed still more time. The German units under General Bayerlein were somewhat more slowly moving up the coast, east of Kairouan, under light pressure by British Eighth Army.31 The remnants of the 10th Panzer and 21st Panzer Divisions, of Kampfgruppe Lang, of Division Centauro, and the other units under the command of the German Africa Corps were on the line Faïd˝Sfax during the night of 8-9 April, and were to pass through Kairouan on the night of 9-10 April. The German forces defending at Fondouk el Aouareb had therefore been requested to hold until 10 April to permit their passage.32 Before the British 6th Armoured Division could reach the plain east of Kairouan, it not only had to cross the mine field, but it also had to overcome antitank guns farther east. At the cost of four Shermans, the 16/5 Lancers drove off a determined covering enemy force at these guns late in the day.33
After winning their way through the gap, British 9 Corps took account of the losses (thirty-four tanks), the approaching darkness, and the possibility of a counterattack in the morning by the German Africa Corps. General Crocker decided not to push out onto the plain until morning and the armored elements already through Fondouk el Aouareb gap were called back into the pass to harbor for the night.34 The 9 Corps commander and his staff concluded that the main opportunity to strike the weaker elements of the enemy had passed. They understood, moreover, that the enemy was planning to hold in the area one more day. The disappointment and sense of frustration engendered by the delay were profound.
The second attack at Fondouk el Aouareb gap subjected Allied relations to a considerable strain, for General Crocker not only recommended withdrawal of the 34th Infantry Division for retraining of junior officers at the rear under British guidance but blamed the failure of his operation toward Kairouan on the inability to get through the pass expeditiously, and that failure, in turn, upon the incapacity of the 34th Division. Similar disparagements were published shortly thereafter in the United States, where the public had quite wrongly been encouraged to expect an American drive to the sea between the two Axis armies. The German retreat was described as though "Rommel" had again succeeded in outwitting the Allies, this time because of American deficiencies. American officers aware of the issues involved later condemned the corps plan of attack on which General Crocker had insisted as being unnecessarily prodigal with American troops and matériel.
They absolved the 34th Division of sole responsibility for failure, emphasing heavily General Ryder's predicament in being obliged to attack with an exposed flank, and minimizing the faulty aspects of his division's operations. Generals Eisenhower and Alexander took swift steps to suppress the mounting tide of recrimination, while the 34th Division acted energetically to forestall future failures. The division, after beginning at once a program of intensive training in the various types of attack--by night, with tanks, behind a rolling artillery barrage, and in mountainous terrain--and after some changes in command, was whipped into effective condition.35
During the night of 8-9 April all but the rear guard of the German Africa Corps rolled past the Fondouk el Aouareb˝Kairouan area undeterred. At about 1000 on 10 April the British 6th Armoured Division completed the transit of Fondouk el Aouareb gap in time to start for Kairouan, eighteen miles away. With about 110 Sherman tanks, it moved astride the Fondouk el Aouareb-Kairouan road on a broad front. It fought several small armored engagements during a day and netted about 650 prisoners, 14 tanks, and 15 guns. At 1110, 10 April, 18 Army Group issued a new instruction to British 9 Corps. After cleaning up the area near Kairouan, it was to turn toward Sbikha in an attempt to cut off enemy forces stranded in the northern portion of the Eastern Dorsal. These instructions were put into effect on 11 April. During 10 April, Combat Command A, U.S. 1st Armored Division, pushed through Aïn Rebaou pass south of Faïd under General Patton's personal supervision and moved along the eastern side of the mountain chain. By late evening its 81st Reconnaissance Battalion had come in contact with elements of the 168th Infantry east of Fondouk el Aouareb village.36
By nightfall, 10 April, General Koeltz's command had succeeded in pushing through the Djebel Ousselat to the coastal plain. The Aïn Djeloula pass between Ousseltia and Kairouan, scene of the January battles, had come into French possession. (See Map 8.) Over 1,000 prisoners had been taken. Yet for the French, 10 April had been an extremely costly day. Their gallant General Welvert had been fatally wounded by a mine, a heavy price even for the important gains achieved.37
The mission of the II Corps from 17 March to 10 April had been to menace the enemy's line of communications, threaten an incursion into the rear of the First Italian Army, and absorb enemy strength, thereby weakening the resistance of the Axis forces to the British Eighth Army. General Montgomery's army was at the same time faced with the task of overcoming the enemy's advantage of prepared positions, first at Mareth and later at the Chott Position, an advantage which could be extremely costly
to any attacking force and which could be nullified only if the enemy was deprived of reserves. The Americans in Tunisia and elsewhere would have been gratified if the II Corps had broken through the eastern mountain chain to deliver disastrous blows on the main body of the enemy. It was hard for them to accept the view that the II Corps was not yet equal to such a mission against the more experienced foe. But the 18 Army Group would not have authorized any large-scale American thrust beyond the mountains, once a pass through them had been secured, unless such a maneuver were likely to save a bad situation or to supply the margin of strength necessary to exploit a triumph. The issue never came to a decision, since the enemy held at all points on the II Corps front and at Fondouk el Aouareb until he was ready to withdraw.
On 13 April, the middle period of the Allied campaign in Tunisia ended. Constriction of the enemy into northeastern Tunisia had eliminated his freedom to maneuver and had cost him important airfields. The 18 Army Group made arrangements to convert and supplement these airfields, and to tighten the ring which hemmed in Army Group Africa. General Alexander assigned II Corps a substantial role in the final phase of the campaign, and by 11 April it was already taking steps to shift to its new zone of attack.38
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1. 18 A Gp Opn Instruc 9, 25 Mar 43. AFHQ Micro Job 10A, Reel 6C.
2. The staff of the 34th Division was as follows: commanding general, General Ryder; assistant division commander, General Caffey; chief of staff, Col. Norman E. Hendrickson; G-1, Lt. Col. Thomas I. Gaines; G-2, Lt. Col. Hubert Demarais; G-3, Lt. Col. Robert B. Neely; G-4, Lt. Col. Walter W. Wendt; artillery, Brig. Gen. Albert C. Stanford.
3. (1) Memo, CG 34th Div for CG II Corps, 25 Mar 43, sub: Opn Plan, with copy of outline plan annexed, Entry 321, in II Corps G-3 Jnl. (2) Interv with Gen Ryder, 21 Feb 50.
4. Northwest of Pichon, the French XIX Corps (Divisions Mathenet and Welvert--also known as the Constantine Division) were to push across the Ousseltia valley at this time.
5. (1) 135th Inf Hist, Sec. IV, pp. 9-11. (2) 133d Inf Hist, 7 Jun 43, Incl 1, pp. 11-13, and Incl 2, pp. 4-5. (3) Geographical Sec Gen Staff Map 4225, Sheet 70 (1:50,000). (4) Interv with Col Ward, 30 Nov 50.
6. (1) 999th Africa Division, KTB, Anlagenband 2. Einsatz TUNIS, 26.III.-12.V.43, and maps in Anlagenband 3. (2) AFHQ G-2 Rpts, 8-9 Apr 43. (3) Daily Sitrep, 26 Mar 43, in Fifth Panzer Army, KTB, Anlagenband VA, Anlage 117A.
7. 34th Div FO 34, 26 Mar 43.
8. (1) 135th Inf Hist, Sec. IV, pp. 9-11. (2) 168th Inf Hist, 12 Nov 42 to 15 May 43, pp. 38-39. (3) Interv with Col Ward, 30 Nov 50. (4) Memo, Col Ward for Gen Ward, 22 Jan 51. OCMH.
9. (1) See n. 8 above. (2) 751st Tank Bn (M) AAR, 30 Apr 43. The force consisted of Company C, 751st Tank Battalion; Company A, 813th Tank Destroyer Battalion; one motorized company of the 109th Combat Engineers.
10. (1) Interv with Gen Caffey, 21 Feb 50. (2) Ltr, Lt Col Donald C. Landon to author, 17 June 51.
11. 999th Africa Division, KTB, Anlagenband 2, Einsatz TUNIS 26.III.˝12.V.43, Rpt Nr. 4 (Capt Retzlaff), Sec. III.
12. (1) 34th Inf Div G-3 Periodic Rpts 48, 31 Mar 43, and 49, 1 Apr 43. (2) 168th Inf Hist, 12 Nov 42˝15 May 43, reported casualties as follows: killed, 17; wounded, 108; missing, 178.
13. Rpt, Brig Sugden to G-3 AFHQ, 7 Apr 43, sub: Conv between Sugden and Gen McCreery, 6 Apr; Memo, Col James F. Torrence, Jr., for G-3 AFHQ, 3 Apr 43. AFHQ G-3 Ops, Micro Job 10A, Reel 6C.
14. German officers who took part in this operation have stated that a maximum effort at Fondouk el Aouareb and by Eighth Army north of Sfax could have shortened the war in Tunisia by one month. MS # T-3 (Nehring et al.), Vol. 3a.
15. For former objective, see Colonel Torrence's Memo of 3 April based on 2 April conference with General McCreery and Brigadier Holmes; for the latter, Brigadier Sugden's report of 7 April after talking with McCreery. Both cited in n. 13 above.
16. (1) General Crocker visited the area for ground reconnaissance presumably on 1 April, Msg, 18 A Gp to II Corps, 1826, 31 Mar 43, Entry 159, in II Corps G-3 Jnl. (2) Interv with Gen Ryder, 21 Feb 50.
17. Br. 9 Corps Opn Order 2, 1100, 6 Apr 43, in 34th Div G-3 Jnl.
18. (1) Intervs with Gens Ryder, Caffey, and Bull, 21 Feb 50. (2) Statement by Lt Gen Sir Gordon MacMillan, 4 Sep 50, based on his diary. OCMH. (3) Gen Koeltz, Note établié de mémoire sur la Ryder, 1950. OCMH. (4) Info supplied by Cabinet réunion tenue le 6 avril 1943 au P. C. du Général Office, London. (5) 9 Corps Opn Order 2, 6 Apr 43, in 34th Div G-3 Jnl.
19. The prevailing methods of tactical bombing support required that the troops remain west of a bomb line 2,000 yards from the target, rather than marking their forward line by smoke or panels or using radio communications direct to the planes.
20. (1) Intervs with Gens Ryder and Bull, 21 Sep 50. (2) Gen Koeltz, Note établié de mémoire sur la réunion tenue le 6 avril 1943 au P. C. du Général Ryder, 1950. OCMH.
21. (1) 34th Div FO 30, 0830, 7 Apr 43, and amendments, 1130, 7 Apr 43. (2) G˝S Msg File and Jnl, 34th Inf Div, 1-8 Apr 43; 133d Regt Jnl, Apr-May 43. (3) Statement by Gen MacMillan, 4 Sep 50. OCMH.
22. 34th Div FO 30, 0830, 7 Apr 43, with amendments, 2350, 7 Apr 43.
23. (1) 34th Div FO 30 with amendments. (2) Msgs, 8 Apr 43, in 34th Div G-3 Jnl. (3) Interv with Col Ward, 30 Nov 50. (4) Memo, Col Ward for Gen Ward, 22 Jan 51. OCMH. (5) Intervs with Gens Ryder and Caffey, 21 Feb 50.
24. (1) 135th Inf Hist, p. 10. (2) Maj Roland Anderson, Operations of the 135th Infantry in the Vicinity of Fondouk el Okbi [Aouareb], 26 March-11 April 1943, MS, pp. 18-19. The Infantry School, Fort Benning, Ga., 1947-48. This relates Anderson's personal experience. (3) Capt Virgil E. Craven, Operations of Company I, 133d Infantry, at Fondouk [el Aouareb] Gap, 8 April-9 April 1943, MS, p. 15. The Infantry School, Fort Benning, Ga., 1949-50. This relates Craven's personal experience.
25. Info supplied by Cabinet Office, London.
26. Issued as 9 Corps Operation Order 3, at 2050, 8 April 1943, supplied by Cabinet Office, London.
27. The Medal of Honor was awarded posthumously to Pvt. Robert D. Booker, a machine gunner of the 133d Infantry for bravery and leadership on 9 April 1943.
28. (1) See n. 24 above. (2) Msgs in 168th Inf Misc File, Apr 43. (3) Ltr, Col Landon to author, 17 Jan 51.
29. (1) Statement by Gen MacMillan, 4 Sep 50. OCMH. (2) Info supplied by Cabinet Office, London. (3) Interv with Col Ward, 30 Nov 50. (4) 34th Div G-3 Jnl, 1430, 9 Apr 43. (5) Fifth Panzer Army, KTB V, 9 Apr 43.
30. Gefechtsbericht, 3d Co to 334th Reconnaissance Battalion for 9 and 10 Apr 43, dtd 11 Apr 43, and Gefechtsbericht, 334th Reconnaissance Battalion to Kampfgruppe Fullriede, 11 Apr 43, in Fifth Panzer Army, KTB mit Anlagen vom 11.IV.˝21 IV.43.
31. See pp. 540-41 above.
32. Fifth Panzer Army, KTB V, 1625, 9 Apr 43.
33. (1) See n. 30 above. (2) Fifth Panzer Army, KTB V, 10 Apr 43. (3) Army Group Africa, KTB, 10-11 Apr 43.
34. 9 Corps Opn Order 4, 2252, 9 Apr 43, supplied by Cabinet Office, London.
35. (1) Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe, p. 151. (2) Intervs with Gens Ryder and Caffey, 21 Feb 50. (3) The British 6th Armoured Division lost 19 killed, 48 wounded, and 34 tanks in Fondouk el Aouareb gap, and suffered 109 casualties at Djebel Aïn el Rhorab. In the 34th Infantry Division, the 135th Infantry reported, 8-10 April, 73 killed and 184 wounded, and the 1st Battalion, 133d Infantry, 15 killed and 82 wounded (out of 685 personnel). The 2d Battalion, 133d Infantry, was in Algiers; the 3d Battalion, 133d Infantry, was committed late and its casualties were not dated. The 168th Infantry had few losses.
36. (1) Info supplied by Cabinet Office, London. (2) Patton Diary, 10 Apr 43. (3) 168th Inf Hist, 11 Nov 42˝15 May 43, p. 43.
37. Giraud Hq, Rapport des opérations, p. 52. (2) Rpt, Capt Ducos to Col Carichon, 11 Apr 43, in App. to DMC Jnl.
38. (1) The commander of Army Group Africa later expressed the belief that the war would have been much shortened in Tunisia if the Eighth Army had held along the Mareth Line with two divisions and sent the remainder on a wide westerly sweep to the Gafsa˝Faïd area, thus releasing U.S. II Corps for a powerful attack on weakly held Kairouan in mid-March. The southern Axis army and Group Imperiali would then have been cut off and would inevitably have perished. See MS # C-098 (von Arnim). (2) Allied losses were reported as 603 killed, 3,509 wounded, 1,152 missing, and 1 captured. Enemy prisoners totaled 4,679. Estimated additional enemy losses were 1,600 killed and 8,000 wounded, figures undoubtedly much exaggerated. Entry 229, 14 Apr 43, in II Corps G-3 Jnl. (3) Total Axis prisoners from all fronts, 20 March-14 April, were reported to be more than 6,000 German and 22,000 Italian. Msg I/286, 18 A Gp to AFHQ, 15 Apr 43. AFHQ CofS Cable Log, 85.