Friday, March 30, 2012

The Battle of El Guettar 1943

Our artillery crucified them.
A message from an observation post of the U.S. 18th Infantry Regiment, 6:45 P.M., March 23, 1943.

While Monty was slamming his forces against the Mareth Line, General Harold Alexander, the commander of the 18th Army Group, ordered U.S. II Corps to make a thrust towards Gafsa, a middle-of-nowhere Tunisian town that had already switched occupants four times (the GIs even made a song called "The Third Time We took Gafsa"). Operation WOP it was called, and it reflected Alexander's contempt for the United States Army, especially in light of the recent debacle at Kasserine Pass. The GIs would merely put pressure on the Axis forces while Montgomery's Eighth Army did the real work.

At 11:00 P.M. on March 16, 1943, the American artillery barrage commenced. However, there was no resistance whatsoever, the enemy withdrawing the next morning, before any GI could lay hands on him. Then, at 12:30 that afternoon, Gafsa was back in American hands. "If any American officer ever had the will to win, that man is Lieutenant General George S. Patton," the folks back home, across the Atlantic Ocean, were told on the radio. "He certainly won the first round today... Apparently the Nazis saw him coming and ran."

Apparently the Nazis saw him coming and ran. Patton, the II Corps commander, was rubbed the wrong way by that fact. "You should have kept going until you found somebody to fight," he angrily told Terry de la Mesa Allen, the 1st Division commander, later in the day. "I'd feel happier if I knew where the Germans were," he conveyed to the press. "As long as I know where they are I don't mind how hard they fight." The enemy kept seeing Patton and running away from him for five days, until II Corps had gained 75 miles, at the extremely cheap price of 57 casualties.

A GI gives cigarettes to Italian prisoners near El Guettar, Tunisia, circa March 1943.
The enemy had no intention of withdrawing forever, though. Field Marshal Albert Kesslring realized if the II Corps, advancing down Highway 15, made it to Tunisia's shores, the First Italian Army, still fighting at Mareth, would be trapped. Consequently, he sent 10th Panzer Division to counterattack before Patton continued his advance.

A cry went out from Hill 336, "Wop Hill": "Here they come!"
"They" were panzers, accompanied by infantrymen, advancing towards the U.S. 1st Division, across terrain that offered hardly any cover for them. The tanks fired while Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., son of the late President and Rough Rider, called on his own guns to respond. The Americans' situation was made worse by a peril from the skies: Stukas, and the dive bombers were so close to the ground that pistols were fired at them. Indeed, as Roosevelt imparted to his wife, "I felt I could reach up my hand and grasp them."

While Ted Roosevelt was feeling that way, the 5th and the 32nd Artillery Battalions had their own worries. The previous night, they, along with other artillery units, moved forward to support the 1st Division's expected advance. Now, because of that move, the GIs had to contend with the very real of possibility that they and their guns might be captured. Of course, they did not intend to go down without a fight. Back and forth many an artillerymen went, bringing water and ammunition, while the cry of "Hitler kommt! Surrender!" was made by advancing enemy troops, part of a two-pronged assualt that targeted the American left flank. Eventually, the defenders were compelled to fire some rounds at point-blank range, disabled their cannons with grenades, and use their small arms to make a fighting retreat.

It wasn't just the artilleriests who were unlucky on the left flank but the 3rd Battalions of the 16th and 18th Infantry Regiments as well. The infantrymen could not withstand the Panzer attack... at first. Over Keddab Ridge they went before halting at a wadi, where one of the rare instances of World War II close-quarters combat took place. "Come on, you Hun bastards!" was the battlecry of Company K of the 18th Infantry as they showered their assailants with grenades. Suffering more than 60 casualties, the company would expend 1,300 of those projectiles.

Amidst this struggle, at an oasis near the wadi, General Allen, suggested by a staff officer to move his command post, replied, "I will like hell pull out, and I'll shoot the first bastard who does." Yet the fact remained that the GIs around Highway 15 were in quite a fix. Panzers fell on the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion like a lion falls on its prey. One mauled company withdrew while another such unit resisted until all of its ammo had been expended. Like the Blitzkriegs of the past, the Germans exploited the resulting hole in the line, and it seemed as if the Americans would be outflanked... until the Panzers ran into Company A of the 601st, which opened a devastating volley of shells on them. Stuck in a boggy minefield after moving south and at the mercy of American artillery and tank destroyers, fire from whom was building up to a deadly crescendo, the Panzers fell back. "The men around me burst into cheers," Roosevelt attested. And with that, round one ended.

Round one ended. A message was intercepted that six German battalions planned on attacking again at four that afternoon, an hour's warning for II Corps. "Angriff bis 1640 verschoben" followed the initial conveyance 45 minutes later. Patton acted on this information, transmitting uncoded messages to his subordinates about the impending attack. Allen in turn acted on what Patton told him, ordering his signalmen, at 4:15, to let the Germans know that the Big Red One knew they were coming: "What the hell you guys waiting for? We have been ready since four P.M. Signed, First Division." "Terry," Patton, shaking his head, asked at Allen's command post, "when are you going to learn to take this damned war seriously?" Due to Patton's uncoded messages and Allen's heckling, the 1st Division's intelligence officer would recollect, "We couldn't read German mail for quite a long time after that."

Anyway, the Germans still launched their assualt, albeit at 4:45, five minutes behind schedule. An American officer would later make note of how they advanced: "The men walked upright, moved slowly, and made no attempt at concealment or maneuver. We cut them down at fifteen hundred yards. It was like mowing hay." Such fire failed to affect that complacency. As another officer wrote, "Eerie black smoke of the time shells showed that they were bursting above the heads of the Germans. There was no running, just a relentless forward lurching of bodies." Some German infantrymen found shelter on a reverse slope of a hill, or so they thought. American artillery zeroed in on the slope and let them have it. Brigadier General Clift Andrus, the 1st Divisions chief of artillery, witnessed the ensuing slaughter: "The battalion broke from cover and started to run for another wadi in the rear. But none ever reached it." All the while, Roosevelt, Patton, and Allen, were observing the fight from a trench on Hill 336. Patton turned to Roosevelt. "My God," he said in a low voice, "it seems a crime to murder good infantry like that." The Battle of El Guettar was over.

The 10th Panzer Division had been the bane of many an opponent, in Poland, in Russia, in France, in Tunisia. All the more sweet that it had been defeated by a relatively green outfit, the 1st Division. "The Hun," Eisenhower forecasted, "will soon learn to dislike that outfit." While the Americans did make some errors, the battle was, in the words of Patton's deputy, Omar Bradley, "The first solid, indisputable defeat we inflicted on the German army in the war."

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