Operation Eilbote I

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This was a German attack by part of Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen von Arnim’s 5th Panzerarmee, in concert with ‘Eilbote II’, on the Kebir river dam in central Tunisia and to drive the Free French forces from the Dorsale Orientale (18/28 January 1943).

During the first half of January 1943, Lieutenant General K. A. N. Anderson’s Allied 1st Army had sought to maintain, with only mixed results, a constant pressure on the German and Italian forces in Tunisia by means of limited attacks and reconnaissances in strength. On the other side of the front line, von Arnim undertook to achieve the same type of result. By mid-January the Allies had decided to abandon any notion of an attack on Sfax on the east coast of Tunisia, and the sense of this decision started to become clear on 18 January when the Germans launched the ‘Eilbote I’ operation to seize control of the Djebel Mansour and the dam/reservoir complex of the Barrage de l’Oued Kebir on the Kebir river, which was the primary source of water for Tunis, some 12 miles (20 km) to the south-west of Pont du Fahs.

Another purpose of his attack was to drive the French forces from the Dorsale Orientale near Kairouan, between the reservoir and Kairouan pass.

On 13/14 January von Arnim withdrew from the late Generalleutnant Wolfgang Fischer’s Korpsgruppe ‘Fischer’ the headquarters of Generalleutnant Friedrich Weber’s 334th Division with the 756th Gebirgsjägerregiment and two batteries of artillery, and from Generalleutnant Friedrich Freiherr von Broich’s 10th Panzerdivision the 2/69th Panzergrenadierregiment, 10th Panzeraufklärungsabteilung and 501st schwere Panzerabteilung. In addition, he earmarked for this ‘Eilbote I’ the entire northern wing of Generale di Divisione Ferdinando Conte Gelich’s 1st Divisione montagna ‘Superga’ (Oberstleutnant Stolz’s Gruppe ‘Stolz’), and elements of the 190th Panzerabteilung and Generalleutnant Georg Neuffer’s 20th Flakdivision.

To support his main effort, and protect the exposed north flank of the attack, von Arnim ordered the 10th Panzerdivision with elements of the 5th Fallschirmjägerregiment and the armoured Gruppe ‘Burk’ to execute a secondary drive in the direction of Bou Arada.

Weber was in tactical command of the entire undertaking, and all the Axis forces involved were known collectively as the Kampfgruppe ‘Weber’. The deployment of the Kampfgruppe ‘Weber’ was accomplished through the use of 5th Panzerarmee transport, and was undertaken at night to conceal the build-up from Allied air reconnaissance.

Weber organised his attacking force in three elements. The first comprised the newly arrived 756th Gebirgsjägerregiment reinforced by two armoured sections, consisting of four PzKpfw VI Tiger heavy tanks and four PzKpfw III medium tanks, and engineer, artillery, and anti-aircraft elements. The force was sent to open the pass to the south-east of Pont du Fahs and to take the Djebel Mansour, and thus support the movement into the Ousseltia valley of the second group, Major Hans-Georg Lüder’s Gruppe ‘Lüder’. This armoured group consisted of one tank company (both PzKpfw VI heavy tanks and PzKpfw IV battle tanks), and a Panzergrenadier battalion together with a platoon of engineers and some anti-aircraft units. It was to push up the Kebir river valley to the fork in the road at the south-western end of the reservoir, then swing south for about 12.5 miles (20 km) to the Hir Moussa crossroads. After the mountain regiment had closed to the same area, the Gruppe ‘Lüder’ was to turn east toward the Karachoum gap. The third element of Weber’s command was a composite German and Italian infantry regiment of the 1st Divisione montagna, comprising four battalions and reinforced by a company of the 190th Panzerabteilung of the Gruppe ‘Stolz’. It was to exploit by advancing to the west on an axis at right angles to Weber’s main effort and thus complete the destruction of the French units on the Dorsale Orientale. Stolz would then establish a new defensive line 7 to 9 miles (11.25 to 14.5 km) farther to the west, extending from the Djebel Mansour in the north to the heights just to the west of Hir Moussa.

This would constitute the first phase of ‘Eilbote I’.

Finally, the operation might be extended farther to the south in order to secure the better road linking Kairouan and Ousseltia, which ran through the gap between the Djebel Halfa and Djebel Ousselat, connecting the valley with the coastal plain at Aïn Djeloula.

The Axis attacks began early in the morning of 18 January with diversionary thrusts by paratroopers and tanks against the extreme southern wing of Lieutenant General C. W. Allfrey’s British V Corps in the area of the Bou Arada crossroads. Although the British drove back these attacks, the fighting in this area continued sporadically during the following week without much change in position but with considerable losses on each side.

In the meantime, the first element of Weber’s force broke through the French positions and opened the way into the Kebir river valley for the German armour. After lending support to this operation, Lüder regrouped his force at 21.00, then pushed ahead to his objective, the fork on the road to the south-west of the reservoir, reaching it by 24.00. The Gruppe ‘Stolz’, meanwhile, achieved what von Arnim considered satisfactory progress in the subsidiary drive across the heights between the reservoir and the Djebel Chirich.

The intention of the Axis forces was still uncertain on 19 January, for although some of the German armour was seen passing the northern edge of the Djebel Bargou into the Ousseltia valley, a report by air reconnaissance of a movement from the reservoir area of an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 lorried troops made a dual thrust seem possible.

By the end of the day the Axis forces had almost completed the first phase of their operation as planned. With a small but powerful force, the Gruppe ‘Lüder’ blocked the road to Rebaa Oulad Yahia near Sidi Saïd. The main force had advanced to Hir Moussa crossroads. Stolz’s units had continued to move west and begun to relieve the 756th Gebirgsjägerregiment on the Djebel Mansour, thereby freeing this to follow Lüder. right along the front the French defenders had been driven back, and their remnants began to regroup to the north-west of the Djebel Mansour and on the Djebel Bargou. One group was isolated on the slopes of the Dorsale Orientale in the area of the Karachoum gap. Neither Rebaa Oulad Yahia nor Ousseltia had more than the most meagre garrisons with very few anti-tank weapons manned by small British and US detachments. The British sent forward a minor reinforcement of armoured cars and engineers to Rebaa Oulad Yahia during the night.

Général de Corps d’Armée Alphonse Juin, commanding the French North African Forces, appealed for reinforcements to be committed at a point to be determined once the Axis intent had become clear, and this resulted in orders from General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Allied Force Headquarters for Lieutenant General Lloyd R. Fredendall’s US II Corps to divert a suitable force toward the north. This force was centred on Brigadier General Paul McD. Robinett’s Combat Command B of Major General Orlando Ward’s 1st Armored Division, currently bivouacked near Sbeitla. The US tanks, tank destroyers, infantry and artillery, with engineer, medical, service and maintenance companies, totalling more than 3,400 men, were on the road after dark and reached a point near Kesra before morning. It was on the following day that the US force received its orders.

The obvious lack of inter-Allied co-ordination led Eisenhower into taking action to remedy this situation, and on 21 January Anderson was made responsible for the co-ordination of the whole front, and then on 24 January his responsibilities were extended to include 'the employment of American troops. Om that same night, Juin agreed to place the French XIX Corps under the command of Lieutenant General K. A. N. Anderson’s Allied 1st Army, a decision confirmed by Général d’Armée Henri Honoré Giraud, the French comander-in-chief in North Africa, during the course of the following day. However, inter-Allied control still proved problematical with forces spread over a front 200 miles (320 km) wide and the local means of communication very poor: Anderson reported at about this time that he had motored more than 1,000 miles (1600 km) in four days in order to speak to his corps commanders). Just as importantly, on 21 January Eisenhower appointed a single commander, Brigadier General Laurence S. Kuter, to supervise Allied air support operations for the whole front.

Anderson was instructed to direct elements of his Allied 1st Army toward the south-east and south in the direction of the Rebaa Oulad Yahia valley, in order to cut off and block the Axis advance there, while Combat Command B was placed at Juin’s disposition for operations as a unit in either the Rebaa Oulad Yahia or Ousseltia valleys as the situation should require. The arrangement also specified that Fredendall should assemble an armoured force comparable with Combat Command B in the Sbeitla area to be used under his command to join the French in an attack against Fondouk el Aouareb starting on 23 January.

Juin assigned Combat Command B to Général de Corps d’Armée Marie-Louis Koëltz’s French XIX Corps for commitment in the Ousseltia valley, to which it was o move during the night of 20/21 January. By 09.33 on the morning of the next day the force was assembled about 5 miles (8 km) to the south-west of Ousseltia and engaged in active reconnaissance, with the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion out ahead.

The German and Italian forces had met in the northern part of the Ousseltia valley on 20 January after converging movements from the north-west and north-east, and had thus already accomplished most of their mission before the US reinforcement arrived. The Axis forces now had an opportunity to clear the Dorsale Orientale mountain chain as far as the Djebel Ousselat to the south-east of the village of Ousseltia, and to envelop the French troops caught on the heights by pushing along the ridge as well as attacking to the north-west from the coastal plain. Only a shortage of infantry prevented them from mopping up the whole area and establishing themselves astride the passes. By 24.00 on 20/21 January, Lüder’s force had overrun the three lightly held Allied blocks on the roads leading into the village of Ousseltia and reached the road linking Ousseltia and Kairouan road about 4 miles (6.4 km) to the north-west of the Kairouan pass. During the night only one battalion of the 756th Gebirgsjägerregiment, using transport borrowed from other units, was able to reinforce Lüder. Even so, however, the Axis force could now block access to Kairouan pass from the west and proceeded to destroy the French units, cut off on the ridge to the north of Djebel Bou Dabouss, assisted by Italian elements attacking from points to the east of the pass.

On the morning that Combat Command B made its slow and difficult march from the area of Maktar into the Ousseltia valley, the 5/Buffs, the advance group of Brigadier B. Howlett’s 36th Brigade of Major General V. Evelegh’s British 78th Division, moved up the valley of the Siliana river from Gafour to Rebaa Oulad Yahia before daylight and took up defensive positions to the north of the village. During the night of 21/22 January, the British 36th Brigade, which had very recently been relieved after a long period in the line to the north-east of Bédja, shifted to Rebaa Oulad Yahia with the 6/Royal West Kents and a detachment of the Royal Horse Artillery, engineers and light anti-aircraft units. Here they took over the defence of the valley under attachment to Major General C. F. Keightley’s British 6th Armoured Division.

By this time the primary Axis effort had been switched to the Ousseltia valley. At 12.45 on 21 January Koëltz ordered Robinett to counterattack to the east along the road linking Ousseltia and Kairouan. Robinett was determined not to fritter away his strength by piecemeal commitment after an arduous march, and the counterattack from Ousseltia toward the western entrance of the Kairouan pass began about 15.00 after a the area had been bombed and strong artillery support had been prepared. The counterattack progressed steadily until the fall of night and encountered stiff resistance, but failed to dislodge the Gruppe ‘Lüder’ from its blocking position along the road. After the start of the night the Germans pulled back into a defensive perimeter, a fact which allowed French troops, previously cut off on the heights near the pass, to filter away to the south.

At 18.30 on 21 January the XIX Corps placed Combat Command B under the control of Général de Division Agathon Jules Joseph Deligne’s Division d’Alger, elements of which had been holding the pass. At 04.35 on 22 January, in conformity with the Allied plan, Deligne directed Robinett to abandon the counterattack, adopt defensive measures toward the east, and advance to the north in order to effect a junction with the British forces at the north-eastern end of the Djebel Bargou. Combat Command B’s ammunition and supply train failed to get through during the night, however, so the planned dawn attack could not be made.

The Germans were also hampered, in this instance by a breakdown of radio communications and the temporary severance of the direct road between Lüder’s force and the 756th Gebirgsjägerregiment at Hir Moussa by fire from the 6/Royal West Kents. The reinforced 2/13th Armor began a thrust to the north-east up the Ousseltia valley at 14.30 on 22 January, but was soon checked by strong resistance. Late in the same the II Corps asked Robinett what reinforcements, if any, he would need to carry out the mission given him by Deligne. In his response Robinett gave his estimate of the forces opposing his command as one infantry battalion, two tank companies, four 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-role guns, and three or four batteries of howitzers of at least 105-mm (4.13-in) calibre, against which he had disposed one armoured infantry battalion, one battalion of 30 medium tanks, nine self-propelled and six towed 105-mm (4.13-in) howitzers, 12 tank destroyers with 75-mm (2.95-in) guns, and one battery of 40-mm anti-aircraft guns.

The Germans had disposed their artillery on the high ground along the eastern edge of the valley. Robinett therefore reported that any attack whatsoever to the north along the floor of the valley would be unduly hazardous until infantry could engage the Germans in the eastern hills and prevent the flanking fire which might otherwise be expected. To clear the valley, he estimated the reinforcement he needed as two infantry battalions, one field artillery battalion, and one company of tank destroyers, as well as indirect assistance from an anticipated strong push from the west into the valley by British units.

Elements of Major General Terry de la M. Allen’s US 1st Division were already being sent from Guelma in Algeria via Maktar to the Ousseltia valley sector in order to take over part of the Allied line formerly held by the French after Combat Command B had restored the situation. Fredendall expected, in the light of decisions taken at a command conference at the Allied Force Headquarters Advance Command Post on 21 January, that his zone was to be extended north and that these troops would be controlled by II Corps. He expected to command them directly, and to have them operate under Colonel D’Alary Fechet, commanding the 16th Regimental Combat Team, in co-ordination with Combat Command B rather than directly under Robinett’s command, while the latter was withdrawing. Fredendall instructed Robinett to discontinue the attack to the north ordered by Deligne, and instead to hold Combat Command B on the defensive near the village of Ousseltia. Combat Command B was still attached to the XIX Corps and under Deligne’s orders to carry out the attack, orders Robinett was unable to execute without the reinforcements which, on arrival, would be operating in co-ordination with Combat Command B rather than under attachment to it.

While the assistant operations officer of the II Corps tried to straighten out this tangle, Robinett’s force held its positions.

As the night of 22/23 January passed, efforts to get Allied air units to furnish a controlled air support mission on next day finally reached fruition. The request was approved about 10.00 on 23 January for execution at 12.30. When the warplanes arrived, one smoke shell was placed on the target, which then came under accurate bombing attack. Damage included the destruction of two German trucks loaded with ammunition. During the bombing and a subsequent artillery shelling, a truckload of US prisoners was able to scatter, and later to infiltrate back to their own lines after darkness. But with its mission and command relations uncertain, Combat Command B lost the opportunity to follow up with an attack to seize the area.

The first elements of the 1st Division began to arrive before the end of the day, too late to organise an attack for 24 January. These elements were attached by II Corps to Combat Command B. The principal unit for commitment toward Kairouan pass was the 26th Regimental Combat Team (less its 3rd Battalion) and including the 33rd Field Artillery Battalion. The 7th Field Artillery Battalion also supported an attack begun by Colonel Alexander N. Stark’s force at 09.00 on 25 January.

By that time, Weber’s force had started to pull back, leaving the newly established main line of resistance across the northern end of the Ousseltia valley and along the eastern edge to the Djebel Ousselat in the Italian hands of the 1st Division montagna and the Gruppo ‘Benigni’. At about 12.00 Stark’s attack encountered an Italian infantry battalion which had been recruited in Tunisia, drove it back, and continued advancing through the following night. By the next morning, it had reached the western end of the Ousseltia-Kairouan pass and had come up against a German unit. Its offensive continued during the next two days.

After assisting these infantry operations to a successful outcome at the pass, and after more uncertainty about its mission, Combat Command B received orders from Koëltz to move to the north on 27 January and clear the Axis forces out of the valley. This attack began at 15.30, and moved smoothly along the western edge of the valley at the base of the Djebel Serdj. In the course of the following night, the 1/16th Infantry and 7th Field Artillery Battalion moved under armoured escort to the northern end of the Djebel Serdj.

The Axis forces had increased their air attacks in the valley beginning on 25 January, but the Allied hold on the southern and western portions of the valley was not otherwise contested, and Stark’s progress at the pass promised eventual control not only over its western exit but along its entire length.

Combat Command B and the 26th Regimental Combat Team (less its 2nd and 3rd Battalions) were needed elsewhere, however, so that both units were withdrawn from the valley during the night of 28/29 January. While Robinett’s force made a long road march to Bou Chebka, Stark’s force shifted to the vicinity of Sbeitla, where it joined Combat Command A of its parent 1st Armored Division. Before these two forces left, the US 1st Division, headquartered in Maktar, temporarily assumed responsibility for the defence of the Allied line running along the Ousseltia valley and to the south-east in the direction of Pichon. Fechet’s 16th Regimental Combat Team was to be on the north and Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr’s mixed command of US and French units, on the south. The French units were to be relieved as rapidly as possible by the Colonel Greer’s 18th Regimental Combat Team and a combat team of Major General Charles W. Ryder’s US 34th Division. Eventually the 34th Division was expected to relieve all 1st Infantry Division units and thus permit their consolidation in Allied 1st Army reserve.

It was during an early stage in these preparations that Combat Command B and 26th Regimental Combat Team (less its 2nd and 3rd Battalions) returned to II Corps control from that of Koeltz. Their battle in the Ousseltia valley was ended. Robinett’s command had lost five men killed, 54 wounded, and 25 missing, had captured 11 Germans and 28 Italians, and had killed an estimated 205 Axis soldiers. It claimed to have destroyed six PzKpfw III and three PzKpfw IV tanks, eight 88-mm (3.465-in) guns, one mortar, four 20-mm cannon, and two aircraft. The 26th Regimental Combat Team (less its 3rd Battalion) had lost seven men killed, 47 wounded, and 64 missing, while taking 211 prisoners.

The Axis forces had dealt a hard blow, especially to the French, one battalion being reduced to a mere 196 men, and had taken 3,449 prisoners. Matériel captured or destroyed included 87 machine guns, 16 anti-tank guns, 36 pieces of artillery, 21 tanks, four armoured reconnaissance cars, four self-propelled gun carriages, more than 200 other vehicles, and more than 300 horses.

Allied aviation and artillery had inflicted considerable damage on the Axis forces, but control of the passes to the west of Kairouan was worth this price to the 5th Panzerarmee.

At the tactical level, the battle in the Ousseltia valley had yielded some valuable lessons to the Allies. The Axis forces were discovered to have an unexpectedly defensive attitude, for they twice abandoned strongly held positions under cover of darkness without waiting for the Americans to press their attack, in the process abandoning at least 10 pieces of artillery. The morale of the Italian troops was found to be low, and among the probable causes of this low morale was a failure of supply, many units going without rations for a long period. Another probable cause was the fact that Axis air support was not as strong or as co-ordinated with ground operations as it had been near Tebourba, while at the same time the Allied air effort was noticeably greater. By standing up to the attacking force and refraining from a premature attack or ill-advised armoured lunges, Combat Command B had been able to avoid German tactical traps and to retain its ability to strike when the time was favourable. Because of the termination of its commitment, and that of Stark’s combat team on 28 January, Combat Command B lost the opportunity of regaining the passes through the Dorsale Orientale before the Axis forces could establish themselves firmly astride them.

The French had fought ably, but were decidedly handicapped by their lack of heavy weapons and communication equipment, and from this time on it was necessary to reinforce their sector with US and British units until their equipment could be brought up to the standards prevailing among their allies.