Operation Eilbote II

express messenger II

This was a German attack by various Kampfgruppen of Generalleutnant Friedrich Weber’s 334th Division and Generalleutnant Karl Fischer’s 10th Panzerdivision, both of them formations of Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen von Arnim’s 5th Panzerarmee, in concert with ‘Eilbote I’, to take the Kebir river dam and to expel the Free French forces in the Pont du Fahs area of the Dorsale Orientale region of northern Tunisia (18/24 January 1943).

On 2 January 1943 Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Süd’, had allocated the 5th Panzerarmee a number of tasks. These were to ascertain whether or not the Allies were regrouping their forces in North Africa for a decisive undertaking in southern Tunisia, to ensure the defence of the Axis lodgement centred on Tunis and Bizerte by the capture of Medjez el Bab and the passes of the Dorsale Orientale to the west and north-west of Kairouan, and to advance to the line between Maknassy and El Guettar and later that linking Sidi Bou Zid and Tozeur via Gafsa.

While these objectives were reasonable at the strategic and operational levels, at the tactical level the preparations for their attainment soon ran into trouble as von Arnim lacked adequate manpower and transport, the terrain involved had been turned into thick mud by heavy rain, and there was an acute lack of Axis air cover as the priority for the limited number of aircraft now available was protection of the 'Braun' (ii) convoys delivering men, weapons, equipment and supplies from southern Italy and Sicily to Tunisia. Further problems were then caused by the severe handling meted out by the French to Generale di Divisione Ferdinando Conte Gelich’s Italian 1st Divisione montagna ‘Superga’, a fact which led von Arnim to become concerned that a further Italian reverse might open the way for the Allies, in the area north of Kairouan, to drive to the coast of the Gulf of Gabès between Enfidaville and Sousse, and so cut the lines of communication linking Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel’s Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee, facing General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s British 8th Army in the south, with Tunis and Bizerte.

On 14 February von Arnim ordered that the two ‘Eilbote’ undertakings, schemed as limited but linked attacks to restore the Axis situation, should begin on 18 January.

In the ‘Eilbote II’ operation Oberst Friedrich Weber’s Kampfgruppe ‘Weber’ of the 334th Division was to advance from the area of Pont du Fahs as far to the south-west as Robaa before wheeling east to take the Allied forces in rear in the area of Djebel Belloute and Karachoum. At the same time Oberstleutnant Hubert Mickley’s Kampfgruppe ‘Mickley’ was to move to the west between Djebel Mansour and El Glib. These primary operations were to be covered on the west by a holding attack by part of the 10th Panzerdivision in the area of Bou Arada, and the 1st Divisione montagna was first to hold its current position and then, at a suitable moment, attack to regain the positions in had lost. Somewhat strangely, given the increasingly precarious position of the Axis forces in Tunisia, preparations for these two admittedly limited offensives were not pressed forward with any sense of urgency, and the resulting combat adhered to the same fairly lethargic pattern.

On 18 January the 10th Panzerdivision’s diversionary attacks toward Bou Arada were checked without difficulty by Major General C. F. Keightley’s British 6th Armoured Division, and some anti-tank guns were sent south to Robaa to help the French. The Kampfgruppe ‘Weber’, operating in two sections as the Gruppe ‘Weber’ and Major Hans-Georg Lüder’s Gruppe ‘Lüder’, advanced along the Wadi el Kebir, struck the junction of Général de Corps d’Armée Georges Edmond Lucien de Barré’s French Forces in Tunisia command, and most specifically Général de Division Maurice Noël Eugène Mathenet’s Division du Maroc (later 1st Division d’Infanterie Marocaine) near the Kebir reservoir. Despite their paucity in heavy weapons and equipment, the French resisted well, but by the morning of 19 January the Germans had pushed well to the west of the reservoir and onto the Djebel Mansour, while a moxed force of German and Italian units under the command of Oberst Stolz had advanced almost to the Djebel Chirich.

On 19 January Weber continued his advance toward Robaa, and Lüder pressed forward to clear the Karachoum gap before moving to the south toward the road linking Kairouan and Ousseltia.

By the evening of the same day Général de Corps d’Armée Alphonse Pierre Juin, heading the French North African Land Forces command, reported the situation on his sector of the Allied front to be serious, and asked for reinforcement. Brigadier General Paul McD. Robinett’s Combat Command B of Major General Orlando Ward’s US 1st Armored Division was then instructed to move from Sbeitla toward Maktar, and units of Lieutenant General C. W. Allfrey’s British V Corps began to move to the south.

By 21 January Weber was still some miles from Robaa and unable to make any real progress for lack of transport, but Lüder had managed to reach the area of Bir el Aalia.

At this stage the Allies decided to attempt to sever the German lines of communication with Pont du Fahs, to direct Combat Command B to advance north from Ousseltia, and to begin another US attack near Fondouk. The Allies currently lacked the inter-Allied command structure to be able to implement these moves quickly, however, and the Germans believed that they had succeeded in their primary task. During the night of 23/24 January, therefore, the Germans withdrew and settled down on their much improved sector extending, in approximate terms, between Djebel Mansour and Djebel er Rihana via Djebel Bou Kril and Djebel Bou Dabousse.

It is worth noting, however, that had the ‘Eilbote I’ and 'Eilbote II' offensives been pressed to the extent originally envisaged, von Arnim had planned a development of his basic scheme designed to capture the town of Pichon.