Operation Battle of El Guettar

The 'Battle of El Guettar' was fought within the context of the Tunisian campaign between elements of Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen von Arnim’s Heeresgruppe 'Afrika' and Generale d’Armata Giovanni Messe’s Italian 1a Armata and Major General George S. Patton’s US II Corps in southern central Tunisia (23 March/3 April 1943).

This was the first battle in which US forces were able to defeat experienced German armoured units, but the follow-up to the battle was inconclusive.

The US II Corps had been badly mauled in its first encounter with Axis forces in Tunisia during a series of battles that culminated in the disastrous Battle of the Kasserine Pass late in February 1943. Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel, who was thus on the threshold of a complete tactical and operational victory, then turned from the battle on this western front to his eastern front and the defence of the Ligne Mareth as he learned of the approach of Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Montgomery′s British 8th Army. Thus the battle in central Tunisia concluded with the US forces still in the field, but only after losing ground and men, and with little confidence left in some of its senior commanders.

In the last week of January 1943, and in the face of a massive artillery bombardment, the Italian 14o Battaglione Bersaglieri of Generale di Divisione Giorgio Calvi di Bergolo’s 131a Divisione corazzata 'Centauro' dug in near Djebel Rihana. The US command had already reacted to the US forces' reverses at the hands of German and Italian forces with a prompt and sweeping series of changes in command, discipline and tactics. Moreover, large units were now kept massed rather than being broken up into smaller, unsupported elements as had been done under the II Corps' original commander, Major General Lloyd R. Fredendall. Close air support was also improved. On 6 March, Patton took command of the II Corps from Fredendall, and his first move was to organise the II Corps for an offensive back toward the Dorsale Orientake chain of the Atlas mountains. If successful, this would threaten the right rear of the Axis forces defending the Ligne Mareth against the 8th Army and ultimately make the Ligne Mareth position untenable. Patton’s style of leadership was very different from that of Fredendall: he is reported to have issued an order in connection with an attack on a hill position ending 'I expect to see such casualties among officers, particularly staff officers, as will convince me that a serious effort has been made to capture this objective.'

On 17 March, Major General Terry de la M. Allen’s US 1st Division moved forward into the almost abandoned plain, taking the town of Gafsa and starting to develop it as a forward supply base for further operations. On the following day, Colonel William O. Darby’s US 1st Ranger Battalion drove forward and occupied the oasis and town of El Guettar, again meeting only minimal opposition. The Italian defenders instead retreated and took up positions in the hills overlooking the little town, thereby blocking the mountain pass leading south out of the interior plain to the coastal plain. Another Ranger operation raided an Italian position and took 200 prisoners on the night of 20 March after the Americans had scaled a sheer cliff and passed ammunition and equipment up hand-over-hand.

The Axis army group and army commanders had become aware of the US movements and decided that Generalmajor Friedrich Freiherr von Broich’s 10th Panzerdivision should halt the Americans. Rommel had departed Tunisia for Germany on 9 March before the battle, leaving von Arnim in command of the Heeresgruppe 'Afrika', which had been created on 23 February. von Arnim also held Rommel’s opinion on the low quality of the US forces and felt that a spoiling attack would be enough to clear them once again from the Dorsale Orientale.

At 06.00 on 23 March, as 50 tanks of von Broich’s 10th Panzerdivision emerged from the pass into the El Guettar valley, German motorised units in half-tracked vehicles and motorcycle sidecars broke off from formation and charged the US infantry on the top of the hill. The half-tracked vehicles moved up the hill as far they could and then their embarked infantry dismounted under covering fire from 88-mm (3.465-in) guns. The Germans manoeuvred to hit the US artillery positions on the hill, and quickly overran the front-line infantry and artillery positions. Allen himself came under threat as two tanks approached his headquarters, but he shrugged off suggestions of moving with the words 'I will like hell pull out, and I’ll shoot the first bastard who does.'

The German attack then lost momentum when it ran into a minefield. When the Germans slowed to reorganise, the US forces engaged them with artillery, anti-tank guns and freshly arrived M10 tank destroyers. Over the next hour, 30 of the 10th Panzerdivision's tanks were destroyed, and by 09.00 the survivors retreated from the valley.

A second German attempt was delivered from 16.45 after supporting infantry had taken up position. Once more the US artillery was able to disrupt the attack, eventually breaking the assault and inflicting heavy losses on the Germans. Realising that further attacks were pointless, the rest of the 10th Panzerdivision dug in on hills to the east or retreated back to the German headquarters at Gabès.

On 19 March, the British 8th Army launched its 'Canter' (ii) initial attack on the Ligne Mareth, at first with little success.

Over the next week, the US forces slowly moved forward to take the rest of Tunisia’s interior plain and establish positions across the entire Dorsale Orientale. The German and Italian defences and reserves were substantial, so the US progress was both slow and costly. On 23 March, the 10th Panzerdivision attacked Lieutenant Colonel Robert H. York’s 1/18th Infantry of the 1st Division, and the German tanks broke through the valley between two of the 1st Division’s battalions to reach a position about 6 miles (9/7 km) behind the 1/18th Infantry . In this action, the German tanks and self-propelled guns, together with troops transported in half-tracked carriers and trucks overran the 32nd Field Artillery Battalion and part of the 5th Field Artillery Battalion: the Commando Supremo, the Italian army’s high command, reported that 40 tanks had been destroyed and 170 men had been taken prisoner in 'central and southern Tunisia'.

On 26 March, in 'Supercharge II', a British force sent via an outflanking inland route attacked the Tebaga gap to the north of the Ligne Mareth, and this breakthrough left the Line Mareth defences untenable. The Axis forces retreated about 40 miles (65 km) to a new line established on the Wadi Akarit, to the north of Gabès. This made the US position more valuable still as the road through El Guettar led directly into Gabès.

By 30 March the US forces were in position for an offensive from El Guettar to th south. In order to start the break-out, the two original Italian strongpoints on Hill 369 and Hill 772 had to be taken one after the other. The US plan involved the 1st Division and Major General Manton S. Eddy’s 9th Division, and Combat Command 1/3 of Major General Orlando Ward’s 1st Armored Division, collectively known as 'Benson Force'. This attacked Hill 369 on the afternoon of 30 March but ran into mines and anti-tank fire, losing five tanks and the 2nd Battalion of Colonel Edwin H. Randle’s 47th Infantry, which was forced to surrender. The tanks were withdrawn, and the 1st and 9th Divisions attacked again from 08.00 on the following day, gaining some ground and taking several hundred prisoners. An Italian counterattack drove the US force back from its newly gained positions, however, and by 12.45 the US force was back to its start line after losing nine tanks and two tank destroyers. Another attempt the next day on 1 April also failed, after barely getting started.

It was at this point that Patton received the order to start the attempt on Hill 772, even though Hill 369 was still under Italian control. The 9th Division was moved to Hill 772, leaving the 1st Division on Hill 369. By 3 April, the 1st Division had finally cleared Hill 369, but the battle on Hill 772 continued. Messe, the Italian commander, then called in support from Generalmajor Hans-Georg Hildebrandt’s 21st Panzerdivision, further slowing the US force’s rate of progress until the tempo of the operation declined to leave the two sides in essentially static positions.

On 6 April, the 8th Army once again overran the Axis lines in the 'Battle of Wadi Akarit', and a full retreat started. On the morning of 7 April, 'Benson' Force moved through the positions held by the 1st and 9th Divisions, and raced down the abandoned road linking El Guettar and Gabès, where it met the leading elements of the 8th Army at 17.00. With the last Axis line of defense in the south of Tunisia broken, the remaining German and Italian forces made a run to rejoin the other Axis forces in the north for the final stages of the Tunisian campaign.