Operation Ochsenkopf (i)

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'Ochsenkopf' was a German offensive by Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen von Arnim’s (from 28 February General Gustav von Vaerst’s) 5th Panzerarmee to enlarge and secure the Axis lodgement in north-eastern Tunisia (26 February/4 March 1943).

The operation was based on advances toward Béja, Gafour and Téboursouk in northern Tunisia as the left-hand component of a larger undertaking whose right-hand component was 'Ausladung'. The plan originated in Axis commanders' erroneous belief that 'Frühlingswind' and 'Morgenluft' (i) had inflicted significant losses on the Allies, especially Lieutenant General K. A. N. Anderson’s Allied 1st Army, opening the way for the Axis main effort now to be made against General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s British 8th Army advancing into southern Tunisia from Libya.

Generale d’Armata Vittorio Ambrosio, successor to Maresciallo d’Italia Ugo Cavallero as chief-of-staff of the Italian armed forces from 2 February 1943, decided that the 5th Panzerarmee should thus make a number of raids and spoiling attacks before pushing forward its line against the 1st Army in northern Tunisia. Though sound in essence, the plan almost immediately foundered on the Axis partners' split command in North Africa, for von Arnim now consulted Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the Oberbefehlshaber 'Süd' and commander of Luftflotte II, without even telling Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel, commander since 23 February of the Heeresgruppe 'Afrika', and secured Kesselring’s approval for a modification of Ambrosio’s basic plan in which the concept of raids was abandoned in favour of a revived 'Frühlingswind', in this instance a major thrust by Generalleutnant Friedrich Weber’s Korpsgruppe 'Weber' toward Béja in 'Ochsenkopf', and a subsidiary thrust by Generalleutnant Hasso-Eccard Freiherr von Manteuffel’s Division 'von Manteuffel' toward Djebel Abiod in 'Ausladung'.

The strategic object of von Arnim’s plan was to deprive the Allies of the good tank country between Medjez el Bab and Tunis.

As noted above, 'Ochsenkopf' (i) was the responsibility of the Korpsgruppe 'Weber', a formation based on the commander’s own 334th Division and strengthened by elements of Generalmajor Paul Conrath’s Division 'General Göring' and Generalleutnant Friedrich Freiherr von Broich’s 10th Panzerdivision.

This offensive was to fall on the formations of Lieutenant General C. W. Allfrey’s British V Corps, which was aligned with Major General H. A. Freeman-Attwood’s 46th Division covering Béja, Major General V. Evelegh’s 78th Division covering Téboursouk, and Brigadier L. Smith’s ad hoc 'Y' Division (a collection of detachments) covering Gafour.

'Ochsenkopf' (i) began on 26 February, by the end of 27 February had revealed no signs of the spectacular westward gains which had been predicted by von Arnim, and then on 28 February was ordered to a halt by Rommel with the perhaps contradictory instruction that the offensive was both to end and be successful. Even so, the fighting on the northern flank, by the Division 'von Manteuffel' against the 46th Division, continued right through to 1 April, and by the Korpsgruppe 'Weber' (also against the 46th Division) in the Hunt’s Gap area covering Béja until 5 March. In the Téboursouk and El Aroussa sector, held by the 78th Division and the 'Y' Division, the Korpsgruppe 'Weber' failed to make all but the smallest of impressions.

Though sometimes hard, the fighting during 'Ochsenkopf' (i) was generally somewhat scrappy. On the Allied side, most of the fighting fell on the 46th Division, which was newly arrived and had much to learn and, because of the exigencies forced on the 1st Army by 'Frühlingswind' and 'Morgenluft' (i) in the Kasserine area, was not able to fight as a close-knit division. On the extreme northern flank Brigadier B. Howlett’s (later Brigadier R. E. H. Stott’s) 139th Brigade was engaged by two mixed German and Italian units, the Kampfgruppe 'Latini' and Kampfgruppe 'Jefna', and the German Kampfgruppe 'Barenthin'. The British brigade was forced out of El Aouna on 1 March, Sedjenane on 4 March and Tamera on 17 March. On 29 March the brigade counterattacked, however, and by 1 April had regained the line from which it had been driven back.

There was harder fighting between Brigadier M. A. James’s 128th Brigade and Oberst Rudolf Lang’s Kampfgruppe 'Lang' (including the 501st Panzerabteilung with 41 tanks including 14 PzKpfw VI Tiger I heavy tanks and the 2/7th Panzerregiment with 33 tanks) of the Korpsgruppe 'Weber' in the Hunt’s Gap sector. This part of the fighting began on 26 February at the patrol base of Sidi Nsir, some 12 miles 19 km) to the north-east of Hunt’s Gap, when the Kampfgruppe 'Lang' assaulted a detachment consisting of only the 5/Hampshires and 155th Battery Royal Artillery and effectively destroyed it in a 12-hour fight. Some 120 infantrymen and nine gunners reached the main position after the detachment’s retreat had been ordered, but all the guns had been knocked out by the Axis force or destroyed by the gunners when it became impossible to save those still serviceable. About 40 of the 74 tanks with which the Kampfgruppe 'Lang' had started the offensive were either destroyed or crippled, although many of these were recovered and repaired by the Germans.

On 27/28 February the Kampfgruppe 'Lang' pushed forward in the direction of Hunt’s Gap, and here ran into more serious opposition. By 1 March it seemed that the Kampfgruppe 'Lang' had only five combat-capable tanks left to it, and by the evening of this day Weber judged that he had only a small chance of success. Weber therefore ordered Lang to go over to the defensive, withdraw his tanks for repair, and hand over command of his sector to Oberstleutnant Rudolf Buhse of the 47th Grenadierregiment arriving from corps reserve. On the following day Lang was given command of most of the 334th Division's infantry, which had been in action to the south of Hunt’s Gap, and on 4 March Weber ordered the whole of the Korpsgruppe 'Weber' to go over to the defensive. The defeat of the Kampfgruppe 'Lang' resulted largely from the excellence of the British artillery, the rain-soaked ground on which his tanks could not manoeuvre effectively, and the well-staged infantry attacks during which the British engineers destroyed many damaged tanks which the Germans might otherwise have been able to recover and repair.

Farther to the south the 46th Division’s third component, Brigadier G. P. Harding’s 138th Brigade, was controlled operationally by Major General V. Evelegh’s 78th Division, and checked the south-westerly advance of the Kampfgruppe 'Eder' toward Medjez el Bab even as the 78th Division proper halted the advances to the west of a pair of smaller Kampfgruppen between Medjez el Bab and Bou Arada.

The fighting at Hunt’s Gap can be taken as typical of the combat along the whole of the 'Ochsenkopf' (i) front. Through the fighting was of the classic infantry, artillery and armour type, it should also be noted that the Allied air forces were also very important in the defeat of von Arnim’s plan despite the fact that in northern and central Tunisia the weather was bad for flying for some 33% of the time for about one month from 28 February for about a month. Even so, Air Commodore K. B. B. Cross’s No. 242 Group, RAF, and Colonel Paul L. Williams’s US XII Air Service Command, the latter supporting mainly Major General Lloyd R. Fredendall’s US II Corps, continued to launch fighter sweeps, ground-attack missions, bomber escorts and tactical reconnaissance sorties. At the same time the Allied day and night bombers maintained their efforts except when grounded by the weather.