Operation Run for Tunis

The 'Run for Tunis' was an undertaking between the Allied and Axis forces within the Tunisian campaign following the 'Torch' landing in French North-West Africa (10 November/25 December 1942).

Once Vichy French opposition to the Allies' 'Torch' landings had end in the middle of November, the Allies made a rapid advance by a division-sized force to the east from Algeria with the object of taking Tunis and forestalling any Axis build-up in Tunisia. The undertaking failed, but only by a small margin: some Allied units were fewer than 20 miles (32 km) from Tunis by a time late in November, but the defenders counterattacked and pushed them back nearly 20 miles (32 km), to positions which had stabilised by the end of the year.

The planners of 'Torch' had worked on the assumption that the Vichy French would oppose the landings, and the invasion convoys therefore carried a preponderance of infantry rather than mixed infantry and armour the better to meet ground opposition. At Algiers the disembarkation of mobile forces for an advance did not start until 12 November, making feasible an eastward advance only by 15 November. For the advance, the Allies had only two infantry brigade groups of Major General V. Evelegh’s 78th Division, one armoured regimental group of Major General C. F. Keightley’s British 6th Armoured Division ('Blade' Force) and some additional artillery for. An attempt to reach Bizerte and Tunis overland before the Axis could establish themselves was a gamble posited on the ability of the navy and air force to delay any Axis build-up by interdicting the Axis forces' maritime and air routes from southern Italy.

Although the Allies planned for the probability of a determined Vichy French opposition to the 'Torch' landings, they underestimated the speed with which the Axis could reinforce Tunisia in 'Braun' (ii). Despite intelligence reports regarding the Axis reaction, the Allies were slow to respond and it was almost two weeks before 'Flax' and 'Retribution' air and naval plans were made to interdict the Axis programme to transport reinforcements to Tunis. At the end of November, the naval Force 'K' was re-established in Malta with three cruisers and four destroyers, and Force 'Q was' formed in Bône with three cruisers and two destroyers. No Axis ships sailing to Tunis were sunk in November, but the Allied navies sank seven Axis transport ships early in December. The success was too late, however, because the tanks of Generalleutnant Wolfgang Fischer’s 10th Panzerdivision had already been delivered. Axis convoys began to sail in daylight when they could be protected by aircraft, and night convoys were resumed on completion of the extension of Axis minefields which severely restricted Force 'K' and Force 'Q'.

At this time the Vichy French authorities in Tunisia were undecided about to support the Allied or Axis powers, and airfields were left open to both sides. On 9 November, reconnaissance flights reported that 40 German aircraft had landed at Tunis and on the following day British photographic reconnaissance revealed the presence there of about 100 German aircraft. On this same day the Italian air force sent 28 fighters to Tunis and two days later there started an airlift which eventually carried 15,000 men and 519 tons of supplies; ships brought 176 tanks, 131 pieces of artillery, 1,152 vehicles and 11.600 tons of supplies. By the end of the month, three German divisions, including Fischer’s 10th Panzerdivision, and two Italian infantry divisions had arrived. On 12 November, General Walther Nehring was appointed to head the new XC Corps, and he arrived on 17 November. The Vichy French commander in Tunisia, Général de Division Georges Barré, moved the Vichy French troops into the mountains and formed a defensive line from Tebersouk through Medjez el Bab with orders to resist any attempt to cross the mountains.

By 10 November, the Vichy French opposition to the 'Torch' landings had ceased, creating a military vacuum in Tunisia. On 9 November, Lieutenant General K. A. N. Anderson took command in Algeria of the Eastern Task Force, which was renamed the Allied 1st Army. Anderson ordered an advance to the east with the object of seizing the ports of Bougie, Philippeville and Bône, as well as the airfield at Djedjelli, as a prelude to an advance into Tunisia. Allied planners had ruled out an assault landing in Tunisia for lack of the troops required and the threat from the air, so the Allies needed to advance overland before the Axis could reinforce Tunis. On 11 November, Brigadier A. L. Kent-Lemon’s British 36th Brigade had landed unopposed at Bougie but supply difficulties meant Djedjelli was reached by road only on 13 November. Bône airfield was occupied following a drop by Lieutenant Colonel G. W. Lathbury’s 3rd Parachute Battalion, and this was followed on 12 November by the seizure of the port by No. 6 Commando.

Advanced guards of the 36th Brigade reached Tabarka on 15 November and Djebel Abiod on 18 November, and here made first contact with the opposition. Farther to the south, on 15 November, US Army paratroopers of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion made an unopposed drop on Youks les Bains and captured the airfield, and then took the airfield at Gafsa on 17 November. On 19 November, Nehring demanded passage for his forces across the bridge at Medjez el Bab and was refused by Barré. The Germans attacked twice and were repulsed, but the French defence was costly and, lacking armour and artillery, the Vichy French then withdrew. Despite the fact that some Vichy French forces siding with the Allies, the allegiance of most Vichy French forces was uncertain. On 22 November, the North African Agreement placed Vichy French North Africa on the Allied side and Allied garrison troops were released for the front; the Axis had been reinforced to a corps and now outnumbered the Allies.

There were two roads eastward from Algeria into Tunisia. The Allied plan was to advance along this pair of roads and take Bizerte and Tunis. Once Bizerte had been taken, 'Torch' would come to an end. Attacking in the north toward Bizerte would be the 36th Brigade of the 78th Division, supported by 'Hart' Force, a small mobile detachment of Brigadier E. E. Cass’s British 11th Brigade, and to the south the rest of the 11th Brigade. On their left was Colonel R. Hull’s 'Blade' Force, an armoured regimental group which included the tanks of the 17th/21st Lancers, a US light tank battalion and motorised infantry, paratroopers, artillery, anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns and engineers.

The two Allied columns advanced towards Djebel Abiod and Béja under attack by German aircraft, which had local air superiority as Allied aircraft had to fly from distant bases in Algeria. On the northern road, the leading elements of the 36th Brigade made rapid progress until 17 November, when they met a mixed force of 17 tanks, self-propelled guns and 400 paratroopers at Djebel Abiod. The British knocked out 11 tanks but, in the absence of armoured support, were then held for nine days. The Allied columns concentrated at Djebel Abiod and Béja, preparing for an assault on 24 November. The 36th Brigade was to advance from Djebel Abiod toward Mateur and 11th Brigade was to move down the valley of the Merjerda river to take Medjez el Bab and thence to Tebourba, Djedeida and Tunis. 'Blade' Force was to strike across country on minor roads, in the gap between the two infantry brigades, toward Sidi Nsir and make flanking attacks on Terbourba and Djedeida.

The northern attack was cancelled because of torrential rain, and in the south the 11th Brigade was stopped by the defenders of Medjez. 'Blade' Force passed through Sidi Nsir, to reach the Chouigui pass to the north of Terbourba, then Major R. Barlow’s Company C of the 1/1st Armored Regiment of the US 1st Armored Division with 17 M3 Stuart light tanks, supported by armoured cars of the Derbyshire Yeomanry, infiltrated into th area behind Axis lines to the air base at Djedeida in the afternoon. The Allied tanks destroyed more than 20 Axis aircraft, (including an entire group of the Sturzkampfgeschwader 3, shot up buildings and supply dumps, and caused several casualties. Lacking infantry support, the raiding force then withdrew to Chouigui.

The surprise achieved by 'Blade' Force alerted Nehring to the vulnerability of garrison at Medjez el Bab to a flanking move and the defenders were withdrawn to Djedeida, only 18.5 miles (30 km) from Tunis. The 36th Brigade attack began on 26 November but Nehring used the delay at Djebel Abiod to lay an ambush at Jefna on the road from Sedjenane and Mateur. The Germans occupied high ground on either side of the road, which in the aftermath of heavy rain was very muddy with the ground on each side impassable for vehicles. The leading British battalion suffered 149 casualties. Kent-Lemon sent units into the hills to outflank the Germans but the determined defence of the German paratroopers in well-laid out defences could not be overcome. A landing by No. 1 Commando 14 miles (23 km) to the west of Bizerte on 30 November to outflank the Jefna position failed, and the commandos had rejoined the 36th Brigade by 3 December and the position remained in German hands until the last days of the fighting in Tunisia during May 1943.

At a time early on 26 November, the 11th Brigade made an unopposed entry into Medjez el Bab, reached Tebourba without encountering any opposition, and was ready to advance on Djedeida. On the following day, however, the Germans counterattacked, inflicting 137 casualties and taking 286 prisoners. The brigade attacked again on 28 November toward Djedeida airfield and Combat Command B of the 1st Armored Division lost 19 tanks to anti-tank guns in the town. On 29 November, fresh units of Brigadier F. A. V. Copland-Griffiths’s 1st Guards Brigade of the 78th Division), which had arrived at Algiers on 22 November, began to relieve the 11th Brigade. On 29 November, Combat Command B had assembled to attack with 'Blade' Force on 2 December. Lieutenant Colonel J. Frost’s 2/Parachute Regiment was to be dropped in 'Oudna' on 3 December, near Axis airfields around Depienne some 30 miles (48 km) to the south of Tunis, in order to destroy the Junkers Ju 87 dive-bombers based there and to threaten Tunis from the south. The main attack was forestalled by an Axis counterattack on 1 December and the attack by 'Blade' Force did not take place; the 2/Parachute retreated 50 miles (80 km) to the Allied lines under frequent attack, and lost 23 killed and wounded and 266 missing.

The Axis counterattack was undertaken by the 10th Panzerdivision, which had just arrived in Tunisia, from the north toward Tebourba. 'Blade' Force suffered considerable casualties and by the evening of 2 December, had been withdrawn, leaving the 11th Brigade and Combat Command B to resist the Axis attack, which nearly cut off the brigade and broke through. Desperate fighting by the 2/Hampshire Regiment of the 1st Guards Brigade and the 1/East Surrey Regiment for four days delayed the Axis advance and, with the fight of Combat Command B against armoured and infantry attacks from the south-east, made possible a slow retirement to high ground on each side of the river to the west of Terbourba. The Hampshires suffered 75% casualties and the Surreys nearly 60% casualties.

As more Allied troops arrived, Lieutenant General C. W. Allfrey’s V Corps of the 1st Army took under command all the forces in the Tebourba sector, which included the 6th Armoured Division, 78th Division, Combat Command B, 1st Parachute Brigade, and Nos 1 and 6 Commandos. Allfrey decided that the depleted units facing Tebourba were vulnerable and ordered a retirement of about 6 miles (9.7 km) to the high ground of Longstop Hill (Djebel el Ahmera), some 900 ft (270 m) high, and Bou Aoukaz on either side of the river. On 10 December, Axis tanks attacked Combat Command B on Bou Aoukaz but bogged in the mud. Then US tanks counterattacked, but also bogged and were picked off, losing 18 of their number.

By a time late in December, another Allied attack was ready. At this time the Allied forces comprised 54,000 British, 73,800 US and 7,000 Free French troops. A hasty intelligence review showed that these me were opposed by about 125,000 combat and 70,000 service troops, most of them Italian. On the night of 16/17 December, a company of Major General Terry de la M. Allen’s US !st Division raided Maknassy, 155 miles (249 km) to the south of Tunis and took prisoner 21 Germans. The main attack began the afternoon of 22 December, despite rain and insufficient air cover,and elements of the US 1st Division’s 18th Regimental Combat Team and the 1st Guards Brigade’s 2/Coldstream Guards made progress up the lower ridges of Longstop Hill dominating the river corridor from Medjez el Bab to Tebourba and thence Tunis. By the morning of 23 December, the Coldstreams had driven back units of the 10th Panzerdivision on the summit, been relieved by the 18th Regimental Combat Team and withdrawn to Mejdez el Bab. The Germans counterattacked and retook the hill, so the Coldstreams were ordered back and on the following day regained the peak and dug in with the 18th Regimental Combat Team. By 25 December, with the Allies troops' ammunition running low and the Axis forces holding the adjacent high ground, the Longstop Hill position became untenable and the Allies were forced to withdraw to Medjez el Bab.