Operation Satin

This was a US unrealised plan for Major General Lloyd R. Fredendall’s II Corps of Lieutenant General K. A. N. Anderson’s Allied 1st Army to drive on Sfax and Gabès on the east coast of Tunisia before the Axis powers could develop a strong defence on the area (December 1942/20 January 1943).

At Allied Force Headquarters a consideration of Tunisian operations which might be possible during January and February was under way at the same time that the final winter drive down the Medjerda valley was coming to a halt. Among the moves considered likely were subsidiary attacks in northern Tunisia to pin the Axis forces and take advantage of local situations if and when these presented themselves as Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen von Arnim’s 5th Panzerarmee in that region would be protected by the weather against any major Allied offensive for some weeks to come. But if Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s British 8th Army met the schedule reported to General Dwight D. Eisenhower by General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander, heading the Middle East Command, from Cairo on 27 December, Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel’s Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee would be pursued into southern Tunisia at a time late in January. Allied Force operations to weaken or destroy the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee would be possible, probably in central Tunisia.

The argument was the form which any central Tunisian operation should take, one possibility being the the use of a US armoured force to attempt the severing of Rommel’s lines of communication and supply with northern Tunisia. Although this offered the possibility of major advantages, it was also hazardous: the 5th Panzerarmee’s position in the north might be thinned without enabling the 1st Army to drive through to Tunis, and von Arnim might be able to concentrate armoured strength sufficient to attack to the south-west through the French sector to strike the US armoured force on a vulnerable northern flank. Whether or not the 5th Panzerarmee did so, the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee would certainly move quickly to protect its lines of communication by means of counterblows whose nature would depend on the freedom of manoeuvre it was offered by the pursuing 8th Army. Rommel’s formation might be substantial, in which case it could strike effectively either independently, or in conjunction with a force from von Arnim’s formation. The US forces would then be opposed by experienced German armoured units, and in such a situation would then find themselves engaged in a major engagement with seasoned veterans instead of being able to effect a gradual improvement in their operational capability by means of small and successful actions.

Despite such hazards, ‘Satin’ remained one of the projects favoured by the Americans, and an outline plan for such an attack toward Sfax was approved at Allied Force Headquarters on 28 December. Eisenhower believed that the 1st Army had fought well, and intended that it should eventually strike the decisive blow against the Axis forces’ Tunisian lodgement. This role might justify Anderson in trimming the 1st Army’s local attacks in the next few weeks so that it could husband its strength rather than expends it in support of the proposed attack farther to the south. Also to be taken into consideration was whether or not it might be better to launch the Allies’ main effort toward Sfax than Tunis. It might be better to abandon the US concept and concentrate the US armour into a mobile force-in-being on the southern flank of 1st Army, thus possibly deterring Rommel from offensive action. Despite such considerations, Eisenhower decided that the immediate Allied objective was not the capture of Tunis and Bizerte, but the destruction of Rommel’s army, and therefore gave tentative approval for a thrust to the coast. Anderson then agreed that the 1st Army would make the subsidiary attacks intended to aid ‘Satin’, but proposed to retain 18th Regimental Combat Team of Major General Terry de la M. Allen’s US 1st Division for the purpose. He was allowed to keep that unit until infantry of Major General H. A. Freeman-Attwood’s British 46th Division arrived to relieve it.

The Allied situation not only demanded a revision of the theatre’s strategy and related operational and tactical adjustments but also presented problems of command. On 17 December Général d’Armée Henri Giraud, the French commander-in-chief in North Africa, had proposed that he should become Eisenhower’s operational commander-in-chief over the whole Tunisian front, for he refused to accept any structure which placed the 1st Army in command of French forces. For a time, a union of French and US forces under a US commander was considered. Such a solution was affected by the fact that US plans before ‘Torch’ had provided for the eventual grouping of all US formations in a US 5th Army to be commanded by Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark. A US 5th Army controlling US and French troops in a zone to the south of the 1st Army would not have provided unity of command along the whole Allied line, however, and would have created a rather exalted headquarters for a US force of the modest proportions contemplated.

On 30 December, while the plan was pending, Clark and Major General Carl A. Spaatz of the USAAF considered the prospective battle area and how best to achieve genuinely effective co-ordination between ground and air units. When it was decided that there should be no army-level command structure in Tunisia, however, Clark went to Oujda, to the west of Oran, to activate the US 5th there, while the US formations in Tunisia were designated as a corps. General George C. Marshall, the US Army chief-of-staff, was prepared to arrange the promotion of either Major General George S. Patton or Major General Fredendall to the rank of lieutenant general if this would facilitate the unification of command over French-held sections of the front. In the end, Eisenhower selected Fredendall to command the US II Corps in central Tunisia and the area of Tébessa, and the French remained independent.

On 1 January 1943 Eisenhower assumed direct command of military operations on the entire front from an advanced headquarters at Constantine and via his deputy chief-of-staff, Major General Lucian K. Truscott. Between US II Corps and 1st Army, the French North African Land Forces would be commanded from a forward post by Général de Corps d’Armée Alphonse Juin, who would control two zones, that of Général de Division Georges Barré’s Tunisian Troop Command in the north and that of Général de Corps d’Armée Louis Koëltz’s XIX Corps in the south. In due course, all the formations and units of the three nations operating in areas assigned to control by the others would be sorted out and concentrated with forces of their own nationality, but during the intervening period some units would be attached to the major command of whichever zone they happened to be occupying. The XIX Corps was to transfer to the II Corps the Général de Division Marie Joseph Edmond Welvert’s Constantine Division. The Tunisian Troop Command was to make five battalions of French infantry available to the 1st Army and to leave the whole of Colonel Bergeron’s groupement in the British zone. French units operating under the tactical control of a British or US commander were to remain under the administrative control of either the XIX Corps or the Tunisian Troop Command in all other respects. All other French units stationed in the British or US zones were to remain entirely under the command of Barré or Koëltz. In case of an unexpected Axis encroachment, the various British, US and French elements in any zone would by commanded tactically by the relevant local headquarters regardless of nationality.

The headquarters of the II Corps began moving to Constantine from Oran on 4 January. One week later, its main section was operating there near the headquarters of the 1st Army, while an advance command post under Brigadier General Ray E. Porter was established in Tébessa. Fredendall’s headquarters were eventually moved to the south-east of Tébessa onto a wooded hillside in which underground corridors were constructed even as the advance command post went to Gafsa. While the ‘Satin’ plan was being prepared, the troops under Fredendall’s command were shifted from the northern part of Tunisia or moved to the east from Morocco and Algeria.

Three alternative ‘Satin’ plans were considered. ‘Satin A’ ordained the seizure of Sfax, with the subsequent possibility of an advance to the north along the coast toward Sousse; ‘Satin B’ called for an initial attack farther to the south, at Gabès, followed perhaps by a move to the north against Sfax; and ‘Satin C’ specified the capture of Kairouan followed by an advance to Sousse, thereby destroying its utility to the Axis forces, followed by a withdrawal when this became necessary. Whichever plan adopted by Eisenhower for launch on or about 22 January, the formations to execute it were to operate directly under Allied Force Headquarters.

Meeting at Constantine on 11 January, Eisenhower, Anderson, Juin and Fredendall reached decisions about ‘Satin’. Eisenhower defined the mission as aggressive action against the Axis lines of communications and supply in the direction of Sfax, and allocated the operation to Fredendall’s II Corps. For ‘Satin’, this was to comprise Major General Orlando Ward’s US 1st Armored Division, Colonel Alexander N. Stark’s US 26th Regimental Combat Team, Brigadier J. W. C. Flavell’s British 1st Parachute Brigade less one battalion, and Welvert’s Constantine Division. The British Middle East Command was to load ships to remain at Malta for despatch to Sfax when specified by the II Corps, so easing the demands on the slender line of supply from Algiers through Tébessa. Anderson, Juin and Fredendall also finalised other points necessary for effective inter-Allied co-operation along the wide front.

Fredendall planned to locate a mobile force in the area between Hadjeb el Aioun and Sbeitla for the immediate support of the French should the Axis make a counterattack from Kairouan, but to attack with the bulk of his command from Gafsa to Gabès and thence to the north along the coast to Sfax. This plan received Eisenhower’s tentative approval. Detailed planning for the operation soon started to depart considerably from the Allied Force Headquarters’ 28 December outline, as indicated by the increase of the force to be used from the initially mandated 20,000 to 25,000 men to a figure of more than 38,000 men. Fredendall’s proposed axis of attack threatened to lengthen the lines of supply to such an extent and to delay the acquisition of Sfax for so long that it might be required to draw on the reserve supplies accumulated at Tébessa. However, the Allied Force Headquarters did not supervise the detailed planning closely enough to discover these deviations and consequent problems until commanders’ conferences from 10 to 14 January, when the spectre of over-extended logistics started to become apparent.

After the Allied Force Headquarters had solved the problems of reorganisation and unified command, and had had formulated a plan of action to which he had given tentative approval, Eisenhower on 15 January flew to Casablanca to report to his superiors at the ‘Symbol’ second conference of Anglo-US military and political leaders.

The Casablanca suburb of Anfa had been sequestrated for the first full-scale gathering of these men in more than six months. The hotel and neighbouring villas were requisitioned, a barbed wire barrier thrown around the area known officially as the Anfa Camp. From 13 to 23 January 1943, the Combined Chiefs-of-Staff Committee held 15 formal meetings, while the US Joint Chiefs-of-Staff and the British Chiefs-of-Staff Committee, which together constituted Combined Chiefs-of-Staff Committee, met separately at other times. On three occasions during the conference, the Combined Chiefs-of-Staff Committee met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill to consider the agenda, discuss the matters at issue, and arrive at a final report of decisions taken.

First to a meeting of the Combined Chiefs-of-Staff Committee, and then at the first plenary session of the ‘Symbol’ conference, Eisenhower reported on the current and prospective operations in Tunisia. General Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, quickly questioned the justification for the risks he perceived as inherent in ‘Satin’. Alexander, freshly arrived from Cairo in his new capacity as commander-in-chief of the Allied 18th Army Group, indicated that the 8th Army would reach Tripoli before the end of January, perhaps just as the scheduled attack on Sfax was starting. No assurance could be given that Rommel’s forces would then be pinned by the 8th Army’s pressure and thus unable to intervene at Sfax. The 8th Army might well be immobilised, even if only on a temporary basis. Fuel and supplies would certainly be low while the port of Tripoli, away to the east, was being restored to service.

It was clear that if the attack on Sfax started by 23 January, it might well provoke a counterattack which the US formations would have to withstand without support. But if ‘Satin’ was launched at a later date, the 8th Army would by then have moved into Tunisia on the heels of the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee and would be a factor limiting Rommel’s response to the attack on Sfax. After a further talks with Alexander, Eisenhower agreed that the attack should be cancelled, at least in the shorter term, and that if it was undertaken in the longer term it would be carefully co-ordinated with the operations of the 8th Army. Eisenhower returned to Algiers on 16 January with the US part of his command retained on a very short leash.

Two days later, Eisenhower presided over a commanders’ conference in Constantine and ordained that operations on the southern flank must be defensive and that the largest possible proportion of the II Corps, especially the 1st Armored Division, was to be held in mobile reserve. Eisenhower issued a order to this effect at 12.00 on 20 January, and the ‘Satin’ concept was over.