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A Brief History of WWII

The North African Campaign

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Marshall ordered Lt. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, then in England, to take command of the invasion. Meeting the November deadline required improvisation of every kind. Army troops were hurriedly trained in amphibious warfare. Technicians modified commercial vessels to serve as landing ships. While General Eisenhower monitored operations from Gibraltar, American forces, convoyed directly from the United States, landed along the Atlantic coast of French Morocco, near Casablanca. Meanwhile, American and British troops sailing from England landed in Algeria. Despite efforts to win support among French military officers in North Africa, some fighting occurred. Nevertheless negotiations soon led to a cease-fire, and French units joined the Allied forces.

While the Allies tightened their grip on Morocco and Algeria, their troops raced to reach strategic positions in neighboring Tunisia. A month earlier the British in Egypt under Lt. Gen. Sir Bernard L. Montgomery had mounted a powerful attack on the Germans at El Alamein, sending Rommel and his German-Italian Panzer Army reeling back into Libya. If strong Allied forces could reach the coast of Tunisia, Rommel would be trapped between them and Montgomery's troops.

Awake to the threat, the Germans poured troops into Tunisia by air and sea, brushing aside weak French forces there. Axis air power, based in Sicily, Sardinia, and Italy, pounded the advancing Allied columns. As torrential December rains turned the countryside into a quagmire, the Allies lost the race. Instead of catching Rommel, they faced a protracted struggle. While his forces dug in along the southern border of Tunisia opposite Montgomery, a second powerful Axis force, the Fifth Panzer Army, barred the way to the Tunisian coast.

A chain of mountains separates coastal Tunisia from the arid interior. In a plain between two arms of the mountains and behind the passes in the west lay important Allied airfields and supply dumps. On February 14, 1943, the Axis commanders sent German and Italian forces through the passes, hoping to penetrate the American positions and either envelop the British in the north or seize Allied supply depots.

German forces quickly cut off and overwhelmed two battalions of American infantry positioned too far apart for mutual support, and the experienced panzers beat back counterattacks by American reserves, including elements of the U.S. 1st Armored Division. U.S. troops began evacuating airfields and supply depots on the plain and falling back to the western arm of the mountains. Dug in around the oasis town of Sbeitla, American infantry and armor managed to hold off the Germans through 16 February, but defenses there began to disintegrate during the night, and the town lay empty by midday on the 17th. From the oasis, roads led back to two passes, the Sbiba and the Kasserine. By 21 February the Germans had pushed through both and were poised to seize road junctions leading to the British rear.

Rommel and other German commanders, however, could not agree on how to exploit their success. Meanwhile Allied reinforcements rushed to the critical area. The 1st Armored Division turned back German probes toward Tebessa, and British armor met a more powerful thrust toward Thala, where four battalions of field artillery from the U.S. 9th Infantry Division arrived just in time to bolster sagging defenses. On the night of 22 February the Germans began to pull back. A few days later Allied forces returned to the passes. The first American battle with German forces had cost more than 6,000 U.S. casualties, including 300 dead and two-thirds of the tank strength of the 1st Armored Division.

In March, after the British repulsed another German attack, the Allies resumed the offensive. The U.S. II Corps, now under the command of Maj. Gen. George S. Patton, attacked in coordination with an assault on the German line by Montgomery's troops. American and British forces in the south met on 7 April as they squeezed Axis forces into the northeastern tip of the country. The final drive to clear Tunisia began on 19 April. On 7 May British armor entered Tunis, and American infantry entered Bizerte. Six days later the last Axis resistance in Africa ended with the surrender of over 275,000 prisoners of war.

The U.S. Army learned bitter lessons about the inadequacy of its training, equipment, and leadership in the North African campaign. Army Ground Forces acted quickly to ensure that American soldiers would receive more realistic combat training. Higher commanders realized that they could not interfere with their subordinates by dictating in detail the positions of their units. Troops had to be committed in division-size, combined arms teams, not in driblets. The problem posed by American tanks, outgunned by the more heavily armed and armored German panzers, took far longer to correct. But the artillery established itself as the Army's most proficient arm.

This text has been converted from "A Brief History of the U.S. Army in World War II" published by the U.S. Army Center for Military History.

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