Tunis, Tunisia November 9, 1942

On this date in 1942, one day after the largest amphi­bious inva­sion force in his­tory to that time landed Allied troops on the French Alge­ri­an and Moroc­can coasts, German troops, tanks, and air­craft started pouring into neigh­boring Tunisia from nearby bases in Italy. Opera­tion Torch, under the command of Lt. Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower, saw Amer­i­can troops meeting rela­tive light Axis Vichy French resis­tance as they made their combat debut in the North African theater of war. (The opposing Vichy colo­nial forces—109,000 strong—were mostly poorly armed and equipped as a result of the Franco-German armi­stice of June 1940, which is not to say that some well-led French forces did not fight back with every­thing they had, as ordered by Vichy head Marshal Philippe Pétain, partic­u­larly on the Alge­ri­an and Moroc­can inva­sion beaches and from coastal defense guns lobbing shells on U.S. warships and transport ships offshore.)

For multiple reasons the Torch umbrella was not extended over French Tunisia. Vichy French troops sur­rounded Tuni­sian air­fields and had a reason­able chance of pre­venting the swift build­up of Axis forces by defending them had they chosen to at an early stage. Instead, they retreated to the hills and briefly fought the Axis in­truders before being beaten off by the over­whelming force they had allowed to pour into their colony unchallenged.

The Americans’ baptism under fire occurred in rugged terrain in West­ern Tunisia. There Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps momen­tarily halted Allied plans to push east­ward and link up with Gen. Ber­nard Law Mont­gomery’s combat-tested British Eighth Army, which was advancing west­ward from Egypt through crumbling Axis-held Libya. The battle at Kas­serine Pass, a 2‑mile‑wide gap in one of the Atlas Moun­tains chains in West-Central Tuni­sia on Febru­ary 22, 1943, left 6,000 Amer­i­can casual­ties. The green, poorly led U.S. Army II Corps, pitted against a blooded, expe­ri­enced, well-trained, and bril­liantly led Axis force, was pushed back over 50 miles from its posi­tions in the ini­tial days of the battle. Despite their earlier dis­array, ele­ments of the U.S. II Corps, rein­forced by British reserves, rallied and held the exits through moun­tain passes, defeating the efforts of German and Ital­ian forces to retake the North Afri­can offen­sive. Kas­serine Pass was the last German offen­sive in North Africa, due in large part to Adolf Hitler’s fixa­tion with restoring Nazi Germany’s fort­unes in East­ern Europe following the capture and loss of the German Sixth Army (over 100,000 strong) at Stalingrad (February 1943).

Rommel, who had considered Amer­i­can troops a non-threat in North Africa, was devas­tated by the turn­about; allegedly taking medical leave, he secretly left the thea­ter during the second week of March, three days after Maj. Gen. George S. Patton was placed in com­mand of II Corps, with the expli­cit task of im­proving its per­for­mance. (The secret of Rommel’s depar­ture was so well kept that the Allies con­tinued referring to the field marshal in their offi­cial and unoffi­cial com­muni­ca­tions.) Rom­mel’s luck­less replace­ment in Tunisia, Col. Gen. Hans-Juergen von Arnim, was cap­tured by Brit­ish Com­mon­wealth forces on May 12, 1943, and the remaining Ital­ians—com­prising the best units of the Ital­ian Army—sur­ren­dered the next day at Benito Mus­so­lini’s direc­tion. More than 275,000 Axis soldiers entered captivity, ending the Allies’ North African Campaign.

The Allied-Axis Battle for Tunisia, 1942–1943

Tunisia, 1942–1943, during North African Campaign

Above: Sketch map of Tunisia during the 1942–1943 North African Cam­paign. In the weeks following simul­ta­neous Torch landings in neigh­boring French Morocco and Algeria in early Novem­ber 1942, the intent of the Allied com­mand was to press the German and Ital­ian forces in their Tunisian strong­hold against the Medi­ter­ranean Sea and force their surrender. It happened but not until May 1943.

 U.S. II Corps passes through Kasserine Pass, late February 1943 AU.S. II Corps passes through Kasserine Pass, late February 1943 B

Above: In February 1943, elements of Rommel’s Afrika Korps attempted to seize Kas­serine Pass, gate­way to Allied-held Algeria, by a sudden, swift attack. A hodge­podge of U.S. and Free French units attempted to hold the pass. German infan­try infil­trated around the defenders by climbing the heights on either side of the 2‑mile-wide pass. Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers, escorted by Messer­schmitt Bf 109 fighters, entered the fray. On Febru­ary 20, 1943, the pass was in German hands. As the Germans con­tinued their effort to push the Amer­i­cans back into Algeria on the morning of Febru­ary 22, they ran into con­cen­trated artil­lery fire. On Febru­ary 23, the Amer­i­cans cau­tiously advanced east­ward to dis­cover the Germans had with­drawn. Con­cerned that Mont­gomery’s British Eighth Army might attack him in the rear while he was moving west, Rommel aban­doned the battle­field and retired to the east. These photos show American units moving through the open pass.

Italian POWs being escorted out of Tunis, May 7, 1943Gromalia POW camp outside Tunis, May 1943

Left: In this photograph Italian prisoners of war are seen being herded out of Tunis as the British V Corps entered the capi­tal on May 7, 1943, the same day Amer­i­can armored and infan­try divi­sions pushed the retreating Germans out of the port city of Bizerte in the north of the coun­try. At 12:30 on May 13, one day after Mus­so­lini had named him Field Marshal, Giovanni Messe, the Governor of Libya, surrendered the remainder of the Italian First Army. (Messe avoided von Arnim’s fate—namely, prisoner of war in the U.S. state of Mississippi—by switching loyal­ties and fighting on the side of the Allies against Mussolini after the Italian armistice in September 1943.)

Right: After the fall of the Tunisian port cities of Tunis and Bizerte, Axis troops began sur­rendering in such large num­bers that they clogged roads, impeding the Allies’ mopping-up opera­tions. In the second week of May enemy pri­soners totaled over 275,000, many winding up at the Gro­ma­lia POW camp (shown here), four miles out­side Tunis. When Axis gene­rals began sur­ren­dering on May 9, 1943, the six-month Tunisia Cam­paign entered its final days. Vic­tory in Tunisia did not come cheaply. Of 70,000 Allied casu­al­ties, the U.S. Army lost 2,715 dead, 8,978 wounded, and 6,528 missing. At the same time, how­ever, the Army gained thou­sands of sea­soned offi­cers, non­com­mis­sioned offi­cers, and troops whose experi­ence would prove deci­sive in sub­se­quent cam­paigns. These sea­soned sol­diers would not have long to wait or far to go, for the next test was only two months and 150 miles away, the Italian island of Sicily and Operation Husky.

The Allied-Axis Battle for Tunisia, 1942–1943