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 Alge­ri­an and Moroc­can coasts, Ger­man troops, tanks, and air­craft started pouring into neigh­boring Tunisia from bases in Italy. Opera­tion Torch, under the command of Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower, saw Amer­i­can troops meeting rela­tive light Vichy French resis­tance as they made their combat debut in the North African theater of war. (The opposing Vichy forces were poorly armed and equipped as a result of the Franco-German armistice of 1940.)

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 British Eighth Army, which was advancing west­wards 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 loss of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad (February 1943).

Rom­mel, who had con­sidered Amer­i­can troops a non-threat in North Africa, was dev­as­tated by the turn­about; 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. Rom­mel’s replace­ment in Tunisia, Col. Gen. Hans-Juergen von Arnim, was cap­tured by Brit­ish Com­mon­wealth forces on May 12, 1943, and the remaining Ital­ians—at Benito Mus­so­lini’s direc­tion—sur­ren­dered the next day. 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 the Torch landings in 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 Algeria, by a sud­den, swift attack. A hodge-podge 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 pass. 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 surrendered the remainder of the Italian First Army.

Right: After the fall 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