With II Corps in Tunisia

On the map Tunisia looks like a sea horse, with its snout (Cap Bon) pointing toward Sicily. The city of Tunis is the eye; Bizerte sits on top of the head. The chest protrudes east into the Mediterranean. The waistline, formed by the Gulf of Gabès some 250 miles south of Bizerte, is narrow, only about a hundred miles wide from the port of Gabès to the Algerian border, which forms the spiny upper back of the sea horse. Below the waist, all is desert; above it there are two irregular mountain chains running more or less north and south about twenty miles apart and known as the Eastern Dorsal and the Western Dorsal. It was in the half-desert, half-mountain region of the lower chest and waist, where bleak, rocky mountains, or djebels, rise straight from barren plains, a region that reminded Americans of Arizona and New Mexico, that the U.S. Army began the war against Germany.

Part of the SATIN plan, a II Corps rush to the coast to seize Gabès, thereby cutting Rommel's line of communications from northern Tunisia, was changed late in January. General Eisenhower decided, after talks with General Sir Alan Brooke and General Sir Harold R. L. G. Alexander at the Casablanca Conference, to keep II Corps in mobile reserve in the Tébessa area, conducting only limited operations and building up strength to attack when the British Eighth Army caught up with Rommel on the southern border of Tunisia. At the time this decision was made General von Arnim began to attack the Eastern Dorsal passes, which were lightly held by the French 19th Corps, and Rommel's rear guard began to arrive in Tunisia. By 26 January the enemy was so strong at the mountain passes and so determined to keep the eastern coastal plains from Tunis to Tripoli open for a joining of Rommel's and General von Arnim's forces that the Allies had to give up any thought of an immediate breakthrough to Gabès. They had all they could do to plug the gaps in the mountains between Tébessa and the coast.1

Railroads, macadam roads, and camel trails converged at the ancient Algerian border city of Tébessa, which is encircled by tall remnants of a golden-stoned wall built when the Romans held North Africa. A narrow-gauge railroad came south through Algeria and then turned north; at Haïdra it connected with a railroad southeast to Kasserine, a junction from which rails ran east to the coast. Several highways curved north through Haïdra and Thala. One turned south toward the desert, winding its way past a gendarme's post, Bou Chebka, on the border, passing through a


beautiful forest of fir trees—the only forest in that part of Tunisia—and descending onto a flat plain to reach the tiny French-Arab town of Thélepte, which is surrounded by Roman ruins. Here the road branched; the left fork led to the coastal city of Sousse via Kasserine and Sbeïtla; the right to Gabès via Fériana and Gafsa. (See Map 3)

An oasis town of tall palms, flowering gardens, and pink and white buildings, about eighty miles south of Tébessa, Gafsa is less than three hours' ride by automobile from Gabès and was the logical take-off point for a breakthrough to the coast. In mid-January, when the Ordnance troops came to central Tunisia, Gafsa was the headquarters of the French-American Tunisian Task Force, composed of a detachment of the French Algiers Division, some French irregulars, and "Raff's Army" of U.S. paratroopers, infantrymen, and tank destroyers. The force had recently been built up to about 4,000 men, and Allied Force Headquarters had given it a few pieces of artillery and some antiaircraft guns, but it was still seriously short of weapons. The French were equipped with thin armor, mule-drawn carts, and ancient trucks, all that the Axis Armistice Commission had left them. Late in December Colonel Raff had received from AFHQ and turned over to the French a company of American M5 light "Honey" tanks (Company A, 70th Tank Battalion, Light), but after an encounter with German antitank guns at Pichon and long hours in combat without maintenance, the Honeys were of little use.2

By 20 January, when General Fredendall set up II Corps headquarters on a pine-wood ridge just south of Tébessa, more than 1,300 Ordnance troops had arrived in central Tunisia.3 From northern Tunisia, Niblo had brought the bulk of the 1st Battalion, 55th Ordnance Heavy Maintenance Regiment (Q), now redesignated the 188th Ordnance Heavy Maintenance Battalion (Q),4 and from Oran, along with the Provisional Ordnance Group headquarters, the headquarters of the 42d Maintenance and Supply Battalion, which had just arrived from the United States. He also brought from Oran another ammunition company, the 66th, another medium automotive maintenance company, the 3485th , and a medium weapons maintenance company, the 109th.5

Under the 42d Battalion, his heavy battalion, Niblo placed the 30th Ordnance Heavy Maintenance Tank Company, which set up shop in the woods at Bou Chebka; the 78th Ordnance Depot Company, which parked its big vans and spread its dump near Aïn Beïda, a few miles northwest of Tébessa on the road to Constantine; and the two ammunition companies, the 53d and 66th, which established the main ammunition depot at Tébessa and ammunition supply points at Fériana, Sbeïtla, and Maktar. Under the 188th Battalion, Niblo assembled three medium maintenance companies, the 3485th and 3488th for automotive work and the 109th for


Photo:  Antiquated French equipment on railroad cars at Tébessa


weapons. Primarily for truck and antiaircraft repairs, this light battalion was strung out from Tébessa to Gafsa and from Tébessa to Maktar, with detachments at the airfields at Thélepte and Fériana. All maintenance units sent out contact parties daily or weekly to the combat and service elements in central Tunisia. Constant road patrols were not possible because there were not enough trucks.6

The equipment of the two Ordnance battalions left something to be desired, for most of it had been furnished under old tables of organization and equipment written before Ordnance was made responsible for motor vehicles. The 78th Ordnance Depot Company, for example, had been designed and equipped as a semimobile company to stock "old Ordnance" supplies for an army, with the bulk of the stock under canvas or in a warehouse and the vans used only to establish forward supply points. Now, swamped with demands for truck parts and assemblies in the forward areas, the depot company was practically immobilized and yet had no canvas to protect its stocks nor any barbed wire for fences. The maintenance men also needed lightproof and weatherproof shop tents and were woefully short of shop trucks. Before leaving Constantine for the front, Colonel Niblo had appealed to Colonel Ford to


Photo:  Ammunition stored under trees near Sbeïtla


send more shop trucks, pointing out that he was short three for welding, eight for tank maintenance, eight for automotive repair, and one for instrument repair, adding forcefully, "there are not enough red stars or red stripes for me to put on this letter." He had received only a few shop trucks and some of these were not completely equipped.7

From the beginning, the Provisional Ordnance Group had to support a long and very fluid front. General Anderson, to whose British First Army the U.S. II Corps was attached on 24 January, sent U.S. tanks and infantry on long treks from one mountain pass to another in an attempt to stop German jabs at the Eastern Dorsal from Fondouk and Faïd in the north to Maknassy in the south. These "long pointless forays," as the commander of Combat Command B called them, 8 were


hard on tanks. The first job of the 42d Battalion was to supply the 1st Armored Division's organic maintenance battalion with engines and tracks for Combat Command B's aging tanks, which were being brought into the woods near Bou Chebka for refitting after having fought hard and traveled over long distances since their arrival in North Africa.9

The second job was to provide enough cargo trucks to bring supplies from Constantine to Tébessa. By 23 January seventy-five cargo trucks were urgently needed for immediate replacement of actual losses. Road transportation was vital since the narrow-gauge railroad that ran south to Tébessa from Ouled Rahmoun (the main line station south of Constantine) could bring in only about a third of the daily tonnage needed by II Corps. The loss of a single truck seemed to planners at AFHQ "almost a tragedy."10

On 25 January, after the Casablanca Conference, General Eisenhower told Generals Marshall and Somervell, then in Algiers, of the desperate need for more trucks and the requirement for tank transporters to save the tanks' tracks from the damage inflicted by the long drag over the mountains. General Somervell cabled to Washington for 5,000 2 1/2-ton trucks (1,500 on wheels), 400 1 1/2-ton trucks (200 on wheels), 72 tank transporters, 2,000 trailers, and rolling stock. By almost superhuman effort, this enormous shipment was assembled and sailed on 15 February; it reached the theater in early March. In the meantime, according to General Truscott, supply became "the absorbing problem in every headquarters in North Africa.11

The Supply Crisis

Taking stock at the end of January, Colonel Niblo found in the II Corps area, or en route to it, only 35 spare tanks, of which 20 were light M3's; 57, including 32 mediums, had been requisitioned. Trucks of all kinds, not only the 2 1/2-ton cargo trucks, but weapons carriers and jeeps, were desperately short. Also badly-needed were more binoculars and more antiaircraft machine guns and mounts to place on tank destroyers and vehicles. The Allies had discovered that the Germans would strafe a single truck and repeat the strafing if the fire was not returned. The most serious parts shortages were those for the 90-mm. and 40-mm. antiaircraft guns, 155-mm. howitzers, carbines, and, above all, parts for trucks.12

Early in February the automotive spare parts shortage became acute. Colonel Niblo warned Colonel Crawford, AFHQ Ordnance officer, that unless drastic action was taken at once to obtain parts for the 6,000 or so trucks carrying ammunition, weapons,


Photo:  Strafed supply truck, Tunisia


fuel, food, and other supplies along the front, the tactical situation would be seriously affected. Of the trucks in the Tébessa region, 95 percent needed repairs in some degree, and the parts bins of the 3485th Ordnance Medium Automotive Maintenance Company were almost empty. Many of the vehicles were badly in need of fourth echelon overhaul, having been driven more than 15,000 miles without adequate first, second, or third echelon service, and thousands were headed for deadline within two or three weeks unless help came from the base.13

The boxed lots of spare parts sent under the automatic supply system, each lot theoretically furnishing enough parts for 100 vehicles for a year, contained too many parts of some kinds and not enough of others. Those most needed in Tunisia as in other theaters were simple, fast-moving items such as spark plugs, nuts, bolts, headlight bulbs, tire patches, and carburetors. Another crying need was for engines. In the boxed set of parts for 100 vehicles, only 18 were furnished; experience showed that 30 would have better filled the need. Reserve engines had to be on hand to replace those taken out for overhaul, otherwise the trucks would be deadlined. Not only engines, but clutches, generators, starters, and other complete units were needed to a degree unusual for front-line maintenance. This abnormal demand developed because


adequate base shop facilities had not yet been established.14

"Miracles of Maintenance"

For prompt and adequate fourth echelon maintenance behind the front, Colonel Niblo wanted a heavy maintenance company at Constantine and on 5 January found suitable buildings for a shop and warehouse. By the end of January the headquarters of the 5th Ordnance Battalion (Maintenance), relieved from the POG and attached to the Mediterranean Base Section, had arrived along with the 45th Ordnance Medium Maintenance Company and one company of the 67th Ordnance Battalion (Q), but neither company was trained in heavy maintenance and both lacked fourth echelon tools and equipment. In these early days, little or no fourth echelon work was being done at Oran, as the condition of some of the trucks and tanks forwarded from there showed. Out of 58 trucks received from MBS early in February, 50 had to be worked on by automotive maintenance men before they could be delivered to the users.15

Lacking both spare parts and support from the rear, American resourcefulness at the front accomplished results that one Ordnance officer called "miracles of maintenance."16 The mechanics manufactured parts and even such major items as range drums and sight brackets, all of which would normally be base shop work—if there had been base shops close enough to make them quickly. The commanding officer of the 3485th Ordnance Medium Maintenance Company (Q) estimated that half of the work of his company was "semi-fourth" echelon. Of the vehicles serviced by the 3488th Ordnance Medium Maintenance Company (Q), 20 percent would have been deadlined if the company had not performed fourth echelon repairs, including such difficult jobs as crankshaft replacements.17

Wrecks brought into the shops were cannibalized. This expedient, normally reserved for nonrepairable items, was permitted by Colonel Niblo in the spare parts crisis of early February on repairable items that would have had to be evacuated to a higher echelon. The solution was uneconomical and did not really solve the problem since, for example, there was only one set of bearings on each salvaged truck, and ten trucks might be waiting for bearings. But it was the only way to get parts. Capt. Joseph M. Montgomery of the 3488th reported that the authority to salvage vehicles and reclaim the parts had been the deciding factor in keeping the trucks


rolling; 75 percent of the jobs completed by his company were made possible by cannibalization.18

Up in the mountain passes, detachments of the 1st Armored Division's maintenance battalion also stripped many wrecked items to make up for the shortage of weapons spare parts—making one good gun out of two unusable ones. In devising machine gun mounts for vehicles, always a pressing problem, the men used whatever they could find on the battlefield; one mount was made out of the aluminum landing gear of a Junkers 88 that had been shot down. The barrel of a 37-mm. gun taken out of a wrecked P-39 formed the axle for a makeshift trailer and a disabled truck provided the wheels.19

In the shop areas as well as in the combat zone men worked in helmets and had to take to slit trenches when German dive bombers came over. On the road, supply trains and small service parties learned to shift for themselves. They carried C rations in their trucks and cooked them on a "desert stove" made by digging a small hole, filling it half full of water, and pouring on top a small quantity of gasoline, thus providing "a good, hot fire capable of cooking almost anything." If there was no opportunity to stop and cook, the men ate their rations cold or wired them on the exhaust manifold of the engine, heating them on the run. For cooking, drinking, and washing, they carried 5-gallon water cans, two or three to a vehicle. Ordnance mechanics doing contact work spent more than half their time on the highway, covering hundreds of miles. These men were therefore not available for work in the shop areas, where the task of supporting French and American forces that were strung out over the long front was becoming increasingly harder.20

On 30 January the enemy took Faïd Pass in the Eastern Dorsal and on 4 February Rommel crossed the Tunisian frontier. His first aim was to break up the American forces in central Tunisia, because he believed that the greatest danger to his Tunisian bridgehead would be an American offensive from Gafsa through to Gabès. If such an attack were successful it would separate him from von Arnim.

The Germans divided their offensive forces into two prongs, sending one to Faïd, breaking through the pass on 14 February, and another prong up the Gabès-Gafsa road.21

On both flanks the Americans began to pull back to the Western Dorsal, evacuating Gafsa and Sbeïtla. On the night Gafsa was evacuated in rain and blackout over a narrow road choked, as an observer reported, "bumper to bumper, from head to tail with tanks, artillery, infantry, French Legionnaires, camels, goats, sheep, Arab and French families with crying children, jackasses and horse-drawn carts," an Ordnance detachment brought up the rear, pulling tanks and vehicles out of ditches. At Sbeïtla the last men to get out of town were


two Ordnance officers who were firing the ammunition dump.22

Rommel occupied Gafsa and Fériana and on 17 February overran Kasserine Pass in the Western Dorsal. He caused appalling losses in American men and equipment, but achieved no lasting victory. By 17 February the Americans had brought up the 9th and 34th Infantry Divisions from Oran and Casablanca, and the British had sent their 26th Armoured Brigade from northern Tunisia. After five days of hard fighting, Rommel was forced to withdraw to the coastal plain.

Niblo Leaves II Corps

In the midst of the German breakthrough Ordnance service was undergoing a crisis of its own. Colonel Niblo in a forceful letter to Colonel Crawford on 16 February had pointed out the inadequate Ordnance support from the rear at Constantine and Oran; the deterioration of the trucks and tanks at the front; the dearth of spare parts; and the impossibility of expecting the Ordnance troops in the field without enough tools, time, or men to do the whole job of keeping the combat men armed and mobile. He concluded bluntly, "we do not have any Ordnance policy for the operation of Ordnance service in North Africa."23

The rush of events in those early days of 1943 had indeed created a tangle in policy and administration. The Ordnance organization had been cut to fit II Corps on its arrival in North Africa in November as an independent reinforced corps (Center Task Force). Much had happened since then. Fifth Army was organized in North Africa on 4 January 1943, under Maj. Gen. Mark W. Clark. On 5 January II Corps was assigned to Fifth Army and thus in theory reverted to a typical corps, a tactical unit only; but in fact it continued to be a reinforced corps since it remained the major U.S. ground force combat unit in Tunisia. General Clark, at the suggestion of General Marshall, turned over the field command in Tunisia to the II Corps commander, General Fredendall, and remained at his Oujda (French Morocco) headquarters, planning and training for later operations. Thus the Provisional Ordnance Group—for a short time renamed the Provisional Ordnance Regiment (Field) — remained in much the same situation as before. Though it was theoretically under army, it was assigned to II Corps on 15 January.24

On 24 January, at a time when American forces had to rush in to close the gaps in the front made by small but determined German attacks against the weak French forces, General Eisenhower attached II Corps to the British First Army. He also attached to the British First Army the French forces, which along with Raff Force had been operating directly under AFHQ. This was the rather hazy situation when II Corps set up headquarters in the Tébessa area on 20 January. As commander of the only U.S. Ordnance organization in central Tunisia, Niblo, who was always inclined to


be generous with Ordnance support, sent out contact parties to U.S. tank and tank destroyer battalions attached to the French and supplied the French Ordnance squadron. Realizing that he was providing service on an army scale, which II Corps was "more or less directed by AFHQ" to do, he appealed to II Corps for a clear statement of policy, for an enlarged headquarters staff, and for permission to operate "under general control of the Army Commander."25

The outcome was a II Corps command decision that Ordnance maintenance service "until further administrative instructions are received from higher headquarters" would be furnished for "all U.S. forces within the physical boundaries of the II Corps and for all U.S. matériel in the hands of the French within the same geographical boundaries"—that is, within a line on the north running through Thala-Kairouan-Sousse, on the south running cast and west approximately twenty-five miles south of Gabès (the line of demarkation between II Corps and the British Eighth Army), and to the rear running north and south through Tébessa.26 On the question of policy, General Fredendall sent word by his G-4 that he wanted Ordnance service continued as a corps function by corps troops "exactly as it is now being done."27 These orders were ambiguous, because contact parties had been accustomed to servicing all American units they found whether attached to II Corps or not; also, the command decision did not expressly forbid contacting and servicing units outside the area.28

Niblo continued his effort to support the Raff Force and other American units attached to the French, but found it increasingly difficult. A request for ammunition for some pack howitzers that had been turned over to the French was refused by the Mediterranean Base Section on the ground that a directive from AFHQ was necessary; and an urgent appeal to the II Corps chief of staff for parts for the badly crippled Honey tanks of Company A, 70th Tank Battalion, attached to the French Algiers Division at the front—"if this company is subject to control by II Corps"— went unanswered. Citing his futile attempts to furnish Ordnance service to the tank company, Niblo on 12 February again appealed for a clarification of policy, this time to Colonel Crawford at AFHQ, stating his conviction "that boundary lines of various Corps do not figure in the normal Army Ordnance supply and maintenance of Army Combat troops which are assigned or attached to the various Corps from time to time."29

Less than a week after this letter was written, General Fredendall relieved Niblo


as Ordnance officer of II Corps. The reason, according to the impressions of men in the field, was that Niblo had been extending his services to Raff and the French forces.30 Fredendall had little confidence in the French—a feeling shared by many British and Americans; and he may have felt that II Corps had all it could do to take care of itself, the supply situation being what it was over a long and overextended front. On the other hand, he probably never saw with his own eyes the wretched condition of the battered U.S. light tanks attached to the French or the frustration of men who were denied the weapons they needed to fight with. When the American Grant and Sherman tanks of the 1st Armored Division arrived in central Tunisia, the men of Raff Force, according to their commander, "stood at the Thélepte road junction watching the tanks as children do fire engines."31 Instead of visiting the front, Fredendall remained most of the time at his headquarters in a deep ravine east of Tébessa. There was a widespread feeling among subordinate commanders and staffs that he never understood the situation as it was known to the troops in the field.32

Colonel Niblo left II Corps on 17 February and went to Fifth Army, where he succeeded Colonel Ford as General Clark's Ordnance officer. His successor at II Corps was Lt. Col. John B. Medaris, who had been his assistant for some time. A few days later an important change occurred at the top. The 18 Army Group under General Alexander was established to coordinate the British First and Eighth Armies, the U.S. II Corps, and the French 19th Corps. Alexander's first act, in the words of Maj. Gen. Omar N. Bradley who was then acting as Eisenhower's special representative at the front, was "to unscramble the chaotic commitment of units on Anderson's front."33 The forces of each nation were concentrated under the nation's own command and given their own sectors. The U.S. II Corps, formerly attached to British First Army, early in March came directly under 18 Army Group, in a position parallel to the British First and British Eighth Armies.

Supporting the Thrust Through Gafsa

Colonel Medaris, the new Ordnance officer, had a big job on his hands. The German attack at Kasserine had swept away hundreds of tanks, trucks, and weapons— most of the 183 tanks, 194 half-track personnel carriers, 122 pieces of self-propelled artillery, 86 artillery pieces, 213 machine guns, and 512 trucks and jeeps that II Corps lost between 21 January and 21 February. For some items the losses were greater than the combined stocks of the Atlantic and Mediterranean Base Sections.34 Replacements were urgently needed, for Maj. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., who succeeded General Fredendall as commanding general of II Corps on 6 March, had orders for a new offensive through Gafsa and Maknassy to be launched during the third week in March. The offensive, conceived by General Alexander, was timed to coincide with the Eighth Army's arrival at the Mareth Line and was intended to


Photo:  Tiger tank captured in Tunisia


help General Montgomery by threatening one of the German flanks.

In planning for the offensive, Eisenhower instructed Patton to study the lessons already learned in Tunisia. One of the most important was how to deal with German land mines—the bounding antipersonnel mine and the big plate-shaped Teller antitank mine, twice as heavy as the American and British mine. The Germans had used mines lavishly and the British Eighth Army had learned what they could do in the great tank battles in Egypt and Libya; the Americans now saw how effective they were in guarding the mountain passes in Tunisia. For their own defenses at Kasserine, II Corps had had to bring to the front all the antitank mines that were available in Casablanca and Oran; 20,000 were flown to the most forward airfield, Youks-les-Bains, in fifty-two planeloads.35

In some respects there were sobering comparisons between U.S. and German equipment. American tankers first encountered German armor in northern Tunisia on 26 November 1942, when several 1st Armored Division companies of ms Stuart tanks ambushed a small German force of six Pzkw IV Specials with long, high-velocity 75-mm. guns and three or more Pzkw


III's with the long 50-mm. guns. Swarming around the German tanks, the Stuarts with their 37-mm. guns firing on flank and rear at close range managed to knock out all the Pzkw IV's and one of the Ill's. However, this was a victory of superior numbers rather than superiority of matériel. As in the Western Desert, the Pzkw IV Specials outgunned not only the little Stuarts but also the Shermans. During the German attack in the Pont-du-Fahs area in mid-January 1943, British antitank guns disabled and captured a tank more powerful than the Pzkw IV Special—the low-silhouette, thick-skinned Pzkw VI Tiger, armed with an 88-mm. gun. It was not used at Kasserine. General von Arnim had only nineteen, sent to him in November for combat-testing, and he refused to release any of them to Rommel. The Tigers were still full of bugs and had an inadequate engine. Their greatest threat was their armament. The troops in Tunisia had already learned to recognize and respect the whip crack of the 88-mm. gun.36 On the credit side for U.S. equipment at Kasserine was the artillery, which put a great number of Rommel's tanks out of action, astonishing his panzer division by its accurate and rapid fire. Some of the captured Germans asked to see the American 155-mm. "automatic cannon."37 On the whole, Rommel considered the Americans "fantastically well equipped" and concluded that the Germans "had a lot to learn from them organisationally."38

After Kasserine, Ordnance at the front profited greatly from better organization in the rear. Ordnance officers at AFHQ and SOS quickly dispatched from Casablanca, by every available means of transportation, the weapons and tanks of the 1 Armored Corps and other Fifth Army units. Trucks came from Casablanca and Oran assembly lines, and the thousands of wheeled trucks Somervell shipped from the United States arrived in the special convoy on 6-7 March. By 15 March the shortages in trucks, tanks, artillery, and machine guns had been made up.39

Tanks were arriving in better condition because the Mediterranean Base Section shops at Oran, operating more smoothly than before, rigidly processed the tanks as they came into the port, fully kitted them, and shipped them by coaster or tank landing vessels to Philippeville, where they were driven overland to the bivouac of the 30th Ordnance Company near Youks-les-Bains. Early in March there was organized at MBS the 2622d Ordnance Tank Transporter Company—the first company of its kind in the U.S. Army. With its sixty trailers the company could lift a battalion of medium tanks and six spares in one move, delivering them over long distances that would otherwise materially have shortened their serviceable lives. The first week in April, two platoons were able to take on the task of moving tanks and self-propelled artillery south from Philippeville.40


Arriving at Constantine in mid-February and inheriting the small 5th Ordnance Battalion (Maintenance) stationed there, Col. Ward E. Becker, Ordnance officer of Eastern Base Section, found that he not only had base section responsibilities but also had to furnish support to II Corps that would have been army responsibility if the corps had been functioning normally under an army instead of as an independent corps. This meant pushing units forward. The first move was to send the 5th Battalion— soon reinforced by several newly arrived maintenance companies, one of them the heavy automotive type—down to Taxas (south of the railhead of Ouled Rahmoun and eighty-nine miles from Tébessa on the main supply route to II Corps), to keep the truck fleet operating and to process new armament arriving at Bougie and Philippeville. The battalion sent detachments to the ports and railheads to drive the tanks, self-propelled artillery, and trucks to the shops, where they processed them, and then drove them to II Corps under difficult conditions of blackout, steady rain, and enemy raids. After II Corps advanced to Gafsa, Eastern Base Section Ordnance Section sent two maintenance companies (one armament, one automotive) to Tébessa and also took over the corps depot company there and the principal corps and ammunition dump. The dump created a serious problem, because EBS had received only two ammunition companies and both were needed to operate the base ammunition depot at Ouled Rahmoun, where large quantities of ammunition had been arriving by rail from the west. Becker solved the problem by successfully converting a company of mechanics into a provisional ammunition company.41

When the new offensive began, along with the spring rains, on 17 March, II Corps Ordnance Service had received some reinforcement. A new type of heavy maintenance company designed to support a field army, the 82d Ordnance Company (Heavy Maintenance) (Field Army), was assigned to the 42d Ordnance Battalion to operate a heavy machine shop in support of corps and divisional artillery. Colonel Medaris moved the 42d Battalion, now commanded by Maj. John F. Moffitt, 10 miles east of Tébessa to establish a heavy maintenance base and sent the 188th Ordnance Battalion, which now included the 30th Heavy Maintenance Tank Company and was commanded by Maj. George T. Petersen, forward with II Corps in the attack. One medium maintenance company, the 14th, which had been brought down from northern Tunisia, was sent to Fondouk to support the 34th Division in a British-American attempt to break through the Eastern Dorsal at that point; the rest of the 188th Battalion supported the effort through Gafsa to draw German forces off from the Mareth Line.42

The advance was easy at first; the enemy had withdrawn toward the coast. The corps took Gafsa and Maknassy without opposition and got into El Guettar, a date


palm oasis on the road to Gabès. Just beyond El Guettar, in a region of bleak hills and plains covered with short grass, the Germans reacted strongly, counterattacking on 23 March with a panzer division including some Tiger tanks, supported by the Luftwaffe, which strafed and dive-bombed. So strong was the counterattack during the week following that Gafsa itself was threatened. The 188th Battalion, which had followed II Corps headquarters into Gafsa on 20 March, was organized for defense. One company practiced firing 105-mm. howitzers, another was made into an infantry heavy weapons company, and the third was assigned an antitank and infantry role. A tremendous strain was placed on the 53d Ammunition Company's dump, manned by only half the company, the other half having been left behind with the 42d Battalion. On 23-24 March one section of the 53d handled an average of about 40 tons per man. Fortunately the crisis was soon over and the Ordnance units did not have to become combat units. The Germans had only been fighting a skillful guerrilla action in terrain that favored them. At the end of March they began to pull out. By then the Eighth Army had broken the Mareth Line and occupied Gabès and by the second week in April was sweeping up the coast toward northern Tunisia.43

The March to Bizerte

The last battle against the Axis in North Africa was to take place in northern Tunisia. In this battle, planned primarily as a British First Army and Eighth Army pincers operation, General Alexander at first gave II Corps a very minor part. The 9th Division was to be assigned to British First Army to help the British left flank in the attack on Bizerte, and the remainder of II Corps was to stage a demonstration at Fondouk against the enemy's right rear flank. But Maj. Gen. Omar N. Bradley, who had been acting as Patton's deputy and was to succeed Patton as commander of II Corps on 15 April, protested to General Eisenhower that the Americans had earned a right to share in the final victory, fighting under their own flag. Convinced that Bradley was right, Eisenhower insisted that II Corps be given a sector on the northern front. General Alexander finally decided to transfer II Corps across the rear of First Army and place it on the northern flank facing Bizerte.44

The II Corps march across the rear of the British First Army took place during the week beginning April 10. Supplies were shifted north from the central dumps near Tébessa in 5,000 trucks, most of them furnished by the Eastern Base Section. Unable to take main roads for fear of blocking British lines of communication, the great supply train made the trip in two days in a driving rain over secondary mountain roads. Ordnance units helped move tanks and heavy artillery. From Sbeïtla, where the 1st Armored Division had been refitting and regrooming for the move north, two platoons of the 2622d Ordnance Tank Transporter Company, supplied with additional tank transporters by the British First Army, lifted the tanks and carried them 200 miles in two nights and a day to the new assembly area. The


big guns of the 13th Field Artillery Brigade, in serious need of overhaul after Kasserine and El Guettar, were repaired during halts on the march north by a special detachment of 30 picked mechanics, with 10 shop trucks, furnished by the 30th Heavy Maintenance Tank Company.45

The headquarters of the Provisional Ordnance Group began the 5-day journey by motor from Gafsa to Souk el Khémis on 13 April. The general assembly area for service troops was near LeCalle and Tabarka, on the northern coast road. The 42d Ordnance Battalion moved to a point about ten miles east of Tabarka. The 188th Ordnance Battalion remained behind at Gafsa until 20 April to assist Eastern Base Section in the mammoth job of battlefield clearance. The Americans had left behind them a 3,000-square-mile area, twice fought over, that was littered with ammunition, tanks, gasoline and water cans, clothing, and all kinds of scrap. Out of the 20,544 long tons collected, more than half was ammunition. There were 2,117 tons of badly needed motor parts. From wrecked vehicles sent to the salvage yard established by EBS at Tébessa, more than $200,000 worth of parts was reclaimed.46

During the El Guettar-Maknassy operations Colonel Medaris began to use a new type of company that he put together from men and equipment of the 188th Battalion, calling it the Provisional Ordnance Collecting Company. Its job was to go into the forward area, whether the actual field of battle or ground over which combat troops had merely passed, and bring back all the Ordnance matériel it could find, Allied or enemy. This was a pioneer effort at battlefield recovery and evacuation. An Ordnance evacuation company (TOE 9-187) had been organized in the United States in November 1942 but it had not yet arrived in the theater; besides, it was mainly for evacuating armor from collecting points to the rear, being equipped with tank transporters rather than wreckers and trucks. Theoretically, combat troops cleaned up the battlefield, bringing damaged matériel to division or corps collecting points where Quartermaster troops picked it up, sent it back to depots, and if it was repairable turned it over to the technical service that had supplied it.47

Experience in Tunisia showed that the combat troops did not have the time, manpower, or equipment to clear the battlefield. It took 4-ton and 10-ton wreckers, plenty of 2 1/2-ton trucks, and men with special skills—riggers, tank mechanics, welders, and drivers who could handle tank transporters and other special vehicles. To get these, Medaris robbed the maintenance companies of his 188th Battalion, pooling


all evacuation and recovery equipment in his collecting company. This was hard on the maintenance companies, but the collecting company recovered a tremendous amount of supplies that might otherwise have been lost, and many of the items were promptly returned to service. On one occasion the equipment of an entire battery of 90-mm. guns, badly shot up by enemy artillery, was collected between 1700 of one day and 0600 the next, and taken to an Ordnance maintenance company, which repaired it and got it ready for action by 1600 of the following day.48

Battlefield recovery was dangerous work, often performed under fire since early arrival at the scene was essential to keep the matériel from being cannibalized by combat troops, damaged further by enemy action, or falling into the hands of the enemy. Usually the company operated at night, recovering equipment that had been knocked out during the day. The men had to learn not only how to work in blackout conditions, to operate mine detectors and remove mines and booby traps, but how to scout and patrol and defend themselves with small arms, bayonets, and even divisional artillery. Self-reliance and discipline were stressed, for these men were in a sense the Rangers of Ordnance. Until the end of the Tunisia Campaign, they operated very successfully within the limits of the equipment available to them. Unfortunately, there was never enough equipment to do a complete job of recovery, especially the job of recovering tanks.49

Unable to foresee the extent of mine damage, the Ordnance Department was late in furnishing tractors powerful enough to evacuate tanks from the battlefield; in March 1943 Colonel Crawford was forced to admit, "we were all caught asleep." Commanders of 1st Armored Division elements had observed on the northern front in January that as soon as a German tank was knocked out it would simply disappear, towed off by another tank or a tank recovery vehicle. Colonel Crawford found on his visit to the Middle East in January that the British had an effective tractor, the Scammell, to snake mine-damaged tanks back to roads; at Kasserine it had been used to save 68 tanks by a unit of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, the British maintenance agency. In the United States the Ordnance Department, on the recommendation of General Barnes, had in the fall of 1942 improvised a tank recovery vehicle, the T2, by affixing a crane to an M3 tank with a low compression engine, and by March 1943 some of them were on their way to the theater for the use of the combat troops of the 1st Armored Division. There was no provision for heavy tractors either in the maintenance battalion of the armored division or in the Ordnance heavy tank maintenance company. Realizing the importance of tank recovery, Colonel Crawford in mid-February asked for a heavy recovery platoon to be used as an adjunct to the Ordnance heavy tank maintenance company. The 1st Provisional Ordnance Recovery and Evacuation Platoon arrived in the theater in April and on 23 April was assigned to the 188th Battalion, where its


heavy recovery and tank transporter equipment was made available to the collecting company; but it was by then rather late in the Tunisian day.50

"The End of the Beginning"

The final offensive against the Axis forces in Tunisia was launched the third week in April. It would take ten days of the hardest infantry fighting yet encountered to defeat them and achieve what Winston Churchill called "the end of the beginning."51 The enemy was strongly entrenched in a 120-mile arc around the northeastern tip of Tunisia, from Enfidaville on the coast around to the rocky djebels that stood like fortresses before the plains leading to Tunis and Bizerte.

In the American sector two main roads ran through the djebels to Mateur, the Germans' main supply base. The northern and shorter road ran from Djebel Abiod through Djefna; the southern began at Bédja and skirted the Tine River valley. General Bradley placed the 9th Infantry Division at Djebel Abiod, with the Corps Franc d'Afrique on its left, with orders to avoid the main road and advance through the Sedjenane valley to Bizerte. He ordered the 1st Infantry Division to Bédja to open the Tine valley floor so that the 1st Armored Division could break through to Mateur. The jump-off date for the attack, set by the British, was Good Friday, 23 April, but whether or not the Americans could meet it depended on how fast supplies could be brought up to the front.52

A shortened supply line, stronger support from Eastern Base Section, and the employment of new techniques learned during early stages of the campaign made possible an Ordnance buildup in a phenomenally short time. At Bône, the new base port for II Corps, Eastern Base Section quickly amassed an ammunition depot of about 9,000 tons. From Bône, ammunition and light Ordnance general supplies were reloaded on tank landing craft and balancelles (Mediterranean fishing boats) and moved by night to the small shallow-water port of Tabarka behind the front. From Tabarka the 66th Ammunition Company and the 78th Depot Company sent the ammunition, spare parts, small arms, and other matériel in trucks to forward ammunition supply points and maintenance companies. Light tanks, half-tracks, and light artillery were processed by the 45th Medium Maintenance Company at an EBS shop at Morris, ten miles east of Bône, and went by the coast road to Bédja. Medium tanks and the heavier self-propelled artillery, which were too heavy for the bridges along the coast road, were loaded on tank transporters and sent south through Souk el Arba to Bédja. En route,


at Duvivier, they were groomed and combat-loaded by the 87th Heavy Tank Maintenance Company.53

The Americans attacked at dawn on 23 April in an explosion of artillery fire that lit up the eastern sky. Artillery and infantry were to play the major role in this last battle for Tunisia because Bradley was not willing to expend his tanks in valleys dominated by the enemy, which was entrenched on a succession of rocky hills. The fighting was a matter of attacking hill by hill, on both the 9th Division and the 1st Division fronts. The last major obstacle on the 1st Division sector was a white, soaring djebel known as Hill 609, northeast of the railhead at Sidi Nsir. Bradley brought up the 34th Division, which took the hill on 30 April. The way was then open for the 1st Armored Division to move to Mateur. To the north the 9th Division, advancing through a dense, breast-high thicket, outflanked the Germans' strong Djefna position. The enemy began to withdraw. Mateur fell on 3 May and after some regrouping, during which Bradley's command post advanced from Bédja to Sidi Nsir, II Corps resumed the attack on 6 May. The next day the forward halftracks of the 9th Division were clanking into the rubble-filled streets of Bizerte, the 1st Armored Division was occupying Ferryville, and British First Army tanks were entering Tunis. On 9 May the Axis forces in Tunisia surrendered.

In support of this battle, Colonel Medaris had placed a battalion on each flank of II Corps, the 188th near Bédja behind the 1st Infantry Division and 1st Armored Division on the south, the 42d near Djebel Abiod behind the 9th Division on the north. Both battalions supported the 34th Division when it arrived between the two flanks. Believing strongly that Ordnance service ought to be "so far forward at all times that troops need not seek it out, but merely by 'holding up their hands' may have them filled with adequate tools of war," Medaris sent his mechanics up to the front to repair equipment or bring it back to battalion shops and advanced the corps ammunition dumps "to the absolute limit of reasonable safety."54

On a visit to the corps Ordnance installation between 30 April and 2 May, Col. William A. Borden, an Ordnance research and development specialist from the United States, found that Medaris had instilled "an adventurous spirit in his personnel so that they are keen to go forward and keep up with the front line troubles." Medaris repeatedly sent his assistant, "a reckless boy who fitted in here perfectly," to the front lines to check on Ordnance service, using a weapon-filled jeep that carried on a pedestal an antiaircraft .50-caliber machine gun and on the front a high angle iron to cut the wire that the Germans sometimes strung across the road to catch the heads of jeep drivers. After touring the shops and dumps in this jeep and talking to veterans of central Tunisia, Borden observed: "These Ordnance boys are tough experi-


enced men, front line troops. . . . Most of them are seasoned and their outfits have been through some severe combat."55

Medaris himself inspected his outfits several times a week with a quick and critical eye, seeing to it that the shop trucks in the treeless, rocky terrain were covered with camouflage nets; the piles of ammunition were scattered to minimize the effects of bombing; and the men did not congregate in mess lines and shop areas where they could be spotted from the air. For his own quarters at Bédja, his mechanics had fitted up a trailer with a folding bunk, a desk, maps, and electric lights that could be connected to a power source. An idea borrowed from the British and soon to be adopted by most American commanders in the field, the trailer provided a headquarters office that could be hooked to a truck and quickly moved to a new location. Medaris had learned that it was impossible for an Ordnance officer to operate successfully from the rear echelon, as specified in "the book."56

Colonel Borden and other observers from the United States had been warned by General Hughes that it was dangerous to draw conclusions from the Tunisia Campaign because so few U.S. troops had been involved. It was true that in some respects the experience had been too special to be used as a guide; for example, II Corps had not been operating normally, as a typical corps under a typical army. For this reason, Colonel Crawford and planners in the United States were inclined to discount Medaris recommendation that forward Ordnance service in the future flow from corps rather than from army. The planners felt that a vigorous Ordnance officer at army level would be just as successful as Medaris had been in delivering service far forward—and in later campaigns army Ordnance officers (Medaris was one of them) proved this to be true.57

The men in the field had learned a great deal in Tunisia that was to be extremely valuable to them when they went on to Sicily, Italy, and France. They had experimented with Ordnance organization in the field and with such important innovations as battlefield recovery. They had made some important discoveries about their equipment. One of them was the need for radio transmitters to enable widely dispersed Ordnance troops to communicate with each other. Above all, Ordnance men had learned that they could not operate by the book. Maintenance men had discovered that it was "utterly impossible" to operate the field shop prescribed by Field Manual 9—10. Modern warfare required repairmen to be much closer to the front, more mobile, and more versatile than had ever been contemplated. Furthermore, the manual was out of date, for it had been published in April 1942, before Ordnance had been given responsibility for all motor vehicles. Colonel Medaris had found that 85 percent of the Ordnance field maintenance task was automotive, including


tanks.58 American forces were dependent on motor transport to a degree never before known in the history of warfare. British war correspondents were astonished by the bumper-to-bumper truck traffic and the number of jeeps. One of them tells the story that in Gafsa an Arab denounced three German spies dressed in American uniforms, and when asked how he knew they were spies answered, "Because they were walking and had no jeep."59

The problem of getting enough spare parts to take care of this flood of vehicles, especially such simple, ordinary items as tire patches, seemed almost unsolvable. Another unexpected cause for concern in Tunisia was the shortage of spare parts for artillery. The war was turning out to be an artillery war, especially a war of heavy artillery: the 155-mm. howitzer, affectionately called "a faithful old dog" by artillerymen, and the 155-mm. Long Tom, highly prized because it could deliver fire up to 23,000 yards.60 By mid-February 1943, the twenty-four Long Toms had been fired so often with supercharges to obtain maximum ranges that their tubes were beginning to wear out, and stocks of parts dwindled. When there were no parts, Ordnance mechanics made them in their shop trucks.61

The book on ammunition supply was not followed in several respects. Colonel Niblo had always disliked and opposed the provision of Field Manual 9-6 that predicated ammunition supply on the submission of an ammunition status report every day by every commander, from company level up. He knew this procedure required a great deal of paper work and created too much traffic in the Ordnance officer's section; besides, the figures were often inaccurate. His substitute plan, put into effect early in the Tunisia Campaign, was patterned after the basic load of the maintenance companies. Basic load ammunition was the amount that could be carried in the vehicles allotted for the purpose in tables of basic allowances. No loads in borrowed trucks were permitted. When a commander needed ammunition, he sent a man to the nearest ammunition supply point with an order, signed by the division ammunition officer, containing a certificate that the ammunition was to replace expenditures. This requirement was to prevent divisions and smaller units from establishing dumps that might later have to be abandoned. On the presentation of the certificate, the unit was allowed to draw all the ammunition it wanted—up to the limit of its basic load. The supply point sent a report to the II Corps Ordnance officer every day.62

Experience in Tunisia had also demonstrated that the prescribed methods of stocking ammunition supply points were unrealistic. Automatic supply on the basis of so many units of fire was not feasible because of the wide variation in types and


quantities consumed. The War Department unit of fire was excessive on many items, markedly so on small arms ammunition. II Corps had substituted for it a "day of combat expenditure." Also, Medaris had discovered that rail transportation of ammunition to the front could not be depended upon because it required too much advance planning.63

On the performance of weapons, Allied and enemy, the Libyan desert rather than Tunisia had been the proving ground.64 In Tunisia the Americans had encountered three new German weapons, the Pzkw VI Tiger tank; the Nebelwerfer, a five-tube or six-tube cluster of rocket launchers mounted on a gun carriage and fired electrically; and the long-range 170-mm. gun. None had given very impressive performances. The tank, described by a British correspondent as a "legendary flop,"65 was used rather gingerly, usually in conjunction with Pzkw IV or Pzkw III tanks, and frequently broke down. The Nebelwerfer, brought from the Russian front and first employed briefly at Kasserine, had little effect on the campaign. Though the piercing screech of their long 150-mm. or 210-mm. rockets, earning for them the nickname of "Screaming Meemies," was hard on the nerves, the models that appeared in Tunisia were inaccurate. The 170-mm. gun, first encountered at Maknassy in late March 1943, outranged any American artillery in Tunisia by about 5,000 yards, but its ammunition was poor and scarce, and the gun seems to have made little impression on most American observers. One significant piece of news brought back to the United States by Colonel Borden was that the Germans had a self-propelled 88-mm. gun. Pictures of it were found on a German captured in Tunisia.66

The most important new Allied weapon employed was the M1 rocket launcher firing the M6 antitank rocket—the bazooka. Task forces embarking for Northwest Africa from the United States and England had been equipped with bazookas at the last moment. In the case of Western Task Force, the weapons were brought to the U.S. ports by plane from manufacturers all over the country and distributed the night the troops were going aboard ship. In England the Center Task Force had little time for training. On the evening before embarkation for North Africa, one troop commander shocked General Eisenhower by saying that he was completely at a loss "as to how to teach his men the use of this vitally needed weapon. He said, 'I don't know anything about it myself except from hearsay.'"67 Also, the bazooka had been rushed into production very fast. There


were so many reports of malfunctions that the War Department suspended issue in May 1943, pending modifications. In these circumstances, it is understandable that the bazooka did not play an important part in the Tunisia Campaign. Visiting the theater at the close of the campaign, the commanding general of the Armored Command could not find anyone who could say definitely that a tank had been stopped by bazooka fire.68

In April 1943, one of the first of the specially trained Ordnance Technical Intelligence Teams arrived in the combat area in Tunisia. Commanded by Capt. George B. Bennett and. attached to AFHQ G—2, the team worked directly with Colonel Medaris. In a very short time it proved to be extremely valuable not only to II Corps Ordnance but to tactical commanders who came up against German tanks, mines, and guns for the first time and wanted information on the capabilities of enemy weapons and means of defeating them.69 Captain Bennett also earned the gratitude of Ordnance tank designers by sending to the United States the first Tiger tank captured in Tunisia early in 1943. Getting it to Algiers and aboard ship was , a feat that required considerable energy and ingenuity. Lacking any standard tank handling equipment, Bennett managed to get the 60-ton Tiger into the hold of a Liberty ship with the help of two enlisted men and an improvised block and tackle.70

At the "end of the beginning," the first American ground effort in the war against Germany, roads and fields in the battle area were littered for miles with weapons, tanks, and vehicles, including sand-colored Afrika Korps trucks distinguished by a small green palm tree painted on the door —a reminder of service in the Middle East. The trucks and other enemy equipment and all salvage went to collecting points at Mateur, the town to which Eastern Base Section moved its headquarters the latter part of May. Medaris sent the experienced 42d and 188th Battalions there to help clear the Mateur-Bizerte area. Most tanks, many of the small arms, and hundreds of trucks were destroyed, but large quantities of usable matériel were recovered. Ammunition companies blew up or burned out not only a great deal of unserviceable ammunition but also thousands of rounds that had been transported for some time out of their containers and thus were considered of uncertain quality. Some of this type might have been reclaimed if there had been enough facilities to do the job. A detachment of one of the ammunition companies set up a renovation plant at Mateur, but it was too small to


handle more than a fraction of the salvaged ammunition.71

Six months almost to the day after the landing in North Africa, II Corps pulled down its tents and headed west, back over the mountains to the neighborhood of Oran. In the long convoys, almost every truck had a German or Italian helmet fastened to its radiator; jeeps and motorcycles flew French flags or the black and yellow death's head pennants that the Germans used to mark their mine fields; the men had Lugers, German field caps, goggles, and other trophies. Tanned by the African sun and toughened by service close to the front, Medaris and his staff arrived at Oran late in May. There they found the Mediterranean Base Section far along in its preparations to support the next campaign and the tactical units engaged in an intensive training program. Near Arzew, General Clark had built a village with streets and mock-up houses and stores to accustom troops to street fighting. The Allies were getting ready for the invasion of Sicily.72


Previous Chapter        Next Chapter

Return to the Table of Contents

Search CMH Online
Last updated 11 January 2007