Battle of El Guettar
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|Battle of El Guettar|
|Part of the Tunisian Campaign of the Second World War|
An American soldier hands out cigarettes to captured Italians of the Bersaglieri Division near El Guettar in March 1943.
|United States|| Germany
|Commanders and leaders|
|George S. Patton|| Jürgen von Arnim
|Casualties and losses|
|35–55 tanks lost
4,000–5,000 killed or wounded
|40+ tanks lost
4,000–6,000 killed or wounded in 3 weeks
The Battle of El Guettar was a World War II battle that took place during the Tunisia Campaign, fought between elements of the Army Group Africa under General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim, along with Italian forces under General Giovanni Messe, and U.S. II Corps under Lieutenant General George S. Patton in south-central Tunisia. It was the first battle in which U.S. forces were able to defeat the experienced German tank units, but the followup to the battle was inconclusive.
The U.S. II Corps had been badly mauled in their first encounter with the German-Italian forces in Tunisia in a series of battles that culminated in the disastrous Battle of the Kasserine Pass in late February 1943. Erwin Rommel—poised on the threshold of a complete tactical victory—turned from the battle to return to his eastward-facing defenses at the Mareth Line when he heard of the approach of Bernard Montgomery′s British 8th Army. Thus the battle concluded with the U.S. forces still in the field, but having lost ground and men, and with little confidence in some key commanders.
The American command reacted to their failure against the German forces with a prompt and sweeping series of changes in command, discipline, and tactics. A major change was the adoption of more flexible artillery communications, allowing all batteries within range of a target to respond to a single call for fire. Previously each battery could fire only on the direct command of its dedicated observers, spread out over the lines and using different frequencies to communicate back to the battery. Also, large units were kept massed rather than being broken up into smaller, unsupported elements as had been done under Fredendall. Coordination with air support was improved but did not reach satisfactory levels until later in the war.
On 6 March 1943, George Patton took command of the U.S. II Corps from Lloyd Fredendall, who had been in command before and during the Kasserine engagement. His first move was to organize his U.S. II Corps for an offensive back toward the Eastern Dorsal chain of the Atlas Mountains. If successful, this would threaten the right rear of the Axis forces defending the Mareth Line facing Montgomery′s 8th Army and ultimately make their position untenable. His style of leadership was very different from his predecessor: he is reported to have issued an order in connection with an attack on a hill position ending "I expect to see such casualties among officers, particularly staff officers, as will convince me that a serious effort has been made to capture this objective".
On 17 March, the U.S. 1st Infantry Division moved forward into the almost abandoned plains, taking the town of Gafsa and starting to set it up as a forward supply base for further operations. On the 18th, the 1st Ranger Battalion—led by Colonel William O. Darby—pushed ahead, and occupied the oasis of El Guettar, again meeting with little opposition. The Italian defenders instead retreated and took up positions in the hills overlooking the town, thereby blocking the mountain pass (of the same name) leading south out of the interior plains to the coastal plain. Another operation by the Rangers raided an Italian position and took 700 prisoners on the night of 20 March, scaling a sheer cliff and passing ammunition and equipment up hand-over-hand. II Corps was now in an excellent position for an offensive.
The Axis army commanders had become aware of the U.S. movements and decided that the 10th Panzer Division should stop them. Rommel had flown to Germany before the battle, leaving von Arnim in control of the newly named Army Group Africa. Von Arnim held Rommel′s opinion on the low quality of the U.S. forces and felt that a spoiling attack would be enough to clear them from the Eastern Dorsals again.
At 06:00 on 23 March, 50 tanks of Broich′s 10th Panzer emerged from the pass into the El Guettar valley at . Elite German motorised units in halftracks and motorised bikes broke off from formation and charged the infantry on the top of the hill. The halftracks would move up the hill as far they could and release their infantry while powerful German 88 mm (3.46 in) guns provided cover. The Germans were maneuvering to hit American artillery anchored on the hill. They quickly overran front-line infantry and artillery positions. Major General Terry de la Mesa Allen, Sr.—commanding the U.S. 1st Infantry Division—was threatened when two tanks came near his headquarters, but he shrugged off suggestions of moving, "I will like hell pull out, and I'll shoot the first bastard who does."
German efforts took a turn for the worse when they ran into a minefield. When they slowed to clear the field, U.S. artillery and anti-tank guns opened up on them, including 31 potent M10 tank destroyers which had recently arrived. Over the next hour, 30 of the 10th Panzer′s tanks were destroyed, and by 09:00 they retreated from the valley.
A second attempt was made starting at 16:45, after waiting for the infantry to form up. Once again the U.S. artillery was able to disrupt the attack, eventually breaking the charge and inflicting heavy losses. Realizing that further attacks were hopeless, the rest of the 10th dug in on hills to the east or retreated back to German HQ at Gabès.
On 19 March, the British 8th Army launched their attack on the Mareth Line, at first with little success. However, on 26 March, a force sent via an outflanking inland route arrived to the north of the line, and the Mareth defenses became untenable. A full retreat started to a new line set up at Wadi Akarit, north of Gabès at. This made the U.S. position even more valuable, since the road through El Guettar led directly into Gabès.
Over the next week, the U.S. forces slowly moved forward to take the rest of the interior plains and set up lines across the entire Eastern Dorsals. German defenses were heavy, and the progress was both slow and costly. However, by 30 March they were in position for an offensive south from El Guettar. In order to start a breakout, the two original Italian strongpoints on Hill 369and Hill 772 had to be taken, one after the other.
The U.S. plan involved the U.S. 1st and 9th Infantry Divisions, and one "Combat Command" (1/3) of the U.S. 1st Armored Division, collectively known as "Benson Force". This force attacked Hill 369 on the afternoon of 30 March but ran into mines and anti-tank fire, losing five tanks. The tanks were removed, and the 1st and 9th attacked again the next day at 06:00, moving up and taking several hundred prisoners. However, an Italian counterattack drove them back from their newly gained positions, and by 12:45 they were back where they started with the loss of nine tanks and two tank destroyers. A further attempt the next day on 1 April also failed, after barely getting started.
At this point Patton received orders to start the attempt on Hill 772, even though Hill 369 was still under Italian control. The 9th was moved to Hill 772, leaving the 1st on Hill 369. By 3 April, the 1st had finally cleared Hill 369, but the battle on Hill 772 continued. The Italian commander—General Messe then called in support from the German 21st Panzer Division, further slowing progress. The tempo of the operations then slowed, and the lines remained largely static.
On 6 April, the British 8th Army once again overran the German lines, and a full retreat started. On the morning of 7 April, Benson Force moved through the positions held by the 1st and 9th, and raced down the abandoned El Guettar-Gabès road, where it met the lead elements of the 8th Army at 17:00. With the last Axis line of defense in the south of Tunisia broken, they made a run to join the other Axis forces in the north. Tunis fell to the Allies in early May.
The results of the El Guettar operations were mixed. The U.S. showed they were able to fight the Germans successfully in a defensive operation during the opening stages but also demonstrated a lack of power when starting offensive operations of their own.
- The battle is portrayed in a lengthy scene in the 1970 biographical film Patton.
- Hunt (1990), p. 169.
- Atkinson, p. 440
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