Following the battles around Tabourba and in the area farther south, the situation had become somewhat stabilized in the northern and central sectors of Tunisia by February 1943. Defense positions had been developed along the hill ranges and there was no longer any immediate threat of a breakthrough to the coast in a surprise attack by Allied forces.
In the south, in contrast, all reconnaissance indicated that the American armored forces concentrated west of the Faid Pass would soon launch an attack to break through to the coast. This operation would have separated the Tunisia Army (Fifth Panzer Army) from Rommel's Panzer Armee Afrika, which was advancing from the south.
During the first days of February, the bulk of the 10th Panzer Division passed through Tunisia in a southerly direction to the Sbitha area southwest of Kairouan, from where it was to be employed in an attack toward the west.
The units of the division were able to find relatively good cover and camouflage in an extensive area covered with a growth of cacti. During this period the Allied air forces were not very active, so that it was possible to correct initial mistakes without any losses or serious damage being incurred. After a short while spent in he desert, one develops the ability to recognize the smallest possibility of taking cover. Plant growth of any type or the slightest irregularities in the terrain must be taken advantage of. However, the efforts to do so should not lead to any massing or concentration of troops, since this would invariable lead to heavy losses in the event of sudden bombing attacks or concentrations of artillery fire.
It was therefore important to disperse the units as far apart as possible while at the same time maintaining integration and a constant state of preparedness for action. As a preparatory measure to this end, the reconnaissance platoon of the armored battalion had been sent on ahead. This platoon consisted of twenty men with Volkswagens. As is obvious from the designation of the unit, the platoon had the mission of reconnoitering roads and terrain for the most widely varying purposes. Reconnaissance platoons had originally been equipped with motor bicycles, but in Africa these had proved unsuitable. The Volkswagens, which had special broad tires were admirable for cross-country travel, and could also carry weapons as well as water and gas for reconnaissance over long distances. From the Volkswagen the air could be kept under observation in all directions and attacking low flying planes were made out in good time. During long marches the reconnaissance platoon served as an instrument for the battalion commander in transmitting his orders and in maintaining contact within his unit.
The units travelled by the shortest route to their bivouac areas. Camouflage nets were used. In checking over the camouflage measures taken, it was repeatedly necessary to point out that it is not the color of the net or the p[lacing of branches in the net which provide good camouflage, but the placing of the net in such a manner that irregular contours are formed. The tired troops were inclined to fetch everything necessary for camouflage, such as leaves, branches and bundles and bundles of grass, form the area immediately around the vehicles,which defeated the purposes of camouflaging, since the vehicles then stopped out as dark spots in the lighter surroundings.
During the first days of February the weather was comparatively dry, so that the risk could be taken of placing even the vehicles and tents in the wadis which traversed the cactus covered terrain. Through these wadis provide very welcome cover, they are a grave danger when sudden rain turns them into raging torrents. It is therefore always necessary when camping in as wadi, to reconnoiter its course and to find or prepare as many exit roads as possible. For such purpose, the battalion had an engineer platoon, about twenty strong, mounted on two armored personnel carriers and on Volkswagens. They were employed to overcome terrain difficulties for the tanks, to construct positions and to lay or remove mines. In desert warfare this platoon proved particularly valuable and it is a component no armored unit can dispense with.
While the camouflage work was proceeding, trenches were dug underneath and beside the tanks and other vehicles to provide protection against shell fragmentation. These trenches also had to be camouflaged, the edges sloped and the soil removed had to be so placed that it could not be seen at any point.
On the whole it can be said that the process of moving into and settling into rest or assemble areas differed considerable in many respects from the circumstances that had been encountered elsewhere, such as in Russia, for example, where there were extensive forests. If losses of men and materiel are to be avoided in warfare in deserts and steppes, much work is necessary.
After the assembly area had been occupied, a conference was held early the next morning, and the following points were once again stressed:
At an early stage we had found that minor injuries, which would receive no attention in Europe, in North Africa often took a long time to heal and usually festered. Especially dangerous were the sharp spikes of the cacti, which even pierced the soles of shoes.
3. Gatherings of more than twelve men at any one spot are prohibited. All supplying will take place at night. Motor trips during the daytime must be only at the express orders of the commander.
4. Each company will place aircraft warning posts and antiaircraft machine guns in appropriate positions. The aircraft warners will be [placed in positions where they will have a clear range of vision; they must also be camouflaged and take care to remain concealed.
5. All tracks of arriving and departing vehicles, which were deep in the sand, must be removed immediately. Every man will be held individually responsible for doing so.
6. Every man is warned to be careful of scorpions and venomous snakes. The camping sites will be carefully searched.
The clothing worn during the daytime and during the cold nights was of particular importance. The differences between the daytime and night temperatures were enormous. The most important article of clothing for protection against the cold at night was the belly band. Tank personnel who, during battle or while on the march often had to remain without moving for protracted periods in the confined space of their tanks, had to be extremely careful in the choice of their clothing. Any clothing that impeded the flow of the blood or that impeded movement, such as laced highboots, was useless. The materials used had to be soft to avoid injuring the skin by friction, as the skin became unusually sensitive anyhow owing to the exigencies of the African climate. The cloth had to have a smooth surface to prevent the adherence of dust. Tropical helmets were not used at any time during the campaign. A cap with a wide visor was of great importance as protection against the glaring sun.
The necessary supply bases were provided for nighttime supplying. Armored units require large amounts of supplies; their combat value in the desert where the capture of terrain is not the objective, is dependent largely upon its radius of action, which, in turn is dependent largely upon its radius of action, which, in turn is dependent upon supplies. The farther the distance to the coast, the more supply bases had to be established so that the unit could receive provision at any one of these points as circumstances required.
To obtain as wide a range of action as possible, all disadvantages were willingly accepted, disadvantages which arose form carrying along as many as ten cans of gas and additional containers of ammunition in the tanks. During marches, the empty cans were placed alongside the road for collection by a truck which followed. The bulk of the ammunition taken along was armor piercing. Whereas in Russia the ratio of armor piercing to high-explosive shells was taken along in Tunisia, since the tank is the weapon in desert warfare.
During rest periods, while in assemble areas and whenever possible while the unit was on the march, each company was accompanied by its organic maintenance team. This team, which consisted of ten specially trained tank repairmen, was able to service the tanks and to carry out minor repairs. So far as the service company of the battalion was concerned, it had proved advisable to have it under the direct control of the battalion engineer officer. Two heavy platoons of the service company worked close to large-sized farms or to factories in the vicinity of the supply depots. The armored battalion was accompanied by a light workshop platoon, which was equipped with the more essential tools and so forth, and had everything necessary for the recovery of damaged tanks, such as tank recovery trucks and prime movers.
No appreciable difficulties were encountered in Tunisia so far as water supplies were concerned. All that was necessary,was to caution the men again and again to be extremely careful about not mixing the water and gas containers.
During every rest period and every halt, the important parts of the tanks had to be cleaned and protected against dust. The air filters for the motors required frequent cleaning. Originally, air for the motors was taken in through the openings in the front of the tanks. As a result, so much dust collected in the cylinders of the motors that they were soon worn out. Larger air filters were therefore attached and the air intakes placed inside the battle compartment, whereby the life span of the motors was increased. However, this measure had the disadvantage that a lot of just entered the battle compartment, where it was only possible to keep the ammunition and the weapons usable through constant cleaning. The muzzle of the guns were protected by a cloth through which the shells could pass.
Messengers from the companies were always in attendance at the battalion command post to insure the rapid transmission of orders and other messages. During rest periods radio silence was observed. If it was necessary to coordinate the tuning in of the radios, special antennae were used, which had only a small range and could not be picked up at any distance.
] Advantages was also taken of every halt to instruct the men in great detail on the health and hygienic regulations. All refuse had to be buried immediately; water had always to be boiled and was to be drunk only in the morning or evening - never during the daytime; the eating of raw meat was prohibited and all slaughtered carcasses had to be inspected by the medical officer. Thy were also informed that alcohol was very harmful in the climate in which they were living.
Another important point was to instruct the men on their behavior with the Arabs, since misunderstandings and blunders,in relations with these peoples in particular, can lead to fateful enmities, which can result in espionage and partisan activities. It was necessary to know and understand their peculiarities and o respect their way of life. In a war in which propaganda, the radio and secret agents play such a great role, this appears to be a point of decisive significance. In any future war, the numbers of partisans and irregular bands will be greater than ever before and it will be advisable to arrange all training accordingly.
On !0 February 1943, the units of the division moved southward in an overnight march into the area roughly forty kilometers east of Faid. The tanks found good cover in the olive groves on either side of the east-west road..
Extensive olive groves were often encountered in Tunisia and they were eagerly sought as cover and for rest areas. Any attempt by tanks to enter an olive grove held by an enemy force is sheer suicide. The trees are just high enough to prevent the tank commander from seeing anything and to make it impossible for the gunner to train his gun. At the same time the line of fire of the antitank guns in position is in no way obstructed.
During night marches the following points had to be observed: during moonlight, the nights in Africa are so bright that the moving unit can be seen from a great distance. Therefore it was necessary even at night to move in open column and to have antiaircraft machine guns constantly on the alert. If, owing to mechanical trouble, one of the tanks could not maintain the speed of the marching column, it dropped out of the line and signaled the following vehicles to keep moving. Otherwise it would cause the column to become too extended.
On 11 February 1943, preparations commenced for the westward attack through the Faid Pass. Reconnaissance results showed the following situation: Apart from occasional tanks and reconnaissance patrols, no signs of the enemy were to be found west of the elevated terrain on either side of Faid. The hills held by the Italians north and south of Faid were high and rugged and therefore impassable for tanks. An olive grove roughly ten kilometers east of Faid was suitable as an assemble area. The tree-covered terrain immediately north of the road two kilometers east of Faid was suitable for a halt prior to the assembly. The pass itself was mined.
The 10th Panzer Division commenced moving at 1930 on 13 February, proceeded at a steady pace of fifteen kilometers per hour and reached the assemble area which had been reconnoitered. The attack order was issued during the night and was to be carried out by two groups. The first group, consisting of
86th Panzergrenadier Regiment
1 Tiger tank company, with 5 Tiger tanks
1 engineer platoon of the 90th Engineer Battalion
1 battery of four 105mm assault guns (self-propelled)
2 antitank platoons with self-propelled guns,
was to attack along the Faid-Sbeitla road with Post-de Lessouda as its first objective.
The second group consisted of
1st Battalion, 7th Panzer Regiment
2d Battalion, 69th Panzergrenadier Regiment
2 engineer platoons of the 90th Engineer Battalion
1 antitank platoon with self-propelled guns
1 light battery with 105mm guns,
and was to move through the Faid Pass and then, in sweeping around north of Djebel Lessouda was to obtain control of the Faid-Sbeitla road as its first objective.
Units of the German Africa Corps were to take the city of Sidi Bou Zid in an attack from the south.
During the night, engineers cleared the mines which the Italians had placed in the Faid Pass.
While the tanks were taking up the attack positions at about 0400, a severe sandstorm arose, which greatly restricted visibility, and it was only due to the experience of the tank crews that no accidents occurred. Using light signals, the engineers piloted the armored battalion as the first unit through the pass, the units of the second attack group following. On emerging from the pass the battalion turned north, pushing as fast as possible in spite of the darkness and the sandstorm.
By daybreak the battalion reached a line as far as the Djebel Lessouda
mountain Massif. Suddenly, heavy artillery fire was opened by guns in position
on the opposite mountain slope, directed by observers on the summit. It was now
of the utmost importance to skirt the northern tip of the mountain as fast as
possible in order to attack the enemy artillery. The battalion was organized in
depth in order to be able to counteract any surprise move by the enemy. The
company in the lead was responsible for the direction and for the maintenance
of contact. The battalion headquarters followed immediately behind the lead
company with the light tank platoon. Had enemy tanks appeared on either flank,
all tanks would have been able to take part in an attack on a broad front after
making the proper turn either to the left or to the right.
Firing continued without a break from the Djebel Lessouda heights but had to be ignored by the tanks. To silence this fire was the responsibility of the armored infantry, who were following up and who could approach the hills in their armored personnel carriers to wipe out the pockets.
The battalion turned southwest just in time to prevent the American
artillery, which was self-propelled, from carrying out their attempted
displacement into new firing positions farther west. After a brief pursuit they
were overtaken by the lead company and put out of action. Several of the guns
bogged down in the swampy terrain west of Djebel Lessouda. The light platoon of
the battalion kept guard over the guns to prevent their recapture by the enemy.
As a result of this pursuit, the battalion column had become widely extended and it was now necessary to reassemble, since a counterattack could be expected from any direction. The tanks now assembled in an enormous all-around defense position alongside the Faid-Sbeitla road, having achieved their first objective.
Meanwhile, the first attack group had also made good progress. Two Stuart tanks retreating before it appeared suddenly behind a slight rise in the ground. After a brief exchange of fire, they attempted to escape westward but were intercepted.
All eyes were turned toward the south, but nothing was to be seen of the expected units of the German Africa Corps. The uncertainly was not to last for long. High explosive and armor-piercing shells poured into the antitank barrier and the continuous flash of firing guns was to be seen in the south. At first it was thought that the expected counterattack was coming,in which case it would have been a mistake to extend the battalion column too far. However, since no change could be observed in the enemy disposition, two light tank companies were sent forward, one to the right and one to the left, in flanking attacks through a patch of cactus covered terrain northeast of Sidi Bou Zid, the medium company of the battalion providing fire cover with its 75mm guns. Later, an additional light tank company was moved forward farther left in a turning attack directed toward the eastern fringe of the patch of cactus.
In the meantime the division had sent out a radio message reading:
"The 21st Panzer Division has been delayed in its advance from the south. The Panzer battalion will attack and take Sidi Bou Zid."
Enemy self-propelled and antitank guns in position in the cactus patch continued holding out tenaciously against the German tanks advancing from all sides and kept up their fire even after the tanks had reached the cactus patch and, in fact, even at a range of only ten meters. However, they were not able to hold out permanently. Some of the enemy tanks attempted to retire westward but bogged down in a swampy ditch.
While this battle was in progress, a number of planes suddenly appeared from an easterly direction, which were recognized as German planes. Identification flags were immediately spread out. The planes dropped a few bombs with delayed action fuses on the well-developed positions along the outskirts of Sidi Bou Zid.
The situation in the late afternoon was a follows: There was no longer any sign of the enemy on the battlefield. The Panzer battalion had sent forward reconnaissance units toward Sidi Bou Zid, and the bulk of the battalion was standing off in an all-around defense formation northeast of the city. The armored infantry battalion was scouring and mopping up the cactus patch. The engineers had been set to work immediately at destroying the bogged-down enemy tanks. The other attacking units, after reaching their objective, had also drawn up in all-around defense formation, the Tiger tanks taking up a front facing south immediately beside the road.
During the night the battalion remained outside the city receiving supplies and overhauling the tanks as speedily as possible, since a counterattack by American forces was to be expected with certainly on the next day.
Quite a number of lessons could be learned from this attack: The terrain must be very carefully reconnoitered prior to an attack which is to take place during dark. In issuing orders, the inclusion of directional gyro data is of the utmost importance. It is absolutely essential that tank crews receive training in the use of the directional gyro for desert combat. It is only by this means that it proved possible to overcome the disadvantages imposed by the sandstorm. However, at the same time the storm brought the advantage of muffling the sounds of the approaching tanks.
The American forces should have advanced their outposts and so forth farther forward.
The choice of direction for the two attacking groups was correct. If the main thrust had been a frontal one directed due west it would not have been possible to exploit the mobility of the tanks and the attack would have been possible to exploit the stiffest resistance. The enemy troops on the Djebel Lessouda mountain massif were very courageous, attempting again and again to stop the German tank attack in spite of the fact that they had little cover on the bare rocky surface. Initially, the self-propelled artillery placed very effective fire on some of the rearward elements of the attacking German groups in the vicinity of the Faid Pass. However, they continued firing too long and attempted to change positions too late, so that they were cut off. Then tanks and artillery in the cactus patches north of Sidi Bou Zid opened fire at a very long range. The guns of the Sherman tanks were far superior to the 50mm guns of the light German tanks, so that the enemy could have allowed the German tanks to approach much closer without any danger. Once they opened fire, the Sherman tanks should have exploited their speed and mobility to operate freely. Usually, it is a mistake to employ tanks as artillery or as antitank guns in the desert. The Battle of Sidi Bou Zid is a typical example bearing out the old tactical principle that the mobility of tanks must be exploited in order to bring as many weapons as possible to bear on the enemy within the shortest possible time. The truth of this principle was shown again in the American counterthrust on the next day.
The situation on the morning of 15 February 1943 was as follows:
The German tanks were in position around Sidi Bou Zid in all-around defense formation, units of the 10th Panzer Division in the north and units of the German Africa Corps, which had arrived during the night, in the south. From the early morning on, one company of the 1st Battalion, 7th Panzer Regiment, together with an armored infantry company, had been busy mopping up the terrain, including the hills, east of Sidi Bou Zid, where scattered elements of the American forces were still offering stubborn resistance.
Toward midday the tank companies were alerted because of a report that a German plane had observed an armored column in the vicinity of Sbeitla moving eastward. The light platoon was ordered to go into position near a group of houses west of Sidi Bou Zid for observation purposes. A radio alert was ordered. Toward 1400 the light platoon reported dense clouds of dust in a northwesterly direction. The battalion commander received orders to prepare for a counterattack, supported by the tanks of the 15th Division. The light platoon was ordered to continue observation for the present and to report continuously.
The battalion was disposed as follows:
The 3d Company was to remain at the western outskirts of Sidi Bou Zid. The headquarters staff, with the 1st, 2d and 4th Companies advanced first in a northerly direction in order not to meet the enemy tanks frontally. When the light platoon reported that the advance units of the enemy tank force was approaching Sidi Bou Zid, the battalion wheeled around to the southwest in a wide front. The American tanks were driving on toward Sidi Bou Zid in very deep formation so that they were exposed broadside to the tanks of the 15th Division on the south and to those of the 10th Panzer Division on the north. This sealed their fate, they were between the jaws of a pincer and were not even able to withdraw. By evening, the tank battle was over.
In the light of experience hitherto gathered in Tunisia it may be said that the counterattack by the American force was "in the air." Even if they had no precise information, the American command should at least have had some idea of what they were likely to meet.
The American attack was in battalion strength, as they had more tanks available than did the German Panzer force. Superiority could have been gained because of the better weapons with which they were equipped. However, the attack plan was wrong. If no prior reconnoitering is possible, and this seems to have been the case here, the advance must be methodical and by phases, supporting fire being provided by one group while the other moves forward. In deserts and steppes it is wrong to restrict preparations to one direction only, rather, it is essential to count on an attack from an entirely unsuspected direction.
A tank battle in the desert is very similar to a naval battle, the important elements being proper formation, rapid planning and unrestricted operation.
On 16 February 1943, the battalion was assigned the mission of advancing toward the road intersection twenty kilometers northwest of Sidi Bou Zid for reconnaissance. It moved in all-around defense formation, the various units providing cover for each other. During this advance, the following incident occurred:
Without having contacted the enemy, the advance elements were approaching the Faid-Sbeitla road, where they observed heavy dust clouds which could only be assumed to come from moving tanks. This assumption was confirmed by continued observation. As it was not possible to recognize the type of tanks under observation, the battalion staff and one company took up positions facing north. Hardly had they done so, when the tanks travelling along the road suddenly opened fire. From the type of tracer ammunition fired, it was possible to establish that the tanks were German and by firing light signals a calamity was avoided.
This minor episode was by no means an isolated case of such events. As has been emphasized repeatedly, the enemy must be expected from all directions, so that it is absolutely essential for all friendly units to be informed about each other's movements.
Later, the battalion advanced to Sbeitla and on 22 February to Kasserine, from where it commenced the attack toward the north.