Battle of El Guettar
Overview
 
The Battle of El Guettar was a World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

 battle that took place during the Tunisia Campaign
Tunisia Campaign
The Tunisia Campaign was a series of battles that took place in Tunisia during the North African Campaign of the Second World War, between Axis and Allied forces. The Allies consisted of British Imperial Forces, including Polish and Greek contingents, with American and French corps...

, fought between elements of the Army Group Afrika under Jürgen von Arnim and U.S. II Corps under Lieutenant General George Patton in south-central Tunisia
Tunisia
Tunisia , officially the Tunisian RepublicThe long name of Tunisia in other languages used in the country is: , is the northernmost country in Africa. It is a Maghreb country and is bordered by Algeria to the west, Libya to the southeast, and the Mediterranean Sea to the north and east. Its area...

. 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.
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Encyclopedia
The Battle of El Guettar was a World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

 battle that took place during the Tunisia Campaign
Tunisia Campaign
The Tunisia Campaign was a series of battles that took place in Tunisia during the North African Campaign of the Second World War, between Axis and Allied forces. The Allies consisted of British Imperial Forces, including Polish and Greek contingents, with American and French corps...

, fought between elements of the Army Group Afrika under Jürgen von Arnim and U.S. II Corps under Lieutenant General George Patton in south-central Tunisia
Tunisia
Tunisia , officially the Tunisian RepublicThe long name of Tunisia in other languages used in the country is: , is the northernmost country in Africa. It is a Maghreb country and is bordered by Algeria to the west, Libya to the southeast, and the Mediterranean Sea to the north and east. Its area...

. 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.

Background

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
Battle of the Kasserine Pass
The Battle of the Kasserine Pass was a battle that took place during the Tunisia Campaign of World War II in February 1943. It was a series of battles fought around Kasserine Pass, a wide gap in the Grand Dorsal chain of the Atlas Mountains in west central Tunisia...

 in late February 1943. Erwin Rommel
Erwin Rommel
Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel , popularly known as the Desert Fox , was a German Field Marshal of World War II. He won the respect of both his own troops and the enemies he fought....

—poised on the threshold of a complete tactical victory—turned from the battle to return to his eastward-facing defenses at the Mareth Line
Mareth Line
The Mareth Line was a system of fortifications built by the French between the towns of Medenine and Gabès in southern Tunisia, prior to World War II...

 when he heard of the approach of Bernard Montgomery′s British 8th Army
Eighth Army (United Kingdom)
The Eighth Army was one of the best-known formations of the British Army during World War II, fighting in the North African and Italian campaigns....

. 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
Artillery
Originally applied to any group of infantry primarily armed with projectile weapons, artillery has over time become limited in meaning to refer only to those engines of war that operate by projection of munitions far beyond the range of effect of personal weapons...

 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
Air Support
Air Support is a 1992 computer game for the Amiga and Atari ST. It is a top-down strategy game, with a first-person mode available for special missions. The game takes place during a retrofuturistic 21st century where all wars are fought in virtual reality. The game was given mostly positive...

 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
Lloyd Fredendall
Lloyd Fredendall was an American General during World War II. Major General Fredendall is best known for his command of the Central Task Force landings during Operation Torch, and his command of the US II Corps during the early stages of the Tunisia Campaign...

, 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
Atlas Mountains
The Atlas Mountains is a mountain range across a northern stretch of Africa extending about through Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. The highest peak is Toubkal, with an elevation of in southwestern Morocco. The Atlas ranges separate the Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines from the Sahara Desert...

. If successful, this would threaten the right rear of the Axis forces
Axis Powers
The Axis powers , also known as the Axis alliance, Axis nations, Axis countries, or just the Axis, was an alignment of great powers during the mid-20th century that fought World War II against the Allies. It began in 1936 with treaties of friendship between Germany and Italy and between Germany and...

 defending the Mareth Line facing Montgomery′s 8th Army and ultimately make their position untenable.

On 17 March, the U.S. 1st Infantry Division moved forward into the almost abandoned plains, taking the town of Gafsa
Gafsa
Gafsa is the capital of Gafsa Governorate of Tunisia. Its name was appropriated by archaeologists for the Mesolithic Capsian culture. With a population of 84,676, it is the 9th Tunisian city.-Overview:...

 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
El Guettar
El Guettar is a town in central Tunisia in Gafsa Governorate. It is traditionally known for its pistachio nuts. It was the site of a major World War II battle between American forces under George S...

, again meeting with little opposition. The Italian defenders instead retreated and took up positions in the hills overlooking the town, thereby closing the mountain pass (of the same name) leading south out of the interior plains to the coastal plain. Another operation by the Rangers took one of the Italian positions and 700 prisoners on the night of 20 March, after scaling a sheer cliff and passing ammunition and equipment up hand-over-hand. They were now in an excellent position for an offensive.

Battle

The Axis army commanders had become aware of the U.S. movements and decided that the 10th Panzer Division should settle them. Rommel had flown to Germany before the battle, leaving von Arnim in control of the newly-named Army Group Afrika
Panzer Army Africa
As the number of German armed forces committed to the North Africa Campaign of World War II grew from the initial commitment of a small corps the Germans developed a more elaborate command structure and placed the now larger Afrika Korps, with Italian units under this new German command structure,...

. Von Arnim held Rommel′s opinion on the low quality of the U.S. forces and felt that a show of force would be enough to clear them from the Eastern Dorsals again.

At 06:00 on 23 March, 50 tanks of Broich′s 10th Panze emerged from the pass into the El Guettar
El Guettar
El Guettar is a town in central Tunisia in Gafsa Governorate. It is traditionally known for its pistachio nuts. It was the site of a major World War II battle between American forces under George S...

 valley at 34°20′12"N 8°56′53"E. 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 it could and release the infantry while powerful German 88 mm (3.46 in) guns fired shells at them. The Germans were adjusting to try to hit the enemy artillery anchored on the hill. The Germans quickly overran front line infantry and artillery positions. Major General Terry de la Mesa Allen, Sr.
Terry de la Mesa Allen, Sr.
Major General Terry de la Mesa Allen, Sr. was a division-level United States Army officer during World War II. Allen was a decorated World War I veteran who commanded the First Infantry Division in North Africa and Sicily during 1942-43...

—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 seriously disorganize 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
Gabès
Gabès , also spelt Cabès, Cabes, Kabes, Gabbs and Gaps, the ancient Tacape, is the capital city of the Gabès Governorate, a province of Tunisia. It lies on the coast of the Gulf of Gabès. With a population of 116,323 it is the 6th largest Tunisian city.-History:Strabo refers to Tacape as an...

.

Patton attacks

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 33°53′3"N 10°5′33"E. 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 369 34°14′29"N 9°7′16"E and Hill 772 34°12′7"N 8°59′36"E 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
German 21st Panzer Division
The 21st Panzer Division was a German armoured division best known for its role in the battles of the North African Campaign from 1941–1943 during World War II when it was one of the two armoured divisions making up the Afrika Korps.-Origins:...

, 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.

Aftermath

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. Tunisia 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.

Dramatic portrayals

  • The battle is portrayed in a lengthy scene in the 1970 biographical film Patton
    Patton (film)
    Patton is a 1970 American biographical war film about U.S. General George S. Patton during World War II. It stars George C. Scott, Karl Malden, Michael Bates, and Karl Michael Vogler. It was directed by Franklin J. Schaffner from a script by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H...

    .

See also

  • North African Campaign timeline
    North African Campaign timeline
    - 1940:* 10 June: The Kingdom of Italy declares war upon France and the United Kingdom* 14 June: British forces cross from Egypt into Libya and capture Fort Capuzzo* 16 June: The first tank battle of the North African Campaign takes place, the "Battle of Girba"...

  • List of World War II battles

External links

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