Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Tunis, Battle of (3–13 May 1943)

Title: Victory parade following Battle of Tunis
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By the end of April 1943, the converging Allied offensive conducted by General Harold Alexander's 18th Army Group with Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery's British Eighth Army and Lieutenant General Kenneth Anderson's British Fifth Army had pushed the Axis forces into a pocket around Tunis and Bizerte. Although the two Axis armies in Colonel General Jürgen von Arnim's Army Group Afrika—General Giovanni Messe's First Italian Army and General Gustav von Vaerst's Fifth Panzer Army—had linked up for the final defense, their loss of equipment had been so great that defending even the 100-mile arc was impossible in the face of the massive Allied superiority. Alexander had 20 divisions with 300,000 men and 1,400 tanks against Arnim's fighting strength of only 60,000 men and up to 100 tanks.

The British had taken the high ground around Medjez-el-Bab, allowing a direct attack against Tunis and Bizerte. Arnim held off the Allied offensive, delivered simultaneously on every sector between 19 and 25 April, but in doing so, the Axis forces consumed the last of their scanty resources. The tourniquet applied by the Allied air and naval blockade across the Mediterranean from Italy was now so tight that few reinforcements or supplies reached Tunisia. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and Arnim had reported in February that 140,000 tons per month would be required to maintain the fighting power of the Axis forces, but they received just 23,000 tons in April and a paltry 2,000 tons in the first week of May.

As a result, Axis forces suffered severe shortages of food, ammunition, and fuel. Fuel resources were sufficient to move just 16 miles, which drastically restricted all tactical movement. Despite heroic efforts to transfer even the smallest amounts by air and submarine, Arnim later admitted that he would have been forced to capitulate by the beginning of June regardless of Allied operations simply because of a shortage of food. The complete breakdown of the logistics system explains the collapse of Axis resistance far more clearly than any Allied offensive.

Montgomery's failure to break through the Enfidaville bottleneck led Alexander to devise a new final plan. He switched the 4th Indian and 7th Armoured Divisions and the 201st Guards Brigade from Eighth to First Army and charged Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks's IX Corps with making the final attack. Operation strike was to be an overwhelming onslaught on a 3,500-yard front by the 4th Indian and 4th British Divisions, supported by a massive phalanx of 470 tanks in the valley south of the Medjerda River. Its goal was the capture of Tunis. American forces, meanwhile, had captured Mateur on 3 May and had pushed the German line back to Chouïgui, just 15 miles from Bizerte, preventing the Germans from reinforcing their positions in the Medjerda Valley.

The assault opened at 3:00 a.m. on 6 May with a concentrated barrage by up to 652 guns, which pulverized Axis strong points with a concentration of shells five times greater than the opening barrage in the October 1942 Battle of El Alamein; this was followed by an intense air assault at dawn. Under this massive onslaught, German resistance collapsed, and the Allied infantry broke through almost without opposition, so that by 10:00 a.m., tanks of the 6th and 7th Armoured Divisions were pouring through the gap and could "go as fast and as far as they liked." They failed, however, to grasp the elementary principles of exploitation that Rommel had earlier demonstrated and advanced with extreme and unnecessary caution.

On 7 May, the 11th Hussars entered Tunis, the first unit to cross the Egyptian border in 1940, aptly crowning the end of the campaign, and U.S. forces entered Bizerte later the same day. The Fifth Army was thus trapped between the British and American spearheads, and Vaerst surrendered on 8 May, furnishing 40,000 prisoners. Also on that day, British Admiral Andrew Cunningham carried out Operation retribution, a rejoinder to the agonies suffered by the British during the evacuation of Greece and Crete in 1941, to prevent any escape of the Axis forces by sea, signaling, "Sink, burn and destroy. Let nothing pass."

Alexander's principal concern thereafter was to prevent the vast bulk of the Axis troops south of Tunis from retreating with Messe's First Army into the Cape Bon peninsula and establishing a redoubt. Immediately, 1st and 6th Armoured Divisions drove to Hamman Lif at the neck of the peninsula, but the hills there reach almost to the beach, and a small detachment of Germans held up the Allies for another two days. Without fuel or ammunition or any hope of escape, further resistance was futile, and the remaining Germans were mopped up, the last units surrendering on 13 May. In all, the Allies took some 250,000 prisoners in the Battle of Tunis, the largest capitulation yet suffered by the Axis powers.

Paul H. Collier


Further Reading
Blaxland, Gregory. Plain Cook and the Great Showman: First and Eighth Armies in North Africa. London: Kimber, 1977.; Moorehead, Alan. The March to Tunis: The North African War, 1940–1943. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.; Rolf, David. Bloody Road to Tunis: Destruction of the Axis Forces in North Africa, November 1942–May 1943. London: Greenhill, 2001.
 

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