Wednesday, December 26, 2012

World War 2:North Africa Campaign part 4 (LAST)


When the Eighth Army reached Tunisia, the Allies modified their command structure to conform with decisions made at the Casablanca Conference in January. General Dwight D. Eisenhower became supreme commander of all Allied forces in the Mediterranean west of Tripoli. Alexander became Eisenhower's deputy and, at the same time, commander of the Eighteenth Army Group, which controlled the First and Eighth armies and the now separate U.S. II Corps. Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder assumed command of the Allied air forces, and Admiral Cunningham retained command of the naval forces.
On February 24 the Axis also realigned its command structure. Rommel became commander of Armeegruppe Afrika, which included the Afrika Korps, Arnim's 5th Panzer Army, and the Italian First Army under General Giovanni Messe. The Axis forces finally had a unified command structure in Tunisia, but Rommel probably was not the best choice. By that point in the war, he had become frustrated and dispirited, the cumulative effect of the long seesaw campaign. To make matters worse, Arnim, who detested Rommel, continued to do pretty much as he pleased.
The Axis position in North Africa was hopeless, the final outcome clearly in the hands of the logisticians. As the Allies consolidated their control over the northwest African coast, the Axis pressure on Malta eased, which in turn enabled the Allies to further restrict the Axis supply convoys from Sicily. Without first coordinating with Rommel, on February 26 Arnim launched Operation Ochsenkopf,a drive toward Beja. By March 3, that offensive had stalled, at the cost of 71 precious tanks.
Montgomery's forces, which had crossed into Tunisia on February 4, had reached Medenine on the 16th and established defensive positions. Hoping to catch the British off-balance, Rommel attacked south from the Mareth Line on March 6. Spearheaded by 140 tanks, it was the most potent offensive Rommel mounted since arriving in Tunisia. It would also be the last. Warned by Ultra intercepts, Montgomery was waiting. The Germans ran into skillfully prepared anti-tank defenses and lost 52 tanks. Right after the failure of the Medenine attack, Rommel returned to Germany a sick man. Arnim assumed overall Axis command, and Messe took command in south Tunisia.
After the American debacle at Kasserine Pass, command of the U.S. II Corps passed to Patton. He wanted to mount an attack to drive to the coast, but Alexander would authorize only limited attacks designed to draw German forces away from the Mareth positions. At that point, Alexander simply did not trust American units. In fact, many among the British forces disparagingly referred to their American allies as our Italians. Patton's limited attack between March 17 and 25 was successful, however, tying down the 10th Panzer Division near El Guettar.
On March 20, Montgomery attempted a night penetration of the center of the Mareth Line. The attack had failed by March 22. The next day, he shifted the weight of the main attack around the southwestern flank of the line, through the Matmata Hills. By March 26, his forces broke through the Tebaga Gap. The Italian First Army and the remainder of the Afrika Korps were forced back. Under continuous pressure from the Eighth Army on one side and the U.S. II Corps on the other, the Axis forces withdrew to Enfidaville.
By April 7, the Allied First and Eighth armies linked up, squeezing the Axis into a small pocket. On the east coast, the Eighth Army took Gab├ęs on April 6, Sfax on April 10, Sousse on April 12, and Enfidaville on April 21. In the north, the U.S. II Corps, now under Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley, took Mateur on May 3 and Bizerte on May 7. Montgomery's 7th Armoured Division captured Tunis on May 7. The remaining Axis forces in Tunisia were caught in two pockets, one between Bizerte and Tunis, and the other on isolated Cape Bon.
Arnim surrendered his forces on May 13, 1943. The Royal Navy, waiting in strength offshore, made sure that few Germans or Italians escaped to Sicily. Axis losses in Tunisia alone totaled 40,000 dead or wounded, 240,000 prisoners, 250 tanks, 2,330 aircraft and 232 ships. British and American casualties were 33,000 and 18,558 respectively. For the entire North African campaign, the British suffered 220,000 casualties. Total Axis losses came to 620,000, which included the loss of three field armies.
On the strategic level, the North African campaign was a watershed for the Western Allies. For the first time in the war they had decisively defeated the Axis, and especially the Germans, on the ground. The psychological value of the victory cannot be minimized. The U.S. Army, too, had finally gotten into the war and acquitted itself well after a shaky start at Kasserine Pass. The British and Americans perfected the combined command structure that would serve the Grand Alliance for the remainder of the war. The various Free French factions were finally united and organized under the Allied command. And perhaps most important, the British proved the value of Ultra intelligence and refined the system for getting the necessary information to the field commanders.
On the downside, the Allies were now out of position with a huge force of almost 1 million men and their equipment. With very limited means of transportation and no way for that force to strike directly at Germany, a follow-up campaign in Sicily was almost the only feasible next course of action for the Allies.
The loss was a stunning strategic setback for Germany. At first, North Africa had been a rather effective economy-of-force campaign. At the risk of only three German divisions and a number of Italian divisions of questionable quality, the Axis was able to tie down a proportionately larger force and at the same time pose a significant threat to one of Britain's strategic lines of communication. But after the defeat at El Alamein, Hitler's sense of pride once again overcame his meager grasp of strategy, and he committed a second field army to North Africa that he could neither sustain logistically nor afford to lose. The forces Hitler threw away in May 1943 just might have made some difference for the Germans fighting in Russia or Sicily.
On the tactical and operational levels, several factors conspired against the Axis despite the battlefield brilliance of Rommel and the superb fighting of the Afrika Korps. Although North Africa was a logistician's hell, logistics was the deciding factor. In the end, the Allies triumphed with sheer mass. The Axis forces could not overcome Allied air and sea power–both of which enhanced Allied logistics and degraded Axis logistics.