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A Place To Be Lousy In
The American army that beat Hitler was thoroughly professional, but it didn’t start out that way. North Africa was where it learned the hard lessons—none harder than the disaster at Kasserine. This was the campaign that taught us how to fight a war.
December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
Many of the men who died trying to take Oran Harbor were victims of poor interservice planning. The Navy wanted the Army to enter the city overland before trying to unload troops in the face of French destroyers inside the harbor but was overruled. The landing was a horror. French warships blew the cutter Walney apart and set the Hartland afire. Men who scrambled topside trying to escape the flames below were cut down by machine-gun fire.
Patton’s communication system on board the Augusta didn’t work at all. It couldn’t raise Gibraltar, and radio personnel were so inexperienced they had to be relieved. What messages did get through had not been properly enciphered and were gibberish.
There is more than one way for a commander to communicate with his troops. Patton stormed onto the beach with his men, and when he saw a trooper faltering, the general kicked him in the ass.
French opposition varied. While one detachment might cooperate with the Americans—especially if no British were about—another would put up stout resistance. But after two days the invasion was securely lodged on the African coast in several places: Safi, Fedala, Casablanca, and Port Lyautey in Morocco on the Atlantic, and Oran and Algiers in Algeria on the Mediterranean.
Fredendall put out his defenses like a bride setting up wedding presents. His units were soon marooned in a sea of German armor.
On November 10 Elsenhower assigned the British general Kenneth Anderson to take charse of the dash for Tunis. The prize was now great. Rommel, defeated at El Alamein by Gen. Bernard Montgomery, was in retreat across Africa. Montgomery, meticulous to a fault, lagged a week behind and was moving “like a stately pachyderm,” according to one observer, but he was in pursuit. From the moment of the Torch landing far to the rear, Rommel’s chief thought was saving his army, and Tunisia was the only way out. If Anderson arrived before the Germans could reinforce Tunis, the “Desert Fox” could be neatly bagged. Anderson was a good soldier, thorough and careful with a reputation for personal valor. But he was not a dasher. Glum and somber, he was a natural pessimist who tended to look for problems rather than solutions. Of course, he was known as Sunshine. He made good time jumping off from Algiers, but on the seventeenth he ordered the 78th Division to concentrate its forward elements before making the final advance on Tunis. The pause was fatal. On the seventeenth, German defenses consisted of an undersize parachute regiment split between Tunis and Bizerte. It took Anderson nine days to get sorted out, and by then German forces had tripled.
Back at headquarters, Elsenhower was wrestling with political considerations. He had to deal with the French, always a tricky proposition. The Allies had been fortunate in finding the French admiral Jean Darlan in Algiers visiting his son, who had been stricken with polio. Darlan, head of all Vichy’s armed forces, could gauge a strong political wind when he felt one and quickly signed an armistice. This was a military benefit but a political liability. Tainted with the Fascist brush of working with a German collaborator, the “Darlan Deal” was severely criticized in Great Britain and America. Elsenhower’s distress was providentially solved on Christmas Eve, when the admiral was assassinated by a young French monarchist. The Allies now had the French army without Darlan.
More pressing were the problems of establishing a truly integrated command structure combining the Americans and the British. The idea was theoretically correct but difficult to pull off. Writing after the war, Eisenhower noted that military alliances in the past had frequently amounted to no more than “a pious aspiration thinly disguising the national jealousies, ambitions and recriminations of high ranking officers unwilling to subordinate themselves…to a commander of a different nationality.”
Eisenhower was determined to avoid that. He wanted to put together not only an Allied team that could fight a successful campaign in Africa but one that could carry the war to Europe as well. It was not easy. Although there is a kind of universal language employed by all military personnel, details can be maddeningly diverse. The British general Sir Frederick Morgan read the American operational order for the invasion and admitted he couldn’t understand a word of it. Sometimes cultural differences posed problems. When the French general Louis-Marie Koeltz presented a plan in French and apologized for its not being in English, Anderson assured him that “everyone here understands French.” The Missouri-born brigadier general Omar Bradley suffered through the briefing in uncomprehending silence.
Mostly it was a question of national attitudes. Many Americans felt their British counterparts were snobbish, overbearing, and militarily timid. Many Britishers found Americans raucous, overbearing, and militarily incompetent. Some called the Americans “our Italians.” The greatest British scorn was reserved for Dwight Eisenhower. Field Marshal Alan Brooke, Churchill’s chief military adviser, wrote that Ike “had neither the tactical nor strategical experience required for the job.”