July 21, 2014

Small Unit Actions in Tunisia

The following notes on German tactics in the Tunisian campaign have been compiled by the commanding officer of a U.S. armored infantry battalion. They deal with the German use of tanks with infantry in the attack, and with lessons learned and methods practiced by American troops. It should not be inferred, however, that either the German or American methods described here were standard. They were adapted to meet specific situations. As always, local factors and the decisions of individual commanders must be taken into account.

Case I

On one occasion we were defending some rolling country, with our front lines forming an L, our left flank anchored on a river, and our right flank anchored on a mountain.

The Germans, after several days of intermittent artillery fire, attacked the eastern part of our defensive line with wave after wave of infantry. When this did not succeed, they dive-bombed and strafed a secondary hill which was holding up their attack. This did not break our position, so they attacked with tanks. 

Case I
1. Case I

Twelve tanks began working between our left flank and the river, six tanks began working toward the bend in our lines, and 20 tanks began moving toward our right flank between the right of C Company and the mountain. The group of 20 divided itself into a group of 12, which continued to move ahead, and a group of eight, which worked around the left of C Company. All the tank movements were very slow and cautious.
The Medjerda River
2. The Medjerda River, in Tunisia.

I believe that the 12 tanks working between our left flank and the river succeeded in infiltrating to some extent. The enemy infantry, attacking with this group of tanks, was successful in getting onto A Company's position. In the rear of the position, A Company had half-track vehicles. These were immediately used to launch a counterattack: the .30-caliber gun mounted on the half-track provided fire, and the track itself was employed to run over the enemy's personnel and his light machine-gun positions. The use of these half-tracks in a counterattack to regain a position proved highly effective. The group of 12 did no great damage; however, they threatened our flank, later causing us to withdraw A and B Companies.

The six tanks which attacked the bend in our lines apparently never got onto our position. Their mission seemed to be more one of diversion, to attract our attention. However, these tanks may have been stopped from coming onto our position when we placed the fire of our 75-mm assault gun on them.

The 20 tanks which approached our right flank, later splitting into groups of 8 and 12, moved at a good speed until they were within several miles of our position. The 12 tanks which approached our right flank moved cautiously to within 1,000 yards of our position, and then halted in line, facing us. Our artillery fired on them, and an artillery duel then took place. (These tanks, as events later proved, were endeavoring to decoy our tanks into the flanking fire of concealed and camouflaged 88-mm antitank guns.) Our 37-mm antitank guns and an assault gun fired on the German tanks, and they returned the fire. They made no effort to advance nearer than 1,000 yards. They had a certain amount of defilade, but many of the tanks were fully exposed. The eight tanks moving toward the left of C Company advanced very cleverly through draws and depressions until they finally penetrated our position and overran the artillery and infantry positions, forcing C Company to withdraw. These eight enemy tanks occupied the ground, but did not pursue the infantry. In the action thus far, approximately six German tanks were knocked out.

At this time our medium and light tanks came to our rescue around both sides of the mountain on our right flank, and immediately attacked the 10 remaining tanks out of the 12 which had stopped 1,000 yards from the right flank of our position. 

Case Ib
3. Case Ib

These tanks were bunched closely together in line and facing our oncoming tanks. The German tanks immediately withdrew about 1,000 yards to a defiladed position. As our tanks advanced, they came under fire of camouflaged 88-mm guns to their right flank. To the best of my knowledge, about six of our medium tanks and two light tanks were knocked out, with no loss to the German tanks. The German tanks stayed well behind cover and fired only a few times. The battle ended at nightfall, and our tanks withdrew.

The remainder of the eight tanks which overran our artillery and occupied C Company's position remained in that position and took a distinctly minor part in the battle, firing only a few times.

Case II

We were occupying hill "C" and attacked hill "A” with infantry only.

Case II
4. Case II

PzKpfw III Ausf. J in Tunisia
5. PzKpfw III Ausf. J in Tunisia.
The attack was successful on "A" and a number of prisoners were taken. Although we had only light machine guns, rifles, and light mortars when we occupied "A," we immediately directed our fire upon hill "B." After a few minutes, a white flag was raised on "B," and enemy troops began pouring out to surrender. Just as they reached the foot of "B," two German tanks moved out of a shallow gully and covered us on hill "A." Surrender of the enemy on "B" stopped. The tanks then forced us to withdraw, and we lost hill "A" and "B” and the prisoners on "B." The tanks fired machine guns and 47-mm high explosive at us. Since we had no antitank weapons at hand at the time, we were forced to give up hill "C."

In other words, the German tactics had consisted of hiding several tanks in a defensive position so that a counterattack could be launched. The counterattack was successful because when we reached the position, we were carrying only machine guns, rifles, and mortars. As a result, the Germans had armor and weapon superiority.

The next day, the attack was repeated. This time our infantry was accompanied by light tanks. At first our infantry was pinned down by small-arms fire while moving from hill "C" to hill "A." The tanks were immediately moved forward to bring machine-gun and 37-mm high explosive fire on hill "A" at point-blank range. Our infantry moved immediately behind these tanks, successfully occupied hill "A," and captured a number of prisoners.

An attack was then launched on hill "B." The entrance to the dugout on hill "B" faced the right end of hill "A." Our light tanks began to pour 37-mm high explosive into the entrance of the trench, and the enemy immediately surrendered.

Case III

We occupied a defensive position in the sand dunes, cactus patch, and nose of Hamra Mountain. The enemy occupied Lessouda Mountain, Sidi-Bou-Zid, and the mountain range east and south of Sidi-Bou-Zid. The country was open and flat. The distance from Hamra to Lessouda was about 10 miles.

Case III
6. Case III

The Medjerda River
7. A Douglas Boston Mk III aircraft flies north of 
the Medjerda River to attack enemy airfields.
Early in the morning six German tanks moved out to a position several miles in front of our position. The tanks were closely grouped. We placed artillery fire on them, and they moved just outside our range. They maneuvered all day in the vicinity of this position, moving laterally back and forth across our front, but not coming any nearer to our own position. At 1500 the number of tanks increased to about 12. They still continued to group themselves closely and to move about on our front, attracting our attention but not advancing on our position.

Shortly after 15:00 a large column of 20 to 30 tanks was discovered moving to our left flank. These tanks were moving very slowly so as not to raise any dust. They were taking advantage of all possible defilade, and in general were moving on the lowest ground. Movement must have been under way for a number of hours. Shortly after this, a column of about 15 tanks was noticed moving slowly to our right flank; it was taking advantage of defilade and whatever cactus cover was available. No infantry or accompanying guns came up with these tanks. It was purely a tank attack. Until darkness, a battle took place on our position between the enemy tanks and our tank destroyer guns (we luckily had several with us), our 37-mm guns, and some of our medium tanks.

Our infantry was withdrawn when the battle seemed to be developing into a tank versus tank affair. In this action we lost two tanks, and the enemy lost six. We were ordered to a new defensive position; this movement began at nightfall. Shortly after the withdrawal started, the 10 or 12 tanks that had been moving about on our front all day began to attack straight down the highway. Firing erratically, they approached our new defensive position, causing a great deal of confusion and disorganization until they were finally driven off by the direct fire of our artillery.

It is believed that the Germans attempted to use the tanks at our front to attract our attention in order to sneak the other tanks around both flanks in a double envelopment. Then, after dark, these tanks were ready to launch a night attack, using the highway as an axis. 

The battle of Sidi-Bou-Zid
8. The Battle of the Sidi-Bou-Zid. On February 14, 1943 the 10th and the
21st Panzer-Divisions executed a pincer attack to annihilate CCA of US
1st Arm. Div. The Americans managed to withdraw but suffered heavy losses.

Reverse Slope Defense

In my battalion we had one light tank with each infantry company. The purpose of this tank was twofold:
M3 Stuart Light Tank
9. An M3 Stuart Light Tank.

First, it was to be with the infantry company at all times—especially to sit behind it on a defensive position and remain in readiness to counterattack to restore the position. In an attack, enemy infantry is traveling light when it reaches and takes a position, generally arriving with only rifles, light machine guns, and light mortars, and with few antitank weapons or none at all. Thus if an armored vehicle or tank is available for use in a counterattack against the enemy, it will almost always succeed in forcing him from the position.

Second, a tank accompanying infantry in the attack, firing directly with machine-gun fire and especially high explosive, is paralyzing in its effect upon the enemy. Also, infantry can follow it closely. It has been found that this fire, directed point-blank at enemy positions, is exceedingly difficult to live through.

The Germans moved their tanks with their infantry, placed direct fire on the American position, and forced our men to keep down until the German infantry and tanks were on our position. In an effort to escape the effect of this type of direct fire, as well as observed artillery fire, there was a tendency in Tunisia to defend the forward slope of a hill at night and to defend only the reverse slope during daytime. The Germans are very good at this business of reverse-slope defense, and our units at the front simply adopted the method.

It works in the following manner:

A few automatic weapons are placed on the forward slope of the hill to make the attacker fight his way to the top. A large part of the defending force is dug-in on the reverse slope of the hill with machine guns sighted to fire on the crest. When the attacker arrives at the crest, these guns are immediately fired as he exposes himself on the skyline. The bulk of the infantry on the reverse slope is immediately used in a counterattack against the attacker, who usually is in a poor state of organization when he arrives at the top of the hill. Counterattacks may be delivered over the crest of the hill, or else around the sides of the hill in a double envelopment.

 Reverse slop defense explained

The Germans have used this form of defense on many occasions. An outstanding example was the battle of Longstop Hill (east of Medjez-el-Bab). An officer who took part in this action tells me that there were four ridge lines, which the Germans were occupying. The first three were defended rather lightly, and the last ridge was the main defensive position. There were enough automatic weapons dispersed on the slopes of the forward ridges to make the attackers fight their way up. As soon as the top of the first ridge had been taken, all guns on the second ridge were laid and fired on the crest line of the first ridge. Thus the attackers had to fight their way down the slope of the first ridge to get to the forward slope of the second ridge, and so on, until the last ridge line was reached. When the crest line of the last ridge had been reached, it was found that the Germans had the bulk of their force on the reverse slope, where their machine guns were sighted for grazing fire toward the crest. As the attackers came over this crest, they came under the grazing fire of these machine guns. They were counterattacked by the German infantry occupying positions on the slope; as a result, our attack was beaten off, and we sustained heavy losses. Reverse-slope defense involves making a number of difficult decisions: the best line on the reverse slope to defend from, where to place the automatic weapons on the forward slope, when to counterattack, and whether to counterattack over the top of the hill or around the side of the hill in an envelopment.

The whole purpose of reverse-slope defense is to shield oneself from the direct fire of assault guns and tanks and against observed artillery fire. In fact, it seems to be the only satisfactory defense against this type of attack. Naturally, the employment of antitank guns on reverse slopes and secondary ridges is a vital part of the reverse-slope defense.

U.S. War Department, Military Intelligence Service. Intelligence Bulletin Vol 1. - No. 11. 1943.
Howe, George F. Northwest Africa: Seizing the Initiative in the West. U.S. Army in World War II: The Mediterranean Theater of Operations. 1957. Reprint. Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History,1993.

Photos attribution
1., 3., 4., 6. Intelligence Bulletin Vol 1. - No. 11. 1943.
2. Bourrichon - fr:Discussion Utilisateur:Bourrichon, GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0, via Wikimedia Commons
5. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-788-0006-16/Dullin/CC-BY-SA-3.0-de, via Wikimedia Commons
7. Brock F J (Fg Off), Royal Air Force official photographer, via Wikimedia Commons
8. CMH Pub 6-1-1, additional details: panzeroperations.com
9. Luckyjack, GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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