Saturday, August 8, 2009

North Africa — 1943

The North African campaign had a sting in its tail. In January 1943, Arnim mounted an offensive, catching ill-equipped French divisions off guard and going on to shake the Americans. Rommel, forced steadily westwards by Montgomery's advance, put in an attack of his own, inflicting a sharp defeat on the Americans at the Kasserine Pass in February. The Allies then reorganized their chain of command, forming the 18th Army Group, comprising both armies (Anderson's 1st and Montgomery's 8th) fighting in Tunisia. Axis forces were gradually compressed into a pocket round Tunis, and the last of them surrendered in mid-May, leaving 238,000 prisoners in Allied hands.

The Mareth Line, based on prewar French defenses in southern Tunisia, was held by Rommel's old army, now renamed the 1st Italian army under General Giovanni Messe. Montgomery's first attack, on March 19, failed, but a hook round the desert flank forced Messe to pull back. Here (above) a 4.5-inch medium gun bombards the line.

On March 6, Rommel turned on Montgomery at Medenine, but, using information from ULTRA, Montgomery was ready for him and the attack was easily repulsed. These Gurkhas are using their distinctive weapon, the kukri, near Medenine, but this shot comes from a sequence that suggests that it was staged for the camera.

This, in contrast, is a real photograph of the Medenine battle, showing a German Mk III Special knocked out by 73rd Anti-Tank Regiment Royal Artillery, part of the anti-tank screen deployed by Montgomery as a result of ULTRA.

The end in Tunisia. An American intelligence officer interrogates two prisoners. Two French soldiers, once more on the Allied side, are in the background.

Roosevelt, in North Africa for the Casablanca conference, took the opportunity to visit troops in the field, the first President since Lincoln to do so.

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