Operation Eilbote (Courier), Jan-Feb 1943

Operation Eilbote (Courier), 18 January-February 1943, was a successful German attack in the Eastern Dorsal Mountains of Tunisia that saw von Arnim's men capture a number of key mountain passes, preparing the way for the later battle of the Kasserine Pass.

Early in the Tunisian campaign French forces occupied the Eastern Dorsal mountains, theoretically giving the Allies access to the eastern Tunisian plains. However the long supply chain back into Algeria limited the number of Allied units that could be supported in central Tunisia, so the Allies were unable to take advantage of this position. A German attack pushed them out of Pichon Pass on 24 December 1942 and the Fondouk Pass on 3 January 1943, but Faid Pass to the south remained in French hands.

Von Arnim, the commander of the new 5th Panzer Army, decided to conduct a two pronged assault. On his right 10 Panzer was to attack the British around Bou Arada. On his left a second force (including the 334th Infantry Division) was to attack a series of positions held by the French 19th Corps.

The British detected the German build-up on Two Tree Hill, opposite Bou Arada, and on 13 February the 6th Armoured Division attempted to drive them off the hill. This attack failed, and the 38th Irish Brigade suffered such heavy casualties that it had to be replaced in the division by the 1st Guards Brigade (this brigade remained part of the 6th Armoured Division for the rest of the war).

The northern wing of the German attack began on 18 January, with attacks at Bou Arada and nearby Djebel Mansour, the site of a reservoir that provided much of the water supply for Tunis. Both of these attacks failed. At Djebel Mansour the Germans were stopped by the 1st Parachute Brigade. At Bou Arada they began with an attack by dive bombers and Henschel Hs 129 cannon armed 'tank busters'. This was followed by a two pronged advance, with thirty tanks on the left and an infantry attack on the right, aiming to outflank Bou Arada from the north. The British commander at Bou Arada, Brigadier Dunphie, had organised his defences well. The German armour was hit by heavy anti-tank fire at short range while crossing an exposed plain, and retreated after losing six tanks. The infantry persisted for three days, but eventually had to give up.

The southern wing of the attack began ten days later, on 28 January. The Germans attacked at several positions along the French front - in the Robaa pass in the north, towards Ousseltia in the middle, and towards the Pichon and Faid passes in the south. This attack saw the first use of the Tiger tank in North Africa, and made some progress.

On 30 January 21 Panzer attacked Faid Pass, with the Italian 50th Special Brigade in support. The pass was defended by the French 2nd Regiment de Tiraillerus Africaine, supported by a mix of 75mm field guns, anti-tank guns and obsolete Renault FT tanks. A few miles further south a battalion from the 3rd Zouaves held the Rebaou pass.

The Germans attacked both passes. Kampfgruppe Pfeiffer attacked Faid pass at 0400 hours, but this attack was repulsed after the loss of three of the eight Semovente assault guns involved. In the south Kampfgruppe Grun, with tanks from Panzer Regiment 5, broke through at Rebaou pass, and by noon the French garrison at Faid Pass were trapped.

Combat Command A of the 1st Armored Division was nearby at Sidi bou Zid, but its commander didn't have the authority to attack without orders. It took several hours for orders to arrive, and they instructed General McQuillin, the commander of CCA, to move on Faid without 'weakening his defences of Sbeitla'. Combat Command C was also in  the area, but it was allocated to a planned attack thirty miles to the south, at Maknassy. McQuillin wasted the rest of 30 January, but finally decided to sent two small task forces to attack Faid and Rebaou on 31 January. This gave the Germans time to set up strong defences, and both the counterattack at the passes and the attack at Maknassy failed. A second counterattack on 1 February was equally unsuccessful.

These German successes finally forced the Allies to place a single general in command of all three national sectors on the Tunisia front (previously the French had objected to serving under a British general). General Anderson only gained his new powers a few days before the Germans launched a fresh series of attacks - Operation Frühlingswind (14 February), Operation Morgenluft (16 February) and finally the famous attack on the Kasserine Pass. These involved both Arnim's men in the north and Rommel's in the south, and caused a great deal of confusion on the Allied side before they were finally repulsed.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (5 June 2017), Operation Eilbote (Courier), Jan-Feb 1943 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_eilbote.html

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