Operation Ochenskopf, 26 February – 19 March 1943

Operation Ochenskopf (Oxhead) (26 February-19 March 1943) was a minor German offensive in northern Tunisia, carried out at the expense of Rommel's more promising assault on the Kasserine Pass (North African Campaign) .

By the end of January 1943 the two Axis armies in North Africa were concentrated in Tunisia, with von Arnim's First Panzer Army in the north and Rommel's Panzer Army Africa in the south. As Rommel moved into the Mareth Line, he suggested that the two armies could carry out an offensive against the Americans, on the southern flank of the Allied army advancing into Tunisia from Algeria in the aftermath of Operation Torch. Rommel got approval for this plan, although von Arnim was never keen on it, believing that the key battlefield was in the north, where the British were threatening Bizerte and Tunis.

The new offensive began on 14 February with Operation Frühlingswind (14-18 February 1943), von Arnim's contribution to the attack. His troops inflicted an embarrassing defeat on part of the US 1st Armored Division at Sidi Bou Zif and then captured Sbeitla. Rommel's part of the attack began on 16 February (Operation Morgenluft, 16-18 February 1943), with the capture of the US supply base at Gafsa. By 18 February both forces had met up at Kasserine, as the southern end of the Kasserine Pass. Rommel realised that there was a chance to inflict a major defeat on the Americans, and late on 18 February was given permission to carry out the new attack. This triggered the battle of the Kasserine Pass (19-22 February 1943), which began with a German breakthrough in the pass but soon ran out of steam. One of Rommel's problems was that von Arnim had decided to move 10 Panzer Division back towards the north front on 17 February, after Gafsa fell without a fight. This meant that the divison wasn't available at the start of Rommel's main attack on 19 February.

The Axis Plan

In the aftermath of the battle Rommel was appointed as commander of the new Army Group Africa, with control over von Arnim's 5th Panzer Army and his old Panzerarmy Africa, now the First Italian Army under General Messe. However von Arnim already had plans in place for a new offensive in the north. On 23 February he chose to conduct a limited attack towards Medjez el Bab, but on the following day he flew to Rome for a conference with Kesselring, where he was forced to adopt a rather more ambitious plan.

In the north the Manteuffel Divison was to attack towards Djebel Abiod, on the road that ran west from Mateur. This attack would be carried out eight battalions, and would hit part of the British 46th Division.

The main attack was to come in the centre. The aim was to capture Sidi Nsir and then head for the supply base at Beja. This attack would be carried out by Kampfgruppe Lang from Corps Weber, and again would hit the 46th Division. Lang was given 77 tanks, including 15 from the 21 Panzer Division, which should have been returned to Rommel's control for his planned attack on the Eighth Army outside the Mareth Line (battle of Medenine).

Weber was also given the task of captured Medjez el Bab in a double envelopment and destroying the Allied troops at Bou Arada.

In order to carry out this part of his orders he ordered Kampfgruppe Eder (the reinforced 755th Grenadier Regiment) to attack across the Djebel el Ang, then cut south to Chaouach and Toukabeur, before cutting the road between Medjez and Bedja near Oved Zerga. This would also hit the 46th Division.

Kampfgruppe Audorff (the 754th Grenadier Regiment and a battalion from the Hermann Goering Division) was to attack on the front directly opposite Medjez and then capture the town.

Kampfgruppe Schmid (one battalion from 10 Panzer, the Hermann Goering Parachute Regiment and the 756th Mountain Regiment, 334th Infantry Division) was to operate south of the Medjerda river, and aim to take Slourhia, to the south-west of Medjez, before joining up with Audorff, capture the Djebel Rihane (Point 720) and reach the Siliana River, on the far left of the Axis advance.

In the south von Arnim had to ask Rommel to keep 10 Panzer and 21 Panzer in a position from where they could appear to threaten Le Kef, the target of the unsuccessful attack through the Kasserine Pass.

This plan is normally dismissed as over-ambitious or purposeless, or condemned for disrupting Rommel's plans in the south, but that isn't entirely fair (and is rather distorted by the tendancy of English-language historians to favour Rommel). By the start of 1943 Rommel was an increasingly discredited figure, having retreated all the way across Libya without making a stand on any of the many defensive lines. He was seen as unwell and overly pessimistic, and had been on the verge of being replaced before the battle at Kasserine. Von Arnim's offensive actually had a clear purpose. The British front line was dangerously close to Bizerte and Tunis and close to the eastern side of the mountains. The line itself ran through difficult terrain, with very few roads. The road that ran south from Djebel Abiod to Beja and then on to Teboursouk was the first north-south road behind the front line, so if any part of that road was cut, then the British might have been forced to retreat quite some way. Medjez el Bab was an important road junction, the meeting point of five roads and in a major valley. The position at Sidi Nsir was also on an important route, this time towards Mateur. If the Germans had achieved their objectives, than the upcoming Allied offensives would have had to start from much further back, and would have had to fight their way out of the mountains. However the difficult terrain also worked against the Germans, whose columns would be unable to easily support each other.

Northern Attack

The northern attack was focused around the single road from Mateur in the east to Djebel Abiod in the west. Earlier fighting had produced a fairly confused patchwork in this area. The German front line was around Djefna. The British had a reinforced battalion from the 139th Brigade (46th Division) on the road between Djefna and El Aouana, but the Germans then held El Aouana. The British held the road west of El Aouana. Further to the west, at Sedjenane, a force from the 139th Brigade protected the start of a track that headed north to the radar station on the coast at Cap Serrat from Sedjenane. Two battalions from the Corps Franc d'Afrique protected the road itself. Another British battalion was at Sedjenane.

The Germans launched a three pronged assault in this area, starting at 0630hours on 26 February. In the north the 10th Bersaglieri Regiment attacked along the coast, while the 11th Parachute Engineer Battalion advanced north of the main road, aiming to cross the track to the radar station and attack the Allied position at Sedjenane from the rear. Part of Regiment Berenthin was to advance south of the road. Once Sedjenane had been taken, this unit was to occupy the Djebel Tabouna, a good observation point, while the main force advanced west along the road.

On 26 February the Parachute Engineers made the most progress, cutting the road to the radar station, before being stopped two miles to the north of Sedjenane. The British troops east of El Aouana weren't put under heavy pressure, but had to retreat on 27 February to avoid being cut off. On 3 March the radar station at Cap Serrat was evacuated, and on 4 March Sedjenane was taken by the Germans. Djebel Tabouna was occupied by the Germans.

The British pulled back to Tamera, where they managed to hold on until 10 March. The Germans continued to push west, and by 19 March were within two and a half miles of Djebel Abiod. At that point their offensive ran out of steam, and von Arnim had no reserves to support it, so the front line stabalised once again. The Germans reported having captured 1,600 prisoners and knocked out 16 tanks, 17 guns and 13 anti-tank guns during this attack. The British had been pushed back some way, but the northern end of the key north-south road was still in their hands.

Sidi Nsir Attack

Sidi Nsir was located in the Bou Oissa valley. A railway ran north-east down the valley towards Mateur and Bizerte, while a minor road headlined east towards Tunis. This part of the front was defended by the 128th Infantry Brigade from the 46th Division. They had one battalion of infantry (5th Royal Hampshires) and an artillery battery at Sidi Nsir, but the main defensive position was further back, in a long defile east of Ksar Mezouar, about half way to Beja. The British had named this area 'Hunt's Gap'.

Von Arnim commited a strong force here. Kampfgruppe Lang contained the 501st Heavy Panzer Battalion, equipped with the fearsome Tiger tank, the 2nd Battalion 7th Panzer Regiment, one armoured infantry battalion and one reconnaissance battalion. These formed Group Lueder, which was to make the attack at Sidi Nsir. The 47th Grenadier Regiment was held in reserve at the start of the attack, but was later commited to support Lang.

The German attack began early on 26 February. Hill 609, an observation point north of Sidi Nsir was taken by 1000hours, but the outnumbered defenders of Sidi Nsir held on until 1800 hours, despite being attacking by the leading Tiger tanks. This delaying action allowed the British to rush reinforcements up to Hunt's Gap.

On 27 February the Germans advanced down the road in a formation that had platoons of four tanks split up along a column of armoured cars and infantry in lorries. By this point the British had five batteries of field guns, one battery of anti-tank gun, and close air support, and the Germans advanced into an ambush. By the end of the day they had lost at least eleven tanks. The Germans had retreated in some confusion towards the end of the battle, leaving their vehicles behind, so the British were able to destroy many of them in the night.

On 28 February the Germans tried again, this time with tanks on the road, and infantry in the hills on either side. By now some British Churchill tanks had arrived, and taken up hull down defensive positions, and once again the German tanks were unable to make any progress. The infantry did a little better, and occupied most of the high ground around the Gap.

On the third day of the battle the Germans focused their efforts against the British right, but once again their tanks were unable to make any progress in the valley and the infantry attacks were repulsed. Finally, on the fourth day the main attack came to an end - the remainined five German tanks withdrew, and a force of Axis infantry surrendered. The Germans pulled back to a new defensive position in the hills between Hunt's Gap and Sidi Nsir, having failed in their objectives on this front.

Toukabeur Attack

Toukabeur was on a road to the north-west of Medjez el Bob. The Germans aimed to attack over the hills to the north-east of Toukabeur, and then advance south-west along the road to cut the road from Medjez to Bedja. This task was given to Kampfgruppe Eder, which contained the 755th Grenadier Regiment.

This attack was opposed by the left wing of the experienced British 78th Division. The 755th Grenadier Regiment didn’t launch its attack on Toukabeur until 28 February, when they hit two battalions of the French 3rd Algerian Infantry. On the night of 1-2 March the Algerians had to withdraw to Teboursouk, but that was the limit of German success in this area.

South of the Medjerda

The final part of the offensive was conducted by Group Schmid. This group attacked in three columns, with two different aims. On the right the 1st Battalion, 69th Panzer Grenadiers, was to provide the southern wing of the attempt to envelop Medjez (the failed attack on Toukabeur) being the northern part. They were to attack across the hills towards Slourhia, on the road that ran south-west from Medjez towards Teboursouk.  This attack ran into the 11th Infantry Brigade, and made very little progress.

In the south Group Koch (the parachute regiment from the Hermann Goering Division) was to attack north of Bou Arada and the 756th Mountain Regiment was to attack south of Bou Arada. The two columns were meant to meet up at El Aroussa, on the road that ran west from Bou Arada. Both of these attacks hit part of the ad hoc Y Division - the 38th Brigade in the north and the 1st Parachute Brigade in the south.

The 756th Regiment's attack go nowhere, but the German paratroops made some progress on 26 February. However it was short-lived, and on 27 February the reinfornced 38th Brigade counterattacked and forced the Germans back. Once it was clear that this attack had failed, von Arnim moved the 756th Mountain Regiment to the Medjez front.

Conclusions

Although von Arnim's offensive had some reasonable objectives, it was badly planned. Using small forces of irreplaceable tanks on difficult mountain routes, where their options were limited to frontal assaults on the only possible roads, meant that the Germans suffered heavy losses. By 3 March the Germans admitted to having lost 22 tanks, with another 49 out of action. On 1 March General Weber's forces, operating against Medjez and Bou Arada, were down to only six tanks. 

Rommel was furious with the progress of the offensive, and eventually ordered von Arnim to stop. He was particually annoyed that the Tiger tanks, which had not been committed to the fighting around Kasserine, were instead wasted in the north. Von Arnim's men had made some progress, but most of the ground they had taken was regained by the Allies in local offensives before the start of the first stage of the final assault on the Tunisian Bridgehead, Operation Vulcan.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (21 June 2017), Operation Ochenskopf, 26 February – 19 March 1943 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_ochenskopf.html

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