Operation Strike/ Battle of Tunis, 5-13 May 1943

Operation Strike (5-13 May 1943) was the final Allied offensive in North Africa, and ended with the surrender of all Axis troops in Tunisia and the capture of around 275,000 prisoners of war.

The first phase of the allied offensive, Operation Vulcan, had begun on 22 April. It had made some progress, often forcing the Germans out of their best defensive positions, but by 28 April the British advance had slowed down, and in some areas had been stopped by the last Axis counterattack in Africa. General Alexander, the commander of the Allied Ground Forces in North Africa decided to prepare for a fresh offensive by the British First Army, while the US II Corps in the north continued with its attempts to break through in the hilly country to the west of Bizerte.

General von Arnim, the commander of Army Group Africa, had his forces spread around the perimeter of the bridgehead.

To the north of the lakes was the Bizerte Defence Command, a mix of German and Italian troop under General Kurt Bassege.

To the south of the lakes was the Manteuffel division (now commanded by General Buelowius), reinforced by the reconnaissance battalions from the Hermann Goering Division in the aftermath of the late April battles.

The 334th Division filled the gap between the Manteuffel Division and the Medjerda River.

Most of the German armour was now grouped together in Group Irkens, which had been formed to deal with a crisis in late April. This group now held the line between the Medjerda River and the Medjez-el-Bahn to Tunis road, the critical area of the front. The remains of 15 Panzer were added to Group Irkens before the start of Operation Strike. This sector was commanded by General Borowietz, the commander of the 15 Panzer Division.

To the south was the Hermann Goering Division, although this unit had suffered badly in Operation Vulture, and now lost its Reconnaissance Battalions. This division held a narrow area south of the Madjez to Tunis road.

Next was the Afrika Korps, which faced the French XIX Corps on the south-western corner of the bridgehead.

Finally the Italian Army was on the Axis left, where it faced Montgomery's Eighth Army.

On the Allied side the small French Corps Afrique operated on the coast on the left.

The US II Corps formed most of the Allied left, facing Manteuffel and the Bizerte Force.

On their right the British V Corps held the Medjerda sector.

The British IX Corps held the next part of the line, but most of its troops moved north to take part in the attack in the Medjerda sector. The British 1st Division held the line in IX Corps' old position

To their left the French XIX Corps faced the Afrika Corps.

Finally the Eighth Army held the right flank of the Allied lines, but after the slow progress of their earlier attacks at Enfidaville Montgomery had agreed to transfer the 4th Indian Division, 7th Armoured Division and 201st Guards Brigades to the First Army, to support the main attack. 4th Indian and 7th Armoured joined IX Corps for the main attack.

The Allied Plan

Operation Vulcan had involved a series of attacks around the Axis perimeter. Operation Strike was based around the idea of a massive thrust by the British First Army, heading for Massicault, behind the centre of the Axis line, on the road to Tunis.

On the Allied right Eighth Army would carry out diversionary local attacks, to stop von Arnim moving troops away from Enfidaville. The French 19th Corps would carry out similar attacks on the Eighth Army's right.

On the Allied left the US II Corps would protect the left flank of the main British attack, and prevent the Germans from moving troops from the Bizerte area to protect Tunis.

In the centre V Corps would begin the man offensive, aiming for Djebel Bou Aoukaz. Their attack would be followed by IX Corps, which would attack from the same sector, heading north-east. The aim was to bludgeon a hole in the Axis line, and reach Tunis as quickly as possible. Once Tunis had fallen the First and Eighth Armies were to cooperate to take Cape Bon, and only then would the First Army turn north to join the US II Corps in an attack on Bizerte.

The British attack had much in common with Montgomery's Eighth Army style of attack. It would be preceded by a massive artillery bombardment, and supported by an elaborate deception plan. Dummy tanks and units were placed behind the British 1st Armoured Division, north-west of Pont-du-Fahs, well to the south of the real attack. Visible troop movements were made on the left flank of the Eighth Army, to suggest that the Afrika Korps sector might be the target. The IX Corps movement was to be hidden as much as possible.

In the event German resistance collapsed more quickly than anyone had expected, and Bizerte fell to the Americans (and a small French force) at the same time as Tunis.

The British Attack  

The British offensive began with a preliminary attack by the 1st Division of the British V Corps, which on 3-5 May captured the heights at Djebel Bou Aoukaz, the scene of the last German success during Operation Vulture. At the same time the Allied air forces carried out an increasingly heavy series of attacks on Axis positions. On the night of 5-6 May the target was strongholds in the area between  Tunis and the front.

On the same night the artillery bombardment began with a heavy bombardment of the IX Corps line of advance. This was then followed by a rolling barrage, designed to support the attack of the 4th Indian Division (left) and British 4th Division (right). The rolling barrage was accompanied by the heaviest Allied air attack yet conducted in Africa, concentrating on an area 1.5 miles and 4 miles deep. The infantry attack began at 0330am on 6 May.

The infantry attack quickly opened a gap in the German lines, and just after 1100 hours the 6th and 7th Armoured Divisions were able to strike towards Massicault. The 115th Panzer Grenadier Regiment was overrun and 15 Panzer Division was forced back to Massicault. They were unable to hold there, and Massicault fell to the British in the late afternoon of 6 May.

On 7 May the 6th Armoured Division clashed with the remaining German tanks to the south-east of the village of St Cyprien, while the 7th Armoured Division captured the village. This opened the road to Tunis, and by mid-afternoon the leading troops from the 22nd Armoured Brigade had entered the centre of Tunis. Overnight the 1st Derbyshire Yeomanry and 11th Hussars cleared up what little resistance remained.

This rapid success split the Axis forces into pieces. The 5th Panzer Army was trapped in the area between Tunis and Bizerta, along with the survivors of 10 Panzer and 15 Panzer. The 334th Division was trapped on the old front line, between American troops in the north and British troops in the south. Von Arnim, with the Afrika Korps and the First Italian Army retreated into the Cape Bon peninsula, and just as the Allies had feared attempted to set up a new defensive line between Hamman Lif, on the coast east of Tunis, and Enfidaville. The strongest part of this line was Hamman Lif, where the Hermann Goering Division, a flak regiment, and parachute battalion were joined by two battalions from Panzer Grenadier Regiment Africa on the night of 8-9 May. To the south 10 Panzer held the line around Cheylus, and further south 21 Panzer, the Superga division and Kampfgruppe Schmidt held the area around Zarhouan.

The British concentrated their efforts on the Hamman Lif position. At first the attacks were carried out by 6th Armoured Division, supported by the 4th Infantry Division, but they were soon joined by the 1st Armoured Division. The aim was to break through the Axis lines and cut across the Cape Bon Peninsula, to stop the Axis forces further south from retreating into it. The defenders of Hamman Lif managed to hold on for two days, but eventually a force of British tanks risked attacking along the beach and broke through the Axis lines. By 1400 hours on 10 May the 26th Armoured Brigade was at Soliman, close to the point where the coast turns north-east along the north side of the peninsula. By 1700 hours the 2nd Armoured Brigade was at Grombalia, half way across the peninsular. Further to the south-west British troops joined up with the French XIX Corps around Zarhouan. This advance ended any hopes that von Arnim had of holding out in Cape Bon Peninsula and he moved his HQ south from the north coast of the peninsular, into the mountains between Zarhouan and Hammamet, on the east coast. The surviving Axis troops were now trapped between the First Army in the north and the Eighth Army and French XIX Corps in the south.

On 11 May British troops made a complete circuit of the coast of the Cape Bon peninsula, with one unit moving up the north coast and another up the east coast, before they met half way down the east coast. On the same day the 26th Armoured Brigade and part of the 1st Guards Brigade moved south from Hammamet and capture Bou Ficha at 1800 hours. The First Army was now only twelve mile to the north of Enfidaville, but even now the Axis anti-tank defences could still bite, and the tanks had to pause. Elsewhere 10,000 men of Kampfgruppe Pfeiffer surrendered to General Mathenet. The last Axis stronghold was now in the hills between Zarhouan and Enfidaville, where the remains of the German 90th and 164th Light Divisions, 21 Panzer Division and the Italian XX and XXI Corps were trapped.

Resistance on this pocket ended on 12 May. General von Arnim surrendered just before noon. A few hours later General von Sponeck surrendered. The First and Eighth Armies made contact near Bou Ficha. By the end of the day only the Trieste and 164th Light Divisions had yet to surrender.

The end came on 13 May, when the newly promoted Field Marshal Messe surrendered to General Freyberg, commander of X Corps in the Eighth Army.

US II Corps

II Corps' final offensive was split two main parts by two large lakes, Garet Ichkuel and Lake Bizerte, that formed a barrier to the south and south-west of the city of Bizerte. The 9th Division was operating between the lakes and the coast, while the 1st Armoured Division and 1st and 34th Divisions south of the lakes.

On 6 May the 9th Division began the final attack on Bizerta, and by the end of the day it had taken the Djebel Cheniti, the dominating hill west of the city. On 7 May armoured units found that the city was undefended, and that Manteuffel's men had retreated to the narrow peninsula between the coast and Lake Bizerte to the east of the city. On 8 May troops from Corps Franc d'Afrique was trucked into Bizerte, to give French troops the honour of liberating the city.

South of the lakes the 1st Armored Division cut off Ferryville on 7 May. Task Force Carr (1/13th Armored and 3/6th Armored Infantry, under Lt. Col Frank Carr) was then sent east to cut off the German forces east of Bizerte Lake. On 8 May a light tank column sped ahead of the main advance, losing six tanks to fire from 105mm Flak guns. On the same day British troops coming from the south met up with the US columns at Protville. Early on 9 May TF Carr reached the Mediterranean coast east of Bizerte.

On 9 May General Vaerst, commander of the 5th Panzer Army, agreed surrender terms with General Harmon. 10 Panzer and 15 Panzer surrendered at 1250 hours. The Göring Reconnaissance Battalion held out on the Djebel Ichkuel (an impressive mountain on the southern shore of Garet Ichkuel) for a bit longer, but surrendered on 10 May. Eventually II Corps took 40,000 prisoners, including many troops who had moved north into their sector after the unexpectedly rapid fall of Tunis.

Aftermath

The Germans and Italians made very little effort to evacuate any troops from Tunisia. The Allies had put in place a massive naval operation to try and stop any evacuation (Operation Retribution), but a British blockade of Cape Bon only produced 77 prisoners! The final Axis collapse in Tunisia came rather more quickly than the Allies had expected. Although there were plenty of German and Italian troops in the beachhead, they lacked supplies of all types, including ammo, but most significantly fuel. As a result very few Axis formations were at all mobile during the last phase of the campaign, making it almost impossible for their commanders to react to the Allied breakthrough.

The Allies captured a massive 275,000 prisoners in the last week of the fighting in Tunisia, a much larger number than they had expected. The windfall was partly due to Hitler and Mussolini's refusal to allow any retreat from Tunisia, although the Allied domination of the seas off Tunisia would have made any Dunkirk like evacuation almost impossible. Many of the prisoners were specialists or support troops, who were unable to play any part in the final battle, and who would have been invaluable during the fighting on Sicily and in Italy. Germans made up the largest group amongst these prisoners, at least partly because so many of Rommel's Italian troops had been captured after El Alamein. The Germans did learn from their mistakes, and later carried out an impressive evacuation of Sicily.

The Allies didn't spent much time celebrating their success in Tunisia. The main focus of their attention was now Sicily, which was invaded on the night of 9/10 July 1943, only two months after the Axis collapse in Tunisia.

The last signal from the Afrikakorps was sent by its final commander, General Cramer. It read  'Ammunition shot off. Arms and equipment destroyed. In accordance with orders received the Afrikakorps has fought itself into the condition where it can fight no more. The Deutsches Afrikakorps must rise again. Heia Safari!', not exactly in the spirit of Hitler's order to fight to the last man and the last bullet.

Alexander's signal to Churchill has become famous - 'Sir, it is my duty to report that the Tunisian Campaign is over. All enemy resistance has ceased. We are masters of the North African shores'

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (28 July 2017), Operation Strike/ Battle of Tunis, 5-13 May 1943 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_strike.html

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