Operation Vulcan, 22-28 April 1943

Operation Vulcan (22-28 April 1943) was the first stage of the final Allied attack in Tunisia, and involved a series of attacks all around the Axis bridgehead that pushed the defenders back from most of their best defensive positions, but didn’t quite break through into the open ground around Bizerte and Tunis (North African Campaign).

The Tunisian campaign began in November-December 1942, when the leading elements of the British First Army and newly arrived German forces clashes as the British attempted to dash to Bizerte and Tunis. The Germans won this battle, and the front line in northern Tunisia took shape in the mountains, 30-40 miles to the west of Tunis. In the south the fighting was dominated by the advancing Eighth Army coming from Libya, and the major combat debut of the US II Corps, coming from the west. Eventually the Eighth Army broke through the Mareth Line, and then a second Axis position at Wadi Akarit, north of Gabes, and the Axis forces had to retreat out of southern Tunisia, into a new small bridgehead that began at Enfidaville, on the coast thirty miles to the south of Tunis. The troops inside this enclave came under the authority of General von Arnim, commander of Army Group Africa, and were split into his original command, the 5th Panzer Army, and Rommel's old army, now the 1st Italian Army under General Messe.

Von Arnim's defences were very thinly spread.

In the north was the Division von Manteuffel, a newly formed unit that had around 5,000 troops split into nine units. About a quarter of Manteuffel's men were Italian Bersagliere or Marines.

To his south was the 334th Infantry Division, which held the front across the Medjerda River, the main gap in the mountains.

To their south was the Hermann Goering Division.

Next in line was the remains of the Afrika Korps, no longer under the command of the 1st Italian Army. The Afrika Korps had the Superga, 10 Panzer and 21 Panzer Divisions, and the Italian troops from XXX Corps and the 50th Special Brigade. On 21 April the armoured and mobile elements began to be moved from this mountainous sector, starting with 10 Panzer, which moved to the Medjerda plain, to the west of Tunis. The Afrika Korps position formed a salient, jutting out to the south-west.

The Axis left was held by the 1st Italian Army. This still had a mix of Italian and German troops, with the Spezia, Pistoia, Young Fascists and Trieste divisions, and 15 Panzer Division, the 164th Light Africa Division and the 90th Light Africa. The German troops were commanded by General Bayerlein

The Allied attack was carried out by a multinational force.

On the far left was the Corps Franc d'Afrique, the equivalent of a single US infantry regiment. This unit operated under the US II Corps.

Earlier in the campaign the US II Corps had been posted on the right flank of the First Army front. It became the target of Rommel's last semi-succesful offensive in North Africa, the battle of Kasserine Pass (19-22 February 1943), where it suffered some embarrassing defeats before holding its ground. In the aftermath of this battle General Patton was given command of the division, and he soon improved its performance. During Operation Wop (16-23 March 1943) his II Corps captured all of its objectives and then defeated a counterattack by 10 Panzer Division. However a joint attack with part of the British 9th Corps (9-10 April) hadn't gone as well, with both sides blaming the other for their slow progress. When Eisenhower insisted that the II Corps should be used in the final attacks in northern Tunisia, Patton made it clear that he didn’t want to serve as part of General Anderson's First British Army. In order to avoid a clash, the II Corps was moved to the northern flank of the upcoming operation, and placed under the direct control of Alexander's 18 Army Group. Although this move was meant to be conciliatory, some American officers believed that they were being moved to a secondary front, in order to allow the British Eighth Army to take the glory for the fall of Tunis (in the end the Eighth Army only played a minor role in the final offensives). By the time Operation Vulcan began, Patton had been moved to command the Seventh Army, then preparing for the invasion of Sicily, and he had been replaced at II Corps by General Omar Bradley.

II Corps contained the 1st Armored Division and the 1st, 9th and 34th Infantry Divisions. All four of these divisions had gained plenty of combat experience by April.

II Corps was mainly opposed by the Manteuffel Division, although the 1st Division also came up against the right wing of the 334th Division.

The Allied centre was made up of the three corps of General Anderson's First Army.

On the right of II Corps was the British V Corps, largely facing the 334th Division.

Next came the British IX Corps, facing the Hermann Goering Division.

On their right was the French XIX Corps, facing the survivors of the Afrika Korps.

Finally, on the right of the Allied line, Montgomery's Eighth Army faced the First Italian Army.

The overall plan was for the First Army to take Tunis, with II Corps protecting its left flank. The two forces would then turn north to take Bizerte.

On the left General Bradley decided to attack through the hills, in an attempt to avoid the more heavily defended valley routes. This involved his men in a series of desperate battles for hilly strong points.

On the First Army front General Allfrey's V Corps (1st, 4th and 78th Divisions) were to attack along the Medjerda Valley, heading for Tunis. General Crocker's IX Corps (1st and 6th Armoured Divisions and the 46th Infantry Division) were to attack across the Goubellat Plain, and then turn to join with V Corps. The French XIX Corps was to clear the southern routes to Tunis.

Preliminaries

The first blows were struck by Montgomery's Eighth Army, which began an attack on the Enfidaville position on the night of 19-20 April. This attack met with some limited success, but the bogged down in the face of stiff opposition, led by General Bayerlein. On 21 April Montgomery decided to suspend the attack for four days, as the casualty figures were rising alarmingly. After the failure of a second offensive later in the month Montgomery suggested that his army should abandon its attempts to reach Hammamet, further north on the coast, and just conduct limited operations, in an attempt to pin down Axis troops without taking unnecessary casualties. Alexander agreed to this, and on 30 April ordered Montgomery to transfer the best units that he could spare to join the First Army attack. Montgomery demonstrated an unexpected ability to work as a team player, and released his most experienced divisions - the 7th Armoured Division and 4th Indian Division - and the 201st Guards Brigade. All of these units would play a significant role in the final attack.

The Germans struck the next blows, when the Hermann Goering Division (supported by part of the 334th Division) attacked to the south-east of Medjez el Bab on the night of 20-21 April. At first the Germans made good progress, and in some areas they advanced up to five miles, but this only brought them up to the main British line, and on the night of 21-22 April the Germans withdrew to their original positions.

British IV Corps

IV Corps's attack began on 22 April when the 46th Division attacked west of the Sebkret el Kourzia, a marsh overlooked by hills. The area was defended by part of the Grenadier Regiment Hermann Goering, supported by a Tunis Battalion (locally formed unit) and four artillery battalions. By the afternoon of 23 April the British had broken thorough the German defensive link to the north of the marsh, and the 6th Armoured Division was sent into the gap. Part of the division was sent towards Pont du Fahs, an advance that had the potential to cut off the Afrika Korps and possibly break the Enfidaville position. Von Arnim responded by ordering the Afrika Korps to withdraw from a salient facing the French, and form a new line near Pont-du-Fahs. The Afrika Korps also had to take over part of the Hermann Goering division line, and von Arnim had to commit his last reserve, the 10 Panzer Division, to fill the gap. 10 Panzer was able to stop the 6th Armoured Advance, but after two days 10 Panzer was down to 25 operational tanks. By 26 April this had risen to 55 German and 10 Italian tanks, but at the cost of using up their last reserves.

British V Corps

V Corps began with a preliminary attack on 21 April, aimed at retaking Longstop Hill, lost to the Germans four months earlier. The hill was defended by the reinforced 756th Mountain Regiment of the 334th Division, and they managed to hold up the British 78th Division for several days. The British captured the north-eastern corner of the hill on 24 April, and the hill was secured by 26 April.

The main V Corps attack was made by the 1st and 4th Divisions, south of the Medjerda River. They were opposed by the 754th Grenadier Regiment and the 501st Heavy Panzer Battalion. The British managed to reach Djebel Bou Aoukaz, some way down the river valley, but on 26 April their advance was stopped by part of the Hermann Goering Division. Even so this was still a critical position for the Germans, and once 10 Panzer had stopped the 6th Armoured Division, von Arnim formed his remaining armour into a single force, Panzer Brigade Irkens, under the command of Colonel Irkens, commander of the 8th Panzer Regiment, 15th Panzer Division. Between 27-30 April Brigade Irkens turned back the British armour, in battles in which they claimed to have destroyed 90 Allied tanks. They recaptured Djebel Bou Aoukaz, and kept the road the Tunis shut, at least for the moment.

By the time this fighting ended the Germans were down to 69 operational tanks (including 4 Tigers) in the entire Tunisian beachhead. The fuel position was worse - the counterattacks had used up almost all of the remaining reserves, so there would be very little mobility in the next round of battles.

US II Corps

The II Corps offensive began on 23 April, with a two pronged assault. On the left the 9th Infantry Division attacked through the coastal mountains. On the right the 1st Infantry Division attacked up the Tine valley, operating on the left flank of the British attack in the Medjerda River. Soon afterwards the 34th Division began an advance in the centre.

The 34th Division was held up by a German paratroop unit (Barenthin), which held the key Hill 609, in the hills to the north of the Tine valley. The Germans were able to hold this position almost to the end of April, but eventually Bradley committed his armour to the attack. Hill 525 was taken by the 1/16th Infantry on the night of 29/30 April, and Hills 531 and 609 were in American hands by 30 April. However the top of Hill 525 was open and exposed to German artillery fire, and during 30 April it fell to a German counterattack in which the commander of the 1/16th was captured. An American tank destroyer stopped the Germans from keeping the hill, when became no mans land. The Americans were able to hold onto Hills 531 and 609, and reinforced their position on 1 May.

The fighting around Hill 609 came to an end as a result of the successful advance of the 9th Infantry Division. Its advance pushed the Germans back into the hills west of Bizerte. In this area the battlefield was split in two by two large lakes. Just to the south of Bizerte was Lake Bizerte, with the town of Ferryville on its south-western shore. To the west, separated from Lake Bizerte by a narrow peninsula, was Garaet Achkel lake. Manteuffel had the 962nd Regiment north of the lake and the 160th south of the lake. The 9th Infantry advance was pushing the 962nd back, leaving the 160th potentially exposed to an attack from the rear by Americans advancing around the lake. In order to avoid this, Manteuffel ordered his men to retreat into a prepared defensive line on either side of Garaet Achkel. The city of Mateur, south of the lakes, was abandoned on 2 May, and taken by CCB/ 1st Armored Division on 3 May. It was clear that the German position was well supplied with anti-tank guns, so CCB stopped around Mateur.

By 6 May II Corps had advanced more than half of the way from its starting lines to Bizerta. In the north the line ran between Garaet Achkel lake and the coast. On the right the line ran close the southern shore of the lake, then turned south, running to the east of the road and rail junction at Mateur. The boundary with the British V Corps was in the hills on the northern side of the Medjerda valley.

Conclusion

Although Operation Vulcan hadn't made as much progress as hoped, it had played a major part in weakening the Axis position. By 1 May von Arnim had been forced to abandon a large area on the south-western corner of the front and the Allies had advanced along most of the line (the main exception at that point were on the approaches to Mateur, and around Enfidaville in the south. Over the next few days the Americans finally broke through at Hill 609, and by the time the First Army began its next offensive, Operation Strike, the Germans and Italians were in a much worse position than on 22 April.  This time the Axis line cracked. Tunis and Bizerte fell on 7 May, and the last Axis forces surrendered on 13 May 1943.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (18 July 2017), Operation Vulcan, 22-28 April 1943 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_vulcan.html

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