Operation Wop, 16-23 March 1943

Operation Wop (16-23 March 1943) was an American attack carried out in order to help Montgomery's attack on the Mareth Line, the key Axis defensive position in southern Tunisia.

After suffering a heavy defeat at the second battle of El Alamein, Rommel had retreated all the way through Libya and into southern Tunisia. By February 1943 his troops were entering the Mareth Line, a defensive position originally built by the French to defend against a possible Italian invasion from Libya. This meant that Rommel's army was getting closer to von Arnim's 5th Panzer Army, which had been formed in Tunisia in the aftermath of Operation Torch, and was based around Bizerta and Tunis in the north of the country.

At the start of 1943 the biggest threat to the Axis position came in central Tunisia, where the Allies had seized a number of passes in the Eastern Dorsal mountains, from where they could in theory drive east to the coast, splitting the Axis position in half. In order to prevent this von Arnim conducted a series of attacks in the mountains (Operation Eilbote), and by the start of February most of the key passes were in Axis hands. Rommel then suggested expanding this operation into a major attack on the American positions on the southern flank of the Allied lines in western Tunisia. He gained approval for a limited attack across the mountains. Von Arnim attacked first (Operation Frühlingswind, 14-18 February 1943), and his experienced troops inflicted a heavy defeat on part of the US 1st Armored Division. Rommel attacked two days later (Operation Morgenluft, 16-18 February 1943), and forced the US troops out of Gafsa. Rommel and von Arnim's men then combined in an attack north into the Western Dorsal Mountains, the famous battle of the Kasserine Pass (19-22 February 1943). By now Allied resistance was stiffening, and the attack ran out of steam. On 22 February Rommel cancelled the offensive, and most of his troops returned to the Mareth Line. The US II Corps had suffered an embarrassing defeat at the start of the battle, and in the aftermath its commander, General Fredendall was replaced by General Patton.

In the aftermath  of the battle the Americans had retaken much of the ground taken by Rommel and von Arnim, but not all of it. On the southern flank of the battlefield Gafsa remained in Axis hands, along with the railway that ran east to Sened, Maknassy and on to the coast south of Sfax. Gafsa was also on the important road to Gabes, just to the north of Rommel's position in the Mareth Line.

The main focus of attention now turned to the Mareth Line, where Montgomery's Eighth Army faced Rommel's former Panzer Army Africa, now officially the 1st Italian Army under General Messe. Rommel was no longer in favour, after the long retreat through Libya, and had been on the verge of being replaced by Messe before Kasserine Pass. The change was finally made on the eve of the attack at Kasserine, to allow Rommel to concentrate on that battle. The original plan had been for Rommel to leave Africa after the battle and for von Arnim to take command of a new Heeresgruppe Afrika, with authority over his own 5th Panzer Army and Messe's 1st Italian Army. Instead Kesselring decided to make Rommel commander of the new Army Group, with von Arnim and Messe under his authority. This would turn out to be a short-lived arrangement. Rommel suggested that Messe should launch a pre-emptive attack on the Eighth Army, before they were fully in place south of the Mareth Line,  but this attack was a total disaster (battle of Medenine, 6 March 1943). On 8 March Rommel handed control of the Army Group to von Arnim, and on the following day he left Africa for the last time.

By now Montgomery was almost ready to launch his attack on the Mareth Line, which would begin on the night of 19/20 March 1943. General Alexander, by now the commander of all Allied ground forces in North Africa, decided to give Patton's II Corps a limited objective, partly to support Montgomery's attack, and partly to help restore the morale of II Corps, and in particular the 1st Armored Division, part of which had been badly mauled in the earlier battles. The resulting plan had three phases. The first step would be the capture of Gafsa. Second would be an attack on Sened Station. Finally the operation was meant to end with a demonstration east towards Maknassy, but without getting involved in serious fighting.

The attack on Gafsa was to be launched from Feriana, to the north, by the 1st Division. Sened Station was to be taken by the 1st Armored Division, advancing south from Kasserine, and supported by elements from the 9th Division. These troops would then conduct the advance towards Maknassy.

The area was mainly defended by Italian troops, with some armour support.

Phase One - Gafsa
 
The attack on Gafsa was to be carried out by the 16th and 18th Infantry from the 1st Infantry Division (General Terry Allen) and the 1st Ranger Battalion. The two infantry battalions reached their attack positions during the night of 16-17 March. Their attack didn't begin until mid-morning, but when it did begin the Americans discovered that the Italian garrison had withdrawn from Gafsa, only leaving some outposts to hold up the US advance.

On 18 March the 1st Ranger Battalion moved south-east to El Guettar, a good defensive position between high ground to the north and the salt marsh of Chott el Guettar to the south.

Phase Two - Sened Station

The attack on Sened Station was meant to have taken place on 19 March, but heavy rain meant that it had to be postponed. On the following day Combat Command A, 1st Armored Division, advanced towards the station along the road from Gafsa, while the 60th Infantry (9th Division), supported CCA (1st Armored Division), approached from the north. 

The two forces attacked Sened Station on 21 March, and quickly defeated the Italian garrison, Some of the troops managed to escape south to Sened village, but they were forced to surrender on 23 March.

Phase Three - Maknassy

The third phase of the attack had only been meant to be a demonstration, but after the easy successes at Gafsa and Sened Station, it was now expanded into a full scale attack, aimed at the capture of a ridge five miles east of Maknassy (now Al-Miknassi) and a raid towards an airfield a few miles further east at Mezzouna (Al-Mazzunah). On 21 March Montgomery asked Alexander for further support, and suggested that Patton might attempt to attack towards the Sfaz-Gabes coast road. Alexander felt that this was too ambitious, but did order Patton to move east past Maknassy.

On the night of 21 March CCA advanced towards Maknassy, and on the following morning the village was occupied without any resistance. However the easy success now ended. On 22 March von Arnim ordered General Vaerst, his successor as commander of the 5th Panzer Army, to defend the hills to the east of Maknassy with his reserves, while 10 Panzer Division was to attack at El Guettar. By the evening of 22 March the Germans had occupied a series of key positions in the hills, with Rommel's own personal guard holding Hill 322, a key position at the northern end of the main ridge, overlooking the main road east from Maknassy towards Mezzouna.

The American attack began just before midnight on 22 March, with 1/6th Armoured Infantry and 3/60th Infantry leading the advance. The Americans made some progress, but Hill 322 and a number of other key positions remained in Axis hands. On 23 March the Americans attacked again, this time with artillery and armoured support, but once again the Germans held their ground. They were even able to reinforce the position, moving Kampfgruppe Lang from the Afrika Korps into the hills. On 25 March the 6th Armoured Infantry managed to capture part of Hill 322, but heavy German artillery fire forced them to retreat.

Phase Four - El Guettar

While the main American efforts were made around Maknassy, the 1st Infantry Division advanced from El Guettar. By 20 March the Americans were advancing in three columns,. On their left the 26th Infantry was advancing along the 'Gumtree Road', which headed east along the southern flank of the main mountain ridge. On the right the 16th and 18th Infantry were advancing along the ridges on either side of the main road from El Guettar to Gabes, with the 16th infantry on the left an the 18th Infantry on the right.

Before dawn on 23 March 10 Panzer attacked up the Gabes road, advancing into the gap between the 16th and 18th Infantry. The attack was led by a force of Panzers (by now the division only had 57 tanks, including 16 of the long gunned Panzer IV Ausf G.) and infantry in half tracks, followed by more infantry in trucks. The only American troops on the road itself were the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion (armed with 75mm antitank guns on half tracks) and two battalions of field artillery.

At first the German attack went well. They were able to break through the tank destroyers (the 601st claimed to have destroyed 30 tanks), and got into the artillery positions. However this exposed them to heavy artillery fire, and the Panzers were forced to retreat two miles to regroup. At this stage the Germans still had strong air support in Tunisia, and the American positions were attacked by Stukas. However the Stukas were no longer the terror weapon of 1940, and their attack was fairly ineffective. At 1654 hours 10 Panzer attacked again, but this attack made very little progress. By the end of the day 10 Panzer had suffered heavy losses, and was forced onto the defensive. It only had 26 serviceable tanks, having lost 31 to all causes during the day. This was the 1st Armored Division's first clear victory against over German tanks, and clear sign that they were rapidly improving. 10 Panzer reported that it was in 'dire straits' after the failure of the two attacks.

Aftermath

By now Alexander was confident that the US II Corps had recovered from its earlier setbacks, and could be trusted with a more ambitious attack. On 25 March plans were put in  place for a two pronged assault. On the right the 1st Armored Division and 9th Infantry Division would attack towards Gabes from El Guettar, while on left the 34th Infantry Division would attack from the Fondouk pass, some way to the north of the fighting around Maknassy. This plan was developed on the day before the key breakthrough at the Mareth Line, but by the time the attack began the Germans and Italians were in full retreat towards the Gabes Gap. This was a fairly narrow gap between the coast and the salt marshes of the Chott el Fedjadj, a few miles to the north of Gabes town itself.

The attack at Fondouk began on 27 March, but the 34th Division wasn't strong enough to push through the strongly defended pass at this stage, and the fighting soon ended.

The offensive from El Guettar began on 28-29 March, with an attack by the 9th Infantry Division. This unit was held up by Italian troops, who fought well in good defensive territory. The 1st Armoured Division made quicker progress in open ground close to the Gabes road, but then slowed down as it entered the hills of the Djebel el Mcheltat, fives miles east of El Guettar. The slow progress allowed the Germans to move 21 Panzer and Panzergrenadier Regiment Afrika into the front.

On 30 March a new attack began, this time led by Task Force Benson (part of the 1st Armoured Division), with infantry support. On the first day the attack was stopped by a previously unknown minefield across the road. On the following day an attack on a wider front, with infantry support on the flanks, made some progress, but was stopped by German anti-tank guns and air support.

On 1 April CCA carried out a diversionary attack near Maknassy, but made no progress.  This was followed by several days of a largely infantry battle in the hills on either side of the Gabes road.

Montgomery's attack on the Gabes position began on 6 April. Alexander ordered Patton to launch a full scale assault on 7 April, in an attempt to support this attack. By now the Axis commanders realised that Gabes position was lost, and when the Americans attacked they found that the Axis forces had gone. That evening the leading patrols from Task Force Benson met up with an armoured car patrol from the Eighth Army. The two Allied armies in North Africa had finally made contact.

There was still a chance that some of the Axis troops retreating north from Gabes could be trapped. On 8 April the US 34th Division took part in a combined attack on the Fondouk and Pichon passes, operating on the right wing of the attack, while the French 19th Corps and British 9th Corps attacked on the left. This attack didn’t go terribly well. The advance was held up by German resistance, and part of the British 6th Armoured Division ended up fighting in the 34th Division sector.  

On 9 April the two forces took part in a combined attack through the passes. The Germans managed to hold their ground throughout the day, and the British armour wasn’t through the pass until 1000 hours on 10 April. By then the Axis forces retreating from Gabes had slipped away to the north, and the chance to cut them off was gone. The British and Americans blamed each other for the failure. The Americans claimed that 9 Corps' plan was to blame, while General John Crocker, commander of 9 Corps, blamed poor training on the American side. It needed Eisenhower and Alexander to end the arguments, and they had a long term impact on Anglo-American relations in the theatre. In the final assault on Tunis Patton refused to allow his II Corps to be subordinated to General Anderson's First Army, and instead it operated directly under the control of Alexanders's 18th Army Group.

Operation Wop and the fighting that followed demonstrated that the Americans were very quickly improving after their fairly disasterous early clashes with the Germans. II Corps went on to play a major part in the final defeat of the Axis forces in Tunisia, fighting on the left flank of the Allied armies during Operation Vulcan (22-28 April 1943) and Operation Strike (5-13 May 1943), and taking the key port of Bizerta.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (6 July 2017), Operation Wop, 16-23 March 1943 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_wop.html

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