Operation Wop, 16-23 March 1943

Operation Wop, 16-23 March 1943

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 disastrous 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.


Operation Tidal Wave: U.S. forces attempt risky air raid on Axis oil refineries

On August 1, 1943, 177 B-24 bombers take off from an Allied base in Libya, bound for the oil-producing city Ploiești, Romania, nicknamed “Hitler’s gas station.” The daring raid, known as Operation Tidal Wave, resulted in five men being awarded the Medal of Honor—three of them posthumously𠅋ut failed to strike the fatal blow its planners had intended.

Operation Tidal Wave began ominously, with an overloaded bomber crashing shortly after takeoff and another plunging into the Adriatic Sea. 167 of the original 177 bombers made it to Ploiești, whose oil fields and refineries provided the Germans with over 8.5 million tons of oil per year. Whereas most Allied bombing in World War II was carried out from a high altitude, the bombers that raided Ploiești flew exceptionally low in order to evade the Germans’ radar. The bombers lost the element of surprise, however, when one group veered off on the wrong direction, forcing the others to break radio silence in order to direct them back on course. This unplanned adjustment also led to the bombers approaching from the south, where the Nazis had concentrated their anti-aircraft batteries.

The ensuing attack was dramatic, chaotic and costly. The Allies suffered heavy casualties, and smoke from the explosions caused by the first wave of bombers made visibility difficult for subsequent waves. Survivors reported debris like branches and barbed wire hitting and even ending up on the inside of their planes. Lt. Col. Addison Baker and Maj. John Jerstad were awarded the Medal of Honor for their (unsuccessful) attempt to fly higher and allow the crew to bail of our their badly damaged plane. Another pilot, Lt. Lloyd Herbert Hughes, also received a posthumous Medal of Honor for flying his critically-damaged B-24 into its target. Col. John Kane and Col. Leon Johnson, who each led bombing groups that reached their targets, were the only men who were awarded the Medal of Honor and survived the raid.

Although the Allies estimated that the raid had reduced Ploiești’s capacity by 40 percent, the damage was quickly repaired and within months the refineries had outstripped their previous capacity. The region continued to serve as “Hitler’s gas station” until the Soviet Union captured it in August of 1944. 310 airmen died, 108 were captured and another 78 were interned in neighboring Turkey. 88 of the original 177 B-24s returned, most of them seriously damaged. Despite setting the record for most Medals of Honor awarded to airmen in a single mission, Operation Tidal wave was never repeated—the Allies never again attempted a low-altitude assault against German air defenses.


Contents

In Soviet historiography, the Great Patriotic War is divided into periods:

  1. First (22 June 1941 – 18 November 1942)
  2. Second (19 November 1942 – 31 December 1943)
  3. Third (1 January 1944 – 9 May 1945)

The war with Japan, the Campaign in the Far East including the Manchurian strategic offensive operation, (9 August 1945–2 September 1945) is seen as a separate theater of operations from the Great Patriotic War.

During the course of the Second World War the Red Army carried out a number of different military operations. The scope of these operations, usually known by the major cities around which they took place, was usually termed "operational-strategic" or "strategic", depending on the scale. An "operational-strategic" operation was usually undertaken by at least a group of Armies or a single Front. A "strategic" operation usually demanded cooperation of several Fronts to achieve its objectives. In both cases the operations could last from a week to several months. strategic operations were combined into seasonal campaigns, because weather and ground conditions affected planning.


Churchill’s Guidelines

By the Second World War, both Allies and Axis were using code names for all of their operations, both major and minor alike. Consider names like “Torch” — the 1942 landings in North Africa, “Husky” – the invasion of Sicily, or “Avalanche” – the Allied assault on Italy. Prime Minister Churchill in particular was intrigued by the effect an appropriate name could have on morale, as well as posterity. He even went so far as provide guidelines for his generals when devising codenames for operations. For starters, the PM warned his officers to avoid titles that might suggest to an enemy details about the plan. For example, the British quickly deduced that Germany’s “Operation Sea Lion” would be an amphibious invasion of the U.K. The Allies should avoid making the same mistake, he said.

Churchill also cautioned not to be too boastful or overconfident when choosing a name. The failure of an operation named something like “Inevitable” or “Unstoppable” would be extra embarrassing and provide an added propaganda bonus to the enemy. The PM also suggested steering clear of names that were too glib, irreverent or lighthearted. “Do not enable some widow or mother to say that her son was killed in an operation called ‘Bunnyhug’ or ‘Ballyhoo’,” he advised.


Consolidated B-24D “Lil’ De-Icer” Veteran of the Ploesti Raid August 1943

(Editors note: This beautiful B-24 placed third in it’s category at the recent IPMS Seattle Spring Show. It’s an awesome piece of work by a talented modeler and I’m jazzed to have it on MPS. Note the original pictures of Lil’ Deicer were used with permission from the American Air Museum, Duxford)

I’ve wanted to build a B-24 for a long time: hoarding several of the Hasegawa kits (#00932) for the day I felt up to the challenge. That day recently came and I selected the B-24D “Lil’ De-Icer” as my subject. The -24 never had the looks or publicity of the B-17 but they still turned in the work and often paid the price along with their crews.

This particular aircraft participated in the bloody Operation Tidal Wave against the Ploesti oil fields on August 1st 1943. Serving with the 98 th BG, she returned from this raid with her entire crew[1]. According to what I’ve been able to find the aircraft served well into 1944 and was finally sent back to the states in favor of newer and less battle worn aircraft,[2]. She met her end on the scrap heap in 1946.

This history combined with an excellent and well researched decal sheet from Lifelike Decals (#72-029) made the decision easy: a desert-pink B-24 it would be. The nose art didn’t hurt either.

There were two major inaccuracies that needed correction right out of the box. The most obvious is the configuration of the starboard side front window. The kit molds this as a separate window, while photo references clearly show a smooth panel on Lil’ De-Icer and other aircraft of the same production run. This was fairly simple to rectify, as it only required a light bit of filling to level out the detail then a quick re-scribing using thick tape as a guide. I used mostly 400, 600, and 1,000 grit Alpha abrasive sheets for this job as these cause less scratching damage to the plastic.

The second error was much easier to correct, but was rather puzzling given the quality of the rest of the kit. On the B-24D model, the front landing gear doors retracted into the wheel well, and are not visible when the plane is on the ground. Hasegawa would have you use the doors from a later version if you follow their instructions. This is an extremely easy fix, as I simply left the doors off.

Finally the positioning of the nose guns took a bit of research and comparisons to other aircraft in the squadron where photos were available. From what I could gather the single machine gun in the very front of the nose was omitted on Lil’ De-Icer, either to save weight or to clear the line of sight for the bombardier.

The kit calls for 90 grams of weight in the nose in the instructions, and I initially assumed this was an error. Not so, as I wound up using even more than that from my trusty roll of lead. Due to the open nature of the nose, the front wheel bay and the fuselage underneath the top turret were crammed full of lead in an effort to bring about the correct stance. Fortunately the kit landing gear is extremely robust and was up to the task of supporting this beast!

With the aid of a set of masks from Eduard and my trusty supply of Mr. Paint (MRP) USAAF colors, the actual painting of this beast was rather straightforward. All of the demarcations between the Neutral Grey (MRP 141) underside and Desert Sand (MRP 144) top color were done free hand. This was made easy by the large and quite soft edges on the real aircraft and the characteristics of the lacquer paint that allowed for extremely tight work to be done without going crazy in the process.

I sprayed all the Mr. Paint colors straight out of the bottle at 8-10 psi with an H&S Infinity fitted with a 0.2mm tip. What few metallic paints used in the build were shot with an H&S Evolution also fitted with a 0.2mm tip. Only masking of the more complex shapes around the bottoms of the engine nacelles was required for painting.

I elected to forego pre-shading opting to focus instead on applying a bit more of the desired color in the center of some panels to try and create some variation. The effect wound up being a more subtle than I would have liked, but I definitely intend to move more in this direction with my work in the future, as it is both more controllable and more fun than the old school blackened panel lines method.

DECALS, WEATHERING, AND THE LOGIC BEHIND THE EXHAUST STAINS

Decals were laid down with a substantial amount of cursing and gnashing of teeth due to the fragile nature of the Microscale printed sheet. My most grievous error came from the use of Tamiya’s Matte Clear XF-86 thinned with their acrylic X-20A thinner. This mixture attacked my decals and caused significant damage to some of the more complex surfaces. Thankfully my experience in painting war-gaming minis with a hairy stick came to the rescue and I was able to freehand the corrections and touch ups with Vallejo acrylics. After this, I sprayed a coat of Dullcote to seal everything in and prep for the various washes.

Weathering was a straightforward affair thanks to a mix of Mig and AK Interactive enamel washes. I used AK’s Africa Dust Effects (AK 022) to bring some of the hard living that the Libyan desert posting of the real aircraft inflicted to the model, focusing on the underside. This was more of an armor technique of applying, allowing it to dry, and then lightening the effect with a careful use of odorless thinners and a soft brush. I also found both the small and large microfiber swabs allowed great control when blending in and around panels. I attempted to keep the effect light so as to not spoil the scale effect by overdoing things.

The exhaust stains sparked a bit of controversy at my local IPMS club. While the actual exhaust on the B-24 routes through the supercharger and out the bottom of the engine nacelle, I noticed in my photo references that a number of the North African based 24’s exhibited significant stains across the top due to cracked exhaust rings. I wasn’t able to find any suitable photos of Lil’ De-Icer, but elected to use weathering in this area to help tell the story of a battle weary bird.

Overall I’m quite pleased with the result, and I feel like it makes a fine addition to my collection. My main takeaway would be that whenever possible, research your topic and try and gather as many photos as possible. It’s the small details and corrections that often bring a model together and make it appealing, and I hope I achieved at least a bit of that here.


'Death Valley': U.S. Tankers Proved Themselves Against the Nazi Horde At El Guettar

The U.S. Army was in fact learning its lessons, honing itself into the weapon it needed to be to inflict final defeat on Nazi Germany.

In the early morning hours of March 23, 1943, the U.S. 1st Infantry Division was preparing to attack. The unit was arrayed east of the Tunisian town of El Guettar, roughly 50 miles south of the now famous Kasserine Pass, where the U.S. Army had suffered a sharp defeat just a month earlier.

Kasserine had been a heavy blow to the novice American Army, determined but still learning its deadly trade through costly lessons. Now, that Army had its feet under it again and was on the move. Advances over the previous week had left it in possession of El Guettar and now the division was poised to advance farther. To the southeast, the British Eighth Army, under the command of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, had chased the Axis forces all the way from Egypt and now was being held up at the Mareth Line, a stoutly defended fortified position.
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To relieve pressure on the Eighth Army, the U.S. 2nd Corps, of which the 1st Infantry Division was a part, was ordered to attack down Highway 15, a road leading east from El Guettar toward the enemy-held town of Gabes. At worst, this would draw some Axis troops away from Mareth and make it easier for the British. At best, if the Americans could break through to the sea it would cut off large numbers of German and Italian soldiers from their comrades to the north in Tunis. So it was that the “Big Red One,” as the 1st Infantry Division was known, was poised to attack on the morning of the 23rd.

Attached to the division was the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion, there to bolster the infantry’s ability to engage the German tanks that had been so skillfully used against the Allied forces. On this day it would find itself fighting for its life against the battle-hardened 10th Panzer Division as it launched a preemptive spoiling attack against the Americans. (A spoiling attack occurs when the enemy, anticipating an offensive move, attacks first, thus “spoiling” the impending assault.)

The 601st would prove instrumental in beating off this move, showing that the U.S. Army was in fact learning its lessons, honing itself into the weapon it needed to be to inflict final defeat on Nazi Germany.

The GMCs of the 601st

The 601st was a standard tank destroyer battalion for its day. Commanded by Lt. Col. H.D. Baker, the unit was equipped mainly with the M3 Gun Motor Carriage (GMC), a standard M3 half-track hastily converted into a tank destroyer with the addition of a 75mm M1897 cannon, the “French 75” of World War I fame. The vehicle had been intended only as a stopgap weapon to train American troops until a purpose-built design could be produced.

When Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942, found the Army still short of weapons, several tank destroyer battalions, including the 601st, nevertheless went into action with it. The M3 was a reliable vehicle, and its cannon packed a good punch, able to penetrate three inches of armor at 1,000 yards, respectable at that point in the war. On the down side, the vehicle had thin armor and the gun was not fully enclosed. The crew was protected only by a thin gun shield, leaving it vulnerable to artillery and flanking fire.

The battalion had a few M6 GMCs as well. This was a Fargo ¾-ton truck mounting a 37mm light antitank gun on the bed. The 37mm weapon was obsolete by this stage of the war, and the crew was likewise dangerously exposed. Most commanders had learned to keep them in the rear out of harm’s way. On March 23, the 601st had 31 M3s (out of 36 assigned) and five M6s serviceable. The rest had been lost during previous actions. The tank destroyers were thus divided into three companies, A, B, and C. The battalion also had logistical and reconnaissance elements to round out its strength.

The Road to El Guettar

In the preceding few days, the 1st Division had taken Gafsa and El Guettar before seizing the hills immediately east of the latter town. Also attached to the division was the 1st Ranger Battalion under the command of Colonel William O. Darby. The Rangers, along with the Big Red One’s 18th Infantry Regiment, had cleared Axis troops from the area. That done, the division commander, General Terry Allen, readied his command for its next advance toward Gabes.

The 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 18th were sited south of Highway 15 on the Djebel Berda. The rest of the division’s infantry battalions were deployed along the Keddab Ridge, which rose from the ground just north of the road. The 3rd Battalion of the 18th, 3rd of the 16th Infantry, and the 26th Infantry Regiment were set up from south to north, respectively. The rest of the 16th was either in reserve in El Guettar or back in Gafsa. The road essentially went between Djebel Berda and Keddab Ridge before curving northwest to El Guettar. South of the town was the Chott El Guettar salt lake. Its eastern side bordered an expanse of marshy ground impassable to vehicles. Just north of the road was Hill 336, also called Wop Hill. The 18th Regiment’s command post was there.

The 601st was positioned just north of the road overlooking it, assigned to protect two artillery battalions moved forward to support the advance. Baker deployed his B and C Companies in front of the artillery positions and placed Company A overlooking the road from the hillside to the north. A line of outposts in front of B and C Companies were occupied by two reconnaissance platoons backed up by two M3s and several of the M6s. The various units seemed ready to continue their attack.

A Fighting Retreat

Unfortunately, the Germans were also prepared to attack, and they landed their punch first. They had perceived the damage an advance down Highway 15 could cause and sent the 10th Panzer Division forward. The 10th Panzer was one of the strongest units the Axis had left, though it was hardly at full strength with only 57 tanks and about the same number of lighter armored vehicles, such as half-tracks and armored cars. The tanks were supported by both infantry and artillery, and some air support was also available to the Germans.

The first sign of the impending assault came at 0445, when a German motorcyclist rode into the line of reconnaissance platoon outposts and was captured. When questioned, he stated the 10th Panzer Division was going to attack at 0500. Word was quickly passed up to the division headquarters, and the tank destroyer men prepared to receive this attack in the scant few minutes they had left.

Baker was concerned about his deployments. He had set out his companies to protect the artillery primarily against infantry deployments, not a concerted attack by armor. Still, he kept his soldiers where they were. The enemy could not come down the road without exposing itself to the fire of A and B Companies, and the marshy ground near the salt lake would keep any armored vehicles from moving out of range. If the Germans moved off the road to the north, then C Company could engage as well. There really was no time to make any movements anyway.

Within a few minutes, the men in the outpost line began to hear the sounds of armored vehicles approaching from the southeast. Their eyes strained in the moonlight to see any other sign of the enemy. Finally, they spotted 16 German tanks bearing down with several hundred infantry in support. The Americans held their fire as the mass of armor and men bore closer, then opened point-blank fire at a mere 200 yards. The reconnaissance platoons had been liberally issued with machine guns, and they now used them, pouring fire into the enemy infantry. Several of the truck-mounted 37mm guns on the M6s joined in, firing canister rounds at the foot soldiers and armor-piercing rounds at the tanks.

While the German infantry took heavy casualties, the tanks kept moving forward, impervious to the rounds fired at them. They replied with their own guns, the experienced Afrika Korps soldiers seeking out American vehicles with tracer fire from their machine guns. It was a proven tactic. They would fire the coaxial machine guns aboard their tanks in a wide arc. When the bullets struck the metal of an armored vehicle, the tracer rounds mixed in would ricochet up into the air, revealing its presence. The Germans would then open fire with their main gun. Two half-tracks were hit in short order. As the pressure became too great, both American platoons fell back, stopping twice to fight delaying actions before retreating to the Company A position on the hillside.

Over One Hundred German Tanks?

Dawn was beginning to creep over the eastern horizon. The German force split, with some branching off to attack the B and C Company locations while the main force continued along the highway toward El Guettar. Thirty German tanks were counted in the main group, while the Americans estimated a total force of over 100 tanks. This was, of course, more than the 10th Panzer Division had available. In the Americans’ defense, during the swirling chaos of combat it is really quite easy to overestimate the size of an enemy force. With the dust and smoke of firing and the mental stresses involved, an armored car, half-track, or even a truck can be easily mistaken for a tank.

That force must have appeared large indeed to the men of B and C Companies as it advanced toward them, the sun at its back. Each company had placed two platoons forward in line with the third platoon in reserve. The tank destroyers were hidden behind the low, rolling hills of the area. Forward observers relayed to them the approaching direction and distance of the Germans. When a crew was ready to shoot, the half-track was driven to a firing position at the top of their hill or ridge. As quickly as possible, it would fire at the enemy tank before backing down the slope out of view to await another target.

It became a deadly game of cat and mouse as the German tankers tried to seek out the continually moving American destroyers. As the Germans hunted, the accompanying infantry moved through the hills attempting to infiltrate the U.S. position. When they appeared, the Americans would fire at them with machine guns, Thompson submachine guns, and the occasional crash of a high-explosive shell from the 75mm cannon. All the while, enemy artillery crashed into the hillsides, raising huge clouds of dust and smoke. More dust was raised by the half-tracks themselves as they alternated firing positions to keep from being zeroed in on by the Germans.

Lt. Yowell’s Account of the Chaotic Battle

The scene quickly devolved into the hell of combat, the booming of cannon, the chatter of machine guns and Thompsons, the screams of the wounded and dying, everything obscured by dust and haze. The action soon became so intense that to keep up their fire on the closing German tanks, the tank destroyer crews were increasingly forced to stay in one firing position too long. This allowed the enemy easier shots, and one after another, tank destroyers were hit, many of them burning.

One of Lt. Col. Baker’s platoon leaders, a Lieutenant Yowell, was in command of B Company’s Third Platoon during this action. His report highlighted the confusion and closeness of the fighting. As the Germans approached at dawn, they closed to within 1,000 yards but were largely hidden by the terrain. Yowell repositioned several of his M3s to new firing points to better engage them.

He wrote, “Sergeant Raymond maneuvered his gun and destroyed a Pz VI [Tiger I] with six rounds, four of which bounced off the heavy armor. Sergeant Raymond fired one more round, at the same range, at a following tank, Pz IV, and it caught fire immediately. His halftrack was destroyed before he could fire another round.”

Raymond’s tank destroyer was hit three times and caught fire he had made the mistake of firing seven times from the same location, though with the intensity of the fighting he likely had little choice. The crew bailed out and reported to Yowell, who sent them to the rear on foot. The other three M3s of his platoon kept up their fire on the Germans.

“I saw Corporal Hamel destroy a Pz IV, and Sergeant Nesmith knocked the turret off a Pz IV at about one thousand yards range,” Yowell reported. “Enemy infantry came in very close and their tanks were laying smoke while they brought up line after line of tanks. I estimated from four to five lines, with fifteen to twenty tanks in each line. There were tanks in groups of sixes and a column of tanks along the southeastern ridge, also. There were over one hundred tanks. I am sure of this.”

Yowell’s account illustrates the chaos of the engagement his identification of the Pz VI Tiger tank indicates that a company of the German 501st Heavy Tank Battalion, attached to the 10th Panzer, was present at El Guettar that day. The other platoons of B and C Companies fought in much the same manner over the course of the morning, exchanging fire with platoon-sized elements of German tanks and fending off their infantry with a combination of machine-gun and cannon fire.

Breaking the German Momentum

The American artillery just behind the two tank destroyer units was engaged mainly in supporting the infantry in the surrounding hills, but the guns were able to occasionally fire into the Germans advancing in front of them. The shellfire was ineffective against the tanks but it did force the armored vehicles and infantry to spread out.

As this action was taking place, the main Axis force of 30 tanks was moving toward El Guettar, clustered around Highway 15, moving past B and C Companies and into the range of A Company. The German tank crews spotted the Americans on the hillside and called on their artillery, which fired a thick barrage of smoke rounds onto A Company. When the cloud dissipated, the German armor was still 2,200 yards away, extreme range for the M3s. The enemy column was getting too close to El Guettar and the supplies the division had stockpiled there. Baker ordered the company to open fire despite the distance, hoping to repel the Germans before they could threaten the town.

Things now began to go badly for the Germans. Though they managed to hit one tank destroyer, the incoming fire was too heavy for them and they began to skirt farther to the south in an attempt to get out of range of the Americans on the hill. When they did so, they ran into two obstacles: the marshy ground south of the road and a minefield laid earlier in a dry lake bed. Their momentum ruined, the Germans started to withdraw, pausing to hook tow cables to half of the eight burning or wrecked tanks that now littered the ground below Company A.

Baker noticed with respect the superior German ability to recover their losses on the battlefield and under fire, something his unit was as yet unable to do. The remaining tanks, dragging their disabled fellows behind them, limped away to the east. The threat to El Guettar was, for the moment, over.

The fleeing Germans were not completely done, however. Those tanks that were still battleworthy turned north and joined their brethren who were still attacking B and C Companies. Yowell watched them.

“They fanned out and started toward us. All this time, Staff Sergeant Shima was keeping a steady stream of .50 caliber machine gun bullets on the infantry. He also pointed out tank targets with his tracers….”

Sergeant Nesmith’s half-track was hit but could still move. One of his men was killed, and the rest of the crew was wounded. Within moments it was hit again, knocking it out of action for good. Another M3 was hit shortly afterward but without casualties. Yowell ordered the crew to transfer its ammunition to one of the still operational tank destroyers. As the two crews busily passed 75mm rounds, the receiving M3 was hit as well. Yowell was down to two working half-tracks and very little ammunition. He pulled them back to the next ridge and continued the desperate fight.

“Death Valley”

Above the valley floor, soon to be christened “Death Valley” by the Americans, Captain Sam Carter of the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment had watched the entire battle unfold from before dawn. “There were red, white and blue tracers being fired…. Soon these colors were joined by green, purple, yellow and orange tracers. Soon after this the larger guns began firing. It appeared that every time there were point ricochets these would be followed by the large caliber guns. It was very dark at this time and nothing could be seen except the source of this large volume of fire slowly moving westward … daylight started breaking and before us in the valley was an entire panzer division.”

As Carter watched, the tanks moved toward the American lines in a giant armored square, mixed in with other armored vehicles and infantry. Once the sun rose over the eastern horizon, the artillery fire started and he had a ringside seat to the 601st’s fight for its life.

“Soon the valley was just a mass of guns shooting, shells bursting, armored vehicles burning and tanks moving steadily westward,” Carter would later write. “We sat in awe watching the attack….” At the same time, he and his men were worried if the German attack succeeded, the battalion would be cut off. Fortunately, Carter also got to see the German tanks run into the minefield and take the flanking fire of the tank destroyers.

Finally, at about noon the remaining German tanks gave up the fight and withdrew, a few of them taking up hasty defensive position to the east, out of range of the tank destroyers. Carter also saw the German tank crews dismount to recover their disabled vehicles. “This was done in the midst of artillery fire which did not seem to faze those working outside the tanks at all,” he commented.

After a while, a number of M10 tank destroyers, improved models with a 3-inch gun mounted in a turret, came moving down the road from El Guettar. The German tanks that had taken up defensive positions quickly moved to hull-down firing points, only their turrets showing. Several of the M10s were quickly knocked out, and the rest fled to cover. At about the same time, Carter saw a group of German prisoners being led in. Many of them were crying. When the American officer asked them why they were weeping, they told him this battle had been the first time they had ever been stopped by mere artillery and infantry.

Down below, the field now became quiet as the fighting seemed to pause. The 601st had taken heavy losses in both men and vehicles. Both the artillery battalions they were screening had been forced to spike their guns and retreat. Shortly after noon, some of the tank destroyer men saw an American half-track towing a small gun approach. Thinking it a separated group of U.S. troops, they held their fire. When it was still 400 yards from the 601st line, the half-track stopped and seven Germans jumped out. As they started to set up their cannon, a tank destroyer crew scrambled to its own gun. The Americans fired three rounds, setting the captured half-track ablaze and killing five of the enemy soldiers. The remaining two fled but were found hiding in a ditch and taken prisoner.

Panzergrenadiers Driven Back

Little else happened until 1500, when a swarm of German planes appeared overhead and began strafing and bombing the American positions. The 601st replied with its few .50-caliber machine guns. Shortly afterward, a message came down from the division headquarters. A German message had been intercepted ordering another attack for 1600 hours. Shortly afterward, another message informed of a delay to 1640 so that German artillery could get into position. The now depleted battalion prepared to meet the enemy for a second time that day.

When the appointed time came, men of the 601st saw what looked like two battalions of infantry advance with tanks behind them. In actuality, it was two battalions of panzergrenadiers along with a motorcycle battalion and the remains of two tank battalions behind them. The artillery battalion that had caused the delay had arrived and was in support. The enemy infantry moved forward smartly, but the tanks held back. Baker guessed they were waiting for the infantry to clear the way. They would never get the chance the Americans were ready for them.

The German foot soldiers had closed to 1,500 yards when the U.S. artillery opened fire, raining down a hell of exploding steel. Both 105mm and 155mm guns went into action, their shells armed with time fuses set to detonate above the ground. This spread the shrapnel in a wider, deadlier arc. The incoming rounds burst in puffs of black smoke directly over the heads of the attacking Germans. Scores of them fell.

The 601st joined in with its remaining weapons. Machine-gun fire raked the enemy, 75mm high explosive shells dropped on them, adding to what the field artillery was already doing. Baker watched as one of his sergeants “bracketed rapidly and fired as fast as he could, making 5-mil deflection changes. He dropped high-explosive shells at 7-yard intervals across the German lines.”

Soon, the Nazi troops could take no more they ran for the cover of a ridgeline behind them. That placed them safely out of the tank destroyers’ fire, but the American artillery was not done yet. It continued to fire onto the reverse slope of the ridge and finished the job. The few survivors stole off to rejoin the tanks and retreat. For the 601st, the day’s fighting was over.

37 Panzers Knocked Out, 200 German Infantry Casualties

As darkness spread over the battlefield, the 601st took stock of its situation. Fourteen men had been killed. Of the 31 M3s that had started the battle, 21 had been knocked out. Only eight of them were repairable. One of the tiny M6s had been lost also, as well as nine trucks and four regular half-tracks. Several of the trucks had been hit while scrambling across the battlefield to deliver ammunition. Besides those losses, the unit’s ammunition expenditure showed how intense the fighting had been. The battalion’s normal load of 75mm ammunition was 2,844 rounds. It had expended 2,740, as well as nearly 50,000 rounds of small-arms ammo.

To show for it all, 37 German tanks had been knocked out or disabled, with the 601st getting credit for 30 of these. The rest were attributed to mines and artillery fire. The tank destroyer unit was also credited with 200 of the German infantry casualties. On a battlefield as chaotic as that of El Guettar, the exact cause of casualties or destroyed vehicles is open to speculation, but there is no doubt the 601st did its share of the work that day. General Allen gave the battalion credit for protecting the 1st Division’s vulnerable supply lines.

The German spoiling attack at El Guettar was a difficult fight for the Americans. Not everything had gone well, and losses had been sustained. They had taken the Afrika Korp’s best shot, however, and they had not given way. It was an impressive display after the previous defeats at Kasserine and elsewhere. While preparing for an offensive move, the 1st Infantry Division and the attached 601st had itself been attacked and forced on the defensive by a heavily armored enemy force.


Manstein’s [Backhand] Counterattack 1943

At the head of a redesignated Army Group South in February 1943, Manstein broke into the Soviet flank when Joseph Stalin pressed the Stavka into an overextended reach for a line along the Dnieper. Manstein counterattacked and drove large Red Army formations back to a branch of the Donets. In mid-March 1943, he retook Kharkov and Belgorod. He was not permitted further gains because of logistical demands of the larger German build-up leading to ZITADELLE later that summer and because the Wehrmacht was overextended along the entire Eastern Front.

The Stavka hoped to use large Soviet Fronts freed by the German surrender at Stalingrad to destroy Army Group Center in a great pincer movement, and thereby split the Eastern Front in half. Tank and infantry armies from the Stavka reserve were added to Central Front under Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky other armies were shipped north by rail from Stalingrad. The operation was delayed over two weeks by transport and logistics problems. Before Rokossovsky launched the main attack, Soviet forces in the Donbas were already reeling backward from Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s brilliantly executed counterattack. An assault by Western Front under General Ivan Bagramian also failed. Rokossovsky attacked anyway and enjoyed early success. However, reinforcements from Stalingrad were slow to arrive. Worse, Manstein destroyed Voronezh Front outside Kharkov, drawing reinforcements away from Rokossovsky. Meanwhile, German abandonment of the Rzhev balcony farther south freed two armies to bite into Rokossovsky’s exposed flank. On March 7 Rokossovsky redirected his offensive against the less ambitious target of the Orel salient, but even that reduced effort was stalled by tough resistance. From March 23 Rokossovsky pulled back into defensive positions to consolidate his exposed flanks. These positions subsequently formed the north and center of the Soviet lines defended that summer at Kursk. Even participants later confessed that the operation was a huge error, from conception to execution. Rokossovsky said of it: “Appetites prevailed over possibilities.”

THIRD BATTLE OF KHARKOV, (FEBRUARY-MARCH, 1943)

A major Soviet intelligence failure led to the conclusion that the Wehrmacht lacked reserves and was withdrawing behind the Dnieper River. In fact, three elite Waffen-SS Panzer divisions had been brought east from France. Field Marshal Erich von Manstein unexpectedly counterattacked toward Kharkov on February 19. Well-supported by the Luftwaffe, he drove elements of two Panzerarmee, the 1st and 4th, into the flanks of advancing Soviet spearheads. “Special Group Popov” was quickly surrounded and wiped out while another pincer was blunted before it could reach the Dnieper. SS 2nd Panzer Corps retook Kharkov on March 14 the city had fallen to the Red Army on February 16. Voronezh Front was propelled backwards to Belgorod, then held. Manstein’s mobile successes were later much admired, not least by himself, and upheld as models of skilled operational art. His maneuvers certainly interrupted and contributed to the failure of two Soviet offensive operations, one in the high north and the other reaching for the Dnieper: STAR and GALLOP. Manstein also bled four more Soviet armies, while his counteroffensive straitened part of the German line and recovered a previously broken southern position. However, the main factor in the Soviet defeat was that Stalin and the Stavka simultaneously conducted too many large operations too far forward of bases just established during the Stalingrad campaign. In short, the Soviets overreached in early 1943 following their victory at Stalingrad, as they had also done in January 1942, upon winning in front of Moscow. By rushing forward more reserves to stop Manstein’s counteroffensive, a large bulge was created in the line around the junction town of Kursk. That fact invited the Wehrmacht to attack later in the year, in the overly ambitious Operation ZITADELLE. The Third Battle of Kharkov thus set the stage for the greater Battle of Kursk in midsummer, which was followed by the even more decisive Soviet counteroffensives KUTUZOV and RUMIANTSEV.

GALLOP (FEBRUARY 1943) “Skachok.”

A failed Red Army offensive operation that endeavored to dash ahead to seize several crossings over the Mius River then drive hard for the Sea of Azov, while a second Soviet pincer reached and bounced the Dnieper. The gallop for the Mius was undertaken by “Special Group Popov,” a task force comprising several tank corps and mobile infantry divisions. The Dnieper pincer was composed of 1st Guards Army and the armies of 6th Front. All these formations were combat weary and at the end of stretched lines of resupply and communication. There were few reserves because Operation POLAR STAR and the Orel-Briansk offensive operation were launched around the same time. Worse for the attackers, Soviet intelligence failed to perceive a Wehrmacht build-up of Panzer reserves in the area. GALLOP failed when the Red Army was caught off guard as hidden Panzers unexpectedly counterattacked, beginning the Third Battle of Kharkov on February 19. Most of Special Group Popov was encircled and wiped out. Elsewhere, 4th Panzer Army blunted the other Soviet pincer as it stretched for the Dnieper crossings.


61 Sqn Aircraft codes

For some time now I have been collection ORB information for 61 Sqn. The real challenge has been correcting the errors in the information and finding the missing. The ORB doesn’t list the aircraft codes, but I have been collecting the information. With a few exceptions I have all the codes for 1944 and 1945 but I am still missing some from 1943 and quite a few from 1942.
I have just about exhausted all searches using google and I am now concentrating on Aircrew Logbooks in the hope that the members recorded the aircraft code as well as the serial number. There have been several successes most notably the Logbook of Charlie Williams WOP and Flt Lt Casement Pilot.
Most recently I found the code for ED717 which was thought to be QR-S but then I found this article:
https://ww2aircraft.net/forum/threads/t . 16/page-25

13 April 1943

WESTERN FRONT: 24 Venturas bombed railway targets at Abbeville and Caen but most of the bombs missed their targets. No aircraft were lost.

208 Lancasters and 3 Halifaxes bombed the dock area of La Spezia and caused heavy damage. 4 Lancasters were lost and 3 more, either damaged or in mechanical difficulty, flew on to land at Allied airfields in North Africa. It is believed that this was the first occasion that the recently captured North African airfields were used for Bomber Command aircraft in distress. The 3 Lancasters flew back to England later. This target was regarded as at maximum range therefore the balance between fuel and bomb load was critical. Max Chivers and his crew in Lancaster ED717 QR-N of 61 Squadron crossed the French coast at 20,000 feet when it was attacked by 2 German night fighters which were outwitted by the two gunners and the violent corkscrew maneuver by the pilot. The navigator was asked for a new course to the target when the wireless operator told the pilot that the navigator was unwell and was unable thereafter to do his duty. As they were half way to the target they decided to continue the operation. Two hours later the target was nearing and despite the fact that most of the Main Force had left the pilot from 8000 feet made his bombing run. On clearing the target area they set a north westerly course and headed for home. Four hours after leaving the area the flight engineer reported a serious loss of fuel possibly due to flak damage. They had been in the air for almost ten hours but decided to make for an emergency landing in the south of England. An hour later, almost out of fuel, they prepared to ditch somewhere between Cherbourg and the Isle of Wight. The impact broke the back of the aircraft but it floated long enough for the crew to clamber into the aircraft's dinghy. Unfortunately the emergency radio was left in the aircraft so their only hope was that an Air-Sea Rescue launch would pick them up. For two days they drifted but on the third day they were spotted by a Whitley bomber of Coastal Command. Later that day they were rescued by a launch. They were given a great reception by the sailors and were taken to their base on the Isles of Scilly. After recovery the crew, except for the navigator, returned to RAF Syerston to continue their tour of operations. The pilot, Flying Officer Max Chivers, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and all the crew became members of the Goldfish Club.

The International Bomber Command Centre has a digital copy of Madgett logbook who was lost on his last operation. Madgett did not record codes in his logbook but some kind chap had filled the relevant details of his final flight and you can see “ED661R”.
I also obtained a list of 61 Sqn Logbooks held by the RAF Museum. In the list I identified many aircraft with missing codes against individuals logbooks. I manage two hits against the following individuals:
ObjectM10562 Navigator's flying logbook of Flt Lt Norman James Grant, DFC, RNZAF, 1941-1945
H/332/0501/00002
Content NoteOne copy in Reading Room.
83 Squadron, 28 January 1942-28 July 1942.
61 Squadron, 2 September 1942-8 December 1942.
166 Squadron, 5 June 1944-18 July 1945.
Production Date02 Feb 1941-18 Jul 1945
Classification (short)AIRCREW (OTHER THAN PILOT) FLYING LOG BOOK
22 November 1942 W4317 QR-? Aircraft Captain BAKER W Result QR-Y

Classification (short) AIRCREW (OTHER THAN PILOT) FLYING LOG BOOK
Object 07:47:44 07 FEB 2020
55 records Page 2
Object Member MF10028/8 Pilot's flying log book of Wg Cdr P. Ward Hunt, 1937-1945 No Location
Recorded
Content Note Includes service with 106 Squadron, February-November 1939 49 Squadron, December 1939-October
1940 16 OTU, November 1940-July 1941 207 Squadron, August 1941-March 1942 (?) 61/106 Squadron,
1943.
Production Date 11 May 1937-30 May 1945
13,14 & 16 February 1943 DS612 QR-? Result 13 Feb 43 QR-J, 14, 16 Feb 43 DS612 QR-P

I have ascertained from the only three aircraft available to fill the QR-J is W4381.

Currently, I am searching for the Logbook of Wing Commander Cecil DFC (Gascoyne-Cecil) in the hope that he recorded aircraft codes.


Operation Wop, 16-23 March 1943 - History

By Christopher Miskimon

In the early morning hours of March 23, 1943, the U.S. 1st Infantry Division was preparing to attack. The unit was arrayed east of the Tunisian town of El Guettar, roughly 50 miles south of the now famous Kasserine Pass, where the U.S. Army had suffered a sharp defeat just a month earlier.

Kasserine had been a heavy blow to the novice American Army, determined but still learning its deadly trade through costly lessons. Now, that Army had its feet under it again and was on the move. Advances over the previous week had left it in possession of El Guettar and now the division was poised to advance farther. To the southeast, the British Eighth Army, under the command of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, had chased the Axis forces all the way from Egypt and now was being held up at the Mareth Line, a stoutly defended fortified position.
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To relieve pressure on the Eighth Army, the U.S. 2nd Corps, of which the 1st Infantry Division was a part, was ordered to attack down Highway 15, a road leading east from El Guettar toward the enemy-held town of Gabes. At worst, this would draw some Axis troops away from Mareth and make it easier for the British. At best, if the Americans could break through to the sea it would cut off large numbers of German and Italian soldiers from their comrades to the north in Tunis. So it was that the “Big Red One,” as the 1st Infantry Division was known, was poised to attack on the morning of the 23rd.

Attached to the division was the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion, there to bolster the infantry’s ability to engage the German tanks that had been so skillfully used against the Allied forces. On this day it would find itself fighting for its life against the battle-hardened 10th Panzer Division as it launched a preemptive spoiling attack against the Americans. (A spoiling attack occurs when the enemy, anticipating an offensive move, attacks first, thus “spoiling” the impending assault.)

The 601st would prove instrumental in beating off this move, showing that the U.S. Army was in fact learning its lessons, honing itself into the weapon it needed to be to inflict final defeat on Nazi Germany.

The GMCs of the 601st

The 601st was a standard tank destroyer battalion for its day. Commanded by Lt. Col. H.D. Baker, the unit was equipped mainly with the M3 Gun Motor Carriage (GMC), a standard M3 half-track hastily converted into a tank destroyer with the addition of a 75mm M1897 cannon, the “French 75” of World War I fame. The vehicle had been intended only as a stopgap weapon to train American troops until a purpose-built design could be produced.

When Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942, found the Army still short of weapons, several tank destroyer battalions, including the 601st, nevertheless went into action with it. The M3 was a reliable vehicle, and its cannon packed a good punch, able to penetrate three inches of armor at 1,000 yards, respectable at that point in the war. On the down side, the vehicle had thin armor and the gun was not fully enclosed. The crew was protected only by a thin gun shield, leaving it vulnerable to artillery and flanking fire.

The battalion had a few M6 GMCs as well. This was a Fargo ¾-ton truck mounting a 37mm light antitank gun on the bed. The 37mm weapon was obsolete by this stage of the war, and the crew was likewise dangerously exposed. Most commanders had learned to keep them in the rear out of harm’s way. On March 23, the 601st had 31 M3s (out of 36 assigned) and five M6s serviceable. The rest had been lost during previous actions. The tank destroyers were thus divided into three companies, A, B, and C. The battalion also had logistical and reconnaissance elements to round out its strength.

The Road to El Guettar

In the preceding few days, the 1st Division had taken Gafsa and El Guettar before seizing the hills immediately east of the latter town. Also attached to the division was the 1st Ranger Battalion under the command of Colonel William O. Darby. The Rangers, along with the Big Red One’s 18th Infantry Regiment, had cleared Axis troops from the area. That done, the division commander, General Terry Allen, readied his command for its next advance toward Gabes.

The 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 18th were sited south of Highway 15 on the Djebel Berda. The rest of the division’s infantry battalions were deployed along the Keddab Ridge, which rose from the ground just north of the road. The 3rd Battalion of the 18th, 3rd of the 16th Infantry, and the 26th Infantry Regiment were set up from south to north, respectively. The rest of the 16th was either in reserve in El Guettar or back in Gafsa. The road essentially went between Djebel Berda and Keddab Ridge before curving northwest to El Guettar. South of the town was the Chott El Guettar salt lake. Its eastern side bordered an expanse of marshy ground impassable to vehicles. Just north of the road was Hill 336, also called Wop Hill. The 18th Regiment’s command post was there.

The 601st was positioned just north of the road overlooking it, assigned to protect two artillery battalions moved forward to support the advance. Baker deployed his B and C Companies in front of the artillery positions and placed Company A overlooking the road from the hillside to the north. A line of outposts in front of B and C Companies were occupied by two reconnaissance platoons backed up by two M3s and several of the M6s. The various units seemed ready to continue their attack.

A Fighting Retreat

Unfortunately, the Germans were also prepared to attack, and they landed their punch first. They had perceived the damage an advance down Highway 15 could cause and sent the 10th Panzer Division forward. The 10th Panzer was one of the strongest units the Axis had left, though it was hardly at full strength with only 57 tanks and about the same number of lighter armored vehicles, such as half-tracks and armored cars. The tanks were supported by both infantry and artillery, and some air support was also available to the Germans.

The first sign of the impending assault came at 0445, when a German motorcyclist rode into the line of reconnaissance platoon outposts and was captured. When questioned, he stated the 10th Panzer Division was going to attack at 0500. Word was quickly passed up to the division headquarters, and the tank destroyer men prepared to receive this attack in the scant few minutes they had left.

Baker was concerned about his deployments. He had set out his companies to protect the artillery primarily against infantry deployments, not a concerted attack by armor. Still, he kept his soldiers where they were. The enemy could not come down the road without exposing itself to the fire of A and B Companies, and the marshy ground near the salt lake would keep any armored vehicles from moving out of range. If the Germans moved off the road to the north, then C Company could engage as well. There really was no time to make any movements anyway.

Within a few minutes, the men in the outpost line began to hear the sounds of armored vehicles approaching from the southeast. Their eyes strained in the moonlight to see any other sign of the enemy. Finally, they spotted 16 German tanks bearing down with several hundred infantry in support. The Americans held their fire as the mass of armor and men bore closer, then opened point-blank fire at a mere 200 yards. The reconnaissance platoons had been liberally issued with machine guns, and they now used them, pouring fire into the enemy infantry. Several of the truck-mounted 37mm guns on the M6s joined in, firing canister rounds at the foot soldiers and armor-piercing rounds at the tanks.

While the German infantry took heavy casualties, the tanks kept moving forward, impervious to the rounds fired at them. They replied with their own guns, the experienced Afrika Korps soldiers seeking out American vehicles with tracer fire from their machine guns. It was a proven tactic. They would fire the coaxial machine guns aboard their tanks in a wide arc. When the bullets struck the metal of an armored vehicle, the tracer rounds mixed in would ricochet up into the air, revealing its presence. The Germans would then open fire with their main gun. Two half-tracks were hit in short order. As the pressure became too great, both American platoons fell back, stopping twice to fight delaying actions before retreating to the Company A position on the hillside.

This map of the El Guettar battlefield shows the deployment of the American 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion and other units along with the German 10th Panzer Division.

Over One Hundred German Tanks?

Dawn was beginning to creep over the eastern horizon. The German force split, with some branching off to attack the B and C Company locations while the main force continued along the highway toward El Guettar. Thirty German tanks were counted in the main group, while the Americans estimated a total force of over 100 tanks. This was, of course, more than the 10th Panzer Division had available. In the Americans’ defense, during the swirling chaos of combat it is really quite easy to overestimate the size of an enemy force. With the dust and smoke of firing and the mental stresses involved, an armored car, half-track, or even a truck can be easily mistaken for a tank.

That force must have appeared large indeed to the men of B and C Companies as it advanced toward them, the sun at its back. Each company had placed two platoons forward in line with the third platoon in reserve. The tank destroyers were hidden behind the low, rolling hills of the area. Forward observers relayed to them the approaching direction and distance of the Germans. When a crew was ready to shoot, the half-track was driven to a firing position at the top of their hill or ridge. As quickly as possible, it would fire at the enemy tank before backing down the slope out of view to await another target.

It became a deadly game of cat and mouse as the German tankers tried to seek out the continually moving American destroyers. As the Germans hunted, the accompanying infantry moved through the hills attempting to infiltrate the U.S. position. When they appeared, the Americans would fire at them with machine guns, Thompson submachine guns, and the occasional crash of a high-explosive shell from the 75mm cannon. All the while, enemy artillery crashed into the hillsides, raising huge clouds of dust and smoke. More dust was raised by the half-tracks themselves as they alternated firing positions to keep from being zeroed in on by the Germans.

Lt. Yowell’s Account of the Chaotic Battle

The scene quickly devolved into the hell of combat, the booming of cannon, the chatter of machine guns and Thompsons, the screams of the wounded and dying, everything obscured by dust and haze. The action soon became so intense that to keep up their fire on the closing German tanks, the tank destroyer crews were increasingly forced to stay in one firing position too long. This allowed the enemy easier shots, and one after another, tank destroyers were hit, many of them burning.

One of Lt. Col. Baker’s platoon leaders, a Lieutenant Yowell, was in command of B Company’s Third Platoon during this action. His report highlighted the confusion and closeness of the fighting. As the Germans approached at dawn, they closed to within 1,000 yards but were largely hidden by the terrain. Yowell repositioned several of his M3s to new firing points to better engage them.

He wrote, “Sergeant Raymond maneuvered his gun and destroyed a Pz VI [Tiger I] with six rounds, four of which bounced off the heavy armor. Sergeant Raymond fired one more round, at the same range, at a following tank, Pz IV, and it caught fire immediately. His halftrack was destroyed before he could fire another round.”

Raymond’s tank destroyer was hit three times and caught fire he had made the mistake of firing seven times from the same location, though with the intensity of the fighting he likely had little choice. The crew bailed out and reported to Yowell, who sent them to the rear on foot. The other three M3s of his platoon kept up their fire on the Germans.

“I saw Corporal Hamel destroy a Pz IV, and Sergeant Nesmith knocked the turret off a Pz IV at about one thousand yards range,” Yowell reported. “Enemy infantry came in very close and their tanks were laying smoke while they brought up line after line of tanks. I estimated from four to five lines, with fifteen to twenty tanks in each line. There were tanks in groups of sixes and a column of tanks along the southeastern ridge, also. There were over one hundred tanks. I am sure of this.”

Yowell’s account illustrates the chaos of the engagement his identification of the Pz VI Tiger tank indicates that a company of the German 501st Heavy Tank Battalion, attached to the 10th Panzer, was present at El Guettar that day. The other platoons of B and C Companies fought in much the same manner over the course of the morning, exchanging fire with platoon-sized elements of German tanks and fending off their infantry with a combination of machine-gun and cannon fire.

Breaking the German Momentum

The American artillery just behind the two tank destroyer units was engaged mainly in supporting the infantry in the surrounding hills, but the guns were able to occasionally fire into the Germans advancing in front of them. The shellfire was ineffective against the tanks but it did force the armored vehicles and infantry to spread out.

As this action was taking place, the main Axis force of 30 tanks was moving toward El Guettar, clustered around Highway 15, moving past B and C Companies and into the range of A Company. The German tank crews spotted the Americans on the hillside and called on their artillery, which fired a thick barrage of smoke rounds onto A Company. When the cloud dissipated, the German armor was still 2,200 yards away, extreme range for the M3s. The enemy column was getting too close to El Guettar and the supplies the division had stockpiled there. Baker ordered the company to open fire despite the distance, hoping to repel the Germans before they could threaten the town.

Tunisia – April 1, 1943: American soldiers looking over destroyed German equipment after the battle of El Guettar.

Things now began to go badly for the Germans. Though they managed to hit one tank destroyer, the incoming fire was too heavy for them and they began to skirt farther to the south in an attempt to get out of range of the Americans on the hill. When they did so, they ran into two obstacles: the marshy ground south of the road and a minefield laid earlier in a dry lake bed. Their momentum ruined, the Germans started to withdraw, pausing to hook tow cables to half of the eight burning or wrecked tanks that now littered the ground below Company A.

Baker noticed with respect the superior German ability to recover their losses on the battlefield and under fire, something his unit was as yet unable to do. The remaining tanks, dragging their disabled fellows behind them, limped away to the east. The threat to El Guettar was, for the moment, over.

The fleeing Germans were not completely done, however. Those tanks that were still battleworthy turned north and joined their brethren who were still attacking B and C Companies. Yowell watched them.

“They fanned out and started toward us. All this time, Staff Sergeant Shima was keeping a steady stream of .50 caliber machine gun bullets on the infantry. He also pointed out tank targets with his tracers….”

Sergeant Nesmith’s half-track was hit but could still move. One of his men was killed, and the rest of the crew was wounded. Within moments it was hit again, knocking it out of action for good. Another M3 was hit shortly afterward but without casualties. Yowell ordered the crew to transfer its ammunition to one of the still operational tank destroyers. As the two crews busily passed 75mm rounds, the receiving M3 was hit as well. Yowell was down to two working half-tracks and very little ammunition. He pulled them back to the next ridge and continued the desperate fight.

“Death Valley”

Above the valley floor, soon to be christened “Death Valley” by the Americans, Captain Sam Carter of the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment had watched the entire battle unfold from before dawn. “There were red, white and blue tracers being fired…. Soon these colors were joined by green, purple, yellow and orange tracers. Soon after this the larger guns began firing. It appeared that every time there were point ricochets these would be followed by the large caliber guns. It was very dark at this time and nothing could be seen except the source of this large volume of fire slowly moving westward … daylight started breaking and before us in the valley was an entire panzer division.”

As Carter watched, the tanks moved toward the American lines in a giant armored square, mixed in with other armored vehicles and infantry. Once the sun rose over the eastern horizon, the artillery fire started and he had a ringside seat to the 601st’s fight for its life.

“Soon the valley was just a mass of guns shooting, shells bursting, armored vehicles burning and tanks moving steadily westward,” Carter would later write. “We sat in awe watching the attack….” At the same time, he and his men were worried if the German attack succeeded, the battalion would be cut off. Fortunately, Carter also got to see the German tanks run into the minefield and take the flanking fire of the tank destroyers.

Finally, at about noon the remaining German tanks gave up the fight and withdrew, a few of them taking up hasty defensive position to the east, out of range of the tank destroyers. Carter also saw the German tank crews dismount to recover their disabled vehicles. “This was done in the midst of artillery fire which did not seem to faze those working outside the tanks at all,” he commented.

After a while, a number of M10 tank destroyers, improved models with a 3-inch gun mounted in a turret, came moving down the road from El Guettar. The German tanks that had taken up defensive positions quickly moved to hull-down firing points, only their turrets showing. Several of the M10s were quickly knocked out, and the rest fled to cover. At about the same time, Carter saw a group of German prisoners being led in. Many of them were crying. When the American officer asked them why they were weeping, they told him this battle had been the first time they had ever been stopped by mere artillery and infantry.

Down below, the field now became quiet as the fighting seemed to pause. The 601st had taken heavy losses in both men and vehicles. Both the artillery battalions they were screening had been forced to spike their guns and retreat. Shortly after noon, some of the tank destroyer men saw an American half-track towing a small gun approach. Thinking it a separated group of U.S. troops, they held their fire. When it was still 400 yards from the 601st line, the half-track stopped and seven Germans jumped out. As they started to set up their cannon, a tank destroyer crew scrambled to its own gun. The Americans fired three rounds, setting the captured half-track ablaze and killing five of the enemy soldiers. The remaining two fled but were found hiding in a ditch and taken prisoner.

Panzergrenadiers Driven Back

Little else happened until 1500, when a swarm of German planes appeared overhead and began strafing and bombing the American positions. The 601st replied with its few .50-caliber machine guns. Shortly afterward, a message came down from the division headquarters. A German message had been intercepted ordering another attack for 1600 hours. Shortly afterward, another message informed of a delay to 1640 so that German artillery could get into position. The now depleted battalion prepared to meet the enemy for a second time that day.

When the appointed time came, men of the 601st saw what looked like two battalions of infantry advance with tanks behind them. In actuality, it was two battalions of panzergrenadiers along with a motorcycle battalion and the remains of two tank battalions behind them. The artillery battalion that had caused the delay had arrived and was in support. The enemy infantry moved forward smartly, but the tanks held back. Baker guessed they were waiting for the infantry to clear the way. They would never get the chance the Americans were ready for them.

The German foot soldiers had closed to 1,500 yards when the U.S. artillery opened fire, raining down a hell of exploding steel. Both 105mm and 155mm guns went into action, their shells armed with time fuses set to detonate above the ground. This spread the shrapnel in a wider, deadlier arc. The incoming rounds burst in puffs of black smoke directly over the heads of the attacking Germans. Scores of them fell.

On the morning of March 21, 1943, soldiers of Company D, 18th Infantry Regiment dig slit trenches in preparation for combat with the German 10th Panzer Division south of El Guettar.

The 601st joined in with its remaining weapons. Machine-gun fire raked the enemy, 75mm high explosive shells dropped on them, adding to what the field artillery was already doing. Baker watched as one of his sergeants “bracketed rapidly and fired as fast as he could, making 5-mil deflection changes. He dropped high-explosive shells at 7-yard intervals across the German lines.”

Soon, the Nazi troops could take no more they ran for the cover of a ridgeline behind them. That placed them safely out of the tank destroyers’ fire, but the American artillery was not done yet. It continued to fire onto the reverse slope of the ridge and finished the job. The few survivors stole off to rejoin the tanks and retreat. For the 601st, the day’s fighting was over.

37 Panzers Knocked Out, 200 German Infantry Casualties

As darkness spread over the battlefield, the 601st took stock of its situation. Fourteen men had been killed. Of the 31 M3s that had started the battle, 21 had been knocked out. Only eight of them were repairable. One of the tiny M6s had been lost also, as well as nine trucks and four regular half-tracks. Several of the trucks had been hit while scrambling across the battlefield to deliver ammunition. Besides those losses, the unit’s ammunition expenditure showed how intense the fighting had been. The battalion’s normal load of 75mm ammunition was 2,844 rounds. It had expended 2,740, as well as nearly 50,000 rounds of small-arms ammo.

To show for it all, 37 German tanks had been knocked out or disabled, with the 601st getting credit for 30 of these. The rest were attributed to mines and artillery fire. The tank destroyer unit was also credited with 200 of the German infantry casualties. On a battlefield as chaotic as that of El Guettar, the exact cause of casualties or destroyed vehicles is open to speculation, but there is no doubt the 601st did its share of the work that day. General Allen gave the battalion credit for protecting the 1st Division’s vulnerable supply lines.

The German spoiling attack at El Guettar was a difficult fight for the Americans. Not everything had gone well, and losses had been sustained. They had taken the Afrika Korp’s best shot, however, and they had not given way. It was an impressive display after the previous defeats at Kasserine and elsewhere. While preparing for an offensive move, the 1st Infantry Division and the attached 601st had itself been attacked and forced on the defensive by a heavily armored enemy force.

German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had once expressed a fear that the American, while new to war, would learn quickly. This fear was borne out in the hills east of El Guettar. The U.S. Army was learning its lessons. Soon it would be ready to teach a few of its own.

Comments

My father Michael W Stima was a tank commander 601st TD B Co and was awarded the Silver Star at that battle
The US Army was not supplied with top notched equipment at beginning of war The M3 was an inadequate tank destroyer at the time with pre WW1 French Artillery. The unit was very successful in rest of war . The Greatest Generation


Operation Ladbroke is one of the most remarkable stories of the war. It was the opening move of Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943. It saw the first mass use of glider troops by the Allied forces. Mistakes were made, losses were terrible, but the heroism of the airborne forces shone through. The seizing and holding of the Ponte Grande bridge, in particular, is the stuff of airborne legend.

The Red Devils (as their German opponents had christened them) were supported by raids on Italian heavy gun batteries by both the SAS and the Commandos. Meanwhile the main seaborne forces of General Montgomery’s Eighth Army raced to relieve the beleaguered glider men and capture the port of Syracuse.

In the following days further airborne assaults were intended to hold open a corridor for the Eighth Army, as it advanced up the coast of Sicily seizing port after port.

Less than a year later, during the D-Day invasion of Normandy, lessons learned in Sicily helped Allied airborne forces perform yet more outstanding feats of arms. Later still, at Arnhem, Montgomery repeated his strategy of an airborne-held corridor. It was a strategy first employed by the Germans during their invasion of Holland.

The story of Operation Ladbroke is an integral part of a larger history, and this website will also include stories from the wider invasion of Sicily and the history of airborne forces in the whole of World War 2.

For the story of the colour illustration in the banner at the top of this page, click here.

11 Responses to Stories and history of Operation Ladbroke, the Allied invasion of Sicily, and airborne forces in World War 2.

Hello Ian
I’ve just read with interest your letter published in the latest edition of The Eagle.
I’m sure you are aware of the recent publication of my late father’s (Staff Sergeant V. Miller) book Nothing Is Impossible by Pen & Sword, which contains his account of his time in North Africa and his part in the operation.
Regards

Yes, “Nothing is Impossible” is one of the key books about Operation Ladbroke. It’s good that it has been reissued – it deserves to stay in print. See my review here.

Many thanks for all your research on this often overlooked operation in WW2. I have found your website to be the only one to provide some real in-depth analysis and debate about the preparation, conduct and course of events in the operation. It has been fascinating to wander through the various items and different perspectives provided in your articles. Thank you also for publishing my own father’s role and story in the operation.

Hello Ian,
I’m writing to you concerning the Wellington wreck of Capo Murro.
I’m a friend of Fabio Portella, the guy who discovered the wreck underwater.
Me and Fabio 3 years ago discovered a C-47 off the coast of Syracuse, that was shot down during operation Fustian (you can see a short video here, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ajxWBlIQOIg&t=18s). After a long research we’ve managed to identified the C-47 serial no. and the crew members.
Now, I’m reading your story about the glider no. 57 and I think your hypothesis about the Wellington is very very interesting.
Have you got any document or reference about the squadron who attacked Syracuse the night of the 10th at 02:15 am?
We’d like to collect more data in order to identificate the wreck serial no.
Regards

Nicola – good to hear from you. Wellingtons from 142 Squadron bombed the Syracuse isthmus with Ortigia at 2:15am. Marcon in ‘Assalto a Tre Ponti’ p28 has an account by a pilot, plus some photos and a document. Other eye-witness accounts by glider troops appear in Chatterton’s ‘The Wings of Pegasus’ p74 and here. The operations record of 142 Squadron for 1943 can be found at the National Archives. You can download PDFs for a fee. I’m sorry, but I do not have any details of serial numbers or crew members.

I’ve done some more research. There is no record of 142 losing an aircraft, but Wellingtons from 424 and 37 were also over Syracuse that night, and both lost an aircraft. The ops records of 424 show that its planes were there at the same time as 142, but it lost no planes over Sicily. This leaves 37, one of whose planes, HE756, did indeed fail to return. Sgt W L Ball and 5 crew were posted MiA. Perhaps that is your Wellington. The ops records for 37 have not been digitized by the NA, so unless there is another source somewhere, they can only be seen at the NA in Kew.

Thanks very much for sending through some detailed information on HE756. It makes it seem highly likely that HE756 is your wreck. I made a mistake yesterday when I said 37’s ops records cannot be downloaded – they can, here. F/Sgt Ralph of 37 saw an aircraft crash “N of Cape Murro di Porco”. Although this says that the plane crashed on land, not in the sea, it does put the crash in the right area to be your wreck. The lack of any other candidates, plus the numerous eye-witness accounts by glider troops, suggest Ralph may be mistaken about the “North” part of his statement.


Watch the video: Operation Wop Clean