For the United States Army, the long road to Germany began in the mountainous deserts of Tunisia in mid-November 1942. Earlier in the month thousands of GIs had come ashore in the Vichy French territories of Morocco and Algeria. After the brief fighting with French troops ended and a political settlement had been reached, the Americans turned their attention to the east, toward the Germans and Italians. On May 13, 1943, those enemies would capitulate, ending the North African campaign. Although their British allies were seasoned veterans of the desert war, the roughly six-month period between landing and surrender would be a tough one for the U.S. forces. The newly resurgent U.S. Army was taking its first, tentative steps into the realm of modern warfare.
These soldiers had courage, ingenuity, and motivation. What they lacked was experience in ground combat against a battle-hardened, mechanized opponent. Mistakes were made and blunders committed. The GIs learned as they went and suffered accordingly, though they were fast learners. It is actually a testament to them that their first bloody lessons didn’t break them; in a few instances, their perhaps naïve boldness paid off in victory.
The Composition of Company B
A sterling example of such victory is the two-day offensive of Company B, 701st Tank Destroyer Battalion. Part of the first tank destroyer unit to see combat in North Africa, it garnered an impressive tally of enemy tanks knocked out, prisoners seized, and ground taken. What makes this feat even more astounding is that it did so without any support from its higher headquarters; no infantry, armor, or artillery support; and no intelligence whatsoever. The company commander, Captain Gilbert A. Ellman, called it the “absolute absence of any information on the enemy forces.” Nevertheless, Company B was ordered forward to carry out its mission.
Company B was organized along the standard lines of a tank destroyer company of the time. It contained three platoons, each with two sections of two tank destroyers each, for a total of four per platoon and 12 per company. Two platoons were “heavy,” equipped with the M3 tank destroyer, basically a half-track mounting a 75mm Model 1897 cannon (the famous French 75 of World War I) adapted as an antitank gun. A shield was mounted on the cannon to protect the crew from small-arms fire. The other platoon was classified as “light,” using the M6 tank destroyer, a three-quarter-ton truck that mounted a 37mm antitank gun in the bed, also with a thin armored shield.
Earlier in November, an order had been issued to replace the light tank destroyers with the larger, more effective M3s. That order came too late for the units going to North Africa, and they deployed with their M6s, which had only been intended as training vehicles rather than for combat use. Each platoon also had a headquarters section, a two-gun antiaircraft section, and a 12-man security section meant to protect the tank destroyers from enemy infantry. During the company’s mission, it also had a reconnaissance platoon attached from the battalion recon company.
Tank Destroyer Doctrine
Developed as a response to the whirlwind victories of the German blitzkrieg tactics used so effectively earlier in the war, tank destroyer doctrine of the period dictated that units would block enemy armor penetrations by quickly moving to the point of the breakthrough and using their firepower and mobility to stop the attacking tanks. This doctrine proved flawed in the face of actual German tactics, which were not simple tank attacks but combined arms assaults, with tanks acting in concert with infantry, artillery, antitank guns, and aircraft. It also assumed that field commanders, unschooled in tank destroyer doctrine, had the necessary communications links set up to warn of an enemy breakthrough and could clear jammed rear-area roads for their movement when needed and that a unit of self-propelled guns could simply sit around waiting for such an attack during combat operations.
None of these assumptions proved realistic, and it was the failure of the last assumption that resulted in Company B’s attack. As the U.S. Army moved into Tunisia, it felt its way along, hoping to seize territory and population centers as quickly as possible. This required units with mobility and speed.
By doctrine, Company B had been organized to destroy enemy armor and nothing else, but it did have some hidden strengths. While its tank destroyers were stopgap designs hurriedly placed into service until a more ideal design could be produced, the company did possess a large amount of firepower. Though lightly armored, all its guns were indeed mobile, and the security sections each platoon possessed could double as infantry in a pinch, at least in the view of those unschooled commanders. The tank destroyer men themselves were equally eager for a mission, even one that went against their training.
And so it was that Captain Ellman received his orders to take the town of Gafsa on November 22, 1942. His company had just arrived in the area of Feriana, some 47 miles northwest of Gafsa, during the night of the 21st. The previous six days had seen the company moved 1,000 miles from Oran, Algeria. The attack was ordered for dawn. Ellman prepared his unit, refueling and loading ammunition. When finished, the men were able to rest for only a mere half hour before proceeding to the targeted town in a night road march.
Gafsa lies in central Tunisia and is a road junction for routes east to Sfax, southeast to El Guettar and Gabes, and north to the various towns around Kasserine, soon to become famous for the American defeat there. An oasis and a French barracks were located at Gafsa. Ellman had no idea whether anyone even occupied the town, though it was a good bet someone was there. For this first attack, two Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighters were to strafe the town before Company B’s assault. Accompanying the tank destroyers was a pair of ancient French armored cars.
The captain organized his company with the two heavy platoons leading the attack, with the light platoon and its vulnerable M6s kept in reserve. Ellman’s account states he had two platoons of M6s, rather than the normal one. Possibly they were attached from another company of the 701st Battalion. There was no cover on the approach to the town, so speed was a key. According to Ellman, “We made the best of a bad situation.”
The P-38s roared overhead, their cannons and machine guns blazing as they strafed the town’s defenders. Company B attacked right on the heels of the fighters, hoping to deny the defenders any time to recover from the aerial assault. The first objectives were two clusters of buildings outside Gafsa itself, on each side of the road leading out of town toward the west and Feriana. One platoon moved to each and immediately began to take fire from German snipers. In response, the tank destroyers began hitting the occupied buildings with 75mm high-explosive rounds. Most of the buildings collapsed after one hit. Continuing past these ruined structures, the two platoons ran into a line of trenches that had been thrown across the road and continued to each side of it. The two French armored cars stayed on the road as they advanced. Both opened fire on these trenches.
This time Ellman and one platoon paralleled the road to the south to avoid mines and advanced directly on the town from the west. The other platoon was sent on a flanking maneuver to the north. Sniper fire continued from the town itself as the tank destroyers moved past the entrenchments. Both of the armored cars, still moving along the road, hit mines. The resulting explosion blew all four wheels off one vehicle, and both were disabled.
Careful to skirt the minefield, Ellman and the accompanying platoon entered the town. Once there, a youthful French civilian approached the GIs and volunteered to show them where the German positions were. Ellman readily agreed, and the boy lived up to his word. As before, high-explosive rounds and machine gun fire answered the German snipers, and the town’s defenders were quickly overwhelmed. The Germans had armed some 300 Arabs to assist in the defense of the town. These men fled into the oasis and groves in and around the settlement, where the Americans had to round them up and disarm them. After a few hours of combat, Gafsa had fallen.
The Defense of El Guettar: Repulsing the German Counterattack
Ellman now took stock of his situation. There were several roads leading to enemy-held territory, so he positioned tank destroyers at each of them to guard against counterattacks. Word of this expected counterattack came just after noon. A German armored column had been spotted moving toward Gafsa from the southeast along the road that led to El Guettar and Gabes. It was quickly decided that Gafsa was not the place to meet a German armored attack because of its terrain, which was not advantageous for a defensive fight. At 2:30 pm, the company advanced toward El Guettar, hoping to find suitable terrain for a defense.