Friday, March 13, 2015

The 1st US Infantry Division Holds the Enemy Near El Guettar – March 1943 II

Reinforced American Infantry Versus German Armor - 23 March
General Allen that night had the 26th Combat Team advancing along the Gumtree road, while the 1st and 2d Battalions, 18th Infantry, were engaged, as they had been since the preceding afternoon, in driving out Italian forces northeast of Hill 772 on Djebel Berda, thus widening the front considerably. The trains of the 2d Battalion, 18th Infantry, barely reached the cover of the foothills, after crossing in darkness from the northern side of the valley, when sounds of motors to the northeast were followed by an eruption of tracer fire and the echoing rumble of guns. At 0500, while darkness was still complete, an enemy motorized force was reconnoitering by fire the southern slopes of Djebel el Mcheltat.

Daylight revealed the presence of the 10th Panzer Division, which was methodically sweeping the foothills and the lower ground north of the road before undertaking bolder measures. The 3d Battalions of both the 18th and 16th Infantry were under direct attack. A spearhead moving up the valley was engaged by the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion until about 0700. The main body of the enemy force was in full view of American observers on heights above the valley on either side, and from the German Africa Corps' command post on Hill 369.

At first the battle ran entirely in favor of the attacking Germans despite determined and courageous opposition. Their tanks and self-propelled guns, interspersed with infantry in carriers, rolled westward in a hollow square formation and at a slow but steady pace. Behind them, a column of trucks drove to a predetermined point at the western end of Djebel el Mcheltat and unloaded more infantry, which followed closely the armored rectangle ahead of them. Then the mass of the enemy separated into three prongs. One group turned northwest among the foothills east of Hill 336 overrunning the 32d Field Artillery and part of the 5th Field Artillery Battalions; another continued along the road; and the third, and much the largest, force tried to sweep the hills and northward along the edge of the Chott el Guettar.

German tank-infantry teams overran the American artillery and infantry positions east of Hill 336 in engagements which brought some hand-to-hand encounter, and heavy American losses. A curving belt of mines extended from Choett el Guettar across the road and along the Keddab wadi to the southeastern base of Hill 336. There the tide of battle changed. American artillery and the tank destroyers of the 601st and 899th Tank Destroyer Battalions knocked out nearly thirty enemy tanks, and the minefield stopped eight more. Eventually, the morning attack was contained. The 10th Panzer Division pulled back a few miles to the east and prepared for a second attack. During this withdrawal enemy artillery and aviation harassed the American defenders, and Allied air units struck back repeatedly. The Germans towed their disabled tanks to a prepared maintenance point not far from where their infantry had first detrucked. During this interlude, and running a gantlet of enemy shells and Stukas, nineteen American jeeps rushed back for ammunition, all but six returning safely in time to oppose the next assault. Elements of the 16th Infantry and the 1st Ranger Battalion were put into the line along the Keddab wadi. Headquarters, 1st Division, was ready for the second attack (1645 hours) and aware of the enemy forces to be committed.

Preceded by a German air strike, and on the signal of a siren, the ground troops of the enemy attacked once more toward El Guettar. At 1830, word came that they were still advancing, with thirty-eight tanks in one group, but barely fifteen minutes later, an exultant report arrived from the 18th Combat Team:

Enemy attacked as scheduled, preceded by dive-bombers which did little damage. Troops started to appear from all directions, mostly from tanks. Hit Anti-Tank Company and 3rd Battalion. Our artillery crucified them with high explosive shells and they were falling like flies. Tanks seem to be moving to the rear; those that could move. 1st Ranger Battalion is moving to protect the flank of the 3rd Battalion, which was practically surrounded. The 3rd Battalion and the Rangers drove them off and the 1st Battalion crucified them.

Thus at the close of 23 March, a reinforced American infantry division, well supported by Allied aviation, mainly by their artillery had stopped the bulk of an enemy armored division. Kesselring's report to the OKW acknowledged substantial tank losses in the morning attack at the Keddab wadi; it called the efforts of the 601st and 899th Tank Battalions a counterattack with tanks against the German north wing which had been repulsed, and it attributed the failure of the afternoon attack to superior Allied forces and a threatened penetration through the Italian-held positions on the northern edge of Djebel Berda. Although the armored counterattacks of 23 March were beaten off, the enemy by no means lost his determination to maintain an aggressive defense of the routes of Allied approach to the rear of Italian First Army. He might not succeed in plunging through the Americans with his armor, but he held strong defensive positions and could nibble incessantly with infantry and artillery, and with tanks used as artillery, at the American positions in the hills north and south of the Gabès and Gumtree roads. On 24 March he made some progress in each sector, especially in the high ground on opposite sides of the Gabès road, and on 25 March, he succeeded in recapturing from the 1st and 2d Battalions, 18th Infantry, their most exposed position on one of the northeastern buttresses of Djebel Berda. When a German patrol reached the bare summit of Hill 772 there, mortar fire brought it scampering down. But the two battalions of the 18th Infantry, even with the 1st Ranger Battalion, managed only to hold their position; they could not extend it without larger reinforcements, perhaps another entire regiment. With that much strength, they believed that they could take all of Djebel Berda and the hills east of it, and thus open the road to Gabès for American armor. Had such a regiment been sent, or had the two battalions simply remained in possession, the Germans might not have been able to withstand the 9th Infantry Division's efforts later to drive them off. But during the night of 25-26 March the battalions were ordered to withdraw through the 1st Ranger Battalion. Colonel Darby's Rangers, with a purely defensive role, held a south flank position in the foothills west of Djebel Berda for the next two days

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