Thursday, March 7, 2013

From Now On: No More Defeats: "Go Light, But Not Too Light:" Kasserine to Medenine

Speaking of light infantry....

The Battle of Medennine began 70 years ago today as I begin to write, and ended the night before I posted this. It's the least of Monty's North African victories, and given the man, we should count ourselves blessed that at least he managed not to say that "The [Germans] came on the same old way, and we beat them the same old way." Gibb's unfortunate composition (look, one Highlander is so tired of being told Don Quixote is worth reading that he's having a lie-down!) is pretty mild compared to the story to Bernard Cornwall's version. The French form up in bad old columns to attack the British with medieval bayonets, while the British use noble, heroic lines to defeat the French with rifled firepower. I think Tom Macaulay wrote off the Sharpe books as "too Whiggish" in a recent Edinburgh Review.

Anyway, from 5:10: "Le Garde recule!" 

Well, you might, too, if you had to attack up hill through the mud of the Coalwood with the Prussians coming on strong from the flank. There's a reason that this land lies beyond the frontier of the sown and the salus. And here's  the same old corrective. 

What's this got to do with the battle for Tunisia? It's a good question. After all, who remembers Tunisia? It might have been a defeat for the Axis on the same manpower scale as Stalingrad, but all we really remember is an American army's "dawn."  phrase. The Americans were shattered at Kasserine, and then recovered miraculously, perhaps when Patton took command. Novus ordo seclorum and all that. Dawn is always rising over America. 

As I've telegrapher above, I am taking aim at an alternative narrative. You might, if you were not Richard Atkinson, construe an alternate view of events, in which the American position only recovered with some British stiffening, and in which the British handily repelled a continuation of the German spoiling offensive a few weeks later at Medenine. Medenine is like Kasserine, or like Waterloo in the sense that whereas Napoleon's driving columns (Vive l'Empereur!) can smash through the conscript armies of Europe, the rifle volunteers of Britain always "defeat them the same old way." That is, with technology and with Britishness.  Eh, what, cousins?

First, about Atkinson. Army At Dawn is a good book, for popular military history, but it's more than that. It is the source of the off-hand comment about  how American troops skirmished forward through "cactus orchards" that led me to the Google (or Wikipedia, I can't remember now) and the discovery that nowadays the Tunisian Pre-Sahara hosts vast plantation of prickly pear cactus. It's not the biggest Columbian crop of the modern Maghreb, but it was a revelation about the unsuspected-precisely-because-quotidian depths of the transformation of the world by the Columbian Exchange. And it talks to us, amazingly enough, of marching columns and attaques brusque.

Most of the modern military historians who write about the place and the era notice Roman ruins first. All the defiles through which Allies and Axis attacked and counter-attacked this long ago late winter are blocked by ancient Roman walls. We now understand these to have been for the  control of "nomadic" tribes, presumably in part to regulate access to whatever the ancient equivalent of those cactus orchards might have bee. I'm visualising here some equivalent to the vertical transhumance that I'm more familiar with, a horizontal transhumance across the distances between the oasses, conceivably across the entire breadth of the Sahara, if Roman influence reached that far. After all, what is a caravan but a herd of livestock moving from one pasture to another, and who would do such a thing if they were not sure that the pasture they were going to remained ungrazed?

If I'm visualising horizontal transhumance right, it must have implied a high level of social organisation. Something, where empire, state, or Sufi brotherhood, must have intervened to maintain pasture rights, and trade caravans do not spring out of nothing, either. Moving large numbers of people and animals is hard, and they need to eat and drink every day. It's the original "just in time" management. One of the paradoxes of the old Roman Empire is that imperial power dissolved in the face of riots if the annona was late to Rome. But why? We might want to argue that the Antique economy lived so close to the edge that even the citizens of its capital city and centre of communications would starve if the grain fleet was delayed, but if we also want to argue that its  army was sustained by supplies moved across vast distances, we are in some danger of contradicting ourselves about the Empire's logistical capabilities. In a just-in-time economy, however, a delayed fleet and an on-time cattle drive is a serious problem. The resulting riot does not feature the poor threatened with starvation so much as creditors in danger of not being repaid, but I think we're revising our ideas about who participates in urban riots, anyway, classwise. (We certainly are, or have long since done, for "peasant revolts.")  

Again, this is an issue of managing the on-time movement of human resources. The barriers in the defiles of Tunisia are tools of management from the age of grass, but the long-established assumptions about the way this is done are about to come up on a sharp corrective at a place called Ksar-es-Medenine, if I get the article right. (A "Ksar-" is an oasis town that acts as the capital and collective granary of the local Berber "nomad" tribes. Which tells us something about the lay of the land around Medenine right there.)

The traditional story is one that I prefer to Fatuous claims about columns with bayonets versus lines with rifles, or more modern ones about "Bewegungskrieg." The basic issue is that every defile has a limit on the maximum number of fighting power or economic value of soldiers and animals that can move through it in a given time. Packing that defile efficiently is a matter of careful management. from one location to another. Block the defile is another way of managing it.

The Roman barriers of Tunisia delineate an  ecological frontier. Carried into economics, the idea here is central place theory, in which a market centre is surrounded by zones of increasingly-less intensive development that correspond with the marginal return on investment --the ecological richness of the region. Ultimately, development peters out entirely into wilderness, or possibly "wilderness." Carried into military history, we get Henri Jomini's strategy of interior lines, which visualises multiple armies converging on multiple axes on a centrally placed defending army that has access to an exceptional central place d'armes, from which it lashes out to serially defeat the oncoming enemies. Jomini's model goes a great distance in explaining the successes of Robert E. Lee, Napoleon, and Frederick the Great, perhaps further than "military genius," and one of, if not the only way, of achieving a strategy of interior lines is to squat at the centre of a high productivity area and lash out at converging armies crossing its ecological frontier, necessarily separated by the need to forage, or just by the limited carrying capacity of the roads. 

In looking at the converging enemies advancing on Tunisia in the winter of 1943, Commando Supremo saw interior lines. It controlled the best line of communications to Africa, and the enemy was labouring in from Algerian and Libyan ports. It hardly takes vast insight to see that this was the time to launch spoiling attaques brusque against the enemy's converging columns and see what happens. That's what works in this situation.

Let's follow the story, told, for lack of time and better sources, out of Playfair and Molony, III. The British official history is anodyne and not nearly as nonjudgemental as it tries to be, but at least it doesn't indulge in over-the-top language about Kasserine. 

The progress of the Axis counterattacks begins with Eilboote,  a German counteroffensive to drive the French back from a gap that threatened to allow them to debouche onto the Tunisian Sahel and break Rommel’s LoC. The official historians note roughly 150 Commonwealth and 90 US air sorties a day. With fighter bombers scarce, Bisleys and Beaufighters are restricted to  night flying, and the Germans making heavy use of FW190s, flying almost 300 sorties a day. In some ways, this is the nadir of the Desert Air Force. The Bisley is supposed to be the British Sturmovik, and I would humbly suggest that its failure says more about the Sturmovik concept than about the Blenheim. It's the ascendancy of the FW190 that we should mark. In the air, technological superiority is everything.  Well, that and, which count for air forces, too. (280)

One squadron (243) of Spitfire IXs arrived on 23 Jan, ending the current Fokker panic (282), but not the administrative caps on sortie levels. On 13 Feb,  Panzerarmee Afrika entered Tunisia and the Libyan campaign ended. Plans for a counterattack to clear Rommels’ flank on the Mareth Line were already in train, complicated by the fact that neither Arnim nor Rommel wanted to give up their mobile forces to the other.

Instead, a series of attacks against the Americans was planned. Exact strengths are not known, but 1about this time, 10 Pz had 5 Tigers under command, over 50 IIIs and "IV Specials," and 7.62cm Pak 36s and 7.5cm Pak 40s. 21st Pz had 64 IIIs and 21 IVs, 8 88 Flak 36s and 13 of the new, lighter (4.3 tons draw weight) 88 Flak 41s. DAK’s composite attack group had 16 IIIs, 10 IVs, 23 “outdated Italian tanks of the Centauro Division” 8 7.5cm PAK backed up by 15 88s and a full troop of Nebelwerfers. (290—1), the monstrous rocket mortars with their 280lb shells. “None of the formations had much artillery and ammunition,” the official historian says. The initial German manouevre worked well, because a “communication failure” ruined a planned American artillery concentration. The story is about forward positions not sending up smoke signals in time, but a detailed discussion would note the Stukas’ focus on gun positions, and bombs cutting telephone cables again. The American air effort rose to 391 sorties, German to c. 375, with negligible losses to either side. (In the air.)

A counterattack by Combat Command C  of US 1st Armoured in the strength of one armoured battalion across 15 miles of wadi-dissected ground then ran into an antitank trap, reporting losses of 46 medium tanks, 130 vehicles and 9 SP guns. This compelled the division to withdraw, leaving the infantry of CCA “marooned” on a series of eminences. (292)

Anderson, lacking forces for a counterattack, then set a general retreat in motion, specifying a holding line including Kasserine. The forward airfield at Thelepte was abandoned, occasioning the destruction of 34 nonoperational aircraft. Notwithstanding the heavy rate of flying over the previous week, albeit less than the maximum effort on the first day of operations, this brought American air losses to 42 over 4 days. Technology rules supreme in the air, but the wrench is master on the ground. (294)

Commando Supremo was impressed enough by results hitherto to order a bolder operation into the Dorsales with the intent of destroying the Americans and cutting off the British, or at least driving them back to the Algerian border. Leaving details of command aside, we get Kasserine, part of a multipronged offensive against a series of defile. On 19/02 at 4:45AM, DAK Assault Group was ordered against Kasserine, 21 Pz against Sbiba towards Ksour, 10 Pz to concentrate at Sbeitla, ready to exploit success. (295)
Fighting in Kasserine Pass in the evening of 18/02 showed little sign of the debacle to come. Mixed and weak units from a multitude of parent organisations were scattered through this difficult terrain in a way that could hardly stand up to infantry infiltration, and while the British official historians say that the “full story of the events of the night of 19/20 February are not recoverable. Clearly, the enemy gained Djebel Semmama and on the opposite side of the Pass dispersed 19th Combat Engineers Regiment…..”, the fact is that when aging "semi-skilled construction tradesmen" are put in a "line" that consists of  a series of non-mutally-supporting  eminences, and they see Bersaglieri streaming right past them into the rear, why shouldn't they bug out? You put older and more sensible men in a situation like this, and that's what will happen. It's not rocket science. You want a heroic last stand, use young men instead. It's one of the wonders of the human spirit that history's inevitable sacrifices to "unfortunately elevated levels of youth unemployment in times of necessary austerity" will respond not with anger, but with desperate attempts to prove themselves. "The race horses are so lean, and the young men so desperately thin." In the course of the late morning, the Americans were routed back to Thala, the old men of the 9th reported to the straggler's lines, and the American official historian note the “amazing” amount of equipment captured intact by the Axis, as though materiel were the one thing that the Americans did not have to spare. (297)
Then, miles gloriosos stories aside, Axis forces debouching into more open ground found themselves facing the concerted fire of the artillery brigade of US 9th infantry, and Commando Supremo’s grand ride came to an end.

Which brings us to Medenine, where the Axis spoiling attack was so dramaticall impaled on 5/6 March by 350 25 pounders and mediums, 460 AT guns, 300 tanks and plenty of shells. “The incomplete Axis records that survive suggest that Messe’s German formations had 124 assorted field guns, and possibly 33 88s and 58 AT guns of calibres from 5cm to 7.62cm.” On 4th March, 10 Pz held 35 ‘fit’ tanks  15 Pz 60 300 tanks, and 21st Pz 46.” (325). About 30,000 rounds were to be expended. 

To complete lack of effect. People are reluctant to make the same counts of the Commonwealth forces present (30th Corps, consisting of 2nd New Zealand, 7th Armoured, 51st Highland, a Free French brigade group, 4th Light Armoured, 5th Army Group Royal Artillery), but 30th Corps had been in position since 4th March, had established a good defensive position, and had no less than 300 tanks and 467 6 pounder antitank guns on hand. The Axis attack ran into a comprehensive artillery fire plan that shut down the armoured attack and inflicted heavy casualties. 

What happened to the advantage of interior lines? This: 

It doesn't look like much, this lonely survivor of the 9000 7.7 ton, 95hp AEC Matadors built for the British Army and RAF during World War II. I'm not even sure that I should single it out as the iconic image of the Royal Army Service Corps fleet, given that it, like the Scammell Pioneer, was originally ordered as an artillery tractor. Maybe I should go to the lowly ten-ton 6x4, built by so many firms to so many patterns. 

But the point remains that the Age of Grass is over. There is not going to be a another "miracle of the House of Brandenburg." We're into an age of oil here, of heavy industry and heavy transport. And here is where, I think, the lesson of Kasserine comes back around to motivate my title, which is a reference to the idea that the command track of the United States Army leads not through the artillery or the service corps or even the armour, but by going "light but not too light." Lightness is maneovre is Bewegungskrieg is asskicking awesomesauceness. It's Patton. It's Teddy leading the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill.

Fuck, guys, it was one of your own who said that "you fight wars with the army you've got." Armies reflect the society they come from, and return their soldiers to that society. Why are you trying to build an army out of the Age of Grass? Is that the kind of economy you want? It was artillery that stopped Rommel. So do the world a favour: pick the next Army Chief of Staff out of the Gunners, or, if you're really going to go crazy, the Corps of Engineers. It probably won't do any good, but it would at least be trying.  

*Robert Gibbs, "Thin Red Line," from, my go-to source on collectable thimbles. At least from now on. I might have been using the competition before. Ain't saying. 

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