In all of our discussions of World War II, we’ve spent precious little time in North Africa. And unfortunately, that’s been somewhat intentional, because I’m not well-versed in that theater. But I’ve been doing more reading on the subject, hoping to find some gray matter than can absorb the information. Let’s see how I’m doing.
The Allied landings in North Africa in November of 1942, accomplished with relative ease, had given way to a collection of missteps, errors in judgement, and some poor decision-making. But as we’ve said before, this was the U.S. Army’s first large-scale land action of the war. Indeed, it was the first real warfare since its brief involvement in World War I. So a good bit of “rust in the war machine” was understandable.
Furthermore, the Allies in general, and the Americans in particular, operated from an extremely long supply chain, stretching thousands of miles from Africa to the American coasts. But in spite of that, it was the ability of the Allies to re-supply their forces that made as much of a difference as the actual fighting itself. And American soldiers and officers could learn very quickly.
By March of 1943, the campaign in North Africa had turned in the Allies’ favor. The November goals of capturing Tunis and Bizerte were now looking attainable. German and Italian forces, meanwhile, were reduced to fighting delaying actions and launching counterattacks, not so much in an attempt for victory, but more to delay the inevitable.
Operation Capri was one such initiative. Begun in the early morning hours of March 6, 1943, it was centered around the town of Medenine in southeast Tunisia and was an attempt to stop the British, who had been moving steadily westward since their stunning victory at El Alamein in early November. It failed miserably.
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, now in poor health from two years of criss-crossing the African terrain, had not been very involved in the planning of this counter-offensive, and it was plainly evident. The British had placed their artillery pieces and tanks well, and pounded the weakened Panzers to mush. Even the Luftwaffe’s presence made no difference. The attack faltered very quickly and, by day’s end, was pretty much over. The Germans had not only lost dozens of tanks and any real hope of maintaining a presence on African soil, they had lost Rommel as well.
The Field Marshal was recalled to Germany just four days later, mostly due to his health, and would not return to the desert again. The fighting would continue for another two months, primarily with lots of small skirmishes like Capri. But North Africa, from the German view of things, was lost.
Recommended Reading: An Army at Dawn