J. C. S. Files
Combined Chiefs of Staff Minutes
The Situation in North Africa
General Eisenhower gave a review of the situation on his front. He explained that the Allied forces which landed in French North Africa were equipped to capture three ports. They were not a mobile army and had little strength for offensive operations. This arrangement had been necessary since the attitude of the French was an unknown quantity. General Anderson had advanced with great boldness and rapidity taking every kind of risk in an attempt to get into Tunis and Bizerte in the first rush. He had finally been stopped by dive bombing when he got into the open country near Tunis, and by wet weather which hampered movement off the roads. Every effort had then been made to reinforce the forward troops, units being moved from Oran and from Casablanca. It was hoped to launch an offensive on December 22nd to capture Tunis, making use of superior gun power. The weather had turned against us and it had proved necessary to call off the offensive. A means of carrying out operations [Page 574] in the drier country in the south had then been sought and an operation had now been planned for the capture of Sfax which would begin on January 24th. He had been waiting, however, for a chance of coordinating action with General Alexander, as it was important that the timing should fit in with the movements of the 8th Army.
General Eisenhower then gave details of how it was proposed to conduct the forthcoming operation and of the forces to be employed. It was intended to use the American First Armored Division (less one light battalion), a regimental combat team and additional units of artillery, and also to use the airfields in the Gafsa and Tebessa areas for supporting aircraft. The Germans had disposed their armor northeast of Pont du Fahs, and it would be necessary to guard against a counter stroke towards the rear of the forces attacking Sfax. It was hoped to put supplies into Sfax by sea from the eastward to ease the maintenace problem. It was hoped that this operation would be of real assistance to the 8th Army because the Germans were sending supplies by rail to Sfax whence they were sending small coasting vessels to Rommel. The Sfax force would be separated by 75 miles of rough country from the British 1st Army, in which there were two critical points: Pont du Fahs and Foudouk, which were held by the French. Apart from one regiment in Algiers, and part of a division in Oran, there was virtually nothing between the troops in the front line and Morocco. Troops in the latter place were too far away to move up over the long and difficult line of communications. The 1st Army had 7 to 10 days’ supplies of all kinds, and so if an opening were offered by the Germans they could launch an attack. In the whole theater of war there were now about 320,000 troops. Supplies were ample in the Casablanca area, but again difficulty of transportation prevented much being moved forward.
General Eisenhower then gave a description of the various airfields being used by the Allied Air Forces, and of the difficulties of keeping them serviceable. He then referred to the political situation and pointed out that it was very closely related to the military situation in view of the very vulnerable nature of the line of communications for the guarding of which French troops were responsible. Returning to the air situation he said that Air Chief Marshal Tedder had twice visited Algiers and detailed plans had been worked out to insure the coordinated action of the Air Forces from the Middle East, Malta and French North Africa. Medium bombers based on Philippeville were now being used with effect against shipping.
General Alexander then gave an account of the operations of the 8th Army. He said that the El Alamein position was about 40 miles long and was occupied by the German 15th Panzer, 21st Panzer, 90th Light and 164th Infantry Divisions which were at full strength in men and equipment, and by 10 Italian Divisions. The position had [Page 575] no open flank so the problem was one of punching a hole through which the armor could be launched. The attack went in under a very heavy barrage of 500 guns on October 24th. Infantry advanced through deep minefields for 4,000 to 6,000 yards. For the next ten days there was severe fighting designed to eat up the enemy’s reserves and prepare the way for the final breakthrough. On November 4th, the front was broken and the opportunity came for the fine American Sherman tanks to pour through. In two weeks Tobruk was reached and by the end of a month the army was at Agheila. They had the satisfaction of advancing twice as fast as Rommel had been able to move during our retreat. The Germans had not enough transport to go round and so they had made certain that what there was was used for the German units. Our casualties in twelve days were 16,000; the enemy’s must have totalled between 60,000 and 70,000 and Rommel must have lost nearly 5,000 vehicles. None of this would have been possible had it not been for the air superiority gained by the Air Forces who had throughout done magnificent work.
For the further advance beyond Agheila everything depended upon the use of Benghazi. The harbor was left by the Germans in a terrible mess. However by dint of fine work on the part of the Navy, a flow of 3,000 tons per day was reached. A severe gale which again breached the mole and sank several ships interrupted the flow, but it was now back again to 2,000 tons per day. Sirte was useless but there was a small place near Agheila where 400 tons per day had been unloaded.
The plan of the operations which had now begun was an attack by the 7th Armored Division, the New Zealand Division and the 51st Highland Division who were carrying with them 10 days’ supplies and 500 miles of petrol. It was hoped to reach Tripoli by January 26th.
The enemy’s fighting value was hard to assess but he was believed to have at his disposal the following forces:
|15th Panzer Division with 30 tanks||)||50 additional tanks were believed to be ready in Tunisia.|
|21st Panzer Division with about 27 tanks|
|90th Light Division||}||both weak in strength and short of artillery.|
|About 9 Italian Divisions.|
The total strength might be assessed at 50,000 Germans and 30,000 Italians, though only about 20,000 of the former were strictly fighting troops. The enemy’s organization was much broken up and he was very short of artillery. Furthermore, his army had retreated 1,000 miles, which must have had its effect on morale. Our superiority rested in tanks and guns, of which we had ample. General LeClerc’s [Page 576] advance through Fezzan had been a fine piece of work but would not exercise an influence on the present battle.
If we got to Tripoli according to plan the 8th Army would be quite immobilized until the port was open. This would take probably seven or ten days, though in the worst case it might take three months. It was hoped to work up to 3,000 tons a day and if this was achieved it would be possible to attack the Mareth Line towards the middle of March with 2 Armored and 4 Infantry Divisions. We were getting photographs of the Mareth Line, which was certainly a prepared position, though lacking in depth. It should be realized that the distances involved were very great. From Buerat to Tripoli was 248 miles and from Tripoli to Gabes was 220 miles. It would, of course, be possible, if the enemy’s resistance proved weak, to advance to the Mareth Line with very light forces somewhat earlier.
Discussion then turned upon the coordination of the operations of the 8th Army and of those of General Eisenhower’s command. General Eisenhower inquired what Rommel’s position would be if the 8th Army captured Tripoli and if he captured Sfax. Could the 8th Army keep Rommel engaged so that the forces at Sfax could neglect its right flank and turn all its attention towards the North?
General Alexander said that Rommel was living very much from hand to mouth for supplies and if he lost all his ports he would certainly be trapped; nevertheless, it would be necessary to give very careful study to the Sfax operation. It should be realized that if a force advanced on Sfax, Rommel would react like lightning and his plan would be the best possible. Great care would be necessary to insure that undue risks were not taken.
Sir Alan Brooke said that a great deal depended upon the timing of the Sfax operation. It might be unfortunate if the force arrived at Sfax just at the time that the 8th Army had reached Tripoli and were immobilized for lack of supplies.
It was generally agreed that the coordination of the action of the two armies was a matter of the highest importance and the present opportunity should be utilized to the full.
Discussion then turned on the strength required to hold the North African shore when it had been completely cleared of the enemy. General Alexander said that he had calculated that two divisions with a mobile reserve would be sufficient for Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. General Eisenhower said that he considered four divisions should be held to watch Spanish Morocco and that one infantry and one armored division would certainly be necessary in Algeria and Tunisia. There were at present six U.S. divisions in French North Africa and three more were set up in the original plan to come. If these were shipped there would be three U.S. divisions over and above defensive requirements. He thought it would be unwise to hand over [Page 577] the defense of Tunisia too early to the French. The Prime Minister agreed. He said that it appeared that there would be some thirteen divisions in the whole North African theater available for future operations.
In reply to an inquiry Sir Arthur Tedder said that he was of the opinion that convoys could be passed through the Mediterranean when airfields had been established and when the Tunisian tip had been cleared. Sir Dudley Pound agreed. He reckoned that if thirty ships could be passed through every ten days the whole of the Cape traffic could be done away with and 225 ships would thus be released for other uses. It was hard to estimate the relative losses which might be incurred, but though the percentage of loss might be slightly higher through the Mediterranean the total would be less as fewer ships would be involved. The Mediterranean route would be more expensive in escorts, but there would be a saving in the time of voyages.
The Prime Minister said that the opening of the Mediterranean would have its effect on the attitude of Turkey; moreover, the British 10th Army, consisting of six divisions, which had been established in Persia with the object of meeting the threat through the Caucasus, was now available to encourage and support the Turks.
In discussion it was suggested that it might be worth while calculating what specialized units would be required to round out the Turkish Army. Sir Alan Brooke pointed out that up to the present the Turks had been supplied with technical material and arms, but although their Army consisted of first-rate material, as infantry, they tended to misuse technical equipment and allow it to deteriorate. He did not think their army would ever be fit to operate offensively outside Turkey. It might, however, serve to hold Turkey as a base from which our forces could operate.
Sir Arthur Tedder said that the Turks had a small air force to which we gave a limited number of aircraft; it would never be fit to fight. Our plan was to operate initially some twenty-five fighter and bomber squadrons from airfields in Turkey which had been prepared and stocked. Further airfields would be required if we were to operate offensively and plans were all drawn up for their preparation. It was intended to move antiaircraft defenses in with the squadrons.
Sir Arthur Tedder then gave an account of the part played by the Air Force in the recent victories in the Middle East. He emphasized that their task began during the British retreat from Gazala. Since that time the enemy air force had been beaten down and great efforts had been made to stop Rommel’s supplies. The action of an air force in operations of this kind was difficult to explain concisely, extending as it did over great areas and diverse tasks. The Middle East Air Forces had first struck at Rommel’s supplies and then at the supplies to Tunisia; for the latter purpose Malta had been reinforced [Page 578] to the utmost and aircraft had been transferred to Tunisia. The coordination of the Air Forces of the Middle East, Malta and Tunisia was a complicated problem and he was very glad to have the present opportunity of meeting General Eisenhower and discussing it.
General Eisenhower explained the difficulties under which the Air Forces in Tunisia were operating in support of the Army. There were only two airfields available for fighters and even these were 100 miles from the front line. The Germans, on the other hand, had two all weather airfields in Tunis. In the early stages U. S. units from the Western Zone had been moved up and placed under British command; Air Marshal Welch had disposed them in the Tebessa area. For the operation now contemplated the British fighter force would operate from Souk El Arba under Lawson and the U. S. fighters would operate in the South under General Crane. His own conception of the layout on this front was that the British Army Commander should control it all since there was no sound arrangement by which the front could be divided. The French, however, had refused to serve under British command. This had meant that he had had to establish a Command Post from which to direct operations. He hoped to overcome this kind of difficulty in the near future.
The Prime Minister inquired whether there was any danger of the Germans striking through General Anderson’s left flank rather in the manner adopted by the 8th Army at El Alamein. General Eisenhower said that the 1st Army had such superiority over the enemy in artillery that he did not think there was much fear of this. Though the enemy’s specialist and tank units were good, his infantry had not seemed to be up to the same standard.
In conclusion it was emphasized that events had reached a crucial stage in the North African Theater and that the events of the next two or three weeks would be of vital importance. The present was the time at which to consider what action should be taken when the North African shore had finally been cleared.