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Clausewitz Was Right: The Race to Tunis

By Robert M. Citino 
Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: February 18, 2010 
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I've been taking my "US Army in World War II" class through the Tunisian campaign lately.  Nearly forgotten today (certainly compared to other campaigns of that war, especially the fighting in Normandy), it deserves more attention than we usually give it.  No campaign that I've studied better illustrates the complexity of modern military operations.  Indeed, they are always more difficult in reality than they appear to be in theory.

Consider this.  You land an immense Allied force on the Mediterranean shore of North Africa on November 8th, 1942.  Your objective: Tunis.  Unfortunately, to ensure a safe landing out of the range of German air power in Sardinia and Sicily, your closest units (the "Eastern Task Force") have to land over 500 miles away from the objective.  The units most distant (General George Patton's "Western Task Force") actually land in another ocean altogether, the Atlantic.  They're 1000 miles away from Tunis, and might as well be on another planet for the opening stages of the campaign.  The much ballyhooed (by historians) "race for Tunis" really isn't much of a race, or at least it shouldn't be.  The Germans begin transferring troops there by air almost immediately after your landing, on November 9th, to be precise.  You're already in motion, too, moving smartly along the Algerian coast to the east:  an amphibious landing in Bougie 100 miles from Algiers, a combined amphibious landing/paradrop at Bône, 125 miles more. 

So far, so good.  As the Allied commander (either the supremo, US General Dwight D. Eisenhower, or the British 1st Army commander, General Richard Anderson), you're eating up the miles, and there is no opposition to speak of in front of you. Who knows?  Maybe you'll take Tunis after all.
 
From the start, however, you're also finding it difficult to concentrate troops forward, to get the men from their landing zones hundreds of miles away up to the front over an indifferent or altogether inadequate road network.  Your lines of communication are immensely long, and get longer with each step forward.  As a result, huge numbers of your men have to stay behind to help bring the supply, fuel, and ammo to the fighting units.  Guarding that mountain of supplies you've brought along takes thousands of troops, and pilfering by the local population–from petty theft to grand larceny–is a serious problem from day one.  It all adds up to a huge drain on the amount of combat power you can get forward.  By December, the quartermaster is telling you that you have 120,000 men in North Africa, but fewer than 12,000 of them are actually at the front.  You make a pretty good run at Tunis after all–the Germans are having their own difficulties deploying there–but in the end you lose the race. 

To later historians and readers, it all seems to so simple.  Land a huge force, get them forward, overwhelm your enemy, and be done with it.  But the great Prussian sage Clausewitz had this one exactly right:  "In war," he wrote, "everything is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult."

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17 Responses to “Clausewitz Was Right: The Race to Tunis”


  1. 1
    Bill Nance says:

    Also, as a note, for those that have never done it, moving even a battalion size formation lock, stock, and barrel is a large undertaking, and if you haven't trained it properly, it turns into a cluster very very quickly. Now multiply this one battalion operation by literally dozens. Then add up the fact that the division and corps staffs that are managing these moves and march tables and timelines are all new at their jobs, and have never commanded or staffed at this level before. Add in darkness, weather, bad roads, inexperienced troops, vehicle breakdowns, Murphy's law, and you have a huge problem, BEFORE you even make contact.

    All this said, what a great learning experience, comparing the Allied movements in N. Africa to 18 months later in the buildup and fighting in Normandy.

  2. 2
    Rob Citino says:

    Bill–Right on. My own view is that far too much attention is paid to the personality of that "dour Scot," GEN Anderson, and far too little attention paid to the systemic problems of this campaign: logistics, geography, and Clausewitzian notions of complexity.

  3. 3
    Luke Truxal says:

    What I have found interesting in this campaign and other campaigns by the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II is that the campaigns get progressively harder. Torch faces the Americans against the colonial Vichy French forces and as the was continues the US Army progresses from North Africa to Sicily, Italy, France, Netherlands, and finally Germany. North Africa is a perfect place to land a highly inexperienced army to campaign because the Germans couldn't finish off the Americans in Tunis. Here is a perfect place to lose a battle or two while engaging the Germans. That sounds bad but the Germans couldn't follow up a victory in North Africa like they could in Europe. As Dr. Citino pointed out it was 500 plus miles from Tunis to the next supply port the Allies were using and at least 1000 miles away from Casablanca. Also, the Germans and Italians had to deal with the threat posed by Montgomery so they can't afford to deploy the bulk of their forces towards the British 1st Army while the British 8th Army is inching towards Tunis from the east.

  4. 4
    Rob Citino says:

    This is great stuff, Luke. I could think about it for years and still not get all of it.

  5. 5
    Bill Nance says:

    I think personality does play a role in success or failure. However, even the most aggressive personality can face conditions that simply won't allow the kind of maneuver required.

    There is a delicate balance trying to decide just how much the environment (or conditions) affected an operation, and how much was, in fact, the leader and his personality.

  6. 6
    Luke Truxal says:

    Was winning the race to Tunis a realistic request even for an experienced army? Also, was winning the race to Tunis within the capabilities of the British 1st Army and the American units? It seems to me that this was an unreasonable request of any army. It appears that Allies were only thinking of the first part of the Clausewitz quote "everything is simple." Cover 560 miles of mostly unoccupied ground in North Africa and beat the Germans to Tunis. It appears that they underestimated the German reaction to the Torch landings and what it would require to cover and occupy Morocco, Algiers, and still have a fighting force to reach Tunis. Even under modern standards the race to Tunis appears to be asking quite a bit of ground forces so why did the Allied commanders think it was possible with their army or did they? Maybe that was why Eisenhower wasn't relieved.

  7. 7
    Bill Nance says:

    I think that you could make the argument that they knew BEST case, they could win, but that it was never a good shot. If the Brits couldn't immediately punch through with their one division, the entire operation would be delayed. Probably the reason CCB/1AD got task organized to them for a while. Ops like this demand immediate success, or preparation for a much longer fight.

    Interestingly, what if they HAD succeeded? Then the REAL race would have been on. If Rommel gets to Tunis ahead of the Allies (assuming he can still supply himself) then will the Allies have enough combat power to hold the port and perimeter? As Market-Garden proved, just getting there first doesn't always mean you win. Just ask LTC Frost.

  8. 8
    Rob Citino says:

    Actually, losing the race meant that the Axis had time to ship a MUCH larger force to Africa than they would have otherwise, and in the end it merely swelled the POW list.

    War is a strange business sometimes.

  9. 9
    Bill Nance says:

    Hitler would have made a crappy poker player. Staying in when he really should have folded. Not the first time he made that mistake. I wonder what the Axis (specifically Italian) defense of Sicily and Italy would have looked like with all the troops lost in North Africa.

  10. 10
    Rob Citino says:

    Hitler was committed to the forward defense–especially after the "Stand-fast order" (Haltbefehl) in front of Moscow. Good question about Sicily, Bill!

  11. 11
    Luke Truxal says:

    Hitler wouldn't be Hitler if he wasn't committed to forward defense. Just like Monty wouldn't be Monty if he wasn't afraid of fighting a more mobile and rapidly advancing campaign. That involves risk and Monty didn't like to take risks and the one risky highly mobile operation that he was in charge of failed miserably.

    Were the divisions that were sent to North Africa allocated for the defense of Italy or were they going to be sent to fight the Soviet Union? In my opinion if these divisions were specifically assigned to the defense of Italy and Sicily you could argue that Hitler wasn't taking away divisions from Sicily or Italy but he was trying to defend Sicily and Italy by fighting the Allies in North Africa. One of the arguments for going into Iraq and Afghanistan was to fight the terrorists on their soil so that the fight did not work its way back to the United States. Maybe that was what Hitler was trying to do. Maybe Hitler realized he was losing Italian support and that in order to keep the Italians in the war he must keep the Allies off of the Italian homeland. Therefore from a political perspective it makes sense to send reinforcements to Tunis.

  12. 12
    Bill Nance says:

    Luke, holding tunis only makes sense if you CAN hold it. Sending more troops to Tunisia, which will be caught in a tight perimeter with a supply line prowled by fighter bombers from Malta and Allied airfields in Tunisia is not a real recipe for success. He was sending troops into the 'bag' without sending enough to truly do anything. You need at least a local 3:1 in the attack most times to be successful. The axis didn't have anything near that. So all they could do would be to hold out as long as possible, but then when the jig was up, most of those troops would be lost. As the Germans favored their troops to save, politically it was disastrous as the Italians saw yet again how the Germans treated them as cannon fodder. What must have been going through the Italian soldiers minds in Sicily after watching what happened in Tunisia? They're asking who is the real enemy, and why are we dying for these SOBs?

  13. 13
    Luke Truxal says:

    I agree that operationally the decision was terrible and should have never been made but it appears to me that this was more of a political decision than an operational one. I think that the Italians were probably wondering why they were fighting in North Africa as well as Sicily and Russia.

  14. 14
    Bill Nance says:

    I see what you're saying. I just think the Italians would have been just as happy with all those reinforcements going to Sicilian and lower Italian beaches.

    The Italian campaign was a nightmare enough with the German forces that were available. Imagine if they hadn't overcommitted in Tunisia. Perhaps the Italian government might not have fallen. that could have been a very ugly scenario for your hero and mine General Mark "where's my pants?" Clark.

  15. 15
    houbeb Khéchine says:

    Bonjour de la Tunisie,

    Je vous écris pour vous dire que je m'intéresse à la deuxième guerre mondiale, mais avec une optique tunisienne. Mon pays n'a pas seulement été un champ de bataille, mais plus de 60 000 tunisiens civils sont morts sous les bombes et obus des deux antagonistes. Toute la Tunisie garde les séquelles de cette guerre terrible. Mareth, Kasserrine, Gafsa, Kairouan, Tunis, Enfidha, Zaghouan, Mateur Bizerte Beja, Sidi Nsir, Tahent, Cote 609.. Et tant d'autres endroits. Tous ici vous raconteront leurs souffrances, leurs angoisses, ils vous raconteront comment ils ont pleurés leurs morts. Morts anonymes sans honneur, sans reconnaissance. Les dégâts matériels sont aussi énormes,. Qui vous dira que les bombardements de la deuxième guerre mondiale ont détruits une grand partie des remparts de la ville de Kairouan, qui datent de plus de 1000 ans. Personnes n'en parle. Aujourd’hui, la Tunisie accueille les cimetières des soldats que cela soit Américains, Allemands, Français et anglais… Ils sont tombés au champ d'honneur, ils reposent dans notre terre. Tous ces hommes morts entre novembre 42 et le 13 Mai 1943, sont regroupés dans des mémoriaux dignes, car nul ne peut amoindrir un perte humaine quelque soit sont bord. Les tunisiens eux sont morts sans que personne ne leur fasse un hommage ni la moindre reconnaissance. Ce n’est pas leur guerre ; Et ils n’ont rien gagné. Doublement perdant, Et je me propose depuis peu de chercher dans la littérature de guerre, quelques références aux pertes d'autochtones.

    Approximate translation (Yahoo Babel Fish):
    Hello from Tunisia,
    I write to you to think that I m' interest in the second world war, but with a Tunisian optics. My country n' was not only one battle field, but more than 60.000 civil Tunisian died under the bombs and shell of the two antagonists. All Tunisia keeps the after-effects of this terrible war. Mareth, Kasserrine, Gafsa, Kairouan, Tunis, Enfidha, Zaghouan, Mateur Bizerte Beja, Sidi Nsir, Tahent, Dimension 609. And so much d' other places. All here will tell you their sufferings, their anguishes, they will tell you how they cried their deaths. Died anonymous without honor, recognition. The property damages are also enormous. Who will say to you that the bombardments of the second world war destroyed large a part of the ramparts of the town of Kairouan, which date of more than 1000 years. People n' in speaks. Today, Tunisia accomodates the cemeteries of the soldiers that is American, German, French and English… They fell to the field d' honor, they rest in our ground. All these men died between November 42 and on May 13, 1943, are gathered in worthy memorials, because no one cannot reduce an human loss some is are edge. Tunisian them died without nobody making them a homage nor the least recognition. It is not their war; And they did not gain anything. Doubly loser, And I recently propose to seek in the literature of war, some references to the losses d' autochtones.

  16. 16
    bob says:

    There were more than 120,000 Jews living in Tunisia at the time, under French Vichy since 1940; under an Islamic Turk as governor; under the Nazis and Italian Fascists and under Islamists Tunisian nationalists who were determined later to push them out of Tunisia completely… There were the only community singled out during SS occupation for looting; slave workers in military camps, concentration camps and much more… yet this Tunisian somehow forgets to mention this. The Allied forces basically saved the Jews of Tunisia and that i hope is something, at least for the Jews of Tunisia it is.

  17. 17
    Larry C. says:

    The Tunisian were not all that innocent as Khéchine may write. Years ago, I talked to several American and Brits that served in that operation. Every one of them claimed that theTunisians were collaborators with the Germans. Numerous Brits and Americans died by the actions of the Tunisians.
    Yes, there was collateral damage but also many died as a result of directed action.



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