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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