At exactly 2230 hours on Christmas Eve 1942, two Douglas C-47s loaded with paratroopers took off from Thelepte airfield outside Algiers. Suspended under the belly of each was a drop container holding 200 pounds of explosives. On board were 32 Americans from the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion and two French paratroopers who had been ordered to destroy the vital railroad bridge at El Djem, Tunisia.
Once an insignificant spot on the rail line from Tunis to Gabes, it now linked the brilliant German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel — battling British General Bernard L. Montgomery’s Eighth Army in the south — to vital supplies being sent by rail from northern Tunisia. During the initial stages of the North Africa campaign, the fighting had taken place primarily in Egypt and Libya, far to the east of the El Djem bridge. Since Montgomery’s autumn offensive had forced Axis armies to retreat westward from the Egyptian frontier toward Tunisia, however, the bridge at El Djem had become an important link between supply depots and Axis front lines.
Italian reverses in Egypt and Libya had forced Adolf Hitler to send German forces into North Africa to boost his faltering Axis partner. In February 1941, the Führer sent Rommel to North Africa to stabilize the front, promising him two divisions. An aggressive commander, Rommel instead went on the offensive and turned what Hitler and his general staff had previously considered a sideshow into a major theater of war. By 1941, maintaining control of the North African coast had become essential to the Allied cause. Aside from Great Britain, the region was the Allies’ only potential route into Axis-dominated Europe. In addition, control of North Africa was critical to dominance of the Mediterranean and access to the Suez Canal and to the Middle East’s rich oil fields.
Rommel’s offensive had been marked by brilliant maneuvers on the rocky North African terrain. As with all campaigns — but even more so in barren North Africa — the pace of the fighting was governed by the flow of the supplies of food, ammunition and gasoline. With the bulk of the Wehrmacht‘s resources being sent to the Soviet Union, the German commander was forced to rely on inconsistent resupply from either Axis countries or captured Allied materiel. These difficult logistical arrangements, coupled with British determination, finally halted Rommel’s offensive at El Alamein in December 1941. After stopping the German advance, Montgomery’s army counterattacked and eventually pushed the Afrika Korps back to the southern reaches of Tunisia.
As seesaw battles raged along the coast of North Africa, American forces prepared to enter the war. Since Allied hopes of an immediate invasion of France had been dashed by the disastrous raid on Dieppe in August 1942, control of North Africa assumed additional importance. British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill and Soviet Premier Josef Stalin pressured American President Franklin D. Roosevelt to support Allied efforts in the Mediterranean. Since Roosevelt’s desire was to confront the Germans as soon as possible, everything pointed to North Africa as the only likely Allied invasion site from which to begin a new campaign.
On November 8, 1942, Operation Torch, the Western Allies’ first offensive against Hitler, was launched. The operation called for amphibious landings at three locations along the coast of North Africa, all to the west of Rommel’s position. The landings trapped Rommel between two advancing armies. Although cornered, however, Rommel was still full of fight. The ‘Desert Fox’ realized that he could take advantage of interior lines once he had retreated to Tunisia. Since he held the middle ground between the British to the east and the Americans to the west, he could effectively engage them both if he utilized his resources carefully. While Rommel recognized that his future in North Africa was in doubt, he hoped to gain enough time to evacuate his valuable, battle-hardened troops to Europe.
Rommel knew that he would have time to regroup as Montgomery gathered enough resources after his victory at El Alamein to renew his advance. The Desert Fox now planned to hold Montgomery in the south with nonmotorized troops and strike north against the American forces with his few remaining tanks. After defeating the relatively inexperienced Americans, he planned to return to the south and attack before Montgomery was prepared to fight. Rommel hoped this plan would score one final triumph for the Afrika Korps before it safely made its escape to Europe.
On December 19, 1942, however, Rommel received an order from Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, the nominal head of Axis forces in North Africa, to ‘resist to the utmost with all troops of the German-Italian Army.’ Upon receiving this order, Rommel wrote to his wife, Lucy, ‘What is to happen now lies in God’s hands.’ To resist with everything he had spelled almost certain doom for the Afrika Korps. While the Italian dictator sent directives filled with platitudes and orders that were impossible to follow, the field marshal’s supply situation worsened. Rommel was consuming 400 tons of fuel daily but receiving a scant 152 tons each day — most of which was used for withdrawals or consumed by transport vehicles bringing the fuel to Rommel’s mechanized units.
Allied aircraft tried to slow the trickle of supply ships coming into the ports of Tunis and Bizerte with materiel for General Juergen von Arnim’s Fifth Panzer Army in northern Tunisia and Rommel’s Afrika Korps in southern Tunisia. Rommel quarreled daily with the Luftwaffe and Italian high command because they could not protect his vulnerable supply ships. Their failure only added to Rommel’s difficulties and his desire to withdraw his army while he still could.
When Hitler learned that Rommel planned an evacuation, he bellowed that the Desert Fox was not going to do what his generals ‘had wanted to do last winter in Russia.’ Hitler yelled, ‘I refused to allow it. I am not going to allow it in Africa either.’ Hitler then made a promise to Rommel to send him ‘more arms, ammunition, and troops.’
Meanwhile, Allied leaders redoubled their efforts to cut German supply lines. A primary target for American planes was the railroad bridge at El Djem, on the main northsouth coastal railroad line connecting the ports of Tunis and Bizerte with Rommel’s positions behind the Mareth Line. For weeks Allied aircraft tried to destroy what was believed to be a fragile bridge both with high-altitude bombing and low-level fighter attacks. Neither met with success. Frustrated, Allied planners decided that a demolition team parachuted into the vicinity of the bridge might have better luck.
Selected for the mission was the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion, the first American airborne unit shipped overseas and the first to close with the enemy in combat. During the opening phases of Operation Torch, the 509th achieved another first by leading the way for the Allied invasion of North Africa after a 1,600-mile flight from England.
Lieutenant Colonel Edson D. Raff commanded the battalion, which he had also trained. Known to his men as ‘Little Caesar,’ he had acquired the nickname through his demanding and meticulous training methods and his short, stocky physique. The tough training irked many of his troopers. After their first taste of combat, however, many admitted Little Caesar’s hard training had been invaluable.
Raff selected the inexperienced Lieutenant Dan A. DeLeo to lead the mission. Unlike most of the 509th’s officers, DeLeo had yet to see combat. The 24-year-old officer had lagged behind the rest of the battalion in England in order to supervise the transport of replacements, plus the battalion’s heavy baggage and equipment, by ship.
When DeLeo arrived in North Africa, Raff summoned him to his headquarters. The lieutenant later recalled that the briefing was short. ‘He told me that I was to lead a parachute raiding party to the El Djem bridge, blow it up, after which we were to make our way back through enemy territory for 90 miles to friendly lines.’
DeLeo remembered that Army Air Forces Lt. Col. Phil Cochran was present at the briefing as well. Raff had selected Cochran to command the two-plane flight since, after several failed air attacks, he was very familiar with the physical layout of the bridge and key terrain features in the general vicinity of the target area. DeLeo also recalled that Cochran said he would drop the paratroopers along the railroad line just north of the objective. Once they were on the ground, it was thought that all the paratroopers had to do was march south along the tracks until they reached the bridge, and blow it.
Following the briefing, DeLeo began preparing for the mission. Among the 32 paratroopers he selected for the raid were five demolitions experts and two French soldiers. Sergeant Jean Guilhenjouan and Corporal Paul Vullierme had served in North Africa for a considerable time, knew the countryside and were fluent in Arabic. The Frenchmen were to guide the raiders back to friendly lines once the bridge was destroyed.
Raff had tried to postpone the raid until a more effective method of retrieving the raiders could be organized. He had wanted a C-47 to land somewhere near the blown bridge just after dawn. As Cochran’s fighters flew cover, DeLeo’s men would scramble on board and the C-47 would fly them back to Allied lines. But since this plan could not be coordinated in time, the raiders would be forced to escape on foot. As a result, many members of the 509th believed DeLeo’s men were being sent on a suicide mission.
Once the bridge was blown, according to the raiders’ instructions, they were to move only after dark — during the day, they would hide out. If they met a superior enemy force, they were to break into small groups and make their way back to friendly lines as best they could. After they had been briefed and issued the necessary equipment, DeLeo’s men boarded the waiting C-47s that would take them to their drop zone.
Once on board, the men settled in and made final checks of their equipment. At 2230 hours, the transports lifted off. As the C-47s neared the objective, they began to descend, since most jumps were made from an altitude of no more than 1,000 feet in a combat situation. Just as they flew over the drop zone, Cochran and the pilot flying the second C-47 pulled a switch, and each 200-pound bundle of explosives dropped from the planes. As the parachutes on the containers deployed, the green lights came on inside each plane, alerting the paratroopers that it was time to jump.
One of the troopers, Private Roland W. Rondeau, remembered that after he jumped it was so dark he could see nothing, not even the ground below his feet. Suddenly Rondeau slammed into the ground. He lay still, listening for any sound of enemy activity. His fellow raiders, landing around him, made the only noises he could hear.
Quickly getting to work, DeLeo located the railroad line and signaled to his men to assemble. A search for the two bundles of explosives produced only one — losing equipment on night jumps was common, so DeLeo was not too alarmed. He believed that the demolition men would be able to blow the bridge with what was available. Dividing the explosives among themselves, the raiders prepared to move on their objective.
As DeLeo’s men were preparing to leave the drop zone, two Arabs appeared out of the darkness. DeLeo instructed his two French paratroopers to tell the Arabs that if they did not betray the raiders to the Germans, they could help themselves to the silk chutes scattered around in the sand. After collecting several, the Arabs went back the way they had come. DeLeo then wondered if he should have allowed the Arabs to leave.
Since Cochran had planned to drop DeLeo’s force north of the bridge, the raiders began to move cautiously southward down the rail line. DeLeo told them to move with utmost care, and to tighten up any loose straps and equipment. After two hours of hiking, however, the raiders had not reached their objective. Alert, weapons at the ready, the troopers began to cross what they believed was the last mile or so to the bridge.
After another tense 30 minutes of marching, DeLeo’s nerves were straining. They should be almost on top of the bridge, he thought. He sent two scouts ahead to see if they could find it. They tried and failed. DeLeo now became worried. If they did not find the bridge soon, the approaching daylight would expose his tiny raiding party. After another hour’s march, and still no bridge, DeLeo called a halt. Now he was certain that Cochran had dropped them farther away than the planned five miles.
The only thing to do, DeLeo reasoned, was to keep moving south. Many raiders hoped a supply train or, better yet, one carrying troops, would come steaming along. If it did, they planned to blow up the tracks and derail the entire force.
As the sky continued to lighten in the east, DeLeo halted his men. Within minutes it was light enough for him to take compass bearings on a number of surrounding hilltops. He now knew why they had not found the bridge. They had been dropped in the wrong place. DeLeo told his men, ‘We are nearly twenty-two miles south of the bridge!’ The raiders had spent half the night walking away from their objective.
With little hope of reaching the bridge undetected in daylight, DeLeo decided to do as much damage as possible from where he was. He told his men to set their explosives along a 100-yard stretch of track. Off to the side of the track was a small building that housed electrical switching equipment. The raiders decided to destroy the building along with the track. Just as everything was set to explode, DeLeo’s sentries came running up to report that enemy troops were moving in along the tracks from both north and south. The paratroopers were caught in a trap.
As his men cursed the pilots who had fouled up the drop and the Arabs who had apparently betrayed them, DeLeo shouted to his raiders, ‘All you men not involved with setting demolitions, get out of here now while the getting is still good.’ Breaking into prearranged buddy teams, the paratroopers began jogging west, away from the railroad, toward Allied lines. The demolition men lit three-minute fuses and sprinted into the desert. All at once 200 pounds of explosives sent railroad track and debris spiraling into the early morning sky. The raiders took a quick look at the destruction, then continued running.
Privates Charles Doyle and Michael P. Underhill were among the troopers fleeing into the desert. It was not long before they were out of sight of the rest of the group. The two hid in a haystack for the remainder of the day but were captured in some woods by three Italian soldiers the next evening. They were bounced around from place to place in an old truck until they were finally placed in a makeshift prisoner-of-war camp. The two paratroopers managed to escape within 24 hours and eventually made it back to friendly lines.
After the destruction of the railroad, the troopers who had remained with DeLeo headed west. In the group were Sergeant John Peters, Privates Frank Romero and Rondeau, plus the two French soldiers who had jumped with the team. DeLeo decided to hide out that first day. After dark, the group headed west. As dawn approached, the raiders came upon a road with a fair amount of traffic. DeLeo moved his men into a thick stand of woods along the road. All through the morning the paratroopers watched scores of enemy vehicles headed west.
Around noon, DeLeo decided to commandeer a truck and drive toward Allied lines. He hoped to capture a truck with a canvas cover, which would conceal them as they tried to escape. Fortunately, the first truck that came down the dusty road had a canvas tarpaulin draped over the back. DeLeo removed his helmet, walked to the center of the road and waved at the driver of the truck. In his other hand he held a .45-caliber pistol behind his back. When the truck stopped, DeLeo jumped onto its running board and shoved the .45 into the face of the Italian driver. Running from cover, the remainder of DeLeo’s group piled into the truck, making sure the canvas top hid them from view. Speaking perfect Italian, DeLeo ordered, ‘Start driving! No monkey business or I’ll blow your head off!’
Soon the commandeered truck was rolling past column after column of German infantrymen. Since DeLeo was riding in the cab, he decided to disguise himself as an Arab. Using some old rags and strips of material, he fashioned an Arab headpiece for himself. He received only cursory notice from passersby for the next 30 miles. After a few more miles of traveling, the old truck broke down and the Italian driver steered it off the road. The raiders were still some 50 miles from American lines. Resorting to the original plan, DeLeo’s team hid out during the day and traveled at night, taking turns keeping watch over the petrified truck driver.
When their rations were gone, the troopers began to barter with Arabs for food. For three weeks DeLeo’s team wandered westward, avoiding German patrols and trying to scrounge enough to eat. Finally the exhausted group was directed to a French army outpost. As the raiders neared the post, French soldiers dashed out of the buildings and waved frantically at them. When the paratroopers reached them, they learned that they had all just walked across a minefield.
Of the original group of men who had jumped on Christmas Eve, only six quickly made it back to friendly lines. Eventually, 16 more of DeLeo’s raiders returned to their outfit. The enemy were believed to have killed the remaining men.
The raid on the El Djem bridge was the 509th’s last parachute operation of the campaign. German engineers were able to quickly repair the damage DeLeo’s men had done to the railroad. However, the end of the fighting in Africa came soon, as all Axis forces were pushed back and bottled up in the northeast corner of Tunisia. Although Rommel’s plan to evacuate his force from Africa was finally put into action, it was too late to save most of his troops. By May 1943, Allied naval forces had established an effective blockade that allowed ground units to capture nearly 250,000 German and Italian troops, including most of Rommel’s battle-hardened Afrika Korps. Rommel himself, on Hitler’s orders, was flown to Germany for alleged medical reasons before the end of the campaign.
When the fighting in North Africa was over, Dan DeLeo visited the bridge at El Djem. What he saw there shocked him. He recalled, ‘No wonder the air corps bombs and rockets hadn’t been able to collapse the span.’ Giant stone pillars guarded a dual set of tracks. Once he saw the bridge up close, the paratroop officer knew that his men had done as much damage as they could have even if they had actually located the bridge. At the same time, DeLeo wondered how many more of his men would have made it back to friendly lines if they had been dropped in the right spot. If they had not wasted precious hours marching south, DeLeo’s men would have had more time to get away before daylight.
By any estimation, DeLeo’s mission had been a failure that reflected the relative inexperience of American airborne planners. Despite that, DeLeo was proud of his men. They had displayed courage, determination and the ability to persevere even when the odds were stacked against them. Later, these qualities, and experience gained in almost continuous combat in Italy, would make the 509th one of the most accomplished of all American paratrooper formations.
This article was written by Donald J. Roberts II and originally appeared in the November 2000 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!