Tough Call in Tunisia: Eisenhower’s Winter Line

For me, the most interesting aspect of writing and teaching military history is the “operational problem”–a battlefield conundrum in which there are two or more logical alternatives but no tidy or perfect solution.  As I mentioned last week, my “US Army in World War II” class has been taking an extended walk through America’s s inaugural campaign of the war, that slow grind across North Africa from TORCH to Tunisia.  We’re right about in the middle–the winter of 1942-43.  The “race to Tunis” had failed, and the Allies were gearing up for a major campaign in 1943 to clear the Axis out of their Tunisian bridgehead.

It was a rough time for Eisenhower.  He was no longer an “untested” commander; he’d been tested alright, and frankly, no one was really happy with the results.  At one point, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, General Marshall, had to light a rocket under him, telling him to “give your complete attention to the battle in Tunisia,” which begs the question of what he HAD been doing.

So it was a dispirited Ike who now had to make the first call of the next campaign:  where to deploy.  Two major mountain ranges define the battlespace:  the Western (or “Grand”) Dorsal stretches from the northeast to the southwest, the Eastern Dorsal runs north-south, and together they meet in the north to form an inverted “Y”.  It was a complex problem, as such thing usually are.  The textbook solution might well have been to deploy on the Western Dorsal, containing the steepest mountains and thus the most easily defended.  But with the drive on Tunis having petered out just short of its objectives deep in eastern Tunisia, choosing the Western Dorsal meant going back and giving up hard-won forward positions.  It meant gaining security, but only by sacrificing ground that would have to be fought for again.  Extending a line along the Eastern Dorsal, by contrast, kept Ike as close as possible to Tunis, and it also guarded against a nightmare scenario in which the Germans launched a hook around the southern Allied flank and broke into their rear.  The Allies held only a shallow series of coastal enclaves in Africa, so that could have been a catastrophe.  But a forward deployment also meant serious vulnerabilities:  units thinned out beyond reasonable limits along a 250-mile front, no real theater reserve to back them up, and huge stretches of the line having to be held by the French XIX Corps, poorly equipped, undersupplied, and not configured at all for high intensity combat against a modern opponent.  It also meant bringing forward the green US II Corps, under the command of General Lloyd Fredendall, and inserting it into the line on the right.

Ike chose the Eastern Dorsal.  It was a gutsy move, it has not gone uncriticized, and it nearly proved disastrous.  But like I said at the top:  it was a problem without a perfect solution.

How about it, armchair generals.  As the old wargame boxes used to say, “What would YOU have done”?

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13 Responses

  1. Jacob DeWitt

    Although Ike’s decision had a number of problems, it appears he was thinking of what would get him where he was going the fastest and with the least amount of risk. As you stated, going along the Western Dorsal would have left him extremely vulnerable to an attack on his southern flank. If Ike had noticed it, you can bet the Germans did as well. So he had to pick between being completely vulnerable to a direct threat on his rear or potentially vulnerable over a distance. A lesser of two evils, but more accurately three evils, since sitting around trying to come up with a watertight solution wasn’t an option he had either. So between sitting around and wasting time, giving up land you have already taken to expose your flank, or a direct route to the target that can be achieved quickly, if riskily, it becomes a quicker decision to make.

  2. Bill Nance

    I think Ike’s problems were created by the lack of a proper cavalry force to conduct a proper forward screen. If he had had an appropriate heavy cavalry force, he could have held forward positions with them for counter-reconnaissance and forcing the Germans to deploy their main body early, then the main line of resistance could have been sited further back, and perhaps he could have even massed forces for a proper counterattack as the cavalry in economy of force roles would then have allowed him to not have main body forces all along the line.

    Additionally, considering how difficult the fighting ended up being to penetrate through the German defenses in the spring of 43, I could imagine Ike wanted to avoid having to do as much of that as possible.

    Still, see what happens when you allow your cavalry branch to atrophy and not modernize effectively?

  3. Luke Truxal

    I think another factor playing into Ike’s decision to deploy on the Eastern Dorsal was the mere fact that his job was on the line. As Dr. Citino pointed out their were a lot of reasons to avoid the Eastern Dorsal but one big reason to put them their. How would it have gone over with Marshall and Roosevelt if Ike pulled off of the Eastern Dorsal? I’m guessing not good. Instead of being stopped in Tunisia it would look like the Allies were beaten back in Tunisia. Sometimes I think we like to just look at the maps and decide that was a bad decision. As Dr. Citino has pointed out to me on more than one occasion, decisions of strategy are sometimes not just made because of the best strategic position. We’d like to think these decisions are made because they are the best for the army but their are numerous other factors playing a role in this decision besides the military ones. For Ike maybe simply keeping his job was a good enough cause to place troops on the Eastern Dorsal. It’s not the best defensive position in the world, but then again it’s not the worst either.

  4. Bill Nance

    Luke, you might be on to something. Especially when you consider that each decision had some serious pros and cons, the political or job security considerations certainly helped tipped the balance.

    I still say, if there had been an effective, properly equipped heavy cavalry force to the front of II corps Kasserine would not have gone down like it did.

  5. Luke Truxal

    It seems that their are numerous recon failures through the Tunis campaigns. It seems as though the British make a large number of recon failures throughout World War II but Bill you are more of an expert on that. Did the British have any type of mechanized recon force such as armored cavalry?

  6. Silicon Wafer

    If the Germans had an atomic bomb, they would have won at Kasserine.

  7. Silicon Wafer

    That’s why Fredendall was building his bunker.

  8. Bill Nance

    Luke, I’m more of a US cav guy, but I know a little about the brits.

    They had their own reconnaissance forces, but they were hampered in much the same way as the US cavalry was in that they were very lightly equipped and couldn’t fight for information well. The desert recon force of Monty’s 8th Army was renowned for its recon exploits through open supposedly untrafficable desert.

    My major source for all this is Hans Von Luck’s book. Of course, reading that lets you know that the Germans had much the same issue when it came to reconnaissance forces. It’s a constant struggle. Make your recon forces too heavy, and they’re just another combat unit. Make them too light, they can’t do their jobs.

    The modern American trend has been to go heavy. The reasoning is that cavalry does many things not just recon, and you can’t survive if you’re too light. Doctrinally, every major US formation should have a cavalry force in front of it, fighting for information, penetrating enemy security zones, IDing the enemy main body, and fixing it, allowing the friendly main body to maneuver against it.

  9. Luke Truxal

    Bill how much would the terrain in Tunisia limit the ability of the mechanized cavalry to recon the enemy positions? I think a major failure in recon occurred also because they Allies outran their air cover. German air superiority allowed them to conduct air recon pretty much uncontested which is no small advantage.

  10. Bill Nance

    Terrain always plays a role. Rugged terrain restricts mechanized formations. In fact, there were some after Tunisia that said that horse cavalry would have been ideal for those conditions. The problem is that if whoever you have doing your reconnaissance cannot fight past the enemy’s security zone, that is the only zone you will ever hear about.

    Now, modern U.S doctrine (well before we decided to screw ourselves again) calls for a heavy cavalry force to go forward sneak or fight through the security zone, then make contact with the main enemy force, often through direct fire.

    Remember, anybody can do a movement to contact….. Once. and this is really what recon is. It takes a robust organization to survive that initial contact (which you don’t always get to dictate when that occurs) and persist in the mission. This is precisely what the US did not have.

  11. Patrick Hays

    We have to remember that Ike had had to major problems confront him. First was that his supply lines we having trouble keeping the forces in the field supply. The second was the main reason for the debacle at Kasserine, the United States Army was not tacticle proficent enough the deal with the Whermacht. Sending them into rugged mountain terrian could have broken Ike’s army and confirmed British fears about the quailty of the army. Moving to secure his open flank gave Ike the time to allow the army to slowly play its way into shape. It took time and cost mens lives, but less than what would have been in the Grand Dorsal.

  12. Sensemaker

    I tend not to think in terms of “what is the correct choice?” but rather in terms of “given the strategic and operational situation should I go for the low-risk low-gain choice or the high-risk high-gain choice?”

    By winter of 1942-43, it seemed that war had turned (Stalingrad was in progress, El-Alamein had happned, Midway had happened) and given the USSR/Commonwealth/US infintely greater resources, time was on their side. This situation calls for low-gain low-risk behaviour.

    By choosing the high-risk, high-gain method Eisenhower made a choice that did not fit the greater strategic situation. Fortunately for him and the world, he got lucky.


  13. paul penrod

    What happened in Tunisia perhaps influenced Eisenhower’s decision making in Europe, as he preferred the broad front strategy in Europe in the second half of 1944, more conservative than Montgomery’s single thrust proposal. By then Ike could play not to lose as time was on his side and he didnt have to take any undue risks. THis forced the Germans to do the opposite and bleed themselves in futile counteroffensives. Tunisia was different, as the Germans still had the edge in experience and air superiority


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