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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