After El Alemain (October) and the Torch landings (November), the Allies moved toward Tunisia from both the west and east. The Tunisian ports (especially Tunis and Bizerte) prove to be the key to Africa. Montgomery's 8th Armny's drive west was slow and methodical . He had no wat to rapidly reach the Tunisian ports. And Rommel managed to turn the French Mareth Line into a strong enough position to temporarily stop the 8th Army. Thus it was up to the Allied First Army which landed in Algeria to seize Tunisia. As in Moriocco anbd Algeria, Tunisia was occupied by Vichy forces. In Tunisia, however, Hitler rushed in strong German forces to oppose the Allies. The Germans were able to build up forces in northern Tunisia faster than the Allies. And the German managed to bring in heavy armaments that defeated a lightly armed Allied push to seize the Tunisian ports. Some Vichy forces joined the Allies, but other stayed out of the critical initial fighting. In particular they did not close the airfields and ports to the Germans. This coulkd have been done with aelatively small force before the Germans brought in heavy weapons. As a result the Allied First Army woukd have to fight the 5th Panzer Army in a protracted fight for Tunisia.
Despite orders from Berlin to fight to the death, Rommel broke off the fight at El Alamein in an effort to save as much of his army as possible. A few months later, another German commander (Paulis in Stalingrad) would follow orders and have his army destroyed. Rommel was disinclined and probably unable to stop Montgomery's Eighth Army at any of the Italian Libyan ports. Montgomery or his part did not sprse the retrating Afrika Korps closely. (He would repeat this tactic in Sicily, Italy, and France.) As Montgomery moved west, the Tunisian ports which were beyond Allied air cover were the only major ports through which the Germans could move in reinforcements and supplies. Rommel decided to make his stan in southern Tunisia. Although not his first choice, he used the strong defensives built by the French--The Mareth Line into a strong defensive position. The Mareth Line was a border fortifications built before the war to protect Tunisia from an Italian invasion. As a result, the Eighth Army would not be a factor in the initial Allied effort to take Tunisia. In fact, because Montgomery was not pursuing closely, Rommel had the time to detach a fore northest to stike at the Americans trying to cut of the Afrika Korps from Von Arnim's Fifth Panzer Army to the north.
Allied forces under the command of British General Kenneth Anderson attempted to rapidlly advanced into Tunisia from Algeria. Axis air cover from bases in Sardinia and Sicily meant that landings as far east as Tunisia were impossible. Thus the Allied First Army had to drive overland into Tunisia to take Tunis and Bizerte. This was slowed by the Tunisian winter and rains creating terrible mud over the unimproved Tunisian roads. The Allies spearhead moves along the coast in the north. Having just landed in Algeria, the Allies were limited in the forces which could be pushed east into Tunisia, both in the numbers of men and heavy weapons. The first contact occurred (November 18) The Allies managed to get within 12 miles of Tunis before being stopped. They lacked effective aor support because The Americans and British were just beginning to establish forward air bases. Allied forces led by General Kenneth Anderson got to within 12 miles of Tunis before being attacked at Djedeida by General Walther Nehring. The Germans counter-attacked and gained a victory at Medjez el Bab over poorly armed French forces. Other Vichy forces refused to join the Allies. The Germans by this time had 24,000 men in Tunisia and were firmly in possesson of northern Tunisia (late-November). They thus momentarily outnumbered the Allies forces in Tunisia and had heavier weapons, It is at this time that the Soviets launched Opration Uranus, trapping the German Sixth Army in the Stalingrad pocket (November 23). Hitler was uncertain as to how to proceed, both at Stalingrad ahd Tunisia. Having committed the buildup in Tunisia, there was no easy way to withdraw. Hill 609 about 40 miles west of Tunis proved to be a ket position in northern Tunisi. The Germans managed to get got there first and blasted out formidable defensive positions. The Americans attempted to take Hill 609 (December 24). They suffered serious losses. A further attempt by the Allies to reach Tunis was slowed by heavy rains (December 24). The new Fifth Panzer Army counterattcked and suceeded in driving British and Americans back west.
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