German tank after the battle of El Guettar Tunisia
Battle of El Guettar part of Tunisia Campaign
Date: March 23 – April 7, 1943
The Battle of El Guettar was a World War II battle that took place during the Tunisia Campaign, fought between elements of the Army Group Afrika under Jürgen von Arnim and U.S. II Corps under Major General George Patton in south-central Tunisia. It was the first battle in which U.S. forces were able to defeat the experienced German tank units, but the followup to the battle was inconclusive.
U.S. II Corps had been badly mauled in their first encounter with the German-Italian forces in Tunisia in a series of battles that culminated in the disastrous Battle of the Kasserine Pass in late February 1943. Erwin Rommel, poised on the threshold of a complete tactical victory, turned from the battle to return to his eastward-facing defenses at the Mareth Line when he heard of the approach of Bernard Montgomery's British 8th Army. Thus the battle concluded with the U.S. forces still in the field, but having lost ground and men, and with little confidence in some key commanders.
The American command reacted to their failure against the German forces with a prompt and sweeping series of changes in command, discipline, and tactics. A major change was the adoption of more flexible artillery communications, allowing all batteries within range of a target to respond to a single call for fire. Previously each battery could fire only on the direct command of its dedicated observers, spread out over the lines and using different frequencies to communicate back to the battery. Also, large units were kept massed rather than being broken up into smaller, unsupported elements as had been done under Fredendall. Coordination with air support was improved but did not reach satisfactory levels until later in the war.
On 6 March 1943, George Patton took command of the U.S. II Corps from Lloyd Fredendall, who had been in command before and during the Kasserine engagement. His first move was to organize his U.S. II Corps for an offensive back toward the Eastern Dorsal chain of the Atlas Mountains. This, if successful, would threaten the right rear of the Axis forces defending the Mareth Line facing Montgomery's 8th Army and ultimately make their position untenable.
On 17 March the U.S. 1st Infantry Division moved forward into the almost abandoned plains, taking the town of Gafsa and starting to set it up as a forward supply base for further operations. On the 18th the 1st Ranger Battalion led by Colonel William O. Darby pushed ahead, and occupied the oasis of El Guettar, again meeting with little opposition. The Italian defenders instead retreated and took up positions in the hills overlooking the town, thereby closing the mountain pass (of the same name) leading south out of the interior plains to the coastal plain. Another operation by the Rangers took one of the Italian positions and 700 prisoners on the night of 20 March, after scaling a sheer cliff and passing ammunition and equipment up hand-over-hand. They were now in an excellent position for an offensive.
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