SUNSET OVER TUNISIA
By STRATEGICUS ‘RD-DRIVEN words are entitled to be apposite at least once,
and it can scarcely be regarded as inappropriate to describe c position in Tunisia as revolutionised. No one last week could we anticipated a change in the situation so great that the apparently possible has been accomplished, and it is now useless to attempt suggest how the situation stands at the moment. The rugged treat of the enemy in Cape Bon peninsula has, against all proba- ihty, been cut through from Hammam Lif to Hammamet, and a nsiderable force is surrounded south of the peninsula. It is sug- .sted that between 8o,000 and too,000 men lie between the Eighth tiny and Cape Bon ; but, if this is to be accepted, it seems certain at already more than that number have been put out of action the last week. Indeed, the debacle of Stalingrad appears to have en repeated, and the fragments of the defeated enemy army group reduced to a hopeless plight. They are blockaded by the Navy, caselessly ravaged by the Air Command, hammered steadily by the rtillery and compelled to undergo this inferno without any reason- bly safe communications or supplies.
We should be less than human if we did not recall that it was bout this time three years ago that an apparently irresistible German rmy broke through the French front and tore up all the landmarks which our assurance had taken root. It is only about a fortnight torn the third anniversary of the German boast that " the British rmy . . . is threatened with annihilation," only about that space om the bitterest anniversary in our history—the beginning of unkirk. General Alexander has had his revenge ; for it was ainly due to him that. the " thunderbolt " was forged that brought enemy to this plight. He had transferred the United States cond Corps from the far south to appear suddenly with devastating !Tea on the enemy's weak right ; and when this strong force pro- aced the crack at Mateur he was ready to exploit it to the full. e cleared the obstacles from his left centre and then, having brought he famous Seventh Armoured Division with the fine Fourth Indian vision across from the Eighth Army, he blasted a way through to peed it up the Tunis road.
There was nothing exceptional in his tactics on that occasion, xcept the weight of artillery and the perfection of his air support. A skilful artillery had held up a Panzer attack on the Dyle positions May, 194o, even when it was supported by Stukas. The French unners there showed what they could do ; and what with over- onfidence had been planned as an attaque brusquie developed into pitched battle which ha i its influence upon later German tank dales. The attack upon May 6th followed the model of the classic lite offensive. It was concentrated upon a very narrow sector. verwhelming force was used ; and the exploitation of the break- rough was carried out with the utmost weight and decision. metal Alexander, in fact, did not so much wish to capture Bizerta s to cut the whole of the enemy force in two and destroy it. The advance was, therefore, directed not up the Majerda valley, but along the road to Tunis, and the 3o miles were covered in 36 hours.
It still seems a little astonishing that the enemy broke so com- pletely. There were cases of Germans surrendering in complete companies, in their own lorries and with their supplies. The 15th Panzer Division surrendered to their old enemies, the 7th Armoured Division. There are a number of German generals captured, and they include von Vaerst, the commander of the 5th Panzer Army, which Arnim originally commanded. This was not the slow collapse of the Sixth Army at Stalingrad, but the most overwhelming of all he blitz offensives of the war. It was, of course, Alexander's aim o strike with such speed and momentum that the blow should destroy utterly ; but even in his Order of the Day he suggested the battle might be long. But the complex of forces which he used must have destroyed almost any troops in the world ; and this army, though composed of some of the very finest troops in Hitler's control, had been fighting heavy battles for over two months. They knew, moreover, that their position was desperate. It is significant that the word "Tunisgrad has been found chalked on the walls of
German towns and has made its appearance in prisoners' letters. The element that gave this complex of force its overwhelming character was the particular use made of supreme air-power. It
was this that conditioned the break-through and the exploitation. If air-power is to pass from the ancillary position it has hitherto held, the position to which a critical examination of its earlier achieve- ments appears to limit it, the beginnings of that vital transition appeared last Thursday and Friday. If it could take a dominant position in warfare, the change would certainly be vital, because the Allies have not only supremacy in the air but have also the indus- trial and intellectual capacity to keep it. What was so remarkable in the decisive advance up the road to Tunis was the continuity of the air attack. This, however, is merely a matter of organisation. But there hive also been some tactical developments which were then applied, and the range of the strategical and tactical use of the aircraft has increased enormously. The enemy has been driven to the defensive in this element and he is concentrating upon the defensive type—the fighter ; but it was not only the Allied supremacy that gave us the superiority in the recent attack. The enemy is so conscious of it that he is now driven to select the operations which are to have full air-support. Last week he held off the Luftwaffe ; but when the time comes for invasion he will employ his full power.
But if it was the aircraft that gave the complex of force its over- whelming effect, it was the perfect co-operation of each element of force in its appropriate rple that holds out the greatest promise for the future. The great lack still felt is some means of cleating mines from the path of advance. The mine has been used in this war to an extent that was never imagined before ; and the multiplicity of types lays an increasing strain upon all the ground forces. What wire was to the last war mines are to this ; and it is certain that Rommel would never have escaped to fight in Tunis without them. With a greater mobility in medium-calibre guns and some device to clear mines wholesale, instead of by the patient work of the sapper, we should have a technical equipment that might very considerably lighten the heavy task that still lies before us.
When every recognition has been made of the value of the weapons with which the victory was won, it was ultimately the human factor that turned the scale. The skill of General Alexander's leadership has already been emphasised. Apart from that, it is the expertise of the First Army that stands out most clearly. The splendid attempt to carry the tip of Tunisia last year when that army Was little more than a name and a hope has never been fully recognised, mainly, it must be admitted, because, when the gallant handful of troops moved swiftly eastward, it was not permissible to say how small the force was. That the Allies were able to begin their final advance so far to the east is entirely due to the heroic tenacity with which the small band held its position. On Thursday and Friday the First Army came to its own, and, the most composite of all the composite forces, it was the instrument which achieved a victory the dimensions of which arc still growing.
That is a very important fact to note. The Eighth Army needs no further praise ; but it is much to know that the First Army has also established its claim to fame in a decisive action. But, even in making the recognition, it has to be admitted that in this, as in the weapons, it is rather the perfect co-operation than the out- standing success of one that won the day. For it was the holding action of the Eighth Army that paved the way for the attacks that • bored through the defensive crust of the enemy positions ; and, if the British troops fought magnificently, it was the energetic and daring American advance through Mateur that loosed the bolt which held the enemy position intact and• the French who gallantly assisted there as they also exerted pressure in the centre. It is, in fine, not so much the First Army nor the Eighth Army that affords the sure basis for our confidence, but the Eighteenth Army Group, in which many nations have learned to work as one. General Eisenhower's quality as a commander has smoothed over many difficulties in the welding process which produced that result.