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Liveblogging World War II: December 11, 1942

Rick Atkinson, An Army at Dawn, on the Tunisian front:

[B]oth sides licked their wounds along the Medjerda valley. War clawed out a no-man’s-land between Medjez-el-Bab and Bordj Toum, seven miles wide and crowded with shades. Patrols went out and patrols came back, or failed to. Sniper bullets whizzed about like small, vexing birds. Shells rustled overhead, and smoke drifted from the gun muzzles in stately gray hoops above poplar groves now smashed to splinters. Concussion ghosts rippled the pup tents, like pebbles in a pond. Anything that moved drew fire, but Arab farmers still scratched their fields with ancient plows, veering around the shell craters; sentries squinted from their dugouts and debated whether the furrows were shaped like an arrow to signal enemy pilots. >“Hovering there on that borderland that divided the two hostile armies,” a correspondent later wrote, “was like standing on a window ledge of a high building waiting to commit suicide.” Medjez was wrecked, but German guns continued to make the rubble dance—the British called it “their shelling programme.” Whenever a dud landed, French soldiers murmured, “Fabriqué à Paris!” in tribute to saboteurs toiling among the forced laborers at home. Life moved underground. A Grenadier Guard battalion occupied the shaft of an abandoned lead mine, and “it was only after some days that they discovered a complete family of Arabs living in darkness at the far end.” Foxholes and trenches—“coffin slits,” to the Tommies—scarred the landscape like pox. British sappers proudly turned the eastern approaches to Medjez into “one bloody great mine.”

By December, 180,000 American troops had arrived in northwest Africa. Yet fewer than 12,000 of them could be found at the Tunisian front, plus 20,000 British and 30,000 ill-equipped French (who now counted as 7,000 in the Allied calculus). Together they lived at the sharp end. Blackout rules for the long winter nights meant everyone turned in at six P.M. and rose at four A.M. Canned stew and biscuits were “donkey dung” and “armor plating.” Soldiers softened their hardtack by dipping it into ersatz coffee brewed from pulverized dates, with the color and taste of ink. GI toilet paper was rough-hewn enough to be used for stationery, and troops caught up on their correspondence even as they battled ferocious dysentery.

“No shave, no bath, very little food, no beds, no liquor, no women, no fun, no nothing,” an American soldier wrote his sister. A platoon leader in the 18th Infantry Regiment apologized for not sending Christmas presents; he had spent his last $50 on eyeglasses for nine of his men after Army stocks ran short. “Thanks for giving me the grandest gifts of all,” added Lieutenant Robert M. Mullen, “faith and love.” In three months he would be dead.

Mail finally arrived for some troops—many had received nothing for two months or more—and Christmas packages often implied a certain homefront incomprehension of life in the combat zone: bathrobes, slippers, and phonograph records were particularly popular. A redhead in a knit cap, slender as a thread at 100 pounds and given to drink and melancholy, showed up with a typewriter to educate America. Ernest Taylor Pyle had recently become a war correspondent after writing more than 2 million words as a roving reporter during the Depression. From Tunisia he wrote:

There are none of the little things that make life normal back home. There are no chairs, lights, floors, or tables. There isn’t any place to set anything, or any store to buy things. There are no newspapers, milk, beds, sheets, radiators, beer, ice cream, or hot water. A man just sort of exists…. The velvet is all gone from living.

The lull allowed Brits and Yanks to take others’ measure in circumstances other than abject bloodletting. Scruffy GIs noticed that no matter how foul the weather, the Tommies shaved every morning, religiously; in their trousers, collarless shirts, and broad suspenders, they reminded one American officer of “old-fashioned workingmen cleaning up on a Saturday night.” Every British officers’ mess seemed to have a Christmas goose fund, to which each man contributed 200 francs and extensive advice. Yanks soon adopted the expression “Good show!”—although always uttered sardonically.

Because British sutlers provided many staples for both armies, the Americans at times fed on treacle pudding and oxtail stew with jointed bones. Steak-and-kidney pie in British “compo” rations inspired a field kitchen ditty: We’ve eaten British compo, We like the meat the best, We know a cow has kidney, But where in hell’s the rest?"

Across the killing fields, the Germans and Italians also took stock. Axis troop strength in the Tunisian bridgehead had reached 56,000, with 160 tanks, roughly equal to the Allies but with the added benefit of Luftwaffe air superiority and good defensive terrain. From the Mediterranean coast twenty miles west of Bizerte, the line extended just east of Medjez-el-Bab and then down the entire length of Tunisia. German soldiers held the northern sector, with the 10th Panzer Division shielding Tunis, and the Italian Superga Division held the south.

Nowhere was the enclave deeper than forty miles, and no shoulder-to-shoulder manning of such a long front would have been possible even if Nehring had been so inclined. General Nehring’s success in blunting the Allied offensive failed to atone for the abandonment of Medjez and his persistent pessimism. Without warning, his replacement had arrived on December 8: Colonel-General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim, whom Hitler whisked from a corps command in Russia to take over the newly formed Fifth Panzer Army in Tunis. Nehring flew home.

With a bird of prey’s beaked nose and stern countenance, the fifty-three-year-old Arnim issued from a Prussian family that had been producing officers for the Fatherland since the fourteenth century. Having compiled a distinguished record in both the Great War and this one, he gave Kesselring a diligent, quick-thinking field commander. On December 13, Arnim announced that since Allied forces around Tébourba had been obliterated, the Fifth Panzer Army would go over to the defensive to await the next blow.

Defense meant fortifications, and fortifications required laborers. Sixty thousand Jews served nicely. Mostly artisans and tradesmen, Tunisian Jews were a tiny minority with a long pedigree; on the island of Djerba—said to be the original of Homer’s Land of the Lotus Eaters—tradition held that the small Jewish community had arrived after the sack of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II in 586 B.C.

Under a Vichy-inspired statute, Tunisian Jews had been banned from teaching, banking, and other professions since 1940. When the Axis invaded, life soured even more. On November 23, German troops had arrested a number of Jews in Tunis, including the president of the Council of the Jewish Community. On December 9, the city’s grand rabbi was ordered to provide overnight a list of 2,000 young Jews for a labor corps; when the rabbi requested a delay, the quota was increased to 3,000. All were to appear with tools. After only 120 workers showed up, Axis troops rampaged through the streets and synagogues in various Jewish quarters, seizing hostages.

A secret OSS assessment reported: “Equipped with tools and food by the Jewish community, 3,600 laborers were finally drafted.” Hundreds worked under Allied bombardment in Bizerte and at the Tunis airfield. Hundreds more dug defensive trenches for Major Witzig near Green and Bald Hills, and for General Fischer’s men west of Tébourba. Others were press-ganged to tend the horses and mules that hauled ammunition.

In mid-December, the Council of the Jewish Community was told that as “allies of the Anglo-Saxons,” Jews were expected to provide 20 million francs to cover bomb damage in Tunis. A rapacious Tunisian bank loaned the money at 8 percent interest, taking Jewish land and property as collateral. The Germans also began plundering Jewish gold, jewelry, and bank deposits. Meanwhile, the clang of picks and shovels could be heard in the rugged hills above the Medjerda valley…