Seizing Vichy controlled Morocco and Algeria had provided the American war effort with a safe start. But the greater reward and the greater risk lay in taking Tunis. It was only 100 miles from the Tunisian port to Sicily, a short hop for the German supply ships feeding Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s tank divisions patrolling North Africa.
Therefore, once Morocco and Algeria were pacified, the American and British forces began a joint campaign aimed at driving the Germans from Tunisia. Unfortunately, German and Italian re-enforcements were streaming across the Mediterranean. By the time the Allies were organized, the Axis had established lines of defense that sliced across Tunisia and manned them with about 170,000 troops.
British forces under Bernard Montgomery, moving west out of Egypt toward Tunisia in January, met little initial resistance. They took Tripoli on 24 January—another critical link in Rommel’s supply lines—and by the first week of February, they had crossed into Tunisia. Meanwhile, American forces moved east out of Algeria and entered the Kasserine Pass that cut through the Atlas Mountain. By February, they had advanced as far east as Faid, and had almost linked with Montgomery’s forces moving west.
On 14 February, German forces launched a major offensive that pushed the Americans back through the Kasserine Pass. The more experienced and better outfitted German tank divisions easily out-performed the Americans and their machines. A more complete disaster was only avoided by the arrival re-enforcements from more battle-tested British units.
Rommel had succeeded in re-establishing his western lines, but he knew that his position was precarious. Montgomery was pressing form the east; and from Berlin, Hitler had begun to siphon off troops to bolster his rapidly deteriorating situation in Russia. British pressure on Rommel’s supply lines was also taking a toll.
Foreseeing the inevitable, Rommel urged Hitler to give up North Africa, but the Nazi leader refused to listen. He brought Rommel back to Germany and replaced him with Jurgen von Arnim. Rommel’s predictions, however, proved accurate. In late April, Allied forces began a final push, and by the first week of May it was all over. A frantic last-minute attempt to shuttle the remaining German and Italian troops back across the Mediterranean failed. More than 250,000 soldiers were subsequently taken prisoner when the Axis surrendered on 13 May.