Swift success in Sicily was built on the lessons of the Tunisian campaign

Pipers of the 51st Highland Division in the victory parade in Tunis on 20 May 1943. Copyright: © IWM 

At 1445 local time on 13 May 1943, 18 Army Group Commander General Harold Alexander sent the following signal to UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill in London:

“Sir, it is my duty to report that the Tunisian campaign is over. All enemy resistance has ceased. We are masters of the North African shores.”

One week later, American, British and French soldiers marched through Tunis in a victory parade.

The Tunisian campaign had been tougher and taken much longer than optimists had hoped. But it laid the foundations for the total defeat of Axis powers two years later.

For the Allies in May 1943, victory had become a matter of time.

There was no such confidence on 9 November 1942 when Operation Torch began with landings in Morocco and Algeria.

Would American and British troops be able to work together in the first major Anglo-American operation of the Second World War?

Would there be serious opposition?

And how would untested US forces and commanders react?

There were other imponderables.

The speed with which Axis forces were transported into Tunisia to block the Allied advance had not been  anticipated. Frontline troops were forced to spend the winter of 1942/43 in the open. Initially outnumbered, outgunned and lacking effective air cover, they suffered shortages as the Allies struggled to deliver supplies hundreds of miles from ports in Algeria.

Torch was beset by other uncertainties. The US calculated — wrongly as it turned out —  that the Vichy French garrison would refuse to fire on American troops as they landed. There were fears the operation might encourage Spain to join the Axis and close the Straits of Gibraltar. One reason why landings took place in Casablanca was to give the allies the option of an overland route through Morocco that bypassed the Straits.

All these issues were settled by Allied victory in Tunisia.

American and British commanders had learned to collaborate. Dwight Eisenhower, who at one point in the Tunisian campaign considered resigning, had established himself as an effective supreme commander. The US II Corps was worsted in the Kasserine Pass in February but recovered and went on the offensive under generals George Patton and Omar Bradley. Allied forces on land, sea and in the air worked together with increasing effectiveness.

The US had diplomatic relations with Vichy France when its forces landed in Casablanca and Algiers expecting a greeting rather than bullets and shells. To end resistance, Eisenhower reluctantly appointed Admiral Jean-Francois Darlan, seen as a collaborator, as High Commissioner of France for North and West Africa instead of General Giraud who had fled Vichy to join the Allies before Torch started.

In May 1943, doubts about where French state power resided had been dispelled.

Following the start of Torch, Germany occupied Vichy France, extinguishing its capacity for independent action. Darlan had been assassinated just before Christmas 1943. Giraud took over as High Commissioner as the US originally planned. Charles de Gaulle, championed by the UK as leader of the French resistance, moved his headquarters from London to Algiers in May 1943 to be on French territory. He became joint head of the Free French with Giraud and then from November the sole chairman of the French Committee of National Liberation.

An anti-Nazi French regime supporting the allied coalition had been assembled in Algiers to prepare to govern France and its empire once the war was won.

Italy had suffered heavy losses of both men and material in the Balkans, Greece, East Africa, Egypt, Libya and the Eastern Front.

But it had a formidable army in North Africa when the Anglo-American campaign in North West Africa began.

When it ended, Italy’s will to continue fighting was effectively extinguished. Casualties in the Tunisian campaign totaled more than 130,000 killed, wounded and taken prisoner. Convoys bringing supplies from Sicily had been hammered from air and sea. From January 1943, captured air fields in North Africa were used for bombing raids on Sicily and strategic targets on the Italian mainland.

At a meeting in Klessheim in Austria on 29 April, premier Benito Mussolini asked Adolph Hitler  to seek a separate peace with Russia. The request was rejected and Mussolini called on Italian forces in Tunisia to keep fighting. But he was a broken man and his regime was beginning to disintegrate.

For Spain, Allied victory in Tunisia was pivotal. It confirmed that neutrality was the right policy, a view bolstered by Allied dominance of the Mediterranean and fear of an embargo on imports of oil and essential commodities.

For the Allies, the consequences were almost immediately tangible. Largely free from the political constraints and operational doubts that weighed on Operation Torch, Allied commanders launched Operation Husky, the largest and most complex all-arms operation of the war so far, just over eight weeks after the fall of Tunis. The Sicily campaign was completed in 38 days with casualties that were lower than expected.

Operation Husky, in turn, laid the foundations for Operation Overlord 11 months later.

For London and Washington, that was the start of a completely different set of operational and political challenges. These involved defeating enemies that wouldn’t give up while preparing to contain the the Soviet Union’s Red Army when they finally did.

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