Blood and sand do not mix – Battle in Sedjenane Valley

Introduction

The Ninth Division had fought its way in North Africa since 8 November 1942. They met their first action against German soldiers, but also against French forces of Vichy Government, and remains of the Italian army. From 8 November 1942, they went through Operation Torch, Algeria campaign, Bougie and Setif, the notorious battle of Kasserine Pass and the battle of El Guettar. They began to earn a real combat experience, but they paid a too high price for it. Many men lost their life since the beginning of the North Africa Invasion.

El Guettar was the first battle in which the Americans were able to defeat German armored forces, but at a high human cost: between 4,000 and 5,000 losses and 35 to 55 tanks lost. On the German side, more than 40 tanks lost and from 4,000 to 6,000 killed or wounded in less than three weeks. The results of the battle were mixed: U.S. showed that they could fight the German in a defensive operation but also proved a lack of power when starting the offensive phase once on their own.

Situation

On 8 April 1943, the El Guettar operations ended. The Ninth Division was part of the II Corps, newly commanded by General Patton since March. The Division objectives were to:

-capture enemy positions at Djebel Ajred , as the first objective and RJ 4983, as the second objective;
-exploit in the direction of Mateur;
-seize the high ground dominating RJ 5094.
Note: The French Corps Franc d’Afrique, attached to the division, was to seize this latter objective.

002

Abstract of the Intelligence report concerning the German positions known by the G-2.

Approach

On 9 April, the first element of the division moved up, leaving Bou Chebka area, and proceeding to Roumes Souk, and relieved the British 46th Infantry Division during the period of 12 – 16 April. 47th Infantry was the first in position on the morning of 13 April. On 14 April, a platoon of the 9th Reconnaissance Troop moved into their command post established ½ miles north of Sedjenane. On the same day, F/47th Infantry was sent to occupy Djebel Tabouna, and on the night of 15-16 April, the 39th Infantry relieved the northern brigade of British 46th Division, just south of the Sedjenane Valley. 60th Infantry, last unit to arrive from the south, was held in concealed bivouac wall to the rear just west of Djebel Abiod, until 19 April.

Plans

The plans of attack consisted on a maneuvers, whereby the bulk of the Division would be employed in a wide flanking movement through the extremely terrain to the north of the main road, with the objective of out-flanking the hostile positions and cutting the enemy’s lines of command and communication to the north and northeast. Secrecy was an important part of these operations, because such a maneuver would create almost total lack of communication thorough the area to be traversed. So they needed to preserve the element of surprise.

In preparation of the attack, a detailed study of terrain was made, and dominating observation was selected for each of the intermediate objective to be captured by each regiment, each day.

Focusing on the operations of the 39th Infantry, commanded at that time by Colonel J. Trimble Brown ; it was to move forward a short distance to the area generally south of Sedjenane Valley, to attack for the capture of three intermediate objectives and one final objective in a timeline of five days. Its final objective completely dominated the main north-and-south road.

Mules as trucks

The extreme width of the frontline (approximately 28 miles) posed a difficult problem for the artillery, forced to scatter its units widely. Moreover, supply difficulties were anticipated to the north: a small number of trucks were turned over the French from division pool, because of their lack of transportation. To face this problem, a total of 300 mules was obtained for supply purposes, and for several days, the 39th Infantry (and so was the 60th) was forced to rely on this means of transportation almost completely!

003_new

Operations

On 12 April, Field Order #19 (click to read this order) was issued by the division HQ, directing the division to relieve British forces in the Sedjenane sector. On 5 April, 39thInfantry relieved the northern brigade of British 46th Division, just south of Sedjenane Valley, this night. No movement before the 23 April.

004

On 23 April, the attack started at 0530hrs and by 1100hrs, it was reported that all regiments had reached their objective of the day, with a very light opposition. But actually, this reports – if quite right about the north and south flanks of the attack, were not true concerning the 39th Infantry that encountered heavy resistance on the dominating hill, near Djebel Ainchouna. By nightfall, its leading elements were in a total confusion and had only reached the lower slope of the Djebel. On this day, Colonel Brown was retrieved of his command of the Regiment, and the command was then assumed by General Donald A. Stroh (Assistant Division Commander) until the replacement was received from the II Corps.

005

General Donald A. Stroh

Captain George A. Pedrick (2/39th Infantry S-1 Officer) recalls:

Just before the attack was to jump off on the 23rd we at the CP heard a lot of firing from the vicinity of the OP. Major Herman, the executive officer, directed me to gather up what men were available and check it out. We had only started forward when we met Colonel Brown and the OP party returning. The Colonel was really shaken He wanted to know which unit hadaffected his rescue. Someone said it was F Company. He told me that every man in that company was to get a medal for heroism He was relieved before that action could go very far. I understand that a German patrol got through our lines and was on its way home when it came across Colonel Brown and hisparty at the OP. F Company was in position on the east side ofthe hill ready to jump off in the attack. I heard that the operations plan was lost to the Germans, and recall talk that, regardless of this loss, it was too late to make changes. The attack would proceed as planned.

Testimony of Sergeant Willard C. Hayes, a rifle squad leader of G/39th Infantry:

On April 23rd we were in reserve behind the other companies attacking Djebel Ainchouna. Unknown to us a German patrol was behind our lines but we were alert. Suddenly I saw four Germans walking across a little hill about 40 yards away. I couldn’t get the attention of my men without alerting the Germans and they were too far to throw a grenade. I waited until they came within 10 yards and stopped behind a big busk. Then I fired a fullclip into that busk. There was quiet for a second and then all hell broke loose. Their bullets were hitting my pack and I tried to back away but was hit in the back and in the foot. My legs began to stiffen and I could feel hot blood running down the crack of my ass. One of my men cried out that he was hit and died very quickly. I was in pain but mostly worried about the Germans. I laid my head down on my rifle and pretended to be a goner.There was a sound of bushes moving and then a boot came downby my face. It was no GI shoe. When the German stepped over me, I turned my head and could see Private Tully on his knees with his back to us looking away. The German quickly grabbed Tully’s rifle and stepped in front bringing up his rifle on Tully who was rising to his feet. I had time for one shot over Tully’sshoulder. Without aiming, I hit the German over his right eye.His cap flew off and he died instantly. Tully went into shock and made a lot of noise. The other squad members came and a medic started to patch me up. Someone checked out the bush and found a dead German captain witheight bullet holes in him The rest of his party must have taken off·

006

Sergeant Willard C. Hayes

On 24 April, the regiment resumed its attack on Ainchouna and reached the summit. Here, its leading battalion – LTC Keeley 3rd Battalion – was seriously opposed by heavy enemy fire from the north and east. Several senior officers were hit, and it only thank to the leadership of a junior Captain (Conrad V. Anderson) that the battalion was able to retain its precarious hold on the mountain. Keeley broke down; his XO, Major Frank L. Gunn, had been wounded and evacuated.

2nd Lieutenant George I. Connolly, 3rd Battalion Artillery Observer from the 34th Field Artillery, recalls about that event:

Keeley was shaky. He was too old to be an infantry battalion commander out here. Gunn, the lire’ of the battalion, was gone. When we reached Ainchouna’s eastern end, Keeley requested fire down into the valley to the east where Germans reportedly had been gathered. I pinpointed the place by one of those whitewashed Arab gravesites but could see no enemy. An officer from one of the rifle companies came up and told me that he had a patrol in the target area and I reported this to Keeley. He insisted that we fire the mission and we did: half white phosphorus and half high explosive. The shells were still bursting when we spotted GIs running back out of the smoke. Keeley then came running over to me – ‘Cease fire! Add 100!’ The GIs returned with specks of the chemical having charred their clothes.

In the meantime, 1st Battalion went to the northeast and 2nd Battalion occupied without much opposition Hill 498 to the south. For three days, General Stroh had been the Regimental Commander, but in the opinion of Major Tucker, the Regimental XO, LTC Van H. Bond, “was the glue which held things together”. Later, Bond had been given the command of Keely’s 3rd Battalion.

007

Left: Frank L. Gunn - Right: Van H. Bond

On 25 April, the regiment employed a fresh battalion and, with an excellent field artillery support, completed the occupation of the summit of Djebel Ainchouna, driving out strong German defense forces. It was the 1st Battalion that took the hill, dominating one of the division objectives: the junction where the road from Jefna joined the Mateur-Bizerte highway. The fall of Ainchouna also deprived the Germans of much of their observation over Sedjenane Valley. It was possible thereafter to push reconnaissance with mechanized elements well to the east in this valley.

On 26 April, the regiment was to continue its enveloping movement to the east and southeast. It advanced two battalions to Djebel El Akrat, the D+1 objective of the regiment, thus resuming the step-by-step advance as planned. Colonel William L. Ritter was assigned to the 39th Infantry as Regimental Commander.

The day after, 27 April, little progress was made that day except in the zone of the 39th Infantry, where a battalion was successfully advanced to Hill 382. This resulted in the regiment’s being disposed in columns of battalions from east to west, wth 2nd Battalion on Hill 382, 3rd Battalion on Djebel El Akrat and 1st Battalion on Djebel Ainchouna. German reaction to the 39th Infantry’s advance became marked and the 2nd Battalion, which continued to hold this position for the next week, was constantly subjected to mortar and artillery fire. The day after, the 1st Battalion was moved from its position to the northeast and occupied a position on Hill 377, preparatory to an advance the following day on Hill 406.

The attack on Hill 406 wasn’t made on 29 April, but the day after, 30 April. It was completely successful. One battalion occupied this hill, and one pushed forward to the east, leaving one battalion on Hill 382. This area completely dominated the terrain just to the south, including the road leading northwest toward the head of Sedjenane Valley. It was obvious that that area was used by the German to gather their supply dumps and other supporting installations of their Green Bald Hill positions. Thank to this dominant position, effective shelling of these installations was possible, and the 26th Field Artillery fired over 4,000 rounds with devastating effects. The main German defenses had been outflanked out the next day, and began their withdrawal to the northeast.

008

Attack on the Hill 406, 30 April 1943

1st Lieutenant Stanford L. Downs of C Company summarizes the Djebel Ainchouna operation and its aftermath:

The 1st Battalion pushed eastward from djebel to djebel. None of these hills were strongly defended but fire fights with small groups of defenders were common. Some enemy units surrendered without a fight; others defended briefly and then withdrew before we could close on them. We were frequently under artillery bombardment or long-range small arms from hills other than the objective. We took casualties. Throughout this interval we maintained our assigned schedule and captured all objectives in a timely manner. Capture of that last ridgeline before the Mateur plains completed the drive through the mountainous terrain and was our most noteworthy action following our taking Ainchouna. We approached from the north and, despite a brief but spirited defense by a small German unit at the mountain’s base, and long-range rifle and machine gun fire from a hill to our left rear, we quickly seized the crest of Hill 406. In the valley to the south a dirt road ran parallel to the ridge line. The Germans had obviously expected our advance on this road and prepared an ambush from well dug-in positions on the steep south face of the ridge. Fortunately for us they weren’t occupied when we came along.

On 6 May, the 39th Infantry moved onto the Mateur plain and was attached to the 1st Armored Division. LTC Keeley was relieved for exhaustion, and Major Harry C. Herman assumed command of the 3rd Battalion.

Casualties

For the whole operations period (11 April to 8 May), the 39th Infantry lost 496 men.

  • 142 wounded in action (112 because of shells)
  • 38 kill in action
  • 4 miss in action
  • 54 injured
  • 89 exhausted states
  • 118 diseases
  • 51 retired, transferred or off from duty.

The first cemetery established for the use of the 9th Division was the Terbarka Military Cemetery, where 7 bodies were buried. The principal cemetery used for this operation was the “Regal Cemetery” at Sedjenane. A total of 92 men were buried there. An additional 23 were buried just outside this cemetery, and were moved inside as the cemetery was expanded. Today, 24 men of the 39th Infantry who died between 11 April and 8 May 1943 remain in the North Africa Cemetery in Carthage.

Here is one of them:

009

2nd Lieutenant Luther S. Gustafson, G Company, killed in action on April 27th, 1943.He was awarded posthumously the Distinguished Service Cross

"for extraordinary heroism in action, in April 1943, in the Battle of Tunisia.  During the advance of Lt. Gustafson’s battalion on Hill 382, he led a combat patrol to secure this position.  When the patrol came under intense enemy machine gun fire, Lt. Gustafson deplored them to form an effective firing line while he made a personal reconnaissance of the emplacement.  Locating the gun, he single handedly attacked it with grenades and pistol and silenced it.  During this heroic action, Lt. Gustafson lost his life, but his fearless leadership and spirit of self sacrifice so inspired his men that they held their position until reinforcements were brought up.  His devotion to duty and personal courage are outstanding examples of the finest ideals of the military service."