OUSSELTIA VALLEY OPERATION
Following postponement of Satin, General Eisenhower concurred with General Alexander and his Combined Chiefs of Staff that the 1st Armored Division would be employed to defend southern Tunisia and deter any energetic offensive by General Rommell when his Afrika Corps arrived in Tunisia as it fell back from British 8th Army attacks.
In order to extricate the surrounded French units the 1st Armored Divisions Combat Command A (CCA) prepared to attack Fondouk on 23 January and Combat Command B (CCB) under General Robinett was sent to the Ousseltia Valley. The 1st Infantry Divisions 26th Regimental Combat Team, protected by 443rd Platoons D-1, D-3, D-4 and D-5, attacked the ridge before Ousseltia, gradually wiping out German and Italian pockets of resistance and forcing the enemy to withdraw thus relieving pressure on the hard-pressed French units. The 26th Regiment then drove through Ousseltia Pass taking 450 Italian prisoners. During the action Platoons D-1 and D-5 engaged eight Messerschmitts (ME-109s) strafing from 1000 feet and destroyed two planes. This drive brought the Allied forces to within 40 miles of the major German headquarters and supply base 20 miles southeast of Kairouan. Thus threatened, the Germans began to retaliate viciously, first by air and then by land.
The German Air Force controlled the Tunisian skies at this point and usually attacked Allied positions around mealtimes. Stukas (JU-87s) had fixed landing gear and used their screaming sirens to frighten and demoralize our troops as they dove strafing and bombing from out of the sun. Often the ME-109s would tantalize the AAA gun crews by staying just out of range of the gun-tracks but drawing their fire so that Stukas coming out of the blazing sun could strafe and bomb the tanks and infantry. Major Larson immediately secured Navy variable polarized glasses for the gunners, gun sergeants and platoon leaders. Success against Stukas increased and the 443rds T-28-E1s became known to German pilots as the "Hornets Nest". At other times, ME-109s would drop smoke bombs and the Stukas would come out of the smoke, laying their "eggs". Another tactic was for the Germans to send one or two planes in at very low altitudes, where angular speed for tracking by the gun-tracks would be the greatest, just to draw fire and determine the amount of antiaircraft defense. If they didnt draw too much flak the main body of planes would appear and attack in 10 to 20 minutes.
A sensing of the kind of combat experienced by men of the 443rd may be gained from action reports from Platoon C-4.
Typical of the many combat moves of the 443rd platoons was that during the advance with the 26th Regimental Combat Team from Sbeitla to Ousseltia during night-time hours in January 1943. The grueling, cold, blackout move over steep, tortuous mountain passes often required the gun-tracks to back up in order to negotiate the many hairpin turns. Most unsettling was the sight of native French Army troops, with night campfires blazing away, blatantly signalling their whereabouts to the enemy. Americans, carefully schooled in the art of concealment and camouflage, could only gasp and curse at such action. But as time went by, they too developed a "what the hell" attitude but never to the extent of their French allies.
With the drive through Ousseltia Pass by the 26th Regimental Combat Team, Platoon D-1 was ordered to protect the mouth of the pass from German attempts to close it and trap the 26th. Steep cliffs at the entrance to the pass made the task almost impossible but the gun-tracks were soon in the best available positions - three in the hills at the entrance to the pass and one on the plain at the entrance itself. The 443rd men didnt have long to wait. In a morning attack, six ME-109s roared in to attack and while the planes were still out of range the anxious AAA gunners began firing even before they were spotted by the enemy. The ME-109s then broke into pairs and sprayed the gun-tracks unmercifully from several different directions. Terrain and position allowed the gun tracks,in the hills, limited fields of fire and they were unable to give protective fire to the single gun-track on the plain,at the entrance to the pass. A second attack failed when heavy AA fire caused bombs to be dropped wide of their marks. 443rd men learned a costly lesson that camouflage was important and that antiaircraft fire should not begin until either the gun-track positions were seen by the enemy or the planes were well within range of the weapons. While such tactics had been stressed in training, real and sharp learning seemed to come best in combat action. Platoon D-1 shot down two of the attacking ME-109s, at the cost of one man killed and seven wounded. Two gun-tracks were put out of action. They were later retrieved and repaired. But the Ousseltia Pass and Valley remained open and in Allied hands.
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