Eisenhower tours the Tunisian front line

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, right, commander-in-chief in North Africa, jokes with four American soldiers during a recent inspection of the Tunisian battlefront, on March 18, 1943.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, right, commander-in-chief in North Africa, jokes with four American soldiers during a recent inspection of the Tunisian battlefront, on March 18, 1943.

In Tunisia the U.S Army was rapidly developing battle experience. One man was coming to terms with a huge range of new experiences, not solely connected with fighting the war. As the Allied Commander in North Africa Dwight D. Eisenhower had to accommodate some tricky diplomatic and political issues, as well as forge a working team of British and American senior commanders which contained no shortage of strong characters.

One man with a unique insight to the top command team was his Naval Aide, former journalist and broadcaster Harry C. Butcher, who was at Eisenhower’s side right through to the end of the war. On the 15th April they got a rare opportunity to see the war close up:

On Thursday morning left Ike’s tented Advance CR Generals Ike and Tooey in one car, General Porter and I in another, with jeeps and their .50′s fore and aft, on roads dusty with the rapid movement of elements of II Corps from its old sector to its new battleground in the north.

Ike was intent on calling on General Anderson of the First Army whom he had not seen for several weeks, as his dealings had been with Alexander since the latter had been given command of the battle front.

After thorough exploration of the situation with General Anderson, Ike accepted his invitation to drive fifteen miles north of Beja to see three Mark-6, or Tiger tanks. These were three of twenty-seven destroyed by the British when the Germans made a push March 26.

While Ike was interested in seeing the tanks, he was more concerned with familiarizing himself with the terrain over which American troops soon would operate. We changed from staff cars to jeeps at Beja, the road eastward being subject to strafing and bombing.

General Anderson himself drove the jeep for Ike. I rode in another and ‘manned’ the .50-caliber gun. Captain Samuelson, one of Anderson’s aides, sat in the front seat to guide. We were told that it we were strafed, we had the choice of staying in the jeeps or dashing off the road into the fields, many of which still had mines left by the Germans.

When we reached the scene of destruction of twenty-seven tanks, many of which could still be seen on the hillsides, we had to take a one-way dirt track across a field. The track was marked by white tape and along it were signs, ‘Mines-Verges.’ Because of possible presence of booby traps, there was a noticeable reluctance to prod into the innards of the Tiger tanks or to touch the articles lying around them.

We could hear artillery fire, judged by the experts to be about 2000 yards away. There had been no enemy aircraft that we had seen, although we had seen anti-aircraft bursts above and to the right of us. I filled my pockets with burned-out machine-gun cartridges from one of the tanks, pilfered a seven-foot copper whip antenna from another, and got away with an 88mm projectile.

The size of the Tiger, its armament, and especially its 88 gun were impressive. General Anderson said the British had laid a heavy pattem of artillery fire on this turn of the road when the tanks came charging along. The barrage was so heavy, and so many tanks were hit, that the crews of the Tigers abandoned their mobile fortresses. Clothing was still strewn about and, no doubt, there had been many killed.

General ’Tooey’ did not tell Ike, but he told me that he had been on a Flying Fortress raid of Palermo and Sicily the day before. Some forty- eight Fortresses took part, but three had been lost, two by fighters and one by f1ak. Tooey had seen eight of the crew of one Fortress bail out close to the Sicilian coast but over water. He said it wasn’t a pleasant sight.

Tooey’s trip on the bombers (it wasn’t the first by any means) brings to mind that I haven’t seen any criticism of American general officers failing to take risks with their men. Quite the contrary. Patton is a notorious front-line kibitzer, Eaker and Doolittle have flown innumerable missions with their crews, and General Ike has not sought the safety of Algiers, nor has he stayed there from choice.

But every time he wants to get where the shooting is, every front-line officer tries to discourage him. Then if he insists, so much protection is thrown around him, the party becomes too large and too many lives are needlessly endangered. So most of the time he just growls at his job in this war.

See Harry C. Butcher: My Three Years with Eisenhower

This pattern of anti-aircraft fire provides a protective screen over Algiers at night. The photo, recording several moments of gunfire, shows a defense thrown up during an axis raid upon Algiers in North Africa on April 13, 1943.

This pattern of anti-aircraft fire provides a protective screen over Algiers at night. The photo, recording several moments of gunfire, shows a defense thrown up during an axis raid upon Algiers in North Africa on April 13, 1943.

Leave a Comment

Earlier in the war:

Later in the war: