The North Africa Campaign: Remembering the Fight for El Guettar

On March 18, 1943  the 1st Ranger Battalion, commonly known as Darby’s Rangers for their commander William O. Darby, seized El Guettar, a town in central Tunisia where several roads from the south and the coast come together. Situated north of a lake and south of desert hill ridges, El Guettar proved an important geographic location for the Allies to control in their effort to maintain pressure on the Germans in North Africa.  

The Rangers had located strong Italian defenses on the road through a pass to the coast. After attacking and surprising the Italians, the Rangers, along with the 26th Infantry Regiment, seized the high point of the pass. This consolidated American position, in conjunction with the 1st Infantry Division’s advance towards the coast, threatened to cut off German forces holding defenses in Southern Tunisia against the British 8th Army. Well aware of the strategic importance of El Guettar, the German Army released the 10th Panzer Division from reserves and committed them to an attack on the town. If successful the 10th Panzer Division would blunt this American drive to the coast and could impose damaging losses as they had a month earlier during the American defeat at Kasserine Pass.

On March 23, 1943 the 10th Panzer Division attacked American forces at 3:00 a.m. along a southeastern road leading to El Guettar. The panzer division broke through the American front advancing in a formation with tanks and armored vehicles forming a three-sided screen. The 10th Panzer Division’s artillery remained on the start line shelling the Americans. Halfway to El Guettar the formation broke up.  One part continued northwest toward El Guettar and the other part of the formation moved north to attack American artillery batteries.

The right-hand German force overran American infantry and artillery positions in the low hills. Meanwhile the main German force was coming up the road toward El Guettar and sweeping out to the left to broaden its front toward the lake.  At this critical point the Germans ran into an American mine field, losing eight tanks. Simultaneously, American M3 tank destroyers fired on the advance and observers called in artillery fire on the Germans, ultimately knocking out 30 German tanks. The Germans retreated several miles around 9:30 a.m. recovering some damaged vehicles as they went. At this time, the 1st Infantry reorganized its defense and took stock. The remaining American tank destroyers reloaded their ammunition racks. The infantry dug in on its new lines.

Intercepted German messages indicated a new German attack planned for after 4:30 p.m. When it came, the Americans were waiting.  This time the 10th Panzer Division put their infantry forward, with tanks moving and firing support from the rear. American observers and artillery had the range and waited patiently for the enemy. When the range came down to 1,500 yards, the Americans opened a methodical air burst bombardment from divisional guns and howitzers along with high explosives fired from  75mm guns.  German artillery and air strikes made little impression on the defenders.  The German infantry that made it into contact was held off by 1st Division infantry and rangers.  After two hours the Germans gave up the attack and moved off.

At El Guettar the 1st Infantry Division held off a slightly depleted veteran German panzer division, but not without losses. The 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion lost fourteen men and 21 of its 31 M3 halftrack tank destroyers. The battalion was credited with destroying 37 tanks among 52 armored vehicles destroyed. A month after the defeat at Kasserine Pass the American Army in Tunisia had shown resilience in the face of the most formidable Axis forces.