Maj Stephen B. Morrissey
Official histories of World War II, it has been claimed, will toe the most complete and most accurate ever written. With maps and statistics, they will describe the maneuvers of regiments, divisions and armies around the world. The maps will be in gay colors. Strong, fat arrows will coil, penetrate, envelop, and hammer at enemy forces. The decisions of famous leaders will be analyzed exhaustively. These histories may almost begin to tell the real history of the war. In occasional paragraphs, the exploits and failures of rifle companies, platoons and squads may toe mentioned. To front line veterans below the rank of major, these records will be inadequate. They will have the feeling that at least 75% of the story should emphasize the achievements, the war effort, and the sacrifices of riflemen in the small units.
The most important lessons of the war, they feel, are psychological rather than tactical or strategic. The inner lives, emotions and motivations of the men who did the real dirty work should be studied. Surviving infantrymen can remember the times when this feeling of self-importance was the very thing that kept them going. They felt they were in the vanguard of history. They can remember also how men in rifle companies would fight for the prestige and reputation of a rifle company beyond any other motive. To get mentioned in the newspapers was another incentive. Ordinarily, it was nothing but a continuous, secret hope, never to be realized.
The natural human desire for fame and glory had to be enjoyed vicariously, through identification with big arrows, the names of generals, or headlines like Yanks Launch Offensive. Many other motives, of course, energized infantrymen to endure the primitive conditions of combat. A military historian trying to give a scientific account of them would also have to be a genius in the psychological fourth dimension. This monograph must therefore limit itself to the viewpoint and experience of an amateur observer of human frailty. The desire for prestige is one motivation with which we are concerned in the story of the Maknassy raid.
On Dec 16, 1942, early in the Tunisian Campaign, Love Company, 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, pulled a night attack on Maknassy, a small town about 250 miles south of Tunis, and about 40 miles inland from the coastal route which the Afrika Korps used in its withdrawal from El Alamein to Tunis. Not until several months later did this area become a noteworthy battleground.
In Dec 1942, it was a routine patrol country, where the 3/26-IR had been assigned to present a show of force. The rest of the regiment and the HQs of the 1-ID were still back in Oran, about 350 miles to the northwest. At this time, the 3/26 was the main strength of a task force commanded by Col Edson D. Raff (Paratrooper). Whether or not the 3/26 actually contributed to history during this month of Dec 1942 is questionable. But in the minds of the men, their work was important.
Col Edson Duncan Raff (Nov 15, 1907 – Mar 11, 2003) was a US Army officer and author of a book on paratroopers. He served as Commanding Officer (CO) of the first American Paratrooper unit to jump into combat, the 2/509-PIR, near Oran as part of Operation Torch during World War II. Raff had served as First Capt of Cadets at a small prep school in Winchester, Virginia called the Shenandoah Valley Academy before serving in the army. He graduated from the US Military Academy (USMA) in 1933 as a second lieutenant (Infantry Branch).
By the time the USA entered World War II in Dec 1941, Raff had transferred to the army’s fledgling airborne forces. Serving as Commanding Officer of the 2nd Battalion in Col William M. Bud Miley’s 503-PIR. Raff’s battalion (which was later redesigned 509-PIB) was sent to England as an independent unit as part of Operation Roundup, the Allied invasion of German-occupied Europe scheduled for 1942 which, due to lack of resources, was postponed until 1943. Meanwhile, in England, the 509 trained alongside and became closely associated with the British 1st Airborne Division, commanded by Gen Frederick A. M. Browning, the father of the British Airborne Forces.
Due to the tough training course, he gave the paratroopers in the 509-PIB (and his stocky physique), Raff was nicknamed ‘Little Caesar’ by his men. He first saw combat in Nov 1942 during Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of French North Africa, as the commander of the 509-PIB.
The main force with Col Raff also jumped early some 35 miles east of the objective airfields. Although he broke several ribs in a hard landing, Col Raff continued to lead his paratroopers toward their objectives, and after a full day and night forced march, a company of weary paratroopers reached the airfield at Tafaraoui on the morning of Nov 9. Both airfields had already been captured by Allied amphibious forces. Thus ended the first and rather disappointing American Airborne combat operation in history.
He then spent time as an airborne planner in Gen Omar N. Bradley’s staff and was assigned by Gen Matthew B. Ridgway to lead Task Force Raff, a composite unit of M-4 Sherman tanks and scout cars landed at Utah Beach on D-Day, to support the 82-A/B. When the CO of the 507-PIR was captured in Normandy, Raff was assigned to take the regiment over on Jun 15, 1944. He led the 507-PIR through the rest of the war, during the Battle of the Bulge and during Operation Varsity in March 1945. As the plane neared the drop zone during Operation Varsity, Raff recalled ‘I was alone standing in the door of the plane looking down at the river passing beneath the plane, smoke partially obscured my view. At that moment, I said a prayer to the infant Jesus, The Little Flower, ‘Little Flower, in this hour show Thy power’. The prayer was given to me by my sister who was a nun. I said the prayer before every jump’. Raff led the regiment in the Western Allied invasion of Germany until the end of World War II in Europe came less than two months later on May 8 1945.
After the war, in 1954, Raff commanded the 77th Special Forces Group, based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina and is credited by Lt Gen William P. Yarborough (who had served under Raff with the 509th in North Africa) as the ‘father’ of the then-controversial green beret now routinely worn by US Army Special Forces. Raff retired from the army in 1958. He died on March 11, 2003, at 95 years old.
In their imaginations, it was like life must have been in the badlands of our old southwest. The semi-arid desert steppes, the treeless mountains, and the little French-Arab towns helped to suggest this illusion. To the members of Love Co, at any rate, the Maknassy raid was Cowboy-Indian stuff. This action had a decisive effect on the morale of one rifle company. That is mostly why it is important. The raid sharpened group loyalty within Love Co. Within the battalion, the company gained a reputation and a prestige commensurate with that of the other rifle companies. Even the newspapers picked it up. The men acquired, in the wild experience of one night’s action, a feeling of self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-importance which almost gave them the ambition to see more action. Since such positive morale results of infantry combat are rare, it may be of interest to explain how they developed. The Maknassy raid may thereby serve as a psychological case study, as well as a small piece of tactical history.
From Oran to Feriana
Love Co’s peculiar mental condition, which was purged at Maknassy, began at Oran, where the 1-ID went into bivouac after the battle of Nov 8-10, 1942. The 3/26 was guarding the La Senia Airfield. Troops were in comparatively good humor having weathered their first combat. In numberless bull sessions, they rehashed their adventures, swapped rumors. There were arguments as to which company in the battalion had ‘had it toughest’. One day the CC overheard Paul Egan, top sergeant of Love Co, leading an old soldier’s discussion on this topic. The first sergeant of King Co was present and a crowd of men were gathered around an argument. Egan would not admit that Love Co was not a thousand times better than King Co.
As a matter of fact, Egan knew and everyone else in the battalion knew that King Co had done an outstanding job in the two day battle up on Djebel Murdjadjo. King Co had borne the brunt of the fighting. If any company deserved credit for courage, casualties, and good tactics, it was King Co. A person sensitive to the real feelings of Love Co, for instance, could plainly see that in some future action, Love Co would have to perform some kind of battle exploit if only to provide ammunition for the GI bull sessions. Otherwise, it was reassuring to know that the 1st Infantry Division was together in Oran.
On that higher level, there was a secure sense of prestige. Under the competent leadership of Terry Allen and Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the Division was a proud, battle-tried team. Super-imposed over the finely-spun psychological condition in the 3/26, was this indirect feeling of self-importance derived by identification with a famous parent outfit. The Division had been mentioned on the second page of the New York Times. Love Co had not been mentioned; even King Co had not been recognized. But that was all right. The rest of the Army and the folks at home would know that if the 1-ID took Oran, Pvt Smith and Pvt Jones of Love Co had been chiefly responsible. This larger psychological support was snatched out from under the 3/26 within two weeks after the battle of Oran.
Roused from its bivouac at La Senia, the battalion was dispatched 700 miles into southern Tunisia – airborne. To go by air was a sort of compensation for the loss of confidence in being separated from the Division. The urgency of the order and the novelty of transportation were exciting. Think of the publicity! What would the history books say?
The prospect of air travel had its disturbing side also. Ninety percent of the men had never been up in a plane. None of them had had any airborne training. Further, it was not reassuring to know that the planes would travel unarmed, and only lightly escorted along the Algerian coast, thence into Tunisia.
Any furtive inspection of a map could lead you to visualize swarms of Luftwaffe and hordes of German infantry waiting in ambush. Pride in their being chosen to do the unusual and the dangerous, however, overcame any psychological barriers. Item Company led off the battalion order of march from Oran. Love Co went the following day, to be followed by Bn HQs, Mike and King Cos at one-day intervals. The long flight was made in two hops, via Algiers, thence over the rocky Tell Atlas mountains. C-47 transports loaded 14 men to a plane, carried the battalion without mishap to a natural airfield at Youks Les Bains, near Tebessa.
Several days before Item Co arrived, this airfield had been secured without opposition by Col Raff and two companies of the 509-PIB. Col Raff had then pushed overland to Feriana with one parachute company and Able Co of the 701-TDB. When Love Co arrived at Youks, they were defeated by the news that Item Co, had already moved to Feriana, 50 miles eastward. Item Co together with the tank destroyers had gone on to chase an Italian force out of Gafsa. They had captured Gafsa. That happened on Nov 28, 1942. Love Co did not move on to Feriana for several days. They were ordered to guard the airfield at Youks, from which P-38’s and A-20’s were already beginning to operate. Meanwhile, HQs Co and Mike Co flew in and passed through Youks to Feriana.
On Dec 4, McLaughlin, the 3/26 S-4, pulled into the Love Co Bivouac at Youks. You missed it, he said. The battalion had one hell of a fight at Faid Pass the last two days. He said that two platoons of Item Co, HQs Co, Mike Co, the Able 701-TDB, a Company of the 509-PIB, and a French company had captured Faid Pass. 121 prisoners had been taken. A lot of men had been killed, 50 casualties of our own altogether. He said that Item Co and the A&P Platoon of HQs Co had been chiefly responsible for the victory. Mike Co mortars and machine-guns had done good work, too.
Then, to the little group of Love Co men, McLaughlin intoned in that sympathetic, yet a self-important way of the veteran talking to the recruit, You should’a been there. They were Germans, too. It was rough.
Thus, within a few short days, Love Co’s stock in self esteem had taken another slump. When the company arrived in Feriana on December 5, the victorious battalion had returned from Faid Pass, leaving the French colonial troops to organize the defense. Love Co men had to listen patiently to all the details of the battle. It had been a good one, but it is human nature to want to participate equally in any discussion.
Now Item Co wore the battalion laurels. Even the A&P Platoon was arrogant. Even the mortar men of Mike Co were more experienced. In exploits, Love Co now ranked last. This being last place in the competition for honors was getting a little wearing. And as both the Love Co Commander and the battalion commander realized, it was not good for the morale of the battalion either. It was desirable that there be an equality of achievement among the three rifle companies, A group of men can be as sensitive as any individual personality. It was a lesson in psychology which none of the officers had learned prior to war.
Maknassy becomes a Focal Point
After the battle of the Faid Pass, the 3/26, basing in Feriana, sent out motor patrols, day and night, toward a point of expected contact with the enemy. Love Co took over most of this patrolling during December forged ahead a little bit in prestige. Six or twelve-man outposts were established astride the most likely approaches into this area from the Tunisian coast. Every night, jeep patrols went out along these roads from Feriana and Gafsa. The terrain made it evident that, if the Afrika Korps wanted to spill over into the area held by the Americans and the French, they would come through the Faid Pass, Maknassy, or El Guettar. On the other hand, if sufficient American forces could be brought into southern Tunisia on time, for the purpose of cutting off the retreat of the Germans from eastern Africa, these three places would be crucial points of passage through to the coast.
Such possibilities gave some importance to the patrol work being done by the 3/26 out of Feriana and Gafsa. They were only a few hundred men, but they were pleased to receive newspapers from home, telling of the race for Tunisia. One news paper map showed a big arrow pointed at Feriana, marked – Raff Task Force. The men were a little bit amused to think that really, they were ahead of the map arrow, and a good deal ahead of the Task Force.
French Colonial troops occupied the Faid Pass and Gafsa, but did not participate in the patrolling. They had no vehicles at all. As Allies, they were still regarded a little bit askance by most of the Americans. But they were of some help in giving a semblance of strength to a line which was actually thin. The French had a way with the Arabs, too, and often provided enemy information which, even if it was not always reliable, was never dull.
A P-40 Fighter Squadron moved into Thelepte early in December and helped to provide enemy information as well as protection to the 3/26 there. Almost every day, they would put on a pretty good show against German planes over Feriana and Gafsa. But the patrol work of the battalion provided the most interesting gossip. Lt Don Megrail of Love Co’s 3rd Platoon, took a jeep patrol from Bir Mrabott all the way to Gabes one night. There is a good macadam road between Gafsa and Gabes. The next night, one the same mission, Megrail collided head-on with a German patrol near El Hafey. Actually, these two patrols almost smashed up before they recognized each other. They stopped bumper to bumper. One German stayed in his vehicle and let go with a machine pistol while Megrail was firing at him with a machine gun mounted on the front of the jeep. The German lost the duel. The other three gave up.
This airfield located in Tunisia was about 20 Km southwest of Kasserine. It was used by the 12-USAAF in 1943 during the North African Campaign against the German Afrika Korps. The first American units arrived in late December and the P-40s of the 33d Fighter Group arrived on January 7 from Telergma Airfield, Algeria. Thelepte was used by the following units during the Battle of Tunisia, HQs 64th Fighter Wing (March 1–18, 1943); 47th Bombardment Group (March 30 – April 13, 1943)(A-20 Havoc); 31st Fighter Group, (February 7–18, 1943) (Spitfire); 33d Fighter Group (January 7 – February 8, 1943)(P-40 Warhawk) and the 81st Fighter Group (January 22 – February 18, 1943)(P-39 Airacobra). On Feb 18, the 31st and 81st Fighter Groups had to withdraw from Thelepte Airfield after the Afrika Korps came within a few miles of the airfield. However American counter-attacks drove the Germans east and the airfield was re-manned on March 1, later hosting A-20 Havocs until mid-April, when the combat was focused around Tunis and the units moved east to be closer to enemy targets, ending American use of the airfield.
Lt Don Megrail became the hero of Love Co because he was the first man in the company to meet a German soldier at close quarters. He added to his laurels and to those of his company the following night by returning to El Hafey, where he discovered an enemy column on the road. They were Italians. He counted them as they moved into a position there. Meanwhile, under skillful German direction, an Italian force had been established in the defile at Djebel Ank. There was increasing evidence that the enemy was probing toward Gafsa via El Guettar.
Col Raff then began to worry about Maknassy. It was too quiet. He ordered more patrolling in that direction. The night of December 13, Lt Norman Woods (2nd Platoon Love Co) took a jeep patrol through Maknassy to Mezzouna, 15 miles beyond. He was outflanked by a couple of mysterious green flares. On the way back, he walked around Maknassy. In the railroad station, he roused the agent, a Frenchman.
The Frenchman mistook Woods for a German. He said that a lot of Americans were in Gafsa. Woods could not figure out whether his allegiance was German or American. He was so wrapped up in this problem that he did not look around Maknassy closely enough to fix in his mind a layout of the streets. He had not been ordered to do this, but if he had, it might have helped out later. The next night, Dec 14, Sgt Henning, Sgt De Cristo, and a French Sgt, went to Maknassy. They approached the town via the Lovy Farm. They interviewed M. Lovy. He told them that a battalion of Italians had moved into Maknassy. He even plotted their positions. According to this information, the enemy was setting up at least four machine guns and two AT guns in front of Maknassy. They were digging trenches around the western edge of the big olive grove south of the town. The patrol did not verify these facts personally.
On the 15, after Henning’s patrol had returned to Gafsa, French headquarters tried to make a phone call to Maknassy. Up ’till then, the line had been open, and the French have been able to contact Maknassy every day. The line was still open, but a German voice answered. This was enough to send the French officer on the other end of the line into a fit of hysteria.
He called Col Raff. But the situation did call for a bit of investigating. Col Raff called Col John W. Bowen, commanding the 3/26 and ordered him to send a rifle company into Maknassy. Raid the place, he said; shoot it up, take prisoners and come out at daylight. This happy idea was rapidly relayed to the Love Co’s CO, who was still a little bit worried about that exploit his company needed to boost its ego. Raid Maknassy? he repeated. Yes, sir, that’s fine, fine! Tonight, the battalion commander said. That wasn’t much time to get ready. It was already noon. Maknassy was 100 miles away. Enemy information was as comprehensible as it ever was. But without doubt, this was the opportunity of the season for Love Co. Here was a golden chance to do something spectacular. It had all the ingredients.
Col Bowen entrusted the planning of the raid to the Company CO. He would accompany the raiders himself, but it was characteristic of his leadership to admit some intelligence in his subordinates. The order had been issued at noon the 16. A number of decisions had to be made before leaving Feriana. The problem which quite often confronts any infantry commander arose – how many men and weapons to take along in order to do the job most economically and efficiently. Col Raff had specified a rifle company. But the 2nd Plat of Love Co was out posting El Guettar, and could not be assembled in time. No need was seen for the Weapons Platoon, and this agreed with the doctrine of night attacks that the Weapons Platoon is not ordinarily employed initially. Even two rifle platoons and company headquarters seemed an excessive number of men to take on a long range mission where the enemy situation was unclear. (Map-001)
At any rate, it was decided to make the raid with the 1st Platoon, the 3rd Platoon, and HQs Co. In order to help preserve secrecy, the men were not told where they were going. A detailed order would be issued in Gafsa that evening. But the word got around somehow. At 1300, as the five GMC 2.5-ton trucks pulled out of Feriana, every soldier in the battalion knew that an attack was going to be made on Maknassy that night. This was disturbing because the Arabs who loitered around might have ways of getting the news overland-by signal fires. They had done this more than once.
The 40-mile truck move to Gafsa was made by infiltration, since the road was subject to daily attacks by German planes. It was completed safely by 1700. The troops detrucked at the French barracks in Gafsa to wait for darkness at 1830. This allowed 1.5 hours to plan the attack and disseminate the order to every man. The CO assembled his platoon leaders and all the men who had been on patrol in the Maknassy area. Time would not permit a personal recon before the raid since Maknassy was over 50 miles east of Gafsa. No air photo of the town was available. The only map available, a 1/200.000, made Maknassy look no larger than one of these typewritten letters. No street map or a detailed plan of the town’s layout was available; and unfortunately, none of the men who had been in Maknassy could sketch it clearly. It was agreed only, that Maknassy was a small place, much smaller than Gafsa. There was a big olive grove on the south side and some high ground on the north. There were trees along the dirt streets. The only street that anyone could describe at all was the main road and the position of the railroad tracks and the station with respect to it. The Company CO put a magnifying glass on the 1/200.000 map and tried to make a blow-up sketch of the town, using every particle of information thereon. It was a French map and some of the symbols he could not understand. Precious minutes were lost getting them interpreted. When the sketch was drawn, it didn’t make Maknassy look too complicated.
For the approach march, the only solution was to utilize the knowledge of Sgt Henning and Sgt De Cristo, who had gone up to the Lovy Farm the night of the 14. The company would follow the same route they had taken to a detrucking point five miles short of the town, thence on foot via the Lovy Farm to the distinct line of olive trees leading into the objective. Henning and De Cristo would ride in the second of two jeeps preceding the five trucks.
Another jeep leading the column would act as point security. This jeep would also move on up to Maknassy as soon as the shooting started. It had a heavy machine gun mounted and could protect the trucks when they came back to a rendezvous point on the road. A wadi crossing the road about three miles west of Maknassy would serve as this point of reorganization for the return march.
Speaking of security on the approach march, the Company CO suddenly realized that our last outpost was at Sened. This meant that the company would have to ride a total of 18 miles to the detrucking point without any assurance of safety from enemy patrols. It was a chance that would have to be taken. For the plan of attack on Maknassy itself, the Company CO was probably influenced by his desire to have Love Co perform a spectacular tactical masterpiece. Contrary to elementary principles of night attack which the Infantry School has stressed for years, he conceived an envelopment, and an attack in two directions.
Lt Megrall’s 3rd Platoon and HQs Co would separate from the 1st Platoon at a point southwest of the town, the 3rd Platoon would then move generally northwest in single file, guiding on the outermost buildings as far as the main road. They would then extend to their right, facing northwest, firing in that direction if necessary; or, they would engage the enemy in the southwest quadrant of the town.
The 3rd Platoon would not advance north of the main road unless ordered. CP would be with the 3rd Platoon. Meanwhile, Lt Falconieri’s 1st Platoon would follow the line of olive trees completely around to the rear of the town, moving across its eastern exit to the railroad tracks. Here they would turn about and using the tracks as the platoon left boundary, deploy on a hundred-yard front facing toward Gafsa. Whether to use squad columns or skirmishers was a decision to be made by the platoon leader. The 1st Platoon would then walk slowly westward, taking what they met.
Arriving at the railroad station, Falconieri would shoot a green flare and call the 3rd Platoon to lift fire if that was necessary. The 1st Platoon would then continue their attack through the northern half of the town, moving beyond to the Gafsa road, thence to the waiting trucks. Withdrawal time at 0400 would be signaled from company headquarters. A series of colored flares would be fired. Possibly another reason for this complicated maneuvering was the fact that the several suspected enemy positions had not been exactly spotted; and without definitely known landmarks, it was unlikely that they could be located in the dark. Therefore, since the 3rd Platoon was expected to rouse the enemy first, an opportunity would be afforded the 1st Platoon to spot enemy guns by sound and flash from the rear. In short, the 1st Platoon might achieve the second stage of surprise provided that it got into position by the railroad station in good order.
As a general rule within the company, for control purposes, it was agreed that the men would be instructed to guide themselves on recognizable bursts from their squad BAR’S, and by means of squad leaders’ tracer ammunition. With this in mind, only squad leaders were to carry tracers. As sign and countersign, the words which the 1-ID had used at Oran were used; Hi Ho Silver Away. These were the main outlines of the attack order given to the platoon leaders and key non-commissioned officers of Love Co in the French barracks at Gafsa. It was then about 1745. Forty-five minutes remained before departure time. The subordinate leaders started to leave the room when two strange men entered. They looked like Red Cross workers at first sight. One of them had a beard.
What the hell do you want? the CC barked. Then he simmered down. He noticed their green armbands and their shoulder patches which read – War Correspondent. I’m Jack Thompson, Chicago Tribune the bearded man said, and this is Donald Coe of United Press. We’d like to get a story from you tomorrow when you get back.
The CC felt his heart leap. Here it was, the big opportunity for real fame. American newspapers! Headlines! Just exactly what Love Co needed! He mustered up every trick of politeness he had ever learned. To these two strange men who represented the power of the press, he offered cigarettes, chairs, and even a drink from a precious, bottle he’d been hiding from his best friends.
He even obliged by promising them a roaster of Love Co, complete with names and addresses. Turning to the little group of Love Co men and officers present, the Company CO said: Let the men know about this too. Unless he was very much mistaken, it would be good for morale.
The column started out of Gafsa on schedule at 1830 the night of Dec 16. The weather was good, clear, and cool. The stars were already out and there would be a moon later on. The men were in high spirits but quietly took their places in the trucks. It would be a long ride. The CO rode in the front seat of the leading GMC 2.5 ton truck. He was in the 5th or last truck. For mile after mile, the column churned along the sandy road, past Station Zannouch, and finally past our last outpost at Sened. The black line of the railroad track which paralleled the route and the looming shadows of the mountains to the south served as comforting guides. Otherwise, the road might have been indistinguishable from the rest of the flat, scrub-covered desert. Behind every clump of cactus and in each wadi, it seemed that the enemy was waiting in ambush.
The closer the trucks came to Maknassy, the louder the motors whined. Shifting gears seemed to accentuate a noisy warning which rang out for miles ahead of the raiding party. Just how far the sound of the motors carried that night, the CO never knew; but he was glad that a detrucking point several miles short of the objective had been chosen.
At 2230, after four hours of nerve-wracking inaction inside the lumbering vehicles, the troops detrucked in the shadows of an olive grove near la Ferme Lovy. They formed in a column of two’s for the foot march.
Col Bowen came up to the CO at this time and asked if an officer had been brought along to take the trucks back to the rendezvous point. This little item had been forgotten, so the battalion commander decided to take this job on himself, though he had wanted to go along with the Company. Over the route which they had followed the night of the 14, Sgt Harming, Sgt De Cristo, and the French sergeant led the company column toward the Lovy Fram. Incidentally, Henning spoke German, De Cristo Italian, and the French soldier knew both French and Arabic; so that the point of the advancing party was on challenging terms with any of the languages it might run into. M. Lovy had dogs, and as the company moved into his backyard, they barked and yowled. M. Lovy woke up and opened his front door. He was forced to invite the Love Co CO and several other soldiers inside.
There were Italian troops in Maknassy, M. Lovy said. Some Italian officers had been to his place that afternoon. They had carried away three barrels of wine. He was unable to give any other coherent information. One of the men found his telephone and cut the wire. He was then permitted to go back to bed.
It was still three miles to Maknassy. The company started up again across the open. By this time, the moon was brighter and dogs barked louder.
The column reached the big olive grove and kept moving in along its northern border. Suddenly, the moonlit grayness of the desert on the left gave way to the unmistakable lines of buildings. They had white plaster walls. There were cactus hedges and trees. Except for the dogs who could now be heard barking in the town, not a sound could be heard. It looked pretty peaceful and quiet, in contrast with the tension, suspense and suppressed excitement of the attacking force.
The 1st Platoon kept on marching and disappeared. The 3rd Platoon moved toward the nearest building, thence along the walls and fences in a northwesterly direction as planned. There was a fairly distinct line to follow.
The 3rd Platoon kept in a single file about 35 yards out from the buildings. It was exactly 0130 when things began to happen. Lt Megrail suddenly found himself staring into a hole filled with sleeping men. The dugout was about 15 feet square surrounded by stone bricks piled about waist high. It looked like an old covered up well. At his feet, Megrail saw a heavy machine gun all set up. Alongside it, a belt of ammunition curled around the tripod; the new cartridges gleamed in the moonlight.
One of the sleeping men woke up and poked his head over the wall. He came face to face with one of Megrail’s men and let out a shriek. The American soldier shot him. The dugout became alive with men, jabbering Italian. Someone magnanimously threw a grenade among them.
About 25 yards away, another enemy machine-gun post was aroused. It was located at the corner of a building in a clump of bush. The 3rd Platoon column had already come abreast of it and would have missed it if the companion gun had not been run into. This group was quickly rushed by members of the 3rd squad. Half a dozen Italian soldiers surrendered here without a shot being fired. By this time, however, at least four other machine guns had opened up some distance away, north of the road. An AT gun started to shoot down the road toward Gafsa. The bright tracers illuminated the road. Within a few minutes, the enemy must have realized the stone dugout had been taken, because they smartly shifted their fire to this flank. It was too high to do any damage.
The 3rd Platoon moved quickly over to the shelter of the nearest building. No enemy-fire could be heard from the east. The 3rd Platoon and Hqs Co were bunched up wondering what to do next. The CO looked for Lt Megrail and found him still out by the stone dugout. He was trying to work the Italian machine gun, but without success. The CO tried to operate it but quickly gave up because he hadn’t had the least idea how it worked. Megrail and the Company Commander also discussed how the enemy weapon could be destroyed since it was too heavy to carry away. They couldn’t solve that one either.
The squads of the 3rd Platoon were dispatched into the town with orders to take the first left and move up to the main street according to plan. The 2nd squad was ordered to make a similar shift beyond that. The 3rd squad was to contact the 1st Platoon.
Within its limitations, this part of the plan worked out fairly well. The 3rd Platoon moved through the streets in its assigned area. The 2nd squad surprised a mortar section in action inside a courtyard surrounded by a high wall. The 1st squad destroyed an AT position by means of a rifle grenade and BAR fire at close range. Several more prisoners were taken and sent to the company CP, which had been established near the gun positions first overrun. The 3rd squad made contact with the 1st Platoon at the railroad station about 0830. By this time also, Lt Megrail had managed to organize his platoon along the main street facing north.
Enemy machine guns continued to fire from positions that appeared to be about 200 yards north of the road. Had 60-MM mortars been available, an effective fire might have been directed at the gun flashes of the enemy machine guns and even the AT guns. The muzzle flash of one AT gun was plainly visible. It was evident that Maknassy had not been built in a way to convenience strangers on a night raid. There were all kinds of courtyards and alley-ways. The buildings were odd sizes built at all angles. They were two-story and one story. Cactus hedges were everywhere. To make control even more difficult, the moon disappeared behind clouds after 0300, but Love Co was having the time of its life.
That is unusual in modern war. Jubilant cries of ‘Silver’ could be heard all over Maknassy. Bursting grenades, sporadic rifle fire, and tracers made it look like the Fourth of July. Meanwhile, the 1st Platoon was having a similar field day on the far side of town. Soon after the 3rd Platoon became engaged, contact was established using the SCR- 536 radios. The CO was able to get a running account of the 1st Platoon action. The 1st Platoon had come around exactly as planned. They found a truck parked near the road, they killed or drove the drivers and guards away, all of whom were asleep.
At 0200, the 1st Platoon reached the railroad station, keeping into a single file as they had not yet been discovered. At this time, they could see the enemy fire being directed at the 3rd Platoon from the positions northwest of the station. They were about 35 yards from the station when several men were seen leaving it in a northerly direction. A BAR opened up on this group and killed two Italians. The others disappeared in the dark toward the enemy position. The 1st squad of the 1st Platoon rapidly came up to the station. Falconieri yelled in Italian. Ten men came out with their hands up. Falconieri left one squad at the station and with his remaining squad started following the enemy up the path just west of the station. A stream of fire came at him down the path, wounding two men. The enemy had been alerted to the presence of the 1st Platoon in the area of the station. Falconieri spent about 30 minutes trying to get his bearings on the enemy guns. But the terrain was unfamiliar.
Northwest of the station, he observed, it rose slightly and was covered with random olive trees and cactus patches. It was very dark. In addition to enemy fire, there was also a lot of wildfire coming from the 3rd Platoon area. Although Love Co men should have been able to recognize the sound of their own rifles and BAR’S, their tendency was to look and listen for any weapon, then shoot. Under these circumstances, Falconieri called the Company CO at 0300. One hour remained before withdrawal time. He wanted to know whether it would be feasible to shoot his green flare and continue the attack as it had been planned.
Falconieri was able to get the first sergeant and Lt Megrail, but not the Company Commander. The latter, not to be outdone in cowboy tactics, had started for the 1st Platoon with his runner. He had no radio. By the time he reached the station, it was 0330. Falconieri, meanwhile, after a talk with Megrail, had decided not to cross the front of the 3rd Platoon. If the 1st Platoon were to walk west along the tracks, it would not only miss the enemy positions but would certainly be fired on by the 3rd Platoon.
To try a coordinated attack farther to the north against the indefinitely located enemy positions, furthermore, would be fruitless at that late hour. For these reasons, Falconieri decided to assemble his platoon and rejoin the 3rd Platoon. This itself was a difficult job in the dark. At any rate, the 1st Platoon moved out in a single file at 0325, preceded by scouts and with complete flank security to guard against being mistaken by the 3rd Platoon. This proved to be about as hazardous as it might have been if they had marched west along the tracks. But it was accomplished without anyone getting hurt.
At 0330, the Company Commander arrived at the railroad station to find no one there. He was baffled. Frantically, he searched around to no avail, then hurried back to his CP, where he should have remained.
Promptly at 0400, Love Co departed from Maknassy in good order. The withdrawal was made via the route of entry. About 15 men were not accounted for but showed up along the road to be picked up during the early morning hours. Everyone got a ride back, including 21 prisoners. It was fortunate that Col Bowen had taken charge of the transportation. AT fire had destroyed the jeep which acted as security, and the GMC 2.5 ton truck drivers required a little persuasion to wait for the riflemen who came in piecemeal during the first hour of daylight.
Almost all of the ground from Maknassy to Gafsa is flat, except for occasional wadis. The prospect of a four-hour ride back in daylight was bothersome. But three P-40s from Thelepte flew over at daylight to escort the trucks back. These planes also helped to complete the enemy’s confusion in Maknassy by bombing and strafing the place at 0600.
The return to Gafsa was in sharp contrast to the tense ride the night before. The sun came out, bright and hot. The P-40 pilots buzzed the column, exchanging greetings with the troops. The men were now relaxed, happy, and satisfied with their night’s work. The open, desolate landscape and the jagged, towering mountains to the south held no mysteries.
As they talked of Maknassy, they thought of it as their own special town. The surprise and terror which they had inflicted on the enemy became the butt of their jokes. Their individual exploits and snafus started to build up the fantastic picture which was to become a Love Co tradition. By the late afternoon, when the conquerors returned through the crowded streets of Gafsa, this picture had taken shape, compounded of both fact and imagination.
The war correspondents interviewed the men while they were having chow. The battalion commander praised every man individually. Col Raff was pleased. He sent a message to Algiers immediately. The French were ecstatic; they threw a party for the battalion staff. Love Co remained in Gafsa, and the battalion came down from Feriana. There was no question now about the morale of Love Co. The Maknassy exploit had carried them to the top. Their prestige within the battalion was assured.