Half-Time History: England v Tunisia

Part 1 of my Half-Time History series focuses on Tunisia and its role in the Second World War.

Well it’s half time between England and Tunisia in England’s first game of the 2018 World Cup, but their opponents today are not the first country that you would think of when asked about the Second World War.

Despite this, Tunisia was home to many thousands of soldiers, both Allied and Axis, who were stationed there during what is now known as the Tunisian Campaign.

Back in 1869, Tunisia had become engulfed in international debts and was struggling to repay any of its earnings. This led to an international financial coalition taking control of Tunisia’s finances, effectively taking control of the entire country. This led to some extreme tensions in the country, until in 1881, a Tunisian tribe, known as the Kroumer tribe, launched a raid into Algeria, in search of supplies.

This apparent violation of Algeria’s borders and consequently international law, French military forces, numbering some 40,000 were landed there in order to take control in retaliation. The number of French troops was completely uneccessary as the Tunisian tribes  had little means or will to fight with the French forces, meaning that they were met with very little resistance. This led to the Treaty of Bardo, whereupon the French withdrew most of their military forces, but assumed control of economic, defence and foreign policy powers in Tunisia, making it a French protectorate.

Emigration from France (and Italy) was actively encouraged by the government and between 1906 and the end of the Second World War, the number of French citizens that moved to the region shot up from 35,000 to over 100,000.

After the French signed an armistice with German forces in 1940, and the Vichy, collaborationist government was set up, all French colonial powers came under their control. This included the violent anti-Semitic policies that were enacted in France leading to an extension of the Shoah (Holocaust) in Tunisia, leading to persecution of those who subscribed to the Jewish faith, the disabled and many more groups in society.

During 1942, the Allies drew up plans for Operation Torch, the simultaneous seizing of airports and naval ports in Morocco and Algeria, before advancing on Tunisia. The idea behind this was to open up all ports along the Mediterranean coastline to Allied shipping, therefore solving the supply issues that had riddled both the Allied and Axis campaigns since 1940. To do this, there would need to be a rush of Tunis, because, if this was to be taken by the Germans, it was determined that it would be exceedingly difficult to take back.

The_British_Army_in_Tunisia_1943_NA880
British infantry negotiate the Kasserine Pass, February 1943.

The Allies launched their attack on the Tunisian capital on December 22nd, 1942, using the two main roads in to Tunis. The small number of German forces that already occupied Tunis however, were able to repel the attack for long enough so that the Allied forces were forced to withdraw to their main base at Medjez al Bab.

Rommel launched a retaliation in February, in an attempt to take Tebessa, the main base for the American troops stationed in the region. The amount of damage that was done to the Allied forces, particularly the US Army in the region was very high, but ultimately the Germans were unable to take their objective.

A few more skirmishes and toing and froing of local control occurred over the coming months but the Germans were running desperately low on supplies. This led to the Allies launching what they hoped would be a final push in Tunisia, but also in North Africa as a whole. A combined British and American attack on Tunis eventually led them to taking strongholds that they had failed to secure previously, and on 7th May 1943, British soldiers captured Tunis, while the Americans continued the fight in the North. This helped no end in the decisive battles that followed, and led to the German surrender on 13th May 1943, where some 200,000 members of Germany’s army were captured, many of them from the renowned Afrika Korps.

Over 70,000 men had been killed on the Allied side, with a similar number on the German side (although this is difficult to ascertain due to the large numbers taken into captivity).

After long, hard fighting, the campaign in North Africa was won, but not without significant casualties on both sides.

Tunisia has had a lot of noteworthy moments since the second world war, including; gaining independence from France, a revolution and more recently civil unrest, but that’s for another time, when there’s a bit more time than a fifteen-minute half-time break!

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