Talk of the war in North Africa and most Brits will think of Tobruk or El Alamein, while most Americans will think of Operation Torch, the Kasserine Pass, and Tunisia. The victory at El Alamein was presented in a powerful British film made by the Army Film and Photographic Unit, Desert Victory, a box-office hit in 1943 which won a Best Documentary Oscar (director: Roy Boulting; see MHM May 2016).
The ultimate defeat of the Axis forces in North Africa was treated in an Anglo-American film, Tunisian Victory. This documentary, made from record film of the campaign, contains some superb material ranging from the landings in French north-west Africa in November 1942 to the Axis surrender in Tunis in May 1943. The film is a visual feast of the war in North Africa and powerfully encapsulates the first major test of Anglo-American cooperation during the conflict.
The decision to launch the campaign in north-west Africa had not been made easily. Stalin had been pressing for the launch of a Second Front in northern Europe since the summer of 1941 to relieve pressure on the East. But Britain did not have the assets to launch an invasion of Europe and concentrated instead on its fight with the Italian and German armies in the Western Desert.
When America came into the war in December 1941, the US chiefs of staff also pressed for an assault on France as being the most direct way to defeat the Nazi war machine. But the British chiefs resisted, knowing that there were so few American troops in the UK in 1942 that the British Army would have to bear the brunt of any invasion – meaning losses would be heavy.
Not only were there not enough British troops to mount an effective assault, but they were also not trained for an amphibious invasion. Nor were there enough landing craft: thousands would be needed and only a few hundred were available.
There were several meetings of the combined chiefs of staff in Washington and London in the first half of 1942 to thrash out future strategy. General Marshall led the US attempt to persuade the British of the need to assault northern Europe. In April, General Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and a key opponent of an invasion of France, argued that ‘the prospects of success are small and dependent upon a mass of unknowns, while the chances of disaster are great and dependent upon a mass of well-established military facts.’
Instead, the British position was that the Allies should concentrate on the defeat of Axis forces in the Mediterranean, where fighting was already taking place.
Finally, in July 1942, with the combined chiefs still in fundamental disagreement, President Roosevelt intervened. He accepted that an attack against northern France would be impossible in 1942 but was determined that US troops should engage with German land forces before the end of the year.
He overruled his own chiefs and adopted the British position, powerfully argued by Churchill, that an invasion of north-west Africa was most likely to bring an Allied success. Operation Torch, as it was to be called, was on.
Tunisian Victory begins with two large armadas at sea, each escorted by a fleet of naval vessels. One sails directly from the US eastern seaboard to the coast off Morocco. A second, consisting of two convoys from the UK, sails through the Straits of Gibraltar and assembles off the Algerian coast.
It was a mammoth task of planning and coordination to get 120,000 men with all their naval escorts and the vast array of supplies needed from two continents lined up to invade a third. The film commentary says it had been ‘a race against time’ to get men and materiel ready.
The landings at Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers, coming just a few days after victory at El Alamein, were a success. The dramatic shots of men being carried in landing craft and wading ashore once the ramps crashed down on the invasion beaches were probably the first time that audiences would have seen an amphibious operation like this. The craft in use would become central to so many operations in Europe and the Pacific over the next three years.
The film briefly engages with the complexity of French politics in 1942. After the fall of France, the French military had divided between those who supported De Gaulle in London, the Free French, and those who supported Vichy France and its collaborationist regime under Marshal Pétain.
French north-west Africa was manned by troops loyal to Vichy and the Americans went to great lengths to ensure they would not resist the landings but instead welcome the Allies as liberators. As the men prepare to land at Casablanca, the film shows a speech from General Patton to his troops via a ship’s tannoy. He warns them of the possibility of resistance but says: ‘Remember the French are not Nazis or Japs.’
After a few hiccups, French resistance collapsed with the help of a leading Vichy figure, Admiral Darlan. Although detested in the West, Darlan eventually ordered French troops not to resist. With troops successfully ashore, the film follows the long campaign across north-west Africa into Tunisia.
Although the making of Tunisian Victory, a joint effort between Britain’s Ministry of Information and the US Office of War Information, celebrates a combined operation, it was not made with much harmony between the two film-making units.
Following the great success of Desert Victory, the Ministry of Information wanted the Crown Film Unit to make another ‘victory’ film. This was edited at Pinewood Studios by Hugh Stewart, who had landed in North Africa and directed the filming of the campaign by Army camera crews. The film was called Africa Freed, but when the Americans saw a rough cut, they were outraged that it underplayed their involvement in the campaign.
As such, in the summer of 1943, it was decided to amalgamate the British footage with American film material that was being edited by Frank Capra’s team, who were making the Why We Fight series (see MHM June/July 2021).
Brendan Bracken, the Minister of Information, was keen for the Anglo-American film collaboration to go ahead, but it is clear that the British and American film-makers did not get along. The Americans inserted a long sequence about Christmas with a choir singing carols and troops at the front longing for home. Over shots of impoverished children, the troops think about kids around the world who were denied proper festivities by the war. The commentary tells us that ‘Arab kids are no different to kids back home. They love candy.’
But the British team thought this was slushy and unnecessary. Nor did they like the maps and graphics, which adopted the Disney style used in Why We Fight, dismissing them as cartoonish. Yet the fact is that it was not only Americans who were unfamiliar with the geography of North Africa and the strategic significance of the campaign. The maps might have been simplistic, but they would have helped all audiences to understand the importance of the fighting.
One device that the two teams of film-makers came up with that does work was that of two individuals created in voiceover to give a British and American perspective on the campaign. Bernard Miles, the well-known rustic British character actor, plays George Metcalfe, a private in the British Army, while Burgess Meredith plays Joe McCann, a GI from Kentucky.
They both narrate and comment on the role of their own nation’s forces. It is a bit forced at times, but would have made clear to audiences on both sides of the pond what a combined operation was like.
The film follows the early advances into Tunisia, but shows how hopes of victory before the end of the year are frustrated by dogged German resistance and then by the arrival of winter. In heavy rains, roads become rivers, airfields are unusable, and tanks are immobilised. The footage here, all genuine, is very strong. ‘All hopes of victory floundered in a sea of mud,’ the commentary tells us.
The documentary pays tribute to the array of commanders who led the campaign. General Alexander, Air Marshal Tedder, and Admiral Cunningham are all depicted leading the three forces under General Eisenhower as Supreme Commander. Montgomery is seen frequently as 8th Army commander. Rommel, too, gets a fair share of screen-time, as he leads the newly formed Axis army in Tunisia.
When campaigning gets going again in the spring of 1943, the film rather glosses over the terrible beating the Americans suffered at the Kasserine Pass, and concentrates instead on the successful battle for Hill 609. With little authentic footage to use, the Americans re-enacted scenes from the battle in California. And when the 8th Army successfully breaks through the Mareth Line in southern Tunisia, the film again relies on rather unconvincing re-enactments of the struggle for Wadi Zigzaow shot at Pinewood.
The Air Ministry often complained that the air war did not get the treatment it deserved in official films. That is certainly not the case in Tunisian Victory. There is a long sequence that covers both the role of fighters in attacking the Luftwaffe and of the strategic bombing force in destroying enemy bases, not just in Tunisia but also in Italy, from where supplies are shipped.
The final campaigns in Tunisia in the spring of 1943 are presented by the graphics as being like an engine cylinder. The US attack from the west, one side of the cylinder, and the air and naval forces from the east, the other side. The ‘piston’ is the 8th Army pushing up from the south.
On 7 April, British and American advance patrols meet up. The cameramen missed the actual event, but it was restaged for posterity, with smiling troops celebrating and shaking hands amid the smoke of battle.
The final operations, as the forces close in on Tunis, are covered well. By now the war in Tunisia has become a truly combined operation, with British, American, and French troops working together on land, at sea, and in the air.
The end of the war came quickly. The commentary describes this as ‘the greatest surrender of fully equipped troops in modern history.’ It was indeed on a gargantuan scale, with about 250,000 men becoming prisoners. The footage of the surrender, of the vast numbers of prisoners and the huge booty of abandoned equipment, is truly stunning.
Surrender in Tunisia
The surrender of Axis forces in Tunisia marked the end of nearly three years of fighting in North Africa. Italian troops had first crossed from Libya into Egypt in the autumn of 1940, as part of Mussolini’s attempt to seize the Suez Canal and make the Mediterranean into an Italian lake.
This went dreadfully wrong, and Hitler was forced to bail out his ally in both Greece and Libya, where he sent his most-daring commander, General Erwin Rommel. After that, a see-saw war had turned many small towns along the barren sand and stone Mediterranean coastline into household names: Benghazi, Gazala, Tobruk, Bardia, Sidi Barrani, Mersa Matruh, and others, all of which amounted to nothing much beyond a few date-palm groves around a watering hole.
In the spring of 1943, the Axis adventure in North Africa came to its denouement. Rommel was evacuated and General Hans von Arnim took command of Axis forces.
Isolated in a small enclave outside the city of Tunis and completely starved of supplies, he was unable to follow Hitler’s order, ‘Victory or Death’ – in other words, to stand and fight. With no fuel left for his vehicles or shells for his guns, there was little option but to surrender. Tunisian Victory slightly exaggerates the number who capitulated, but even so, it was on a truly grand scale.
On 12 May, the final Axis forces put up the white flag. In all, nearly 250,000 men went into captivity along with 1,000 guns and 250 tanks. It was a much larger haul than even at Stalingrad. Not only was this a really significant victory, but it totally vindicated the case put by Churchill and the British chiefs of staff, finally endorsed by Roosevelt, to concentrate on the Mediterranean theatre of war.
In 1943, this was the only arena of the war where a victory of this scale was possible.
General Alexander was now able to report back to Churchill with the message, ‘Sir: It is my duty to report that the Tunisian campaign is over. All enemy resistance has ceased. We are masters of the North African shores.’
The film ends with a rather soppy dialogue between the British and the American common soldier, reflecting on the victory. ‘After all the racket, it’s so quiet,’ observes Bernard Miles in the role of Private George Metcalfe.
As they see the prisoners coming in, they wonder how so many could have been duped by Hitler and Mussolini. ‘You and me, Joe,’ says Bernard Miles, ‘we may not always think alike but at least we do think for ourselves.’ A montage of faces of the other Allies, including Russians and Chinese, are also shown as ‘thinking people’.
And Burgess Meredith as GI Joe McCann concludes, ‘After the war, let’s keep on swinging together, building things up rather than blowing things up.’ Nearly 80 years on, this seems trite and artificial, but at the time, with final victory in sight, it probably reflected what many people felt.
Tunisian Victory did not enjoy great success at the box office. This was partly because it was not completed and released until 1944, by which time the war had moved on from North Africa. Instead, new campaigns and new victories were what cinema audiences wanted to see.
But for anyone today who relishes the (mostly) authentic footage of war in that area of the world, Tunisian Victory is a must. And for anyone who wants to see how the British and Americans presented their first successful collaboration together, the film is fascinating.
It lacks the consistent style of Desert Victory, and the input of the two different groups of film-makers, in Hollywood and Pinewood, is only too apparent. Thus Tunisian Victory is not a wartime masterpiece, but it is still a powerful piece of cinema. •
Produced and directed by Frank Capra and Hugh Stewart. Produced by the Ministry of Information and the US Office of War Information. Available as part of the Imperial War Museum’s Victory Films Collection, along with Desert Victory, Burma Victory, and The True Glory.
Photos: Wikimedia Commons.