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Aggressive Reconnaissance Sets Up WWII Battlefield
by U.S. Army Michael E. Bigelow
Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM) Historian
March 30, 2022

On March 21, 1943, Maj. Gen. Terry Allen’s 1st Infantry Division successfully seized the key terrain to the southeast of El Guettar during the Tunisian campaign. The tactical victory relied heavily on the information gained by patrols sent out by Lt. Col. Robert W. Porter, the division’s G-2.

Left to Right - U.S. Army Generals Theodore Roosevelt Jr., Terry Allen, and George Patton during the first victory against German forces at El Guettar during World War II in March 1943. (U.S. Army courtesy photo)
Left to Right - U.S. Army Generals Theodore Roosevelt Jr., Terry Allen, and George Patton during the first victory against German forces at El Guettar during World War II in March 1943. (U.S. Army courtesy photo)

The 55-year-old division commander and his 35-year-old G-2 made an effective team. Both were cavalrymen who had served together at Fort Riley in the mid-1930s

Shortly after Allen assumed command in May 1942, he arranged for Porter to become his G-2. Interestingly, the younger officer had no direct experience with intelligence work.

For Allen what mattered most, however, was his complete confidence in Porter. On the G-2’s part, Porter shared his commander’s commitment to develop the tactical situation rapidly with aggressive reconnaissance rather than waiting for detailed information from higher headquarters. By March 1943, Allen and Porter had worked together for more than eight months, including five months of active campaigning in North Africa.

In mid-March, Allen’s division was part of Lt. Gen. George Patton’s II Corps drive to keep pressure on the German and Italian forces withdrawing in southern Tunisia. On March 17, the 1st Infantry Division captured the town of Gafsa for use as a forward supply base.

Allen pushed his main body three miles to the southeast. More importantly, Porter pushed out Maj. Francis W. Adams’ 1st Reconnaissance Troop and Lt. Col. William Darby’s 1st Ranger Battalion to begin gathering information on the enemy and terrain facing the division. Darby’s men established a forward covering position nine miles to the east.

U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division soldiers dig in after taking El Guettar, Tunisia during World War II in March 1943. (U.S. Army courtesy photo)
U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division soldiers dig in after taking El Guettar, Tunisia during World War II in March 1943. (U.S. Army courtesy photo)

Once in Gafsa, Allen began planning for a continued eastward advance. He estimated that his next mission would be to attack El Guettar and high ground to its southeast, about fifteen miles from his current positions. Accordingly, Porter had the patrols of Adams and Darby look for routes of approach, forward assembly areas, and artillery positions to support the attack.

The patrols also developed the enemy situation. Significantly, Porter’s reconnaissance parties provided enough information to confirm the 1st Infantry Division faced 6,000 soldiers of the Italian Centauro Division in a defense-in-depth. This planning and preparation paid great dividends.

When the II Corps’ order to advance finally came on the evening of 20 March, it ordered Allen’s division to secure the “commanding ground” to the southeast of El Guettar. The attack was to kick off the next morning.

Using the routes and assembly areas discovered by the patrols, the infantry regiments trucked into position after dark, then moved to the forward areas. With Porter’s intelligence, the infantrymen maneuvered to seize key terrain and outflank the enemy while the supporting artillery provided an intense preparation on Italian positions. By noon, the Americans had achieved their objectives after sharp, brief encounters with the Italians.

U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division soldier hands out cigarettes to captured Italians of the Bersaglieri Division near El Guettar, Tunisia in March 1943. (U.S. Army courtesy photo)
U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division soldier hands out cigarettes to captured Italians of the Bersaglieri Division near El Guettar, Tunisia in March 1943. (U.S. Army courtesy photo)

Throughout the North African battles and during the ensuing Sicilian campaign, Allen and Porter made an effective team for the division. Unfortunately, when Allen was relieved of command in August 1943, the team was broken up. Allen returned to the United States to assume command of the 104th Infantry Division while Porter became the II Corps’ deputy chief of staff.

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