Upon the Groups arrival on the ERlCSSON on 25 January in the Casablanca area the 58th and 62nd Armored Field Artillery Battalions were assigned to the Group. The Group with its three battalions was assigned to I Armored Corps, the first of its many assignments and attachments as an orphan unit overseas. The Headquarters Detachment and the three battalions were required to furnish the larger part of their strength as dock details, unloading equipment and supplies at the docks at Casablanca until the middle of February.
(Allied and German troops clashed at Kasserine Pass from February 19-25, 1943.)
The Group commander, Col. Newton W. Jones, saw immediately the inadequacy of the six officers, twenty-eight man Table of Organization and the unfeasibility of its operation in combat. The War Department had continuously rejected his recommendations for reorganization while in the States but Headquarters North African Theatre of Operations United States Army approved a recommended provisional Table of Organization which called for an increase to eight officers, seventy-six men, and twenty-one vehicles including eight half-tracks. This made Group Headquarters Battery self-sufficient as a unit, with kitchen, maintenance, and supply sections. However rank and grade were still under the old Table of Organization, so, for example, the wire chief was a private with no hopes of a rating. Although most of the men in the battery found themselves in a similar predicament, they assumed responsibilities and exerted every effort to make an efficiently operating organization because of their pride in the unit.
Leaving the 65th on dock detail at Casablanca, the Group Headquarter, the 62nd and 58th moved to the vicinity of Rabat for training about the middle of February. Field problems, command post exercises, and range firing took place nearly every day, training which was essential in welding the Group into an operating organization. The battalions had received their training on towed 75’s and 105’s and on the half-tracked T.19. The full-tracked M7 was a new piece of equipment.
Pursuant to instructions from I Armored Corps the 5th Armored Field Artillery Group moved by marching overland and by rail from the Rabat – Casablanca area to the vicinity of Tebessa beginning 6 March, a trip of approximately 1200 miles. On the 12th of March the Group Commander reported to II Corps at Le Kouif, to establish liaison with the Corps Artillery Officer. Here details were worked out for assembling the Group in an area in the vicinity of Tebessa, Algeria. Group Headquarters and Headquarters Battery moved to the area on 16 March, followed by the 58th and the 17th.
The 58th was less than forty-eight hours in the staging area before being ordered into combat positions. This battalion having been attached to the 1st Armored Division, then in position northeast of Gafsa, moved out on the night of 19-20 March to occupy its first combat positions preparatory to an attack on Sened Station However, by March 23rd the action had progressed to Maknassy and on that date the battalion fired over 1600 rounds and became the first element of the Group to become fully engaged.
In the meantime the 62nd Armored Field Artillery Battalion, arriving in the Tebessa area on the 19th of March was ordered immediately forward to join the BENSON Flank Force of the 1st Armored Division northeast of Gafsa and by 1700 hours on the 22nd of March the battalion was in position in the area firing. Th 65th Armored Field Artillery Battalion had arrived in the Bou Chebka area by the 23rd of March, and was there attached to the 178th Field Artillery Regiment in a defensive mission against an attack through Faid Pass. They occupied positions in the vicinity of Dernaia Pass, north of Thelepte on March 24th but were not called on for any fire missions from these defensive positions. The only non divisional artillery available was the 13th Field Artillery Brigade and the 5th Armored Artillery Group in the whole United States sector.
The entry into combat positions for all elements of the Group was complete on 27 March when the Group Headquarters moved into a position of readiness in the vicinity of Maknassy where the 58th and 62nd Battalions had been moved by the 1st Armored Division.
It was here at Maknassy that the Group received its baptism of fire. Beginning on March 28th and lasting approximately a week all elements received daily counterbattery and harassing fire from German artillery ranging in caliber from 75mm to 210mm mortar. There, in its first combat experience, the Group was faced with the problems of virtually unlimited observation, which operated in favor of the enemy with his longer range artillery.
A long range artillery piece was sorely needed to neutralize the German 88, which was emplaced out of range of our 105s and shot at them at will with little fear of retaliation. This disadvantage was especially felt at Maknassy, which was surrounded on three sides by mountains firmly held by Germans; the plain in between offered scant defilade and insufficient cover.
To us at that time it seemed that the enemy had definite superiority in the air. The JU 87 or Stuka dive bomber, laughed at by men who came in a year or so later as an obsolete crate, was a very real menace with its dive bombing and screaming sirens. Our fifty caliber machine gunners and a small amount of attached anti-artillery became expert, but their numbers were not sufficient to prevent all the Jerry planes from getting through. The average day brought at least four or five raids, and each night planes would drop flares that seemed to hang like lanterns, attempting to unnerve troops into giving away their positions.
One gun from the 36th Field Artillery Regiment (Long Toms) obtained with difficulty and emplaced near Maknassy on April 2nd. The Group Headquarters operated the fire direction and organized the observation for this gun, the “Forces Counterbattery” for this entire sector. Business was good and on one day the single gun fired 825 rounds. The enemy tried desperately to knock out this thorn in his side with heavy artillery fire and bombing raids, but because of dug in positions for both the gun and fire direction center and superior camouflage, his biggest success was hitting the powder pit two days consecutively.
However despite heavy counterbattery fire and constant air raids, losses were light. The advantages of the stripped battery, dispersion, deep slit trenches and frequent changes of position were lessons learned early that carried through the whole campaign. The, most important role of the cubs during this engagement, was not to adjust fire, but to patrol the front lines to keep the enemy artillery quiet.
In the meantime the 65th had moved to the El Guettar area to support the 1st Infantry Division on the 29th of March. This battalion like the units at Maknassy came under enemy fire shortly after entry into the El Guettar area and on 31 March suffered air attack by enemy bombers and fighters resulting in three enlisted, men killed, and two officers and nine enlisted men injured. In this sector as at Maknassy the enemy and the armored battalions using the roving gun technique, the M7 proving itself and excellent weapon for this type of mission.
For demonstration on the 4th of April part of the infantry was withdrawn from the east to reinforce the attack to the north. A smokescreen was laid down by our guns to cover the withdrawal. The Krauts followed the time tested policy of “when in doubt, attack”, and attacked through the smoke screen. Because of the light resistance the enemy was highly successful and the counter attack was broken up only by a heavy artillery barrage.
Changes in missions necessitated two night marches, the first to the vicinity of Sbeitla, the second north to an assembly area in the vicinity of Roum es Souk. This was part of the movement of all American forces to the north for which General BRADLEY has been highly praised. These two marches were the most difficult ever made by the Group. Narrow dirt roads, at places cut out of mountain sides, ruined almost to the point of impassibility by tanks and the spring rains, cratered by shells, bombs, and demolition charges, were lined with white tape indicating mines on the shoulders.
Time and again in passing craters or knocked out vehicles, our half-tracks would push the tape and men would hold their breath. Dust and moonless nights made visibility zero. The mountain highway between Souk el Arba and Le Calle were, in many places, wide enough, for only one-way traffic, with many sharp bends and blown bridges. However it was required to carry as much as a super highway, with the American convoys going one way and the British supply trains going in the opposite direction.
The Group was ordered to the Beja area so as to arrive on the 21st. The 62nd was attached to the 9th Infantry Division for its drive up the Sedjanane Valley to Bizerte. The Group, attached to the 13th Field Artillery Brigade, supported the 1st Infantry Division in its famous battle for Hill 609. On the 4th of May the Group was attached to the 34th Infantry Division, participating in a terrific barrage on the hills dominating the pass to Chouigui, a barrage designed to place a round every ten yards in an area 1000 yards wide and 1500 yards in depth for two hours. When the barrage was lifted the infantry moved through without opposition to capture Prisoners of War who wanted to see our automatic 105’s.
On the 6th the 58th was attached to the 1st Armored Division, moving into position areas in the vicinity of Dj Berna where they knocked out two German tanks and dispersed accompanying infantry in order to occupy positions.
This was the end of combat for the Group in this campaign and on the 8th it moved to an assembly area in the vicinity of Ferryville, thence to another assembly tea in the Mateur area. From the 18th to the 28tb of May the Group moved to a training area at Gastu. Most of the track elements moved on LST’s and LCT’s from Bizerte to Philippeville. The wheeled elements moved in convoy.
During the time from May 28 to June 16 the Group conducted training, which consisted in part of service practice with the 3rd Infantry Division Artillery in preparation for the support of that division in the Sicilian campaign. As a result of combat experience the provisional Table of Organization was changed, cutting the enlisted strength to sixty, the half tracks to three, with a 2×2 ton truck being fitted as an office.
On 16 June the Group movement by sea and land convoy to a bivouac southwest of El Alia, where the Group prepared for an overseas movement. Here swimming details were part of the daily program. The beaches and water of the Mediterranean were ideal and the weather always sunny.