At exactly 2230 hours on Christmas Eve 1942, two Douglas C-47s loaded with paratroopers took off from Thelepte airfield outside Algiers. Suspended under the belly of each was a drop container holding 200 pounds of explosives. On board were 32 Americans from the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion and two French paratroopers who had been ordered to destroy the vital railroad bridge at El Djem, Tunisia.
Once an insignificant spot on the rail line from Tunis to Gabes, it now linked the brilliant German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel — battling British General Bernard L. Montgomery’s Eighth Army in the south — to vital supplies being sent by rail from northern Tunisia. During the initial stages of the North Africa campaign, the fighting had taken place primarily in Egypt and Libya, far to the east of the El Djem bridge. Since Montgomery’s autumn offensive had forced Axis armies to retreat westward from the Egyptian frontier toward Tunisia, however, the bridge at El Djem had become an important link between supply depots and Axis front lines.