Sfax Through the Ages

Chapter 6 - World War II

Investigating the changes in Sfax through maps has been an asymmetric project. The maps were not obtained in chronological sequence, but appeared randomly, as it were. While searching for specific information - the date the railway was rerouted, when the additional gates of the city were built, the meaning of the French word 'Darse' - another map would surface, usually from a different period than that which was the focus, and usually answering (and presenting) questions different from those that had been posed. Consequently, this document has taken shape unpredictably, as new information was gathered.

This was nowhere more so than the period before and after the Second World War. Early on it had been realised that this event had great significance for Sfax, but it was difficult to pin down the specific features that were affected by the war. For example: were the large gates at Bab Diwan pre-war, or postwar; part of the reconstruction project or a later development? Similarly, when did the Ville Europeenne disappear? The same alternatives presented themselves there too. Consequently, the discovery of a map in the Library of the University of Texas was a significant day in the life of this project. This section of the project describes the features shown on that map, and uses wartime photographs to show the consequences of the war.

After much searching a map was eventually found that depicted the city of Sfax as it was before the war. The map was drawn in great haste by the mapping department of the US Army, having been based upon earlier French maps and revised from aerial photographs taken during January, 1943. It is ironic that the very purpose of the map should be to aid the destruction of what the map records, demolishing a large part of the city that is depicted here.

Many of the buildings from the period of the French Protectorate survive today. Unfortunately, in the case of the buildings of the earlier Ville Européenne, nothing remains. The cause was not some post-independence construction boom, but the result of Allied bombing during World War II. Those buildings close to the southern wall of the medina are all gone, having given way to some gardens and, on the eastern end, a parking area. The second block of buildings, south of Rue Pasteur, has also disappeared, having been replaced by the 5-storey blocks of shops and apartments (and a mosque) that today face directly across to the medina [Photo 25].

Amongst the buildings from this period (pre-1943) that have disappeared one should include the eglise/cathedral of St. Peter & St. Paul [B]. It was built on the north side of the Boulevard De France (now Ave. Farhat Hached), where this street met what is now Rue Habib Maazoun. The Boulevard De France/Ave Farhat Hached is now a pedestrian precinct from this point. The whole area has been rebuilt since that time, but the eglise faced onto the Boulevard De France from a position in the middle of the street that is now Habib Maazoun. Today the hotel Thyna looks out over that spot. A picture from the period shows Archbishop Spellman looking around the bombed ruins of Sfax, though the precise location is uncertain.

At the fall of France, in 1940, the German authorities took control of countries that were under French colonial administration, such as Tunisia. To regain this territory for the Allies, the campaign known as Operation Torch brought British, American, French and New Zealand forces into battle against Axis troops in the six-month battle for Tunisia, between November 8, 1942, and May 7, 1943.

In preparation for the battle for Tunisia, the US army produced a map based on French surveys but - as the description says - "Revised from Air Photographs Dated Jan. 1943." This map provides a snapshot of Sfax centreville as it was prior to the war.

For one month in particular, Axis forces in Sfax were the target of Allied bombing activity, from December 12, 1942, until early January 1943. These summaries come from military reports of the time:

Dec. 12 XII Bomber Command B-17s attack the port facilities at Sfax for the first time

14 During the morning, nine 15th Light Bombardment Squadron A-20s, escorted by eight 14th Fighter Group P-38s and twelve 33d Fighter Group P-40s, attack the Sfax railroad station. During the afternoon, nine 15th Light Bombardment Squadron A-20s, escorted by P-38s, attack the same target.

15 The Ninth Air Force's campaign against the Tunisian ports opened most auspiciously on 15 December when nine B-24D's of the 376th Group obliterated the roundhouse at Sfax. The B-24s obliterate a locomotive repair shop.

19 XII Air Force A-20s, escorted by 33rd Fighter Group P-40s, attack the marshalling yards at Sfax

21 at Sfax and Gabes and on the 22nd at Bizerte, Sousse, and Sfax, 10/10 cloud prevented an attack.

26 XII Bomber Command B-17s attack shipping and port facilities at Sfax. German Air Force fighters and heavy flak down two B-17s and two P-38s, but a flight of four P-38 pilots from the 1st Fighter Group's 94th Fighter Squadron down three of the GAF fighters. XII Bomber Command B-17s, escorted by P-40s, claim three Axis ships damaged while mounting a second attack against shipping and port facilities at Sfax. While conducting reconnaissance patrols, XII Fighter Command P-38s strafe three locomotives and a number of motor vehicles.

28 Sfax sustained three attacks, being visited by a total of 64 B-17's, i8 B-25's, and 15 B-26's, all escorted, several of the B-26's coming down for strafing runs.

30/31 Sfax absorbed further punishment: the 97th started fires in the marshalling yards and on the west end of its north quay on the 30th, and next day the 301st claimed hits on two medium-sized ships in the harbor.

Jan. 5 Eleven B-17's of the 97th Group bombed and completely destroyed the Sfax power station, hit at least one vessel in the harbor, and left the entire dock area smoking.
(from http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/AAF/II/AAF-II-2.html, http://www.euro-downloads.com/gazette/G69.htm and http://www.af.mil/shared/media/document/AFD-070227-064.pdf)

And this terse summary of Allied bombing activity:

Bomb damage assessment, both by photographic interpretation and by visual inspection on the ground after the campaign, showed extremely gratifying results. The port areas of Sousse, Sfax, La Goulette, and Bizerte were all but completely devastated. Marshalling yards were cratered and rolling stock strewn about in hopeless ruin. Airdromes were abandoned or the landing areas limited, while hangars were blasted and fire-twisted, with irreplaceable Axis aircraft heaped in airplane graveyards. (from http://www.af.mil/shared/media/document/AFD-070227-064.pdf)

The Theatre

Beside the Catholic eglise

Looking up Rue De La Republique (perhaps)

Though US bombing raids were aimed at the railway and port facilities, much of the city was severely damaged by the bombing [B]. Whole blocks of the Ville Européenne were turned into rubble, and after the war major reconstruction was needed to restore the city.

From all of these accounts there is no comment on the damage done to the commercial and residential buildings of the city. This collateral damage was apparently not a concern to bomber command, where the focus was on whether the intended targets were hit, or not. The few photographs of the bombed buildings show a severe degree of damage in the area south of the medina.

The pictures below, obtained from Jutard & Achich's book, Sfax, Ma Mémoire, though less clear than preferable, show the destruction caused and the buildings that remain after the cleanup.

Looking south from the medina ramparts: left, Ave de la Republique in ruins;
right, the closest surviving buildings are the City Hall and the Palais behind the now demolished theatre.

Looking north: left, the clock tower can still be seen on Bab Diwan (the ruins of the Theatre are to the right of the photographer);
right, a photograph taken from the roof of the Palais Hamdan shows how little remains of the city north of the Ave. De Paris.
The Bab Diwan clock tower has been demolished, since it was in such an unsafe condition.

After the war the French rebuilt Sfax’s Quartier Commercial after plans drawn up by the French architect, Zehrfuss.

The cathedral of St. Peter & St. Paul, one of the significant buildings that was lost in the bombing, was replaced on a different location by a large, cavernous concrete building [Photo 25]. This actually stands on reclaimed ground very close to the Greek Orthodox Church [Photo 26], at the northern extreme of the Chanel Pour Petits Bateaux. Rebuilt during the last decade of French administration, the style and materials suggest haste rather than quality of construction. Today, however, this edifice is used as a sports hall, and the sounds of students playing basketball can be heard echoing through the broken windows of the dilapidated concrete building [Photo 27, below]. The front part of this building – a foyer originally, possibly, is labelled as Center des Arts, and contains a small gallery of modern art paintings. It is difficult to say which gets the least attention, the modern art at the south end of the building, or the large circular stained glass window at the north [Photo 28].

The 5-storey blocks of shops, offices and apartments that face the medina across Avenue Ali Belhouane are more recent [Refer back to Photo 25] – a mosque has been incorporated into them at the corner of Avenue Hedi Chaker. A number of government agencies have their offices in these blocks, east of Ave. Hedi Chaker, including the Sureté and the Justice department, Palais de Justice.

Buildings in this area of the city that did survive included the Maison De France (now the French Consulate) [Photo 29], and the police station [Photo 30]. Located on the site of the old battery this is one of the finest buildings from the Colonial period, and is outwardly, at least, in good condition.

Further along what is now Avenue Bourguiba the Maison De France building (Baladiya) [Photo 31] survived the war, along with one of this author’s favorite buildings, the old Palais Hamdan (also known as Rhomdan) [Photo 32]. A third building on that corner, the Theatre [B], was destroyed in the bombing – its modern replacement is in the pedestrian section of Ave. Hedi Chaker – and some of the theatre site still remains empty.

Neither did the bombing of 1942 and 1943 spare the ancient walls of the medina itself. Serious damage was sustained by the southern wall, and in particular Bab Diwan was seriously damaged. Comparison with old photographs show that the reconstruction of the outer gate was superficially faithful to the original, but the tourists shops that stand behind the facade demonstrate that little attempt was made to reconstruct the original defensive structure of the gate. A clock tower stood above the ornate gate, facing down Ave. De La Republique, but in the modern structure there is no structural support for such a tower.

The Deuxieme Guerre Mondiale was been just one of the harbingers of change to Bab Diwan: the single gate - a couloir - was modified in the early 1900s by making an exit directly in line with the inner portal; an additional small gate was opened about 15 meters to the east in about 1955; and in the 1970s the two larger gates were built, providing this gate of the city with an imposing entrance from the plaza to the south. For more information on the various modifications to Bab Diwan see the separate supplement on Bab Diwan itself.

Another piece of information that this picture provides concerns the Bourj An Nar, in the foreground. The gate is already in existence at this time - whenever the date of the photograph is determined - but the shape of the fort has changed somewhat. Today, the tower that can be seen on the west wall of the bourj (between the left hand corner of the bourj and the staircase entrance) is now a corner of the bourj. The courtyard of the bourj that extends towards the road has, since this photo was taken, been removed. (The photo was taken from the ICOMOS report that is also refered to in a later chapter.)

As a footnote to our observations on the changes wrought on Sfax by the Second World War; in 2000 portions of the southern wall alongside Bab Diwan were being renovated, which included removing the current facing and strengthening the mortar work. During this maintenance work a discovery was made that reminded Sfaxiens of the events 57 years previously; an unexploded bomb was discovered lodged in the wall not far from the gate. It was safely defused and removed, but it served to bring home the proximity of the bombing to the next generation.