That one time Eisenhower lost a B-17 bomber in a bet

The liberation of Sfax, Tunisia on April 10, 1943 was a joyous occasion for nearly everyone involved. The Allies gained an important Mediterranean port, the Tunisians in the city were liberated, and British Lt. Gen. Bernard Montgomery won a B-17 bomber from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

That last one may need some explanation.

Rommel retreats to the Mareth line

Montgomery North Africa watches his tanks move up

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Montgomery had been fighting German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel for months in North Africa. Though the campaign was slowly succeeding, Rommel and his Italian allies were inflicting heavy casualties on the British. Britain wanted to increase forces in North Africa to keep Rommel off-balance. Meanwhile, the other Allied nations wanted to capture North Africa so they could begin invading Italy from the south.

So in late Oct. 1942, Montgomery launched Operation Lightfoot. British tanks and other forces moved under cover of massive artillery barrages through minefields against dug-in German positions. By November 2, Rommel was in a rapid withdrawal east, sacrificing troops by the hundreds to try and keep his lines of retreat open.

This put the German units in disarray when Operation Torch was launched on Nov. 8. More than 73,000 troops landed along the north coast of Africa in a deliberate attempt to squeeze the Axis east. It worked, but Germany and Italy still held Tunisia and conducted their own surge, landing nearly 250,000 troops in and around the ports at Mareth and Sfax. They would settle into a defense along the Mareth Line.

Rommel North Africa

Photo: German Federal Archives

The bet is made

The battles in North Africa raged back and forth as German reinforcements tried to hold the line. The Allied forces were slowly gaining ground, with Maj. Gen. George S. Patton and Montgomery both attempting to be the first to capture key cities, but Eisenhower wanted them to move faster.

Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Bedell Smith, was visiting Montgomery at his headquarters in the spring of 1943. Exact accounts of the conversation vary, but Montgomery asked about getting a B-17 for his personal use. Smith told Montgomery that if Montgomery captured Sfax by April 15, Eisenhower would give him whatever he wanted.

Smith reportedly meant it as a joke wager, but the notorious gambler Montgomery was serious.

Sfax falls and Montgomery gets his B-17

Boeing B-17E Heavy Bomber similar to the one won by Bernard Montgomery after the fall of Sfax, Tunisia

Photo: US Air Force

On April 10 — five days ahead of the deadline — Montgomery captured Sfax and immediately asked for payment. Eisenhower honored the bet and sent Montgomery a B-17 bomber and crew even though the bombers were needed for the war effort.

The event caused a strain between Eisenhower and Montgomery as well as between Eisenhower and Patton. Patton was incensed that a British general had a personal B-17 while he was struggling for rides or moving in convoys. Eisenhower was angry that Montgomery would actually accept a B-17 when they were needed to actually bomb targets.

Eisenhower mentioned it to Montgomery’s boss, Sir Alan Brooke, who berated Montgomery for crass stupidity. The plane was written off after a crash-landing a month later and never replaced.

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