|Baptism of Fire: Kasserine Pass, 1943
by Eric Niderost
In the winter of 1942-43 the Allies had every reason to believe that they were on the verge of total victory in North Africa. It started that November, when Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's
Panzerarmee Afrika was decisively defeated by the British Eighth Army at the Second Battle of El Alamein. It wasn't merely a defeat, but a rout, and surviving German and Italian units were forced into a headlong retreat through Libya.
The Axis disaster at El Alamein coincided with Operation Torch, three Allied landings in French North Africa far to the west. The Torch landings were mainly an American effort, and though the troops were green they were confident of victory. Rommel seemed trapped between American forces advancing to block his retreat and British forces in hot pursuit to his rear.
Field Marshal Rommel had performed wonders in two years of desert warfare, earning him the respect and ultimately the admiration of friends and enemies alike. Allied air and naval forces often reduced his supplies to a trickle, and he was usually outnumbered by his British foes. Adolf Hitler was preoccupied with his ongoing Russian campaign and failed to appreciate the strategic significance of the North Africa. Many of Rommel's fellow officers were old-school aristocrats bred in the Prussian tradition, and to them he was a middle-class upstart.
In spite of all these difficulties Rommel won a number of brilliant victories and came within an ace of capturing the Suez Canal, key the Middle East and Britain's lifeline to India and East Asia. Rommel led from the front, a man who was a masterful tactician and strategist, imbued with an offensive spirit that exploited enemy weaknesses. Rommel became larger than life, a man christened with the sobriquet “Desert Fox”
In the fall and winter of 1942-43 the “fox” seemed at bay, surrounded by a host of Allied “hounds.” Panzerarmee Africa was a broken reed, a mere shadow of its former self. About half of Rommel's command were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner, and 450 tanks and 1,000 guns were taken or destroyed. Rommel himself was exhausted and increasingly prone to periods of ill health. Headaches plagued him, and he came down with a bout of nasal diphtheria.
Yet Allied hopes of total victory turned out to be premature. The Torch invasions finally aroused Hitter from his lethargy on North African affairs. Enraged, he occupied southern France and began to pour reinforcements into Tunisia. German and Italian troops were easily ferried into Tunisia from Sicily, only one night's voyage distant.
General des Panzertruppen Han-Jurgen von Arnim's Fifth Panzer Army was the main element in this surge of Axis troops.
By January 1943 Rommel had retreated some 1,400 miles and his men's morale was as low as their casualties had been high. Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery's Eighth Army took Tripoli—Rommel's main supply base-- on January on January 23, 1943, but the triumph was short lived. The Allied pursuit was literally bogging down, with heavy winter rains turning the Tunisia's yellowish soil into a sea of primordial muck.
The Torch landing forces were partly bogged down as well, but here politics was as bad as the weather. French colonial forces in Algeria and elsewhere had divided loyalties. Many hated the Germans and favored the Free French under General Charles De Gaulle. Still others were loyal to the collaborationist Vichy government and disliked the British for real or imagined slights after France fell to the Nazis in 1940.
Things were sorted out, and colonial French troops joined the Allies, but all this negotiation and political wrangling diverted attention from the military campaign. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was supreme commander in the Mediterranean theater, a job that demanded tact as well as diplomatic skills.
Eisenhower performed admirably, but he was too often handicapped by political considerations in the early stages of the campaign. In early February he had to attend the famous Casablanca Conference and consult with President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston S, Churchill. He finally left the conference on February 12 and immediately took a tour of the Tunisian front.
Rommel received word that he was to be recalled to Germany for rest and recuperation. There was to be a reorganization of his forces; Panzerarmee Africa would be designated the German-Italian Panzer Army and placed under the command of General Giovanni Messe. 3 But the Desert Fox did not want to leave Africa on such a sour note. Rommel wanted to redeem himself and restore his reputation, tarnished after Alamein and what to him was an ignominious retreat
The Desert Fox was a keen observer and a strategic opportunist. He saw weaknesses in the American Torch forces, troops were green and largely untested. Rommel began to think in terms of an offensive, using the Fifth Panzer Army and a hopefully rested and reequipped Panzerarmee Afrika. If Rommel could smash through the inexperienced American line, he could rush through Kasserine Pass and take Tebessa, a major allied supply hub. 5 There was also a possibility that Rommel could sweep north and take remaining Allied forces—now facing von Arnim's Fifth Panzer Army—in flank and rear.
If and when his plan was approved, Rommel knew he wouldn't have to worry about Montgomery's Eighth army advancing in his rear. There was a series of old French fortifications called the Mareth Line that would hold Montgomery in check—at least for a time. Rommel planned to man the Mareth line with his infantry, reserving his more mobile armored forces for the proposed attack.
The American II Division would be Rommel's primary target. It was commanded by Major General Lloyd Fredendall, a man full of bravado and “macho” posturing. He had a habit of “tough guy” talking that alienated subordinates and sometimes made his orders unclear. 6
Rommel argued for an offensive, and at first it seemed like a tough sell. On paper German operations in Africa were controlled by the Italian Comando Supremo, though Rommel generally had a free hand. The Desert Fox also had to deal with Luftwaffe Generalfeldmarshall Albert Kesselring, who had been appointed Oberbefehlshaber Sud (Commander in Chief, South), an area which encompassed the whole Mediterranean.
Field marshal Rommel's plan was approved, though scaled down. Instead of one major offensive thrust through the mountains, there would be two separate attacks. General von Arnhem would launch an offensive codenamed Operation Fruhlingswind (Spring Wind), while Rommel would attack to the south of von Arnhem under the designation Morgenluft (Morning Breeze)
Tunisia is a fist of land that thrusts out into the Mediterranean Sea, a region of arid plains and formidable mountain ranges. The Western Dorsal and Eastern Dorsal were two mountain chains that ran roughly parallel to the coast, though 70 miles inland. These two rocky “backbones” were all but impassible, save for a number of passes that cut through their rugged slopes. Allied units had already advanced through the Western Dorsal and established a front line that touched the western edge of the Eastern Dorsal.
The northern part of the line was held by the British 1st Army under Lt. General Sir Kenneth A.N. Anderson. Americans felt uncomfortable around him, considering him a “dour” Scotsman. Like most British officers he liked to closely supervise the tactical plans of subordinates, but Americans felt this was interference. Anderson's main focus was this northern segment near the coast, where he felt the decisive showdown with the Germans would ultimately take place.
The center of the Allied line was held by “Free French” troops of the 19th Corps D' Armee. They were largely colonial troops of varying quality, poorly equipped until the Americans gradually gave them more up-to-date weapons. The officers were almost stereotypes of Gallic pride, always eager to show their courage and sometimes taking offense at “slights” to French “honor.”
But it was the southern end of the Allied line that gave Eisenhower the most worry. As soon as he was able to break away from the Casablanca Conference he traveled to make an inspection of the II Corps. Eisenhower was appalled; in fact, in some respects
things were even worse than he imagined.
The problems started at the top. General Fredendall established his headquarters an incredible eighty miles to the rear of the front line in a nearly inaccessible ravine. He seemed to be obsessed with air attack, so he had a swarm of engineers busy digging a network of underground bunkers for himself and his staff. As Eisenhower remarked later, “It was the only time during the war that I ever saw a higher headquarters so concerned over its own safety that it dug itself underground shelters.”8
Eisenhower also visited the oasis village of Sidi Bou Zid, near the western entrance of the Faid Pass that sliced through the Eastern Dorsal. Axis forces were on the other side of the mountain chain, and who knew what their plans might be? If they decided to mount an offensive, Eisenhower saw American forces were ill prepared.
The troops were green, which couldn't be helped, but they were also lackadaisical.
Defensive mine fields had yet to be put down, though Americans had been in the area at least for a couple of days. There were always excuses, and assurances that such tasks would be done “tomorrow.”
Though Eisenhower didn't know the Germans were poised to launch a major attack, he did recognize what had to be done. Fredendall had scattered his armored units, so Eisenhower ordered that they be gathered into a mobile reserve ready to confront any German attempt to break though the mountain passes. Eisenhower's reasoning was sound, but too late. It was the evening of February 13, 1943, and for the Americans guarding the Faid Pass and elsewhere along the southern line time had run out.
The first part of the German offensive—Operation Fruhlingswind-- began in the early morning hours of February 14. The 10th Panzer Division smashed through the Faid Pass, using a blinding sandstorm as a perfect cover. At the same time the veteran 21st Panzer raced through the mountains to the south of Sidi Bou Zid then turned north, intending to link up with the 10th Panzer.
Two hills, known locally as Djebel Lessouda and Djebel Ksiara, flanked Sidi Bou Zid and seemed good defensive positions on paper. Fredendall placed infantry units on the tops of each hill, intending then to slow the German advance until U.S, armor could deal with them. Unfortunately there were too few men on the hills, and they were too far away from each other to provide mutual support. 9 The hilltop infantry were reduced to helpless observers of an American debacle unfolding on the plains far below.
Colonel Thomas D. Drake of the 165th Infantry was on Dejebel Ksiara, watching the spectacle below him with growing frustration. Drake phoned the command post at Sidi Bou Zid, warning them that some American artillery were already showing signs of panic. The local HQ couldn't believe it, insisting these men were only “shifting positions.” “Shifting positions, Hell,” Drake responded, “I know panic when I see it.” 10
Nearby Djebel Lessouda was also powerless to intervene in any meaningful way. Lt. Colonel John Waters commanded there, and once the sandstorm lifted he could plainly see what he estimated to be at least 60 German tanks and numerous other vehicles. Waters was the son-in-law of Major General George S. Patton, though Patton had not yet become famous as one of America's best military leaders.
It was time for American armor move forward to confront the growing threat. Lt Colonel Louis Hightower's force—two companies of tanks and about a dozen tank destroyers—rumbled out of Sidi Bou Zed to attack 10th Panzer head on. Hightower and his inexperienced crews were brave but badly outnumbered and facing a well-prepared enemy. German 88 mm artillery scored hit after hit, turning American armor into flaming coffins one by one.
Hightower was also facing Tiger tanks, new and powerful additions to the German arsenal. The combination of German artillery shells and long-range tank fire proved too much for Hightower's force, who tried in vain to conduct fighting retreat in the face of heavy odds. Col Hightower's own tank was knocked out, but not before he had destroyed four panzers. Hightower and his crew managed to escape the burning hulk and walked from the battlefield. Only seven of Hightower's tanks survived the defeat. No less than 44 American tanks were lost, and Sidi Zou Zed had to be abandoned.
Before long 21st Panzer linked up with 10th Panzer and moved quickly to consolidate their gains. The American infantry on the two hills were now cut off, literally islands of resistance in a German “sea.” Colonel Drake still stubbornly held Dejebel Ksiara and Colonel Waters Dejebel Lessouda, but chances of a breakout were diminishing.
Back in his headquarters General Fredendall refused to allow Waters and Drake to escape while there was still time. Fredendall's stubbornness was compounded by faulty assumptions and bad intelligence. British General Anderson, Fredendall's superior, was convinced that Sidi Zou Zid was merely a diversionary attack and prepared for a larger blow further north. 11 Allied intelligence also insisted that there was only one Panzer division in the south.
As a result only one tank battalion—Lt Colonel James Alger's Second Battalion, 1st Armored Regiment—was sent to deal with the Germans and rescue the 2,500 Americans trapped on the two hills. Alger's equipment was good—mainly M-4 “Sherman” tanks—but tactics were poor and the men brave but inexperienced. They also did not realize they were going to face not one but two Panzer Divisions. The result was an almost textbook example of what not to do in desert armored warfare
Alger's counterattack began on February 15. The Shermans came forward at a high rate of speed, which meant that huge dust clouds marked their passage. So much dust as kicked up crews were blinded, and the thick plumes made them easier to spot and target. The American tanks rolled forward in a rough V formation, with tank destroyers on the flanks. It was like an old-style cavalry charge, but the Germans wee about to bring the Americans into the twentieth century.
German artillery that was hidden in olive groves opened fire, and German tanks attacked in the flanks. Before long the Americans were trapped, engaging veteran PzKmpw IV's at point-blank range. Only four American tanks managed to escape the debacle. The entire battalion was wiped out, with 50 tanks lost and some 300 men dead, wounded, or captured.
Realizing at last that rescue was impossible Fredendall gave belated permission for the two trapped hilltop forces to tray and break out on their own. Colonel Drake led his men down the slops under the cover of darkness, but soon encountered German tanks
Drake tried to bluff his way out, shouting “go to Hell” when the Germans demanded surrender He and he men were soon made prisoners. 11
Colonel Waters and many of his command were also taken, with perhaps one-third—about 300—out of the original 900 getting back to Allied lines. The whole Allied line was in jeopardy, and the Germans seemed on the brink of a major victory. There was nothing left to do but fall back to the next line of defense—the Western Dorsal chain, some 50 miles away. With luck, the Western Dorsal passes—particularly the important Kasserine Pass—could be held and the German offensive stopped.
The retreat to the Western Dorsals proved a nightmare. The battered II Corps had been badly defeated and with that defeat came a crisis of confidence. The roads west were jammed with fleeing vehicles, providing easy targets for rampaging German Stuka dive bombers swooping down from the sky like avenging furies.
In the meantime Rommel's Operation Morgenluft had swung into action just south of Von Arnim's so-far successful Fruhlingwind. Rommel met with little resistance, and the field Marshal was delighted when the Allied airfield at Thelepte was captured with 50 tons of much-needed fuel and lubricants. But the offensively-minded Rommel was disturbed by the fact that von Arnim did not exploit the successes thus far. Von Arnim argued that he couldn't advance too far because the supply and fuel situation was iffy at best. Rommel was unconvinced.
Rommel wanted to assemble all available Axis forces for a major thrust through Kasserine Pass. Once though the pass, he'd take the major Allied supply depot at Tebessa then push on to the coast at Bone. With luck, this northwestern thrust would get him behind General Anderson's British 1st Army, which would be trapped and annihilated.
Unfortunately Rommel's bold plan depended on immediate action—but his superiors had to approve it first. At least a day was wasted while Kesselring and the Italian high command mulled it over. In the end Rommel's proposal was given the green light under the code name Sturmflut (“Stormflood”), but it was a somewhat vague, water-down version of the field marshal's proposal.
Under Sturmflut the Axis forces were to push through Kasserine Pass then start heading in the direction of Le Kef. Compared to Rommel's original plan this was a shallow, “half-hearted” envelopment of Allied forces, but something was better than nothing. All Rommel knew was he had the green light, and he acted accordingly. The battle for Kasserine Pass was about to begin.
General Fredendall's main task was to defend the Western Dorsal barrier against Axis attack—but where was Rommel going to strike? Kasserine wasn't the only pass that cut through the mountains, so he spread his forces thin to cover all possibilities. Some British and French units came in to help, but the Allied defenses were still weak.
Kasserine was initially defended by Anderson Moore's 19th Combat Engineer Regiment, a unit whose main duties were construction, not active duty fighting. Fredendall summoned Col Alexander Stark of the 26th infantry and told him to hold the pass. “I want you to go to Kasserine,” Fredendall said, “and pull a Stonewall Jackson.”
It was a reference to the Civil War, when Confederate general Thomas Jackson had earned the nickname “stonewall” for a tenacious defense. It was typical of Fredendall to make “colorful” quips when issuing orders, phrases that contained little real substance. Stark arrived at Kasserine on February 19th, just as the Germans were beginning their attack in hopes of a breakthrough.
Kasserine pass was a rocky defile that narrowed to about 1,500 yards—some accounts even say it was narrower at 800 yards. But once past that “bottleneck,” Kasserine's western entrance broadened to a wide basin that split into two roads. One road led west to Tebessa and the vital Allied supply base, while the other trailed north to the town of Thala. The Americans had artillery positions at both roads, ready to concentrate fire as the enemy emerged from the narrow Kasserine bottleneck.
February 19th was miserable for all the combatants. A cold wind chilled soldiers to the bone, and drenching rains added to the discomfort. The Germans tried to slip though American positions under the cover of a thick developing fog, but their movements were luckily detected. Artillery, tank destroyer, and small arms fire soon sent then packing.
The German attack on Kasserine was led by General Karl Bulowius, who seemed to hold such contempt for the Americans he kept ordering direct assaults. About 3:30 that same day Bulowius sent the Germans forward once again, this time backed by Italian tanks. They ran into American minefields placed their earlier by the long-suffering and inexperienced engineers and were stopped dead in their tracks.
Bulowius, still confident, waited for the coming of night. The Germans would infiltrate American defenses under the cover of darkness, slipping through the hills and ridges that formed Kasserine's shoulders. These “phantom” raiders were partly successful, unnerving green units already shaken by heavy fighting. On the Tebessa road one company of engineers broke and ran, and one group of German infiltrators actually captured 100 Americans.
Panic became contagious, and the situation was so fluid even some officers didn't know what was going on. American soldiers, some as individuals and some in small groups, abandoned their positions seeking safety in the rear. Even some forward artillery observers abandoned their posts, explaining “The place is too hot!” 13 American infantry reinforcements and British tanks arrived during the night and stabilized the situation.
Saturday, February 20 dawned cold and wet, but the Germans had still not achieved the desired breakthrough. Rommel had personally arrived, and was not happy with what he saw. Time is everything in war, and Rommel knew he didn't have much left to achieve victory. Montgomery's Eighth Army was far to the east, but fast approaching the Mareth Line.
Rommel's presence had a positive effect, and for a time it seemed as if the heady “old days” of 1941-42 were back again. The Germans employed a relatively new weapons, Nebelwerfer multiple rocket launchers, which Americans quickly dubbed “screaming Meemies” because of the terrifying sounds they made.
The 10th Panzer moved through the Pass in force, only to be met by a handful of British Valentine and Crusader tanks under Lt Colonel Gore of the Royal Buffs and American tank destroyers positioned in roadblocks. The British and Americans fought valiantly, but the issue was never in doubt. The Allied armor, outnumbered and outgunned, was destroyed in detail.
The Germans were though the main part of Kasserine pass and seemingly on the point of a breakthrough. Once on the western side of the pass, Rommel faced two roads—one going southwest towards the Tebessa supply center, and another going north to Thala and then on to Le Kef. Le Kef was the nominal objective of Sturmflut, but Rommel was lukewarm about enveloping the British First army.
In the end the Field Marshal sent forces down both routes. The Kampfgruppe DAK (Deutsches Afrika Korps) went the road to Tebessa while the 10 Panzer traveled north towards Thala and (in theory) Le Kef. But more Allied units were being redeployed and coming into the battle, stiffening resistance.
Colonel Paul Robinson's Combat Command B (CCB) of the 1st Armored Division had seen fighting in December gave the Germans a rough time on Tebessa road. Accurate tank and artillery fire stalled the Axis drive, and later American infantry pushed the Germans back and actually recaptured some equipment lost earlier.
German forces driving down the northern road enjoyed a much greater success against the Allied forces defending Thala. British General Charles Dunphie's 26th Armoured Brigade fought hard but their equipment could not match German tanks. British Crusader and Valentine tanks were outranged and outgunned, and their armor was thinner. Soon the desert landscape was littered with knocked out British armor, their flaming hulls sending thick black coils of smoke into the sky.
Dunphie lost 38 tanks and 28 guns, and the Germans bagged 571 prisoners. British defenses had crumbled, and the road to Thala was open. But Axis forces might have been victorious, but they were not unscathed. German and Italian losses had been relatively light, though some individual units like the Italian had been decimated.
But the main problem was a crippling shortage of fuel and ammunition. More and more Allied units were coming into the fight, and Axis advances—once so promising-- had either slowed to a crawl or had been stopped in their tracks. On February 22 Rommel called off all offensive actions and the Germans withdrew to the east. The Desert Fox's last gamble had failed. 14
In a sense the U.S. Army was the real winner at Kasserine Pass. The North African campaign was a testing ground for American forces, enabling them to gain experience and try developing weapons and tactics. Incompetent or mediocre commanders were weeded out and replaced. General Fredendall was relieved of command, and replaced by General George S. Patton.
American training was sound on the whole, but armored theory had to be rethought and reforms introduced. Rommel had shaken the Americans out of their cock-sure complacency, hardening them for a long and drawn out struggle. Thanks to the hard lessons so painfully learned at Kasserine, the United States Army would achieve victory in Europe in 1945.
Show Footnotes and
John MacDonald, Great Battles of WWII (Philadelphia: Courage Books, 1993), p. 90
Wikipedia article on line, “Kasserine Pass”
Stephen Zaloga, Kasserine Pass 1943 (London:Osprey), p.12
Zaloga, Kasserine, p. 36
Zaloga Kassrine, p. 45
Zaloga, Kasserine, p. 17
Richard Collier, The War in the Desert (Alexandria, VA:Time-Life, 1973), p.160
Collier, p. 63
Stephen W Sears, Desert War in North Africa (NY: American Heritage Publishing, 1973), p 139
Reprinted with Permission from Military Heritage Magazine. This article
appeared in the Summer 2008 edition of Military Heritage Magazine
Copyright © 2009 Eric Niderost.
Written by Eric Niderost. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Eric Niderost at:
About the author:
Eric Niderost teaches history at Chbaot College, a community college in Hayward, California.
A regular contributor to a number of magazines, he also is the co-author of Civil War Firsts (2001)
and A Nation Transformed (2007).
Published online: 06/21/2009.