16 August 2023
John C Pursley discusses how Rommel taught rookie American forces a valuable lesson in the art of war.
For almost two years, British and German armies in North Africa engaged in a back-and-forth struggle, with the British advancing until they outpaced their supply line whereupon the German’s would counterattack sending the British into retreat until they regrouped and counterattacked, and so-on.
But all things come to end and the bright spot for the Allies was El Alamein where the British 8th Army, commanded by then General Bernard Montgomery, soundly defeated Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s forces. After being pushed out of Egypt and Libya, and forced back hundreds of miles into southern Tunisia, the Germans halted and awaited Montgomery’s next move. This was a good defensive position for them as Tunisia is shielded to the west by the Dorsal Atlas Mountains, which only has a few passes including Kasserine.
During November 1942, while the 8th Army cautiously pursued Rommel from the east, the British 1st Army and US II Corps executed amphibious assaults on the beaches of Algeria and Morocco during Operation Torch. The apathetic Vichy French defenders quickly surrendered giving the Americans their first victory, but little combat experience.
No matter, the landings succeeded in trapping Rommel between the ocean and Allied pincers with the latter quickly setting their sights on taking Tunisia. But those plans would have to wait due to torrential seasonal rains and a quick assembly of German forces in their path.
Knowing that his troops were in trouble but believing it was better to fight the Allies in the North African deserts rather than having them storm mainland Europe, Hitler decided it was best to retain a bridgehead and build up his forces, even if it meant eventual defeat. In other words, he was buying time and hoping for the best. To this end, Hitler added 112,000 fresh German soldiers as well as more tanks, planes and vital supplies to strengthen the 50,000 troops of Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika.
Rommel’s last effort
As a result of the El Alamein defeat Rommel fell from grace and had been issued orders to return to Germany, as soon as his withdrawal to the Mareth Line was completed. But the Desert Fox still had enough clout to propose the newly arrived Fifth Panzer Army under Colonel-General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim and his Panzerarmee Afrika fight as separate, but mutual supportive, units.
The idea was well received by Field Marshall Albert Kesselring who formed a plan to have von Arnim attack Sbeitle with two panzer divisions and, if successful, one division would break off and join Afrika Korps elements in the attack on Gafsa. The goal of the plan was to inflict heavy causalities on Allied troops thus forcing the delay of their intended offensive and giving the Germans time to organise their attack on Tebéssa.
Seeing little action between the November landings and the winter of 1943, the Supreme Allied Commander in French North Africa, General Dwight Eisenhower, visited American forces in early February to see for himself why there appeared to be a stalemate in the campaign to drive the Germans off the continent.
Although he had no knowledge of the German intent, Eisenhower was not comfortable with the way the American 2nd Corps had been disbursed along the V-shaped region between east and west Dorsalis, especially the 1st Armoured Division that was spread across a broad front and had very few reserves.
Left: Members of an American tank crew standing down from a dusty ride through the desert wasteland
In addition to the American troops lacking battle experience, their Corps Commander, General Lloyd Fredendall, had established his command post 70 miles from the front lines, far up a canyon accessible only by a barely passable road constructed by his corps engineers. Making matters worse, he was also a micromanager who made all the decisions regarding the placement of his battalions rather than allowing his subordinates to make their own judgements.
The only things the Americans had going for them at this point was they were better equipped and fed than any other forces in Africa. Although the Germans had superior weapons like the Tiger tank and nebelwerfer rocket launcher system, they didn’t have enough to give them a significant advantage in battle.
The Allied advance towards Tunisia had not been well-organised and had left the American, British and Free French columns detached and disordered. Little did the Allies know, but they had made it easier for the Germans to attack them. Their hastily established Tunisian bridgehead separated the Allied armies by a fair distance and gave the Germans the opportunity to concentrate on one at a time. Their plan was to use the 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions to assault the Americans at Kasserine and Sbiba passes while Montgomery’s 8th Army was held at bay by the Mareth Line defenses.
The German assault
On 14 February the Allied forces were taken by total surprise when von Arnim struck Sidi bou Zid in Operation Frühlingswind (Spring Wind). The Germans advanced from Faid towards the area controlled by units of the 34th Infantry Division who had fortified three hills that were too far apart to support one another. The 10th Panzer Division struck hard and fast, directly at the heart of the American positions while the 21st Panzer moved south through another pass and having surrounding the defenders, overran an entire artillery battalion.
Under the command of US Colonel Louis Hightower, a force of about 51 tanks, a company of tank destroyers, and other vehicles moved forward in a counterattack. As the American tanks fired on the Germans, the latter feigned retreat. Smelling victory, the Americans pursued and fell into a carefully laid trap finding themselves under heavy and accurate fire from German 88mm guns.
Hightower’s tank was eventually knocked out of action, but the crew survived. After escaping to the American lines, they found 44 of their tanks had been destroyed along with 15 tank destroyers, 15 large guns, several half-tracks, and many smaller vehicles.
Left: An M-4 Sherman tank torn apart like a tin can by superior German firepower
The headquarters and support elements of the American Combat Command A retreated and once assembled on the Sidi bou Zid/Sbeitla road, were joined by a battalion of infantry and another of tanks. The commander, Colonel Russel A Alger had been directed to attack the Germans the next day in order to restore the situation and free the trapped Allied troops.
Moving in an arrowhead formation, the Americans commenced their attack at 12.40pm on the 15th. Flanking the tanks were tank destroyers and behind them came a battalion of infantry followed by a battalion of self-propelled guns.
The Germans sighted the attacking force at a great distance and sent a number of air raids against them while they themselves quickly prepared and positioned two Panzer divisions in ambush. The trap was sprung when Alger was about two miles from Sidi bou Zid. He immediately stopped his advance in the face of the strong line of anti-tank guns and a superior number of tanks. Somehow, in the chaos, most of the infantry and self-propelled guns escaped, but at day’s end 46 tanks had been destroyed along with 130 vehicles of different purpose and nine guns. In just two days the 1st Armoured Division had lost two of three tank battalions mostly attributable to poor leadership and planning. In the meantime, the American commander Fredendall evacuated his command post to a safer location and ordered US troops to fall back and regroup in Kasserine Pass.
An American fiasco
On 19 February Rommel decided to take Kasserine as it was the most promising opening to the coast and ordered 10th Panzer Division to join the Afrika Korps units already there. Unknown to the Germans, that night the Americans were reinforced with a battalion of infantry, a squadron of tanks, and an anti-tank support company.
Right: American anti-tank gunners await the onslaught of the German tanks
Using the same tactic, Rommel’s German and Italian troops once again bypassed and surrounded American strongpoints. The unexpected attack threw the entire American contingent into total chaos sending some American troops running for their lives, leaving others to fight on.
The American line was broken on the southern side of the pass and a hasty retreat left undamaged equipment behind. To the north the squadron of tanks fought until rendered inoperable and the survivors fell back, joining the 26th Armoured Brigade in setting up defensive positions on the road to Thala.
On the morning of the 21st, the 10th Panzer Division began its attack at 9.30am and was engaged by Allied forces, fighting a series of delaying actions on the ridges crossing the Thala road. At dusk after a full day of fighting, remnants of the American 26th withdrew into the defensive position on the last ridge before Thala.
Left: German military commander Erwin Rommel discussing plans with General Nehring in Tunisia, December 1942
Unknown to anyone at the time, the last Allied tank to drive through the line was followed by a column of German armour moving behind a captured British Valentine. They went unnoticed for quite a while until a verbal altercation ensued between a German and an American soldier over a tank coming too close to slit trench. A firefight immediately followed in which all of the German tanks were destroyed, but the cohesiveness of the defensive line was essentially gone. However, the Allies didn’t fall back and were able to hold their ground with the arrival of the American 9th Division artillery.
Turning the tide
Rommel’s plan for the 22nd was to continue the attack on Thala but he was too slow to carry it out and was beaten to the punch by an Allied counterattack, backed by devastating artillery fire.
Right: The British Matilda infantry tank was designed to support troops when they came under heavy fire
As Allied resistance stiffened, the German commanders quarreled over whether to press on with the offensive or quit while they were ahead. Even Rommel was convinced the Germans had missed an opportunity to score a decisive blow because von Arnim retained nearly half of the 10th Panzer Divisions tanks in reserve, and realised it was over.
That night, the Germans quietly abandoned their positions and were nowhere to be found in the morning. Rommel had decided the race against the Allied reserve forces was lost and although he saw a pleasing, though uninspiring end to the assault, his superior Kesselring didn’t agree and believed there were more opportunities to push the Allied forces back and take more ground. Rommel, instead, turned his focus to reinforcing the German lines to the south against the British 8th Army, a maneuver that had proved futile by early April.
The fact was, Rommel had known since the Operation Torch landings that the Axis forces in North Africa had limited time left on the continent. His hope was to save as many of his men as he could but he was relieved of his command before he could carry out that mission. When he returned to Germany, he left behind 300,000 men and their equipment under the authority of von Arnim, a far inferior commander.
The end was coming
It was only a few months before the Axis forces in Tunisia surrendered and the month of May saw over 275,000 German and Italian prisoners placed inside their barbed wire enclosures. Among the captured was von Arnim himself.
In total, the human toll for the battle of Kasserine Pass was 10,000 Allied and 2,000 Axis casualties and although a total catastrophe had been prevented, it was an embarrassing and crushing defeat for US forces. Operation Torch had not been much of a battle compared with their first major clash with the Germans, who had far more combat experience.
In reaction, the US Army sent Major General Omar Bradley to assess the situation and acting on his report, regulations were changed for commanders to keep their headquarters near the front; line officers were given greater discretion to react to situations without permission; artillery and air support operations were better coordinated; and combat units would be positioned to back each other.
German, American, and British militaria collectibles from North Africa are plentiful at dealers and in auctions, though Afrika Korps items fetch a premium. British and American medals start at £10-£15 with tunics ranging around £600 or more. The main British and Commonwealth medal for fighting in North Africa was the Africa Star, examples can be picked up for just £10 if unattributed. German Soldbuchs and Allied medal rolls can show where soldiers fought, enabling you, with research, to link individuals to the campaign.
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