By February of 1943, the American military was starting to get use to combat. For a military force that rivaled Portugal in size in the early 1940s, the U.S. Army had to undergo a rapid education in modern military tactics against better trained, sometimes better equipped opponents. There had been plenty of bloodied noses in this trial-by-fire – Pearl Harbor, Bataan, Guadalcanal, the U-boat attacks of ’41/’42 – but one opponent remained to be engaged: the Wehrmacht.
On February 19th, 1943, American troops received their first education of German military tactics by the regime’s most noted teacher, Gen. Erwin Rommel. The school was a dusty spot in the Tunisian desert known as Kasserine Pass.
Kasserine Pass was not the first time American troops had come under German fire, but it would become the most notable of the early engagements following the Allied invasion of French North Africa. Operation Torch in November of 1942 was the largest Allied invasion of the war thus far, placing 107,000 British and American troops in Morocco and Algeria. Coinciding with the British offensive at El Alamein, the goal had been a grand-scale encirclement of German and Italian forces in Libya and western Egypt. Instead, Hitler doubled-down on the North African front, committing 250,000 more troops and drawing the Allies into another protracted desert campaign.
American troops had their first significant encounter with the Germans only weeks before Kasserine. At the Battle of Faïd in southern Tunisia, American tanks came to rescue of French anti-tank units fighting elements of the German 21st Panzer Division. Following what they thought were retreating German tanks, the U.S. 1st Armored Division fell into an artillery ambush. The resulting German counterattack brought the Allied advance into Tunisia to a halt.
If Faïd represented the end of a German retreat that had started in November, Kasserine represented the beginning of an attempted German counteroffensive. By this point, Bernard Law Montgomery’s British 8th Army, the force that had been chasing Rommel since El Alamein, exhausted themselves. Although the port of Tripoli was now in Allied hands, it was temporarly usable, placing the 8th Army at the end of a very long supply line. Montgomery had seen this picture before in the nearly two years of North African fighting – one side outran their supply line, the other force attacked, and the momentum shifted once again. Montgomery preferred waiting to pressing Rommel’s battered Afrika Korps.
Montgomery’s pause to await resupply bought Rommel a few weeks respite. Rather than rest, Rommel turned his sights on the inexperienced US 2nd Corps which had just been defeated at Sidi Bou Zid. The 2nd Corps was all that stood between Rommel and a vast Allied supply depot at Tébessa. A strong assault through Kasserine Pass could threaten the entire British 1st Army, of which the US 2nd Corps was a part, and allow the Germans to destroy the Allied presence in Tunisia in piecemeal fashion.
Rommel likely didn’t know it, but his choice of target was aided by the presence of his opposing commander. Maj. Gen. Lloyd Fredendall, commander of the US 2nd Corps, held two distinctions – the oldest American commander in the European/African theater and perhaps the least respected commander in the theater as well. Fredendall made up his own mapping system, oddly referred to soldiers as “walking boys” in briefings, and was generally considered lazy and ineffective. Omar Bradley called Fredendall’s headquarters “an embarrassment to every American soldier.”
Frendendall had a higher power watching out for him – the Comando Supremo (Italian High Command). The inept Italian military leadership (which we’ve covered before) had the final say over Rommel’s plans, altering the Desert Fox’s unified assault against Kasserine into a divided force with the objective of turning the British 1st Army’s flank. On paper, the Italian revision was fine, except the forces involved were too few and the goal too broad. Rommel wanted a tactical victory. Rome wanted a quick-fix strategic turnaround to their failing African campaign.
The 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions started their attack in the early hours of February 19th, divided between the Sbiba and Kasserine passes. Both were veteran divisions. The 10th had served in France and Russia while the 21st was made up of old-line Afrika Korpsmembers. The 21st Panzer was assigned the Sbiba Pass, running directly into a combination of British, American and French anti-tank units. The Allies had carefully laid mines at Sbiba and quickly brought the Axis advance to a standstill. By Feb 20th, the 21st Panzer was in full retreat.
Kasserine was a far different story. Despite the history of Kasserine Pass as a major American defeat, the battle was neither was one-sided as the history books have declared nor a singularly American battle. Both in and around Kasserine, a combination American/French force sat ready to block Rommel’s advance. Rommel’s derision of American fighting mettle was evident as he attempted to have the small 33rd Reconnaissance Unit push through the pass alone. When that attempt failed to make any progress, Rommel committed his tanks. But by the end of the first day, the American and French troops had held their ground.
Day Two didn’t appear as though it would hold any better luck for the Axis. The British 26th Armoured Brigade arrived at Kasserine to shore up the defense. The Axis received support as well – the Italian 131st Armored Division Centauro. On the surface, this was a uneven trade: poorly made M-11/39 Italian tanks (the turret couldn’t move) versus the heavily armored Mark VI Crusader British Cruisers. But the British 1st Army restricted the 26th Armoured Brigade to sending only lightly-armed, mixed armor and infantry units. Instead of the entire weight of the 26th Armoured crashing against the blocked 10th Panzer, 11 tanks were sent alongside some light arms to try and tip the scales.
The result was a breaking in the Allied line. The shoulders protecting Kasserine Pass’ flanks folded the night before, bringing the entire 10th Panzer against the defenders directly in the Pass. The onslaught finally broke the American ranks on the afternoon of Feb 20th. The path to the supply depot at Tebessa was wide open.
Into the gap stepped the U.S. 1st Infantry Division’s 16th Infantry Regiment and Combat Command B of the U.S. 1st Armored Division at the town of Djebel el Hamra. The Afrika Korps Assault Group, a combination of 10th Panzer units and the Italian Centauro, pressed hard against the American positions, even gaining temporary air superiority, but couldn’t dislodge the defenders. An American counterattack on Feb 22nd netted 400 Afrika Korpsveterans and ensured that Tebessa would remain in Allied hands.
Rommel wasn’t done yet. Moving the 10th Panzer north, he saw a new tactical advantage – take the town of Thala and cut off both the U.S. 9th Infantry and the Combat Command B of the 1st Armored Division from their supply line. The units, a combination of American and British troops and tanks, lay in wait for an expected German attack. When Rommel pounced on Feb 22nd, the anti-tank defenses had already been planned. The 10th Panzer essentially walked into a trap and was chewed up all day until darkness finally allowed them to retreat.
His tank divisions battered, Rommel finally retreated. By the end of Feb 24th, just five days after Rommel’s offensive began, the Kasserine Pass was again on the Allied side of the line. And despite the Lufwaffe’s guest appearance at Kasserine, where it had no impact, a massive Allied air campaign aimed at the retreating Afrika Korps units from Kasserine scrubbed Rommel’s hopes to turn his force against Montgomery’s refueling 8th Army.
So where the hell did the defeat occur?
The American defeat was numerical, not territorial. 10,000 Allied troops (including 6,500 Americans) were dead or wounded – thousands more were captured. The Allies lost 183 tanks; the Germans only 34, but 34 tanks that could not be quickly or easily replaced. Rommel’s 2,000 casualties were slight by comparison, but came out of the ranks of his battle-hardened North African veterans. The Americans were gaining combat-experienced soldiers; the Germans were losing them.
Kasserine taught American commanders valuable lessons. First, their soldiers could trade blows with Hitler’s finest. Second, their generals couldn’t. Fredendall was a non-existent factor at Kasserine – neither he nor his staff were anywhere to be found in the heat of the fight. But Fredendall wasn’t alone in the blame. His commanding officer, Gen. Kenneth Anderson of the British 1st Army, totally failed to concentrate Allied armor, yet alone integrate forces. The system in place since Operation Torch; essentially an American army led by British generals, was not going to work.
Kasserine revealed the flaws of the Allied war effort but did not fix them. Further intra-allied bickering would hamper the fronts in Sicily and Italy throughout 1943. Kasserine was the prologue to the kind of Allied cooperation that made Normandy possible. It also brought out the best and brightest in American leadership.
On March 6th, Fredendall was out as 2nd Corps commander. In his place stepped Gen. George S. Patton. American tank tactics would never be the same.