A Journey to World War II Battlefields Part 2: Kasserine Pass, 2010
Editor’s Note: This article is part 2 in a special series on World War II battlefields by ACG consulting historian and Advisory Board member, Carlo D’Este.
After our tour of Carthage and a visit to the American military cemetery we boarded the cruise ship Corinthian II late on Saturday afternoon, September 11. By road the port city of Sousse is about 90 miles south of Tunis; by sea aboard the Corinthian II, it was an overnight run. Only 297 feet long, the ship is nevertheless elegant with superb staterooms. It has much the same excellent facilities as the larger cruise liners but carries only a maximum of 114 passengers and a crew of 70. Everything aboard ship is within a short walking distance of one’s cabin. What separates a small ship like this from its leviathan cousins is an intimacy in both space and with the great crew that seemed to know everyone’s first name by the end of the first day at sea.
Our first night as sea was no bargain, however. The previous day there had been a storm and although the day was sunny and bright the seas were running rough. So rough that we began to feel queasy before the ship had even cleared Tunis harbor. Things got steadily worse. With the ship seeming to gyrate in odd directions my wife and I were soon in the first stages of seasickness. However, inasmuch as the dinner hour had begun we felt it important to put in an appearance in the dining room. It would hardly do for one of the guest lecturers not to show up the first night. We were escorted to a table but within five minutes realized it just wasn’t going to work and had to have help to leave the dining room and return to our cabin.
What followed was what typically comes with seasickness: you want to die but are afraid you won’t! My wife had the good sense to realize that the next day we were to travel to Kasserine Pass where I had to speak about the battle fought there in February 1943 and that unless something was done to curb our seasickness, neither of us would be fit the next morning. She summoned the ship’s doctor who gave us a shot that did the trick – and in twenty minutes we were asleep.
We both felt fine the next morning when we learned that at least thirty other passengers had also had a very bad night; some were quite ill. It came as a relief to know that we were not the only ones to have had an unpleasant experience.
Early on a Sunday morning we boarded buses on the dock at Sousse for an all-day trip to Kasserine Pass. Most European and Mediterranean buses are quite well equipped, except for lavatories. Comfort stops are an absolute necessity, especially for an older group like ours, and our first one came after about an hour-and-a-half at the city of Kairouan. Regarded as the fourth holiest city in all of Islam because of the existence of the oldest mosque in North Africa, which dates to the 9th century, Kairouan is a mixture of the ancient and the modern.
Five-star toilets are non-existent in that part of the world. Most barely rate one-star and the one at Kairouan was no exception. In front of the building there were some of the enterprising and usually aggressive merchants that we were to see throughout our stops in Tunisia. Postcards and all manner of jewelry were the most common. One of them was an aged camel driver looking for subjects to pose with him and his camel – for a small monetary reward, of course. Several members of our group obligingly posed for photographs.
Along the coast is a modern motorway. Inland, however, the roads are two-lane and heavily traveled. We take our lives in America pretty much for granted but seeing how those in other nations live is often an eye-opening experience, none more so than in Tunisia, a nation with a mix of the modern and the very ancient. In Kairouan and other cities we passed through mosques and ancient walls seem to mix easily with a lively city life. Cars, lorries, bicycle rickshaws and taxicabs jam the streets where a mix of modern and ancient buildings house all varieties of trades and businesses.
It’s difficult to get a true sense of a nation from the windows of a speeding bus but it is nevertheless possible to gain an appreciation for how the average Tunisian lives. In the countryside (as well as in cities) there were numerous clearly inhabited but unfinished buildings, some missing an exterior wall. We learned that in Tunisia property taxes are not payable until a building is completely finished. So, homeowners deliberately avoid finishing off their premises as a legal tax dodge.
Life for many is primitive at best. Along the roadside you can frequently observe skinned sheep hanging from outdoor meat hooks. Grass for grazing is scarce, yet along the sides of the highways there are numerous small herds of sheep, tended by a herder, foraging for whatever they can find – which isn’t much. The animals are all hobbled so that they cannot wander away. A law in Tunisia permits herds to forage on government owned land free of charge for up to thirty days. After that they must move on so as not to overtax the land. On private land permission is usually granted to forage upon payment of a small fee to the landowner.
Poverty is evident and small stalls selling produce or food dot the highways. Merchants seek what shelter they can under scraps of canvas from the broiling sun’s heat, which was in the low nineties the day we traveled to Kasserine Pass. The mostly primitive sights were occasionally interspersed by modern factory buildings.
As in the cities, there is a highly visible police presence along the rural highways of Tunisia. Cars, trucks and people are stopped at random and required to produce their papers. Driving along a busy two-lane highway in a speeding bus that often has to pass slow moving vehicles is an adventure that, seen from the front where my wife and I sat, is enough to raise one’s pucker factor by several degrees.
A little over sixty miles southwest of Kairouan is situated the rather unattractive crossroads city of Sbeïtla, a place whose only claim to fame is its wonderfully preserved Roman temples. In 1943, Sbeïtla was a major allied supply facility.
After the Germans routed American forces at nearby Sidi Bou Zid in mid-February 1943, Sbeïtla became the scene of utter chaos as French and American units fled the advancing forces of Rommel and Hans-Jürgen von Arnim, the commander of the German 5th Panzer Army.
Rising in the distance are the mountains of the Western Dorsal, one of two mountain chains in central Tunisia. With the loss of Sidi Bou Zid, the allies lost control of the Eastern Dorsal and Rommel and von Arnim now threatened to push through one of the three passes connecting the Western Dorsal with nearby Algeria.
Twenty-four miles west of Sbeïtla along Route 13 is the city of Kasserine. Little more than a village in 1943, the city is now home to some 38,000 inhabitants and is described in my guidebook as “a strong contender in any poll to determine the dullest town in Tunisia.” In fact, Sbeïtla and Kasserine seemed pretty much interchangeable but with Sbeïtla at least having the advantage of its Roman heritage.
On the western outskirts of Kasserine National Route 13 merges at a rotary with Route 17 that leads directly into Kasserine Pass. Along Route 17, a half-mile before the rotary, is a dirt road leading to a monument situated somewhat forlornly in a dirt field. From this site there is a perfect view of Kasserine Pass.
In 92-degree heat our two buses arrived at the site of the monument shortly before 3:00 P.M. Because the ship had to sail by 7:00 P.M. that evening and we were looking at a three-hour ride back to Sousse, our time viewing the pass was necessarily brief. In the next ten minutes the participants received an abbreviated version of what occurred at Kasserine Pass in mid-February 1943, a battle that shook the fledgling U.S. Army to its very foundations.
Except for the coastal plains, Tunisia is dominated by mountains south of Tunis: the Eastern and Western Dorsals that run generally southwest and southeast for some 200 miles in the form of an inverted Y. The Western Dorsal has three passes connecting Tunisia’s inner plateau with Algeria’s highlands. In February 1943 the most important of those three passes was Kasserine, the gateway to the southern approaches to the Western Dorsal.
If properly defended Kasserine Pass offers advantages that a force of sufficient size could exact a high price against attack. That force was not arrayed at Kasserine in February 1943. With Allied forces in full retreat after Sidi Bou Zid, pursued by Gen. Hans-Jürgen von Arnim’s 5th Panzer Army, the U.S. commander in Tunisia, Maj. Gen. Lloyd Fredendall belatedly grasped the strategic importance of holding Kasserine Pass.
Although American reinforcements began arriving as early as February 17 in intense cold and fog, the inexperience of most of the troops (an engineer battalion, for example, had never heard a shot fired in anger) and the absence of an experienced commander left Kasserine woefully defended. Fredendall sent Col. Alexander Stark, (a 1st Infantry Division regimental commander) to take charge of the defense of the pass but he did not arrive until the morning of February 19, too late to effectively reorganize the defense of Kasserine. To make matters even worse, the geography of Kasserine made it impossible for lateral movement of troops across the pass, alongside which ran the Hatab River. Its banks were so steep that to cross it required a ten-mile detour to the west.
Opposing the American defenders was Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Deutsche Afrika Korps and part of the 10th Panzer Division. On February 19 Rommel attacked in a driving rain. For the first time in World War II the Germans employed the multiple rocket launcher called the Nebelwerfer or what the G.I.s called the “Moaning Minnie” or “Screaming Meemie”, a devastating weapon that could fire six 150-mm rockets at a time.
Although Stark’s provisional task force that included a small French force resisted Rommel until the following afternoon, the end result was foreordained. Had Rommel’s subordinate commanders been more aggressive the battle would not have lasted as long as it did. A great many American troops were captured, while others simply fled the battlefield in complete disarray.
Rommel pressed on toward Thala (35 miles northwest of Kasserine Pass) and Tebessa (a similar distance just across the Algerian border) in order to split Allied forces but ran into stout Allied defenses. The great Anglo-American defense of Thala helped convince Rommel to halt his offensive, which had the lofty aim of encircling the entire allied force in Tunisia.
One of a number of Axis mistakes was Rommel’s decision to split his forces by sending the Afrika Korps toward Tebessa and the 10th Panzer Division toward Thala.
Thala was the high water mark of the German African campaign. By the afternoon of February 23 Rommel realized he had no chance of attaining his goal and had pulled back and abandoned Kasserine Pass, a victim not only of his decision to split his forces but more importantly of his inability to resupply his force over such long distances. Rommel would later observe that: “the battle is fought and decided by the quartermasters before the shooting begins.” He was right: in North Africa supply requirements amounted to approximately thirteen tons for each soldier per month, which the long German supply lines simply could not adequately support.
Rommel saw no future for Axis forces but his pleas to Hitler to abandon North Africa fell on deaf ears. Hitler accused Rommel of pessimism and refused to even consider the idea. “But it was all hopeless,” Rommel wrote, “All my efforts to save my men and get them back to the Continent had been fruitless.”
Sources differ but combined losses for Sidi Bou Zid, Sbeïtla and Kasserine Pass were: U.S. – Heaviest American losses were in the 1st Armored Division and the 168th Regt of the 34th Infantry Division. Of the 30,000 troops involved, there were more than 6,000 casualties. The Germans claimed 4,026 American POWs, 171 tanks, 44 field guns, 19 anti-tank guns and 174 transport vehicles; The Germans suffered 989 casualties, and the loss of 20 guns, 5 anti-tank guns and 65 miscellaneous vehicles.
When the end came for the Axis armies in Africa in May 1943 Rommel wrote:
Terrible as it was to know that all my men had found their way into Anglo-American prison camps, even more shattering was the realization that our star was in decline and the knowledge of how little our command measured up to the trials which lay ahead. The moment the first Allied soldier set foot on Italian soil, Mussolini was finished and the dream of the rebirth of the Roman Empire was probably over for good.
(Source: B.H. Liddell Hart [ed.], The Rommel Papers (New York, 1953), p. 422.)
Sidi Bou Zid and Kasserine were humiliating defeats for American arms, which had serious consequences. The British regarded the battle as clear evidence that American fighting ability was mostly bravado. Not only were American tactics and dispositions unsound, but equally disturbing was the fact that American armor and artillery was simply no match for the superior German armament. Kasserine convinced the American commanders that the U.S. Army had to get much better in a hurry if Germany was to be defeated. Unless there was an immediate improvement in leadership and training, the long-term effects would be disastrous.
The inept American commander in Tunisia, Lloyd Fredendall, was belatedly removed from command of the II Corps and replaced by Patton. Under Patton and Omar Bradley the U.S. Army in Tunisia began to redeem itself, first at El Guettar and later, as the Germans were driven into a pocket around Tunis, at Hill 609 and other places.
During the entire North African campaign, the Germans and Italians suffered 620,000 casualties, while the British Commonwealth lost 220,000 men. American casualties in Tunisia alone eventually totaled more than 18,500. The Allied victory in North Africa destroyed or neutralized nearly 900,000 German and Italian troops, opened a second front against the Axis, permitted the invasion of Sicily and the Italian mainland in the summer of 1943, and removed the Axis threat to the oilfields of the Middle East and to British supply lines to Asia and Africa. It was critically important to the course of World War II.
Our brief stop on a hot Sunday afternoon overlooking Kasserine Pass soon ended, and we boarded the buses for the long trip back to Sousse, where the Corinthian II was set to depart. As we pulled away in clouds of dust from the strange but beautifully crafted monument, I thought of the futile battle fought there under terrible conditions sixty-seven years earlier. History has recorded the battle of Kasserine Pass as a debacle, yet it cannot be forgotten that from defeat came new resolve and within less than three months, redemption. As Omar Bradley once noted: “In Africa we learned to crawl, to walk, then run.”
Next month we visit Malta to learn of the island’s terrible ordeal during World War II and discover a most unusual sight in the city of Valletta.
Suggested further reading:
George F. Howe, “U.S. Army in World War II: The Mediterranean Theater of Operations”: Northwest Africa: Seizing the Initiative in the West (Washington: D.C., G.P.O., 1957).
Martin Blumenson, Rommel’s Last Victory (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957).
Rick Atkinson, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 (New York: Henry Holt, 2002 & paperback edition 2003).
Carlo D’Este, World War II in the Mediterranean, 1942-1945 (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1990).