Kasserine Pass: Allied Defeat?
Did Rommel Really Win at Kasserine?
The 1970 FOX film Patton opens with a panorama of the North African desert, and after presenting the viewer with some beautiful, if bleak, scenery during the opening credits, the movie switches to a scene where Arabic nomads and their children are rummaging through the aftermath of a battle. Dead GIs, burnt-out American tanks, and abandoned equipment of every kind litter the rocky landscape. The nomads are in the process of stripping the dead bodies of boots, socks, jackets, and other articles of clothing when two Willys jeeps arrive on the scene, their passengers firing their guns into the air to ward off the pesky Africans. General Omar Bradley alights from the lead jeep, takes a look around, and then listens to his aide read the casualty report for the engagement. Stunned and a little bewildered by what he has seen, Bradley climbs back into the jeep, and the two vehicles drive off, weaving their way through the carnage. The setting? Kasserine Pass, Tunisia, February 1943.
The road to the Battle of Kasserine Pass began on November 8, 1942, when an Anglo-American force of gigantic proportions landed on the beaches of French North Africa. A total of 107,000 Allied troops – three-fourths of them American and the remaining quarter British – were landed to secure a foothold at nine key locations along the coast (1). After skirmishing with Vichy French troops and securing their initial objectives, the Allies moved inland and began to consider how to best defeat the German forces waiting for them in Tunisia. After failing to capture Tunis before the end of the year, the British and Americans spent the winter trading insults with each other and attempting to come up with a new plan for the campaign. Meanwhile, Hitler moved General Jurgin von Arnim into Tunisia to take command of the army charged with its defense. By January of 1943, von Arnim had at least 100,000 troops under his command and has also seized control of the strategically vital mountain passes through the heights near Tunis (2).
Meanwhile, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who had pulled his bruised and weary Afrika Korps back into Tunisia after his defeat at El Alamein, was envisioning a daring strike against the Allies. When Montgomery and his Eighth Army halted at Tripoli in January 1943 to rest before tackling the Desert Fox once again, it gave Rommel enough time to retreat to the Mareth Line, an old French string of fortifications (3). Rommel hoped that he could hold Monty at the Mareth Line with part of his troops while the rest of his veteran Afrika Korps sliced into the green and cocksure American II Corps, stationed at that time in the area around Sidi Bou Zid (4). This attack would allow him, after crushing the Americans and damaging their morale, to drive deep into the Allied forces still bogged down and seize vital supply and transport centers. In order for this offensive to be successful, though, Rommel would need to temporarily borrow some troops from von Arnim, but von Arnim, who disliked Rommel and his unorthodox methods, would not lend him enough forces to pull off an offensive which he considered too risky (5). On the other hand, von Arnim would gladly support a limited offensive against the 2nd U.S. Armored Division, part of the U.S. II Corps holding Sidi Bou Zid. Rommel agreed, and this attack, which occurred on the 14th of February, was spearheaded by the 10th and 21st Panzer Division, and supported by Stuka dive bombers. It proved to be an overwhelming victory, and the American sustained over 2,000 casualties, most of whom were taken prisoner (6).
An American M5 Light Tank, arguably the best light tank of the war,
although undergunned when facing the German at Kasserine Pass
Realizing now that he had sent the entire American II Corps reeling back towards the Western Dorsal mountain range, Rommel harassed the retreating Americans and pressured von Arnim for a continuation of the offensive, hoping to drive for the important Allied base at Tebesa, located approximately 40 to 50 miles northwest of Kasserine Pass. Von Armin would have none of it, though, and the debate grew so tense that Field Marshal Kesselring had to settle it in person, flying across the Mediterranean from his headquarters in Rome. In the end, Rommel won the argument, although von Arnim still withheld certain units for an offensive of his own – units which Kesselring had ordered him to loan to Rommel (7). While this clash of opinions in the Axis camp may seem to have been a minor incident, in the end it proved decisive, allowing the American under General Fredendall to prepare for the coming attack, granting them precious time to bring up reinforcements and supplies, and ultimately turning the tide of the battle in favor of the Allies (8).
Fredendall, though he knew that the Germans were preparing another offensive, was completely in the dark as to which of the five passes through the Western Dorsal mountains the Germans would use for their upcoming attack. On February 18th, 1943, however, Axis reconnaissance planes operating near Kasserine suggested an attack in that area, so Fredendall ordered Colonel Alexander Stark’s 26th Infantry Regiment to the pass posthaste. Fredendall’s orders to Stark: “I want you to go to Kasserine and pull a Stonewall Jackson.” (9)
Supporting Stark and the 26th Infantry Regiment was a conglomeration of anti-tank, artillery, and infantry battalions, which Stark added to his own force to create Task Force Stark. Meanwhile, the 10th Panzer Division, led by Brigadier General Karl Buelowius, barreled towards Kasserine, reaching it on the 19th of February (10). The Germans found Stark and his troops ready and waiting for them, and tried immediately to break through the American defenses, but in doing so underestimated Stark’s force and subsequently had to withdraw in the face of tenacious resistance. That night, realizing that the nature of both the pass and the Allied defenses dictated a strategy other than that of direst assault, Buelowius sent infiltration patrols into and behind the green American troops, disrupting their defenses and capturing some of them (11). Later that same night, however, a small contingent of British tanks arrived to bolster the sagging American lines, meaning that although temporarily victorious, Buelowius and his troops would have to try again in the morning (12). Rommel, meanwhile, was in a pensive mood, and was growing increasingly dissatisfied with his soldiers’ progress. Realizing that time was of the essence, as it would only be so long before Monty attacked again, Rommel pressured Buelowius to achieve an immediate breakthrough. He recorded in his diary for the 20th of February that “. . . what I most feared had now happened. The enemy had the opportunity to deploy his reserve troops in the unassailable hill positions.” (13)
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