"Thirty tanks striking south from Lessouda toward Sidi Bou Zid – unknown number of tanks striking toward us at Sbeitla … Fighting is very hard and bombing is ongoing. Our air support isn’t too good. Hightower reported only five medium tanks left in one company, one company is unheard from and another is unheard from and there is no information about it."
From the Diary of Captain Ernest Hatfield, an aide to Major General Orlando Ward, commander of the 1st Armored Division, February 14, 1943.
When studying a successful sports franchise or a successful business operation, one of the essential features is the ability to adjust according to lessons learned in failure. It is much the same for success in warfare. This was particularly true for the American forces in North Africa as they participated in their first significant engagement with the Germans in early 1943.
After it entered into the war in 1941, the United States faced challenges in Europe, Asia, and the Soviet Union, which could impact the outcome of the war. However, the U.S. was not fully mobilized and could not immediately influence the situation. Japan had numerous victories in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, and while Britain may have survived, it had not delivered a significant blow to Germany in Western Europe. On the Eastern Front, despite stopping the Germans near Moscow, the Soviets feared a renewed German offensive. There were concerns that Germany and Japan could link up and control Eurasia if they penetrated the Caucasus region and India.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to decide how the United States could use its limited military resources to affect the balance of forces. The Soviet Union and top American military planners, including General Dwight D. Eisenhower and General George Marshal, agreed that a cross-channel invasion of Western Europe was the best course of action. However, the British leadership led by Winston Churchill was more cautious and skeptical about the timing of such an operation. They believed the Americans needed more time to prepare for such a complicated operation. Churchill felt that a failed military invasion could have dire political consequences for the Allied cause. (See my previous blog about the disaster at Dieppe.) Churchill believed the Alllies should attack Europe from the weaker “underbelly.” He advocated a coordinated assault on North Africa as a prelude to attacking Italy. It would also allow the U.S. forces to gain experience fighting against the formidable German army.
In 1940, Italian forces had invaded British-held Egypt from their colony of Libya. The British responded with a counterattack that drove the Italians back into Libya and ultimately led to the arrival of German forces under General Erwin Rommel, who had been sent to North Africa to support the Axis effort. The Germans and Italians enjoyed early successes in the North African campaign, pushing the British and their Commonwealth allies back to Tobruk in Libya. However, in November 1941, a British offensive called Operation Crusader succeeded in relieving Tobruk and pushing the Axis forces back into Libya. The back-and-forth fighting in North Africa continued throughout early 1942. Tobruk fell again to Rommel’s forces in June of 1942. Tobruk’s loss prompted Roosevelt to support a North African campaign.
Roosevelt’s decision proved to be foresighted. In August 1942, American troops landed at Guadalcanal, and the siege of Stalingrad commenced on the banks of the Volga River. By November, American troops had isolated the Japanese at Guadalcanal, and the Russians surrounded the Germans at Stalingrad. The Germans and Japanese would surrender and evacuate by February 1943, reversing the fortunes of the Allies in these regions. Meanwhile, in late October 1942, Rommel suffered his first decisive defeat by the British at the Battle of El Alamein. The time seemed right for an invasion of North Africa.
The joint Allied invasion of French North Africa, nicknamed Operation Torch, began on November 8, 1942. It aimed to secure the region and gain control of the Mediterranean Sea. Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower, with more than 80,000 American and 20,000 British troops, landed near Casablanca in French Morocco and the Algerian cities of Oran and Algiers. The Allies turned their attention to the east to seize the key port city of Tunis, but the Germans already had a powerful defense. Eisenhower reoriented his forces to the southeast and went on the defensive in central Tunisia in January 1943, with Lieutenant General Kenneth Anderson’s British First Army in the north, General Louis-Marie Koeltz’s Free French divisions in the center, and US II Corps, under the command of Major General Lloyd Fredendall, in the south.
The Allied forces advanced eastward, and the British took Tripoli under General Bernard Montgomery's leadership. Allied forces positioned themselves at Faid to divide Rommel's forces in the north and south. To counter this, Rommel planned to coordinate an attack against the British First Army to isolate the US II Corps and advance west toward the American rear. The plan included the 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions attacking north of recently captured Faïd, while the German Afrika Corps would attack west through Gafsa and then turn to strike at II Corps from the south. In mid-February 1943, Rommel launched his attack on the Allied defense lines within the interior plain of the Atlas Mountains. Rommel discovered that the Americans were unprepared. Fredenhall had scattered his troops in pockets across the complex terrain too far from each other to provide sufficient support. The German Luftwaffe provided aerial support as the tank battle intensified. The German advance from the south threatened to surround American troops.
Counterattacks by the 1st Armored Division's Combat Command A on February 15th and 16th were unsuccessful and resulted in many casualties. The CCA commander ordered a retreat to Sbeïtla that turned into a rout. By the night of the 16th, II Corps had lost nearly 1,600 men, 100 tanks, 57 half-tracks, and 29 artillery pieces, making further counterattacks impossible. The 1st Armored Division withdrew to positions southeast of Tébessa as the enemy infiltrated the approaches to Kasserine Pass. The US II Corps fell back and concentrated their strength at Tebessa. Rommel saw an opportunity to attack the Allied forces directly through the Kasserine Pass to capture supplies, protect the German-held coastal region, and create a staging area for the Luftwaffe to launch further attacks. The Germans had inflicted heavy damage and revealed underlying problems within the Allied forces. The commanders had not properly positioned their forces and had not personally reconnoitered the landscape. The American, British, and French troops were uncoordinated, and within the American forces, elements within divisions were split up rather than emphasizing coordinated actions. The U.S. Army's inexperience in combat was evident, and Allied leaders did not inspire confidence among their men.
On February 19, 1943, Rommel gained approval to launch an attack on the Allied forces at Kasserine Pass and Sbiba Pass. However, the Allied forces were better prepared for the German attack and assembled a sizable force at both Sbiba and Kasserine Pass. They laid mines, dug in, and awaited the attack. The small, improvised force of Americans fought Rommel to a stalemate in Kasserine Pass on the 19th, frustrating his plans to control the pass. The attack towards Sbiba stalled in a dense Allied minefield within range of a British artillery brigade, allowing the Allies to strengthen their position. The successful defense in both locations forced Rommel to reevaluate his plan and focus his efforts on Kasserine Pass.
On the 20th, the Germans gained control of the northwestern exits of Kasserine Pass after intense combat. Still, the Allies were able to bolster their position by joining forces and forming a solid defense on the southern and western edges of the Bahiret Foussana Valley. The British 26th Armored Brigade also established a defensive line blocking the road to Thala. With the position south of Sbiba holding firm, Rommel decided to focus his main effort the next day to the north and west through Kasserine Pass.
The next day, the Allies prepared to meet the German attack with a solid defensive line that included infantry, tanks, antitank guns, and artillery support. The Panzer Grenadier Regiment Africa drove back the American forward elements and secured a hill but found themselves trapped there. American antitank defenses and artillery fire halted another German attack. The British force south of Thala bent but did not break, and the arrival of the U.S. 9th Infantry Division's artillery helped to strengthen their position. After a desperate melee, the Germans withdrew, and Rommel ordered his forces to switch to the defensive. Rommel abandoned the offensive as he realized further attacks were unlikely to succeed, and his limited gains could not justify his losses. Despite having enough fuel and some reserve stocks, he retreated on the 22nd, leaving minefields as he turned his attention south to the Mareth Line and the British Eighth Army. The approach of sizeable Allied reinforcements from the West also influenced the decision.
The battle of Kasserine Pass saw significant losses on both sides, with the Germans claiming to have taken thousands of Allied prisoners and destroyed many tanks and other vehicles. However, the Allies were ultimately successful in frustrating the German's intentions. Even Rommel noted how the Allies had recovered quickly and utilized their reserves to defend the passes. Yet both American and British leaders criticized the American performance at the beginning of the offensive. The battle highlighted weaknesses in American leadership, training, and equipment.
Kasserine Pass's aftermath led to several changes in the American military, including replacing General Lloyd Fredendall, the commander of the II Corps, with General George Patton. Patton was a well-known and respected military leader, and he was tasked with reorganizing and retraining the American forces in North Africa. Fredenhall bore the brunt of the criticism for the failures of the Americans at Kasserine Pass. Fredendall was known for being aloof and tended to micromanage his subordinates, resulting in confusion and disorganization among the Allied forces. During the battle, Fredendall failed to establish a clear plan of attack or provide guidance to his subordinate commanders. As a result, the Allied forces were spread out across a broad front, with little coordination or support between the various units. And Fredendall did not work well with his British counterparts. Some of this criticism is unfair, given the high expectations surrounding the inexperienced American soldiers who were hampered by poor training. This was the first significant engagement for American forces.
General Eisenhower restructured the Allied command to improve coordination and operational control. Commanders were either removed or promoted out of the way. Efforts were made to enhance the integration of immediate artillery and air support, and American anti-aircraft artillery began reforms. The introduction of the M4 Sherman tank to counter the German Panzer IV's effectiveness also significantly impacted Allied success. The Allied commanders were given greater scope for initiative and urged to lead their units from the front.
The battle at Kasserine Pass has often been portrayed as a defeat for American forces. But recent military scholarship has made an effort to recast the battle in more favorable terms. Despite the tactical failures, military experts argue, the Allies scored an important victory. They achieved an operational victory that preserved Allied gains in North Africa and turned the tide of the campaign against the Germans. The lessons learned were valuable, despite coming at the cost of damage to American prestige in the short term and the impact on the historical narrative of the campaign over the long term. The German offensive at Kasserine Pass was a significant victory against one of Germany's most skilled combat commanders. It was won due to the initiative of individual officers and men who refused to give in.
Long-term success is predicated on adjusting and learning from failures, whether in sports, business, or warfare. Kasserine Pass helped set the stage for the eventual Allied assault on Sicily and its success in Italy, leading to the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany.
First Blood: The Battle of Kasserine Pass, 1943: Charles Whiting
An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943: Rick Atkinson