Battle of Kasserine Pass
|Battle of the Kasserine Pass|
|Part of The Tunisia Campaign|
The 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment of the United States Army marches through the Kasserine Pass and on to Kasserine and Farriana, Tunisia.
|Commanders and leaders|
|Lloyd Fredendall||Giovanni Messe|
|Casualties and losses|
10,000(including 6,500 Americans)|
The Battle of Kasserine Pass took place in World War II during the Tunisia Campaign. It was, in fact, a series of battles fought around Kasserine Pass, a two-mile (3 km) wide gap in the Grand Dorsal chain of the Atlas Mountains in west central Tunisia. The Axis forces involved were primarily from the German-Italian Panzer Army (the redesignated German Panzer Army Africa) led by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and the Fifth Panzer Army led by General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim. The Allied forces involved came mostly from the U.S. Army's II Corps commanded by Major-General Lloyd Fredendall which was part of the British First Army commanded by Lieutenant-General Kenneth Anderson.
Significant as the first large-scale meeting of American and German forces in World War II, the untested American troops, who were led in an inept manner by their commander, suffered heavy casualties and were pushed back over fifty miles (80 km) from their original positions west of Faid Pass in a humiliating rout. The battle has been described as when the amateurs first met the professionals. In the aftermath, the U.S. Army instituted sweeping changes from unit-level organization to the replacing of commanders. When they next met, in some cases only weeks later, the U.S. was considerably stronger.
American and British forces landed at several points along the coast of French Morocco and Algeria on November 8, 1942, during Operation Torch. This came only days after General Bernard Montgomery's breakout in the east following the Second Battle of El Alamein. Understanding the danger of a two-front war, German and Italian troops were ferried in from Sicily to occupy Tunisia, one of the few easily defended areas of North Africa, and only one night's sail from bases in Sicily.
Even after the Torch landings by the Allies, there was little organized defense in the western desert. More importantly, no effort was made by Allied naval or air forces to interdict the flow of Axis men and material into Tunis until later in the campaign after sizeable forces had already come ashore. In addition, the Allies moved very slowly to make and maintain contact with the Germans as they tried to negotiate with local Vichy French commanders. Several attempts were made to cut off Tunis in November and December 1942 before the German troops could arrive in strength, but poor coordination and the excellent defensive terrain allowed the small numbers of German and Italian troops landed there to hold them off.
On January 23, 1943, Montgomery's 8th Army took Tripoli, thereby cutting off Rommel's main supply base. Rommel had planned for this eventuality, intending to block the southern approach to Tunisia from Tripoli by occupying an extensive set of defensive works known as the Mareth Line, which the French had constructed in order to fend off an Italian attack from Libya. With their lines steadied by the Atlas Mountains on the west and Gulf of Sidra on the east, even small numbers of German/Italian troops would be able to hold off the Allied forces.
Upsetting this plan was the fact that Allied troops had already crossed the Atlas Mountains and had set up a forward base of operations at Faïd, in the foothills on the eastern arm of the mountains. This put them in an excellent position to cut off Rommel from the forces further north, and cut his line of supply to Tunis. Obviously, the Axis could not allow this to stand.
Elements of von Arnim's Fifth Panzer Army reached the Allied positions on the eastern foot of the Atlas Mountains on January 30. The 21st Panzer Division met the French defenders at Faïd and rolled them over with little effort. Several attempts were made to stop their advance by the U.S. 1st Armored Division, but all three combat commands found themselves faced with the classic blitzkrieg— every time they were ordered into a defensive position, they would find those positions had already been overrun, and they were attacked by German soldiers with heavy losses. After three days the U.S. II Corps had been compelled to withdraw into the foothills.
Most of Tunisia fell into German hands, and the entrances into the coastal lowlands were all blocked. The Allies still held the interior of the roughly triangular Atlas range, but this seemed of little concern to Rommel since the exits eastward were all blocked. For the next two weeks, Rommel and the Axis commanders further north debated what to do next. Given his later actions, this delay may have proven costly.
Rommel eventually decided that he could improve his supply situation and further erode the American threat to his flank by attacking towards two U.S. supply bases just to the west of the western arm of the mountains in Algeria. Although he had little interest in holding the mountains' interior plains, a quick thrust would gain the supplies, as well as further disrupt any U.S. actions.
On February 14 the 21st Panzer Division once again started moving west, attacking Sidi Bou Zid, about 10 miles (16 km) from Faïd in the interior plain of the Atlas Mountains. The battle raged for a day, but poor use of armor by the U.S. led to their defeat, and by the end of the day, the field was won by Panzer Army. A counterattack the next day was beaten off with ease, and on February 16, the Germans started forward again to take Sbeitla.
With no defensive terrain left, the U.S. forces retreated to set up new lines at the more easily defended Kasserine Pass on the western arm of the mountains. By this point, the U.S. forces had lost 2,546 men, 103 tanks, 280 vehicles, 18 field guns, 3 antitank guns, and an entire antiaircraft battery.
On February 19 Rommel launched an assault. The next day, he personally led the attack by the recently formed 10th Panzer Division, lent to him from the Fifth Panzer Army to the north, hoping to take the supply dumps, while the 21st Panzer Division, also detached from the Fifth Panzer Army, continued attacking northward through the Sbiba gap.
Within minutes, the U.S. lines were broken. Their light guns and tanks had no chance against the heavier German equipment, and they had little or no experience in armored warfare. The German Panzer IVs and Tiger tanks fended off all attacks with ease; the M3 Lee and M3 Stuart tanks they faced were inferior in firepower and their crews far less experienced. Meanwhile, U.S. commanders radioed higher command for permission to arrange a counterattack or artillery barrage, often receiving a go-ahead after the lines had already passed them. Once again, the 1st Armored Division found itself ordered into useless positions, and by the second day of the offensive, two of their three Combat Commands had been mauled while the third was generally out of action.
After breaking into the pass, the German forces divided into two groups, each advancing up one of the two roads leading out of the pass to the northwest. Rommel stayed with the main group of the 10th Panzer Division on the northern of the two roads towards Thala, while a composite Italian-German force took the southern road toward Haidra. To combat the southern force, the remaining Combat Command B of the 1st Armored drove 20 miles (30 km) to face them on February 20 but found themselves unable to stop the advance the next day.
Morale among the U.S. troops started to fall precipitously, and by evening many troops had pulled back, leaving their equipment on the field. The pass was completely open, and it appeared the supply dump at Tébessa was within reach. However, desperate resistance by isolated groups left behind in the action seriously slowed the German advance, and on the second day mopping up operations were still underway while the armored spearhead advanced up the roads.
By the night of February 21, the 10th Panzer Division was just outside the small town of Thala, with two road links to Tébessa. If the town fell and the German division decided to move on the southernmost of the two roads, the U.S. 9th Infantry Division to the north would be cut off from their supplies, and Combat Command B of the 1st Armored Division would be trapped between the 10th Panzer division and their supporting units moving north along the second road. That night, small units of British, French, and U.S. forces freed from the line to the north were sent piecemeal into the lines at Thala. The entire divisional artillery of the U.S. 9th Infantry Division, 48 guns strong, that had started moving on February 17 from their positions in the west, was emplaced that night. When the battle reopened the next day, the defenses were much stronger; the front line was held largely by British infantry with exceptionally strong backing by U.S. artillery.
Overextended and undersupplied, Rommel decided to end the offensive. Fearing that the approaching British 8th Army would be able to cross the Mareth Line unless it was reinforced, he disengaged and started to retreat east. On February 23 a massive U.S. air attack on the pass hastened the German retreat, and by the end of February 25, the pass had been retaken.
After the battle both sides studied the results. Rommel was largely contemptuous of both the U.S. equipment and fighting ability and considered them a non-threat. He did, however, single out a few U.S. units for praise, such as the 2nd Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment of Orlando Ward's 1st Armored Division. He characterized this unit's defense of Sbeitla "clever and well fought." For some time after the battle, German units deployed large numbers of captured U.S. vehicles.
The Allies equally seriously studied the results, and immediately General Dwight D. Eisenhower started to restructure the Allied command creating a new headquarters, 18th Army Group, under General Sir Harold Alexander, to tighten the operational control of the corps and armies of the three Allied nations involved and improve their coordination (there having been significant friction during the previous month's operations).
Most importantly for the U.S. forces, II Corps commander, Lloyd Fredendall, was relieved and sent to a noncombat assignment for the remainder of the war. Eisenhower confirmed through Major-General Omar N. Bradley and others that Fredendall's subordinates had no confidence in him as their commander; British First Army commander Lieutenant General Kenneth Anderson also thought Fredendall incompetent. On March 6 Major-General George S. Patton was placed in command of II Corps with the explicit task of improving performance. Bradley was appointed assistant Corps Commander and eventually commanded II Corps. Several other officers were removed or promoted. Brigadier Stafford Leroy Irwin, who commanded the 9th Division's artillery at Kasserine, became a successful Division commander. Commanders were given greater latitude to make on-the-spot decisions without having to ask higher command, and were urged to keep command posts well forward. In contrast, Fredendall had built an elaborate, fortified headquarters a great distance behind the front and rarely visited the front line. Furthermore, Fredendall tended to fragment his units below the Combat Command level so that isolated pockets of troops were easily surrounded and overrun.
Efforts were made to improve massed on-call artillery and air support which had previously been difficult to coordinate. While U.S. on-call artillery practices improved dramatically, the problem of coordinating close air support was not satisfactorily resolved until the Battle of Normandy over a year later.
Emphasis was also placed on keeping units together, rather than assigning elements of each Division to separate tasks as Fredendall had done. The II Corps immediately began fighting its divisions as cohesive units rather than parceling out small units on widely separated missions. By the time they arrived in Sicily, their forces were considerably stronger.
The 1980 film The Big Red One depicts the Battle of Kasserine Pass as the first major engagement of the squad.
In Saving Private Ryan, Technical Sergeant Michael Horvath indicates that he and Captain Miller had fought at the Battle of Kasserine Pass.
- Afrika Korps
- North African Campaign
- Erwin Rommel
- Hans-Jürgen von Arnim.
- Tunisia Campaign
- Eastbourne Redoubt
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- Atkinson, Rick (2002). An Army at Dawn. ISBN 0-8050-6288-2.
- Blumenson, Martin. Kasserine Pass. ISBN 0-8154-1099-9.
- Howe, George F. (1957). Northwest Africa: Seizing the Initiative in the West. Center for Military History, United States Army.