Operation Battle of Kasserine Pass

The 'Battle of Kasserine Pass' was a series of engagements and actions between Axis and Allied forces in the area of the Kasserine Pass, a gap 2 miles (3.2 km) wide in the Dorsale Occidentale chain of the Atlas mountains in western central Tunisia (19/24 February 1943).

The Axis forces, under the command of Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel, were primarily from the assault group of General der Panzertruppen Gustav Fehn’s Deutsches Afrika Korps, Generale di Divisione Giorgio Carlo Calvi di Bergolo’s Italian 131a Divisione corazzata 'Centauro' and two Panzer divisions detached from Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen von Arnim’s 5th Panzerarmee, while the Allied forces comprised Major General Lloyd R. Fredendall’s US II Corps, Major General C. F. Keightley’s British 6th Armoured Division and other parts of Lieutenant General K. A. N. Anderson’s Allied 1st Army.

The battle was the first major engagement between US and Axis forces in Africa, and while the US troops were numerically superior, they were inexperienced and poorly led. The Americans suffered many casualties and were quickly pushed back more than 50 miles (80 km) from their original positions to the west of Faïd Pass.

After the early defeat, elements of the US II Corps, with British reinforcements, rallied and held the exits through mountain passes in western Tunisia, thereby defeating the Axis offensive. As a result of the battle, the US Army instituted sweeping changes in unit organisation, and replaced both some commanders and some types of equipment.

US and British forces had landed at several points along the coast of French Morocco and Algeria on 8 November 1942 in 'Torch'. This came only days after the breakthrough, away to the east, of Lieutenant General B. L. Montgomery’s British 8th Army after the '2nd Battle of El Alamein'. In response, German and Italian troops were ferried from Sicily in 'Braun' (ii) to occupy Tunisia, one of the few easily defended areas of North Africa and only one night’s sea passage from Italian bases in Sicily. This made it very difficult for Allied naval vessels to intercept Axis transports in 'Retribution', and air interdiction in 'Flax' proved equally difficult as the nearest Allied air base to Tunisia was on Malta, more than 200 miles (320 km) distant.

The 'Run for Tunis' in November and December 1942 was an Allied attempt to reach Tunis before German and Italian reinforcements could arrive and establish a firm lodgement. As a result of the fact that the road and rail communications of the region were poor, only a small, division-sized Allied force could be supplied and, because of the excellent defensive terrain, small numbers of German and Italian troops were sufficient to defeat the attempt. The Allied build-up continued, more aircraft became available and new airfields in eastern Algeria and Tunisia were built. The Allies reduced the flow of Axis troops and equipment into Tunis and Bizerte, but a sizeable Axis force was already ashore.

On 23 January 1943, the 8th Army took Tripoli, Rommel’s main supply base. Rommel had anticipated this, switching his line of supply to Tunis with the goal of blocking the southern approach to Tunisia from Tripoli at Gabès. The 'Ligne Mareth', which the French had built before the war to protect against any Italian attack from Libya, was 'a line of antiquated French blockhouses, which in no way measured up to the standards required by modern warfare'.

Allied troops had already crossed the Atlas mountains and established a forward base at Faïd, in the foothills on the eastern arm of the mountains. This was an excellent location from which to drive to the Tunisian eastern coast, split the Axis forces in southern Tunisia from those forces farther to the north, and cut the line of supply from Tunis.

Elements of von Arnim’s 5th Panzerarmee reached the Allied positions on the eastern foot of the Atlas mountains on 30 January. Generalmajor Hans-Georg Hildebrandt’s 21st Panzerdivision met French troops at Faïd and, despite their excellent use of 75-mm (2.95-in) guns, which caused heavy casualties among the German infantry, the defenders were easily forced back.

US artillery and tanks of Major General Orlando Ward’s 1st Armored Division then entered the battle, destroying some German tanks and forcing the remainder into what seemed to be a headlong retreat. This was only a trap, however, for as the 1st Armored Division gave chase it was engaged by a screen of German anti-tank guns and sustained heavy losses.

The 21st Panzerdivision then resumed its advance toward Faïd, and the rate of US infantry casualties was made worse by the troops' practice of digging shallow shell scrapes instead of foxholes, as German tank drivers could easily crush a man inside a scrape by driving into it and simultaneously making a half-turn. The 1st Armored Division made several attempts to check the German advance, but all three of the division’s combat commands found that each defensive position they tried to occupy had already been overrun, and as they were attacked by the Germans they suffered heavy losses. On 2 February, the 1st Armored Division was ordered to bring its attacks to an end and instead concentrate on the creation of a reserve. The Germans captured most of Tunisia and closed the entrances into the coastal lowlands. The Allies thus held the interior of the approximately triangular Atlas mountain range, but with the exits blocked this was of little advantage to them. For the next two weeks, Rommel and the Axis commanders farther to the north debated what to do next.

At this time Rommel did not consider the 8th Army to be a serious threat because, until Tripoli was open for the arrival of supplies delivered by sea, Montgomery could maintain only a small force in southern Tunisia. Ships started to unload in Tripoli on 9 February, but the port was not fully operational until the end of the month. Early in February, Rommel proposed to the Comando Supremo (Italian high command) in Rome the development of an attack with two Kampfgruppen, including detachments of the 5th Panzerarmee, toward two US supply bases just to the west of the western arm of the mountains in Algeria. Rommel believed that a quick thrust of this nature could capture the supplies and disrupt a US attempt to concentrate forces near Tébessa. von Arnim objected, however, and the attack was delayed for a week until agreement had been reached to mount 'Frühlingswind' as a thrust by the 5th Panzerarmee through the US communications and supply centre of Sidi Bou Zid. Rommel’s forces, some 60 miles (100 km) to the south-west, would conduct 'Morgenluft' at the same time to capture Gafsa and advance on Tozeur.

On 14 February Generalmajor Friedrich Freiherr von Broich’s 10th Panzerdivision and Hildebrandt’s 21st Panzerdivision began the 'Battle of Sidi Bou Zid', about 10 miles (16 km) to the west of Faïd, in the interior plain of the Atlas mountains. The US armour was defeated and the infantry, poorly sited on three hills and unable to provide each other with mutual support, was isolated. A counterattack on the following day was easily repulsed and on 16 February the Germans advanced toward Sbeitla. After the success at Sidi Bou Zid, Rommel ordered the assault group of the Deutsches Afrika Korps to fall on Gafsa during 15 February but, on the night before, Anderson ordered the defenders to evacuate Gafsa and establish the main defence line in the hills around Fériana, as he believed Gafsa should not be defended against a large attack. On the next day, because of the threat to the southern flank, Anderson obtained the approval of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the commander-in-chief of the Allied Force Headquarters in North Africa, to order a withdrawal from the Dorsale Orientale to the line of the Dorsale Occidentale from Fériana northward. Early on 17 February, Fredendall ordered a withdrawal from Sbeitla and Fériana.The US II Corps was able to concentrate at the Kasserine Pass and Sbiba Pass on the western arm of the mountains. US casualties had been 2,546 men, 103 tanks, 280 vehicles, 18 field guns, three anti-tank guns and an anti-aircraft battery.

At this point, there was some argument in the Axis camp about what to do next: the whole of Tunisia was under Axis control, and there was little to do until the 8th Army reached Mareth. Rommel decided to attack through the Kasserine Pass into the main force of the US II Corps at Tébessa to capture US supplies on the Algerian side of the western arm of the mountains, eliminate the Allied ability to attack the coastal corridor linking Mareth and Tunis, and to threaten the southern flank of the 1st Army. On 18 February, Rommel submitted his proposals to Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the Oberbefehlshaber 'Süd', who forwarded them with his approval to the Comando Supremo.

At 13.30 on 19 February, Rommel received the Comando Supremo’s agreement to his plan, albeit in a revised form. Rommel was to have the 10th Panzerdivision and 21st Panzerdivision transferred from von Arnim’s 5th Panzerarmee to his command and then to attack through the Kasserine Pass and Sbiba Pass toward Thala and Le Kef to the north, clearing the Dorsale Occidentale and threatening the 1st Army’s flank. Rommel was appalled, for the revised scheme dispersed Axis forces and, once through the passes, would expose their flanks. A concentrated attack on Tébessa, while entailing some risk, could yield badly needed supplies, destroy the Allied potential for operations into central Tunisia, and capture the airfield at Youks les Bains to the west of Tébessa.

Early on 19 February, Rommel ordered the assault group of the Deutsches Afrika Korps from Fériana to attack the Kasserine Pass. The 21st Panzerdivision at Sbeitla was ordered to attack to the north through the pass to the east of Kasserine which led to Sbiba and Ksour. von Broich’s Kampfgruppe 'von Broich', the battle group released by von Arnim from the 10th Panzerdivision, was ordered to concentrate at Sbeitla, where it would be ready to exploit success in either pass.

The Sbiba area was attacked by Oberst Stenkhoff’s Kampfgruppe 'Stenkhoff' and Oberst Schuette’s Kampfgruppe 'Schuette', remnants of the 21st Panzerdivision. Facing the German armoured advance was the British 6th Armoured Division less the 26th Armoured Brigade which except for the tanks of the 16th/5th Lancers had been sent to Thala. Also in the Allied line was the 18th Regimental Combat Team of Major General Terry de la M. Allen’s US 1st Division and three infantry battalions of Major General Charles W. Ryder’s US 34th Division. There were also three US field artillery battalions, elements of two British anti-tank regiments and some French detachments. The Germans made little progress against the combined firepower of the defending force which had also laid minefields, and the 21st Panzerdivision was checked and by 20 February had been driven back.

Defending the Kasserine Pass was was a force comprising the US 1/26th Regimental Combat Team, the US 19th Combat Engineer Regiment, the US 6th Field Artillery Battalion, one US tank destroyer battalion and one battery of French artillery. On the hills to their west was the French Task Force 'Welvert' under the command of Général de Division Marie Joseph Edmond Welvert, which comprised single US Ranger and infantry battalions, three French infantry battalions, two US field artillery battalions, four French artillery batteries and engineer and anti-aircraft detachments. Farthest to the west was Task Force 'Bowen' comprising the 3/26th Regimental Combat Team, blocking the track from Fériana toward Tébessa. Between Task Force 'Bowen' and Tébessa to the north was the regrouping 1st Armored Division, of which only Combat Command B was fit for combat. The positions in the pass had been placed under the command of Colonel Alexander Stark, commander of the 26th Regimental Combat Team and of Force 'Stark', on the night of 18 February.

An attempt to surprise the defences in the Kasserine Pass by Hauptmann Lienau’s 33rd Aufklärungsabteilung into the pass failed, and one battalion of Panzergrenadiers was ordered into the floor of the pass and another onto the Djebel Semmama, the hill on its eastern flank, and slow progress was made against artillery fire. The tanks of the 1/8th Panzerregiment were committed at 12.00, but little further progress resulted against stubborn defence. Rommel decided to commit his units of the 10th Panzerdivision to the Kasserine Pass during the next morning in a co-ordinated attack with the assault group of the Deutsches Afrika Korps, which was to be joined by elements of the 131a Divisione corazzata 'Centauro'. British reinforcements from Brigadier C. A. L. Dunphie’s British 26th Armoured Brigade had been assembling at Thala, and Dunphie, making forward reconnaissance, decided to intervene. The 1st Army headquarters restricted him to sending 'Gore' Force, a small combined-arms group of one infantry company, one squadron of 11 tanks, one artillery battery and one anti-tank troop. Brigadier C. G. G. Nicholson, the deputy commander of the British 6th Armoured Division, was given command of 'Nick' Force, which comprised all the units to the north-west of the pass.

During the night, the US positions on the two shoulders overlooking the pass were overrun, and at 08.30 German Panzergrenadiers and Italian bersaglieri resumed the attack. At 10.00 Dunphie judged that 'Stark' Force was about to give way and ordered 'Gore' Force to the Thala side of the pass as elements of the 131a Divisione corazzata 'Centauro' launched their attack toward Tébessa and continued it during the afternoon. On 20 February, during the opening attack on key US positions of the town of Djebel, the 5o Reggimento Bersaglieri made a frontal assault on US positions that lasted most of the morning and finally carried the position, losing its commander, Colonello Bonfatti, in the process. This action cracked the Allied defences and opened the road to Thala and Tébessa. By 12.00 the accompanying combined Axis armoured units debouched through the pass and routed the US forces, including the 1st Armored Division, into one of the worst US defeats of the Tunisian campaign. The Italian regiment was complimented by Generalmajor Karl Bülowius, commander of the Deutsches Afrika Korps' assault group, who called the Italian action the decisive event of the Axis victory. At 13.00 Rommel committed two battalions of the 10th Panzerdivision, which overcame the defence. Tanks and Bersaglieri of the 131a Divisione corazzata 'Centauro' advanced along Highway 13 and overran the 19th Combat Engineer Regiment. The US survivors made a disorganised retreat up the western exit from the pass to Djebel el Hamra, where Combat Command B of the 1st Armored Division was just starting to arrive. On the exit to Thala, 'Gore' Force slowly leapfrogged back, losing all its tanks in the process, to rejoin the 26th Armoured Brigade some 10 miles (16 km) farther to the rear.

The Deutsches Afrika Korps' assault group started to move along the Hatab river valley toward Haidra and Tébessa early in the afternoon of 21 February and continued to advance until it met US defenders of the 16th Infantry of the 1st Division and Combat Command B of the 1st Armored Division at Djebel el Hamra. Here the German and Italian force was halted and, despite heavy pressure including air attacks, failed to dislodge the US defenders. Having brought the Axis drive toward Tébessa to a halt, Brigadier General Paul McD. Robinett, commander of Combat Command B, and Allen now turned their attention to planning a counterattack which was to take place on the following day, 22 February. Plans made by both sides were upset by the battle, and the Axis forces (5o Reggimento Bersaglieri, one Semovente self-propelled artillery group of the 131a Divisione corazzata 'Centauro' reinforced by German tanks) launched another assault on the US position during the morning of 22 February toward the Bou Chebka pass. Although the US defenders were pressed hard, they held the line and, by the middle of the afternoon, the US infantry and tanks launched a counterattack that broke the combined German and Italian force. More than 400 Axis prisoners were taken as the counterattack was pressed into the Deutsches Afrika Korps' position.

Rommel had remained with the main group of the 10th Panzerdivision on the route toward Thala, where the 26th Armoured Brigade and remnants of the 26th Infantry had dug positions into the ridges. If the town fell and the southern of two roads from Thala to Tébessa was cut, Major General Manton S. Eddy’s US 9th Division to the north would be cut off and Combat Command B of the 1st Armored Division would be trapped between the 10th Panzerdivision and its supporting units moving to the north along the second road to Tébessa. The combined force fought a costly delaying action in front of Thala, retreating ridge by ridge to the north until, by dark, the force held the German attacks just to the south of the town. The 48 guns of the 9th Division’s artillery and anti-tank platoons, which had moved from Morocco, some 800 miles (1285 km) to the west on 17 February, dug in that night. On the next day, the front was held mostly by British infantry, with exceptionally strong backing by unified US and British artillery, under Brigadier General Stafford LeR. Irwin, the US artillery commander. The British had 36 guns, supported by armoured cars of the Derbyshire Yeomanry, and Valentine and Crusader tanks of the 17th/21st Lancers.

Anderson ordered the 9th Division and its artillery support to Le Kef to meet an expected German attack, but Major General Ernest N. Harmon, who had been sent by Eisenhower to report on the battle and the Allied command arrangements, instructed the 9th Division’s artillery to stay in place. On the morning of 22 February, an intense artillery barrage from the massed Allied guns forestalled the resumption of the 10th Panzerdivision's attack, destroying armour and vehicles, and disrupting communications. von Broich, the battle group commander, decided to pause and regroup even as Allied reinforcements continued to arrive. Under constant fire, the 10th Panzerdivision waited until dark to retire from the battlefield.

Now overextended, with supplies dwindling, pinned down by Allied artillery in the pass in front of Thala and now facing US counterattacks along the Hatab river, Rommel saw that his offensive had been stopped. At Sbiba, along the Hatab river and now at Thala, the efforts of the German and Italian forces had failed to make a decisive break in the Allied line. With little prospect of more success, Rommel judged that it would be wiser to break off to concentrate in southern Tunisia and strike a blow at the 8th Army, catching it off balance while still assembling its forces. Rommel at least had the consolation that he had inflicted heavy losses on his opponents and that the Allied concentrations in the area of Gafsa and Sbeitla had been destroyed. At a meeting at Rommel’s headquarters on 23 February, Kesselring and his chief-of-staff, Generalmajor Siegfried Westphal, tried to change Rommel’s mind, arguing that there were still possibilities for success. Rommel was adamant, however and, once Kesselring had finally agreed, formal orders from the Comando Supremo in Rome were issued that evening calling off the offensive and directing all Axis units to return to their start positions. On 23 February, a heavy US air attack on the pass hastened the German retreat and by a time late on 4 February the Kasserine Pass had been reoccupied, Fériana was in Allied hands, with Sidi Bou Zid and Sbeitla soon following.

The German losses at Kasserine were 201 men killed, 536 men wounded and 252 men missing. In matériel, the Germans had lost 20 tanks, 67 vehicles and 14 pieces of artillery. The Allied forces took prisoner 73 Germans and 535 Italians.

The US losses totalled 300 men killed, 3,000 men wounded and 3,000 men missing. Losses were so high that an additional 7,000 replacements were needed to restore units to their original strengths. The losses of the French 34th Division totalled 50 men killed, 200 men wounded and 250 men missing. Regarding Allied personnel taken prisoner, Rommel and Generalleutnant Heinz Ziegler, temporary commander of the 5th Panzerarmee claimed that 3,721 men had been captured, but in a consolidated report of February 24 they reported 4,026 Allied prisoners of war.

The matériel losses of the US II Corps were very considerable: in total, 183 tanks, 104 half-tracked vehicles, 208 pieces of artillery and 512 trucks and motor vehicles had been lost, some of them being captured by the Germans. The Allies also lost supplies and fuel as more than 215 m³ of petrol and lubricants had been seized along with 45 tons of ammunition.

Rommel had hoped to take advantage of the inexperience of the new Allied commanders, but was opposed by von Arnim who, wanting to conserve strength in his sector, ignored Kesselring’s orders and withheld the heavy tank unit of the 10th Panzerdivision. Rommel felt that most US units and commanders had showed their inexperience, losing sight of the broader operational picture. Rommel was unable to exploit Allied failings for lack of strength and freedom of maneuver, and the opportunity was therefore missed, but he praised the 2/13th Armored Regiment of the 1st Armored Division in its defence of Sbeitla for being 'clever and well fought'. Rommel was later impressed with how quickly US commanders came to understand and implement mobile warfare and also praised US equipment. Of especial interest to the Germans was the sturdy M3 armoured half-track, and for some time after the battle, German units deployed large numbers of captured US vehicles.

The Allies studied the results equally seriously. Positioned by senior commanders who had not personally reconnoitered the ground, the US forces were often located too far from each other for mutual support. It was also noted that US soldiers tended to become careless about entrenching themselves, thus exposing their positions, bunching in groups when in open view of the opposing artillery observers, and positioning units on topographic crests, where their silhouettes made them perfect targets. Too many soldiers, exasperated by the rocky soil of Tunisia, were still digging shallow slit trenches instead of deep foxholes.

The 1st Armored Division was on the receiving end of German anti-tank and screening tactics and had not learned about those tactics from experienced British armoured forces. Others in the US Army were well aware of the German deception tactics. The Allies were also unable to prevent the Germans from attaining air superiority over the battlefield, limiting effective Allied air reconnaissance and allowing relentless German bombing and strafing attacks that disrupted Allied attempts at deployment and organisation. Close air support by the Luftwaffe often neutralised US attempts to organise effective defensive artillery fire.

Eisenhower began restructuring the Allied command, creating the 18th Army Group, commanded by General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander, to tighten the operational control of the three Allied nations involved and improve their co-ordination. Fredendall was relieved by Eisenhower and sent home. Training programmes in the USA had contributed to the saddling of US Army units in North Africa with disgraced commanders who had failed in battle and were reluctant to advocate radical changes. Through Major General Omar N. Bradley and others, Eisenhower learned that Fredendall’s subordinates had lost confidence in him,

Fredendall took the major blame for the defeat, but Anderson, the 1st Army commander, was also judged to have been at fault for his failure to concentrate Allied armoured units and keep his forces concentrated in a fashion that caused them later to fragment into individual units. When Fredendall disclaimed all responsibility for the poorly equipped French XIX Corps d’Armée and denied French requests for support, notably when under pressure at Faïd, Anderson allowed the request to go unfulfilled. Anderson was also blamed for dispersing the 1st Armored Division’s three combat commands despite the objections of Ward, the divisional commander. Irwin later became commander of the US 5th Division and then the XIII Corps in North-West Europe, and went on to higher command, as did British Nicholson, who later commanded the 2nd Division in India. Allied commanders were now given greater scope for initiative and to keep their forces concentrated. They were also urged to lead their units from the front and to keep command posts well forward, unlike Fredendall who had rarely visited the front line.

On 6 March, Major General George S. Patton was temporarily removed from planning for the Allied 'Husky' (i) invasion of Sicily to command the II Corps. Bradley was appointed assistant corps commander and moved up to command of II Corps when Patton returned to planning for Sicily. As noted above, Fredendall was reassigned to the USA, and several other commanders were removed or promoted out of the way. Patton was not known for hesitancy and did not bother to request permission when taking action to support his command or other units requesting assistance. During the advance from Gafsa, Alexander, commander of the 18th Army Group, had given detailed orders to Patton, afterwards changing II Corps' mission several times. Once beyond Maknassy, Alexander again gave orders Patton considered excessively detailed. From then on, Patton simply ignored those parts of his mission orders he considered ill-advised on grounds of military expediency and/or a rapidly evolving tactical situation.

Efforts were made to improve the integration of quick-reaction artillery and air support, which had been poorly co-ordinated. While US artillery response times improved dramatically, the better co-ordination of close air support was not achieved until 'Overlord' more than one year later. US anti-aircraft artillery began reforms, having learned that, while Junkers Ju 87 single-engined dive-bombers were vulnerable to the fire of 0.5-in (12.7-mm) heavy machine guns mounted on vehicles, field units needed dedicated auto-cannon to protect them from air attack: in one division, 95% of air attacks were concentrated on its artillery.