Operation Battle of Sidi Bou Zid

The 'Battle of Sidi Bou Zid' was a battle between German and primarily US forces within the German 'Frühlingswind' operation in Tunisia (14/17 February 1943).

The battle was fought around Sidi Bou Zid, where several US units were mauled by German and Italian forces, and led to the Axis recapture of the strategically important town of Sbeitla in central Tunisia.

The battle was schemed by the Germans as a two-part offensive/defensive operation against US positions in western Tunisia in the campaign following 'Torch'. Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen von Arnim, commanding the 5th Panzerarmee, had several highly experienced combat formations, including Generalleutnant Friedrich Freiherr von Broich’s 10th Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Hans-Georg Hildebrandt’s 21st Panzerdivision, which were to sweep north and west toward the Kasserine pass, while another Kampfgruppe attacked Sidi Bou Zid from the south. Facing the attack was the US II Corps under the command of Major General Lloyd R. Fredendall.

In a few days, the Axis attack forced the US II Corps to take up new defensive positions outside Sbiba. The Axis troops then had the time to consolidate their new front to the west of Sbeitla. The success of the offensive led the German high command to conclude that the US forces, while well equipped, were no match for experienced Axis combat troops.

At this time, the Allied attempt to capture Tunis late in 1942, after 'Torch', had failed, and as the year ended a lull had settled on the theatre as each side paused to rebuild its strength. von Arnim had been given command of the Axis forces defending Tunisia, and the arrival of reinforcements in 'Braun' (ii) led to the force being redesignated as the 5th Panzerarmee. von Arnim chose to maintain the initiative his forces had gained, as the Allies had been driven during the previous year, by making spoiling attacks to keep his intentions hidden.

In January 1943, the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee, commanded by Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel, had retreated to the Ligne Mareth, a line of defensive fortifications built by the French before the war near the coastal town of Medenine in southern Tunisia. The two Axis formations linked, and in the Sidi Bou Zid area there were elements from both armies, among them the 21st Panzerdivision of General Gustav Fehn’s Deutsches Afrikakorps transferred from the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee, and the 10th Panzerdivision of the 5th Panzerarmee.

Most of Tunisia was under Axis occupation, but in November 1942 the Dorsale Orientake of the Atlas mountains had been taken by the Allies. The Dorsale Orientale was now held by elements of the Fredendall’s inexperienced US II Corps and the poorly equipped French XIX Corps under the command of Général d’Armée Alphonse Juin. Fredendall established his headquarters in Tébessa, more than 80 miles (130 km) to the rear, and rarely visited the front. In the absence of intelligence about Axis intentions, Fredendall dispersed his forces to cover all eventualities, but this left his formations and units too far apart for mutual support. At Sidi Bou Zid, Fredendall had overruled the =local divisional commanders and ordered the defensive dispositions without studying the ground. Sidi Bou Zid was defended by part of Major General Charles W. Ryder’s US 34th Division, namely the 168th Regimental Combat Team under the command of Colonel Thomas Drake, and the tanks of Combat Command A of Major General Orlando Ward’s US 1st Armored Division. Fredendall had thus placed most of this force in defensive 'islands' located on high ground, which laid them open to defeat in detail.

Rommel was conscious of the danger of an attack by the Allies on the Dorsale Orientale toward the coast, about 60 miles (100 km) to the east, which would divide the Axis forces and isolate the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee from its line of supply from Tunis. On 30 January, von Arnim had sent the 21st Panzerdivision to attack the Faïd pass, held by the French XIX Corps. Fredendall had reacted slowly, and von Arnim’s troops had overcome fierce French resistance to achieve their objectives while inflicting heavy casualties.

Two offensive/defensive operations were planned, with 'Frühlingswind' to be undertaken by the 10th Panzerdivision and 21st Panzerdivision against the US positions at Sidi Bou Zid, to the west of Faïd, after which the 21st Panzerdivision would join a Kampfgruppe of Generale d’Armata Giovanni Messe’s Italian 1a Armata to attack Gafsa in 'Morgenluft' and the 10th Panzerdivision moved to the north for an attack to the west of Kairouan. 'Frühlingswind' was to begin on 12/14 February.

At 04.00 on 14 February, four Kampfgruppen totalling 140 German tanks drawn from von Broich’s 10th Panzerdivision and Hildebrandt’s 21st Panzerdivision, under the supervision of Generalleutnant Heinz Ziegler, advanced through the Faïd and Maizila passes, sites that General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the commander of the US North African Theater of Operations, had inspected just three hours earlier, to attack Sidi Bou Zid. The attack started with tanks of the 10th Panzerdivision exploiting the cover provided by a sandstorm to advance to the west from Faïd in the Kampfgruppe 'Reimann' and Kampfgruppe 'Gerhardt'. Elements of Combat Command A tried to delay the German advance with the fire of a 105-mm (4.13-in) M101 howitzer mounted on an M4 Sherman medium tank. The Germans responded by shelling the US positions with 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-tole anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns. By 10.00 the Germans had circled Djebel Lessouda, which was defended by the 'Lessouda' Force, an armoured battalion group commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John K. Waters, and reunited to the north of Sidi Bou Zid.

The Kampfgruppe 'Schütte' and Kampfgruppe 'Stenckhoff' of the 21st Panzerdivision had secured the Maizila pass to the south, and the Kampfgruppe 'Schütte' headed to the north in order north to engage two battalions of the 168th Regimenal Combat Team on Djebel Ksaira, while the Kampfgruppe 'Stenckhoff' headed to the north-west to Bir el Hafey in order to swing round and make the approach to Sidi Bou Zid from the west during the afternoon. Under heavy shelling from the Kampfgruppe 'Schütte', Drake requested permission to retreat, which was denied by Fredendall, who ordered him to hold his positions and await reinforcement, which never arrived. By 17.00, the Kampfgruppe 'Stenckhoff' and the 10th Panzerdivision had attacked Combat Command A, which had been driven nearly 15 miles (24 km) to the west to Djebel Hamra with the loss of 44 tanks and many pieces of artillery. The US infantry was marooned on the high ground at Djebel Lessouda, Djebel Ksaira and Djebel Garet Hadid.

During the night, Ward’s US 1st Armored Division moved Combat Command C to Djebel Hamra in order to counterattack Sidi Bou Zid on 15 February, but the attack was over flat, exposed country and was bombed and strafed early in its movement, then found itself between the two Panzer divisions, with more than 80 PzKpfw IV battle tanks, PzKpfw III medium tanks and PzKpfw VI Tiger I heavy tanks. Combat Command C fell back, losing 46 medium tanks, 130 vehicles and nine self-propelled guns, and only narrowly regaining the position at Djebel Hamra. By the evening, von Arnim had ordered three of the Kampfgruppen to head toward Sbeitla, and these were engaged by the remnants of Combat Commands A and C, which were forced back. On 16 February, helped by intensive air support, the Germans drove back the fresh Combat Command B and entered Sbeitla.

The experienced Germans had performed well and caused many US losses before Lieutenant General K. A. N. Anderson, the commander of the Allies 1st Army and recently appointed to co-ordinate Allied operations in Tunisia, ordered an Allied withdrawal on 17 February. The northern flank of the Allied 1st Army retreated from a line from Fondouk to Faïd and Gafsa to better defensive positions in front of Sbiba and Tébessa. Eisenhower blamed both himself for trying to achieve too much and the sudden French collapse in the central mountains. Confusing and overlapping command arrangements made things worse. When the US II Corps was forced out of Sbeitla on 17 February and Axis forces converged on Kasserine, the Axis forces' lack of command unity and unclear objectives combined to exercise a similar effect on Axis operations.

The poor performance of the Allied forces during the actions late in January and the first half of February, as well as at the later 'Battle of the Kasserine Pass', led the Axis commanders to conclude that, while US units were well equipped, they were inferior in leadership and tactics. This became received wisdom among the Axis forces and resulted in a later underestimation of Allied capabilities as they gained experience and replaced poor commanders.