This was a German one of a series of operations devised by Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel, commanding the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee, to extricate the German forces in danger of being trapped between Gabès and Sousse in Tunisia by the advances of the Lieutenant General K. A. N. Anderson’s Allied 1st Army and General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s British 8th Army of General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander’s Allied 18th Army Group (14/22 February 1943).
The great fear of the German commanders at this time was that the Allied forces would reach the coast of Tunisia in the centre of its north/south extent along the western side of the Gulf of Tunis, and thereby split the Axis forces into northern and southern portions, the latter having no land link with Tunis and Bizerte, the only major ports through which the Axis forces could now being sustained.
An early result of this fear was the Battle of Sidi Bou Zid, which was in central Tunisia fought between German and US forces, the former including Generalleutnant Friedrich Freiherr von Broich’s 10th Panzerdivision and Oberst Hans-Georg Hildebrandt’s 21st Panzerdivision of the 5th Panzerarmee commanded by Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen von Arnim, and the latter elements of the II Corps commanded by Major General Lloyd R. Fredendall.
The Allied effort to capture Tunis late in 1942 after 'Torch' had failed, and since the year end there had been a stalemate as each side paused to rebuild its strength. von Arnim commanded the Axis forces defending Tunisia, and by this time his command had been strengthened, in operations such as 'Braun' (ii), to become the 5th Panzerarmee. von Arnim opted to maintain the Axis initiative gained when the Allies had been driven back in the previous year by making spoiling attacks to keep his longer-term objectives concealed.
In January 1943, Rommel’s Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee had retreated to the Mareth Line, originally a French defence line near the coastal town of Medenine in southern Tunisia, and thereby linked with von Arnim’s 5th Panzerarmee. In the Sidi Bou Zid area there were elements of each of these armies, notably the 21st Panzerdivision transferred from General Hans Cremer’s Deutsches Afrikakorps of the Deutsch-Italienische Panzermee and the 10th Panzerdivision of the 5th Panzerarmee.
Most of Tunisia was still in German hands, but since November 1942 the Dorsale Orientale of the Atlas mountain range had been under the control of the Allies. The Dorsale Orientale was held by elements of Fredendall’s inexperienced US II Corps and Général de Corps d’Armée Louis Marie Koëltz’s poorly equipped French XIX Corps. Fredendall based himself at Tébessa, some 80 miles (130 km) behind the front, and neither visited the front nor considered input from commanders located farther forward with the troops. Lacking any clear intelligence about Axis intentions, Fredendall had dispersed his forces to cover all eventualities. However, this left his formations and units generally isolated and unable to provide mutual support when threatened by any concentrated attack. At Sidi Bou Zid Fredendall had bypassed his divisional commanders and himself dictated the location of defensive dispositions, on the basis of map information and therefore without having seen the terrain for himself.
Sidi Bou Zid was defended by infantry of Major General Charles W. Ryder’s 34th Division, in the form of Colonel Thomas Drake’s 168th Regimental Combat Team, and armour of Major General Orlando Ward’s 1st Armored Division, in the form of Combat Command A. Fredendall’s defensive scheme had resulted in the disposition of most of this force being located in 'islands' of high ground. and this exposed them to the risk of successive isolation and defeat in detail.
Very aware of the threat posed by the Allied forces on the Dorsale Orientale should these be committed to an eastward thrust toward the coast, some 60 miles (100 km) distant, and thus separate the two Axis armies and cut the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee's line of supply from Tunis.
On 30 January von Arnim had despatched the 21st Panzerdivision to attack the Faid Pass, held by French XIX Corps. The French called for US assistance, but Fredendall had reacted only slowly and von Arnim’s troops had overcome fierce French resistance to achieve their objectives and in the process inflict heavy casualties on the French.
Rommel’s plan was that the German armoured and motorised forces should strike the 1st Army with the object of breaking through between Fredendall’s US II Corps and Koëltz’s French XIX Corps in the region of the Kasserine Pass in the Dorsale Occidentale, and then of pressing on to Tébessa and the north coast near Bône if possible. The major problem with this plan, as a two-element undertaking, was its lack of a single overall commander, for as commander of the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee Rommel would control ‘Morgenluft’ (i), the southern half of the scheme allocated to the Deutsches Afrikakorps, while von Arnim would control ‘Frühlingswind’, the northern part of the scheme allocated to his 5th Panzerarmee. And while Rommel wanted a decisive stroke to repair the fortunes of the Axis forces in North Africa, von Arnim was more concerned with securing an improved defensive positions for his 5th Panzerarmee.
However, the offensive went ahead on 14 February, under the local command of Generalleutnant Hans Ziegler, von Arnim’s deputy. Starting at 04.00, the infantry and 140 tanks of four Kampfgruppen provided by two of the 5th Panzerarmee’s formations, namely von Broich’s 10th Panzerdivision in the north and Hildebrandt’s 21st Panzerdivision in the south, advanced through the Faïd and Maizila passes, sites which General Dwight D. Eisenhower, cpmmander of the Allied forces in North-West Africa, had inspected just three hours earlier, with Sidi Bou Zid as their objective.
The attack started as the armour of the 10th Panzerdivision's Kampgruppe 'Reimann' and Kampfgruppe 'Gerhardt' advanced under the cover of a sandstorm to the west from Faïd toward Sbeitla on the eastern side of the Dorsale Occidentale. Elements of CC A attempted to delay the German advance by firing a 105-mm (4.13-in) howitzer semi-fixed on an M4 Sherman medium tank, and the Germans responded by shelling the US positions with 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-role 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 named for a local mountain and commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John K. Waters, and joined to the north of Sidi Bou Zid.
Meanwhile the 21st Panzerdivision's Kampfgruppe 'Schütte' and Kampfgruppe 'Stenckhoff' had secured the Maizila pass to the south and the Kampfgruppe 'Schütte' headed north to engage two battalions of the 168th Regimental Combat Team on the Djebel Ksaira while the Kampfgruppe 'Stenckhoff' drove to the north-west toward Bir el Hafey, where it wheeled to the right and approached to Sidi Bou Zid from the south-west during the afternoon. With his command under heavy artillery fire from the Kampfgruppe 'Schütte', Drake asked for permission to retreat, but Fredendall refised this and ordered Drake to hold his positions and await the arrival of reinforcements, which in fact never did arrive.
By 17.00 the Kampfgruppe 'Stenckhoff' and the 10th Panzerdivision had made contact, and the tanks and artillery of CC A had been driven nearly 15 miles (24 km) west to the Djebel Hamra with the loss of 44 tanks and many guns. The infantry units were left marooned on the high ground at the Djebel Lessouda, Djebel Ksaira and Djebel Garet Hadid, together with elements of the 1st Armored Division’s 81st Armored Reconnaissance Battalion.
During the night Ward, the commander of the US 1st Armored Division, moved his CC C to the Djebel Hamra in order to counterattack Sidi Bou Zid on 15 February. The attack was delivered across flat exposed country, however, and was bombed and strafed early in the movement and then found itself between the two Panzer divisions employing, which had more than 80 PzKpfw III medium, PzKpfw IV battle and PzKpfw VI Tiger I heavy tanks. The US force was compelled to retreat, in the process losing 46 medium tanks, 130 other vehicles and nine self-propelled guns, narrowly regaining the position at the Djebel Hamra.
By the evening von Arnim was able to order three of the Kampfgruppen to head toward Sbeitla. The Kampfgruppen were engaged by the battered CC A and CC C, which were driven back. On 16 February, with the aid of intensive air support, the Germans drove back the fresh CC B and entered Sbeitla on 18 February.
I was at this stage that the German plan began to go awry, for while Rommel urged a concerted thrust by the ‘Morgenluft’ (i) forces of Cramer’s Deutsches Afrikakorps and von Arnim’s two Panzer divisions from Kasserine (which fell to the Germans on 18 February) on a north-westerly axis toward Tébessa, von Arnim demurred and detached his 10th Panzerdivision to move to the north in the direction of Fondouk, where it was to secure adequate defence positions on the 5th Panzerarmee’s right flank. The 10th Panzerdivision was then recalled, and a triple German thrust developed as the Deutsches Afrikakorps pushed through the Kasserine Pass in a diversionary thrust toward Tébessa (checked with heavy casualties by the 1st Armored Division), the 10th Panzerdivision headed for Le Kef (now designated as the Germans’ primary objective) via Thala, and the 21st Panzerdivision struck out toward Le Kef via Sbiba.
Alexander, Eisenhower’s deputy, had assumed responsibility for this threatening situation and despatched Major General C. F. Keightley’s British 6th Armoured Division of Lieutenant General C. W. Allfrey’s British V Corps to bolster Thala (Brigadier C. A. L. Dunphie’s 26th Armoured Brigade) and Sbiba (Brigadier F. A. V. Copland-Griffiths’s 1st Guards Brigade). Heavy fighting developed in both these places as the Germans strove to break through, and on 22 February Rommel called a halt to his offensive and pulled back to better defensive positions. The Allies retook Kasserine on 25 February, but the whole offensive had cost the Allies 10,000 casualties (6,500 of them in the US II Corps) to the Germans’ 2,000, a clear indication yet again of Rommel’s tactical expertise.
Within 'Frühlingswind', the German units, more experienced than the Allied formations they faced, had performed well and inflicted heavy losses on the US forces before these later withdrew on 17 February. The poor performance of the Allies during the actions of late January and the first half of February, as well as at the subsequent Battle of the Kasserine Pass, persuaded the Axis commanders to conclude that while they were generally well equipped, the US forces were only inferior opposition for them in terms of both overall leadership and tactical skills. This became received wisdom among the Axis armed forces, and led to a later underestimate of Allied capabilities as the latter’s forces gained experience and poor commanders were replaced.