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Battle of the Kasserine Pass
|Battle of the Kasserine Pass|
|Conflict||World War II, North African Campaign|
|Date||February 19, 1943 - February 25, 1943|
|Place||Kasserine Pass, Tunisia|
The Battle of the Kasserine Pass took place in World War II during the Battle of Tunisia, fought between the German Afrika Korps under General Erwin Rommel, and the Americans under General Lloyd Fredendall in the Kasserine Pass (a 2 mile wide gap in the Dorsal Chain of the Atlas Mountains) in central Tunisia.
American and British forces landed in North Africa November 8, 1942, only days after Bernard Montgomery's breakout in the east following the Second Battle of El Alamein. Seeing the danger of a two-front war, German and Italian troops were ferried in from Sicily to take Tunisia, one of the few easily defended areas of North Africa, and only one night's sail from bases in Sicily.
At the time there was little organized defense in the western desert, but the Americans moved up very slowly to meet Rommel's rear flank as they tried to negotiate with local Vichy French commanders. Eisenhower would later write that the American operations violated every recognized principle of war. Several attempts were made to cut off Tunis before Rommel's troops could arrive, 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 entrance into Tunisia by taking over an extensive set of defensive works known as the Mareth Line that 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 should be able to hold off the Allied forces.
Upsetting this plan was the fact that some American 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 Rommel off from the forces further north, and cut his line of supplies. Obviously this could not be allowed to stand.
The Afrika Korps forces reached the lines on January 30, with the 21st Panzer Division meeting the French defenders at Faïd and rolling over them with little effort. Several attempts were made to stop their advance by the US 1st Armored Division, but all three "Combat Commands" found themselves faced with the classic blitzkrieg, every time they were ordered into position, they would find those positions overrun and were attacked by German defenders with heavy losses. After three days the US gave up, and the lines were withdrawn into the foothills.
At this point most of Tunisia was now in German hands, and the entrances into the coastal lowlands were all blocked. The US still held the interior of the roughly-triangular Atlas range, but this seemed like nothing to worry about and the exits eastward were all blocked. For the next two weeks Rommel and his 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 futher erode the American threat to his flank by attacking towards two US supply bases just to the west of the western arm of the mountains in Algeria. Although he had little interest in holding the mountain's interior plains, a quick thrust would gain the supplies, as well as further disrupt any US actions.
On February 14 the 21st once again started moving west, attacking Sidi Bou Zid, about 10 miles from Faïd in the interior plain of the Atlas Mountains. The battle raged for a day, but poor use of armor by the US led to their defeat, and by the end of the day the field was won by the Afrika Korps. A counterattack the next day was beaten off with ease, and on the 16th the Germans started forward again to take Sbeitla.
With no defensive terrain left, the US 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 US forces had lost 2,546 missing men, 103 tanks, 280 vehicles, 18 field guns, 3 anti-tank guns, and an entire anti-aircraft battery.
On the 19th Rommel launched several probes, and decided that the Kasserine Pass remained the easiest place for an assault. The next day he personally led the attack by the recently formed-up 10th Panzer Division, hoping to take the supply dumps, while the 21st continued attacks northward through the Sbiba gap.
Within minutes the US lines were broken. Their light guns and tanks had no chance against the heavier German equipment, and their direct experience in tank combat was almost zero. The German Panzer IVs and Tiger tanks fended off all attacks with ease, the M3 Lee and Grant tanks they faced were hopeless in comparison. Meanwhile US commanders desperately radioed higher command for the ability to arrange a counterattack or artillery barrage, often receiving a go-ahead after the lines had already passed them. Once again the 1st Armored found itself ordered into useless positions, and by the second day of the offensive two of their three groups had been completely mauled, while the third was generally out of action.
After breaking into the pass, the German forces divided into two groups, both advancing up one of the two roads leading out of the pass to the northwest. Rommel stayed with the main group of the 10th 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 to face them on the 20th, but found themselves unable to stop the advance the next day.
Morale among the US troops started to fall precipitously, and by the evening many troops had pulled back, leaving their equipment on the field. The Pass was now completely open, and it appeared the dump at Tébessa was within grasp. Desperate defenses by isolated groups left behind in the action seriously slowed the German advance however, and on the second day cleanup operations were still underway while the armored spearhead continued up the roads.
By the night of the 21st, the 10th was just outside the small town of Thala, with two road links to Tébessa. If the town fell and the 10th decided to move on the southernmost of the two roads, the 9th US Division to the north would be cut off from their supplies, and Combat Command B of the 1st Armored would be trapped between the 10th and their supporting units moving north along the second road. That night small units of British, French and US forced freed from the line to the north were sent into the lines at Thala piecemeal. When the battle reopened the next day the defenses were somewhat stronger.
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 from the operation and started to retreat back east. On the 23rd a massive US 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 contemptuous of both the US equipment and fighting ability, and considered them a non-threat. This would prove unwise, as the forces quickly improved in all ways, and ignoring them as a force would allow the US to make several important gains against him in 1944. This was especially disastrous after D-Day, where he suggested almost all German forces be arrayed against the British and Canadians, allowing the now much stronger US forces to build up and eventually start a massive breakout into France.
The US studied the results in even more depth, and immediately started an overhaul of their forces. Commanders were given permission to make on-the-spot decisions without having to ask higher command, and efforts were made to allow for massed artillery and air support which had previously been almost impossible due to differing command structures. Equipment was also to be addressed, and the Sherman tank was made the standard from that point on. By the time they arrived in Sicily, their forces were considerably stronger.
For the immediate battle, Eisenhower decided to place most of the US troops under British command of Harold Alexander. The arrival of George S. Patton returned command to the US, and soon their forces were improving dramatically. By the middle of March they resumed offensive operations with considerably greater effectiveness, slowly pushing the German forces out of their defenses, until they decided to retreat to northern Tunisia in early May.
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