The Decision To Fall Back to the West: On 15 February, General Anderson concluded that his attempt to hold onto forward positions had been too ambitious, that “a very exposed southern Rank” existed in the light of current and impending operations, and that the whole Allied force was in danger of being outflanked and cut off from the south. The threat could be covered by strong armored forces in the Sbeitla-Sbiba areas, but since U.S. II Corps would have “other responsibilities to the south,” such a concentration of armor would be impracticable.
“I feel therefore,” he wrote to General Eisenhower, “that it is wise to consider in good time whether we should not voluntarily withdraw to the main ridge of the Grande Dorsale from Djebel Bargou (1266) southwards, linking up with Kef el Ahmar and down to the Sbeitla area.” He also pointed out that an early withdrawal intact would be preferable to a costlv effort to hold the Pichon area and the Eastern Dorsal. On the other hand, he continued, “I think it is essential that we hold the Grande Dorsale itself, and I am prepared to fight all out to insure this.” He stated further that to hold the Grande Dorsale might not be possible if the Allies first lost heavily while being driven out of their easterly positions.
The decision was submitted to the commander in chief as a matter of major policy and received his approval. First Army sent a warning to II Corps at 1700, 15 February, that early withdrawal had been determined and that General Anderson would send instructions governing the methods to be employed to cover the withdrawal and to establish the new line. In the meantime, the first task of II Corps would be to extricate the infantry from the hills near Sidi Bou Zid, and then to pull back to positions insuring the security of Sbeitla, Kasserine, and Feriana, while retaining a mobile reserve capable of operating to the northeast, east, south, and southwest. First Army expected II Corps to be prepared to engage the enemy should he move west or southwest from Fondouk el Aouare Pichon gap, or northward toward Hadjeb el Aloun from the Faid area.”
The decision to fall back to the Western Dorsal was a hard one. It meant the abandonment of a forward base for both American and French units at Sbeitla, and of the newly constructed air base at Thelepte. It required hasty improvisation of defenses at a number of passes in the western chain. It required troops only recently brought eastward to meet the severe test of large-scale retirement. An orderly withdrawal under enemy pressure would require valor, skill, and good leadership. On the other hand, the decision was bound, if satisfactorily executed, to make the enemy exert a prodigious effort if he was to obtain from it any further advantage. With what the Allies estimated as an unfavorable Axis supply situation, and with the British Eighth Army’s advance against the Mareth Position scheduled to occur soon, the enemy would be obliged to gain his successes quickly. To fight his way through the Western Dorsal could be made very costly to him and might, indeed, be prevented. Nevertheless, General Anderson’s decision to commit his reserves to cover the withdrawal in the critical area on the southern flank left him without the means to make, as General Eisenhower had suggested, any diversionary attack in the north in order to lighten the pressure which the enemy could exert from Pichon to Feriana.
During the next night, 15-16 February, the force under attack on Djebel Lessouda (644) attempted to escape the encirclement. A substantial group infiltrated through the enemy’s outpost line before daylight. Before dawn, 231 succeeded in reaching Djebel Hamra (673), bringing with them some enemy prisoners. Others got through to the north or south. Three American officers and 58 men were captured at once and later a few more, including Colonel Waters. The troops still stranded in two groups on Djebel Ksalra (560) and Djebel Garet Hadid (620) were kept under relentless attack until, thristy and hungry, they had been crowded on 16 February into limited areas on each hill” They were ordered to withdraw during the night of 16-17 February. Each force destroyed all of its weapons and equipment except what could be carried to advantage. The men worked their way down the slopes and out across ploughed fields onto the plain, continuing toward Djebel Hamra, about fifteen miles away, in complete darkness. In a weakened condition, they jettisoned heavy pack weapons but were still a few miles short of the hills at dawn. Before they could leave the plain, they were observed and pursued by motorized troops, who circled out of range, cut them down with heavy machine gun fire, drove most of those surviving into a large cactus patch, and eventually captured all but a few. Both groups had similar experiences. About 800 prisoners were taken in the first group and 600, including Colonel Drake. in the second.
The Axis Attack Pauses
The Kampfgruppe from the German Africa Corps which Rommel had placed under command of Colonel von Liebenstein approached Gafsa from Gabes cautiously, for Rommel was disturbed by his lack of reserves, convinced that a serious reverse would have catastrophic consequences, and still inclined to overestimate the Allied strength in the Gafsa area. [NOTE 6-6A] The actual attack on Gafsa was scheduled to begin only after Ziegler had released the 21st Panzer Division (reinforced) to participate in it by converging on the objective from the northeast as Kampfgruppe DAK was approaching through El Guettar. When Axis troops discovered the Allied evacuation of Gafsa on 15 February, they occupied the town that same evening. Rommel sent reconnoitering elements southwest toward Metlaoui-Tozeur, and northwest toward Feriana, while Division Centauro established positions in the heights around Gafsa. The 21st Panzer Division which was to have reinforced Kampfgruppe DAK for the battle at Gafsa was held in the vicinity of Sidi Bou Zid until its next commitment had been determined.
[NOTE 6-6A: The German forces were: Headquarters, German Africa Corps; Panzer Grenadier Regiment Afrika; 1st Luftwaffe Jaeger Brigade (two weak battalions); one armored battalion (twenty-six tanks) of the 15th Panzer Division; 33rd Reconnaissance Battalion; Headquarters and 1st Battalion, 1st Artillery Regiment Afrika; 1st Battalion, 190th Artillery Regiment; 3rd Battery, 71st Rocket Projector Regiment; 1st Company, 200th Engineer Battalion; 1st Panzer Jaeger Company (75-mm. antitank guns); Headquarters, 135th Flak Regiment (with five heavy and two light antiaircraft batteries) ; and medical service. The Italian reinforcements were from Division Centauro: two infantry battalions, two artillery battalions, one motorized battalion (Bersaglieri) , one tank battalion (23 tanks) and one assault gun battery. Rpt, German-Italian Panzer Army to Comando Supremo, 16 Feb-13, in Panzer Army Africa, KTB, Anlagenband 9, Anlage 1081/4.]
With Sidi Bou Zid and Gafsa in enemy hands, what would be his next aggressive move? If command of the Axis forces had been unified, exploitation of the first successes might have been much more energetic and effective. As matters actually were, most of 16 February passed in efforts to clear the Americans from Djebel Ksaira and Djebel Garet Hadid, and to ascertain Allied intentions. During a flying visit to Hitler’s headquarters, Kesselring had to order the attack on Sbeitla to proceed. General Ziegler, shortly after midnight 15–16 February, directed the 10th Panzer Division to reconnoiter toward Sbeitla early in the morning and be prepared to attack the town during the day. At about the same time Ziegler conferred by telephone with von Arnim and pointed out that he would not be able to attack toward Hadjeb el Aioun in the general direction of the Fondouk el Aouareb gap unless he could retain command over the 21st Panzer Division.
At 0745 von Arnim informed the Kampfgruppe DAK that he would not send the 21st Panzer Division to the Gafsa area now in Axis possession. Immediately thereafter he called Ziegler and ordered him to strike against Sbeitla with a brief, but powerful blow, destroy Allied supply dumps, and then turn north against Fondouk el Aouareb with the mission of destroying the Allied forces south of the gap. This second phase would be executed on 17 February. Elements of the 10th Panzer and 21st Panzer Divisions were meanwhile still engaged in the final effort to eliminate the stubbornly defended Allied strongholds on Djebels Lessouda, Garet Hadid, and Ksaira. The main bodies of both divisions were assembled in the vicinity of Sidi Bou Zid.
The Allied screening force in the vicinity of Djebel Hamra and Kern’s Crossroads impeded the morning’s reconnaissance. The American troops on the hills south of Sidi Bou Zid refused to yield although under persistent pressure and short of rations. When Ziegler conferred with his commanders at noon in F aid over plans to attack Sbetla, he could not count on keeping the 21st Panzer Division from Rommel indefinitely. Neither could he count on using all of 10th Panzer Division because of von Arnim’s projected employment of at least an armored task force to cut off the Allied units defending the mountainous positions south of Pichon. But what concern Ziegler may have had was lessened after Gerhardt’s afternoon attack on Kern’s Crossroads, and after he received intelligence that the Allied forces had been instructed to avoid battle at Sbeitla.
The Allied plan to evacuate Sbeitla altered the enemy’s situation drastically and its discovery brought about a swift change in General Ziegler’s arrangements for the attack. Since he had not been obliged to send the 21st Panzer Division to join in seizing Gafsa or for other commitment in that area he could therefore use it against Sbeitla, thus freeing the 10th Panzer Division for the next phase of its operations. In support of this operation Fifth Panzer Army ordered Group Buhse (47th Grenadier Regiment) to pin down the Allies by a frontal attack. With this operation von Arnim returned to an earlier concept, planned for the end of January, that had been frustrated when the Americans had struck against Maknassy.
For the immediate drive on Sbeitla, General Ziegler initially was forced to employ Group Gerhardt (10th Panzer Division). But after the first contact with the Americans had been made at the outer defenses of Sbeitla, the 21st Panzer Division passed through the advanced force and Colonel Hildebrandt assumed responsibility for the operations there. Gerhardt and other elements of General von Broich’s 10th Panzer Division assembled during the night of 16-17 February near Kern’s Crossroads for the thrust toward Fondouk. Using the less mobile elements of both panzer divisions, Colonel Rudolph Lang organized the defense of the Sidi Bou Zid-Faid pass area.
While Ziegler’s advance detachments were probing the defenses at Sbeitla, finding them too strong to risk an attack that night, Colonel Pomptow, his chief of staff, briefed Rommel’s headquarters on the situation. As a direct result, Rommel ordered Colonel von Liebenstein to advance from Gafsa without delay and capture Feriana by surprise, but avoid being tied down in a costly battle.
In striking for Feriana and Sbeitla Rommel and von Arnim were going beyond the mission assigned to them by Comando Supremo and anticipating instructions for the second phase of the offensive. At 2250, 16 February, Comando Supremo directed von Arnim to exploit the successes in his sector with the strongest possible forces that supplies and available mobile reserves would permit. Rommel’s mission-securing the Gafsa area was left unchanged.
The Axis Forces Squander a Day
As Sbeitla, Feriana, and Thelepte were being seized on 17 February, the Axis forces were at the threshold of a much deeper penetration into the Allied southern flank than that for which any firm plans existed. Rommel was inclined to encourage a thrust against Tabessa, perhaps advancing the entire Axis forward line to the westward. He asked von Arnim if he intended to exploit his successes in such a way. The latter replied that he intended to use the 21st Panzer Division around Sbeitla and the 10th Panzer Division, as originally planned, in the Fondouk-Pichon area. He would advance his main line of resistance only to the crests of the Eastern Dorsal in view of the state of his forces and supplies.
The thrust which Rommel had in mind would have required combining the 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions with the Kampfgruppe DAK. In the absence of authoritative co-ordination from above, the two commanders made no preparations on 18 February to press beyond the Western Dorsal but merely reconnoitered from Sbeitla and Thelepte. Rommel even started his only substantial reserves on the route back to the Mareth Position, while von Arnim committed the 10th Panzer Division with Group Buhse near Fondouk as described above. One reconnaissance detachment of the Kampfgruppe DAK drove Allied defenders back into the passes near El Ma el Abiod, and another entered the undefended village of Kasserine. There it captured about sixty French soldiers as they arrived from farther east, and welcomed a reconnaissance unit from the 21st Panzer Division which had come to Kasserine from Sbeitla. In dismal rainy weather which greatly curtailed air activity, Axis air reconnaissance west of Kasserine showed that the Allies were not yet assembling at any point for a strong counterattack.
The opportunity for exploitation beyond the Western Dorsal was still available, but the Allies had gained time for partial recovery while the Axis forces had become more dispersed. The momentum of the attack had slackened. Could it now be renewed? If so, what would be the objective? Would it be to weaken more severely the Allied ability to interfere with the Axis line of communications to their forces in the south, or would it be to threaten the Allied line of communications to the British First Army in the north? At what point could an Axis attack now bring about the westward withdrawal of the Allied forces in northern Tunisia?
The Allied Line Swings Back
The night of 16-17 February, on which the U.S. 1st Armored Division defended Sbeitla, was the second night of extensive and complicated Allied troop movements carrying out the Allied decision of 15 February to swing the front from the Eastern to the Western Dorsal. The innumerable transfers of smaller units fell into a general pattern. This pattern consisted of southward shifts by British armored forces in order to cover westward withdrawals through these elements by American and French units, after which the British forces also moved west and southwest to join in defending critical points along the new line.
The easterly bulge in the Allied front north of Sbeitla–Sidi Bou Zid on 15 February was flattened out first at the south, where it was largest. North of this point the bulge rolled like a shrinking wave as far as the Ousseltia valley, where French and American troops simply moved back a short distance to the heights fringing the valley on the west. Just before the decision to pull back, General Ryder’s 34th Infantry Division (less the 168th Combat Team and the 2nd Battalion, 133rd Infantry) had assumed responsibility for the Pichon-Djebel Trozza (997) section of the Allied front under General Koeltz. On 16-17 February it began shifting to Sbiba gap.
The shortened Allied line resulting from the changes in the Ousseltia-Pichon area permitted the subsequent withdrawal of the 16th Regimental Combat Team of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division from the Ousseltia heights southwestward to the II Corps area between Tebessa and Feriana. The exigencies of the situation during the week of 17-23 February brought elements of the British 6th Armoured Division and British 1st Guards Brigade into Sbiba and Thala, and hastened the arrival at Thala of the artillery of the U.S. 9th Infantry Division after a dramatically timed march from beyond Oran.
First Army finally released Combat Command B, U.S. 1st Armored Division, to II Corps on 15 February for employment at Sbeitla. During the following night the unit moved by two routes to Sbeitla, where it passed to division control. Late on 16 February it moved into position southeast of the village. Sbeitla, site of an ancient Roman town, lies about one mile south of a tip of Djebel Mrhila (1378), a long and lofty ridge extending eighteen or more miles north-northeastward. About five miles south of Sbeitla is a lower chain of hills, with widely spaced crests, running roughly westward from Djebel Hamra (673). To the northeast of these hills, Combat Command A, reinforced on 15-16 February, maintained its covering outer line. Thus Sbeitla lies in a wide gap between hills, approached from the east over a rising plain. It has at its back another wide expanse of open plateau reaching to the base of the Western Dorsal, from Kasserine village north to Sbiba. Two streams, one the Sbeitla river, the other a tributary from the southwest, converge some five miles east of the village and drain northeasterly, eventually joining the Zeroud river, which flows through the Eastern Dorsal near Hadjeb el Aioun. The Sbeitla river runs in a deep-sunk channel along the northeastern side of the town. Olive groves and cultivated fields are plentiful along these streams. A narrow-gauge railway which connects Sousse on the coast with the mining town of Metlaoui in the southwest runs through Sbeitla to Kasserine and beyond. A railroad bridge and another of three arches, formerly an aqueduct, cross the Sbeitla river about half a mile east of the modern village. For almost two miles east of the highway bridge, the road from Faid runs through olive groves. The Allies expected the attack to come along this road, first to a bridge five miles east-southeast of Sbeitla, and thence perhaps fanning out on either side of the road to find any weak point in the main defense line nearer the village.
First Army needed time to organize the defense of Sbiba gap with troops which were to move in on the night of 16-17 February and on the following night. The 1st Armored Division had to cover from the south the organization at Sbiba until all these troops had come in. As long as First Army set no specific time for evacuating Sbeitla, II Corps was obliged to leave the 1st Armored Division in the dark, or at least in the fog of war, about it. Meanwhile the division had the problem of adapting its defensive tactics to the requirements of a situation in which it was not only expected to gain an indefinite amount of time but also to preserve itself “as a fighting force.”
The defending troops must neither be pinned down nor enveloped and cut off. The delaying action had to be conducted in an area where Djebel Mrhila on the north and the lower ridge on the south protected the flanks, but which had very little depth, since the loss of Sbeitla would immediately open the northward route to Sbiba. From Djebel Hamra westward for about eight miles, there was little cover and there were no strong positions. Three miles east of Sbeitla, at the edge of extensive olive groves, General Ward elected to establish his main line of resistance, with Combat Command B holding the southern sector and Combat A, upon withdrawal from the Djebel Hamra line late on 16 February, the northern sector. The Faid—Sbeitla road was the boundary between them. Throughout the day Combat Command C was attached to General McQuillin’s force.
The Attack on Sbeitla Begins 16 February
During 15 and 16 February, with the enemy’s intentions still uncertain, Sbeitla remained screened by the forward line near Kern’s Crossroads and Djebel Hamra.16 On 16 February all counterattacks were prohibited by General Anderson’s orders; General Fredendall’s forces were henceforth to concentrate on defending Sbeitla, Kasserine, and Fériana.
Enemy tanks of Group Gerhardt crept over the plains southweosft Djebel Lessouda (644) toward the forward defenses of Sbeitla during 16 February, and in midafternoon, it seemed apparent that others farther southwest were assembling for an attack. Colonel Crosby’s 3rd Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment (less Company G), was sent forward at 1600 from a position in reserve south of Sbeitla to reinforce the screen and prolong the defense until Combat Command A could move into the positions which General McQuillin [NOTE 6-7A]and Colonel Hains had reconnoitered earlier that afternoon and had assigned to the various units. The infantry and artillery, under orders to withdraw to these new positions, started back in the latter part the afternoon, leaving as a covering force Colonel Hightower’s provisional unit and Company G (Captain Herman McWatters), 13th Armored Regiment, and for lack of orders to move back, elements of the 701st Tank Destroyer Battalion on the southern flank. The enemy’s
forward elements attempted to turn the northern flank of McWatters’ company about 1700, but the reinforcements led by Colonel Crosby arrived at an opportune time to catch the Germans by surprise and quickly drive them back. Hightower’s tanks successfully stopped another German column and then withdrew. Darkness was. falling, but the troops saw a strong enemy armored force in three columns approaching along the axis of the Faid-Sbeitla road behind Company G, as that unit followed the remainder of the 3d Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment, toward Sbeitla. A rear guard action with sporadic firing ensued, while the bulk of Combat Command A, after replenishing fuel and ammunition supplies from dumps in the olive grove about two miles east of Sbeitla, moved into new defensive positions. The tank destroyers, after being cut off on the south flank at Djebel Hamra, dispersed and filtered back farther south during the night.
[NOTE6-7A: Units under McQuillin’s command were: his own Combat Command A with 1st Armored Regiment (-1st Battalion), 1st Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry, 3rd Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment, 701st Tank Destroyer Battalion (—), 91st Field Artillery Battalion, one battery, 68th Field Artillery Battalion, C Company, 16th Engineer Battalion, five guns, 106th Coast Artillery, one battery, 213th Coast Artillery (90-mm. guns); and Combat Command C consisting of 3rd Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry, 1st Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment (—), 68th Field Artillery Battalion (—), 16th Engineer Battalion (—), elements 701st Tank Destroyer Battalion, one company, 805th Tank Destroyer Battalion. 1st Armd Div G-3 Jnl.]
The attacking force, Group Gerhardt, was heading for the bridge on the Faid-Sbeitla road about five miles east-southeast of Sbeitla. A second group (Pfeiffer’s), consisting of one tank battalion, one armored infantry battalion, two field batteries, and some antitank units of the 21st Panzer Division, was expected to pass through the advanced force near the bridge and make the attack. The Germans expected the Allies to abandon Sbeitla, and hoped to hasten the process by following closely on the heels of Colonel Crosby’s command.
It was a frosty night with a pale moon showing between patches of moving overcast. When Pfeiffer’s forward detachment came near enough to the American rear guard to see the dim outlines of its vehicles, the Germans opened fire. Some fire carried into the olive groves beside the highway and fell either near the command post of Combat Command A, or among troops refueling vehicles, or on supply dumps under the trees.
An improvised mine-laying unit which had been sent out that night to strengthen the defense line was dispersed, with its work barely begun. On the southwestern side of a wide, deep, straight-sided wadi about one mile east of Sbeitla, General McQuillin’s command had emplaced some 90-mm. dual-purpose guns. The 68th Armored Field Artillery Battalion had its 105-mm. howitzers under olive trees along the Faid-Sbeitla road, and the 91st Field Artillery Battalion was expected to take adjacent positions when it arrived in the area. The 3rd Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry, had the mission of protecting this artillery and of supporting Combat Command A’s armor, which was assigned to defensive positions at various points along the line north of the Faid road, astride the railroad, and in front of the artillery and which was ordered to keep in readiness to counterattack. The main line of resistance was to be held until a time to be set by corps order.
Combat Command B under General Robinett, south of the Sbeitla-Faid road, had already moved into its area during the afternoon in time to reconnoiter and organize for an active defense by maneuver and counterattack. Co-ordination between the combat commands remained to be arranged during the night. Most of Combat Command A was not yet well established in its new positions, which many of its units reached in the dark after their withdrawal from the Djebel Hamra line, and the situation was being straightened out, when the enemy’s reconnaissance by fire neared the line. General McQuillin shifted his command post west of Sbeitla, and for a time he was out of communication with division headquarters. Colonel Hains remained temporarily in the Combat Command A’s advance command post at the old location two miles east of Sbeitia, although small arms fire had begun falling in the vicinity. At this juncture the situation suddenly got out of hand.
For most of the troops it was a first experience under night attack. They were hit at a time when the effect of defeats and exhaustion during the past three days was intensified by a pervading sense of confusion, a belief that those in command were at best “playing by ear.” The firing could be widely heard. Some vehicles moved from the olive groves, where scattered enemy fire was falling, onto the road and started westward. Soon others joined them. Before long the road was a dense mass of churning traffic which streamed through Sbeitla in the darkness, choking the roads and threatening to leave Sbeitla half-defended. Other important elements of Combat Command A stood fast, including many of the tanks of the 3rd Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment, and the provisional company, 1st Armored Regiment.
Many troops who heard the explosions and saw the fire attributed the demolition of a water pumping station, an ammunition dump, and the railroad bridge to enemy action. The enemy force, apparently unaware of the actual situation, recognized that Sbdtla was being evacuated but reported that the Allies were still resisting strongly rather than making a full withdrawal. It received orders to wait for daylight. By then, the Allied situation at Sbeitla had been clarified and improved.
General Ward, for a time without enough accurate knowledge of the situation to exert control, received some first-hand oral reports about midnight and concluded that Combat Command A was under imminent attack by a very large armored force. After taking appropriate steps to meet the immediate problems, he reported to General Fredendall that the situation was extremely grave, since the Germans were at the edge of Sbeitla with about nine Mark VI and eighty Mark IV tanks, a spearhead of that force having already pierced the covering line three miles to the east. This dire estimate was transmitted to Brigadier C. V. McNabb at Advance Headquarters, First Army, to General Anderson, and to General Truscott at the Advance Headquarters, AFHQ. Truscott had sent Colonel Carleton to Sbeitla during the day, and received a confirmatory report from him shortly after hearing from Fredendall. By 0130, 17 February, Anderson via McNabb authorized Fredendall to withdraw Ward’s command from Sbeitia and from Fcriana a force under Colonel Stark that had previously withdrawn from Gafsa.
Now satisfied that this attack was the main enemy offensive, he had taken steps to expedite the reinforcement of Sbiba through emergency daylight moves by the British 1st Guards Brigade (less one battalion), with Combat Team 18, U.S. 1st Infantry Division, attached, supplemented first by General Ryder’s U.S. 34th Infantry Division (less 168th Infantry and 2nd Battalion, 133rd Infantry), and next, by the British 26th Armoured Brigade (less 16/5 Lancers) under command of Brigadier Charles Dunphie. Somewhat later in the day, General Keightley’s Headquarters, 6th Armoured Division, was transferred to XIX Corps with the mission of defending Sbiba gap. The corps boundary was redefined to extend from a point four miles south of Sbiba to Hadjeb el Aioun.
General Fredendall instructed Colonel Stark to place a small covering detachment of infantry, light tanks, and heavy artillery ( 155’s) in defense of Feriana until 1800, 17 February, while the remainder of his command, with elements of the Constantine Division, took position on the heights north of Thelepte. He alerted Colonel Paul L. Williams, of the XII Air Support Command at Thelepte, that his planes must be flown off at daybreak. He ordered Colonel Anderson T. W. Moore’s force (19th Engineers and 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry) defending a line east of Kasserine village to hold it until General Ward’s force had passed through, and then to organize Kasserine pass for defense. During the night of 17-18 February this order was executed.
Combat Command B, 1st Armored Division, received a division order at about 0300, 17 February, which indicated that Sbeitla must be held at all costs until 1100. It was superseded by another about an hour later which directed it to hold on a line south and east of the town until ordered to withdraw. This change reflected a disagreement between Fredendall and Anderson, who had wanted Sbeitla held all day. General Robinett reorganized his command for static defense. He placed his tanks (2nd Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment) in defiladed positions about four miles southeast of Sbeitla and brought the guns of the 27th Armored Field Artillery back of the tanks. He designated the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion to man the outpost line a few miles east of the main line of resistance. Using every opportunity to hide, hit, and maneuver, it was to help hold off the expected enemy onslaught. Two companies of the 2nd Battalion (Lieutenant Colonel Elton W. Ringsak), 6th Armored Infantry, were placed on the high ground of Djebel El Koumin (698) and Djebel Sabel Dilou ( 811 ) in position to command a road which ran between them northward to Sbeitla.
The enemy did not attack Sbeitia at dawn, as the Allies had expected. At 0715, the advanced element of the attacking force stayed in contact, watching Allied truck trains leave Sbei’tia, while the main force waited for additional units from Sidi Bou Zid in order to make a full-scale assault at noon. Both sides kept up harassing artillery fire. Probing attacks during the morning indicated that the terrain of the northeastern approaches was not suited for a largescale tank attack. Colonel Hildebrandt therefore decided to launch his main effort with Group Stenkhoff south of the Sbeitia-Sidi Bou Zid road. At the same time Pfeiffer’s infantry would attack directly from the east. Shortly after noon the assault was launched against Combat Command B at Sbeitia.
The armored attack (Stenkhoff’s) came over the rough plain, the wadies, and other impediments, on a broad front. It was supported by enemy aviation, but exposed to Allied artillery. The defenders were organized in depth and had taken advantage of all the cover and defilade available. The enemy found the tanks in sand dunes, hull down, and interspersed with antitank guns. The German tanks first hit Combat Command B’s north flank, screened by the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion (Lieutenant Colonel Herschel D. Baker), in overwhelming strength. Three groups of enemy tanks converged on the American half-tracks in quick succession. Some of the tank destroyers fired smoke shells and gained a chance to shift position and continue firing for about half an hour. By that time, others, and soon all the vehicles, were streaking back to a designated rally point only to find it under enemy fire.
One platoon was extricated from envelopment by the courageous guidance of the battalion executive, Captain Edward Austin. The bulk of the battalion passed out of control and hurried toward Sbeitla. Some were stopped by staff officers of Combat Command B near its command post. Those who may have planned to reorganize near Sbeitla and swing back into battle found that place under fire and in a turmoil of traffic and air bombardment. They then allowed themselves to be swept along in the stream of vehicles toward Kasserine. A few emerged west of the town and circled back to the southeast but were of no benefit to the forces engaged there. The remainder continued to Kasserine and joined in the defense arrangements at that point.
During the latter part of the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion’s delaying action, and while it was falling back, another encounter, the critical episode in the defense of Sbeitla by Combat Command B, was being stubbornly fought farther south. The tanks of the 2nd Battalion (Lieutenant Colonel Henry E. Gardiner), 13th Armored Regiment, had been placed hull down in a wadi from which they could oppose heavier German armor trying to break through. A frontal attack against their position about 1315 by Stenkhoff’s much superior tank group gave them the opportunity for which they had hoped. Waiting until the range was very close, they fired a volley which instantly knocked out five or more tanks and completely disrupted the enemy formation. Stenkhoff’s force, recognizing that it had entered a trap, pulled back under fire from the 27th Armored Field Artillery Battalion.
An hour after the frontal attack on Gardiner’s tanks, the enemy had reorganized and was threatening Robinett’s south flank. At this point his troops received orders to begin a gradual withdrawal, taking care not to uncover the most forward artilIery battery, and to use routes south of Sbeitla to reach new positions south and east of Kasserine village. The shift to the west began about 1430. One platoon of medium tanks under Lieutenant John C. Gleason was sent to cover the north flank in Sbeitla, which had been uncovered when Combat Command A had begun to withdraw at 1130. The 2nd Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry, pulled out of its hill positions and followed a trail between Djebel Sabel Dilou and Djebel Rheradok (791) into Kasserine. Company A, 16th Engineers, marched independently to Kasserine pass with one of Colonel Ringsak’s companies. Last to leave were Gardiner’s tank battalion, along with Battery C, 27th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, and the Reconnaissance Company, 13th Armored Regiment. Between 1730 and darkness, which came about 1900, they disengaged with a loss of nine tanks, among them Colonel Gardiner’s. Their route brought them to the Sbeitla-Kasserine road about five miles east of Kasserine. They swung into a divisional gasoline dump north of the highway and in blackout gassed up their vehicles and piled on all possible five-gallon containers before continuing through Kasserine pass to a bivouac on the road between it and Thala.
[NOTE: (1) CCB 1st Armd Div AAR, 1 Mar 43. (2) Brigadier General Paul M. Robinett (Ret.), Among the First, MS. In private possession. (3) The Germans reported counting twenty-seven disabled or destroyed American tanks and tank destroyers on the battlefield southeast of Sbeitla. They could salvage all their own losses and had sixty-five tanks ready for action]
Combat Command A, now much reduced, meanwhile continued its withdrawal under a dive-bomber attack after noon along the road leading northward through Sbiba. After stopping here during the night to cover the withdrawal of Allied units into the Sbiba position, it swung westward in a wide loop to Tebessa. Combat Command C, after short movements by some of its elements during the morning to get out of enemy artillery range and after covering McQuillin’s withdrawal, made its first westward bound toward Kasserine at 1430. In successive jumps of 1,000–1,200 yards, the 3rd Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry, and elements of the 701st Tank Destroyer Battalion, then the 68th Field Artillery Battalion, and finally the 1st Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment (less two companies), broke contact with the enemy in Sbeitla and withdrew on division orders to new positions northwest of SbeItla covering the road to Kasserine village. At midnight these troops, with whom were intermingled rear elements of Combat Command B, began the march down the last stretch to Kasserine. The enemy, moving into Sbeitla after 1700, organized his defense without interrupting the Allied withdrawal.
With the loss of Sbeitla, the II Corps had experienced the consequences of an overextended defense and a successful concentration of enemy force. It could gain some satisfaction in the fact that the enemy found no booty in the almost deserted town. Most supplies had been removed or destroyed. The Allies had blown up bridges, water mains, and the aqueduct supplying Sfax. They had placed obstacles and mines on some of the approaches. Shells had fallen on the city all day, and from time to time, enemy aircraft had bombed it. The great Roman arch and temples, which earlier had loomed up now and then, as intermittent showers of cold rain cleared the air of a pall of smoke and dust, were now concealed by darkness despite the smoldering fires.
The 1st Armored Division’s withdrawal, although protected by only a few Allied Spitfires, was carried through on the whole in an orderly and effective manner. All trains, even those in the Sidi Bou Zid area, had been ordered out in time. Enemy aircraft had inflicted considerable damage along the roads but the enemy had captured very little equipment which he could use.
The 21st Panzer Division claimed that it had wrecked the American 1st Armored Division and the U.S. 168th Infantry Regiment. Others were to share this view, but the fact was that Combat Command B had emerged from one defensive battle in shape to fight another, and by 1800 on 18 February had been brought through Kasserine pass and Tebessa to the forested mountains near El Ma el Abiod. Combat Commands A and C were again consolidated in positions a little farther south along the mountain chain. The division, after trooping back in low spirits near columns of French infantry and cavalry, took up positions on the plain southeast of Tebessa, and during the night of 18-19 February received the mission of protecting Tebessa from the east and south in co-ordination with other Allied units which had withdrawn from Gafsa and Feriana.
[NOTE 6-8A: The 21st Panzer Division concluded the day’s action on 17 February with 65 tanks ready for action and with a record for the past four days which it tabulated as follows: 2,546 Allied prisoners; 103 tanks and 5 aircraft destroyed; 280 v(“hicks, 18 field guns, 3 antitank guns, 1 antiaircraft battery, and equipment from 1 service and 1 medical company captured or destroyed. (1) Msg, 21st Panzer Div to Panzer Army Africa, 2359, 17 Feb 43, in Panzer Army Africa, KTB. Anlagenband 9, Anlage 1090;5. (2)Anlage zurn Divisionsbefehl Nr. 4, 21st Pzr Div, 18 Feb 43, 21st Panzer Diu, KTB. Anlagenband 9.]
Withdrawal to Sbiba-Loss of Feriana and Thelepte
While the 21st Panzer Division was capturing Sbeitla on 17 February, Group Gerhardt of the 10th Panzer Division began its northward march toward Pichon in conformity with General von Arnim’s plan for what should follow Operation FRUEHLINGSWIND. His intention was to have this force and Group Buhse, attacking from the east, seize Pichon and cut off the Allied forces in the Eastern Dorsal. Group Gerhardt, advancing via Hadjeb el Aioun, and Group Buhse established contact at 1600 on 17 February. But their advance was slowed down by mines, and except for a rear guard at Pichon the Allies extricated themselves from both positions well in advance of the move to cut them off. General von Arnim’s mistaken estimate of Allied strength and intentions and the delayed movement of the 10th Panzer Division had turned the drive to the north into a blow at thin air.
The Allies completed their withdrawal to the Western Dorsal during the night of 17-18 February. At Sbiba, after Combat Command A passed through the defile on the 17th, British engineers closed the gap in the mine field. The Sbiba position, thus protected, was held at first by two units under command of Headquarters, British 6th Armored Division-the 1st Guards Brigade, and the 18th Infantry, U.S. 1st Infantry Division. On a line to the northeast of Sbiba, three battalions of the U.S. 34th Infantry Division, one from the 133rd Infantry (Colonel Fountain) and two from the 135th Infantry (Colonel Ward), and attached French troops, were moved into position. The 135th Infantry was in contact with elements of the 1st U.S. Infantry Division farther north. Not until late on 18 February did the enemy begin to probe these new lines of defense.
Meanwhile, Kampfgruppe DAK on 17 February captured Feriana, as Allied rearguards after a short fight pulled out about noon. Continuing the pursuit DAK pushed on to Thelepte. Allied demolitions left the Thelepte airbase with little of military value. Thirty-four planes which could not be flown away were demolished. The Germans captured some French ammunition stocks and fuzes. At the fuel depot, they salvaged 20 tons of aviation gasoline and 30 tons of lubricants. In these engagements Liebenstein was wounded by a mine and turned his command over to General Karl Buelowius, formerly artillery commander of the Afrika Korps.
SOURCE: Northwest Africa: Seizing The Initiative In The West; by George F. Howe (United States Army Center of Military History)