The first phase of exploitation after the battles near Sidi Bou Zid had come to an end when not only Gafsa but also Sbeitla and Fhiana, and the airfield at Thelepte, were abandoned by the Allies. On 17 February the two main axis forces, DAK at Feriana and 21st Panzer Division at Sbeitia,
had accomplished their separate missions. The 10th Panzer Division had established contact with the Axis forces at Fondouk el Aouareb gap and, in conformity with von Arnim’s orders, was on its way to an assembly area north of Kairouan. Reconnaissance in force was probing the gaps in the Western Dorsal from Sbiba to EI Ma el Abiod on 18 February, and air reconnaissance revealed that Allied troops were moving westward from the Kasserine pass and Bou Chebka areas. It appeared that the Allies were concentrating their forces around Tebessa, and perhaps leaving only rearguards to defend the passes through the Grand Dorsal. Clearly, the initiative was still with the Axis forces.
The Axis Decision of 18 February These developments led Field Marshal Rommel, in an uprush of sanguine anticipations, to go beyond the views he had expressed on the previous evening (17 February), that his own forces were not strong enough to undertake an attack against Tebessa and that such an operation could succeed, but only if reinforced by the main body of von Arnim’s mobile forces and supported by a holding attack along the Fifth Panzer Army’s northern and central sectors.
It now seemed to him that the opportunity had returned to accomplish the very kind of operation that he had once hopefully advanced as a reason for bringing his army swiftly back from Libya to Tunisia. At 1420 in the afternoon of the 18th, after an exchange of messages and a telephone conversation had revealed to Rommel the unyielding opposition of von Arnim to his proposals, the field marshal turned to Comando Supremo and Kesselring with this message: On the basis of the enemy situation as of today, I propose an immediate enveloping thrust from the southwest [sic] on Tebessa and the area to the north of it, provided Fifth Panzer Army’s supply situation is adequate. This offensive must be executed with strong forces. I therefore request that 10th Panzer and 21st Panzer Divisions be assigned to me and move immediately to the assembly area Thelepte-Feriana.
Rommel’s concept was that a wide enveloping operation through Tebessa with the ultimate objective of Bone, outflanking the reserves that the Allies were feeding into their lengthening southern front and disrupting their lines of communication, would force the British First Army to pull out of Tunisia altogether. Rommel’s proposal met with full approval from the Commander in Chief, South, who had just returned to Frascati from a visit to Hitler at his headquarters in East Prussia.
In his absence from Rome the vague Comanda Supremo order of 16 February, ordering exploitation of the successes gained at Sidi Bou Zid, had made von Arnim instead of Rommel responsible for such operations-a critical departure from OB SOUTH’s original concept. One result had been the dissolution of Group Ziegler at a time when it might, despite the original plans, have been concentrated for pursuit: Supporting Rommel’s proposal, Kesselring radioed to the two army commanders in Tunisia: “I consider it essential to continue the attack toward Tebessa and northward by concentrating all available forces on the left wing and exploiting our recent successes with a blow that can still have vast consequences for the enemy. This is for your preliminary information. I shall speak in this sense to the Duce and [General] Ambrosio today.” Rommel waited impatiently for the decision.
Late on the evening of the 18th he sent another urgent message to Comando Supremo asking that the 21st Panzer Division be rushed to Thelepte and the 10th Panzer Division, to Kasserine to launch the proposed offensive by the next evening. Clearly, Rommel’s objective was still Tebessa. Shortly before midnight the order requested by Rommel reached him at his advanced headquarters. Comando Supremo, stating that “a unique opportunity is now offered to force a decisive success in Tunisia,” directed that a deep thrust be made toward the north to threaten the rear of British 5 Corps; if possible to isolate it; in any event to force its withdrawal. With all available mobile elements of his own German-Italian Panzer Army, as well as the 10th Panzer and 21st Panzer Divisions, now assigned to him Rommel was directed to attack toward Maktar-Tadjeroulne with Le Kef as his initial objective. He was to concentrate his forces along a line from Sbeitla to Tebessa. A modicum of forces could provide flank security along the line Tebessa-Tozeur. Comando Supremo was convinced the Mareth Position would be safe from powerful attacks for another week or longer. That sector, defended with a minimum of mobile reserves, was to remain under Rommel’s command.
Fifth Panzer Army was directed to prepare itself to launch a holding attack on a wide front between the coast and Pont-du-Fahs. In the meantime it was to tie down and harass the Allies by frequent local attacks. In co-operation with the Naval Command, Africa, von Arnim was also to prepare to land troops at Tabarka. The Second Air Force was to organize a parachute mission to destroy the bridges at Le Kef. Comando Supremo assured the army commanders of stepped-up shipments of troops and supplies by air and sea.
The directive from Comando Supremo disappointed Rommel. It set an objective deep in the rear of the position of the Allies in the north; to this extent it was in accord with his intention of forcing a general Allied withdrawal into Algeria. But by making Le Kef the objective Comando Supremo’s directive rejected the method which Rommel had proposed-a wide circling movement through Tebessa. Tebessa, to be sure, was named, but only as the western anchor of his drive in the direction of Le Kef instead of being the first objective of a wide enveloping sweep toward Bone. This shift Rommel regarded as appallingly shortsighted, since it would send the main Axis drive into the midst of Allied reserves, and it would jeopardize seizure and destruction of the vital Allied nerve center at Tebessa, the base from which as Rommel was aware, II Corps had been preparing to launch an aggressive drive eastward into the Sfax-Gabes area.”
Kesselring believed, and von Arnim feared, that this ambiguous order left Rommel free to begin his operation with a full scale attack on Tebessa. But, Rommel, anxious to avoid delay and believing that he had been directed to make Le Kef instead of Tcbessa the first objective of his drive to the north, was convinced that it would require the bulk of his mobile forces to reach Le Kef quickly. He ordered them to concentrate for an advance on a direct, northwesterly axis to Le Kef, either through Kasserine Pass or Sbiba, depending on which was found to be less firmly held.
Rommel ordered his commanders to launch the initial phase of the attack at first light on the 19th. The 21st Panzer Division, starting at 0800 along the road from Sbeitia, was to tryout the Sbiba gap with Ksour, fifty miles north on the road to Le Kef, as its objective. Kampfgruppe DAK was to strike into the Kasserine pass in an attempt to clear it in one swift push.
Rommel ordered the 10th Panzer Division to return immediately from the Pichon-Kairouan area to Sbeitia, reserving its subsequent commitment for decision until he could determine the relative progress at Sbiba gap and Kasserine pass. Mobile elements of the Centauro Division were called up from Gafsa, and ordered to strike toward Tcbessa from the southeast. While Kampfgruppe DAK had decided to probe the southernmost opening through the Western Dorsal at El Ma el Aboid rather than the more difficult approach through Dernaia-Bon Chebka, Rommel directed Centauro to crack open the latter pass. It was to be supported by a detachment from Kampfgruppe DAK which was to circle around Djebel Chambi (1544) and assault the defenders from the rear. The field marshal planned to open his command post south of Feriana at noon, 19 February, and subsequently move nearer the main effort when its area had been determined.
On Rommel’s urgent request Comando Supremo during the night of 19-20 February followed up its directive with an order for reorganization of command. Under the designation Group Rommel, the field marshal was to command the combined forces of the First Italian Army (General Messe), charged with the defense of the Mareth Position, and a force comprising 10th Panzer, 21st Panzer Division, and DAK (Angriffsgruppe Nord); the latter he personally led in the battle now under way. The change, long overdue, went into effect at 0600 on 20 February.”
Early in the morning, 19 February, Kesselring flew to Tunisia to confer with von Arnim in order to guarantee that everything possible would be done to make the Axis offensive succeed. Kesselring had ample reason for being apprehensive. While he was absent from Rome Fifth Panzer Army’s report of operations had led OB SOUTH to believe that the 10th Panzer Division (not the 21st Panzer Division) had captured Sbeitla, and consequently, that Group Ziegler was concentrated in that vicinity. Only after German air reconnaissance had also reported a large-scale movement near Fondouk gap, which turned out to be that of the 10th Panzer Division, did von Arnim’s headquarters report its withdrawal. OB SOUTH immediately ordered the movement stopped, but the damage had been done.
Kesselring’s flying visit to Tunisia on 19 February was therefore designed to ensure prompt execution of Comando Supremo’s directive. Kesselring found that von Arnim had interpreted the directive to read that Group Rommel ” … was to break through [the Allied front] between Le Kef and Tebessa … ” and that he expected Rommel to move on Tebessa with his main forces.
Therefore von Arnim had prepared a counterproposal which he felt would bring decisive success, provided the necessary means of combat and supply could be made available. He wanted to bring to bear on the Allies a concentric attack toward Le Kef, and thence down the Medjerda river, with Bedja as the objective. Such an attack, he argued, would insure complete surprise. In execution, the 21st Panzer Division was to attack from Sbeitla, and the 10th Panzer Division from Pichon. The drive, moving closer to the Axis supply base than Rommel’s expected advance on Tebessa, would engage all the Allied forces; it would permit participation by all Axis forces rather than by only the mobile elements. He felt the operation would subject co-ordination of Allied command to a severe test, and that “ … it alone [would] ensure the complete liberation of Tunisia.” Rommel’s plan, he argued, would merely force the Allies to fall back toward their principal centers of supply, much as the British had done in Egypt.
Kesselring unequivocally rejected von Arnim’s concept. The Commander in Chief, South, had intended a wide envelopment of the main Allied forces including Tebessa as well as Le Kef as essential objectives. Not until later was he to find out that his directive, as worded by Coman do Supremo, had failed to make this intention clear to Field Marshal Rommel.
The Allied Line in the South
Defense of the new Allied line brought American, British, and French troops to each of the areas of possible penetration, moves which required much hasty adjustment of the front and of the chain of command. By the morning of 19 February, when Group Rommel began to probe at Sbiba and Kasserine passes, a considerable force of Allied troops had already assembled at both places.
Sbiba was in the zone of the French XIX Corps commanded by General Koehz. The British 6th Armoured Division opened its headquarters at Rohia, nine miles north of Sbiba, at 2000, 18 February, to control the defense of Koeltz’s southwestern sector, while directly under First Army. On the same night one component of that division, the Headquarters, 26th Armoured Brigade (Brigadier C. A. L. Dunphie), shifted from Sbiba to Thala, with part of its subordinate units. Another element, the British 1st Guards Brigade, with the U.S. 18th Combat Team (1st Infantry Division), and the U.S. 34th Infantry Division coming into the line, remained to hold Sbiba gap. The 18th Combat Team’s three battalions took up positions east of the Sbeitla-Sbiba road.
Before daylight the 133rd and 135th Infantry of the 34th Division, supported by three artillery battalions, extended that line along a ridge southeast of Sbiba. The 18th Combat Team had been placed under General Ryder’s command. In general support were the 16/5 Lancers and elements of the 72nd and 93rd British Antitank Regiments, Royal Artillery. The French Light Armored Brigade and a Detachment Guinet maintained roadblocks between Sbiba and Rohia.
At Thala, Brigadier Dunphie’s force concentrated during the night of 18-19 February in a key area for opposing the enemy’s main effort. He planned to provide reserves at either Sbiba or Kasserine pass, or at any secondary pass which the enemy might attempt to envelop. At 0600, 19 February, his command passed to the control of U.S. II Corps, although its commitment in battle was subject to specific prior approval by General Anderson.
[NOTE 5-5D: Info supplied by Cabinet Office, London. Dunphie’s command included Headquarters, 26th Armoured Brigade; the 2nd Battalion, Lothians; 10th Battalion, Royal Buffs (-); 17/21 Lancers (-); Squadron A, 56th Reconnaissance Regiment; engineers, and smaller artillery and antitank units.]
On 19 February, General Fredendall’s corps was split into three forces along the Western Dorsal with a fourth in a supporting position on the south flank and a fifth being brought into position during the following night. (1) At Kasserine pass was Stark Force, a miscellaneous aggregation under the command of Colonel Stark, commanding officer of the 26th Infantry. His own 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry, the U.S. 33rd Field Artillery Battalion, and elements of the U.S. 19th Combat Engineers Regiment had been moved into the pass under command of Colonel Moore on 17-18 February, with the 805th Tank Destroyer Battalion, and a battery of the French 67th African Artillery (75-mm.). Reinforcements, moving toward the pass by various routes, arrived on 19-20 February while the battle was in progress. (2) Northwest of Feriana, guarding the Dernaia position with the routes from Feriana to Tebessa through Bou Chebka, was an American and French force commanded by General Welvert. It included the U.S. 1st Ranger Battalion; the 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry; the U.S. 36th and 175th Field Artillery Battalions; Company D, 16th Armored Engineer Battalion; Company B, 19th Combat Engineers; Battery A, 213th Coast Artillery (AA) Battalion; three battalions of French infantry and four batteries of French artillery. (3) At the extreme southwestern flank, south of El Ma el Abiod, was Bowen Force. It was backed by the U.S. 1st Armored Division.
On the night of 18-19 February, General Fredendall gave 1st Armored Division the mission: (1) to act defensively to protect Tebessa against attacks from the south and southwest; (2) to place mine fields and cover with artillery fire the passes at Kasserine, Dernaia, and El Ma el Abiod northwest of Feriana; and (3) to co-ordinate defense with the 3rd Battalion, 26th Combat Team (reinforced), known as Bowen Force, and with the Derbyshire Yeomanry, and be ready to counterattack southeast to restore the Dernaia position, if it should be penetrated.
General Ward instructed Generals Robinett and McQuillin to prepare plans and conduct the reconnaissance necessary of the three major gaps in the southwestern projection of the Grand Dorsal (the others are at Sbiba and Dernaia ). The defile at Kasserine at its narrowest point is about one mile wide. The axis of movement through the pass is that of the Hatab river, which flows from northwest to southeast down a gentle grade through the Bahiret Foussana valley and Kasserine pass. To one approaching from Kasserine village, the entrance is marked by a rocky spur of Djebel Chambi at the southwestern corner and, more than three miles to the north, by the rounded contours of Djebel Semmama (1356).
These mountains converge to a narrows about four miles northwest of the entrance, while the triangular floor of the pass between them rises steadily over gently undulating ground. A road and a narrow gauge railroad cross this area to the hamlet of Bordj Chambi, at which the road forks, one part branching to the left to reach Tebessa; the other, like the railroad, traversing the Hatab river and then continuing to Thala. Long shoulders extend into the pass from the mountain heights northeast and southwest of it but they are not exactly opposite each other nor in any respect symmetrical.
The rising shoulder of Djebel Semmama has several flattened knolls at successively higher altitudes. Transverse ridges extend from these knolls down the sides of the shoulder to the floor of the valley. A force approaching from either Kasserine or Thala could work its way up long draws adjacent to these ridges to achieve the summits of the knolls. To attain Hill 1191, the one next below the main southern height of Djebel Semmama, would require a hard climb of more than a mile, but the hilltop dominates those below it and gives an unimpeded view for many miles over the roads approaching the pass from either end.
The main projection into the pass from Djebel Chambi on the southwestern side is about half a mile farther from the Kasserine entrance and more than two miles from the top of Hill 1191. As one approaches from Kasserine it looks like a long ridge which drops to the floor of the pass much more gradually than Diebel Semmama. From Bordj Chambi, however, it is recognizable as a steep-sided curving ridge on the south side of the pass’s western exit, a ridge extended by several small low hills with which it may once have been connected before erosion cut openings between them. The projection is sufficiently distinguishable from the main mass of Djebel Chambi to be separately named Diebel Zebbeus (812).
The unpaved road to Tebessa passes along the base of Djebel Zebbeus in a defile lying between that mountain and low hills on the northern side. Here in effect is a subordinate pass within the main Kasserine gap. The black-top road to Thala runs close to the base of Djebel Semmama and, like the Tebessa route, passes through a short inner defile created by another low hill.
The throat of the pass and the valleys at each end of it are bisected by the Hatab river. Its channel on the Kasserine end is broad and shallow, but within the throat and across the valley northwest of it, the stream zigzags in a wadi which is often deep, with sheer sides, and is very difficult to cross. Moreover, the main wadi is fringed with draws and gullies through which short streams drain into the Hatab from the mountains. The scrub growth at the water’s edge and the cultivated fields and groves of a few scattered farms near the river make a pattern of dark green against the brownish-gray pastel of the sparse vegetation that covers the clay soil. In the pass itself, much of the underlying rock is exposed and the rest is very thinly covered. In the valley to the northwest, large patches of cactus abound.
As one leaves Djebel Zebbeus on the road to Tebessa, one travels a route which extends west-northwest for some fifteen miles to Diebel el Hamra (1112) at the far edge of the Bahiret Foussana valley. The road skirts the northern edge of a rough area, almost one third of the valley, which tips northward from the mountain mass west of Djebel Chambi toward the Hatab river. In effect this area resembles a gigantic, crudely corrugated shed roof draining into a badly bent and twisted gutter. The remainder of the valley is a much more level basin, and its surface is correspondingly wet and spongy in such a rainy month as February 1943. The road to Thala bends northward around the westernmost tip of Djebel Semmama, six miles north of Djebel Zebbeus, and passes from view behind low ridges.
The Bahiret Foussana valley is ringed except at the northeastern portion by mountains with crests rising from 3,000 to 4,000 feet above sea level. Along the southern edge, between Djebel Chambi and Djebel el Hamra, are Djebel Nogueza (1127) and the eastern end of Djebel es Sif (1352). On the northern side are Djebel el Adjered ( 1385) at the west and Djebel Bireno ( 1419) at the east. A wide opening between Djebel Bireno and Djebel Semmama is used by the Kasserine-Thala-Tad jerouine le Kef road. The main Kasserine-Tebessa dirt road skirts Djebel el Hamra to lead directly westward over the Algerian border to Tebessa. Running north and south along the base of Djebel el Hamra is a section of the narrow dirt track connecting Haidra, thirteen miles west of Thala, with Bou Chebka, a village on the plateau southwest of Djebel Chambi, about halfway between Feriana and Tebessa. Other tracks cross the Bahiret Foussana valley, using fords over the Hatab river, and pushing up the draws and through openings in the mountain rim. The American troops created much confusion by renaming this area the “Kasserine Valley,” despite the fact that Kasserine lies in another valley of its own.
The area into which one emerges after leaving Kasserine behind and coming through the Kasserine pass cannot very logically also be considered as the Kasserine Valley. Kasserine pass is not impregnable, perhaps, but it offers such advantages to defense that a sufficient force could exact an exorbitant price from a foe determined to take it at all costs. Through possession of the heights on either side, an elementary requirement of any such defense, troops can dominate the triangular area of approach from the Kasserine side. That area lacks cover; any force attempting to take the heights could probably be readily detected, and one seeking to push into the throat of the pass by moving along the valley floor has to come under flanking fire from one side or the other. The pass is at an elevation of some 2,000 feet, between crests which tower about 2,000 feet higher still, so that winter clouds and mist limit visibility.
Nevertheless, since the opening is less than a mile wide, an attacking force could not escape observation; in fact, it could be restricted by mine fields to areas still narrower and covered by prearranged fires. Even before attackers reached the throat of the pass from the east, they could gain control over the road fork from the defenders, thus denying them the best roadway between one side of the pass and the other, although a secondary track does connect the two roads about half a mile farther into the narrows. The wadi of the Hatab river splits the steadily widening area northwest of the throat into two sections. Advance along either fork of the road at first leaves an attacking force vulnerable to flanking fire from the other side of the pass, but shortly thereafter takes the force out of range. The two subordinate defiles through which each branch of the road then runs are critical points which cannot be bypassed by vehicles and at which an adequate defense force can exact a drastic toll from any enemy which has penetrated thus far. But such a defense force, to be successful, must be both strong and well co-ordinated if it is to take full advantage of the possibilities of mutual support from either side of the Hatab.
The Defense of Kasserine Pass. 19 February An enemy demonstration in front of the eastern entrance of Kasserine pass during the evening of 18 February convinced General Fredendall that an attack Was imminent. From Tebessa he telephoned Colonel Stark at El Ma el Abiod at 2000 hours and said: “I want you to go to Kasserine right away and play a Stonewall Jackson. Take over up there,” “You mean tonight, General?” asked Colonel Stark. “Yes, immediately; stop in my CP on the way up,” was the answer. Before morning, Colonel Stark had assumed command of the provisional force, directly in the case of the infantry from his regiment along the Thala road, and indirectly through Colonel Moore of the reinforced 19th Combat Engineers on the other side of the gap.
The first defensive organization in Kasserine pass had been carried out by Colonel Moore, beginning with a small, mine-laying party on 16 February. He then shifted all units under his command from the line east of Kasserine village into the pass during the night of 17-18 February. He placed the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry, astride the Thala road about two miles northwest of the fork in the pass, and his own unit on the southwestern side of the gap, from the Hatab river to Hill 812 (Djebel Zebbeus), on a line through Hill 712 and crossing the Tebessa road. His main line of resistance extended almost three miles and he held it with about 2,000 men. He planned to defend behind a triple belt of miles across the roads, by small arms and machine gun fire, and to hold the enemy’s armored vehicles at the eastern approach to the pass by the fire of two batteries of 105-mm. howitzers of the 33rd Field Artillery Battalion and one battery of towed French 75’s. Patrols covering the high hills on the flanks would check infiltration while a reserve company on each side, plus the 805th Tank Destroyer Battalion, would protect the rear and throw back any of the enemy who had slipped past the patrols.
Colonel Stark found these plans only partially realized when he assumed command in the pass at 0730, 19 February. A night of fog and rain left the whole area blanketed in mist. The actual situation is illustrated by the experience of a mine-laying party on the preceding night. An engineer lieutenant had been ordered at about 1930 hours to supervise the laying of a mine field in front of the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry, on the northern side of the pass. The engineers loaded the mines on a truck sent by the battalion, which was expected to furnish the force to install them. The officer went along the position, with the mine-laden truck and after midnight arrived at Headquarters, Company C, 26th Infantry, where he tried to locate the mine-laying force. Unable to find anyone at the command post who knew anything about the matter, on their advice he set out along the road toward Kasserine in the belief that he might there discover someone with the necessary information. A trip of a few miles toward the enemy did not bring about such a meeting, so he returned, roused the company commander, and at about 0330, was joined by a detail under an infantry lieutenant. The latter had no idea where the mine field should go, or whether it was to be covered by fire. The engineer lieutenant, who had never seen the terrain in daylight, had to select the site and then had to instruct the troops in the methods of laying and arming the mines. The infantry had no implements for excavation except their short-handled entrenching tools, which were of little avail on the road and in the rocky soil on either side of it. In the end, to get the task done before daylight, the detail merely strewed the mines unburied across a gap about 100 yards wide, from a hill on one side of the road to an embankment on the other.
On the morning of 19 February, Colonel Stark set up his command post about three miles back of the narrows and quickly realized that the proportion of forces sent to the heights on either side of the pass was insufficient. By the time Colonel Akers of the G-3 Section, II Corps, arrived at 1000 to check the situation, enemy 88-mm. shells were already falling near Stark’s tent. The 3rd Battalion, 39th Infantry (9th Infantry Division), was on its way to the pass. Company I, 13th Armored Regiment, was in reserve near the Tebessa road and available. The British 26th Armoured Brigade (-) at Thala might be committed if First Army approved. With the strength of the enemy unknown, it was uncertain whether existing Allied forces would be able to hold out until prospective reinforcements could be put into position.
At 10 15, thirty-five to forty truckloads of enemy infantry were observed unloading southeast of the pass and making for the heights. A little after noon, some French troops reported to the command post that they saw German soldiers scaling the steep slopes on both sides of the pass. Colonel Stark had just reported to General Fredendall that the enemy’s fire in the pass indicated either that he was feeling out the defenses or in a preliminary stage of an actual attack. Now, in view of the report of the French troops, there could be little doubt. The attack was on.
Rommel had sent the 33rd Reconnaissance Battalion to seize the pass, if possible at daybreak, by a sudden, surprise attack. The defenders were on the alert and much too strongly established to be driven out by such a small force. Kampfgruppe DAK then took over the mission. Group Menton, consisting of two battalions of the veteran Panzer Grenadier Regiment Afrika, supported by the corps artillery and antiaircraft units, took up the attack. The 2nd Battalion, Panzer Grenadier Regiment Africa, started up the mountainside to gain control of the shoulder of Djebel Semmama, while the main body moved along the floor of the pass near its base. The enemy took Hill 974, one of the prominent knolls part way up the shoulder, but could not continue down the mountain’s western face under the severe fire which came from the direction of the lower hills northwest of the road fork at Bordj Chambi. On the floor of the pass Colonel Menton’s 1st Battalion pushed past Bordj Chambi and penetrated the narrows about as far as the Wadi Zebbeus before being stopped by artillery fire. The absence of the air support to which the enemy infantry were accustomed and the low effectiveness of German counterbattery fire under conditions of poor visibility reduced the power of the attack. To push beyond the positions thus far reached, General Buelowius now decided to commit the 1st Battalion, 8th Panzer Regiment (Group Stotten). At about the same time that Colonel Stark was informing General Fredendall that a strong attack might be beginning, Field Marshal Rommel was surveying the situation with General Buelowius near the southeastern entrance of the pass. He intended, he then said, to make his main attack through Sbiba and northward. At Kasserine pass he wished to gain control only in order to make a feint toward Tebessa and to bar Allied use of the opening while he was striking farther east. General Buelowius expressed confidence that his forces would win the pass before the end of the day.
Allied reinforcements began arriving in the pass early in the afternoon. Colonel Stark sent Company I, 39th Infantry, to the highest ground in the center of the pass; Company L, 39th Infantry, to reinforce Company A, 26th Infantry, on the extreme north flank at Hill 1191 on Djebel Semmama; and he split Company K, 39th Infantry, between the two other companies.
The 26th Infantry regimental band and five tanks of Company I, 13th Armored Regiment, were placed in supporting positions along the road to Thala, where they guarded against enemy encirclement from the shoulder of Djebel Semmama to the valley and thence down the road from Thala toward the road fork. The remainder of Company I’s tanks and the mobile guns of the 805th Tank Destroyer Battalion waited near the defile on the Tebessa road, with four mobile 75’s of the 26th Infantry Cannon Company. These dispositions were partly executed before the enemy’s attack was resumed at 1530 and partly after it had begun.
The afternoon attack came northwestward along the Tcbessa road between the road fork and the narrow gap at the base of Djebel Zebbeus. Wadi Zebbeus, a tributary running eastward from the base of Djebel Chambi to the Hatab river, flows under this road about half a mile from the road fork. The enemy tanks and infantry drove northward across this stream bed as far as an American mine field against considerable machine gun and antitank fire from a low hill (712) and from Djebel Zebbeus, as well as from artillery farther back. Five German tanks were knocked out at the mine field while the 19th Engineers, reinforced, fought stubbornly on ground cut by ravines and low ridges. One company of enemy mountain troops tried to climb along the high ground south of the Tebessa road, above Hill 812, with a view to enveloping the American right flank. It was driven off.
On the other side of the pass, the enemy retained Hill 974 against several attempts to dislodge him, but could not exploit possession of that vantage point while American fire could be poured from Hill 712 against the exposed slope above the Thala road, although some infiltration to the road took place late in the afternoon. Toward evening a detachment of Menton’s 2nd Battalion pushed higher up the shoulder of Djebel Semmama, reaching Hill 1191 after nightfall. The enemy had captured about 100 Americans before breaking off the main attack at dusk.
The enemy had observed some withdrawal along the Tebessa road during the afternoon which he thought might indicate an intention to abandon the pass. He sent strong patrols under orders to keep in close contact during the night, and placed his infantry well forward with a view to prompt pursuit, but withdrew the tank battalion into bivouac southeast of Djebel Chambi. During the night DAK was reinforced by a battalion of tanks of the Italian 131st (Centauro) Armored Division and the 5th Bersaglieri Battalion, which came up from the Feriana-Thelepte area.
Colonel Stark’s improvised force had grown enough during the afternoon to frustrate the enemy’s expectation that he could take the pass in one day and with the forces thus far committed. Stark remained rather hopeful that he could hold the pass in spite of some ominous developments late in the day. He asked General Fredendall at 2035 hours for armored and tank destroyer units, as well as for infantry and artillery, and for air support in the morning. He moved his command post to a site where enemy artillery fire would not keep breaking his wire communications back to II Corps. Late in the afternoon, Brigadier Dunphie and some of his officers of the British 26th Armoured Brigade drove from Thala to reconnoiter the pass, where they thought they might be committed. Dunphie regarded Stark’s situation as unsatisfactory and deteriorating.
Stark could not furnish sufficient precise information about the conditions along his front, and it seemed to Dunphie that he lacked adequate control. The enemy had already infiltrated between Stark’s command post and part of his forces, and might be expected to build up at that soft spot during the night. The Americans had no reserves with which to counterattack against a break-through or a substantial infiltration. The situation at the pass seemed to Dunphie to justify committing his armored command to clear it up, and he so recommended to British First Army.
Brigadier McNabb, General Anderson’s chief of staff, investigated the situation in the pass and rejected Dunphie’s recommendation. He limited the force released from Thala to a detachment of eleven tanks, one company of motorized infantry, one battery of artillery, and a small unit of antitank guns, which was placed under the command of Lieutenant Colonel A. C. Gore, 10th Battalion, Royal Buffs and sent to the northwestern corner of the pass about 0400, 20 February. When Stark supported a proposal to have the rest of the armored brigade near the pass, as insurance rather than because he thought they would have to be committed, Brigadier McNabb stood by his earlier decision.
He considered that Stark’s line was too far west for the British armored units to be of much help, and expressed his belief that although Stark had enough troops to “handle things as they are,” he did not seem to have a “grip on things.” Moreover, he believed that something might develop near Sbiba which would require Dunphie’s unit there. Stark therefore prepared to provide American infantry and artillery support for an advance southeastward along the Thala road by Colonel Gore’s detachment in the morning. The 3rd Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry (Lieutenant Colonel W. W. Wells), came under Colonel Stark’s command during the early morning.
What happened during the night of 19-20 February cannot be clearly reconstructed from the record. After dark the enemy advanced to the northwest as far as the Thala road at Hill 704 but was then driven back. On the slopes of Djebel Semmama the American line was enveloped or pierced, so that Company A, 26th Infantry, was cut off, its commander was captured for a time, and the other companies went out of battalion control. Stragglers reported the situation after daylight on 20 February, a second foggy morning. The 19th Combat Engineers (reinforced) on the other side of the Hatab river spent a night under steady pressure from enemy patrols but apparently nothing like a persistent attack by a major force. It was 0830, 20 February, when the enemy resumed the offensive there. But before taking up the second day in Kasserine pass, where the enemy was operating under a revised plan, it is necessary to consider the action south of Sbiba gap on 19 February, for the outcome there led Rommel to a major decision during the night. The 21st Panzer Division Is Stopped at Sbiba.
The 21st Panzer Division started north from Sbeitla at 0900 on 19 February with its objective a road junction at Ksour. Its progress was uneventful until, shortly before noon, the point of the column arrived at a narrow belt of Allied mines across the road about six miles southeast of Sbiba. The attackers readily opened a gap while covering the operation with artillery fire against any Allied force on the higher ground to the northwest. A short advance then brought the column up against a much better laid mine field within the range of British artillery.
Enemy observers, assisted by Arabs, could see the positions held by twenty Allied tanks, two battalions of artillery, and a considerable number of infantry on the high ground on either side of the road, three to four miles farther north. While the main column stopped, one armored battalion with twenty-five tanks from 5th Panzer Regiment and some truck-borne infantry attempted a sweep to the east out of range of the British artillery and then northward against the U.S. 18th Combat Team. A detachment of the British 16/5 Lancers tried to move within range to deter the attack but lost four of its light tanks to the longer-range guns of the enemy’s vehicles. The Germans brought up several batteries of light field howitzers, emplaced them, and began counterbattery and preparation fire on the Allied ridge positions while the infantry (104th Panzer Grenadier Regiment) got ready to attack.
At about this juncture, Field Marshal Rommel arrived at Colonel Hildebrandt’s command post to ascertain the course of his operations and to urge an all-out, concentrated attack for a break-through rather than the cautious more dispersed frontal attack which seemed in prospect. Colonel Hildebrandt’s attack stopped short without his infantry’s ever being committed. He lost ten to twelve tanks, for the U.S. 151st Field Artillery Battalion and the other American artillery units supporting the 34th Infantry Division had platted more than 100 concentrations and fired on the enemy tanks with the benefit of good observation. British engineers went out after dark and demolished seven of the enemy’s vehicles, while Colonel Hildebrandt pulled back his armored unit behind a defensive line of infantry, sent the 580th Reconnaissance Battalion to the eastern flank, and covered the west flank by the 609th Flak Battalion. The Americans used the night to lay mines and barbed wire in front of their line in expectation of an attack on the next day.
The successful defense at both Kasserine and Sbiba passes on 19 February obliged Rommel to review his original plan to commit the 10th Panzer Division through Sbiba toward Ksour and Le Kef, while merely sealing Kasserine pass behind a feint toward Tebessa. He decided that the prospects at Kasserine pass were better. General von Broich’s 10th Panzer Division. which he had ordered back from the Pichon-Kairouan area, therefore received instructions to continue through Sbeitla to Kasserine. It was then to pass through Kampfgruppe DAK in Kasserine pass and proceed northward toward Thala. DAK. having opened the pass, was to continue northwestward to Djebel el Hamra, seize the passes there, and leave defensive elements facing west. In execution of these plans the 10th Panzer Division was to have assembled at Kasserine village by daybreak on 20 February. The division was at only half strength because important elements, notably its heavy panzer battalion (including Tiger tanks), remained committed in von Arnim’s sector. Delayed by poor roads and bad weather the division did not arrive at Kasserine village at the time specified. As late as the night of the 19th its advance elements had got only as far as Sbeitla.30 Rommel’s decision thus to employ the 10th Panzer Division in the western wing of his attack rather than to commit it nearer the 21st Panzer Division was in conformity with his directive from Comando Supremo, which specified that the greater weight should fall there, and in agreement with the tactical situation, which promised quicker success at Kasserine pass.
The Loss of Kasserine Pass, 20 February The Allied defense at Kasserine pass on 20 February began with the advance at first light by Colonel Gore’s small armored force from a ridge about 6 miles northwest of the road fork in the pass. He moved toward the main defensive line on the Thala side of the narrows. There he supported the remaining American elements and sent his squadron of light tanks forward on reconnaissance toward the road fork. At the same time, Colonel Stark sent the 3rd Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry, climbing up the southwestern slopes of Djebel Semmama to surmount the shoulder at Hill 1191. It was expected to protect the northern flank, and to re-establish contact with Company A, U.S. 26th Infantry, and the other units on the northern flank. The 894th Tank Destroyer Battalion (Lieutenant Colonel Charley P. Eastburn) was sent forward by II Corps during the early morning, 20 February, to be in position to counterattack against a breakthrough at the pass.
General Buelowius sent into the assault at 0830, 20 February, both battalions of Panzer Grenadier Regiment Africa, supported by all his field artillery and dual-purpose 88-mm. guns, plus a battery of new German rocket projectors which had been brought up during the night. Once the road to Tebessa had been opened, the two armored battalions (1st Battalion, 8th Panzer Regiment and that of Division Centauro) and a reconnaissance battalion would also be committed. The leading elements of the 10th Panzer Division were temporarily held east of Kasserine village until needed. The attack on the right was weakened by the necessity of preventing part of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry, on the upper slopes of Djebel Semmama from regaining possession of Hill 1191 and adjacent knolls from German detachments, and then turning against the attacking German infantry in the narrows. The extremely difficult terrain west of Hill 712, and accurate artillery and mortar fire, slowed down the 1st Battalion, Panzer Grenadier Regiment Africa, and the 5th Bersaglieri Battalion attacking on the left. Rommel himself appeared in that area in the forenoon with Buelowius and von Broich, and he ordered up infantry reinforcements to the strength of almost two battalions. Finally he also committed the motorcycle battalion of the 10th Panzer Division to expedite the attack along the Thala road. Rommel believed that he had to break through quickly at all costs, for if he were to prolong the attack until night, the rate of the Allied build-up would rob him of the opportunity for subsequent exploitation.
He therefore eventually ordered all available elements of both Buelowius’ and von Broich’s commands to make a side-by-side attack at 1630,20 February. The 10th Panzer Division would be on the right, its two battalions of armored infantry pushing over Hill 974 and turning west onto the valley floor behind the Allied line. Kampfgruppe DAK on the southwest, would thrust along the Tebessa road and would also push infantry over the rough ground onto Hill 812 and to the high ground northeast of it. The concentration of German artillery support would be extraordinarily high.
Long before this attack began, it seemed to the defenders that the enemy was moving forward relentlessly and successfully. In fact, just before noon an enemy column penetrated between two of Colonel Moore’s companies, and shortly afterward, observers spotted enemy tanks and infantry getting through the mine field on the Tebessa road.
By noon, Colonel Moore’s command post had been overrun and his command was falling hack. The eight medium tanks of Company I, 13th Armored Regiment, had been placed astride this road, near the inner defile, with elements of the 894th Tank Destroyer Battalion nearby. Radio communications between the tanks had broken down and none existed with Colonel Stark’s headquarters or with the tank destroyers. Communication was by courier and was infrequent.
As the enemy tanks began getting through the mines, the American artillery was sent farther back. The French, after running out of ammunition, disabled their 75’s and abandoned them. The tank destroyers moved out and, after being held in position for some time, so did the tanks. Although the defense crumbled, it persisted and in fact still seemed strong to the enemy. The enemy’s afternoon attack finally cleared the pass. The two battalions of Panzer Grenadier Regiment Africa, the 5th Bersaglieri Battalion, two armored infantry battalions, and the motorcycle battalion of the 10th Panzer Division, supported by five battalions of artillery extending from one side of the pass to the other, moved methodically northwestward. They opened the road to Tebessa first. The armored battalion from the Centauro Division in a five-mile pursuit along that road could find no Allied troops.
On the northern side of the pass, the valiant stand of Colonel Gore’s detachment forced General Buelowius to commit his 1st Battalion, 8th Panzer Regiment, to force the break-through. The British fought until their last tank was destroyed. Casualties were severe. Gore’s unit bore the brunt of the full-scale afternoon attack and withdrew, with five American tank destroyers of the 805th Tank Destroyer Battalion, past the northwestern entrance point (Hill 704 ) at dusk. When the enemy’s tanks also overran a platoon of Company I, U.S. 13th Armored Regiment, the 3rd Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry, and elements of the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry, and 3rd Battalion, 39th Infantry, were cut off on Djebel Semmama. All the troop carriers of the armored infantry waiting in their park near the base of the mountain were endangered. The drivers hastily took out as many vehicles as possible along the wadies, leaving the scattered remnants of the battalion to infiltrate westward through the enemy across the Bahiret Foussana valley and northward through the Thala area. The enemy was amazed at the quantity and quality of the American equipment captured more or less intact.
At noon, 20 February, Kesselring visited Rommel’s advanced command post northwest of Kasserine in the broad entrance to the pass. The two field marshals agreed that the Axis forces must break out of the pass during the day if the operation was to succeed. En route back to Rome Kesselring stopped at the Tunis airdrome, where he summoned von Arnim to meet him. He found the latter still suspicious that Rommel intended to conduct his attack toward Tebessa rather than toward Le Kef, and he again urged that the whole 10th Panzer Division be restored to his control, for operations in conjunction with the 21st Panzer Division.
It is Kesselring’s later recollection, but not a matter of contemporary record, that he censured von Arnim for withholding important elements of the 10th Panzer Division from Rommel, thus weakening the attack. Kesselring was later to attribute the Axis failure in part to von Arnim’s departure from orders, although holding Rommel responsible for not having insisted on full compliance.
Before taking off for Rome, Kesselring in agreement with General Gandin of Comando Supremo, ordered immediate diversionary attacks by Fifth Panzer Army toward Maktar, and prescribed that an armored battalion should be held in readiness near Pont-du-Fahs to exploit any success. “In order to guarantee coordination of these operations by unified command,” he stated, “I shall recommend to Comando Supremo that Field Marshal Rommel assume command of Fifth Panzer Army in so far as elements of that army are, or will be, participating in the drive.” He also ordered von Arnim to try to withdraw from the Medjerda sector those elements of 10th Panzer Division that had been withheld from Rommel. The intention was to make them available for the main drive. Supply of 10th Panzer Division would pass to Rommel’s control forthwith.
Allied Defenses in the Rear of Kasserine Pass
Significant countermeasures were begun on the night of 19-20 February by the Allies, when the course of the first day’s defense of Kasserine pass had made precautionary steps seem desirable if not essential. General Anderson had ordered the U.S. 1st Infantry Division, less Combat Team 18 (at Sbiba) and Combat Team 26 (at several points), to shift from the Allied front in the Ousseltia-Maktar sector, under General Koeltz’s command, to the vicinity of Bou Chebka, in General Fredendall’s area. General Fredendall gave General Allen a rather broad mission-to control the defense of the area south of the Bahiret Foussana valley and along the Western Dorsal from Djebel Chambi to El Mael Abiod, an area in which there were elements of the French Constantine Division (General Welvert) as well as various American and British units. On Allen’s orders the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry, moved to the northern edge of the Bou Chebka plateau, where it established communication with Colonel Stark during 20 February. The remainder of the 16th Combat Team was also available. General Allen disposed the other units of his command for the defense of the many secondary routes through the mountains.
Combat Command B, U.S. 1st Armored Division (General Robinett), after being alerted during the previous night for possible movement from positions south of Tebessa, was ordered directly by II Corps at 1030,20 February, to move immediately toward Thala via Tebessa and Haidra. At this juncture, the enemy’s success of the previous night on the northeastern side of the pass including the seizure of Hill 1191, and perhaps other factors, made it seem likely that he might first thrust toward Thala. Robinett was instructed to assume command of Colonel Stark’s troops as well as his own. At corps and higher headquarters, where the actual situation was not well understood, he was then expected to counterattack in the pass before the end of the day.
During the afternoon of 20 February, another Allied defensive move of major importance was taken. Brigadier Dunphie’s 26th Armoured Brigade (less 16/5 Lancers) established a defensive line on the road from Kasserine to Thala about nine miles north of the pass. He placed the 2nd Lothians on the east, and the 17/21 Lancers on the west, and the 10th Royal Buffs in the center with field artillery in support. The 2nd Battalion, 5th Leicestershire Regiment (46th Division), expected during the night, would dig in on a ridge astride the road about four miles south of Thala.
General Fredendall, his chief of staff, Colonel John A. Dabney, and others reconnoitered toward the pass along this road late in the morning, 20 February, while General Robinett’s command echelon, far ahead of Combat Command B’s main column, continued through Thala toward the pass. When the two parties met south of Thala, Fredendall was returning, convinced that the enemy had broken through on the Tebessa road, having overrun the infantry and combat engineers there but not the artillery, tank destroyer, or tank units. His earlier plans for Robinett’s force were no longer practicable. The new arrangements involved two distinct defense forces.
American troops would cover Tebessa; British units would defend Thala. General Robinett was to command all the troops in an undefined area south of the Hatab river and to defend the passes at Djebel el Hamra. He was to stop the enemy’s advance toward Tebessa, then drive him back into the Kasserine pass, and eventually restore the Allied positions there. General Fredendall gave Brigadier Dunphie a similar mission with reference to Thala. He put Dunphie in command of all troops remaining on the north side of the Hatab, including Colonel Stark’s forces, and expected him to use Stark’s communications to II Corps. “For the co-ordination of this attack, Robinett comes under your command,” General Fredendall informed Dunphie, who was in turn to be directly under U.S. II Corps. Direct communication between Robinett and Dunphie by liaison officer was arranged later in the day.
The II Corps had in effect passed to Dunphie a responsibility which he lacked the means to carry out, requiring him not only to command his own force in battle but also to co-ordinate these operations on one side of the broad valley with Robinett’s on the other, despite inadequate means of communication. The First Army, now convinced that the enemy’s main effort would be made at Kasserine rather than Sbiba, inserted another link in the chain of command, designating Brigadier Cameron Nicholson, second in command of the British 6th Armoured Division, to control, in behalf of II Corps, the operations of all the increasing number of units-British, American, and French–which were assembling south of Thala. His provisional organization was named “Nickforce.” While Nicholson was struggling through the mire of a third-rate track from Rohia to Thala, Robinett and his operations officer, Lieutenant Colonel Edwin A. Russell, Jr., attended a commanders’ conference with Brigadier McNabb, Brigadier Dunphie, and others, at Thala at midnight 20-21 February. The conferees agreed on a plan of battle . ” Dunphie would organize south of Thala; Robinett would cover the passes to Tebessa and Haira; both forces would await attack, and once the enemy was committed, both would counterattack, making their main efforts on their outer flanks. Allied tanks were to be conserved.
The battle was to be fought mainly with other arms. Overlays were prepared, liaison arranged, and although the conference terminated before Brigadier Nicholson could reach Thala, he confirmed the plans upon his arrival at 0315. The initiative remained with Rommel but to retain it he would have to continue winning.
SOURCE: Northwest Africa: Seizing The Initiative In The West; by George F. Howe (United States Army Center of Military History)