The continuation of a successful defense at Sbiba gap on 20 February enabled the Allies, like the enemy, to shift their main weight westward. The enemy tried on this second day at Sbiba to make a two-battalion infantry attack, with artillery support, on the Allied ridge positions, while sending his armor (thirty-three Mark III and six Mark IV tanks) with a battery of field artillery, on a wide sweep around the eastern flank. The armor was to take the Allied ridge positions from the rear, and then envelop Sbiba and cut the road north of it. This plan was beset with difficulties and was executed, moreover, in a manner which seemed to the Allies peculiarly tentative and to the enemy’s higher command distinctly reprehensible.
Fog and rain over the battle area and elsewhere in Tunisia deprived the 21st Panzer Division of preparatory Stuka attacks or promised fighter-bomber support. It did not, on the other hand, prevent Allied artillery observers from adjusting fire with disturbing accuracy on German troops, vehicles, and batteries. The Germans found that the ground to be traversed was extremely difficult, with deep wadies and extensive soft areas, and they discovered that the route of advance designated for the armored force was impassable. The infantry, after being subjected to the artillery shelling, at noon came close enough to the Allied line on the ridge to be hit by small arms and mortar fire. Four enemy tanks penetrated the. U.S. 34th Infantry Division’s line before they were knocked out by antitank weapons. The rest were driven back. Although the enemy casualties were not high, the infantry attack came to a complete standstill, and the armor pulled back in the early afternoon. The whole day’s offensive was ineffective and irresolute, mainly as a consequence of the devastating volume and accuracy of Allied artillery.
Rommel ordered the 21st Panzer Division to send the 580th Reconnaissance Battalion during the night of 20-21 February to Kasserine pass for commitment there. He needed mobile troops. The 10th Panzer Division had not been sent back from the Fondouk-Kairouan area intact. Only somewhat more than one half the division had reached the Kasserine area before nightfall, 20 February. The remainder, even if Rommel insisted on its coming, could not arrive in time for the next day’s operations. At Sbiba, therefore, the 21st Panzer Division was ordered to take up an active defense from a base line running between Kef el Korath (1100) on the north-west and the tip of Djebel Mrhila (1378) on the southeast, at a distance from Sbiba village of five or more miles. Colonel Hildebrandt’s division was to be ready for Allied counterattack. The division had about thirty operational tanks, two battalions of armored infantry, six batteries of field artillery, and two companies of antiaircraft artillery. To strengthen the Allied side, a provisional British tank unit equipped with twenty-five new Churchill tanks came to Sbiba from Le Kef during the night. Already concentrated there by 22 February were eight American and three British infantry battalions, three or more field artillery battalions, and other units.
The Enemy Is Held on the Tebessa Road
The Kasserine battle entered a new phase on the night of 20-21 February, after Rommel’s forces had gained possession of the pass’s northwestern exits. Allied precautionary measures of the previous day were now to be tested in the broader area north and west of the pass. The Allied task was to contain these forces after they had first advanced far enough along the diverging roads to be too widely separated for mutual support.
Rommel did not have sufficient forces for strong attacks along both. The Axis problem was to decide which road to block and which to use in an effort to extend the attack toward a major objective. After taking two days to get through Kasserine pass and after being forced to commit both Kampfgruppe DAK and 10th Panzer Division in the process, Rommel was becoming hesitant, once more showing an attitude of discouragement which was most unusual for him. Should he continue under his directive to push toward Thala, or should he seek permission to employ reinforcements to feint in that direction but actually hit what might be weaker Allied resistance in a drive on the American base at Tebessa, as Kesselring claims to have suggested to him during his visit at Kasserine? Or should he wait to discover in which direction the prospects were brighter? His immediate course on the night of 20-21 February was to prepare for an Allied counterattack and to send out reconnaissance forces along each road.
The Allies sought to establish containing forces on both roads, and to bar not only the gaps at Thala and Djebel el Hamra ( 1112), but even the secondary routes from the Bahiret Foussana valley onto the Bou Chebka plateau. Brigadier Nicholson, who had opened “Nickforce” headquarters at 0600, 21 February, in Thala sent more infantry to the defensive position begun by Brigadier Dunphie south of the village and prepared to employ reinforcements expected to arrive at Thala during the next two or three days. General Robinett’s Combat Command B, U.S. 1st Armored Division, struggled over a churned-up dirt road leading southward from Haidra to the vicinity of Djebel el Hamra, and behind a light forward screen, reorganized along the eastern face of that ridge and in the passes at its center and northern end.
[NOTE 43-43K: (4) II Corps AAR, 3 May 43. (5) Combat Command B, U.S. 1st Armored Division, consisted of the following: Reconnaissance Company and the 2nd Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment, with Companies G and I attached; the 2nd Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry; the 27th Armored Field Artillery Battalion; the 60lst Tank Destroyer Battalion (less one company) ; the 443rd Coast Artillery (AA) Battalion (SP); detachments, the 105th Coast Artillery (AA) Battalion; Company D, 16th Armored Engineer Battalion; Maintenance and Supply Companies, 13th Armored Regiment; detachments, 16th and 49th Medical Battalions; the 68th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, by temporary attachment; the 894th Tank Destroyer Battalion; the 7th and 33rd Field Artillery Battalions; elements, 3rd Battalion, 39th Infantry; and the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry. Rpt by Lt Col John T. Honeycutt, 21 Feb 43, Entry 164, in II Corps G-3 In.]
Many stragglers from Kasserine pass and from even as far east as Djebel Ksa’ira (560) were assembled at a line along the eastern base of the ridge, given rations and ammunition, and organized in provisional companies to defend the passes there. The 2nd Battalion, U.S. 16th Infantry (Lieutenant Colonel Joseph B. Crawford), was found waiting at the crossroads east of Djebel el Hamra for commitment. Combat Command B during the early morning sent the battalion to block the routes from the Bahiret Foussana valley up onto the Bou Chebka plateau at a point where they ran through three secondary passes. It found camel trails running through two of these passes and a slippery, steep, dirt road in the most westerly (the Bou Chebka pass). A French Senegalese unit also moved into this area. Energetic preparations around the edges of Bahiret Foussana valley continued throughout the morning of 21 February as each side awaited offensive action by the other.
The unit sent out by Rommel along the Tebessa road, 33rd Reconnaissance Battalion, reinforced by a small number of Italian tanks, some light howitzers, and some engineer troops, struck out to the northwest from Kasserine pass at 0200, 21 February. The force first encountered retiring American units. It then ran up against the Reconnaissance Company, 13th Armored Regiment, of Robinett’s command which barred its progress until after daylight at a point about eight miles from Djebel el Hamra. The enemy then withdrew eastward out of range. A similar force of armored cars and self-propelled guns pushed Allied rear guards northward during the night along the road to Thala until it discovered, after a preliminary engagement in the morning fog, with the 17/21 Lancers, supported by field artillery, that a substantial Allied force was in its path. The attackers knocked out six light Crusader tanks before this preliminary action on the Thala road was terminated.
At 1125, 33rd Reconnaissance Battalion reported that only small American forces had thus far appeared east of Djebel el Hamra. Without waiting for similar reports from air reconnaissance, Rommel therefore decided to resume the offensive. In the absence of an immediate threat from the west, he could at once attack the Allied forces south of Thala with the 7th Panzer Regiment of the 10th Panzer Division, which had been organizing within sight of Allied observers and under harassing artillery fire.
At the same time, Kampfgruppe DAK under General Buelowius could seize the passes at Djebel el Hamra to secure his western flank. Beginning about noon, 21 February, operations began to follow the pattern determined by these decisions. Since General Robinett’s communications with Brigadier Dunphie had been disrupted by the air bombing of the liaison officer’s communications vehicle, the battles of 21-22 February along the two roads although simultaneous were somewhat independent of each other. Brigadier Nicholson was not in touch with Robinett and II Corps was in only intermittent contact. The bulk of General Robinett’s command entered the valley during the morning, and although not completely deployed, was sufficiently well established by the time Buelowius’ force approached to oppose it firmly, and in Rommel’s opinion, “very skillfully.”
The enemy sought the pass at the northern end of Djebel el Hamra, where a road to Haidra connects with a branch leading to Tebessa. Protecting this area were the medium tanks of the 2nd Battalion plus Company I, U.S. 13th Armored Regiment, supported by the 27th and 68th Armored Field Artillery Battalions, the 601st and 894th Tank Destroyer Battalions, and the 2nd Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry. Also present in the area were units of the 443rd Coast Artillery (AA) Battalion (SP) and the less mobile 105th Coast Artillery (AA) Battalion.
Buelowius’ instruction in the early afternoon to 33rd Reconnaissance Battalion to seize the gap by a sudden raid came too late to be executed. The unit waited between the road and the Hatab river near a slight ridge (Point 732) for the main body of Kampfgruppe DAK to come forward. General Buelowius’ main force left Kasserine pass at 1400. One battalion of infantry came up to the left flank of the reconnaissance unit about 1530, and the tank battalion of Division Centauro followed shortly afterward. At 1630 they started northwestward along the road but almost at once came under increasingly strong artillery fire from un-located American guns on the south flank. A Stuka squadron dive-bombed the 27th Armored Field Artillery Battalion with some effect, but itself received fire from the 443rd Coast Artillery’s multiple antiaircraft guns which destroyed at least two planes. The 894th Tank Destroyer Battalion maneuvered to the enemy’s south flank and strengthened the fire from that quarter. The 2nd Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment, in hull defilade refused to be lured from the cover of American artillery to the potent antitank screen which the enemy habitually organized, and simply held its ground except to head off what looked like an effort to envelop its own northern flank. One tank of Company I, but not its crew, was lost in parrying this attempt. The enemy pulled back to the southeast about 1800, at least temporarily frustrated. At the same time, 580th Reconnaissance Battalion crossed the rough, sharply eroded foothill area north of Djebel Nogueza (1127) along a camel track leading up to the Bou Chebka plateau. It was under orders to swing southeastward at Ain Bou Dries in order to take from the rear the Allied troops guarding the passes northwest of Thelepte and Feriana.
The attack by Kampfgruppe DAK had stopped about four miles short of its objective. Level plain intervened, a flat almost devoid of cover and under ready observation from the scrub-covered hills on three sides. Frontal attack in daylight seemed out of the question and, even at night, would be met by the Allied troops in strength and on terrain well adapted to defense. A direct thrust westward to the base of Djebel el Hamra, followed by a northward march along its eastern ridge would be open to prolonged attack on the flank, and was therefore deemed too risky. The remaining possibility was a night attack on the defile in the middle of Djebel el Hamra, three miles south of the unattainable gap at the mountain’s northern tip. Rommel authorized a wide envelopment to the south during the approaching night.
The number of Allied forces along the southern edge of the Bahiret Foussana valley increased on 21 February but suffered from faulty co-ordination arising from defective communications and confused channels of command. The companies of the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry, attached to Combat Command B, were interspersed with some Senegalese troops near Bou Chebka pass. Company G, 16th Infantry, moved north at midnight to protect the new positions of the 33rd Field Artillery Battalion on a low ridge north of that pass. Company E, 16th Infantry, stationed in the upper valley of the Cherchara river, would be in the path of the 580th Reconnaissance Battalion if it continued to Aln Bou Dries. General Robinett also sent the 2nd Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry, southward toward Bou Chebka pass, where it would be in readiness to move eastward on the right flank of the 2nd Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment, when the time arrived for a counterattack toward Kasserine pass. During the night, General Allen sent the 3rd Battalion, 16th Infantry, from the Bou Chebka area northward beyond Aln Bou Dries, to a point from which it could reinforce the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry, as needed.
The 1st Combat Engineer Battalion he sent northeastward to work along the slopes of Djebel Chambi ( 1544) toward Kasserine pass. The 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry, made an elaborate, circuitous march by truck to the western side of Djebel el Hamra which it approached cautiously in attack formation next morning, only to find that Combat Command B, 1st Armored Division, had held it securely for more than a day. This event was probably one illustration of the inadequacy of information at Headquarters, II Corps, and the confusion of responsibility which had come about, and which might have been seriously damaging had the enemy been able to take advantage of it.
The enemy’s attack against Combat Command B on 22 February opened at the southwestern corner of the Bahiret Foussana valley against positions held by the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry, and 2nd Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry, with the 33rd Field Artillery Battalion. The enemy, in a column of infantry supported by artillery and tanks, was apparently as surprised as the Allied units to find himself engaged at daylight not near Djebel el Hamra but nearly seven miles to the southeast near the Bou Chebka pass.
His night march had been both delayed and misdirected, while he advanced through difficult terrain and recurrent downpours. The two battalions of Panzer Grenadier Regiment Africa cut off Battery C, 33rd Field Artillery Battalion, and captured intact five 10S-mm. howitzers, three 40-mm. antiaircraft guns, and thirty vehicles. The rest of the American line was able to pull back, leaving the enemy in possession of Hill 812, but pinned down by American artillery fire through which he dared not withdraw over the open plain. The enemy’s artillery and tanks had been far enough in the rear of his attack to pull back, but his infantry could not return to the main axis of attack, that toward the south pass of Djebel el Hamra.
The 5th Bersaglieri Battalion was opposite General Robinett’s line, which he had established about half a mile east of a secondary road connecting the two Djebel el Hamra passes. The line utilized the cover afforded by wadies and low ridges and benefited from superb observation points on the high hills in directing the fire of artillery batteries. The 2nd Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment (reinforced), of Robinett’s force, was in hull defilade astride the enemy’s path of advance. At about 0930 Buelowius was misled by a reconnaissance report into believing that his right flank, toward Djebel el Adjered (1385), was threatened. Prevented from regrouping his infantry by American artillery fire on his position at Hill 812 he instead reoriented his artillery toward the north. Earlier in the morning he had ordered the 1st Battalion, 8th Panzer Regiment with the assault guns of Division Centauro, to launch an attack against the American positions opposite the 5th Bersaglieri Battalion with the objective of pushing General Robinett’s armor and infantry back into the Djebel el Hamra defiles. The drive seemed necessary because the Italians were showing signs of an impending breakdown in morale. Between 1030 and noon this movement relieved the pressure in their sector, but soon ran into powerful antitank defenses and devastating artillery fire of marked effectiveness.
It was now apparent that the effort to reach the passes of Djebel el Hamra could not succeed. The enemy was never to get any nearer to Tebessa. He was already planning to pull back into Kasserine pass after dark when the situation on the southern edge of the valley boiled over.
Even before 0800, the 3rd Battalion, 16th Infantry, had been ready to begin a counterattack on the left of the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry, to restore the situation of the early morning and to prevent any penetration by the enemy between the 1st Infantry Division’s units at Bou Chebka pass and those of Combat Command B, 1st Armored Division, to the north. General Terry Allen kept trying all morning to get the counterattack started but without success. Finally by utilizing communications to General Robinett through the command post of Colonel Ringsak’s 2nd Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry, preparations for the counterattack were co-ordinated; it began at 1600. The 3rd Battalion, 16th Infantry, advanced against Hill 812. It was supported by fire from the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry, on the right and from the 2nd Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry, on the left. Aided by a sortie of Company G, 13th Armored Regiment, the battalion drove the enemy off the hill. He abandoned eight American guns and the vehicles which he had captured earlier that morning, all in serviceable condition, and after suffering heavy casualties withdrew in some disorder toward Kasserine pass. Some of his troops retired into the zone of other elements of the 13th Armored Regiment, where they were captured. Near Hill 732, in another action, the 5th Bersaglieri Battalion was overtaken at the end of the day by a few of Robinett’s tanks. They forced the enemy to scatter in headlong retreat, and captured many vehicles and supplies intact.
In Thala Narrowly Escapes Capture The defense of Thala on 21 February pitted the British 26th Armoured Brigade, under “Nickforce,” against thirty tanks, twenty self-propelled guns, and thirty-five half-track carriers of the 10th Panzer Division (-). American participants played no significant part. Brigadier Dunphie, commanding the brigade, had understood at his midnight conference with McNabb and Robinett at Thala that he was to defend Thala at all costs, gaining a day for the 2/5 Leicester’s and others to prepare a main defensive line on the ridge south of the village.
He did not share General Robinett’s understanding that all tanks were to be conserved. Indeed, his tanks were so light and equipped with guns of such short range as to be at severe disadvantage against German Mark III’s and Mark IV’s. They were about to be replaced by American Sherman’s and could be expended. And to gain the necessary time against a determined and aggressive foe without heavy losses was out of the question.
On the road from Kasserine to Thala several ridges extend like widespread fingers eastward from Djebel Bireno (1419) across the road. During 20 February Dunphie, commanding the 26th Armored Brigade, had taken an armored force (17/21 Lancers and 2nd Lothians) to the south of these ridges. On the morning of the 20th, Brigadier Nicholson had ordered the 10th Battalion, Royal Buffs, to move up to this blocking position. The enemy tanks of von Broich’s 7th Panzer Regiment formed up in view but out of effective artillery range.
At about 0930 on 21 February they began to advance. But they were extremely deliberate as they searched for mines along the route of advance. German air reconnaissance revealed the weakness of the opposition on the eastern side of the road, the observers correctly estimating British artillery at only two batteries. The enemy avoided these weapons by a flanking maneuver east of the road. Dunphie’s tanks fell back as slowly as possible and, being outranged and lightly armored, used the shelter of each ridge to fire from cover at close range. The enemy promptly met such tactics by moving to positions from which to enfilade the ridges.
On a ridge about nine miles south of Thala the British, at the cost of fifteen tanks, held up Kampfgruppe, 10th Panzer Division) until 1600. Rommel, well aware that he was in a desperate race against time and disturbed by von Broich’s slow advance, had spent most of the early afternoon with von Broich’s spearhead. Taking command of the situation himself, he ordered the infantry to entruck and follow the tanks until they came up to the British line of defense. On this line a tank battle raged for over an hour.
Then Dunphie ordered his force to fall back to the last ridge south of Thala where the 2/5 Leicester’s were in position on the final line of defense. The British eked out their diminished power of resistance by a skillful use of smoke in a delaying action which permitted all British forces to slip through a gap in the defensive line in front of Thala at about 1900, when Dunphie’s command vehicle followed the others through to supposed security. Enemy tanks followed directly after Dunphie’s through the very center of the infantry positions guarding the ridge, erupting with gunfire only after they had penetrated well within the British lines.
Soon the northern slope of the ridge was a scene of wild confusion. Burning vehicles, flares, pointblank fire from tanks, both German and British, and from the British artillery, provided a tumultuous melee. The enemy adroitly knocked out signal vehicles at the start, thus preventing prompt reports to Thala. Machine gunners following the tanks took positions along the heights and soon completed the job of wrecking the whole line of defense on which so much effort had been expended. At severe disadvantage, the British drew on every resource to hold the enemy, to destroy his tanks, and to throw him back. After three hours, the enemy’s offensive was stopped. He had withdrawn, taking with him about 700 prisoners, but nothing remained with which to check him if he should return at daylight.
During the afternoon, the U.S. 9th Infantry Division’s artillery was approaching from Tebessa, and, in preparation for an arrival during the night, positions for the guns had been selected and surveyed under the direction of Brigadier H. J. Parham, British First Army artillery officer. A tidal flow of supply vehicles away from Thala during the critical battle at the end of the day came under control as the American column approached.
The arrival of Brigadier General S. LeRoy Irwin’s command could not have been more opportune. Summoned when Sbeitla was being evacuated, it had come from the vicinity of Tiemcen in western Algeria in four days, an uninterrupted march of over 800 miles. The twelve 155-mm. howitzers of the 34th Field Artillery Battalion were emplaced during the early hours of 22 February along the road running west from Thala, with the six 75-mm. howitzers of the 47th’s Cannon Company protecting their westernmost flank. The twenty-four 105-mm. howitzers of the 60th and 84th Field Artillery Battalions went into position about 3,000 yards farther south, with six 75-mm. howitzers of the 60th’s Cannon Company on their right. About 2,000 yards still farther south was the new main line of defense, and 1,200 yards south of it, on the dominating ridge, formerly the main defense line, were the Germans.
General Irwin’s arrival with the American artillery at Thala was highly encouraging, but the defending force was very low on infantry, especially after losing so many from 2/5 Leicester’s at the ridge line, and it was deficient in armored fighting vehicles. Those tanks which the 17/21 Lancers and 2nd Lothians had been using arrived, after almost twenty-four hours of continuous operation, in an undependable mechanical condition, thus adding to other vulnerable characteristics. British forces at Sbiba sent one battalion of infantry (2nd Hampshire’s), the 16/5 Lancers, partly equipped with new Shermans, and an artillery regiment, the 152nd, Royal Artillery (-), but these did not reach Thala until well along in the afternoon. Help from Combat Command B, U.S. 1st Armored Division, was sought. Brigadier Nicholson reported to II Corps that he had about seventy enemy tanks waiting on his front to attack, and First Army supported his request to II Corps for help from Robinett by stating rather incorrectly that Nicholson was bearing the whole weight of enemy armor.
[NOTE 13-13K: The II Corps ordered Robinett “to bring all possible forces to bear in order to assist” Nicholson’s command, but he was doing so already as a matter of course. 13th Armd Regt Opns Jnl, 0845, 22 Feb 43.]
This reinforcement was the most dramatic of several. Thirty-five M4 tanks and crews by rail and seventeen more M4 tanks by sea and rail were sent from Morocco to Tebessa; twenty-five British Churchill tanks were sent to Sbiba; 800 replacement troops per day and the bulk of the 9th Infantry Division were also sent eastward in accordance with plans scheduled before the attack, and later expedited to meet probable needs; other reinforcements were scraped from existing units in the west and sent up to make good the earlier losses which the Axis forces had inflicted. Before the Axis troops were thrown back, two tank destroyer battalions, one tank battalion (separate) with fifty-six more medium tanks, elements of the 17th Field Artillery Regiment and the 13th Field Artillery Brigade, plus a considerable increase in antiaircraft units, were en route to Tunisia.
Nicholson, to offset the severe disadvantage inflicted on him by the loss of the ridge position in front of his artillery, sent some of his remaining tanks on a counterattack just before dawn. The attempt miscarried with the loss of five or more tanks, and the survivors brought back the alarming and incorrect report of enemy strength already mentioned. But the foray actually had a beneficial effect. The aggressive character of the action seemed to von Broich to confirm erroneous intelligence, gained from early reconnaissance and from Arabs, that the Allies in Thala were preparing a substantial counterattack using reinforcements which had been coming in during the night. After himself reconnoitering, Rommel approved von Broich’s decision to postpone any offensive drive on Thala until the expected Allied thrust had been contained at positions favorable for such action, but to lunge forward immediately after stopping the Allied attack. He could then expect to continue through Thala to the north.
The morning passed without an Allied counterattack-only heavy air strikes, artillery exchanges, and what the enemy took to be small probing ground attacks along the front. The lines remained unchanged. Neither side co-ordinated low-level air attacks with efforts at ground advance. Axis air support was primarily devoted to opposing the arrival of Allied reinforcements at Thala by strikes on columns north and northwest of it. Although General von Broich assumed that more Allied reinforcements were to be expected, he might have tried to break through Thala that afternoon, had he not before starting such an attack received orders from Field Marshal Rommel to pass to the defensive. Thus the best opportunity to penetrate the secondary mountain barrier beyond Kasserine pass toward Le Kef was allowed to slip away without being pushed to the limit. By 23 February reinforcements at Thala rendered the Allied position much less vulnerable. The enemy reckoned Allied losses at the end of the action at 571 prisoners, 38 tanks, 12 antitank guns, 1 antiaircraft gun, 16 heavy mortars, 3 self-propelled guns, 9 motor vehicles, and 3 aircraft.
[NOTE: The 9th Division Artillery sustained forty-five casualties, fired 1 ,904 rounds on this and the following day, and had only fifteen minutes of 105-mm. fire left at the end of the battle]
The XII Air Support Command participated in the battle south of Thala and east of Djebel el Hamra under most adverse conditions, but with observable effect. Enemy operations had confined Allied planes to the one airfield at Youks-Ies-Bains, where bad weather limited take-offs to the steel planked airstrip. Low clouds and repeated showers hampered flights, but 114 sorties over the Thala area were completed on 22 February. Fighter-bombers roaring over the enemy at about 1630 caught infantry, guns, and tanks and seemed to produce a perceptible reduction in the volume of enemy fire.
Air co-operation with Combat Command B proved far less satisfactory. American antiaircraft fire on 21 February turned back two friendly missions and damaged five American planes beyond repair. Next day, in spite of the most specific admonition to expect friendly planes to fly straight over American troops at low altitudes, when they would rock their wings, rather than dive or glide in a chandelle as the enemy normally did when striking, and after attention had been called to the dark-painted noses of American aircraft in contrast to the white or yellow of the enemy, antiaircraft fire nonetheless shot up five American P-38’s. It could not be attributed to faulty identification, for their distinctive, double fuselage had no counterpart in the enemy’s air force. In order to remedy this lack of coordination, General Robinett issued a most definite order that troops were not to fire on any aircraft whatever until after it attacked.
On 22 February, at 1415, the command of all Allied troops within II Corps’ area was clarified with the establishment of a boundary along the southern edge of the Bahiret Foussana valley. All troops north of it came under the control of General Ward as Commanding General, U.S. 1st Armored Division; all troops south of it, except units attached to Combat Command B, 1st Armored Division, were subordinated to General Allen as Commanding General, U.S. 1st Infantry Division. Ward’s mission was “to hold general line of Djebel- Hamra-Thala and to cover left flank of II Corps, preventing Germans moving to west. Liaison to the British 6th Armoured Division (General Kiethly [sic] now at Sbiba.” He was to undertake such offensive operations as were practicable to recover Kasserine valley, maintaining close liaison with General Allen.
This arrangement straightened out the uncertainties in the southwestern corner of the valley before the end of the day, but it gave General Ward a mission also involving control of Brigadier Nicholson’s command. While General Ward and his operations officer, Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton H. Howze, came forward to check the situation and to prepare a standard field order for further defensive operations, British First Army altered the relationship of “Nickforce” to II Corps, General Anderson placing Headquarters, 6th Armomed Division (General Keightley), at Rohia in command of “Nickforce,” directly under II Corps, effective at 2000.
The Enemy Retires Through Kasserine Pass
Group Rommel on 22 February had enough fuel to cover from 250-300 kilometers, a somewhat low stock of German ammunition augmented by considerable captured stocks of all calibers, and rations for four days. Reserves already accumulated at Sousse, Sfax, and Gabes for the entire southern army consisted of fuel for 150-200 kilometers, more than a day’s supply of ammunition, and rations for more than six days.
Axis reconnaissance along the north Tunisian front on 22 February indicated that the advanced positions of British 5 Corps and French XIX Corps had not been seriously weakened or deprived of local reserves. Air reconnaissance west of the Allied southern flank revealed the fact that reinforcements were approaching Thala from Le Kef and moving from Tebessa toward the Bahiret Foussana plain. With a fairly correct picture of the Allied dispositions, Rommel recognized that his offensive could not succeed. Mud and mountain terrain ill-suited to tank action, rain and fog impeding air support, and the lowered combat strength of the Axis units had all contributed to final failure. To be sure, any Allied intention of cutting through to the sea near Sfax and breaking communications between Rommel’s and von Arnim’s armies had been frustrated for several weeks. But Axis hopes for a successful penetration to Le Kef and beyond were completely extinguished.
Field Marshal Kesselring, accompanied by General Seidemann and others, visited Rommel’s command post northwest of Kasserine again on the afternoon of 22 February. Both commanders agreed that Comando Supremo should be advised that the time had come to withdraw the attacking forces from west central Tunisia. They proposed now a speedy shift to the Mareth area, in order to hit the British Eighth Army assembling there with a sudden attack before it could prepare for offensive operations and become a serious threat. While waiting for a new directive from Comando Supremo, Rommel ordered his troops to begin the retirement into Kasserine pass. General Ambrosio issued his order for retirement shortly before midnight.
To aid Rommel’s withdrawal and regrouping, enemy units began exerting pressure at various points in the British First Army’s line on 22 February. Fifth Panzer Army units attacked across the Ousseltia valley and into the mountain range west of it. A provisional German force (Colonel Lang), of which 47th Grenadier Regiment was the major component, started for Maktar during 22 February skirting the mountains of Kesra. The force was about six miles from Maktar when a radioed order canceled its attack.
Withdrawal by the Axis forces northwest of Kasserine pass into that gap was completed by forenoon of 23 February. While the 10th Panzer Division took over defensive positions, Kampfgruppe DAK in the afternoon started for Feriana-Thelepte and there relieved Division Centauro. Allied and Axis aviation were both extremely active over the area, the former bombing and strafing the roads east of the pass and near Feriana, the latter discouraging Allied pursuit of the retreating troops by bombing and machine gunning the roads near Thala and Djebel el Hamra. One hundred and four Allied planes were counted over the Kasserine area in one period of fifteen minutes. From four to eight Axis fighters engaged in sweeping flights almost steadily from 0840 to 1728. Allied pressure lacked punch and the withdrawal continued in good order.
Direction by II Corps of ground operations against the retreating enemy became extraordinarily hesitant at just the time that the enemy was most vulnerable. General Eisenhower thought late on 22 February that an Allied counterattack should start at once. Rommel’s situation was not recognized, however, by First Army or by II Corps for more than a day after his decision to abandon the attack. In the case of British First Army, the forces defending Sbiba actually drew back near Rohia during the night of 22-23 February in order to be ready for an enemy attack from Thala northeastward toward Rohia and then south toward Sbiba. The 21st Panzer Division might have entered Sbiba village unopposed but instead watched, as its orders required, until the Allies cautiously returned after an absence of about twenty-four hours. At General Fredendall’s headquarters, preparations were made to shift the II Corps front in case of an enemy break-through at Thala, and the total evacuation of Tebessa in consequence seemed a possibility.
Aside from the delay in correctly understanding Rommel’s purpose, the main reason for the faltering direction of operations to hit the enemy as he pulled back, was the shuffling of the command. Fredendall had shifted the 1st Armored Division northeastward and placed its commander in chargeof operations by all units, American, British, and French, west and northwest of Kasserine pass. But he had already proposed to General Eisenhower that General Ward should be replaced. The commander in chief, thinking in terms of the rehabilitation which the U.S. 1st Armored Division might require, was prepared to approve Ward’s relief by Major General Ernest N. Harmon, then Commanding General, 2nd Armored Division, under General Patton in Morocco, until he received conscientious advice to the contrary. While Harmon was flying east, General Eisenhower concluded that any such change was, after all, inexpedient. Harmon accordingly went on from Algiers to the zone of battle in the capacity of “a useful senior assistant” to General Fredendall in the “unusual conditions of the present battle,” for the corps commander to employ as he chose, but not with Eisenhower’s encouragement to relieve Ward of his command.
Just as General Ward was about to issue his first orders to his division, with the British 26th Armored Brigade attached, for operations in the Bahiret Foussana valley, he learned that Harmon was soon to arrive to assume command in the capacity of deputy corps commander. He issued the defense orders but withheld those for counterattack.
He ordered Robinett and Dunphie to continue on unchanged missions, their common boundary being the Kasserine-Hajdra railroad; their outer boundaries were also clearly defined. Combat Command A, 1st Armored Division, under General McQuillin, was to be held east of Haidra in Division Reserve, available for counterattack either through Thala or Djebel el Hamra on Ward’s orders. The 16th Armored Engineer Battalion (less detachments) was to continue working on the torn-up Hajidra-Djebel el Hamra road and to conduct route reconnaissance.
During the night of 22-23 February, General Harmon’s’ long and hurried journey from Morocco brought him to Fredendall’s advance command post at Djebel Kouif. He had made the last part of the trip, from Algiers via Constantine and Tebessa, by automobile. At each of these points he obtained military intelligence which was fragmentary and already out of date. At Fredendall’s headquarters, the situation was still not well enough known to permit issuance of orders for an Allied counterattack. Fredendall gave Harmon written orders placing him in direct command of the U.S. 1st Armored Division and such elements of the British 6th Armored Division as were within the II Corps area. Harmon had no staff, only the aide who had accompanied him from Morocco and an assistant operations officer (Lieutenant Colonel Barksdale Hamlett) from the II Corps Artillery Section. A radio equipped vehicle with driver and radio operator was lent him by II Corps. He drove on during the night to see Ward at Hajdra and Nicholson at Thala, and next morning,
Robinett near Djebel el Hamra, as well as miscellaneous units which he encountered during these strenuous movements. Although not relieving Ward of his status as Commanding General, 1st Armored Division, Harmon did assume Ward’s mission and was given Ward’s staff and command post. Harmon insisted that Hains’s provisional unit of M4 (Sherman) medium tanks with diesel motors and British radios be sent to occupy a defensive position near Thala. He took responsibility for holding at Thala the 9th Division artillery which British First Army had ordered sent back to Le Keel The next day, 23 February, passed without significant Allied pressure on Rommel’s troops. Combat Command B, 1st Armored Division, moved gingerly toward the pass.
The weary troops of Brigadier Dunphie’s command also marked time. It became gradually clear that the enemy was not coming out of the pass to attack again but was going to retire through the eastern exit. At 2000, 23 February, “Nickforce” was officially dissolved. General Harmon reconnoitered and prepared for the forthcoming counterattack to clear the enemy from Kasserine pass. After darkness, a heavy air attack on the enemy in the pass was delivered by Royal Air Force night bombers without advance co-ordination with the American ground troops, who missed the opportunity to press forward before the enemy could recover from its effects. It was after mid-night when General Ward received the following orders from General Harmon: Your mission with 16th RCT, attached. You will drive enemy from the valley, destroying as much of him as possible, and re-capture Kasserine Pass. Thereafter you will place 16th RCT in defense of the pass, at which time 16th reverts to [the] control [of] 1st Infantry Division. CG, II Corps
Harmon had also given Robinett similar oral orders. The time set for the Allied counterattack according to what Harmon called “Plan Howze” was 0630, 25 February. The general scheme of maneuver was that which the terrain dictated to any intelligent commander. Two forces must converge
from starting points which were perhaps fifteen miles apart and work along the heights to control Djebel Semmama and Djebel Chambi on either side of the gap, making their main effort on the outer flanks and co-ordinating the action on the inner flanks, especially as they drew closer to the
pass. Harmon strengthened Combat Command B, U.S. 1st Armored Division, for the attack by the attachment of the 16th Infantry. In effect, this attachment required bringing the regiment back from participation in General Allen’s push eastward over rugged mountain terrain on the 1st Infantry Division’s side of the divisional boundary, after it had gone much of the way to the eastern entrance of the pass, and holding the regiment for a later assault along the edge of the valley. On the other side of the Bahiret Foussana valley, the British 26th Armoured Brigade worked slowly to the gap between Djebel Bireno and Djebel Semmama, lifting quantities of mines, until late on 24 February. On that day the 1st Guards Brigade, reinforced, took over to make the attack southeastward over the heights and across the shoulder of Djebel Semmama as well as along the Thala-Kasserine road.
The Allies attacked against a phantom foe. Since they were so short of reserves, they prepared with appropriate care. But the actual operation turned out to be an unopposed march, impeded only by road demolitions, mines, and booby traps. The 210-mm. mortar shells which had fallen at random during the previous afternoon on the Bahiret Foussana plain were no longer observed by Combat Command B, and were described by the British force across the valley as infrequent. The troops which had barred occupation of Djebel Zebbeus by a provisional American infantry unit late on 24 February had gone by the next morning.
The American artillery preparation drew no response. Both American and British forces moved into the pass as rapidly as routes could be opened. By 1000, General Ward was at the defile on the Tebessa-Kasserine road, where General Roosevelt and Colonel Gardiner soon appeared. On the far side, the 2nd Battalion, Coldstream Guards, and a squadron of tanks of 16/5 Lancers, with artillery in support, could be seen along the road, with the 3rd Battalion, Grenadier Guards, on the heights to the north. The pass was free of the enemy, and once the mine fields could be cleared, the Allies would be free to guard it against attack from the east and to prepare for the time when they would regain the initiative in central Tunisia.'”
The New Army Groups
The Allied and Axis coalitions each emerged from the February battles with new army group commands in Tunisia. General Sir Harold R. L. G. Alexander took command of 18 Army Group late on 19 February. Field Marshal Rommel was designated commander of Army Group Afrika on 23 February. Each commander was occupied at once with the aftermath of the recent battles and the prospect of future offensive operations under his control.
Alexander had toured the Tunisian front during the latter part of the Axis offensive and thus saw the principal commanders and troops of British First Army when they were under strong enemy pressure. The effect of a struggle to overcome defects in organization left from the initial race for Tunis while at the same time meeting the enemy’s unbalancing January jabs was manifest. He found the system of command and responsibility not clear-cut enough, and the provision for control inadequate for successful operations. He took command, moreover, at a time when the performance of American troops was in his opinion clouded by enough disappointing incidents to discredit their actual performance and even to throw doubts on their capacities. A disparaging attitude toward American troops was found by German interrogators of British and French prisoners of war. General Alexander’s unfavorable estimate was destined to linger, encouraging him to depend more heavily upon British units than later circumstances warranted.
His first task was to hold certain vital areas, including the existing line in central Tunisia and the approaches to Tunis which were best adapted to the eventual “final attack.” He directed General Anderson to do what he had in fact, under General Eisenhower’s instructions, been trying to accomplish for more than a month, namely: to regroup his forces in distinct national sectors and to establish a general reserve, chiefly of armored units, with which to meet enemy threats. Meanwhile, Alexander proposed to revise the leadership in order to bring about firm direction and centralized control, and to restore morale. For the latter reason, he directed that the Americans should first receive battlefield experience, guaranteeing them small successes and later, the tests of larger undertakings. In the effort to improve leadership he had to consider both the relief of existing commanders by new ones and the possibilities of producing competent field grade officers more swiftly by special training. In both matters he had to avoid damaging Allied unity of effort by offending national susceptibilities.
General Alexander’s participation in the battles along the Western Dorsal was not extensive. He supported General Anderson’s wish to concentrate British armor at Thala, even though by this step the front farther to the northeast might be subjected to grave risk. In any event the enemy had already decided to abandon the offensive when this decision was made. He tried to expedite the advance of Montgomery’s Eighth Army into southern Tunisia with a view to alleviating Rommel’s pressure near Kasserine pass, but the enemy had started back toward Mareth before Montgomery was prepared to exert any such influence; Rommel’s decision to retire was in no sense made necessary by the Eighth Army’s movements. Alexander arranged with General Juin for French light forces to protect the extreme southern flank of the British First Army, southwest of Gafsa, and to transmit intelligence from the French to First Army.
The Axis had long considered how to organize a central unified command in Tunisia. The organizational preparations had been made and were ready when, on 23 February, Comando Supremo ordered the activation of Army Group Africa. Headquarters, Army Group Africa, was primarily formed from that of the former German-Italian Panzer Army, which had been inactivated on 20 February and replaced by the First Italian Army. One major departure from previous planning was the substitution of Rommel for von Arnim as the first army group commander. As late as the day before, Rommel had expressed to Kesselring an extreme reluctance to accept it. Comanda Supremo endeavored to meet Rommel’s reluctance by asking him to set the time when he would be ready, subject to oral agreement with Field Marshal Kesselring, to turn over the army group to von Arnim. Until Rommel left, von Arnim was to continue as commander of Fifth Panzer Army.
In addition to altering the chain of command in Tunisia, the Camando Supremo directive of 23 February spelled out the conduct of future operations. While complimenting command and troops for the achievements in the Kasserine operation, Comando Supreme acknowledged the fact that Allied strength had so increased that the offensive would have to be broken off immediately. The mobile forces were to withdraw to the original line of departure while at the same time inflicting maximum casualties on the pursuing Allies, and using demolitions to obstruct their movements.
Army Group Africa’s next mission would be to destroy British Eighth Army’s spearheads as they approached the Mareth position. For this mission it was to assemble the 10th Panzer Division in the Sfax area, and the other mobile units, 21st Panzer Division and DAK, near Gabes. Fifth Panzer Army was ordered to plan for an offensive operation on its north wing, while generally improving its positions and disrupting potential Allied offensive preparations by strong local attacks. Comando Supremo promised to ship to von Arnim the Hermann Gӧring Division, specifying that it be held in reserve behind the northern sector of his front. Behind his south sector, he was to assemble a mobile group drawn from available forces.
The Axis naval forces were ordered to abandon the planned Tabarka landings. The Air Force’s missions were reiterated: protection of supply convoys and support of army ground operations.
Balance Sheet of the February Battles
The Axis forces had pursued two objectives in the offensive against Sidi Bou Zid, Gafsa, Sbeitla, Feriana, and through the Western Dorsal. They sought to reduce Allied capabilities of attack by the destruction of men and materiel, and to bring about a westward withdrawal of the British First Army in the north by deeply penetrating its southern flank. The Allied defense had frustrated the second of these intentions, and Allied forces eventually returned to the very ground from which they had been driven, with their capabilities for attack not significantly impaired. The enemy had inflicted substantial losses in men and materiel on the British, Americans, and French. The extent of these losses, in prisoners and in materiel destroyed or captured, is reflected in the incomplete claims made by Group Ziegler for the period 14- 18 February and by Group Rommel for 19- 22 February: 42
Records of the Allies suffer from the conditions of the battle but tend to bear out the losses of materiel, and to indicate also considerable personnel losses unknown to the enemy. Most heavily hit on the Allied side was the U.S. 1st Armored Division, the 1st Armored Regiment of which suffered such losses to its 2nd and 3rd Battalions that they were temporarily combined in a provisional 23rd medium tank battalion, while one company each of the 81st Reconnaissance Battalion, 16th Armored Engineer Battalion, and 91st Armored Field Artillery Battalion, had to be wholly re-equipped. Losses by the 168th Infantry of the 34th Division through the encirclement of Djebel Lessouda (644), Djebel Ksaira ( 560 ), and Djebel Garet Hadid (620) also ran high. The 2nd Battalion, 17th Field Artillery, had to be rebuilt. Yet these casualties were serious rather than devastating. The 1st Armored Division’s withdrawal from Sbeitla had been skillful. Stubborn resistance there and in the Bahiret Foussana valley by Combat Command B, 1st Armored Division, was successful against elements of the 21st Panzer Division and Kampfgruppe DAK, both of which had long fought under Rommel.
The U.S. 1st Infantry Division, although it emerged from these operations still disappointed in its hope of fighting as a division instead of in separate components variously attached, retained an abundant capacity for effective action in the immediate future. The eastward movement by U.S. 9th Infantry Division units and by II Corps troops was not much delayed. British losses were chiefly in tanks for which replacements had been planned before the battle. In short, the Axis had achieved a tactical success rather than a major victory influencing the strategy of the campaign.
Why had the enemy not gained more? His initial success in forcing the Allies to withdraw to the Western Dorsal was cheaply won, for the Allied decision to withdraw was made as soon as he took Sidi Bou Zid with what the First Army insisted was only part of his available mobile striking forces.
It was a belated decision which rested on the fact that the Allies were overextended along too great a line and their forces dispersed in combat groups of minor which would have to be committed piecemeal to meet the enemy’s main effort. The Germans had thus been able to bring much stronger forces to bear on the hapless defenders of Sidi Bou Zid on 14 February and on the ill-fated counterattack by Combat Command C, 1st Armored Division, next day. The enemy’s preponderance of force had in effect been increased by the disposition of Allied forces at Sidi Bou Zid, enabling him to isolate substantial elements on the hills, keep them out of the battle on the plain, and then to deal with them separately. The Germans on 14-15 February were not only more strongly equipped and more numerous but also wilier and more skillful than their American adversaries. Subsequent German attacks against a more experienced foe were adroitly parried and obstinately contested.
The enemy broke through Kasserine pass against a defense which seemed haphazard; but he failed in the attempt to exploit the break-through because these defenses actually turned out to be formidable in character. The organization of the pass for defense by adequate means was tardy, in part because of the belief that the enemy’s main effort might be made from Gafsa or Feriana against Tebessa. Since the Allies had to comb the forces with which the pass was defended from other points along the front and put them into action as they arrived, an atmosphere of improvisation was inescapable. But, to repeat, Rommel at least considered the defense stubborn and the performance of the U.S. troops superior.
Obviously, Allied resistance cannot be given all the credit for stopping the Axis advance. To a extent Rommel’s failure may be attributed to an aggregate of Axis mistakes. The most consequential was the lack of unity of command and the indecision demonstrated after the successes gained in the battles near Sidi Bou Zid. The second serious mistake made by the Axis command was the critical weakening of the attack forces just before Angriffsgruppe Nord was assigned its mission. This was compounded by repeated violation of the principle of mass. Twice Rommel divided his force, first by sending the 21st Panzer Division against Sbiba and DAK into Kasserine pass, then sending DAK toward Tebessa and 10th Panzer Division against Thala. Attacking at too many places at the same time, he was too weak to achieve a break-through in anyone sector. In attacking the passes tactical errors were made by Rommel’s subordinates who stubbornly attempted to the defiles in a frontal attack instead of first gaining the shoulders. Finally, adverse weather conditions prevented the Luftwaffe from supporting the attack effectively. Thus Rommel’s last big offensive stopped short of success. The Whole operation from Sidi Bou Zid to the end resembled the actions of a fruit picker in the branches of a tree, reaching to the utmost before moving gingerly out farther along a limb and, in the end, leaving the best prize untouched for fear of falling.
American troops learned a number of lessons about enemy methods from these battles. German tank attacks, they found, were made in the dusk as well as at dawn, and under the light of star shells and Hares were pressed until an American tank force was scattered. The enemy was apparently familiar with American practices, expecting two thirds of a force in the assault and one third in support, and meeting the situation repeatedly by a double envelopment. He continued to lure Americans into such trap.” and into the ambush of antitank guns. German antitank ammunition was incendiary while American armor-piercing shells merely knocked out tanks in a manner permitting repair after salvage from the battlefield.
German tanks crept over the ground at a slow pace intended to avoid creating dust clouds and noises which would attract attention. Often they seemed immobile unless checked with reference to a prominent terrain feature at intervals. Once in battle, if taken under fire, a German tank was likely to stop and to appear to be knocked out. When once its adversary turned to a different opponent, the German would open up with rapid and accurate fire.
The Americans also noted deficiencies in their weapons. They found the 113 light tanks suited only for reconnaissance. The 75-mm. half-track gun carrier turned out to be extremely vulnerable. A soldier, when asked if enemy aircraft bullets went through the half-tracks replied, “No sir, they only come through the wall and then they rattle around.” In Army slang they were known as ” Purple Heart Boxes.” The 37 -mm. antitank gun with standard ammunition was effective only against scout cars and light vehicles except at very close ranges. Longer-range guns with better telescopic sights on tanks and for antitank roles were needed. Training and equipment for the avoidance, detection, and removal of mines, and for the use of mines against the enemy were inadequate.
Finally, air-ground co-ordination was still below expectations. The Axis dominance in the air was so great that training in aircraft identification seemed fruitless. Up front , experienced men were learning never to fire from the ground at an airplane, for fear of drawing attack, unless that airplane fired first. Air reconnaissance had given too little help to the forward elements. Air bombing missions were executed too slowly to influence most current battle situations. Tactical air support was still “in short supply.”
SOURCE: Northwest Africa: Seizing The Initiative In The West; by George F. Howe (United States Army Center of Military History)