A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

70 Years Ago: US Disaster at Kasserine Pass in Tunisia

Previous posts about the 70th anniversary of the North African campaign have seemed fairly straightforward; the American landings in Morocco and Algeria (Operation Torch) faced limited resistance from Vichy French forces, which soon came around to the point that Roosevelt and Churchill could meet in Casablanca.

But however easy Morocco and Algeria had been, Tunisia was to prove a different matter entirely, where the opponent would be not Vichy but th4e Wehrmacht. After the Torch landings the Germans had sent General von Arnim's Vth Panzer Army to Tunisia; as the British Eighth Army under Montgomery advanced westward after the victory at El Alamein and took Tripoli, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel fell back to a fortified line known as the Mareth Line in southern Tunisia. Tunisia had become a fortified bastion of the Afrika Corps.
US Infantry in Kasserine Pass
The US Army, though already tested in the Pacific, had not yet met the Germans in battle in this war. The British had doubts about the Americans' readiness to fight. The first test came at Kasserine Pass in the Tunisian Atlas. It would be a disaster.

Early clashes at Faid and Sidi Bouzid showed the German Panzers were far better armed than the light American tanks; poorly led and poorly trained infantry and vulnerability of the tanks led to a US withdrawal to the line of the Western Dorsale.

On February 19, 70 years ago today, Rommel struck the Americans in an attempt to break through Kasserine Pass and penetrate into Algeria. British, American, and Free French troops were all engaged along the front, with the US holding the pass.

After several days of running battle with allied forces falling back several times, Rommel ultimately found himself blocked and fell back. But the Allies had been poorly led and failed to coordinate well; the US troops probed ill-equipped and under-trained, and though the Germans failed to break through into Algeria, the lsses tell the story: 10,000 Allied casualties, 6,500 of them American (German and Italian casualties were around 2,000); the loss of 183 Allied tanks to only 34 German tanks, etc.

Though British Lt. Gen. Kenneth Anderson had overall command of the Allied forces, US II Corps commander Maj. Gen. Lloyd Fredendall received most of the blame. He was sent home to take over a training command in the US (though poor training was already an issue) and did not hold any further combat command.

Those who have seen the 1970 film Patton may recall that in one of the opening scenes, Omar Bradley visits the battlefield at Kasserine. After Fredendall's relief, he was replaced by George S. Patton, who had been in Morocco, socializing with the Sultan and wishing for  a fight. Before March was over, Patton would beat a German force at El Guettar. Montgomery and 8th Army pushed through the Mareth lines, and a reorganized and revitalized Allied command structure reversed the disasters at Kasserine. Tunis fell in May.

1 comment:

Michael Collins Dunn said...

This comment comes from an email to me by Prof. L. Carl Brown, and is used here with Prof. Brown's permission:

Enjoyed your blog in the Kasserine Pass battle. Although it won't add anything to your fine knowledge of that battle, and of Operation Torch in general I wonder if you have ever read A.J. Liebling's WWII reporting collected in MOLLIE AND OTHER WAR PIECES (1964). Pages 126-132 offer a splendid treatment of Omar Bradley's first venture into combat. Excellent war reporting in general.

MOLLIE has other choice bits for the student of the Maghrib, e.g. pp. 22 & 99 (Beau Geste). Roughly the first half of the book involves reporting on the North African campaign.