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|
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.