Battle of the Kasserine Pass, 19-22 February 1943

The battle of Kasserine Pass (19-22 February 1943) was Rommel's final success in North Africa, and saw the inexperienced Americans suffer a heavy defeat at the hands of the Germans. The German attack soon ran out of steam as Allied resistance increased, and in the long term this success rebounded on them, as the Americans very quickly learnt from their experiences and became a formidable fighting force.

By the start of 1943 the Axis powers had two armies in North Africa. General von Arnim commanded the newly formed 5th Panzer Army, which had landed at Tunis and Bizerta and quickly defeated the first Allied attack on Tunis (December 1942). Field Marshal Rommel commanded Panzerarmee Afrika, which was retreated towards Tunisia across Libya in the aftermath of the defeat at the Second Battle of El Alamein. By early January the biggest danger to the Axis position came in central Tunisia, where the French held a series of passes in the Eastern Dorsal Mountains, from where the Allies could have advanced east to the coast around Sfax and cut the Axis position in half. In an attempt to prevent this, von Arnim launched Operation Eilbote (18 January-3 February 1943), a series of attacks in the Eastern Dorsals. By the time the attacks ended, the Germans held a series of key passes, although the Allies generally held the areas immediately to their west.

On 4 February Rommel suggested that this early success could be expanded on, to push the Allies further back, and if all went well perhaps even to crack open the Allied line and inflict a major defeat on the inexperienced Americans. His plans were approved by the Italian Commando Supremo, but no overall commander was appointed. Instead von Arnim was to attack on the right, from the Faid Pass (Operation Frühlingswind), while Rommel attacked towards Gafsa (Operation Morgenluft). Once von Arnim's initial attacks were over, he was to return 21 Panzer Division to Rommel for the attack on Gafsa.

Both attacks achieved all of their aims. Von Arnim moved first, on 14 February, and inflicted a major defeat on Combat Command A of the US 1st Armored Division. Rommel's advance began on 16 February. Gafsa was occupied without a fight (as a result von Arnim refused to return 21 Panzer), and Rommel then advanced north, causing chaos in the American rear areas. Reconnaissance forces from the two Axis forces met in Kasserine, to the south of the Kasserine Pass, on 18 February. In theory the attack was meant to end at this point, with von Arnim returning north to concentrate his efforts on the main approaches to Tunis, while Rommel focused on the defence of the Mareth Line, where his main army was resting at the end of their long retreat across Libya.

Panzer II in Russia
Panzer II Ausf F

By the end of 18 February the Germans had occupied the area between the Eastern and Western Dorsal Mountains. The Allies held the passes across the Western Dorsals, which at this point ran generally from south-west to north-east. In the south-west two roads ran north across the mountains from Feriana to Tebessa. In the centre of the line the road north from Kasserine passed over the Kasserine Pass and then split, with one branch heading north to Thala and the second north-west to Tebessa. To the east a road ran north from Sbeitla to Sbiba.

The Allied positions were held by a mix of forces already defeated in the fighting and reinforcements rushed in from the north. On 17 February part of the British 6th Armoured Division (General Keightley) and the US 34th Infantry Division (General Ryder) were moved towards Sbiba, on the eastern flank of the new line.

To the west the line was held by the 1st Armored Division. This division's Combat Command B had entered combat in November-December 1942, where it had suffered a nasty shock at the hands of the more experienced Germans, and by February 1943 its performance was much improved. In mid-February it was based around Ousseltia, north of the upcoming battle. The rest of the division was inexperienced, lacked infantry, and was badly stretched out along a long defensive front. They were also largely unprepared for modern armoured warfare, with a doctrine based on the events of 1940. American tanks weren't expected to clash with German tanks - that role was to filled by the tank destroyer units. Instead they were meant to exploit breakthroughs, and operating behind enemy lines. The 1st Armored Division was supported by elements of the 1st and 34th Infantry Divisions.

At the start of the battle Kasserine Pass was held by the 19th Engineer Regiment, which was positioned to guard the 800 yard wide narrowest part of the pass. They had begin work on a minefield, but it was largely incomplete. They were supported by the 1/26th Infantry, which arrived just before the fighting broke out. Armoured support was provided by eight M4 Sherman Tanks, and there was also a battalion of tank destroyers, although at this stage that actually meant the M3 75mm GMC, which was a 75mm gun on the back of a half-track, unprotected by any significant armour.

Panzer III Ausf L in Tunisia
Panzer III Ausf L in Tunisia

The German successes convinced Rommel that a further attack could have really significant results. On 18 February he sent his suggestions to Kesselring, asking for permission to attack towards Tebessa, and then sweep north in an attempt to push the Allies out of Tunisia completely. The Italian Commando Supreme approved the basic idea, and gave Rommel command of his detachment from the Afrika Korps, the Italian Centauro armoured division and 10 Panzer and 21 Panzer Divisions, at that point until von Arnim's command. However the target was changed to Le Kef, seventy miles to the north of Kasserine. This changed the attack from one aimed at a great strategic encirclement of the Allied position into one aimed at breaking the French part of the Allied army and inflicting damage on the British contingent. Rommel accepted these new limits, rather disappointing Kesselring, who assumed (with some justification given Rommel's earlier behaviour in Africa) that the new orders would be largely ignored and Rommel would stick to his own plans. The new attack was given the codename Operation Sturmflut. At the same time Rommel was finally replaced as commander of his old army, which now became the 1st Italian Army under General Messe).

Rommel planned a two-pronged assault. On the left the Afrika Korps detachment would attack through the Kasserine Pass, heading for Thala. On the right 21 Panzer would attack towards Sbiba. 10 Panzer would be used to support whichever attack made most progress once it had returned from Fondouk, where von Arnim had sent it on 17 February. Further to the left the Italian Centauro Division was to attack through the Dernaia Pass heading for Tebessa.

The Battle

The battle began on 19 February. On the right 21 Panzer ran into a mixed British, French and American force just to the south of Sbiba, and that part of the attack quickly came to a halt. 21 Panzer went onto the defensive, and this allowed General Anderson to send part of the 6th Armoured Division west to Thala.

At first the attack at Kasserine Pass was no more successful. It was carried out by Kampfgruppe DAK, commanded by General Karl Bülowius. His first plan was to send Reconnaissance Battalion 33 up the pass in an attempt to 'bounce' the American defences, but this attack was repelled by the Americans, who held the centre of the pass in some strength. The battalion had to move to cover on the south-western side of the pass.

Bülowius's second move was to sent Panzergrenadier Regiment Afrika to attack the 1/26th Infantry on the north-eastern side of the pass. This attack went in at 0930 hours and also made limited progress. At noon Panzer Battalion Stotten was committed to the fight, but the Americans still managed to hold on. Some reinforcements arrived, including a small British armoured force (Gore Force) which was posted on the road to Thala, a battalion from the 39th Infantry Regiment, 9th Division, and more tank destroyers.

The German attack continued during the night, with attempts to infiltrate between US positions. The main attack resumed on the morning of 20 February. It was preceded by a bombardment by Nebelwerfer multiple rocket launchers, new to the African campaign, but the Americans managed to hold on for most of the day. Rommel decided to commit the leading elements of 10 Panzer to the attack. The first troops arrived in the mid-afternoon, and a fresh attack began at 1630 hours. This time the Allied defences couldn't hold, and by the end of the day Rommel was on the move.

Rommel now split his forces, a decision that was partly forced on him by the destruction of the main bridges over the fast running Hatab River, which ran down the middle of the pass. The Afrika Korps detachment was sent west towards Tebessa, while 10 Panzer attacked north on the road to Thala. Gore Force was overwhelmed on the evening of 20 February, while the Centauro division advanced several miles along the Tebessa Road.

The Americans had already begun to move reinforcements into the area. During the morning of 20 February the experienced CCB was ordered to move to the Tebessa end of the pass, and it began to arrive in the early afternoon.

At 0500 on 21 February the vanguard from the Centauro division ran into the first outposts from CCB. The Americans fought a delayed action, and then withdrew around dawn. At 1145 Rommel ordered the entire Kampfgruppe DAK to advance along the pass towards Tebessa. Beyond the narrow area at its southern end the pass widens out, before reaching a wall of mountains at its north-western end. There were two passes leading across these mountains, a northern and a southern pass.

At 1630 Panzergrenadier Regiment Afrika and Panzer Battalion Stotten ran into the 2/13th Armored Regiment (CCB) on the approaches to the northern pass, and were repulsed. During the night the Afrika Korps prepared for an outflanking attack through the southern pass, but in the darkness the Panzergrenadiers ended up on the wrong hill (too far to the left). As a result the Afrika Korps was unable to make any progress on 22 February.

South of Thala the advancing 10 Panzer ran into the 26th Armoured Brigade (General Dunphie). All day the British fought a delaying action, withdrawing slowly towards Thala. Begin them the Leicesters frantically worked on a new defensive position. This effort was almost in vain. At the end of the day the surviving tanks from the 26th Armoured Brigade withdrew into their overnight camp, behind the Leicester's new line. Rommel made a daring attack, led by a captured Valentine tank. In this confusion the Germans overran the Leicesters and broke into the Allied armoured camp. A two hour night battle followed, before the German attack was finally stopped (as much by darkness as by anything else). By the end of the day the Germans had taken 571 prisoners, and destroyed 38 tanks and 28 guns. Thala was still in British hands, but the position looked rather desperate. General Anderson ordered the French commander, Genreal Koeltz, to prepare to withdraw from Sbiba, which would be left dangerously isolated by a German breakthrough at Thala.

Luckily for the British the US 9th Division's Artillery (Brigadier-General LeRoy Irwin) arrived at Thala overnight, after a four day long 735 mile trek from Algeria. Early on 22 February the Lothians launched a counterattack, which was repulsed with the loss of the five tanks that actually reached the German lines. The Germans had planned to attack at 0700 hours, but postponed this attack because General von Broich assumed that an unexpected artillery barrage was the start of a counterattack. Broich decided to postpone his attack until 1600 hours, but this exposed his men to attack by US P-38s, and the attack failed.

At 1415 hours Rommel decided that the attack had failed, and ordered his troops to retreat from Kasserine and Sbiba. However this movement was carried out so skilfully that the Allies didn't realise it had happened. On the night of 22-23 February General Anderson ordered Koeltz to retreat from Shiba (there were also some signs that von Arnim might be about to attack in the north), and Irwin to move his artillery to Le Kef. Koeltz carried out his orders, and moved to a new position eight miles to the north, but the retreat at Thala was cancelled by General Ernest Harmon, sent by Eisenhower to help Fredendall.

The Allies carefully began to advance on 24 February. By now Rommel's men were masters of the retreat, leaving a mass of mines and booby traps behind them. Sbiba was reoccupied by the Allies on 24 February, and the Kasserine Pass on 25 February. Sbeitla and Sidi bou Zid were both filled with mines and traps, greatly slowing up the Allied advance. Gafsa remained in Axis hands for rather longer, and wasn't retaken by the Allies until mid-March (during Patton's Operation Wop).

The battle of the Kasserine Pass and the preliminary operations cost the Germans and Italians 2,000 men. On the Allied side the US II Corps lost 6,500 of its 30,000 men, 183 tanks, 194 half tracks, 208 artillery guns and over 500 trucks and jeeps. Overall Allied loses were almost 10,000 men. The biggest impact of the fighting was on the confidence of the US Army, which had arrived in North Africa convinced that it was the best trained and best equipped in the world, and rarely willing to take advice from its more experienced British allies, whose track record wasn't entirely convincing. After Kasserine Pass many in the American heirachy were forced to admit that the Germans were extremely dangerous opponents, and that US doctrine and equipment had some dangerous flaws. This was hardly surprising, given that Tunisia was the combat debut for the vast majority of the Americans, and their docrine had been developed in peace time (and largely in response to the German tactics of 1940).

The battle was followed by a reorganisation of the Allied command structure. A new 18th Army Group was already the process of being set up, under General Sir Harold Alexander, who effectively became the commander of all Allied ground forces in North Africa (he officially took office on 19 February, the first day of the battle, but that didn't give him any time to get to grips with his new role.). The poor showing of the US II Corps resulted in the sacking of General Fredenhall. He was replaced by Major General George S. Patton, who quickly improved the performance of his new command. During the final offensive in Tunisia in April-May 1943 the US II Corps, now operating on the Allied left flank, successfully captured Bezerta (although after 15 April the corps was commanded by Bradley), and the Americans became increasingly skilful opponents for the Germans.

On the Axis side Rommel was made commander of a new Army Group Afrika, with authority over von Arnim's 5th Panzer Army and his old army, which became the 1st Italian Army, under the highly regarded Italian General Messe. This would be a short-lived arrangement. On 6 March Messe attacked the British lines south of the Mareth Line (battle of Medenine), but the attack was a costly failure, and in its aftermath Rommel left Africa for the final time. His departure was kept so secret that the Allies didn't realise he had left until the very end of the Tunisian campaign!

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (13 June 2017), Battle of the Kasserine Pass, 19-22 February 1943 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_kasserine_pass.html

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