Operation Frühlingswind (Spring Wind), 14-18 February 1943

Operation Frühlingswind (Spring Wind), 14-18 February 1943, was von Arnim's contribution to a joint operation with Rommel's Panzerarmee Afrika, and saw his troops capture Sidi bou Zid and Sbeitla, and force the Americans back into the Kasserine Pass, a key position in the Western Dorsal mountains of Tunisia (Tunisian Campaign).

By January 1943 there were two main Axis armies in North Africa, von Arnim's 5th Panzer Army in northern Tunisia and Rommel's Panzerarmee Afrika, retreating from Libya after their defeat at the second battle of El Alamein. The Germans had defeated the first Allied attempt to take Tunis late in 1942, and von Arnim's attention then turned south, towards the East Dorsals, where French forces held the main passes. Von Arnim's first attack, Operation Eilbote (18 January-3 February 1943), successfully captured these French held passes, temporarily ending a danger that the Allies might reach the coast between him and Rommel, splitting the Axis forces in two.

On 4 February Rommel suggested that von Arnim's original attack could be expanded into a larger scale attack, that if all went well might get across the Eastern and Western Dorsals, threaten the US build-up at Tebessa just inside Algeria, and even perhaps lead to an advance to the north coast at Bone. Kesselring managed to convince the Italian Commando Supremo to approve two small scale attacks into the area between the two mountain ranges. Rommel was to attack in the south, to take Gafsa (Operation Morgenluft), while von Arnim attacked further north, towards Sidi Bou Zif and then Sbeitla. His main aim was to destroy Combat Command A of the US 1st Armored Division, which was posted at Sidi Bou Zif.

Von Arnim had two Panzer divisions for his attack, 10 Panzer and 21 Panzer. 21 Panzer was to be given to Rommel after the initial stage of the attack, to take part in his attack on Gafsa. In the event the Americans didn't defend Gafsa, and von Arnim used that as an excuse not to return the division to Rommel.

Operation Frühlingswind (Spring Wind) began at 0400 hours on 14 February, when 10 Panzer attacked towards Sidi Bou Zif from Fiad Pass, while 21 Panzer attacked from Maizilia Pass, a few miles further to the south. In theory this might have produced a large scale tank battle, as both sides had around 200 tanks in the area, but the Americans tanks, from Combat Command A of the 1st Armoured Division, were too thinly spread out, and the Germans were able to punch through the American lines in a single day. The Americans lost 44 tanks, 50 half tracks and 26 guns in the fighting. In addition around 2,000 men from the 168th Regimental Combat Team were trapped on two hills - Djebel Lessouda to the north of Sidi Bou Zid and Djebel Ksaira to the south.

The Allied response was hampered by a belief that von Arnim was planning to attack further north, based on a misinterpretation of intercepted German messages, in particular a Luftwaffe message describing von Arnim's plans for an attack north-west from Fondouck Pass, aimed against the British. At first the attack at Sidi Bou Zif was believed to be a feint, while the main attack was still to come, but General Anderson, commander of the First Army, did agree to move an American tank battalion from CCB from the French sector to support Fredendall.

On 15 February  the Americans counterattacked. General Orlando Ward, commander of the 1st Armoured Division, committed CCA to the attack, but once again this ended in defeat. CCA lost 54 of the 58 tanks committed to the attack, along with 15 officers and 298 men (hardly surprising given that one tank battalion had been sent to attack two Panzer divisions). In response General Anderson released the rest of the American armour from the French sector. The only good news for the Americans on 15 February was a successful breakout by 231 of the men trapped on Djebel Lessouda.

On 16 February 10 Panzer and 21 Panzer began their attack on Sbeitla, after Kesselring intervened to order the attack. Ward was able to overcome an initial panic (partly caused by his own decision to move his HQ), and managed to hold onto the place, which was now held by the remains of CCA and the newly arrived CCB. He was helped by an attempted breakout by the 1,600 men trapped on Djebel Ksaira, which disrupted the German attack (although the breakout failed and most of these men were captured). However by 17 February the German pressure was too much (CCB was holding on well, but CCA suffered from a collapse of morale and began to disintegrate), and Ward retreated west to Kasserine, and set up a new defensive position in Kasserine Pass, just to the north.

It was at this point that von Arnim refused to honour the agreement to hand 21 Panzer over to Rommel. Gafsa had fallen two days earlier, and von Arnim still believed that the most crucial front was in northern Tunisia, on the direct approaches to Tunis and Bizerta. As a result on 17 February he kept 21 Panzer around Sbeitla, and sent 10 Panzer north, towards Fondouk, at the start of a journey back to northern Tunisia. This move would be cancelled after the start of the attack into the Kasserine Pass, but the division wouldn't arrive in time to take part in the start of that battle.

17 February also saw General Anderson move more reinforcements towards the fighting, having finally realised that this was the main assault and not a feint. The fall of Sbeitla meant that the route north through the Western Dorsals via Sbiba was now dangerously exposed to attack, so part of the British 6th Armoured Division (General Keightley) and the 34th Infantry Division (General Ryder) were moved to block the gap.

On 18 February reconnaissance elements from Rommel's and von Arnim's forces met at Kasserine, to the south of Kasserine Pass. Rommel now believed that a further attack might lead to a really significant victory, and once again managed to get permission to carry out his new attack. The only setback was that the target of the attack was to be Le Kef, to the north, and not Tebessa to the north-west, thus limiting the chance of a breakthrough. The new offensive was to begin with an attack north into the Kasserine Pass.

In four days the Americans had lost 103 tanks, 280 other vehicles, 18 field guns, 3 antitank guns and 1 anti-aircraft battery, as well as 2,546 missing troops (many captured after the failed breakout at Djebel Ksaira).

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (5 June 2017), Operation Frühlingswind, 14-18 February 1943 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_fruhlingswind.html

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