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Kasserine Pass: America's Most Humiliating Defeat of World War II

Kasserine Pass: America's Most Humiliating Defeat of World War II

It all went very wrong.

Revenge for Kasserine came on May 13, 1943, with the surrender of Axis forces in Tunisia. Into the barbed-wire cages streamed 275,000 German and Italian prisoners, more than at Stalingrad. Von Arnim was among them, but not Rommel, who had flown back to Europe.

Strategically, Kasserine Pass changed nothing other than to delay the end for perhaps a few weeks. The key decision had already been made by Hitler to hold on in Africa—and sacrifice his best troops. Fredendall was canned, and Patton and Bradley made their entrance into the war. The Allies learned bitter lessons about training, command, air support, logistics and how to fight a multinational war.

However, Kasserine left a bitter residue that poisoned the Allied cause for the rest of the war. It confirmed the British in their belief that the Americans were baby soldiers, soft and spoiled amateurs who needed gentle but firm guidance from their wiser, more experienced English cousins.

To British generals like Montgomery and Alanbrooke, Kasserine was proof that the British were right to urge an indirect strategy of destroying Germany by nibbling away at the Nazi periphery in places like Italy and the Balkans, rather than the American preference for a direct assault straight into France and then Germany.

That prejudice was ironic, considering that it was the British army that had been regularly beaten by Hitler’s legions. But Kasserine gave them leverage for insisting that the European theater should be run by British generals, according to British strategy.

To American commanders, not short on hubris themselves, this was insulting. And worse, it was out of touch with reality. The North African and Italian campaigns of 1942–43 were the last time that British and Commonwealth forces would contribute the bulk of Allied military might. By 1944, with America fully mobilized and Britain running out of manpower, the Americans would be the senior partner, and the British knew it.

And the last word on the Battle of Kasserine Pass? We will leave that to the Desert Fox. It was Rommel who said of the Americans that he had never seen troops so badly prepared for combat—yet learn so quickly.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

Image: M3 Lee tank, training exercises, Fort Knox, Kentucky. Wikimedia Commons/Alfred T. Palmer/Library of Commons