Key Point: Axis forces might have been victorious, but they were not unscathed.
In the winter of 1942-1943, the Allies had every reason to believe that they were on the verge of total victory in North Africa. It had started in November 1942, when German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s much-vaunted Panzerarmee Afrika was decisively defeated by the British Eighth Army at the Second Battle of El Alamein. Rommel’s setback was not merely a defeat but a full-scale rout, and surviving German and Italian units were forced into a headlong retreat through the burning deserts of northern Libya. Rommel seemingly was trapped between American forces advancing to block his retreat and British forces in hot pursuit to his rear.
The Axis disaster at El Alamein coincided with Operation Torch, three coordinated Allied landings in French North Africa at Casablanca, in Morocco, and at Oran and Algiers, in Algeria. Operation Torch, approved after a series of sometimes acrimonious discussions between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, was designed to open a second front to augment the valiant Russian efforts against Nazi Germany in the East. Owing to French sensibilities, the landings were mainly an American effort. The Americans came ashore on November 8 waving the Stars and Stripes and were immediately met with fierce resistance from French colonial troops loyal to the collaborationist Vichy government back home. At Oran, British naval cutters Walney and Hartland were sunk by French fire, costing the Allies an additional 445 unnecessary casualties before the political situation was sorted out. At Algiers, a five-day delay in the proceedings was finally resolved, and Vichy commander Jean Darlan reluctantly agreed to end colonial resistance to the Allied landings.
The need for continued cooperation from Darlan was eliminated—along with Darlan—when the admiral was assassinated on Christmas Eve by a Free French intelligence operative. The way was clear for a concerted drive on the grievously wounded Panzerarmee. For even the gifted Rommel, the end seemed near. In two years of unremitting desert warfare, he had performed wonders, earning him the respect and admiration of friends and foes alike. Allied air and naval forces often reduced his supplies to a trickle, and he was usually outnumbered by his British foes. German Führer Adolf Hitler, preoccupied with his ongoing Russian campaign, failed to appreciate the strategic significance of North Africa. Many of Rommel’s fellow officers were old-school aristocrats bred in the Prussian tradition, and to them he was little more than a middle-class upstart.
Morale Low, Casualties High
In spite of all these difficulties, Rommel had won a number of brilliant victories and came within an ace of capturing the Suez Canal, key to the entire Middle East and Great Britain’s lifeline to India and East Asia. Rommel led from the front; he was a masterful tactician and strategist imbued with an offensive spirit that swiftly exploited enemy weaknesses. Rommel had become larger than life, a man christened with the enduring sobriquet “the Desert Fox.” Even his enemies gave him grudging admiration.
In the fall and winter of 1942-1943 the fox seemed at bay, surrounded by a host of Allied hounds. Panzerarmee Afrika was a broken reed, a mere shadow of its former self. About half of Rommel’s command had been killed, wounded, or taken prisoner, and 450 tanks and 1,000 guns were taken or destroyed. Rommel himself was exhausted and increasingly prone to periods of ill health. He was plagued by headaches, and to make matters worse, he came down with a painful bout of nasal diphtheria.
Yet Allied hopes of total victory turned out to be premature. The Torch landings, besides giving the green American troops an exaggerated idea of their own prowess, had finally aroused Hitler from his lethargy on North African affairs. Enraged, he occupied southern France and began to pour reinforcements into Tunisia. German and Italian troops were easily ferried into Tunisia from Sicily, only one night’s voyage distant. General des Panzertruppen Hans-Jurgen von Arnim’s Fifth Panzer Army was the main element in the eleventh-hour surge of Axis troops.
By January 1943, Rommel had retreated some 1,400 miles across the spine of northern Africa, and his men’s morale was as low as their casualties had been high. Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery’s Eighth Army took Tripoli—Rommel’s main supply base—on January 23, but the triumph was short-lived. The Allied pursuit was literally bogging down, with heavy winter rains turning Tunisia’s yellowish soil into a sea of primordial muck. Rommel retained hopes of linking up with von Arnim’s forces and effecting an orderly withdrawal of all German forces from North Africa. But to do so, he believed that it was necessary to inflict a stinging defeat on the newly arrived Americans before they could complete a fatal encirclement with the British Army along the old French fortification line at Mareth on the Libya-Tunisia border.
His counterpart, American General Dwight D. Eisenhower, was supreme commander in the Mediterranean Theater, a job that demanded tact as well as diplomatic skills. Eisenhower performed both tasks admirably, but he was too often handicapped by political considerations in the early stages of the campaign. In early February he had to drop everything to attend the famous Casablanca Conference and consult with Roosevelt and Churchill on Allied plans. He finally left the conference on February 12 and immediately took a tour of the Tunisian front.
Rushing the Kassarine Pass
Meanwhile, Rommel received word that he was to be recalled to Germany for rest and recuperation. There was to be a reorganization of his forces; Panzerarmee Afrika would be designated the German-Italian Panzer Army and placed under the command of Italian General Giovanni Messe. But the Desert Fox did not want to leave Africa on such a sour note. Rommel wanted to redeem himself and restore his reputation, tarnished after El Alamein and what to him was an ignominious retreat. Rommel was a keen observer and a strategic opportunist. He saw weaknesses in the American forces, whose troops were green and largely untested. Rommel began to think in terms of an offensive, using the Fifth Panzer Army and, he hoped, a rested and re-equipped Panzerarmee Afrika. If Rommel could smash through the inexperienced American line, he could rush through Kasserine Pass and take Tebessa, a major Allied supply hub. There was also a possibility that Rommel could sweep north and take the remaining Allied forces—now facing von Arnim’s Fifth Panzer Army—in the flank and rear.
If and when his plan was approved, Rommel knew that he would not have to worry about Montgomery’s Eighth Army advancing in his rear. The old French fortifications at the Mareth Line would hold Montgomery in check—at least for a time. Rommel planned to man the Mareth Line with his infantry, reserving his more mobile armored forces for the proposed attack. The American II Corps would be Rommel’s primary target. It was commanded by Maj. Gen. Lloyd Fredendall, a man full of bravado and macho posturing. He had a habit of tough-guy talking that alienated subordinates and sometimes made his orders unclear.
Rommel argued for an immediate offensive, and at first it seemed like a tough sell. On paper, German operations in Africa were controlled by the Italian Comando Supremo, although Rommel generally had a free hand. Now the Desert Fox had to deal with Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, who had been appointed Oberbefehlshaber Sud (Commander in Chief, South), an area that encompassed the whole Mediterranean. Meeting with Kesselring and von Arnim at a Luftwaffe airbase at Rhennouch, midway between Tunis and Mareth, Rommel presented his plan. It was a frosty meeting. Rommel and von Arnim knew each other well, but in their case, familiarity did not breed affection. As the well-born son of a Prussian general, von Arnim resented Rommel’s parvenu status and heroic image, which he considered overdone. Kesselring did not like Rommel any more than von Arnim did, but he was inclined to give Rommel one last chance. Rommel’s plan was approved, although scaled down. Instead of one major offensive thrust through the mountains, there would be two separate attacks. Von Arnim would launch an offensive codenamed Operation Frühlingswind (Spring Wind), while Rommel would attack to the south of von Arnim under the designation Morgenluft (Morning Air).
The Lay of the Land
Tunisia, a fist of land thrusting out into the Mediterranean Sea, is a region of arid plains and formidable mountain ranges. The Western Dorsal and Eastern Dorsal are two offshoots of the Atlas Mountains that run roughly parallel to the coast, 70 miles inland. These two rocky “backbones” are all but impassable, save for a number of passes that cut through their rugged slopes. Allied units had already advanced through the Western Dorsal and established a front line that touched the western edge of the Eastern Dorsal. The northern part of the line was held by the British First Army under Lt. Gen. Sir Kenneth A.N. Anderson. Americans felt uncomfortable around Anderson, considering him a prototypical dour Scotsman. Like most British officers, he liked to closely supervise the tactical plans of subordinates, which to American sensibilities felt too much like uninvited interference. Anderson’s main focus was the northern segment near the coast, where he felt the decisive showdown with the Germans ultimately would take place. The center of the Allied line was held by Free French troops of the XIX Corps d’Armee. They were largely colonial troops of varying quality, poorly equipped until the Americans gradually gave them more up-to-date weapons. The officers were almost stereotypes of Gallic pride, always eager to show their courage and quick to take offense at perceived slights to French honor.