But it was the southern end of the Allied line that gave Eisenhower the most worry. As soon as he was able to break away from the Casablanca Conference, he traveled to make an inspection of the II Corps. Eisenhower was appalled; in some respects, things were even worse than he had imagined. The problems started at the top. Fredendall had established his headquarters an incredible 80 miles to the rear of the front line in a nearly inaccessible ravine. He seemed obsessed with air attack, and he had a swarm of 200 engineers busily digging a network of underground bunkers for himself and his staff. As Eisenhower remarked later, “It was the only time during the war that I ever saw a higher headquarters so concerned over its own safety that it dug itself underground shelters.” Not wanting to embarrass Fredendall, Eisenhower had merely cautioned his corps commander not to stay too close to his command post, adding the less-than-inspiring observation that “Generals are expendable just as is any other item in an army.” Fredendall did not take the hint.
Eisenhower also visited the oasis village of Sidi Bou Zid, near the western entrance of the Faid Pass that sliced through the Eastern Dorsal. Axis forces were on the other side of the mountain chain, and who knew what their plans might be? If they decided to mount an offensive, Eisenhower saw only too clearly that the American forces were ill prepared to resist. The troops were green, which could not be helped, but they were also lackadaisical. Defensive minefields had yet to be put down, although Americans had been in the area for at least a couple of days. There were always excuses and assurances that such tasks would be done tomorrow.
Some troops had not even bothered to dig foxholes in the desert terrain. Eisenhower pointed out with disgust that the Germans always dug minefields, placed machine guns, and had reserve troops standing by, but the Americans seemed content to throw their backpacks on the ground, stack their rifles and grenade belts in an untidy heap, and head off to the nearest village tavern for some unearned rest and relaxation. A recent circular letter from Eisenhower to his subordinate commanders, cautioning them “to impress upon our junior officers the deadly seriousness of the job,” had gone unheeded.
A Late Assessment from Eisenhower
Although Eisenhower did not know yet where the Germans would launch a major attack, he knew in his bones that one was coming soon. Confirmation of a sort had come from his chief intelligence officer, British Brig. Gen. Eric Mockler-Ferryman, who had assured Eisenhower that the Germans were planning to attack the British and French positions on the northern flank of the Allied line. American Brig. Gen. Paul Robinett, whose Combat Command B (CCB) of the 1st Armored Division was temporarily attached to the British sector, had vigorously disputed this claim, telling Eisenhower that his own tanks had penetrated all the way across the Eastern Dorsal without running into a single advanced enemy position. Robinett had tried to warn Anderson as well, but the Scotsman had airily dismissed his warnings. Eisenhower was inclined to believe Robinett, and he ordered Fredendall to gather his scattered armored units into a mobile reserve ready to confront any German attempt to break though the mountain passes. Eisenhower’s reasoning was sound, but already too late. It was the evening of February 13, and for the Americans casually guarding the southern line, time had run out.
The Offensive Begins
The first part of the German offensive—Operation Frühlingswind—began in the early morning hours of February 14. The 10th Panzer Division smashed through the Faid Pass, using a blinding sandstorm as perfect cover. At the same time, the veteran 21st Panzer Division raced through the mountains to the south of Sidi Bou Zid, then turned north, intending to link up with the 10th Panzers. The Nazis’ initial targets were a pair of hills, known locally as djebels, that guarded the road from Faid to Sebeitla. After encircling these Allied-held outposts, von Arnim’s troops would capture Sidi Bou Zid itself.
The two hills in question, Djebel Lessouda and Djebel Ksaira, flanked Sidi Bou Zid and seemed like good defensive positions—on paper. Fredendall had placed infantry units on the tops of each hill, intending them to slow the German advance until American armor could deal with them. Unfortunately, there were too few men on the hills, and they were too far away from each other to provide mutual support. The hilltop infantry was reduced to helpless observers of an American debacle swiftly unfolding on the plains far below.
Colonel Thomas D. Drake of the 165th Infantry Regiment, 34th Division, was situated on Djebel Ksaira, watching the spectacle below with growing frustration. Drake phoned the command post at Sidi Bou Zid, warning them that some American artillery was already showing signs of panic. The commanders in the rear refused to believe it, insisting that the men were only shifting positions.“Shifting positions, hell,” Drake responded. “I know panic when I see it.”
“Let’s Get the Hell Out of Here”
Nearby, the Americans on Djebel Lessouda were also powerless to intervene in any meaningful way. A strong southwesterly wind had smothered all sounds of the German buildup the previous night, and Major Norman Parson’s patrolling G Company had run headlong into the lead elements of the 86th Panzer Grenadiers and 7th Panzer Regiment that morning, getting themselves knocked out of commission and losing all radio communications with Djebel Lessouda. Once the sandstorm lifted, Lessouda’s commander, Lt. Col. John Waters, could plainly see what he estimated to be at least 60 German tanks and numerous other vehicles. Waters was the son-in-law of Maj. Gen. George S. Patton, who had not yet become famous as one of America’s best military leaders. Waters earlier had cautioned his men after their easy victory over the French during the Torch landings: “We did very well against the scrub team. Next week we hit the Germans. When we make a showing against them, you may congratulate yourselves.” His words would prove to be prescient.
American armor moved forward to confront the growing threat. Colonel Louis V. Hightower’s force—two companies of tanks and about a dozen tank destroyers—rumbled out of Sidi Bou Zid to attack the 10th Panzer head-on. Hightower and his inexperienced crews were brave but badly outnumbered and were facing a well-prepared enemy. German 88mm artillery scored hit after hit, turning American armor into flaming coffins one by one. The M-4 Sherman tanks used by the Americans, which for some reason they had nicknamed “Honey,” were given a more mocking, if accurate, nickname by the Germans—“Ronson,” after the cigarette lighter, because they burst into flames so readily.
Hightower’s force was facing Mark VI Tiger tanks, new and powerful additions to the German arsenal that had a firing range twice as long as the American tanks. The combination of German artillery shells and long-range tank fire proved too much for Hightower’s men, who tried in vain to conduct a fighting retreat in the face of heavy odds. Hightower’s own tank was knocked out, but not before he had destroyed four panzers. Hightower and his crew managed to escape the burning hulk and sneak away from the battlefield amid the smoke and dust. (“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Hightower said reasonably.) They were the lucky ones—only seven of Hightower’s 51 tanks survived the defeat, however. The other 44 American tanks were lost, and Sidi Bou Zid had to be abandoned. American Brig. Gen. Raymond A. McQuillin, commanding Combat Command A (CCA) within Sidi Bou Zid, fell back to a new position seven miles southwest of the town, while German Colonel Hans Georg Hildebrandt took possession of the stronghold.
A Disastrous Armored Charge
Before long, 21st Panzer linked up with 10th Panzer, and they moved quickly to consolidate their gains. The 2,500 American infantrymen on the two hills were now cut off, literally islands of resistance in a German sea. Drake still stubbornly held Djebel Ksaira and Waters held Djebel Lessouda, but chances of a successful breakout were diminishing by the hour. Meanwhile, back at his headquarters, Fredendall refused to allow Waters and Drake to escape while there was still time. Fredendall’s stubbornness was compounded by faulty assumptions and bad intelligence. British General Anderson, Fredendall’s superior, was convinced that the German drive on Sidi Bou Zid was merely a diversionary attack for a larger blow farther north. Allied intelligence also insisted that there was only one Panzer division in the south. As a result, only one tank battalion—Lt. Col. James Alger’s 2nd Battalion, 1st Armored Regiment—was sent to deal with the Germans and rescue the Americans trapped on the two hills.
Alger’s equipment was good—mainly M-4 Sherman tanks—but his tactics were poor, and his men were brave but inexperienced. They did not realize they were going to face not one but two Panzer divisions. The result was an almost textbook example of what not to do in desert armored warfare. Alger’s counterattack began on February 15. The 58 Shermans came forward at a high rate of speed, which meant that huge dust clouds marked their passage. So much dust was kicked up that crews were blinded, and the thick plumes made them easy to spot and target. The American tanks rolled forward in a rough V-shaped formation, with tank destroyers on the flanks. It was like an old-style cavalry charge, but the Germans were about to bring the Americans into the 20th century.