Kasserine Pass: Erwin Rommel's Last Battlefield Victory of World War II

Kasserine Pass: Erwin Rommel's Last Battlefield Victory of World War II

Reeling from his defeat at El Alamein, German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel intended to toss the dice again at the Battle of Kasserine Pass.

German artillery hidden amid olive groves opened fire, and German tanks attacked Alger’s flanks. Before long the Americans were trapped, engaging veteran Mark IV Tigers at point-blank range. Only four American tanks managed to escape the debacle. The entire battalion was wiped out, with 55 tanks lost and some 300 men dead, wounded, or captured, including Alger, who was taken prisoner. Divisional commander Maj. Gen. Orlando Ward was left literally in the dark about the attack’s outcome. So much smoke and dust were kicked up in the battle that he could only report to Fredendall, “We might have walloped them, or they might have walloped us.” It was soon clear who had done the walloping.

Realizing at last that rescue was impossible, Fredendall gave belated permission for the two trapped hilltop forces to try to break out on their own. Drake led his men down the slopes of Djebel Ksaira under the cover of darkness, but he soon encountered German tanks, which surrounded him and his 600 men in a large cactus patch. Drake tried to bluff his way out, shouting “Go to hell!” when the Germans demanded surrender, but it was no use. He and his men were soon made prisoners.

Waters and many of his command were also taken prisoner, with perhaps one-third—about 300—out of the original 900 getting back to Allied lines. The whole Allied line was in jeopardy, and the Germans seemed on the brink of a major victory. There was nothing left to do but fall back to the next line of defense—the Western Dorsal chain, some 50 miles away. With luck, the Western Dorsal passes—particularly the vital Kasserine Pass—could be held and the German offensive stopped.

A Chaotic Retreat

The retreat to the Western Dorsals proved to be a nightmare. The battered II Corps had been badly defeated, and with that defeat came a crisis of confidence. Fredendall, who had pulled back to the town of Kouif, complained to Eisenhower: “At present time, 1st Armored [is] in a bad state of disorganization. Ward appears tired out, worried and has informed me that to bring new tanks in would be the same as turning them over to the Germans. Under the circumstances [I] do not think he should continue in command. Need someone with two fists immediately.” Eisenhower had no intention of removing Ward, but he did send a trusted lieutenant, Maj. Gen. Ernest Harmon, to advise Fredendall “during the unusual conditions of the present battle.”

The roads leading west were jammed with fleeing American vehicles, providing easy targets for rampaging German Stuka dive-bombers swooping down from the sky like avenging furies. Eisenhower, who had left before the battle to return to his headquarters at Constantine, Algeria, began shuttling reinforcements to Ward and McQuillin at Sbeitla, an old Roman crossroads 13 miles northwest of Sidi Bou Zid. “Our soldiers are learning rapidly,” Eisenhower reported to Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall. “I assure you that the troops that come out of this campaign are going to be battlewise and tactically efficient.” Moreover, said Ike, the men were “now mad and ready to fight. All our people, from the very highest to the very lowest, have learned that this is not a child’s game and are ready and eager to get down to business.” It was the best face he could put on the looming disaster.

Code Name Sturmflut

In the meantime, Rommel’s Operation Morgenluft had swung into action south of von Arnim’s so-far-successful Frühlingswind. Rommel met with little resistance, and the field marshal was delighted when the Allied airfield at Thelepte was captured with 50 tons of much-needed fuel and lubricants on the morning of the 17th. But the offensively minded Rommel was disturbed by the fact that von Arnim had not fully exploited his successes at Sidi Bou Zid. Von Arnim argued that he could not advance too far because the supply and fuel situation was iffy at best. Rommel was unconvinced.

Rommel wanted to assemble all available Axis forces for a major thrust through Kasserine Pass. Once though the pass, he could take the major Allied supply depot at Tebessa then push on to the Tunisian coast at Annaba (Bone). With any luck, this northwestern thrust would get him behind Anderson’s British First Army, which could be trapped and annihilated at the Germans’ leisure. Rommel’s bold plan depended on immediate action, but his superiors had to approve it first. At least a day was wasted while Kesselring and the Italian high command mulled it over. In the end, the proposal was given the green light under the code name Sturmflut (Hurricane), but it was a somewhat vague, watered-down version of the field marshal’s initial proposal. Under Sturmflut the Axis forces were to push through Kasserine Pass, then start heading in the direction of Le Kef. Compared with Rommel’s original plan, this was a shallow, halfhearted envelopment of Allied forces—but something was better than nothing. All Rommel knew for sure was that he had the green light, and he acted accordingly. The battle for Kasserine Pass was about to begin.

Fredendall’s urgent task was to defend the Western Dorsal barrier against Axis attack—but where was Rommel going to strike? Kasserine was not the only pass that cut through the mountains, so he spread his forces thin to cover all possibilities. Some British and French units came down to help, but the Allied defenses were still weak. Kasserine was initially defended by Colonel Anderson Moore’s 19th Combat Engineer Regiment, a unit whose main duties were construction, not fighting. Fredendall summoned Colonel Alexander Stark of the 26th Infantry and told him to hold the pass. “I want you to go to Kasserine right away,” Fredendall said, “and pull a Stonewall Jackson.” It was typical of Fredendall when issuing orders to make colorful quips, phrases that contained little real substance. Stark arrived at Kasserine Pass on February 19, just as the Germans were beginning their attack in hopes of a breakthrough.

“The Place is Too Hot!”

Kasserine Pass was (and still is) a rocky defile that narrowed to about 1,500 yards. Once past that bottleneck, Kasserine’s western entrance broadened to a wide basin that split into two roads. One road led west to Tebessa and the vital Allied supply base, while the other trailed north to the town of Thala. The Americans had artillery positions in place at both roads, ready to concentrate fire when the enemy emerged from the narrow Kasserine bottleneck.

February 19 was miserable for all the combatants. A cold wind chilled soldiers to the bone, and drenching rains added to the discomfort. The Germans tried to slip though American positions under the cover of a thick enveloping fog, but their unavoidably noisy movements were detected. American artillery, tank destroyer, and small-arms fire soon sent them packing. The German attack on Kasserine was led by General Karl Bulowius, who seemed to hold such contempt for the Americans that he kept ordering direct assaults. About 3:30 pm, Bulowius sent the Germans forward once again, this time backed by Italian tanks. They ran into American minefields placed there earlier by the long-suffering engineers and were stopped dead in their tracks.

Bulowius, still confident, waited for the coming of night. The Germans would infiltrate American defenses under cover of darkness, slipping through the hills and ridges that formed Kasserine’s shoulders. These phantom raiders were partly successful, unnerving green units already shaken by the heavy fighting. On the Tebessa road, one company of engineers broke and ran, and a group of German infiltrators in stolen uniforms captured 100 Americans. Panic became contagious, and the situation was so fluid that some officers did not know what was going on. American soldiers, individually and in small groups, abandoned their positions and sought safety in the rear. Even some forward artillery observers abandoned their posts, shouting, “The place is too hot!” American infantry reinforcements and British tanks arrived during the night and stabilized the situation.

Breakthrough of the Kasserine Pass

Saturday, February 20, dawned cold and wet, but the Germans had still not achieved the desired breakthrough. Rommel had arrived, and was not happy with what he saw. Time is everything in war, and Rommel knew that he did not have much left to achieve victory. Montgomery’s Eighth Army was still far to the east, but was fast approaching the Mareth Line. “Those fellows are all too slow,” he complained to aides when he found the 10th Panzer Division resting comfortably near Sbietla. When division commander Brig. Gen. Fritz von Broich explained awkwardly that he was waiting for an infantry battalion to attack first, Rommel exploded. “Go and fetch the motor cycle battalion yourself, and lead it into action too,” he ordered. He was tired of listening to lame excuses from his less-daring subordinates.

Rommel’s presence had a positive effect, and for a time it seemed as if the heady days of 1941-1942 were back again. The Germans employed a relatively new weapon, Nebelwerfer, multiple-rocket launchers, which the Americans quickly dubbed “Screaming Meemies” because of the terrifying sounds they made in flight. The 10th Panzer Division finally moved through the pass in force, only to be met by a handful of British Valentine and Crusader tanks and American tank destroyers positioned in roadblocks. The British and Americans fought valiantly, but the issue was never in doubt. The Allied armor, outnumbered and outgunned, was destroyed in detail. Twenty-two American tanks and 30 half-tracks littered the valley floor.