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.

The Germans were through the main part of Kasserine Pass and seemingly on the point of a major breakthrough. Once on the western side of the pass, Rommel faced two roads—one going southwest toward the Tebessa supply center, the other going north to Thala and then on to the town of Le Kef. Le Kef was the nominal objective of Sturmflut, but Rommel was lukewarm about enveloping the British First Army. In the end, the field marshal sent forces down both routes. Kampfgruppe DAK (Deutsches Afrika Korps) went up the road toward Tebessa, while the 10th Panzer traveled north toward Thala and Le Kef. By now, more and more Allied units were being redeployed and coming into the battle, stiffening resistance. Colonel Paul Robinett’s Combat Command B of the 1st Armored Division gave the Germans a rough time on Tebessa road. Accurate tank and artillery fire stalled the Axis drive, and American infantry pushed the Germans back and actually recaptured some equipment that had been lost earlier. Even Rommel admitted that the enemy had counterattacked “very skillfully.”

German forces driving down the northern road enjoyed greater success against the Allied forces defending Thala. British Brig. Gen. Charles Dunphie’s 26th Armoured Brigade fought hard but their equipment could not match German tanks. British Crusader and Valentine tanks were outranged and outgunned, and their armor was thinner. Soon the desert landscape was littered with knocked-out British armor, their flaming hulls sending thick black coils of smoke into the sky. Dunphie pulled back to a ridge threee miles south of Thala, having lost 38 tanks, 28 guns, and 571 men captured. British defenses had crumbled, and the road to Thala was open.

The Real Victors at the Kasserine Pass

Axis forces might have been victorious, but they were not unscathed. German and Italian personnel losses had been relatively light, although some individual Italian units had been decimated. The main problem was a crippling shortage of fuel and ammunition. More and more Allied units were coming into the fight, some from as far away as Morocco, and Axis advances—once so promising—had slowed to a crawl or been stopped in their tracks. On February 21, American Brig. Gen. LeRoy “Red” Irwin arrived at Thala with three artillery battalions and two cannon companies—a total of 48 guns in all. Despite having made a grueling four-day, 800-mile forced march from western Algeria, Irwin’s men immediately moved into place to support the exhausted British.

The next morning, the 10th Panzer was met with a thunderous Allied artillery barrage. Von Broich, having already endured a dressing down by his field marshal, a nerve-wracking attack at the front of his motorcycle battalion, and a brutal hand-to-hand melee with stiff-backed British defenders, called off the advance. After reading an intercepted message from the British commander declaring that “there is to no further withdrawal under any excuse,” Rommel realized that the Allies intended to stop him where they stood, or die trying. Down to his last 250-300 kilometers’ worth of fuel, Rommel conceded the obvious. He called off all further offensive actions and withdrew to the east. The Desert Fox’s last gamble had failed.

In their first extended combat of the war, the Americans had sustained losses of 6,600 killed, wounded, or captured—more than 20 percent of their entire personnel. In a sense, however, the U.S. Army was the real winner at Kasserine Pass. The North African campaign was a painful but necessary testing ground for American forces, enabling them to gain experience and fine-tune weapons and tactics. Incompetent or mediocre commanders such as Fredendall were weeded out and replaced. In their place, more competent and aggressive commanders such as George S. Patton were groomed for larger things. American training on the whole was sound, but armored theory had to be rethought and reforms introduced. Rommel had shaken the Americans out of their cocksure complacency, hardening them for a long, drawn-out struggle. Thanks to the hard lessons so painfully learned at Kasserine Pass, American forces would be better prepared when they mounted their next major invasion—on the coast of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944.

This article first appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia Commons