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World War II: Battle of Kasserine Pass

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World War II: Battle of Kasserine Pass

2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment of the US Army marches through the Kasserine Pass

Photograph Courtesy of the US Army

Battle of Kasserine Pass - Conflict:

The Battle of Kasserine Pass was fought during World War II.

Armies & Commanders:

Allies

  • Major General Lloyd Fredendall
  • approx. 30,000 men

Axis

Battle of Kasserine Pass - Date:

Allied and German troops clashed at Kasserine Pass from February 19-25, 1943.

Battle of Kasserine Pass - Background:

In November 1943, Allied troops landed in Algeria and Morocco as part of Operation Torch. These landings, coupled with Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery's victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein, placed German and Italian troops in Tunisia and Libya in a precarious position. In an effort to prevent forces under Field Marshal Erwin Rommel from being cut off, reinforcements were quickly shifted from Sicily to Tunisia. Advancing west, Montgomery captured Tripoli on January 23, 1943, while Rommel retired behind the defenses of the Mareth Line.

Battle of Kasserine Pass - German Attacks:

To the east, American and British troops advanced through the Atlas Mountains after dealing with the Vichy French authorities. It was the hope of the German commanders that the Allies could be held in the mountains and prevented from reaching the coast and severing Rommel's supply lines. This plan was disrupted by the Allied capture of Faïd east of the mountains. In an effort to push the Allies back into the mountains, the 21st Panzer Division of General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim's Fifth Panzer Army struck the town's French defenders on January 30.

Driving the French back, von Arnim's panzers conducted a classic blitzkrieg campaign against elements of the US 1st Armored Division. Forced to retreat, Major General Lloyd Fredendall's US II Corps was beaten back for three days until it was able to make a stand in the foothills. Having driven the Allies back into the mountains, von Arnim backed off and he and Rommel decided their next move. Two weeks later, Rommel elected to make a thrust through the mountains with the goal of decreasing pressure on his flanks and also capturing the Allied supply depots in the western arm of the mountains.

On February 14, Rommel attacked Sidi Bou Zid and took the town after a day-long fight. During the action, American operations were hampered by weak command decisions and poor use of armor. After defeating an Allied counterattack on the 15th, Rommel pushed on to Sbeitla. With no strong defensive positions in his immediate rear, Fredendall fell back to the more easily defended Kasserine Pass. Borrowing the 10th Panzer Division from von Arnim's command, Rommel assaulted the new position on February 19. Crashing into the Allied lines, Rommel was able to easily penetrate them and compelled US troops to retreat.

As Rommel personally led the 10th Panzer Division into the Kasserine Pass, he ordered the 21st Panzer Division to press through the Sbiba gap to the east. This attack was effectively blocked by British troops. In the fighting around Kasserine, the superiority of German armor was easily seen as Panzer IVs and Tigers quickly bested US M3 Lee and M3 Stuart tanks. Breaking into two groups, Rommel led 10th Panzer north through the pass towards Thala, while a composite Italo-German command moved through the south side of the pass towards Haidra.

Battle of Kasserine Pass - Allies Hold:

Unable to make a stand, US commanders were frequently frustrated by a clumsy command system that made it difficult to obtain permission for barrages or counterattacks. The Axis advance continued through February 20 and 21, though isolated groups of Allied troops hampered their progress. By the night of February 21, Rommel was outside Thala and believed that the Allied supply base at Tébessa was within reach. With the situation deteriorating, the commander of the British First Army, Lieutenant General Kenneth Anderson, shifted troops to Thala to meet the threat.

By the morning of February 21, the Allied lines at Thala were reinforced by experienced British infantry back by massed US artillery. Attacking, Rommel was unable to breakthrough. Having achieved his goal of relieving pressure on his flank and concerned that he was over-extended, Rommel elected to end the battle. Wishing to reinforce the Mareth Line to prevent Montgomery from breaking through, he began withdrawing out of the mountains. This retreat was sped along by massive Allied air attacks on February 23. Tentatively moving forward, Allied forces reoccupied Kasserine Pass on February 25.

Battle of Kasserine Pass - Aftermath

While complete disaster had been averted, the Battle of Kasserine Pass was a humiliating defeat for US forces. Their first major clash with the Germans, the battle showed an enemy superiority in experience and equipment as well as exposed several flaws in the American command structure and doctrine. After the fight, Rommel dismissed American troops as ineffective and felt they did offer a threat to his command.

Responding to the defeat, the US Army initiated several changes including the immediate removal of the incompetent Fredendall. Sending Major General Omar Bradley to assess the situation, General Dwight D. Eisenhower enacted several of his subordinate's recommendations, including giving command of II Corps to Lieutenant General George S. Patton. Also, local commanders were instructed to keep their headquarters near the front and were given greater discretion to react to situations without permission from a higher headquarters. Efforts were also made to improve on-call artillery and air support as well as to keep units massed and in position to support each other. As a result of these changes, when US troops returned to action in North Africa, they were significantly better prepared to face the enemy.

Selected Sources

  • History Net: Battle of Kasserine Pass
  • World War II Database: Battle of Kasserine Pass
  • Olive Drab: Tunisia Campaign

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