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Kasserine Pass North Africa 1943

Mark Caruthers holds a Bachelor's degree in Geography and History from the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville).

This article discusses German general Erwin Rommel's struggle to control North Africa in World War II, and the decisive Battle for Kasserine Pass fought in April of 1943. This would be the United States' first major battlefield defeat during WWII.

This article discusses German general Erwin Rommel's struggle to control North Africa in World War II, and the decisive Battle for Kasserine Pass fought in April of 1943. This would be the United States' first major battlefield defeat during WWII.

The Battle for Kasserine Pass

With his beloved Africa Korps on the verge of total defeat, Erwin Rommel was once again determined to beat the odds and take the initiative away from his enemy. Known as the Desert Fox, Rommel was a larger-than-life legend in the struggle for control of North Africa. He was so feared by the British that they attempted to assassinate him in a daring commando raid on his headquarters near Sidi Rafa, Libya, in November of 1941.

To even Rommel, it seemed only a matter of time before his army would meet its fate in the rugged desert of Northern Africa. In two years of unending desert warfare, he had performed a miracle saving his army after its total defeat at the gates of the Suez Canal during the Second Battle of El Alamein. Outnumbered and cut off from supply by Allied air and naval forces which had reduced his supplies to a trickle, he still managed to hold his much-beloved Africa Korps together, in spite of all the devastating setbacks it had experienced.

With his back against the Atlas Mountains of Tunisia, trapped between American forces advancing to block his retreat and British forces in hot pursuit, Rommel had decided to roll the dice once again. He was a keen observer and strategic opportunist who had come within an eyelash of capturing the Suez Canal in the spring of 1942.

He saw weakness in the American forces whose troops were green and largely untested in battle. If he could rush through the Kasserine Pass and take Tebessa, a major Allied supply hub, and sweep north and take the remaining Allied forces facing him in the flank and rear, he could turn the tables on his enemy.

The American II Corps was his primary target. It was led by Major General Lloyd Fredendall, who had a habit of talking tough, which alienated him from his men.

As a brief howling sandstorm swept across the Tunisian plain in the early morning of February 20, 1943, German tank crews in their black tunics walked along the highway carrying lanterns to help guide their tanks through the darkness. The battle group advanced with more than a hundred tanks which included the super heavy Tiger tank. Its 88mm cannon struck fear into the American and British tank crews.

Followed by infantry lorries and half-tracks, the Afrika Korps was going on the offensive once again. The attack would focus on what Hitler would call the Italians of the Allied forces, the American Army.

As dawn began to burst all around him, the German commander, General Heinz Ziegler, climbed a rocky ridge above the squalid hamlet of Fad to get a better look at the American lines. He observed that the Americans defending the pass below him didn't appear aroused, or even on the alert. At precisely 6:30 A.M., German tank drivers shifted their tanks into gear and spilled onto the plain below. As the sun began to rise the advancing Germans created an enormous dust cloud as they approached their enemy.

Led by a dozen Tiger tanks, the German attack broke through the American lines creating panic among the American troops. The German tankers in their Tiger tanks sprang down onto the plain destroying the American tanks from a distance of over two miles.

The Germans also deployed a relatively new weapon, the Nebelwefer multiple-rocket launcher which devastated the American positions. The German juggernaut obliterated one unit after another throwing the Americans into a headlong retreat.

The Battle for Kasserine Pass was the first major battlefield encounter between American troops and the battle-tested German Army. The battle is considered one of the worst defeats ever suffered by the United States military.

It was fought around a two-mile gap in the Grand Dorsal chain of the Atlas Mountains in west-central Tunisia. In ten days, the relatively untested, badly led American forces suffered heavy casualties and were hurled back over 50 miles from their positions west of the Faid Pass.

The attackers would destroy 186 tanks and would leave nearly 10,000 men dead or dying on the battlefield. The capture of Captain John Knight Waters during the battle, son-in-law to the next commander of II Corps, George Patton, would lead to the disastrous Raid on Hammelburg Germany in 1945 during the last days of the Second World War in Europe.

The Africa Korps had to fight a two front war as it retreated into Tunisia.

The Africa Korps had to fight a two front war as it retreated into Tunisia.

Tunisia the Winter of 1943

Tunisia the Winter of 1943

The American General Who Failed at Kasserine Pass

Major General Lloyd Fredendall's poor leadership was a major factor in the American defeat at Kasserine Pass. After dropping out of West Point, Fredendall received his commission as a second lieutenant in the United States Army.

He previously served in the Philippines and eventually in France during the First World War. By the time of Operation Torch, Fredendall was a major general in command of the Central Task Force landings at Oran and was well respected by the Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower.

Fredendall's biggest fault was that he didn't spend much time on the front line. He instead relied on maps as he sat safely in his headquarters and issued orders over the radio. That would undoubtedly become a major factor in the woeful unpreparedness of the front line in the American sector.

Inevitably, the situation affected the confidence of his troops. One fact which shocked Eisenhower as he visited his friend was that Fredendall's headquarters was located over 70 miles behind the front line.

Fredendall appeared seemingly overly obsessed with the potential for an enemy air attack. He, therefore, ordered his battalion engineers to blast out underground bunkers in the side of a ravine and ringed his headquarters with anti-aircraft guns.

He was a compulsive micromanager which also created confusion among his front-line troops. For weeks Frendendall had 200 engineers digging and pouring concrete to construct his command post, a vast bombproof bunker. General Bradley would state that Fredendall's command post was an "embarrassment to every American soldier."

Once the battle unfolded Fredendall's defensive strategy proved flawed. He had failed to concentrate his armor, and the Germans took full advantage of his lack of knowledge about the disposition of his front-line troops.

Fredendall had made a grave mistake deploying his forces on the two hills protecting Kasserine Pass. The men on the hills were supposed to support the American tanks and troops on the plains below. But the forces on the two hills were not strong enough to affect the outcome of the battle on the plains below and were too far apart to support each other.

Soon the American forces on the hills were marooned as German tanks plowed through the passes below their positions. German tanks destroyed 112 out of 120 American tanks placed to defend the Kasserine Pass and inflicted 6000 casualties as German forces wiped out the American defenses.

An Enigma transcript revealed that the Germans held little respect for the fighting skills of their new enemy. Eisenhower sacked Fredendall and gave command of the demoralized II Corps to George Patton. He would soon after taking command of the II Corps turn it into a potent combat force.

The German tiger tanks led Rommel's attack on the Americans at Kasserine.

The German tiger tanks led Rommel's attack on the Americans at Kasserine.

The "Desert Fox" General, Erwin Rommel

German forces under Rommel's command at Kasserine Pass consisted of two Panzer divisions from the 5th Panzer Army, also including elements of the Italian Centauro armored division. After the Allied landings in Morocco, Rommel needed a victory to turn the tide of war against his new enemy.

Almost two years before he was within an eyelash of achieving total victory in North Africa. The Africa Korps with its over-extended supply line was stopped at El Alamein, and almost practically destroyed.

Refusing to take orders and stand to the last man at El Alamein, Rommel decided to save his troops. He would lead his army on a westward retreat of over 1,4000 miles into Tunisia in January of 1943.

His fleeing army left behind more than 30,000 soldiers, who were captured and marched off to barbed-wire stockades near Alexandria, Egypt. But Rommel's survivors manage to reach the sanctuary of Tunisia's hills, winning the race against time with Montgomery's Eighth Army snapping at the heels.

It is unlikely that Rommel expected to make any permanent gains when he attacked the American troops positioned at Kasserine Pass. Once having occupied a large swath of the Kasserine Valley, Rommel would disappear back through the pass during the night of February 22, 1942.

His medical adviser was urging him to return to Germany and he had already been officially dismissed. The once invincible tank commander was tired from years of battle. Frustrated by the second-guessing of Adolf Hitler and his rival officers, Rommel would leave North Africa in a state of melancholy. He had come to the realization that total victory for Germany in the Second World War was a lost cause.

When Rommel took off from Sfax airfield at 0750 on the 9th of March of 1942, he was never to return to North Africa. Leaving von Arnim in command, he flew first to Rome to talk to Mussolini, then on to confront Hitler. He hoped that a final, personal appeal to the two leaders would convince them the Allied armies in Tunisia could not be defeated. It would be Rommel's last battlefield victory of the entire war. So, thoroughly demoralized, he left North Africa believing that any further attempts at holding a Nazi foothold in North Africa were suicidal.

The Nazis Surrender in North Africa

The Germans and Italians still left in North Africa formed a considerable force, with over eleven divisions. However, the Axis supply situation was extremely critical because the Italian Navy had been decimated by British and American naval forces over the course of its time in North Africa.

Of the fifty-one ships sent to supply the new Panzer Army left behind in North Africa, only twenty-nine would arrive in Tunisia. On May 8, 1943, the German Air Force confronted by over 4,500 Allied warplanes were forced to abandon their Tunisian bases altogether. By the end of April in 1943, the German forces in Tunisia had only seventy-six tanks still running and were trying to distill fuel for their engines from locally produced wines and spirits.

In May of 1943, the Africa Korps surrendered to the Allied forces, and over 267,000 German and Italian soldiers became prisoners of war. The Allies captured over 1,000 pieces of artillery, of which 180 of them were the deadly 88mm anti-tank guns, 250 tanks, and many thousands of motor vehicles.

During the entire campaign in North Africa, the Germans and Italians would suffer 620,000 casualties over 100,000 of them would lose their lives in the desert war. Following the German defeat at Stalingrad, the Nazi war machine no longer held the advantage on the battlefield. Outnumbered and overwhelmed by the Allies, Hitler's generals no longer expected to win the war. Rommel, Hitler's most loyal general, would even lose faith in the Nazi leader as the year 1944 draws near. It was the beginning of the Allies' march toward victory.

Sources

Keegan, John. The Second World War. Penguin Group. 40 West 23rd Street New York NY 10010 USA. 1990.

Mitcham, Samuel W. Hitler's Commanders. The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group Inc. 4501 Forbes Boulevard, Suite 200 Lanham MD 20706 2012.

Ray, John. The Illustrated History of WWII. Weidenfeld & Nicolson The Orion Publishing Group Ltd. Orion House 3 Upper Saint Martin's Lane,. London WC2H 9EA . 2003

Swanston, Alexander. The Historical Atlas of World War II. Chartwell Books. 276 Fifth Avenue Suite 206 New York , New York 10001, USA. 2008

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

MG Singh emge from Singapore on August 02, 2020:

A very detailed and informative account that rivets attention. Thank you