Thursday, December 23, 2010

THE BATTLE OF THE KASSERINE PASS

FEV 14-23 1943
American Soldiers Taking Cover in Kasserine Pass
On February 14th the 10th and 21st Panzer divisions attacked from Faid towards Kasserine Pass. The American forces holding the pass area were driven back over a period of 9 days. Finally, American resistance stiffen and the thrust ended on the 23rd.

Kasserine Pass, gap, 2 mi (3.2 km) wide, central Tunisia, in the Grand Dorsal chain (an extension of the Atlas Mts.). A key point in the Allied offensive in Tunisia in World War II, the pass was the scene of an Axis breakthrough (Feb. 20, 1943), but it was retaken with very heavy losses by U.S. forces on Feb. 25.
This map is here thanks to Flames Of War
Below is from the World War II Division Chronicles, 1st Armored Division, U.S. Army Center of Military History:

II Corps committed Combat Command A (CCA) to help defend the Fäid Pass, east of Sbeïtla, where the division was headquartered. The Germans attacked the pass on 30 January and the defending allied troops were unable to hold their ground. CCA arrived too late stop the enemy assault and organized a counterattack to regain the pass. The command failed twice in its attempts to recapture the pass. The division alerted Combat Command C (CCC), which was then moving towards Sidi Bou Zid, for participation in the operation, but instead it was diverted to the Maizila Pass in the south. Unreinforced but under orders to retake the Fäid Pass, CCA was unable to accomplish the mission, and finally assumed a defensive posture on 1 February.

The remains from a PzKpfw III close to the Kasserine Pass, in Tunisia, mark the scenery of one of the less memorable facts of the American forces. They where very green in comparison with the German and Italian opponents. 
Two weeks later the enemy launched a massive offensive towards Sidi Bou Zid, and once again II Corps directed that CCA stave off the attack. The men of the command encountered the German force east of Sidi Bou Zid. Enemy forces inflicted heavy tank losses on CCA, and succeeded in enveloping elements of the command. CCC, reinforced with men from CCB, drove towards Sidi Bou Zid on 14 February in an attempt to push through the enemy to reach their trapped comrades. They were unable to sustain an effective counterattack, however, and were forced to fall back after suffering heavy casualties. The following night CCA's encircled elements tried to withdraw from their isolated positions, but many soldiers were captured or killed in the attempt. When no more troops could be expected to return to the Allied line, the division pulled back to defensive positions at Sbeïtla, Kasserine, and Fériana.

A U.S. reconnaissance party reenters Kasserine Pass along the Kasserine-Thala road. Rommel pushed his forces up this road during his attack through the pass. They stopped just before reaching Thala after indications of increasing Allied strength.
Assuming the division too weak to hold its new positions, the Germans moved to take Sbeïtla. OLD IRONSIDES however, held its ground and stopped the enemy attack. II Corps, assigned to protect the passes through the Dorsal Mountains, directed the division to Sbiba, Kasserine, Dernaïa and El Ma el Abiod on 17 February. Two days later the enemy offensive reached the Kasserine Pass. Allied troops retained their positions during the initial assault, but the line buckled in subsequent fighting and German troops broke into the pass. As Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's men came through the mountains, they drove north and west towards Thala and Tébessa. Divisional elements engaged the German force moving towards Tébessa and halted the enemy advance on the town. When his troops found unexpected resistance to the west, Rommel canceled the attack and recalled his troops. As the Germans withdrew towards the mountains, II Corps moved to retake Kasserine, and by 25 February the pass was again in Allied hands. 



Kasserine Pass would teach the Americans how to fight the Wehrmacht. On February 19, Rommel probed the American lines, and concluded the Pass was the soft spot in the American lines. The next day, he personally led the attack that cracked the American defenses and sent them reeling back.

Almost everything the Americans believed was wrong. The M3 Lee and Grant tanks, mounting a 75mm fixed gun, had a high silhouette and was difficult to operate in combat with the heavy German pzkpfw Mark IV and Tiger panzers. Also, the Americans fought tank-to-tank, while the Germans concentrated their fire. The M3 would burn when hit and the riveted construction would shoot hot flying rivets around the crew compartment when it was hit. Also, tactical doctrine was inflexible and did not account for the rapid German advance.

The Americans suffered heavy losses of 1,000 dead, hundreds taken prisoner, and the loss of most of their heavy equipment. The Germans who analyzed the captured American equipment sent back unfavorable reports on the American tanks and guns, which would entice German commanders to underestimate the Americans in the future.

For the Americans studied Kasserine Pass even more intently than the Germans. They changed leadership where in was needed, and gave junior officers the authority to make on-the-spot decisions. The M3 tank was quickly replaced with the M4 Sherman, which mounted the same 75mm gun in a traversable turret. While it was never the equal of the German tanks, it was easier to maintain and traveled much further between refits.


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1 comment:

  1. War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

    ReplyDelete