Kasserine Historical Background
American and British forces landed at several points along the coast of French Morocco and Algeria on November 8, 1942, during Operation Torch. This came only days after General Bernard Montgomery's breakout in the east following the Second Battle of El Alamein. Understanding the danger of a two-front war, German and Italian troops were ferried in from Sicily to occupy Tunisia, one of the few easily defended areas of North Africa, and only one night's sail from bases in Sicily. This short passage made it very difficult for Allied naval vessels to intercept Axis transports, while air interdiction proved equally difficult while the nearest Allied airbase to Tunisia, at Malta, was over 200 miles (320 km) distant. As the Allied build-up after Torch continued, more aircraft became available and new airfields in eastern Algeria and Tunisia became operational, resulting in greater success in stopping the flow of men and equipment into Tunis and Bizerta. But by this time, sizeable forces had already come ashore.
An attempt was made to cut off Tunis in November and December 1942 before the German troops could arrive in strength. However, because of the poor road and rail communications, only a small (divisional size) force could be logistically supported and the excellent defensive terrain allowed the small numbers of German and Italian troops landed there to hold them off.
On January 23, 1943, Montgomery's Eighth Army took Tripoli, thereby cutting off Rommel's main supply base. Rommel had planned for this eventuality, intending to block the southern approach to Tunisia from Tripoli by occupying an extensive set of defensive works known as the Mareth Line, which the French had constructed in order to fend off an Italian attack from Libya. With their lines steadied by the Atlas Mountains on the west and Gulf of Sidra on the east, even small numbers of German/Italian troops would be able to hold off the Allied forces.
Upsetting this plan was the fact that Allied troops had already crossed the Atlas Mountains and had set up a forward base of operations at FaÃ¯d, in the foothills on the eastern arm of the mountains. This put them in an excellent position to thrust east to the coast and cut off Rommel's forces in southern Tunisia from the forces further north, and cut his line of supply to Tunis. Obviously, the Axis could not allow this to occur.
Elements of von Arnim's Fifth Panzer Army reached the Allied positions on the eastern foot of the Atlas Mountains on January 30. The 21st Panzer Division met French troops at FaÃ¯d and despite excellent use of the French 75 mm guns, which occasionally caused heavy casualties among the German infantry the defenders were easily forced back. U.S. artillery and tanks of the 1st Armored Division then entered the battle, destroying some enemy tanks and forcing the remainder into what appeared to be a headlong retreat
In reality, U.S. armored forces had fallen victim to an old German tactic, previously employed with much success against British forces. The German tank retirement was a ploy, and when the panzers reached their old positions, with U.S. armor in hot pursuit, a screen of German anti-tank guns opened up, destroying nearly all the American tanks. A US forward artillery observer whose radio and landlines had been destroyed by shellfire recalled, "It was murder. They rolled right into the muzzles of the concealed eighty-eights and all I could do was stand by and watch tank after tank blown to bits or burst into flames or just stop, wrecked. Those in the rear tried to turn back but the eighty-eights seemed to be everywhere."
Now unopposed by armor, the 21st resumed its advance towards FaÃ¯d. During the German advance, American infantry casualties were exacerbated by the American habit of digging shallow slit trenches instead of foxholes, as German tank drivers could easily crush a man inside a trench by simply driving into it and simultaneously making a half-turn.
Several attempts were made by the U.S. 1st Armored Division to stop their advance, but all three combat commands found themselves faced with the classic blitzkrieg; every time they were ordered to defend a position, they would find that it had already been overrun, and they were attacked by German troops with heavy losses. After three days, the U.S. II Corps was compelled to withdraw into the foothills.
Most of Tunisia fell into German hands, and the entrances into the coastal lowlands were all blocked. The Allies still held the interior of the roughly triangular Atlas range, but this seemed of little concern to Rommel since the exits eastward were all blocked. For the next two weeks, Rommel and the Axis commanders further north debated what to do next. Given his later actions, this delay may have proven costly.
Rommel eventually decided that he could improve his supply situation and further erode the American threat to his flank by attacking towards two U.S. supply bases just to the west of the western arm of the mountains in Algeria. Although he had little interest in holding the mountains' interior plains, a quick thrust could capture the supplies, as well as further disrupt any U.S. actions.
On February 14, the 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions attacked Sidi Bou Zid, about 10 miles (16 km) west of FaÃ¯d in the interior plain of the Atlas Mountains. The battle raged for a day, but the U.S. armor was outmatched and the infantry, poorly sited on three hills and unable to give mutual support, was isolated. By the end of the day, the field was won by the 5th Panzer Army. A counterattack the next day was beaten off with ease, and on February 16, the Germans started forward again to take Sbeitla.
With no defensive terrain left, the U.S. forces retreated to set up new lines at the more easily defended Kasserine and Sbiba Passes on the western arm of the mountains. By this point, the U.S. forces had lost 2,546 men, 103 tanks, 280 vehicles, 18 field guns, 3 antitank guns, and an entire antiaircraft battery
I've been to Kasserine. Bizzarely enough no locals seemed to have any idea that a major battle had been fought - even the tourist information office!
I'm a hero with coward's legs.
Really? Perhaps it was something that was lost when the generation passed on!
Could be - i got a lot of blank stares and shaKing of heads when i asked about it. Mind you it could also be my crap French!
I'm a hero with coward's legs.