Today in North African history: the Battle of Sidi Bouzid begins (1943)

The central Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid is best known today as the birthplace of the Arab Spring. It was in Sidi Bouzid where Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010 to protest what he believed was unfair treatment at the hands of Tunisia’s corrupt government. The repercussions of that single act of protest have been felt throughout the Arab world and, for better or worse (often worse) are still reverberating today.

But during World War II, Sidi Bouzid was the scene of an Axis victory, part of the 1942-1943 Tunisia Campaign and one of the first engagements between American and German forces in the war. As a piece of (or preliminary to) the larger Battle of Kasserine Pass, it wasn’t a major battle, but the result (and the result of Kasserine Pass) caused the Allies, particularly the Americans, to reassess their unit organization and to jettison some of their most ineffective officers in favor of more capable replacements. The Allied forces were considerably strengthened for all of that introspection. In the big picture, then, you could argue that the Axis victory here helped create the conditions by which they ultimately lost the North Africa campaign.

Sidi Bouzid built upon the Axis’s success in the so-called “Run for Tunis.” Following the successful Allied landing in North Africa (Morocco and Algeria) in November 1942, the decision was made to move quickly overland to seize Tunis. Tunisia was largely defended by Vichy French units who the Allies figured could be coaxed to their side (this did actually happen), but the Allied commanders underestimated how quickly Axis forces could be moved in to defend the area. The Luftwaffe controlled the skies, and initial Allied successes in the tank war couldn’t be sustained; by Christmas the Allied forces had to retreat to the west. But they were still positioned deep enough into Tunisia that the Erwin Rommel, the legendary German general and commander, at the time, of the Nazis’ Afrika Korps, who was moving west after having been defeated in Egypt at the Second Battle of El Alamein, decided to try to drive them out altogether.

Operations in Tunisia, January-April 1943 (Wikimedia)

Partly because I’m traveling and partly because World War II military history is not my strongest suit, I’ll turn the rest of this piece over to this very detailed account of the battle on HistoryNet:

Angry winds from the sahara lashed the mountains and plains of central Tunisia just before dawn on Sunday, February 14, 1943–St. Valentine’s Day. The howling currents and swirling dust cloaked the maneuvers of advancing German armored battle groups. At 0400 hours, with resolute purpose, elements of the crack 10th and 21st Panzer divisions had launched an attack through Faid and Maizila passes. The German tanks were bound for the village of Sidi Bou Zid, where General Dwight D. Eisenhower himself had inspected forward American troop dispositions just three hours earlier.

The panzer groups were implementing a plan personally approved by Adolf Hitler and calculated to relieve the pressure on Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. To the east, British General Bernard L. Montgomery’s Eighth Army, which had chased Rommel from Egypt, was gathering strength for a final assault. Rommel’s western flank was likewise threatened by imminent Allied incursions through the passes of the Eastern Dorsal, a mountain chain running from the Miliane River to Maknassy. The ‘Desert Fox’ viewed the interminable retreat from Egypt with disdain and longed for an opportunity to resume the offensive. To avoid being trapped in a tightening vise, he turned and struck first. The Kasserine campaign, the first major clash between the American and German armies in World War II, had begun.

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2 thoughts on “Today in North African history: the Battle of Sidi Bouzid begins (1943)

  1. My dad, William Byers fought there. He was wounded and taken prisoner by the Germans. He then spent 26-months in various prison camps in Germany.

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