Today (or a few days) in North African history: the Battle of Kasserine Pass (1943)

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Operations in Tunisia, January-April 1943 (Wikimedia)

The Battle of Kasserine Pass, which took place from February 19-25, 1943, was the follow up to the Battle of Sidi Bouzid earlier that month and and engagement at nearby Faïd Pass in late January. In the first two clashes, Axis forces under the command of General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim and Field Marshal Erwin Rommel got the drop on the Allied forces and won decisive victories. At Kasserine Pass, Rommel overextended his forces and ultimately had to give back the gains he made, but he still inflicted significant losses on the Allied forces. However, the failures in these three battles caused Allied (and particularly American) commanders to reorganize operations and remove incompetent officers, which ultimately turned the defeats here into long-term success. In part because of the changes that were made following these battles, the Tunisia Campaign ended in May 1943 with an Allied victory and the Axis’s expulsion from North Africa.

The Axis success at Sidi Bouzid allowed Rommel and von Arnim to link their forces and opened the Kasserine Pass to them. The former turned out to be a bit of a mixed blessing, as von Arnim resisted being placed under Rommel’s command and, because of that, Rommel was forced to change his plans for his next strike. But the latter turned out to be pretty important, because Kasserine Pass became the focus of that next strike. Rommel sent two tank units through the pass on February 19, and by the next day his forces had broken through the American lines and were headed for the American II Corps headquarters. But the Allies were able to quickly maneuver reinforcements into the area, and the further the Axis forces advanced the more they exposed themselves to Allied artillery. By February 22 the Axis advance had largely been stymied, and Rommel made the decision to pull back rather than risk having his forces cut off. By February 25 things were largely back to where they had been before the battle, but the Allies had lost several hundred men and dozens of tanks in the process.

Perhaps the biggest change the Americans made after the battle was introducing a new commander of its II Corps. Major General Lloyd Fredendall had been in command of II Corps throughout the North African campaign, but Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine exposed him as a lousy strategist and incompetent tactician. His orders were confusing, he diverted precious men and resources to build himself a swanky HQ and then again to defend it, he failed to coordinate with British forces, he positioned units too far apart to support each other, and he allowed the Axis to gain air superiority. He was a comprehensive disaster. General Eisenhower made the decision to send him back to the US and replace him with George Patton, and I think we can say that worked out pretty well from the Allies’ perspective.

Now I have a confession to make. Despite the many years I spent studying the history of the MENA region, my knowledge of World War II is mostly confined to the European and Pacific theaters rather than the North African one. For one thing, I mostly studied 16th and 17th century Iran, but also the fact is that MENA is one of the few parts of the world where it can be conclusively argued that World War I was the more formative of the two world wars–except, obviously, insofar as World War II was caused by the end of World War I, which really makes them both one big war and anyway I’m getting a headache now. The breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the mandates, Sykes-Picot, all of these things are more important to the region than anything that happened in or because of World War II. Yes, the creation of Israel stems from the Holocaust, but it built on forces that were already thrown into high gear by the events of World War I. So to the extent I studied the World Wars in grad school, I spent a lot more time and mental energy on the first one than I did on the second.

I confess this so that you’ll understand when these World War II anniversaries come up why I generally direct you all to some interesting outside source rather than writing much about them myself. I’ve given you the bare outlines of the battle above. For more detail I would suggest checking out this piece at AmericaInWWII.com, which covers the whole operation from Sidi Bouzid through Kasserine:

On February 19, 1943, two German battle groups probed the American line. Kampfgruppe Deutsches Afrika Korps (the German Afrika Corps Battle Group), including elements of the Italian Centuaro Division, approached that morning from the west and, after skirmishing there, crossed the front of the American line, dismounted from their trucks in the foothills of Djebel Semmama, and prepared for the assault.

In the afternoon the second battle group, from the 10th Panzer Division, arrived from the east and launched the attack on the American line. By early evening, the 19th Engineer Regiment, defending Highway 17, was being infiltrated by groups of enemy infantry. A new German weapon, the Nebelwerfer six-barreled rocket mortar (soon to be nicknamed “Screaming Meemie” by the Americans), was hitting the engineers and the tanks and tank destroyers supporting the American line. Under fierce artillery bombardment, the line gave way during the night, with men at all points running away from the bombardment. The roads leading out of the north of the pass and the foothills on either side were beginning to fill with fleeing American soldiers.

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One thought on “Today (or a few days) in North African history: the Battle of Kasserine Pass (1943)

  1. Pingback: The weekend that was, February 20-21 2016 | and that's the way it was

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