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KASSERINE PASS
Written By: Peter Ayers Wimbrow, III
*Click images below to view larger versions.
KASSERINE PASS
Axis troops arriving in Tunisia.
KASSERINE PASS
Axis armor arriving in Tunisia.
KASSERINE PASS
Eighth Army's Victory Parade in Tripoli on February 4, 1943.
KASSERINE PASS
Eighth Army's Victory Parade in Tripoli on February 4, 1943
KASSERINE PASS
Giorgi Carlo Calvi, Conti di Bergolo(c), commander Centauro Armored Division.
KASSERINE PASS
Tunisia 1942-1943
    This month, 70 years ago, the American Army had its first encounter with the German "Desert Fox"(der Wüstenfuchs) - Field Marshal Erwin Rommel - the tough veterans of his Deutsch-Italienishe Panzermarmee, the vaunted German 88 artillery guns and the monstrous new Tiger tanks. The Americans were taught some valuable lessons.
    By February 3, the German 6th Army had been destroyed at Stalingrad, along with the Hungarian 2nd Army, the Romanian 3rd and 4th Armies and the Italian 8th Army. The British 8th Army, led by Bernard Law Montgomery, had pushed the remnants of the Deutsch-Italienishe Panzermarmee out of Egypt, across Libya and into Tunisia. On February 4th the British held a victory parade in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. On the western side of the African continent, British and American forces had landed in the French colonies of Morocco and Algeria in November and had made their way east toward Tunisia.
    During that time, the Axis had, belatedly, transferred nearly a quarter million men and 850,000 tons of supplies and equipment, with the permission of the French government, to the French colony of Tunisia. If even half those supplies and reinforcements had been provided to Field Marshal Rommel in July of 1942, when he requested them, the tide would have turned, and Axis forces under his command would have taken the Suez Canal. Now the Axis forces were being squeezed from both sides, and those supplies and reinforcements would be squandered.
    The Deutsch-Italienishe Panzermarmee, located in the south of Tunisia, occupied the Mareth Line, on February 15, 1943. It had been constructed by the French as a precaution to any Italian invasion of their Tunisian colony, and was located 80 miles inside the Tunisian border. The Panzermarmee consisted of the following: Baron Kurt von LeibensteinÙs Deutsches Afrikakorps; Italian XX Motorized Corps, commanded by Giuseppe de Stefanis, until he was promoted and replaced by Taddeo Orlando; Paolo BeradiÙs Italian XXI Infantry Corps.
    The glory days of the Deutsches Afrikakorps were long gone. With most of its veterans buried, its leaders captured or dead, and most of its equipment destroyed, at El Alamein, and the 21st Panzerdivision stripped from it, it was a mere shadow of its former self. It now included the 15th Panzerdivision, commanded by Willibald Borowitz, and the Centauro Armored Division commanded by Giorgi Carlo Calvi, Conti Di Bergolo. The Count was married to Princess Yolanda Di Savoy, the oldest daughter of Italian King Victor Emmanuel III.
    The Italian XX Motorized Corps included the Trieste, Giovani Fascisti and the German 90th Light Divisions, commanded by Francisco La Ferla, Nino Sozzani and Count Theodor von Sponeck.
    The XXI Infantry Corps included the La Spezia Airborne, Pistoia and the German 164th Light Afrika Divisions. These divisions were commanded by, respectively: Gavino Pizzolato; Giuseppe Falugi and Baron Kurt von Leibenstein, until January 16, 1943 when he took command of DAK and was replaced by Colonel Becker for a month. The army also included the elite Ramcke Parachute Brigade commanded by Hans Kroh. Recognizing the Italian contribution, the army was renamed 1st Italian Army on February 23 and placed under the command of Giovanni Messe.
    In the north of Tunisia, the new troops that were arriving were organized into the 5th Panzerarmee under the command of Hans-Jürgen von Arnim. General von ArnimÙs Panzerarmee included Baron Frederick von BroichÙs 10th Panzerdivision; Joseph SchmidÙs Hermann Göering Panzer-Grenadierdivision; Frederick WeberÙs 334th Infantry Division; Count Fernando GelichÙs Superga Mountain Division. Also included was the 21st Panzerdivision, which had been peeled off of the Deutsches Afrikakorps, and was, since the death of Heinz von Randow in December, commanded by Hans-George Hildebrandt. General von ArnimÙs 5th Panzerarmee was combined with General MesseÙs 1st Italian Army to form Armeegruppe Afrika, commanded by Field Marshal Rommel.
    Ever the gambler, Field Marshal Rommel decided on a bold strategy to address the AxisÙ deteriorating situation in North Africa. Since the CommonwealthÙs 8th Army, under General Montgomery, was not expected to, and did not, move very quickly, Field Marshal Rommel decided to hold the Mareth Line, in front of Eighth Army, with infantry units, while his mobile troops struck the predominately American forces near Kasserine Pass. These Allied forces posed a threat to his rear, to the lines of communication between General von ArnimÙs 5th Panzerarmee and General MesseÙs 1st Italian Army, and to the AxisÙ supply lines to the ports of Tunis and Bizerte.
    Field Marshal RommelÙs plan envisioned that both Axis armies would be involved, and with a pincer movement, would capture the huge supply depot at Tébessa, surround the Allies and annihilate them. Tébessa is located 15 miles west of the Algerian-Tunisian border and today has a population of 650,000.
    However, General von Arnim was much more conservative than the "Desert Fox." Although, Field Marshal Rommel had ultimately convinced his, formerly recalcitrant, Italian allies to follow his lead, he had only been able to do so by demonstrating the success which his audacity had brought; and by recognizing the limitations of those allies, primarily in equipment and transportation.
    By the end of his two years in North Africa, even though the Panzermarmee Afrika had been destroyed at El Alamein, most of the Italian soldiers would willingly follow and obey GermanyÙs youngest Field Marshal - "der Wüstenfuchs." In von Arnim, however, he found a different attitude. General von Arnim was of Prussian nobility, older than Field Marshal Rommel, fresh from the Eastern Front, not impressed by the desert exploits of the young Swabian upstart in this backwater theater and probably jealous of his field marshalÙs baton. Consequently, cooperation between the two was very difficult. Although Kasserine Pass is considered an Axis victory, because of the lack of cooperation from von Arnim, it was not what it could have been. Even then, it would probably have only served to prolong the demise of the Axis position in North Africa by a few months, even if it had been completely successful, given the numerical and materiel superiority of the Allies, which would have overwhelmed the Axis - as it did at El Alamein.
    The force facing the Axis on the western side of Tunisia was Lt. General Kenneth AndersonÙs British First Army. In addition to the V and IX Corps of British soldiers, commanded by Sir Charles Allfrey and Sir John Crocker, it also included Major-General Lloyd FredendallÙs American II Corps and Lt. General Marie-Louis KoëltzÙ French XIX Corps.
    On the morning of February 14, the Panzers of Baron von BroichÙs 10th and General HildebrandtÙs 21st Panzerdivisiones delivered their St. ValentineÙs Day greetings to the green Americans at Zidi Bou Zid. General Fredendall had dug himself in 80 miles from the front. The Americans, who had just beaten the French in Morocco and Algeria rather easily, were overconfident and undertrained for what they were about to receive. Lt. Colonel John Waters, son-in-law of Major-General George S. Patton, Jr., had told his men, "We did very well against the scrub team. Next week we hit the Germans. When we make a showing against them, you may congratulate yourselves." There would be no congratulations. In fact, Col. Waters was captured! In addition to Col. Waters, the two Panzer divisions killed, wounded or captured 1000 American soldiers and destroyed 100 tanks.
    Field Marshal Rommel then sent Baron von LeibensteinÙs DAK into action, and on February 17, it captured Thelepte airfield and 50 tons of much needed fuel and lubricants. By this point General FredendallÙs II Corps had lost 2,546 men, 103 tanks, 280 vehicles, 18 field guns, three antitank guns and an anti-aircraft battery.
    The combined DAK, and the two additional Panzer divisions jointly assaulted Kasserine Pass on February 19, 1943. Unlike General Fredendall, Field Marshal Rommel led from the front, as was his custom. And as usual, the presence of "der Wüstenfuchs" inspired his soldiers. As the Axis units passed through Kasserine Pass, they could see the burning hulks of 22 American tanks and 30 half-tracks. But more and more Allied units were joining the fight and the Axis fuel and ammunition was getting lower and lower. Finally, on February 23, after pushing the Americans back 50 miles, and giving them a thrashing, "der Wüstenfuchs" called it off.
    The Americans had suffered 6000 casualties and the loss of 183 tanks. This was more than 20% of their force - an unacceptable number. Axis losses were 2000 and 34 tanks.
    In his report to Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower said,
    "Our soldiers are learning rapidly. I assure that the troops that come out of this campaign are going to be battle wise and tactfully efficient. They are now mad and ready to fight. All our people, from the very highest to the very lowest, have learned that this is not a childÙs game and are ready and eager to get down to business."
    As for General Fredenall, British General Sir Harold Alexander remarked to General Eisenhower, "IÙm sure you must have better men than that." General Ernest N. Harmon described him as a, "...physical and moral coward." On March 6th, General Fredenall was replaced by Major General George S. Patton, Jr. General Patton would not dig in 80 miles from the front!
    This was the first battle which Ernie Pyle covered.

NEXT MONTH: THE THIRD BATTLE OF KHARKOV
Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. Mr. Wimbrow can be contacted at wimbrowlaw@gmail.com.
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