In February 1943, Kasserine Pass became the focal point in the North African campaign. The Axis powers planned to use the Kasserine Pass to prevent General Dwight Eisenhower from concentrating his forces against Tunis. The Battle of Kasserine Pass was Erwin Rommel’s last great achievement in North Africa.
Fighting around the Kasserine Pass began in December 1942 when the German commander in Tunisia, Jürgen von Arnim of the German V Panzer Army, launched an attack west in an effort to link up with Rommel’s army which was withdrawing from Libya to southern Tunisia. Arnim wanted to control the Eastern Dorsale – a range of mountains that extends south from Tunis. By doing this he would also control the mountain passes that controlled most movement through the Eastern Dorsale. If Arnim succeeded in doing this, he would push Eisenhower into using passes, such as the one at Kasserine, which were further south. This would push Eisenhower’s men further away from their supply lines while allowing Arnim and Rommel to combine their forces.
In theory, the Axis forces in North Africa should have been at a disadvantage, primarily over the inability of the Germans to adequately supply their own forces. However, they did have one huge advantage over the Allies – a unified command structure. It was very clear who commanded the German forces in Tunisia. However, the Allies, in comparison, were in a mess. In theory, Eisenhower had full control of the Allied forces in the area. However, he was based in Algiers, 400 miles away from what was going on in Tunisia. Eisenhower appointed Major-General Lucien Truscott Jnr. to be his representative in the area – but Truscott based himself in Constantine, 200 miles from the frontline. Actual day-to-day command fell to Lieutenant-General Sir Kenneth Anderson, commander of the 1st British Army. Anderson himself faced a problem. Part of his force, the 19th French Corps led by Koeltz, would only take his orders from General Alphonse Juin, commander of French ground forces. Juin took his orders from General Henri Giraud. The French were still very resentful over the British attack on Mers el Kébir. In an effort to appease the French, Anderson had hoped to give them their own sector in Tunisia but the situation in the region did not allow him to fulfill this.
Anderson’s situation was made even more complicated by the fact that he did not get on with the senior American commanders attached to his force. They saw him as cold and aloof. The 2nd US Corps was led by Major-General Lloyd Fredendall and he had a personal dislike for Anderson and he also had little confidence in Koeltz’s men.
On January 3rd 1943, Arnim attacked the French positions with great success. Eisenhower took the decision to remove French troops to positions in the rear and replace them with newly arrived American troops. Before this could take place, Arnim struck again on January 30th and attacked more French troops – with equal success. By the end of January he had secured his bridgehead in Tunisia and had given Rommel a safe enclave to move into.
By February 1943, Arnim commanded about 100,000 men, Rommel had 70,000 men in his charge. In total the Allies had about 150,000 in the region.
On February 4th, Rommel suggested to Arnim that he should continue with his aggressive attacks against the Allies while he would do the same further south. Nazi Germany had just been stunned by the surrender of the German VI Army at Stalingrad, so a major victory in North Africa would go a long way to redressing this defeat. Also, after a retreat across North Africa, a victory would restore Rommel’s reputation, especially as he had just learned that he was to be returned to Germany on the grounds of ‘ill-health’. During the first two weeks of February, no-one in the Allied camp knew what Arnim and Rommel were planning. Then suddenly, and in a manner still not fully known, Allied intelligence told Anderson that they knew exactly what Arnim and Rommel were planning – a major attack against the French which would allow them to then attack the British. The French were ordered to withdraw their men from the positions that they held. This further damaged Anglo-French military relations as Koeltz did not want to pull back his men before they had been in a fight.
On February 14th, the Germans attacked during a sandstorm. They quickly destroyed 44 American tanks, 26 artillery guns and 22 trucks. Anderson believed that the attack was a diversion to disguise an attack further north. Ironically, both Anderson and Arnim believed that any decisive battle would be fought much nearer along the coast of Tunisia, yet here they were fighting inland.
On February 15th, the Americans launched a counter-attack. By February 17th, they had lost a further 98 tanks, 57 halftracks and 29 artillery guns. As they withdrew, the Americans destroyed vital supplies but the Germans managed to get hold of a vital 5,000 gallons of aviation fuel.
Rommel was ordered to attack Le Kef – some 60 miles north of the Kasserine Pass. To attack Le Kef, he had to move his troops through the pass. General Alexander was given the command of Anderson’s 1st Army and Montgomery’s 8th Army. He was staggered at the confusion he saw in all the areas that the Allies controlled – he simply ordered that there would be no withdrawal from any positions.
On February 18th, there was little activity on the front and this allowed the Allies to tighten up their defences. The arrival of the 9th Artillery Division did a lot to bolster morale – it had travelled 735 miles in four days. Between February 19th and 22nd, Rommel tried to reach his target – Le Kef. However, he realised that he did not have the means to launch a meaningful attack and on the 22nd February Rommel ordered that the attack be called off. His primary problem was the constant lack of supplies – men had been withdrawn from North Africa to fight in the Russian campaign – something that angered the ‘Desert Fox’. He withdrew from the Kasserine Pass unbeknown to the Allies who failed to follow up his retreat. By February 25th, the Kasserine Pass was in the hands of the Allies and the Germans had been pushed back to the Eastern Dorsale.
|“Rommel had gained a little elbow room in Tunisia, but he had frightened every Allied headquarters in North Africa and had taught them much about the art of war. Significant changes in training, organisation, doctrine and weapons resulted from this experience.”Martin Blumenson|
The action in the Kasserine Pass cost the Germans 2,000 men and the Allies about 10,000 men, of which 6,500 were Americans.