Today in North African history: the Battle of Kasserine Pass ends (1943)

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The Battle of Kasserine Pass, on February 19-25, 1943, was the second part of the Battle of Sidi Bouzid earlier that month. Or more to the point, Sidi Bouzid—along with a smaller battle between German and Allied forces at Tunisia’s Faïd Pass in late January—served as the opening act of this much larger engagement. Both Sidi Bouzid and the Faïd Pass ended in clear Axis victories, under General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim and Field Marshal Erwin Rommel respectively. The Battle of Kasserine Pass ended a little more ambiguously, with the Axis having won but without gaining much from the victory. Moreover, as we noted when talking about Sidi Bouzid, the Allied failures here led to an overall reorganization of their North African war effort, which helped turn these defeats into a strategic victory in Tunisia by May.

The Axis successes at Sidi Bouzid and Faïd Pass allowed Rommel and von Arnim to link their forces and opened the Kasserine Pass to them. This turned out to be a bit of a mixed blessing, as von Arnim resisted coming under Rommel’s command and his resistance delayed the followup to those initial victories. Rommel’s goal was to push through the Atlas Mountains to attack Allied supply bases in Algeria and potentially uproot their entire North African campaign, which would have allowed him to turn around and focus all his attention on British General Bernard Montgomery and his Eighth Army in Egypt. But his plan to mass his forces at the Kasserine Pass was overruled by Axis high command, which ordered him to split his army and attack through both Kasserine and the nearby Sbiba Gap. Against his better judgment, this was the attack Rommel launched on February 19.

Arnim also appears to have resisted Rommel’s orders for the Sbiba Gap attack, holding some of his forces back to defend the position he already occupied. The Allies thus had a relatively easy time defending Sbiba, and they had driven off the Axis advance on this front by February 21. Things went better for Rommel in the Kasserine Pass. He sent two tank units through the pass on February 19, and while they were largely stymied on the first day of the battle, Rommel’s deployment of reinforcements to the pass the following day proved decisive. The Axis forces broke through the Allied lines and made for the Tunisian town of Thala, near the Algerian border. From there the plan was to move against the main body of the American II Corps at Tébessa, Algeria, which was Rommel’s endgame.

Faced with what would have been a devastating defeat, the Allies were able to regroup and redeploy their forces to meet Rommel’s advance. An attack by the German Afrika Korps in Algeria’s Djebel el Hamra region failed on February 22, while the main Axis force under Rommel’s direct command met a determined American defense of the roads leading to Thala. These US units were able to stop Rommel south of Thala, giving time for British reinforcements to arrive on February 21. The following day the combined Allied force bombarded Rommel’s army with artillery fire, and—concerned that his army was about to be surrounded—the German commander ordered a retreat. That withdrawal took a couple of days, but by February 25 things were just about back to where they had been before the battle. The Allies had lost several hundred men and dozens of tanks in the process, which is why this engagement is regarded as an Axis victory, but those were losses the Americans especially could replace. Meanwhile, Rommel’s big plans for North Africa were kaput.

Worse, from the Axis perspective, was that the Allies—and particularly the Americans—learned a great deal from their mediocre performance in these engagements and made rapid adjustments. US commanders learned that they had to be more diligent about reconnaissance and had to train their forces more thoroughly in the construction of battlefield fortifications and in handling enemy artillery fire. They made improvements in the speed and coordination of their own artillery fire and realized the importance of air superiority, something the Axis had used to great advantage.

Perhaps the biggest change the Americans made after the battle was introducing a new commander for their 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 badly needed men and resources to build himself a swanky HQ and later to defend it (neither of which should have been his priority), he failed to coordinate with British forces, he positioned units too far apart to support each other, and he allowed the Axis to gain that aforementioned 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.

From a personnel standpoint, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower made additional changes. He created the 18th Army Group under British General Harold Alexander, whose job was to coordinate between the American, British, and Free French forces in Algeria as well as with Montgomery’s Eighth Army, which was now heading west from Egypt. Between appointing Alexander and devolving more responsibility to front-line commanders, Eisenhower diminished the role of British General Kenneth Anderson, the commander of the First Army whose performance in these Tunisian battles had arguably been worse than Fredendall’s. All of these changes, plus Montgomery’s arrival, turned the tide in Tunisia quickly. So quickly, in fact, that by the middle of March Rommel could see the campaign was lost and began trying to convince Axis leaders to withdraw his forces back to Europe. He was relieved of command and replaced by Arnim, but he was right. A series of Allied victories culminated with Operation Vulcan, in late April, and Operation Strike, in early May, in which the Allies captured the last remaining Axis positions in Tunisia and forced Arnim and his army to surrender.