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

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The central Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid is best known today as the birthplace of the Arab Spring. It was in Sidi Bouzid where a fish seller named 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 reverberated across the Arab world, sparking protests, toppling dictators, and causing civil wars.

But during World War II, Sidi Bouzid was the site of one of the last Axis victories in North Africa and one of the first engagements between American and German forces in the war. It serves as the preliminary round of the Battle of Kasserine Pass, which commenced a few days later. As such it wasn’t a major battle, but it did have some important impacts on the rest of the 1942-1943 Tunisia campaign. Specifically, the Allied defeat here and at Kasserine Pass a few days later led to a substantial reorganization of their North African forces, particularly at the senior officer level. These changes worked out so well that by May the Allies had chased the Axis out of North Africa altogether. Rommel was already gone by then, recalled to Germany in March, but Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine would be the final two victories in his lengthy military career. So in the big picture, the tactical victory the Axis won here paved the way for their overall defeat in the North African theater.

Sidi Bouzid followed up on the Axis success in the so-called “Run for Tunis,” which was made possible by some poorly conceived Allied strategy. After the Allies landed in North Africa (Morocco and Algeria) in November 1942, their commanders (including Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower) made the decision to move quickly overland to seize Tunis. Tunisia was largely defended by Vichy French units whom the Allies figured—correctly, as it turned out—could be coaxed to their side. But the Allies underestimated how quickly the Axis could mobilize additional forces to defend the area. The Luftwaffe controlled the skies, and initial Allied successes in a tank war on the ground couldn't be sustained. By Christmas, the Allied forces had to give up on Tunis and retreat to the west. But they were still positioned deep enough into Tunisia that the Erwin Rommel, commanding the Nazi Afrika Korps, decided to press his advantage and push them further west. Rommel had begun his own North Africa offensive, after his ambitions for conquering Egypt were stymied at the Second Battle of El Alamein in November.

Indeed, Rommel wasn’t just on the offensive in Tunisia for the hell of it. After El Alamein there was a real possibility that the British army in Egypt, under Bernard Montgomery, could follow him west and reengage. The Allied forces in Tunisia were well-positioned to serve as the anvil to Montgomery’s hammer, if it came to that, or to launch their own attack toward the Tunisian coast and cut the Axis line in two. Rommel couldn’t allow either of those things, and since he’d already tried Montgomery’s army and been repulsed, he figured he’d have better luck with the Americans, who in addition to not having Montgomery were brand new to the war and, he hoped, a little green. Rommel’s plan was to punch a hole through the Allied line in central Tunisia and strike at its rear, driving the whole Allied line back into Algeria and dealing the Americans such a decisive defeat that it might cripple their entire war effort just as it was getting started.

Rommel turned out to be correct in his assumption about the Americans’ inexperience, but as we’ll see when we talk about Kasserine he overestimated his ability to exploit it. The US II Corps was under the command of Major General Lloyd Fredendall, who wound up doing his best work commanding a training operation back in the US to which he was reassigned after Kasserine. That might give you some indication as to how he performed during these two engagements.

Early on the morning of February 14, Rommel sent tanks rolling through two mountain passes heading toward Sidi Bouzid. An opportune sandstorm helped cover the German advance but even without that it’s clear that the Germans caught the Allies completely by surprise. One of the passes was defended by those Vichy French forces that had only recently switched sides, and they—disorganized and badly equipped—collapsed almost immediately. In fairly short order the Germans had cut off several advance units from the rest of the US line. Fredendall had apparently never bothered to inspect their positions to determine if they were vulnerable. He also refused to reinforce the French forces when they requested it and denied permission for some of those US forces to retreat when it became clear that they were going to be cut off.

The Germans had taken Sidi Bouzid by nightfall on February 14. The following morning the Americans launched a counterattack that was ill-conceived on two levels. For one thing, their counterattack required a long advance over open ground, and with the Luftwaffe controlling the air space that open ground became a shooting gallery. To make matters worse, the Americans hadn’t scouted the approach to Sidi Bouzid, so the attacking forces had to do it themselves, slowly, as they went along. For another thing, American commanders badly underestimated (again because they hadn’t done any reconnaisance) the size and strength of the German force that was now occupying Sidi Bouzid, so the US forces that survived the air assault rolled into what amounted to an ambush, where they were badly outgunned. The US forces wound up retreating with heavy losses. You can read about that ambush in considerably more detail here, if you like.

The battle was over at this point, but on February 16 the Germans pushed further west, running off another American unit and capturing the town of Sbeitla. This put them in striking distance of the Kasserine Pass and the envelopment maneuver that Rommel had envisioned at the start of the engagement. At this point British General Kenneth Anderson, appointed by Eisenhower to coordinate the Tunisian campaign between the US, British, and French forces, ordered a full retreat.

You’ll note that this is the first time we're hearing of Anderson even though this was supposed to be his operation. That’s because he’d done little to this point in terms of overseeing Fredendall or the ex-Vichy French forces under his command. To be fair, it seems Eisenhower hadn’t done a particularly good job of delineating lines of authority between the various forces under his command, and so American units in the field weren’t sure whether they ultimately reported to Fredendall or to Anderson. To be even fairer, Anderson faced huge logistical challenges in terms of coordinating actions across the spread out Allied line, challenges that might not have existed had Eisenhower opted for a steady advance east in the first place rather than racing to get to Tunis.

The problems of weak leadership and poor logistics would continue to hamper the Allies at Kasserine Pass, which began a couple of days after the Axis capture of Sbeitla. But Rommel also overextended his forces and ran into his own organizational issues, which prevented him from following up the Axis victory. That’s a story for another time.