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What the Allies' first humiliating encounter with the Nazis taught them about how to win World War II

Benjamin Brimelow   

What the Allies' first humiliating encounter with the Nazis taught them about how to win World War II
  • In February 1943, US troops were soundly defeated in a days-long battle in the North African desert.
  • The Germans capitalized on the US troops' inexperience to outmaneuver and almost wipe the Americans out.

On February 14, 1943, some 2,700 US Army soldiers and dozens of tanks were manning positions in and around the Tunisian city of Sidi bou Zid when they were attacked by a massive German force of several thousand soldiers and about 200 tanks, half-tracks, and artillery pieces.

The Americans, mostly isolated from each other, were soon surrounded and in a desperate fight — even more so after the skilled and experienced German panzers and aircraft pounced on tanks sent to reinforce the US troops.

The German attack, the brainchild of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, was the prelude to a series of clashes known as the Battle of Kasserine Pass — the first major engagement between American and German forces in World War II.

The Wehrmacht soundly defeated the US Army in a week-long baptism by fire. While it was a stinging defeat, it provided the US with a host of lessons that would ultimately lead to victory.

Off to a good start

The war in North Africa was actually going quite well for the Allies in February 1943.

In November 1942, British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery had defeated Rommel at the Second Battle of El Alamein and was chasing Rommel out of Egypt and Libya. Around the same time, British and American troops began Operation Torch, landing in Morocco and Algeria, opening another front and pushing east.

Until February, the Americans had only fought Vichy French forces, who were largely ambivalent about fighting but at times offered intense resistance.

Just days after the Anglo-American invasion, the leader of the Vichy French forces agreed to switch sides, allowing the Allies to enter Tunisia and head for Tunis, now Rommel's main supply base.

Hoping to relieve the pressure on his western flank in order to better fight off Montgomery's Eighth Army in southern Tunisia, Rommel crafted a plan to attack the thinnest part of the Allied line in Tunisia, which was manned by the mostly untested Americans.

US forces were positioned along the Eastern Dorsal of Tunisia's Atlas Mountains, which ran in a roughly north-south axis through northern Tunisia.

Rommel wanted to drive through the American lines and push on past the Kasserine Pass, which was in a range known as the Western Dorsal.

By breaking through those lines, Rommel would be able to destroy American forces, capture their supplies, and disrupt Allied efforts to concentrate and resupply their forces along the Algeria-Tunisia border.

Americans outmatched

The largely inexperienced Americans at Sidi bou Zid were no match for the battle-hardened soldiers of Rommel's Afrika Corps, who outmaneuvered and almost wiped them out within a few days.

Experienced Germans in superior tanks, particularly the Panzer IV and Tiger models, smashed through American lines. Coordinated attacks by Stuka dive-bombers also wrought havoc, especially on US units sent in as reinforcements. One American unit alone lost 40 of its 47 tanks.

The Germans then drove on to Sbeitla, just east of Kasserine, where they dug in for an expected American counterattack. With the Americans repositioning to support the engagement at Sidi bou Zid, Rommel launched a second thrust with some 160 tanks, half-tracks, and guns against the city of Gafsa farther south.

Rommel then took the town of Feriana, between Gafsa and Kasserine, capturing American supply depots and airfields along the way. With their lines broken and their forces in disarray, the Americans retreated to Kasserine Pass.

On February 19, Rommel's two pincers clashed with the inexperienced Americans guarding the pass. The Americans put up stiff resistance but couldn't hold the line. American 37 mm anti-tank guns, mounted on jeeps, half-tracks, and M3 Stuart tanks were woefully inadequate, earning the nickname "squirrel rifles."

The Germans smashed through Kasserine Pass, leaving a battlefield littered with American tanks and half-tracks. German thrusts through the Pass pushed the Americans more than 50 miles back from their original lines.

An instructive disaster

Rommel's victory proved only a brief respite for the Germans. As the Americans regrouped and their artillery and airpower arrived in force, Rommel's thrusts were beaten back.

With Montgomery fast approaching from the south and the German supply lines extended, Rommel ordered his forces to withdraw on February 23.

But Rommel had inflicted serious casualties on the Americans. Some 300 soldiers were killed, with 3,000 more wounded and more than 3,000 captured. The Americans also lost 183 tanks, 104 half-tracks, 208 guns, and more than 500 other vehicles.

The Germans only suffered about 1,000 casualties and lost just 20 tanks, six half-tracks, 14 guns, and 61 other vehicles.

Decades after the battle, Gen. Omar Bradley described it as a "complete disaster."

"Even these many years later, it pains me to reflect on that disaster," Bradley said in an autobiography published in the 1980s. "It was probably the worst performance of U.S. Army troops in their whole proud history."

But that disaster was instructive.

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, responsible for the planning and execution of Operation Torch, soon implemented better training in infantry, anti-tank, anti-air, and artillery tactics, emphasizing combined-arms operations to ensure air and ground units were communicating effectively.

The US Army also began phasing out outdated equipment like the M3 Stuart tank and adopting newer weaponry, including better tanks and dedicated tracked tank destroyers.

Eisenhower also changed the leadership at the front. A number of high-ranking American officers at Kasserine were removed, including the commanding officer, Maj. Gen. Lloyd Fredendall, who was replaced by Maj. Gen. George Patton and sent home for more training.


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