Military history

“This Can’t Happen to Us”

FREDENDALL’S attention remained riveted in the south, and he entertained the belief that triumph at Maknassy could compensate for debacle at Faïd. Sitting in his canvas chair by the stove in Speedy Valley, he told reporters he intended to press “on to Maknassy, at least, and draw the pucker string tight.”

Instead of concentrating the 1st Armored’s two combat commands as Eisenhower desired, Fredendall even further fractured the division. The recently concocted Combat Command C had staged the glorious raid on Sened Station a week earlier, and now an even newer Combat Command D was created to seize Maknassy. On January 30 at one P.M., as the Axis attack on Faïd Pass developed, Fredendall by telephone—again bypassing Ward—had ordered CCC to march northeast from Gafsa toward Sidi bou Zid in order to aid McQuillin by hitting the enemy in the flank. Two thousand men tramped all night to within a dozen miles of Faïd Pass, but at four P.M. on January 31, Fredendall countermanded himself. Persuaded that Old Mac’s counterattack at Faïd was succeeding—a hundred miles’ distance from the battlefield encouraged such delusions—the corps commander ordered CCC to “turn south and join in coordinated effort…on Maknassy.”

CCC swung south for ten miles, and by mid-afternoon on February 1 was poised thirteen miles north of Maknassy. There another barrage of conflicting orders fell, ending with a directive to march north yet again, this time toward Sbeïtla and the road to Kasserine. Greater confusion could scarcely be imagined.

That left Maknassy to CCD, now reinforced with the first units in Tunisia from the 34th Infantry Division and specifically the Iowa boys of the 168th Infantry Regiment. The plan drawn by Colonel Robert V. Maraist—Ward’s artillery chief, pressed into service as the CCD commander—was straightforward: artillery, tanks, and infantry would again fall on Sened Station in an attack similar to the January 24 raid, and then press on twenty miles to Maknassy.

Infantrymen from the 1st Battalion of the 168th packed into open trucks late Sunday morning, January 31, for the trip from Gafsa to Sened Station. Having just arrived from Algeria, many still carried their bulky barracks bags. Hundreds of orange cigarette embers glowed from the truck beds. Sened Station had been a walkover a week earlier, the men told one another; the village still was said to be defended only by Austrians and Italians. An engineer officer detected “a sort of Sunday School picnic atmosphere in the morning as we started out.”

Then the Stukas came. Eight rolled out of the sun in the first wave, one trailing another with sirens shrieking as bombs tumbled among trucks bunched nose to tail. “All down the road men were lying, some terribly hurt, some dead, some shocked beyond control,” one witness wrote. “We sent messages for doctors, ambulances, and stretcher parties, [and] did what we could for men who were bleeding to death.” Fifty soldiers had been killed or wounded, the worst toll from a Stuka attack in the entire Tunisian campaign. Another officer wrote:

It was the most terrible thing I had ever seen, not the bodies and parts of bodies near smoking vehicles, some sitting, some scattered, some blue from powder burns—it was the expressions on the faces of those [who] wandered listlessly around the wreckage, not knowing where to go or what to do, saying, “This can’t happen to us.”

Sergeants herded the troops back into the remaining trucks, but the planes soon returned, this time with Messerschmitts that dimpled the road with cannon fire. Terrified men pelted into the desert. “Maimed and twisted bodies, some of them still burning, made the men overcautious,” wrote Lieutenant Lauren E. McBride. Again the men were loaded on their trucks, only to flee with each rumor of approaching aircraft; finally, the trucks were abandoned and the battalion staggered toward Sened Station in two parallel columns 500 yards on either side of Highway 14. Arriving at dusk in an olive grove three miles from the village, too late to attack at five P.M. as planned, the battalion bivouacked for the night. “My God,” the engineer officer reflected, “this Sunday School picnic has really turned into something.”

Three different colonels had led the 3,600 men of the 168th Infantry in the last six months of 1942, and a fourth took command in January. Thomas D. Drake, raised in a West Virginia coal town, had enlisted at sixteen, won a Distinguished Service Cross and two Silver Stars in World War I, then served as the first sergeant of Pershing’s honor guard. After leaving the Army for college, Drake had returned as an officer in 1923. Now forty-two, he was short, brave, and crotchety, incessantly yelling “Allez!” at Tunisian date merchants along the road. Two weeks earlier he had issued regimental mess regulations forbidding officers from bolting their meals. “Neither will good table manners tolerate placing elbows on the table and consuming food in a reclining position,” he added. The men privately called him Quack-Quack.

As his 1st Battalion huddled in the Sened Station olive groves on the evening of January 31, Drake stood with Fredendall in Speedy Valley before a map of southern Tunisia. Drake was to support the thrust to the east by Colonel Maraist’s CCD, Fredendall said. “You will attack tomorrow morning and seize this high ground,” he added, pointing to the ridges east of Maknassy. “After taking up an all-around defensive position you will conduct raids into Rommel’s lines of communications, doing all the damage you can and preventing his uninterrupted movement north.”

But first, Sened Station must fall. Colonel Drake left Speedy Valley and reached Gafsa a few minutes past midnight on Monday, February 1. He planned to reinforce 1st Battalion’s morning attack, and an armor captain named Frederick K. Hughes had been assigned to lead the 2nd Battalion that night to a staging area outside Sened Station, where Maraist’s force was already hidden in ravines and orchards. Drake cautioned Captain Hughes against “overrunning the front line” in the dark. As the first trace of dawn smudged the eastern horizon, Drake followed in a jeep, ready for a fight.

Except that he could not find 2nd Battalion. Daybreak stole across the flat desert where 800 men should have been fixing their bayonets: the ground was empty but for tuft grass and a few of Maraist’s tanks. Military policemen on Highway 14 reported that eighty trucks, including the 2nd Battalion’s field kitchens, had barreled through roadside checkpoints and into no-man’s-land outside Sened Station. A subsequent investigation revealed that Captain Hughes had led his charges into the heavily reinforced enemy defenses.

Hysterical shooting and a constellation of parachute flares in the east confirmed the worst. The 2nd Battalion was pinned down less than a mile from Sened Station, and would remain so for the next ten hours. Hughes was captured. Soldiers tumbled from the truck beds to scoop shallow foxholes with helmets and hands. Enemy mortars crumped, and machine guns stuttered “like old sewing machines being cranked.” The fusillade destroyed seventeen vehicles. Ebony smoke spiraled from burning rubber and gasoline. “They were,” an officer in another unit later noted, “in a very bad spot.”

Intended to be a cakewalk on the way to Maknassy, Sened Station turned into a daylong pitched battle. At 9:30 A.M., Drake rallied the 1st Battalion from its olive grove. Tromping about in his cavalry boots with field glasses banging against his chest, he roared, “Go on up there! They can’t hurt you! They’re nothing but black Dagos, and you’re Americans!”

By noon the troops remained more than a mile from the village, harassed by Stukas and swarms of bullets that prompted one chaste young private to ask if anyone else could hear “all those bees buzzing?” Men lay on their backs kicking at jammed rifle bolts with their boots. “We learned in that battle that sand and oil don’t mix,” a lieutenant recalled. The 1st Battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel John C. Petty, was firing from his knees when enemy bullets tore open his stomach; he would cling to life for twelve days before passing. Petty’s executive officer bled so profusely from a head wound that his submachine gun clogged with blood. An enemy shell blew through the battalion intelligence officer, Lieutenant Woodrow N. Nance. “I saw his canteen fly up in the air,” another officer reported. “He was on his back and gurgling incoherently. He was torn almost in two at the middle.” Drake later wrote: “Men were dying everywhere. The sand was kicked up in clouds and the air was filled with whining bullets.”

At midafternoon, as Maraist directed artillery and tank fire on the village, Drake ordered a flanking attack on the right by 1st Battalion’s Company B. Three rifle platoons fixed bayonets, fanned out in a skirmish line, and surged toward the village. Charred corpses were splayed across the turrets of three smoldering American tanks. A platoon leader whose leg had been reduced to a bloody stump screamed at the passing infantrymen, “Kill them! Kill them all!”

Sened Station buckled and then fell at four P.M. beneath the weight of 1st Battalion’s assault. An enemy counterattack reclaimed the town long enough to capture the 2nd Battalion surgeon and fifteen medicos who had rushed in prematurely. In a final spasm of grenades and bayonets, the village fell for good to the Americans at 5:30. The captured booty included 152 prisoners and a fleet of Axis reconnaissance bicycles. Most enemy troops melted back toward Maknassy.

Fredendall was considerably less charmed by this excursion into Sened Station than he had been by the one a week earlier. In a message to Colonel Maraist—yet again bypassing Ward, who issued contradictory orders of his own—Fredendall declared, “Too much time has been wasted already…. Use your tanks and shove.”

Shove they did, on Tuesday, February 2. By noon CCD held a ridgeline six miles east of Sened Station. Then Stukas attacked in earnest at four P.M. Twenty-four dive-bombers dropped from the western sun in the rear, unnerving Drake’s already shaky infantrymen, and the subsequent appearance of panzers on the left flank completed their unmanning. An officer in the 2nd Battalion of the 168th Infantry came pelting through the lines. “There has been a breakthrough!” he bellowed. “Save yourselves! Save yourselves!”

Hundreds obeyed. Rising from their holes, they ran toward the rear or vaulted into fleeing vehicles. Drake reported that the men “were wild-eyed as they roared along at full speed. The column was made up of half-ton weapon carriers, jeeps, halftracks, tanks—anything that would roll.” An artillery battalion commander later recalled, “A sort of hysteria took hold of everyone. The [enemy] tanks were knocked out, but the hysteria continued.” A combat engineer added, “All of the infantry soldiers I could see anywhere around were hightailing it to the rear.” His troops fled, too.

Officers cobbled together a straggler line from north to south across Highway 14 at Sened Station to snare those fleeing. There the stampede was finally turned by armed guards as unyielding as those in the Civil War who had demanded, “Show blood!” before admitting any soldier to the rear. Sergeant James McGuiness of Company F wrote his parents:

Some of the fellows have run off and leave us fighting and don’t think for one minute that I haven’t had the urge to get up and leave. A fellow isn’t yellow, but those shells bursting above and around you day in and day out is really tough.

The American attack was spent. A few tank destroyers edged to within six miles of Maknassy on February 3, but American planes mistakenly bombed U.S. positions in Sened Station that afternoon, discouraging further initiative. “Your outfit is a bunch of darn poor map readers,” Drake complained in a message to the Army Air Forces. “They just bombed my service train bivouac instead of the enemy concentration. Besides that, they are poor bombers as they missed that target by five hundred yards.” By dawn on the fourth all of CCD had pulled back to Gafsa, abandoning Sened Station for the second time in ten days.

The offensive had failed to seize Maknassy, failed to relieve enemy pressure on Faïd Pass, failed to help McQuillin’s CCA. A 1st Armored Division account concluded that “no decisive objective was gained.” American losses totaled 331, among them the 2nd Battalion commander. Lightly nicked in the hand, but psychologically unhinged by the Tuesday afternoon panic, he was replaced by his executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Moore, the onetime Boy Captain and druggist of Villisca, Iowa.

Mistrust cascaded like a rock slide. General Anderson and the French doubted the Americans. Eisenhower doubted Fredendall. Fredendall doubted Ward. McQuillin doubted Stark. Stark doubted McQuillin. Fredendall on February 5 summoned Ward to Speedy Valley and read portions of a letter Eisenhower had sent him the previous day:

One of the things that gives me the most concern is the habit of some of our generals in staying too close to their command posts. Please watch this very, very carefully among all your subordinates…. Generals are expendable just as is any other item in an army; and, moreover, the importance of having the general constantly present in his command post is frequently overemphasized.

With cocked eyebrow and knowing nod Fredendall implied that the cutting reference was to McQuillin, or perhaps to Ward himself. In fact, the letter as a whole made clear that the commander-in-chief’s deeper reservations concerned his II Corps commander’s Anglophobia and other shortcomings. Eisenhower had confided to Truscott his fear that Fredendall was too rash, inclined to throw away men in “futile rushing around.”

Ward sensed Fredendall’s game. “He is a spherical SOB. No doubt. Two-faced at that,” Ward told his diary. The corps commander “has no loyalty in him for his subordinates.”

As recently as February 1, Eisenhower had considered abandoning the Eastern Dorsal and pulling back toward the higher, western mountain range known as the Grand Dorsal. But now he thought better of such a retrenchment: the ethos of the U.S. Army resisted surrendering even an acre of ground fairly won. New orders called for clinging to as much forward territory as possible while the Allied armies prepared for “sustained, aggressive action in the month of March.”

Meanwhile the troops buried their dead and again dug in down the length of Tunisia. One company war diary spoke for many brave men: “We could not help wondering whether the officers directing the American effort knew what they were doing.”

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