Military history

9. KASSERINE

A Hostile Debouchment

ABRIEF, howling sandstorm swept across the Tunisian plain early Sunday morning, February 14. German sappers cinched bandannas across their noses and finished lifting the last American mines from the western mouth of Faïd Pass. At four A.M. a bobbing procession of lights, almost ecclesiastical in grandeur, emerged from an olive grove east of the gap. Soldiers in black tunics tramped down Highway 13 carrying lanterns to guide more than a hundred tanks—a dozen Tigers among them—and as many infantry lorries and half-tracks. Exhaust stink and the creak of armor tracks filled the defile.

As dawn spread behind him, the commander of Operation FRÜHLINGSWIND, General Heinz Ziegler—a Russian Front veteran who now served as Arnim’s chief of staff—climbed a rocky parapet above the squalid hamlet of Faïd. Light seeped across the desert, exposing the odd humps of Djebel Lessouda on Ziegler’s right and Djebel Ksaira on his left. Ziegler liked what he saw: nothing. The Americans did not appear aroused, nor even alert. At precisely 6:30 A.M. the drivers shifted into gear and panzers spilled from the Eastern Dorsal onto the plain. Behind them the sun rose through the dust in an enormous, molten orb.

They came down like the wolf on the fold. First to fall victim was the infantry squad dispatched by John Waters the previous night, now obliterated by German tanks three miles from Faïd. The Americans sent no radio warning; the prearranged rocket signal intended to trigger an artillery barrage on the pass went unfired. Every man in the squad was killed or captured. Two miles on, the 10th Panzer Division slammed into ten tanks from Company G of Colonel Hains’s 1st Armored Regiment. This morning, as on every morning, the tankers had left their night bivouac in a ravine near Sidi bou Zid and moved to a squat hillock east of Djebel Lessouda known as the Oasis. Having watched the routine each dawn for a week, the Germans knew precisely where to find them. Several crews had dismounted and were fixing breakfast when a swarm of green fireballs blew through the picket line at half a mile per second, trailing fantails of brown dust. One astonished sergeant likened the noise to “half of the Krupp Iron Works moving out of the German Ruhr valley.” Within minutes the American tanks were annihilated; so were half a dozen others from the same company rushing forward to help. Sixteen columns of black smoke corkscrewed into the sky. It was barely 7:30 A.M.

Three miles east of Djebel Lessouda, the attackers split up. One pack of eighty tanks and trucks veered north and then west to encircle the hill; two others angled south toward Sidi bou Zid. Captain Bruce Pirnie, who the night before had considered the provision of extra shells for his Battery B an extravagance, reported “a tremendous force of tanks and infantry approaching us, not more than two thousand yards away…. Scarlet and white flashes.” Gun captains shortened the range of their shells by reducing their powder from charge 7 to charge 5 to charge 3 as the enemy drew near. The smaller charges “really changed the sound of the howitzers,” Pirnie later wrote. “They sounded impotent, just a little pop and hardly any recoil. We were scared and green.” The gunners fired until “the Germans were so close that our fire couldn’t clear the crest in front of us.” Pirnie radioed Waters on Djebel Lessouda behind him. “We can’t hit them,” Pirnie said. “They’ve gotten in under us.” “If you can’t fire,” Waters replied evenly, “move back to where you can.”

Crews broke for the rear, belatedly. Only one of four guns escaped, jouncing across the desert. Pirnie followed at the wheel of a careering ammunition half-track. The Germans reminded him of wild dogs hunting in a pack. When they again drew close he sabotaged his last tube with thermite grenades stuffed down the muzzle. As in every catastrophe, petty inconvenience would remain as vivid in memory as the blackest strokes of tragedy: Pirnie would always recall his shoes, purchased from an Irish cobbler before TORCH. They hurt like the devil.

One after another the American units fell. A platoon of tank destroyers was itself destroyed by tanks. The 2nd Battalion of the 17th Field Artillery—armed with eighteen World War I–vintage 155mm howitzers and somehow forgotten in the confusion—waited east of Sidi bou Zid for orders to decamp. The German attack on the battalion “erased it, getting every gun and most of the men,” a staff officer reported. Battery A of the 91st Field Artillery fired in a smoking frenzy from Sidi bou Zid until all forward observers were killed or wounded, blinding the gunners. “We didn’t know exactly where to fire,” one lieutenant said. “There was artillery fire, machine gun fire, armor-piercing tank shells whizzing through the town.” Tossing their dead into an empty trailer, the artillerymen leapfrogged west.

Enemy bullets and tank shells sheeted across the desert. Soldiers scooped shallow foxholes with their helmets or clawed at the ground until their fingers bled. “All around me comrades were being machine-gunned from tanks,” one soldier recalled. “Their screams were faintly heard due to the terrific explosions.” Another soldier stumbled upon a cowering group of troops too frightened even to speak. “I broke down and went off by myself,” he later confessed. A third soldier leaped into a jeep and cranked the ignition so insistently the key snapped in half. An anti-aircraft platoon leader, having “lost his sense of direction in the confusion and stampede of other units,” unwittingly bolted southeast to deliver himself and his men into German hands. Enemy outriders also seized four ambulances, each jammed with wounded GIs; most of the medical detachment of the 168th Infantry and the collecting company of the 109th Medical Battalion would fall prey, with the loss of 100 men, including ten physicians. Wehrmacht medics passed out oranges to savagely burned American prisoners.

The enemy without question had made “a hostile debouchment,” as a clerk scribbled in the CCA war diary. General McQuillin, trying from his command post on the southeast edge of Sidi bou Zid to make sense of the shrieking radios and billowing smoke, believed the morning could still be made right with a brisk counterattack. At 7:30 A.M. he ordered the commander of the 3rd Battalion of the 1st Armored Regiment to “clear up the situation.” Lieutenant Colonel Louis V. Hightower, a thirty-three-year-old West Point classmate of John Waters, emerged from McQuillin’s tent with his briefcase in hand. He climbed onto his Sherman tank—named Texas, she flew the Lone Star flag from a radio antenna—and cantered toward the Oasis. With the early destruction of Company G, he had three dozen Shermans left.

Two miles north of Sidi bou Zid, the first Stukas attacked. Little damage was done to Hightower’s tanks, but the bombs “smoked us up so that we couldn’t see through the dust,” he later recounted. Then green fireballs ripped into the formation, “close to the ground like a ricocheting stone in water.” Shermans left and right burst into flame. “Sometimes two or three men got out,” one sergeant reported. “Sometimes no one got out. Most of the tanks burned when hit.” A shell snipped the head of the H Company commander from his shoulders. The platoon commanded by Lieutenant Laurence Robertson, sent on patrol to the southeast the previous night, abruptly roared through a gap in an American minefield to join the mêlée. Chased for miles by thirty panzers, Robertson had bought enough time to escape by firing smoke rounds at his pursuers to simulate artillery fire. It was now apparent that the attack from Faïd Pass was complemented by the 21st Panzer Division spilling from Maïzila Pass twenty miles south. The enemy intended to snare all of CCA in a double envelopment.

Hightower pulled the remnants of his battalion back into Sidi bou Zid in a zigzagging retreat, and clattered out the south side on the Gafsa road. Behind them, Luftwaffe squadrons methodically obliterated the town. A captain in a jeep raced through the olive groves that sheltered the CCA supply trains. “Take off, men!” he bellowed. “You are on your own.” Some bolted; others desperately cranked engines that refused to start—lint from camouflage nets had clogged the fuel filters on many jeeps and trucks. A major sprayed the Sidi bou Zid fuel dump with machine-gun bullets as appalled tankers, their Shermans nearly dry, darted among the flames to salvage a few five-gallon tins.

Uncertainty yielded to confusion, confusion to panic. A horizontal avalanche of men and vehicles slid west across the desert, making for the intersection of Highways 13 and 3, ten miles from Sidi bou Zid and almost halfway to Sbeïtla. (This junction soon would be known as Kern’s Crossroad after the battalion commander sent to secure it, Lieutenant Colonel William B. Kern.) Thomas E. Hannum, an artillery lieutenant, was reminded of the Oklahoma land rush, except that “the air was full of whistles” from enemy projectiles. Another gunner watched as several half-tracks “suddenly blossomed out with red and black, like the first puff of fire in oil, and then seemed to settle down like a sinking ship.” Indefatigable Tunisian peddlers stood along the road holding up eggs, tangerines, and tiny gasoline stoves.

Now reduced to a dozen tanks, Hightower’s battalion also swung west at fourteen miles per hour to provide a screen for those in flight. Hightower soon spotted panzers half a mile to the south; one pincer from the 21st Panzer Division was closing in on Sidi bou Zid. An even larger enemy tank force—the number swelled with each report—bore down from the north after looping around Djebel Lessouda. “It looks,” suggested one tanker, “like a dryland Dunkirk.”

Hightower angled south with four Shermans to buy time while the rest of his force continued toward the crossroads. At 700 yards, Texas hit two enemy tanks with well-aimed shots from her 75mm main gun. Watching with field glasses from an open hatch, Hightower cheerfully reported that a panzer turret “broke into flame like a flower.” A German shell drilled Texas through the bogey wheels, and darted out the other side “like a rabbit.” Other rounds glanced off the Sherman’s turret and hull. “Each shell that hit sounded like a giant anvil or tremendous bell,” Hightower later recalled. After shooting two more panzers, Texas was struck from the left by a round that punctured the fuel tank and landed spinning on a hatch cover. Above the crackle of flaming gasoline Hightower roared, “Let’s get the hell out of here!” The crew “boiled out like peas from a hot pod before the tank had stopped running.” Five men sprinted west as their tank blew up behind them.

Of fifty-two Shermans in action, six survived the afternoon. At 1:45 P.M. half a dozen Tigers bulled through the rubble on Sidi bou Zid’s northern outskirts. At 5:05 P.M., tanks from the 21st Panzer in the south and those from the 10th Panzer in the north met two miles east of town on Highway 125. The double envelopment had taken less than twelve hours.

The disaster was all too evident from the shaley brow of Djebel Lessouda, where John Waters watched the attack with both dismay and professional discernment. The folly of the Allied battle plan was clear: after losing Faïd Pass in late January, the Americans should have either recaptured the Eastern Dorsal—at whatever cost—or retired to defensible terrain on the Grand Dorsal. Instead they had dispersed across a vulnerable open plain where the enemy could defeat them in detail. Lessouda, like Djebel Ksaira in the hazy distance, was so steep, with such a commanding vista of the dun world below, that the Americans had been bewitched by an illusion of security. In fact, the hill provided Waters only with a panorama of his own imminent destruction.

When the first wave of eighty German tanks and half-tracks had looped north around the hill at dawn, a combination of glare, dust, and wishful thinking prevented Robert Moore and his 900 infantrymen from shooting, on the remote chance that the force was friendly. Colonel Hains had radioed Waters from Sidi bou Zid. “There must be something going on,” Hains said in one of the war’s premier understatements. “There is an awful lot of firing out there in front of you now.”

Better visibility and dire reports from routed forces to the east soon clarified the predicament. By 8:30 A.M., German officers in peaked caps stood on their tank turrets just beyond rifle range, raking Lessouda with field glasses. Led by motorcycle troops, an enemy column on the east pressed up the lower slopes through a narrow wadi. At a range of 300 yards Moore gave the command to fire. A stabbing red volley rippled from the rocks and the Germans fell back, leaving a trail of dead and wounded. Two Wehrmacht officers and six enlisted men were taken prisoner.

At noon the enemy tried again, this time pressing up the southern face where Waters’s command post was tucked into a gulch. Gray-clad figures darted through the olive trees and tuft grass below. Unable to reach Moore by radio, Waters sent his driver up the hill to find him. A few minutes later the soldier stumbled back, ashen, blood bubbling from a hole drilled through his chest by one of Moore’s nervous infantrymen. “Sir, I couldn’t get up there,” he told Waters, “and I got shot.” Waters wrapped him in a bedroll with two shots of morphine, and soon the young man was dead.

Waters radioed Hains. “Pete, I’m going to shut this thing off,” he said. “They are all around here and looking for me now, but I don’t think they’ve discovered this half-track yet.” Not only were German patrols closing in, but locals had begun combing the battlefield to strip the dead and betray the living. Moore was marooned with his infantry on the upper slope. “I’m going to dismantle the radio and I’ll hide the parts,” Waters added. “I will go into the next little ditch and hide out there until dark.”

Try to hold on, Hains urged. “Good luck to you, John.”

“Never mind about me,” Waters said. “Just kill those bastards at the bottom of the hill.”

At four P.M. Waters heard footsteps on shale. Assuming that it was one of his own officers, he rose from his hiding place beneath an overhanging ledge. Fifteen feet away, seven German soldiers led by two Arabs whirled around; a short burst of Schmeisser bullets fired from the hip missed Waters by inches and pinged off the rocks. Delighted to capture such a high-ranking officer—soon enough the enemy would learn he was also Patton’s son-in-law—the Germans marched him half a mile down the hill. Several Wehrmacht officers sat in a makeshift command post listening to dance music on a big radio. Waters was plopped in a motorcycle sidecar and driven through Faïd Pass to begin a voyage that would take him to Tunis by truck, to Italy by transport plane, and finally over the Alps by train to a Bavarian prison camp. For John Waters, the war was over.

Ten miles to the southeast the war went on, badly, for Drake and his men. With nearly a thousand troops already dug in on Djebel Ksaira, Drake decided to herd the rest of his command—now bivouacked in various wadis southeast of Sidi bou Zid—onto Garet Hadid, a slightly loftier escarpment four miles west of Ksaira. Soon 950 riflemen, musicians, cooks, and clerks were perched on the barren rock like nesting birds. Nearly one-third lacked weapons. After watching the artillery flee near Djebel Lessouda, Drake had called McQuillin at eight A.M. on a field phone to report the makings of a rout. When Old Mac disputed his characterization, Drake snapped, “I know what I’m talking about. I know panic when I see it.” McQuillin hesitated, then told Drake: “You are on the spot. Take command and stop it.”

The arrival of the 21st Panzer Division precluded any chance to “stop it.” Half the panzers swung cross-country far to the west for the backdoor attack on Sidi bou Zid, which Hightower would only briefly disrupt. The rest drove straight north along Highway 83, into the gap between Djebel Garet Hadid and Djebel Ksaira. American troops on the two hills spattered the enemy with enough steel to delay this prong of the German advance six miles from Sidi bou Zid. Enemy gunners answered with artillery, mortar, and tank fire. “It seems like everything the enemy uses is designed to harass a man,” one American private concluded.

Drake soon recognized that his position was desperate if not hopeless. Enemy tanks near Sidi bou Zid appeared to be methodically pirouetting over the slit trenches to crush the remaining defenders. Several American units around Djebel Ksaira tried to steal away before officers hectored them back into the line with threats and curses. At 11:30, McQuillin at Sidi bou Zid reported by radio to General Ward’s headquarters in Sbeïtla: “Enemy tanks closing in and threatening both flanks and…Drake. Any orders?” Ward replied: “Continue your mission.” At 12:08 P.M. McQuillin reported: “Enemy right on top of us.”

Drake was scanning the battlefield from a rocky knob on Garet Hadid when a staff officer approached. “General McQuillin is on the telephone,” the officer said. “He is pulling out and you are to stay here.” Drake flew to the phone only to find the line dead. Two signalmen followed the wire to the abandoned CCA headquarters outside Sidi bou Zid. The command post had temporarily moved seven miles west, then joined the ragged exodus toward Sbeïtla. McQuillin “fled so fast he even left the codebook” behind, Drake later complained.

At two P.M., Drake reached McQuillin by radio. Swallowing his anger, he asked permission to pull his men off Djebel Ksaira. McQuillin passed the request to Ward, who relayed it to Fredendall. At Speedy Valley, a hundred miles from the shooting, life looked less bleak. Within eight minutes, McQuillin was told: “Too early to give Drake permission to withdraw.” McQuillin radioed the message to Garet Hadid: “Continue to hold your position.”

A few minutes later Drake dictated a ninety-three-word message directly to Ward. Scribbled on three sheets of British toilet paper, the note ended: “Talked to McQuillan [sic] once by radio, said had requested help. Germans have absolute superiority ground and air…. Unless help fromair and armor comes immediately, infantry will lose immeasurably.”

A young lieutenant folded the message and slid it into the breast pocket of his fatigue shirt. He scrambled down the back slope of Garet Hadid and headed west in a jeep, a dispatch rider in search of the cavalry.

Eisenhower and Truscott had returned to Speedy Valley from Sidi bou Zid at dawn on Sunday morning, the fourteenth. In his goop suit, with a wool hat pulled over his eyes, the commander-in-chief “looked pinched with cold,” Kay Summersby reported. “He was very tired and very depressed.” He crawled into a tent near Fredendall’s command post and slept for two hours in a sleeping bag spread across a cot, snoring loudly.

Rising at midmorning, Eisenhower conferred with Fredendall and Anderson. Both affected a bluff élan. Information was sketchy, they admitted, but the enemy attack appeared to be a local affair. “There was no reason to think that McQuillin would not be able to hold his own,” Truscott later wrote. No other enemy activity was reported along the front, but Anderson wanted to evacuate exposed Gafsa in the far south as a precaution, retracting the Allied right flank to the more defensible foothills of the Grand Dorsal. Eisenhower agreed. He told Marshall in a subsequent message, “I really believe that the fighting of today will show that our troops are giving a very fine account of themselves even though we must give up part of our extended line.”

The truth would soon out. Some troops indeed were fighting with uncommon valor; many were not fighting at all. Most were befuddled and frightened. Hightower’s gallantry, coupled with resistance around Djebel Ksaira, had allowed hundreds of McQuillin’s men to escape, but several thousand others were trapped, captured, or dead. Of the five battalions controlled by CCA, two were surrounded and three were on the way to obliteration. Nine Axis battalions had slammed into the Americans, and although the depleted German units barely added up to a full-strength armored division, they included two of the Wehrmacht’s most celebrated formations: the 10th Panzer Division, spearhead of General Heinz Guderian’s breakthrough at Sedan in May 1940, and the 21st Panzer, the first German division in Africa and perhaps the most experienced desert fighters on earth. Moreover, the second phase of the offensive, MORGENLUFT—Rommel’s attack in the south—had yet to begin.

No sense of urgency gripped Speedy Valley. There was concern, yes, and vexation at an annoying foe who refused to relinquish the initiative. But no commander seemed to have an inkling that life-and-death consequences derived from decisions maderight now. Anderson’s eyes remained fixed on the north, peering for enemy columns that did not exist. CCA had yet to identify 10th Panzer as the agent of its destruction; consequently, Anderson surmised that the division remained poised to strike the French near Kairouan. Not only was Ward’s 1st Armored Division too dispersed to throw an effective counterpunch, but the division artillery chief’s diversion to command the improvised CCD two weeks earlier had deprived the most lethal American defensive arm—massed howitzers—of its leader and his staff.

Eisenhower summoned reinforcements from Morocco and Algeria, but not many; the Americans remained as fixated on the fantasy of an Axis strike through Spain as the British did on a prospective blow in northern Tunisia. Those who heard the trumpet came slowly: the U.S. 9th Infantry Division, for example, was missing half its vehicles, which had been left at home in TORCH or sent as replacements to the Tunisian front. Other troops, unaccountably, were left on the sidelines, including more than 4,000 gunners in the 13th Field Artillery Brigade, who had landed with tubes and full transport in Algeria in December and would remain there until mid-March.

With Summersby again behind the wheel, Eisenhower left Speedy Valley at 11:30 A.M. Sunday for the return to Algiers. Fifty-five miles northeast of Tébessa, while Hightower fought for his life and Waters hid under a rock, Eisenhower ordered the motorcade to stop at the ancient city of Timgad. Built by Rome’s Third Legion in A.D. 100 the town had been consigned to oblivion for centuries until French archaeologists excavated the site in the 1880s.

For more than an hour, the Allied commander-in-chief and his band wandered through streets paved in blue limestone and lined with Doric colonnades. The white bones of Timgad ribbed a hillside dominated by the Emperor Trajan’s forty-foot triumphal arch. Commode seats were still graced with marble arms in the shape of frolicking dolphins. Little imagination was needed to hear the clatter of chariot wheels, or to smell cedar burning on the altars of Jupiter Capitolinus. A guidebook invited visitors to conjure “barbarians from the outer desert in paint and feathers flitting along the narrow byways,” and the scuffing cadence of Roman soldiers helmed in bronze. Eisenhower and Truscott studied an inscription chiseled between two columns in the great forum:“Venari lavari ludere ridere hoc est vivere”: To hunt, to bathe, to play, to laugh—that is to live.

“When you remember me in your prayers, that’s the special thing I want—always to do my duty to the extreme limit of my ability,” Eisenhower wrote his wife a few hours later, during a stop in Constantine. Finally returning to Villa dar el Ouard after the long last leg to Algiers, he sat at the grand piano in the room where a few nights before he had belted out “One Dozen Roses.” Sometimes Eisenhower amused himself at the keyboard by plunking “Chopsticks” with two fingers. This night, weary and morose at the increasingly bad news from Tunisia, he instead, very slowly, picked out “Taps,” then stood without a word and went to bed. To err, to fret, to grieve, to learn—that, too, was to live.

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