THE immolation of Alger’s battalion had also been visible from Djebel Lessouda, which provided bleacher seats for Robert Moore and his trapped infantrymen. Except for mortar barrages every two hours, the enemy seemed content to starve the Americans on Lessouda into surrender. At dusk on Monday evening, a lone P-40 flew over the hill and dropped a U.S. mail sack tied to a small parachute. Inside, Moore found a message to John Waters, whose fate was still unknown: “You are to withdraw to road west of Blid Chegas where guides will meet you. Bring everything you can. Ward.” Suspecting a trick, Moore radioed McQuillin’s command post for authentication. What was the division commander’s nickname? “Message okay,” came the reply, then added: “Pinky.”
At 10:30 P.M. Moore gathered his men on Lessouda’s southwestern slope. Hundreds of faces, blued by starlight, turned to hear his instructions. Heavy weapons would be spiked and abandoned. Moore himself was taking only his cherished English sleeping bag and his helmet, with its crease from the French machine-gun bullet in Algiers. They would march in two columns, thirty yards apart, parallel to and a mile north of Highway 13. The rendezvous point lay nine miles west, near the crossroads below Djebel Hamra on the road to Sbeïtla. Wounded men would be carried on litters. If any German prisoner uttered a sound, he was to be bayoneted.
Off they went beneath a full, ascending moon, two snaking lines led by Company F, which Moore had commanded so long ago in Villisca. At the base of the hill the men passed an 88mm gun, “so close that we could have easily reached out and touched it,” one officer later reported. A German gunner called out. Moore shushed his men and pressed on. The gunner shrugged and lay back down.
Half an hour later, Moore heard voices in bushes to his left. Perhaps Ward’s guides were searching for them. He veered from the column toward the trees, and a dark figure thirty yards away hailed him auf deutsch. Moore circled back to the column. “He didn’t speak our language,” he whispered to a young captain. The voice called out again, insistent this time, and then machine-gun fire ripped across the desert.
“Scatter!” Moore yelled. “Run like hell.” Like hell they ran, to all directions of the compass. The first German rounds flew high but within twenty seconds men began to fall. Moore ordered them to flatten out and crawl. In a frenzy they crawled. Artillery from the western edge of Lessouda boomed, followed by the crump of German mortars blindly gouging the desert. The battalion chaplain, Lieutenant Eugene L. Daniels, told the litter bearers and medics to flee while he remained with the wounded to await capture.
At five o’clock on Tuesday morning, February 16, Moore and a small band from Company F reached the crossroads where Ward had posted sentries. Haggard and red-eyed, lacerated by cactus thorns and desperately thirsty, they found nearly three dozen men from the company already there. Fifteen minutes later, part of Company H staggered in with a dozen German prisoners, followed by Company G. By sunrise, Moore counted 231 men. Others arrived throughout the day in Sbeïtla, where a quartermaster passed out blankets and overcoats. After another head count, Moore reported that of the 904 men he had commanded two days before, 432 remained.
Drake’s ordeal was even more hideous. Nearly twice as far from friendly lines, he and his 1,900 men had been squeezed into an ever shrinking perimeter on the crests of Djebel Ksaira and Garet Hadid. “Besieged, good strength, good morale,” Drake radioed Ward. Only the first was true. Hunger gnawed at troops whose tongues were swollen with thirst and who repeatedly wandered back from fighting positions on various pretexts. Drake authorized the regimental bandleader to form firing squads if necessary to keep the lines intact.
German intelligence mistakenly believed that only a company occupied each hill—the American force equaled roughly two battalions—and efforts to winkle out the defenders grew increasingly bold. By sunset on February 15, an estimated 300 grenadiers backed by panzers had infiltrated the lower slopes of Ksaira. German machine-gunners and snipers fired at any movement; the band’s bass drummer fell dead while carrying extra ammunition to the perimeter, and a clarinetist was killed trying to avenge him. Wounded men died for want of medical aid; dead men lay unburied for want of grave diggers. American counterattacks temporarily repulsed the enemy with showers of hand grenades, but minutes later the coal-scuttle helmets could again be seen darting up the wadis.
At 2:30 P.M. on February 16, Drake on Garet Hadid radioed the 3rd Battalion commander on Ksaira, proposing that “you cut your way out and join me.” Lieutenant Colonel John H. Van Vliet, Jr., replied promptly: “There are eight 88s between you and me.” As if in confirmation, the enemy pulled onto the flat between the two hills, “unlimbered his guns and shelled our men at will,” a lieutenant recalled. “We had no artillery to reply to him and he was out of range of our smaller weapons.”
A few minutes later, a message from McQuillin confirmed that no cavalry would ride to the rescue: “Fight your way out. Time and place yours. Air cover will be provided. Instructions will be dropped by plane this afternoon.” Two typed sheets followed in a parachute sack which landed on Ksaira rather than Garet Hadid; Van Vliet spent more than an hour decoding the prolix message and then encoding an abridged version for radio transmission to Drake. Soldiers slashed their tires with bayonets and battered surplus equipment with hammers until the hilltops echoed like a forge. A sergeant walked through the small motor pool, firing pistol bullets into every engine block. Men too gravely wounded to walk—there were sixty on Ksaira alone—were draped with canvas and left to German clemency. An officer later described how the regimental chaplain, “standing in full view of enemy snipers with his hands raised in benediction, asked the blessing of God upon the decision.” Drake broadcast the code phrase to decamp—“Bust the balloon”—and hundreds of soldiers crept down the rocky slopes beneath a full moon sheathed in clouds. With one delay and another, the last troops did not leave Ksaira until nearly midnight, precluding any chance of reaching safety before daybreak.
“We marched all that night across the sand, in gulleys or dry washes, wherever we could find a path other than being silhouetted on a skyline,” wrote one soldier. “Whenever the moon would come out, or a real or imagined sound was heard, we would halt and crouch down.” Weak from hunger and tormented by thirst, GIs soon tossed away machine guns and mortar tubes, then ammunition, blankets, and even rifles. Columns disintegrated into noisy bands of stragglers who offered comrades with full canteens up to a thousand francs for a sip of water. Troops stumbled through the ghostly battlefields where Hightower and Alger had fought, now strewn with dead men. Rooting through incinerated tanks, scavengers pulled out C-ration cans to lick the charred hash and beef stew inside.
Corporal Dave Berlovich, once a Des Moines bookstore clerk, found himself in a thicket with two comrades who insisted he travel alone. “You’re marked as a Jew, aren’t you?” one man asked. Berlovich recoiled. “Fuck no, I’m a Catholic.” His father was Jewish, but Berlovich had been raised in Iowa by his Christian mother. By the glare of a struck match they examined his dog tag: stamped below the corporal’s name and serial number was a tiny “H”—for Hebrew—he had never noticed before. Yanking the chain and tag from his neck, Berlovich flung them into a thorn thicket and hurried west at a redoubled pace.
Dawn caught them all in the open, scattered across five miles of desert west of Sidi bou Zid. Their objective, Djebel Hamra, loomed on the horizon, shrouded in mist. A column of trucks appeared on a dirt road, and for a few sweet moments Drake’s men believed that rescue was at hand. Then troops in gray poured from beneath the canvas awnings. “Those,” a lieutenant informed Colonel Van Vliet, “are not our vehicles.” Machine-gun fire from the left flank sent the men fleeing before a maelstrom of bullets and mortar bursts. Drake tried to rally the 400 men still within earshot by dispatching a dozen volunteers to fight a delaying action. The squad “gained the desired ground, a little knoll in the desert,” a witness reported, “and there they were able to hold the enemy off for about an hour.” Flanked and overrun by panzer grenadiers, the rear guard was wiped out.
At ten A.M., Drake ordered Lieutenant William W. Luttrell to assume command of another squad. “He took one look at me and screamed, ‘Lieutenant, take those men and charge!’” Luttrell later recounted. Lacking only a saber to complete the Civil War tableau, Luttrell formed a hasty skirmish line of frightened riflemen. “Move out!” he barked, then watched as his little command was cut to ribbons. “They just went down in front of me—some slow and some quick, some forward and some backward.” Luttrell survived to be taken prisoner by a Wehrmacht sergeant with a machine pistol—“Everything is better in Germany,” his captor advised—but the scorched smell of passing machine-gun bullets lingered in memory for the rest of his life.
Panzers finished the encirclement, herding the Americans into small groups. “I saw that it was hopeless and put my white handkerchef on a stick and waved it. That was that,” Van Vliet reported. From the open turret of a Tiger tank, an officer yelled at Drake, “Colonel, you surrender.” Drake replied, “You go to hell,” and turned his back until a Wehrmacht major appeared and, in perfect English, offered a seat in his scout car. He had once practiced law in Chicago, the major claimed, and would be honored by Drake’s company.
The debacle was complete. Of Van Vliet’s men from Djebel Ksaira, some 800 were captured, along with another 600 from Garet Hadid. A burial detail stacked the dead in a mass grave, then joined the column of American prisoners stretching east as far as the eye could see. A few hundred GIs—including the tagless, ecumenical Berlovich—reached Allied lines, many having survived a week or more on stolen eggs and fried cactus leaves. Drake’s second-in-command and the only officer to escape, Lieutenant Colonel Gerald C. Line, staggered into the American camp and later wrote his wife, “I haven’t found out for sure whether I am sane or insane.”
For all military intents and purposes, the 168th Infantry Regiment—Iowa’s finest—had been obliterated. “It is pardonable to be defeated,” observed Lieutenant Luttrell, who would spend the rest of the war in a German prison, “but unpardonable to be surprised.”
Their triumph at Sidi bou Zid left the Germans off balance. FRÜHLINGSWIND had been a stunning success, and the Allied abandonment of Gafsa made MORGENLUFT—Rommel’s thrust in the south—superfluous. Now what?
Atrocious Allied communications security helped answer this question. Uncoded radio transmissions broadcast in the clear provided German eavesdroppers with ample evidence of Allied turmoil and intentions. Security in Ward’s 1st Armored Division later was judged “unbelievably low,” the worst in any American unit in Tunisia; transmissions included such bald disclosures as “If the enemy attacks again I will have to withdraw.” Following Anderson’s order at 10:40 A.M. on February 16 that II Corps was to forgo further counterattacks, German commanders soon knew with certainty that American troops would fight only a delaying action at Sbeïtla as part of a general retreat. With Kesselring’s approval, Arnim ordered his troops on to Sbeïtla, the gateway to Kasserine Pass and the Grand Dorsal.
Rommel’s staff car wheeled into Gafsa on Tuesday morning, the sixteenth. Those Tunisians not busy digging out survivors from the American demolitions looted the town with festive abandon, ripping out pipes, window frames, and sinks. Wearing his long leather duster, Rommel watched in amusement as a crowd gathered around the car chanting, “Hitler! Rommel! Hitler! Rommel!” Peasants pressed forward with gifts of eggs and flapping chickens, while German soldiers divvied up cartons of Lucky Strikes found in an abandoned U.S. Army truck.
Arnim had marching orders of a sort, but what was the Desert Fox to do? Kesselring’s original scheme called for the 21st Panzer Division to join Afrika Korps troops in the assault on Gafsa, but Arnim had informed Rommel this very morning that he no longer saw any reason to transfer the division. Instead, he had notions of swinging northeast from Sbeïtla to bag more American and British troops around the Ousseltia Valley. Rommel pushed his men on to the abandoned airfields at Fériana and Thélepte, but his eyes were again fixed on the western horizon and the huge depot at Tébessa. Kesselring, conferring with Hitler in East Prussia, was unavailable to referee between his ever more antagonistic commanders in Africa. The Americans were reeling, but Axis momentum now slowed perceptibly for want of a unified command and an overarching offensive vision. A ragged uncertainty took hold. To the Allies’ enormous good fortune, more than two days would be wasted by bickering in the German high command.
“I had never gambled,” Rommel later wrote, “never had to fear losing everything. But in the position as it was now, a rather greater risk had to be taken.” The weaker force must take the longer chance. A thrust to Tébessa and then on another 140 miles to Bône would unhinge the entire Allied line and “force the British and Americans to pull back the bulk of their forces to Algeria.” It could “change the entire complexion of the North African theater of war.” In a message to Kesselring and Comando Supremo in Rome, he requested that both the 10th and the 21st Panzer Divisions be placed under his command for “an immediate enveloping thrust of strong forces…on Tébessa and the area north of it.” Awaiting a reply from Rome, Rommel dined in Gafsa on couscous and mutton with a local sheikh.
Arnim disagreed, in a phone call to Rommel and in messages to Kesselring. “The terrain would be against us,” he warned. Tébessa was mountainous and easily defended; such an attack would take at least two weeks, with uncertain fuel supplies and Montgomery’s Eighth Army banging on the back door at Mareth. Better to veer north in a shallow envelopment to relieve the pressure building west of Tunis.
Allied intelligence detected part of this protracted debate. Thanks to Ultra, eavesdroppers heard a message from Rommel on February 17 indicating that he could hardly risk attacking Tébessa with just the fifty-two German and seventeen Italian tanks currently under his command. But other, more critical messages were not decrypted—including Rommel’s request for the two armored divisions. Once again Ultra decrypts proved misleading.
Kesselring dithered, then concluded that opportunity outweighed risk and threw his weight behind Rommel’s plan in a message to Comando Supremo: “I consider it essential to continue the attack toward Tébessa.” After more exasperated prodding by Rommel, who pleaded that the operation had “a chance for success only if the attack is launched without delay,” approval would come from Rome at 1:30 on Friday morning. Rommel could have the two panzer divisions “to force a decisive success in Tunisia.” There was a catch, however. Rather than lunging as far west as Tébessa, he was told to aim seventy miles due north of Kasserine, at Le Kef, where the roads were better and he could cut off Anderson’s First Army. The envelopment would be narrowed by at least fifty miles, roughly splitting the difference between Rommel’s proposal and Arnim’s.
Rommel ranted at “an appalling and unbelievable piece of shortsightedness” by superiors who “lacked the guts to give a whole-hearted decision.” Then, calming himself, he ordered a bottle of champagne. North or west hardly mattered. He was on the attack. Suddenly, he told his aide, he felt “like an old war horse that had heard the music again.”
Not since A.D. 647, when the caliph’s soldiers burned Sbeïtla and put its Byzantine inhabitants to the sword, had the little town suffered a night like that of February 16–17. “There was indescribable confusion,” wrote one officer. “The road was jammed as far as one could see [with] remnants of a beaten force hurrying to the rear.” Sbeïtla had already been crowded with hundreds of French colonial troops driven from Faïd Pass two weeks earlier, as well as rear-echelon American soldiers growing more and more edgy at reports of disaster in the east. Now hollow-eyed survivors from a half-dozen shattered battalions stumbled into town, enemy artillery thudding behind them. Most assumed that Rommel rather than Arnim commanded the three armored columns baying at their heels; there was a perverse thrill at being routed by the famous Desert Fox, who, one artilleryman conceded, “was slapping us around like schoolboys. It was discouraging and humiliating but, more than that, it was fantastic.”
Panic built slowly. Nurses evacuating a French hospital gave away everything that could not be heaped onto a dray cart, and GIs took off with alarm clocks, letter openers, and bottles of peach brandy. At the American 77th Evacuation Hospital more than 600 burned and otherwise wounded men lay head to foot in green ward tents to avoid breathing in one another’s faces. Pallid medics donated pint after pint of their own blood for transfusions until word came to “pack and run.” They packed and they ran in the moonlight. Patients swaddled in Army blankets were hoisted into open trucks, lightless except for hooded lanterns on the rear bumpers. As the convoy rumbled west toward Kasserine Pass, snow dusted the olive-drab lumps in the truck beds. “Retreat,” said one surgeon, “is a ghastly word.” A sardonic GI supplied the perfect reply in a letter home: “Americans never retreat but withdraw.”
Night deepened. Battle sounds drew closer. Tracer fire flicked into the olive groves three miles east of Sbeïtla. “Shooting. Have to go,” a soldier scribbled in a letter, then added, “Never so scared in my life.” More units fled, some with orders and many without. French officers again harnessed men to carts, horses to gun carriages, and mules to broken trucks, all of which further clogged traffic on Highway 13. Howze implored Carleton Coon and his OSS colleagues to crouch in foxholes and flip Molotov cocktails at passing Tiger tanks. “We didn’t want to,” Coon later reported. “It was not OSS work.” Instead they played poker, using rifle cartridges for chips, and planted a few exploding mule turds. Joining the refugees was a Signal Corps pigeon platoon that had arrived in Sbeïtla on February 11 to supplement radio and telephone communications. No messages had yet been sent by wing; the handlers needed a week to settle their birds before they would home properly. Now 1,500 decidedly unsettled pigeons headed west in a swaying, cooing loft balanced on a truck bed.
At 8:30 P.M., engineers without warning blew up the pump house that fed the aqueduct to Sfax. Subsequent detonations demolished a railroad trestle east of Sbeïtla as well as road culverts and the aqueduct itself. Although most enemy tanks were still miles from Sbeïtla, the ammunition dump soon went up in a thunderous yellow roar heard across central Tunisia.
Retreating soldiers are always predisposed to believe the worst, and the men credited the blasts to enemy infiltrators. Panic that had been isolated now became general. Flight ensued. Terrified drivers tore through the narrow streets, crumpling fenders or veering into ditches. On Highway 13, vehicles raced three abreast like chariots. Arm-flapping officers tried to flag down their men only to be brushed aside, and soldiers unable to hitch a ride hied cross-country. Finding an infantry squad firing wildly into the night a young officer asked what the men were aiming at. One soldier looked up from his smoking M-1 long enough to answer, “I’ll be damned if I know, Lieutenant, but everyone else is shooting.” Others deepened their shame with casual cruelty. “We were next to a group of Arab houses,” a reconnaissance battalion soldier later wrote. “We decided to see what the inside of one of the houses was like so we ran into it with the half-track and knocked off the corner. Five women came out of the house and went over to another.” Tommies summoned to reinforce Sbeïtla fought their way through the floodtide. “Get that junk off the road,” snarled a British officer, “and let an army through.”
The fog of war lay thick on Orlando Ward, and had since the hostile debouchment at Faïd four days earlier. He rarely ventured from the 1st Armored Division command post, and he was hard put to conjure an accurate picture of the battlefield from the shrill dispatches filtering into his Sbeïtla cactus patch. Yet Ward remained calm, even cheerful, despite evidence that the Americans had lost two armored battalions, two infantry battalions, two artillery battalions, and sundry smaller units. Only Fredendall’s order on Tuesday evening to destroy the ammunition dump “annoyed and rattled” him. The blast seemed premature, a clear signal to foe and to friend of another American retirement.
Ward was further discomposed by reports that among those stampeding west were McQuillin and many CCA troops not already dead or captured. Old Mac had been awakened at 10:45 P.M. by flares and then machine-gun fire stitching the orchards east of town. Like a chessboard knight, he hopped rearward to the sprawling Roman ruins on the western outskirts, and kept right on hopping past the tomb of the martyred saint Jucundus. Colonel Stack, the CCC commander, watched McQuillin amble past with a French horse cavalry unit, then went to find Ward. “I told General Ward,” Stack recounted, “that if he thought that CCA was his front line, he was mistaken.” The general radioed McQuillin and found him “some miles in the rear,” Stack added. “Ward ordered McQuillin to stop the retreat of CCA and return to his original position.”
At one A.M. on February 17, Ward phoned Fredendall in Speedy Valley to warn of barbarians at the gate. The spearhead of perhaps ninety panzers, including nine Tigers, had pierced the American left flank three miles east of town. Ward did not know how long his division could stand and fight.
Fredendall immediately phoned Truscott in Constantine. The II Corps commander earlier had reported that “the picture…does not look too good,” but now his warning was dire. “[Fredendall] considered situation extremely grave, and uncertain of ability to hold,” Truscott wrote, scratching notes as fast as he could. Thirty minutes later, Fredendall called back: “Fears that we have lost 1st Armored Division,” Truscott scribbled. “Feels that First Army has not given credit to his reports as to gravity of situation.”
Truscott had his own spy at Sbeïtla, a colonel who sent him lyrical if poetically licensed private intelligence missives. Shortly after one A.M. the colonel reported that “tanks were fighting in the moonlight in Sbeïtla, and were all around Ward’s command post.” Truscott now concluded that Old Ironsides would soon be overrun. Fredendall took such counsel of his fears that he soon ordered Speedy Valley abandoned for a new corps headquarters in the primary school at Le Kouif, seventeen miles northeast of Tébessa. The tunnel project was forsaken forever, its incomplete shafts left as dank monuments to an American Ozymandias.
This farrago of bad tidings had the virtue of being wrong. The enemy was near but not that near, certainly not with almost a hundred tanks. (And no panzer was yet within eighty arduous road miles of Speedy Valley.) Enough stalwarts had chosen to stand fast that the German advance was checked in midcareer. “Strong enemy resistance,” the 21st Panzer reported after several skirmishes. With just sixty-five tanks, the panzer commander decided to await daybreak before pressing his attack. Further weakening the Axis cause, Arnim chose this moment to peel away part of the 10th Panzer Division for a thrust twenty-five miles to the northeast, where his tanks would find nothing but grief from mines and screaming sheets of Allied artillery fire.
Better yet from Ward’s perspective, his division had been reunited for the first time since Northern Ireland. Finally convinced that the main Axis attack had indeed come through Faïd Pass, Anderson authorized Fredendall to shift CCB and other American units sixty miles toward Sbeïtla.
“Move the big elephants to Sbeïtla, move fast, and come shooting!” Fredendall told Robinett. In two pachydermal columns they pounded south. Ward placed CCB on his right just east of town, and across Highway 13 the remnants of CCA anchored the left. CCC provided a rear-guard reserve just west of town. Robinett tromped about throughout that long Tuesday night, emplacing his tanks, clucking at the faint-hearts, and displaying all the swagger of a man keen to fight. When a fretful artilleryman voiced fear that his guns had been overrun, Robinett paraphrased Sherman: “When things are going badly at the rear, go to the front—they are always better up there.”
In truth, things were not so fine at the front either. CCA had buckled beyond repair, and so had the confidence of the high command. “Everything is going badly at Sbeïtla,” Anderson told a French general. At 1:30 on Wednesday morning, the British commander authorized Fredendall to abandon Sbeïtla, while asking that Ward hold until the next evening so fallback fortifications could be dug at Kasserine Pass in the west and at Sbiba in the north. Fredendall protested that by the next evening Old Ironsides would be reduced to smoking scrap. Anderson agreed to compromise by setting eleven A.M. on Wednesday as the decampment hour. Before dawn, the plan changed yet again to give Fredendall more discretion, and Ward was instructed to hold at all costs until hearing otherwise.
“I have had another argument with the big boss here,” Fredendall told Truscott, who now had a stenographer listening in on his phone conversations. “He wanted me to hold all day at Sbeïtla…. It would have been all tangled up in another dog fight. Finally I got them to agree to let me go ahead. They not only want to tell you what to do but how to do it. Anyway, I think we are going to get our tail out the door alright.”
As for Drake, Fredendall added, “We have to write him off.”
“Reference to Waters?” Truscott asked.
“No, we don’t know a damn thing about Waters.”
Fredendall’s tone softened. The tunneling sounds at Speedy Valley had been supplanted by the clamor of men striking their tents and loading their trucks. His corps was in tatters, already thrown back fifty miles with 2,500 casualties and no end in sight. His career, too, seemed wrecked. For over thirty-five years he had served in uniform, built a name, earned his stars. But surely Eisenhower would need a scapegoat.
“When do you think the old man would like to have my suit?” Fredendall asked.
Truscott hesitated. “He knows that you are doing the best you can do.”
“Sometimes,” Fredendall said, “that is not good enough.”
Ward and Robinett braced for an attack at dawn on Wednesday, February 17, but no attack came. Position, numbers, and morale lay with the Axis, yet they held back, snuffling cautiously rather than slamming into the disordered Americans. Kesselring remained in East Prussia. Arnim chased his wild goose to the northeast. Rommel ate couscous in Gafsa and drafted petitions to Comando Supremo. Although Luftwaffe squadrons battered Sbeïtla and other Allied strongholds, there was no galloping urgency. The Axis seemed afflicted with the same languor that had marked Allied movements early in the Tunisian campaign, and each passing hour permitted reinforcement and repositioning.
Ward regained his swash. “We stood in the cactus patch all morning and on into the afternoon,” a sergeant told his parents. “With the glasses and then with the eye, you could see the dots of the armored fighting vehicles. The general, one of the finest men, stood on the skyline smoking a cigar, very calm, which was good on the nerves of a number of very jittery people, including me.”
Fifteen minutes before noon, the attack resumed. Wehrmacht infantry advanced down Highway 13 and panzers struck CCB on the American right, where Robinett had strung a tank destroyer battalion in a picket line several miles east of town. A few crews fired on the converging panzers, but most broke for the rear; then all did. Rather than leapfrogging back by company as planned, the half-tracks “just turned and kept going,” one soldier later recalled. “Everybody was throwing out smoke pots, so it made a dramatic scene.”
At 1:15 P.M., the panzers sidled toward the 2nd Battalion of the 13th Armored Regiment, whose commander, Henry Gardiner, had fought with gallantry around Tébourba nearly three months before. Gardiner’s tankers still mounted the antique M-3 General Lee, but they had been given time to burrow into a wadi and to camouflage artistically with wet clay. “I counted thirty-five enemy tanks come rolling over a rise in the ground almost to the direct front, a distance of about three miles,” Gardiner reported. Waiting; waiting; and then at point-blank range he cried, “Boys, let them have it!” Fire leaped from the wadi, striking fifteen panzers and destroying five. The volley “stopped the attack cold,” Gardiner added.
For an hour. Then the panzers came again, angry now, with a sweeping attack around the American right five miles south of Sbeïtla. Artillery gun chiefs screamed for more ammunition, their open mouths bright red O’s in faces black with grime and powder. Between shellings, men at the last pitch of exhaustion napped sitting upright. “We were all very shaky after the battle of the night before because we had little or no sleep and because we had lost quite a few men,” one artilleryman recounted.
Gardiner warned Robinett that his tanks would “soon be in serious trouble.” At 2:30 P.M., Ward authorized CCB to withdraw behind her two sister combat commands. For three hours Gardiner’s men fought a deft rearguard battle at a cost of nine General Lees, including the battalion commander’s. With his driver dead and his tank in flames, Gardiner hid until sunset, then fled west in the wake of his retreating army.
At dusk, German and Italian troops edged into Sbeïtla. It was rubble, an empty, burning, stinking place of demolished bridges and dribbling water mains. Only the Roman temples and St. Jucundus’s crypt, ruins already, had escaped destruction. Robinett might have invoked another Sherman aphorism: “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.” Darkness slipped down on the Allied column winding west into the thick forests beyond Kasserine Pass, the defile that would give this two-week sequence of battles its name. “The night was heavy with low cloud, and always that intolerable wind…and all the inevitable turmoil and confusion of night movement,” wrote A. D. Divine. “Clouds were red with the burning of the Sbeïtla dumps.”
Again the Allies had been drubbed. But in the glooming a spark kindled among those who had stood fast and fought well at the end. Pride, vengeance, anger came, yes, and a sense that enough was enough, that from this havoc a ruthless killing spirit could emerge. The war was coming inside them now. Among those trudging beneath the dark towering peaks of the Grand Dorsal was Ernie Pyle, who considered the retreat “damned humiliating” even as he wrote of the soldiers around him:
You need feel no shame nor concern about their ability…. There is nothing wrong with the common American soldier. His fighting spirit is good. His morale is okay. The deeper he gets into a fight, the more of a fighting man he becomes.
Pyle was telling his readers what he knew they wanted to hear. Oddly enough, it was the truth.