Military history

“This Place Is Too Hot”

THE Grand Dorsal extends northeast to southwest for 200 miles before petering out beyond Fériana. Three gaps pierce the range in the south, connecting Tunisia’s interior plateau to the Algerian highlands. The second and most dramatic of these is Kasserine Pass, twenty-five miles west of Sbeïtla, just beyond the scrofulous village of Kasserine. For millennia it has offered an invasion alley, west to east and back again. Where it is most constricted, at 2,000 feet above sea level, the pass is barely a mile wide.

Two formidable sentinels stand on the pass’s flanks. Djebel Chambi on the south is Tunisia’s tallest mountain at 5,064 feet, a forbidding massif that is thickly wooded almost to the crest. Djebel Semmama on the north, 4,447 feet high, turns a sheer face to the pass while offering gentler, scalable approaches from the east. The meandering Hatab River bisects the defile on a northwest-to-southeast heading; significantly, the steep-banked stream, which runs dry in summer but very wet in February, impedes movement between the northern and southern halves of the pass. Fissured with wadis and infested with cactus, Kasserine has an ambience familiar to anyone who has traveled in the American Southwest. It is a badlands.

Traveling west just beyond Kasserine village in the throat of the pass, the road forks. Highway 13, the left tine, continues westerly along the Hatab for another thirty miles to the Algerian border near Tébessa. Both road and river traverse the Bahiret Foussana, a broad valley of scattered farms, as well as zinc, lead, and phosphate mines. The Hatab terrain has been described as “a gigantic, crudely corrugated shed roof draining into a badly bent and twisted gutter.” The right tine, designated Highway 17, skirts Djebel Semmama to ramble due north for thirty miles to the hilltop town of Thala and then another forty to Le Kef.

Kasserine Pass is not impregnable—nothing is, short of heaven’s gate—but an Army history notes that it “offers such advantages to defense that a sufficient force could exact an exorbitant price.” Fredendall’s II Corps possessed a sufficient force, but unfortunately for the Americans that force was not arrayed at the pass. The remnants of Ward’s 1st Armored Division had been ordered to reassemble in the uplands south of Tébessa to protect the supply dumps; the rest of the corps was scattered, as usual.

“I am holding a lot of mountain passes against armor with three and a half battalions of infantry,” Fredendall told Truscott just before two P.M. on February 17. “If [the enemy] get together any place a couple of infantry battalions, they might smoke me out.”

“The artillery of the 9th Division are on the way,” Truscott replied.

“If you can get me a combat team of infantry—I haven’t got a damn bit of reserve.”

“I will do the best I can.”

“I need a combat team of infantry worse than hell,” Fredendall repeated. “All I have got is three and a half battalions of infantry. They are not enough.”

Fredendall sounded like a man running out of tether. Eisenhower was shipping 800 soldiers daily from Casablanca—roughly a battalion a day—but few would arrive in Tunisia before the end of February. “There isn’t any hope of getting a combat team up here for a number of days,” Truscott said slowly. “The infantry of the 9th Division is moving just as fast as it can now.”

“We can expect a little reinforcement?”

“Not a hell of a lot.”

Thus the initial defense of Kasserine fell to the 19th Combat Engineer Regiment, 1,200 men singularly miscast for the task. Since arriving at the front six weeks earlier, the engineers had worked almost exclusively on road construction, except for those diverted to dig the now-abandoned tunnels at Speedy Valley. The regiment had failed to complete rifle training before shipping overseas, and only one man had ever heard shots fired in anger. The regimental arsenal included fifty-four dump trucks and half a dozen air compressors.

At nine P.M. on February 17, in chill fog and spitting rain, these ersatz infantrymen finished forming a three-mile skirmish line across the throat of the pass just west of the road fork. For the next thirty-six hours, while the Germans consolidated their winnings down the valley, they waited, lying at night like spoons in a drawer to stay warm, prey to anxiety and tactical pathos. Machine guns were badly sited, foxholes were too shallow, and barbed wire remained mostly on the spools. Nearly every man had entrenched on the floor of the pass, rather than the adjacent heights. Most commanders knew, at least in theory, that a valley could not be held without also controlling its shoulders. But, as one officer later observed, much of the American campaign in Tunisia involved “trying to draw a line between what we knew and what we did.”

Just beyond the Roman ruins west of Sbeïtla, Rommel tried to draw his own line between what he wanted to do and what he had been told to do. Hands clasped behind his back, goggles perched on his visor, he studied the distant peaks of Semmama and Chambi. That way led seventy miles to Tébessa and the great supply dumps he had hoped to despoil before following the glory road to Bône. But it also offered, via Highway 17 through Thala, a backdoor route to Le Kef, the objective ordered by Comando Supremo.

A more direct and slightly shorter path to Le Kef could be had by taking Highway 71 north for eighty miles from Sbeïtla along the eastern flank of the Grand Dorsal. The enemy would certainly contest both routes. Where would the defenses be softer? Left, through Kasserine Pass, or right, directly toward Le Kef? Rommel studied the terrain with his field glasses while staff officers in slouch hats toed the ground with their double-laced desert boots.

His choice had been complicated by Arnim, who instead of giving Rommel the entire 10th Panzer had held back half the division’s tanks, including the Tigers, on a thin claim of needing them in the north. While denouncing the “pigheadedness” of his two African commanders, Kesselring had yet to return from East Prussia to adjudicate their squabble. Kesselring believed the order from Comando Supremo contained enough ambiguity to permit Rommel a full attack on Tébessa before he turned toward Le Kef. But Kesselring was not here and Rommel—demonstrating an atypical obedience possibly infused with spite—chose to believe that Le Kef must be his first objective.

At 4:50 A.M. on Friday, February 19, Rommel issued his orders: the Afrika Korps was to drive west and capture Kasserine Pass; 21st Panzer would attack north on Highway 71 toward Le Kef; 10th Panzer—or as much of the division as could be mustered—would concentrate at Sbeïtla, ready to exploit whichever route seemed easier. With two roads diverging before him, Rommel would divide his force and travel both.

Even at his distant remove Fredendall recognized the vulnerability of Kasserine Pass. He peeled away a battalion from Terry Allen’s 1st Division and shoved it forward to join the 19th Engineers, along with a four-gun French battery and some tank destroyers. That brought the number of defenders to 2,000. In another call to Truscott late Thursday morning, he asserted that “the 1st Armored gave them a good licking”—a triumph that existed mostly in II Corps imaginations—while asking for 120 replacement Sherman tanks. Truscott could offer fifty-two, nearly enough to outfit a battalion, and he chose not to reveal that Eisenhower had decided to hold back more than 200 other newly arrived Shermans for fear of losing them all.

At eight that evening, Fredendall phoned Colonel Alexander Stark, commander of Allen’s 26th Infantry Regiment, who was south of Tébessa.

“Alex, I want you to go to Kasserine right away and pull a Stonewall Jackson. Take over up there.”

Stark hesitated. “You mean tonight, General?”

“Yes, Alex, right away.”

It took Stark nearly twelve hours to pick his way across the dark bowl of the Bahiret Foussana, alive with challenge—“Snafu!”—and countersign—“Damned right!” He arrived in the pass at 7:30 on Friday morning, just as the Germans did. Unlike the Confederate general whose military genius he was now to replicate, Stark knew little of the capacity or disposition of his troops, many of whom had never heard of him. A quick inspection of the misty pass revealed a predicament even Stonewall would have been hard put to salvage. Except for a single platoon positioned on the slopes of Djebel Semmama, all four infantry companies occupied low ground on the left side of the pass; likewise on the right, where one engineer platoon held Djebel Chambi and three companies held the flats. To shift troops from one side of the defile to the other would require a ten-mile detour to the nearest bridge over the Hatab River. Antitank mines had simply been dumped, rather than buried, on likely enemy approaches. Another 60,000 mines and 5,000 booby traps were on their way from Algeria by cargo plane and truck, but the arrival time was uncertain. Fredendall had also asked Anderson for thirty tons of barbed wire, and every platoon was pleading for sandbags, shovels, and picks.

A German attempt at dawn to seize the pass in a coup de main had been repulsed with good shooting from the French 75s; the Afrika Korps reconnaissance battalion bounced back as if brushing a hot stove. But at ten A.M., enemy artillery began falling around Stark’s command tent three miles west of the Kasserine narrows. “Thirty-five to forty trucks brought up enemy infantry at 10:15,” reported a staff officer. “They are making for high ground on our left.”

And, soon, on the right. Wraiths in field gray scrambled up the rocky inclines, flopping to fire before scuttling on. Machine-gunners crouched behind them with tripods and ammunition boxes, lashing the pass with flails of tracer fire. American reinforcements arrived early in the afternoon, including the regimental band, a tank platoon, and three companies from the 9th Division’s 39th Infantry. The badly laid mines sufficed to cripple five panzers below Djebel Chambi, and Stark’s spirits lifted despite German capture of the ridgeline below Semmama’s peak.

Shadows swallowed the pass when Stark received a late-afternoon visit from Brigadier Charles A. L. Dunphie, whose British 26th Armoured Brigade straddled the Thala road twenty miles behind the Americans. Stark pronounced the battle “well in hand,” despite “slight difficulties with communication” from artillery shells severing his phone lines. Dunphie suspected that Stark was mistaken, a suspicion reinforced when the brigadier ventured forward 400 yards in his staff car for a personal reconnaissance and came streaking back to the tent beneath a swarm of German bullets. Enemy infiltration past U.S. lines was as obvious as it was ubiquitous. The Americans had no reserves, and, Dunphie reported, even the “position of [Stark’s] own troops was vague, and in particular he could not tell me where he had laid minefields beyond the fact that they had laid all they could get hold of.” In short, Dunphie concluded, Stark “had completely lost control of events…. I thought Stark a nice old boy—gallant but quite out of his depth.” Returning to Thala at seven P.M., he reported to Anderson that conditions were “very poor at the pass.” For his part, Stark dubbed Dunphie “that blockhead.” Even in the face of mortal peril the cousins could not forbear their squabbling.

Stark had not yet “completely lost control of events.” That would happen in the next few hours. But Anderson chose this moment to issue a stand-or-die edict effective at eight P.M.: “The army commander directs that there will be no withdrawal from the positions now held by the First Army. No man will leave his post unless it is to counterattack.”

Even as this puff of gas circulated through the ranks, many a man was leaving his post, and not to counterattack. Enemy artillery fell with greater insistence as the night deepened. “The worst of it all was to see some of your best buddies next to you being shot down or blown up,” observed an engineer corporal. “I never knew that there could possibly be so many shells in the air at one time and so many explosions near you and still come out alive.” Compounding the terror was a new German weapon deployed for the first time, the Nebelwerfer, a six-barreled mortar that “stonked” targets with a half-dozen 75-pound high-explosive rounds soon known as screaming meemies or moaning minnies because the wail they made in flight was said to resemble “a lot of women sobbing their hearts out.”

Night fever spread through the engineer ranks holding Stark’s right. “A considerable number of men left their positions and went to the rear,” an engineer officer reported. Some were corraled and herded back to the line; more simply melted into the night. Stark’s left was even shakier. At 8:30 P.M., enemy patrols overran the infantry battalion command post. German infiltrators cut off the solitary company on the slopes of Djebel Semmama, then seized Point 1191, the mountain’s most important ridge. Many GIs who eluded capture were subsequently robbed of their clothes and weapons by Arab brigands. “In some instances the Arabs got the drop on the men with M-1 and ’03 rifles they had already obtained,” a chagrined company commander told the provost marshal.

Bad as the bad night had been, the foggy morning of February 20 was worse. Rommel rose early to visit an Italian Centauro Division battalion sweeping into the pass from the southeast. At 10:30 A.M. he drove to Kasserine village, passing the bloated bodies of dead American drivers still behind the wheels of their charred vehicles. On a rail bridge spanning the Hatab River, Rommel met General Karl Buelowius, commander of the Afrika Korps, and General Fritz Freiherr von Broich, commander of the depleted and tardy 10th Panzer Division. The field marshal was displeased. Although Buelowius had ordered two grenadier battalions to resume their assault, the attack seemed sluggish. The Americans were crumbling but stubbornly refused to collapse. Unless the Germans punctured the pass this very day, Rommel believed, Allied reinforcements would clot the wound and prevent him from exploiting any breakthrough, particularly since the 21st Panzer had made little progress in its northward probe up Highway 71. He ordered three more battalions into action for a six-battalion attack—10th Panzer on the Axis right, Afrika Korps on the left—supported by five artillery battalions. After sharply berating Buelowius for torpor and Broich for not leading from the front—both stood glum as apprehended truants in their greatcoats and slouch hats—Rommel returned to the command post in the Kasserine train station.

The American collapse began in earnest by late morning. At 11:22 the 19th Engineers’ commander, Colonel A.T.W. Moore, warned Stark by radio that enemy infantry and tanks were forcing the pass along Highway 13. An engineer major bellowed: “Forget about our equipment and just save your life.” Artillery observers fled, explaining plausibly if ingloriously: “This place is too hot.” Companies disintegrated into platoons, platoons into squads, squads into solitary foot soldiers chased to the rear by screaming meemies. Half an hour later, Moore radioed, “Enemy overrunning our C.P.,” and bolted for high ground. He soon arrived at Stark’s tent to announce that the 19th Engineers no longer existed. In fact, with 128 casualties, the regiment had been sorely hurt but not obliterated.

The “uncoordinated withdrawal,” as Moore delicately called it, was mirrored on the American left. Stark ordered his artillery to fall back; French gunners, without tractors to move their 75s, wept as they spiked the guns and took to the hills. Colonel Theodore J. Conway, sent forward by Truscott to assess Stark’s plight, was shocked to see troops streaming past him for the rear. Briefly, he thought of Washington on horseback in the battle of New York, whacking his fleeing Continentals with the flat of his sword in a vain effort to turn them; having neither horse nor sword, Conway joined the exodus.

Stark held until after five P.M., when grenades began detonating near his command post in the Hatab gulch. With his staff and two hapless Army cameramen who had just arrived in search of “some action shots,” he hurried upriver before striking overland toward Thala. “We had to crawl,” Stark later recounted, “as in some instances [German soldiers] were not more than fifteen yards away.”

Casualties just among infantrymen totaled nearly 500 dead, wounded, and missing. Italian tanks drove five miles on Highway 13 toward Tébessa without seeing a trace of the Americans except for burning wreckage. At 3:35 A.M. on Sunday, February 21, precisely a week after the Axis offensive had begun, Fredendall’s headquarters warned: “Enemy reliably reported in possession of heights on either side of Kasserine Pass…. Attack also going towards Thala on a four-thousand-yard front and has advanced about two thousand yards beyond the pass.”

Kasserine Pass was lost. Anderson observed the occasion with another windy exhortation. “There is to be no further withdrawal under any excuse…. Fight to the last man.” That, the weary Yanks agreed, simply meant the British were willing to fight to the last American.

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