Military history

“Order, Counter-order, and Disorder”

DEMOLITIONISTS laid slabs of guncotton through the vast dumps at Tébessa and awaited orders to fire the stores. As rumors of an approaching enemy horde flew across the Bahiret Foussana, 400 quartermaster troops scurried helter-skelter. The supply depot’s arsenal consisted of two machine guns and a single 37mm cannon. Sentries paced the ancient walls and peered eastward for telltale coils of dust. A British officer marinated in the lore of Khartoum and Balaklava proposed repelling any approaching panzers with grenades flung from the parapets. Four hundred thousand gallons of gasoline in five-gallon flimsies were loaded into boxcars for evacuation, but more than a million meals’ worth of rations would be abandoned if the enemy attacked. Hatchet-wielding cooks stalked like madmen through Tébessa’s coops and hutches, slaughtering every chicken and rabbit rather than leave them for the Germans. The little garrison gorged on stew for breakfast.

As always in the great clash of armies, the small dramas draw the eye. Ted Roosevelt was helping the French near Ousseltia when word came that his son, Quentin—a twenty-five-year-old artillery officer, named for an uncle killed in the Great War—had been gravely wounded in a strafing near Kasserine. A Messerschmitt bullet had pierced his lung and lodged in his liver. The ambulance driver raced to three field hospitals before finding one not yet fleeing the German advance. Roosevelt wrote to his wife, Eleanor:

On the morning of the second day he ran a temperature of 104 and they thought he was dying. They got a message through to me. I started for there after dark. I had not slept for two days and the hospital was sixty miles away, sixty miles of night driving thinking I’d find him dead.

He found him alive. Asleep on a cot in a mud-floor tent, Quentin had made the turn. “I went over and kissed him as if he were a little boy again and indeed I did feel he was our little boy,” Roosevelt wrote. “I’m feeling buoyant.”

Little buoyancy could be found at II Corps headquarters in the school at Le Kouif. Although Fredendall fought off despondency with occasional nips of bourbon, one officer described him sitting on the school’s front steps “head in hands and giving every evidence of being both bewildered and defeated.” George Marshall had once said of Fredendall, “I like that man. You can see determination all over his face.” Now that face mostly showed despair; he had begun referring to his adversary as “Professor Rommel.” Whistling tunelessly while staring at the map, he abruptly turned to an aide and said, “If I were back home, I’d go out and paint the garage doors. There’s a lot of pleasure in painting a garage door.”

Alerted to the possible abandonment of Tébessa, General Juin hurried to Le Kouif, where he found the corps commander perched on a packing crate in an empty office. Tossing his left-handed salute, Juin urged the Americans to stand fast. Surrendering Tébessa meant offering the panzers a flat, open avenue to Constantine, a strategic prize.

Fredendall shrugged. He had no reserves. His corps was reeling. He would do whatever Anderson ordered.

Juin drew himself up. “My wife and my children are in Constantine,” he said in a fractured voice. “If you carry out this order, I shall remove from you the Constantine Division in order to defend Tébessa and we will get ourselves killed there.”

Fredendall stirred from his crate, his lethargy momentarily dispelled. “I saw his attitude change,” Juin later recounted, “and throwing his arms round my neck, he swore not to abandon Tébessa.”

At least not yet. Fredendall repaired to his new bivouac, an elegant mansion owned by a Vichy mining executive. After Speedy Valley’s sepulchral chill, the house seemed decadently cozy. Sitting by the oil stove in his slippers, he instructed his chief of staff, “Dabney, open up the bottle. Let’s have a drink.” On the evening of February 20, with Kasserine Pass gone and Professor Rommel running amok, the 1st Division artillery chief arrived after a muddy jeep ride that left his face so spattered he appeared to be wearing a plaster mask. “Reported to Fredendall who said that he had a very important mission for me but it could wait until after dinner,” Brigadier General Clift Andrus recorded. “Dinner! Tablecloths, silver, waiters in white, beef—even ice cream.”

“I’m going to be the goat in this,” Fredendall told one of his lieutenants. That was most probable, unless he could find a substitute: Fredendall’s pale eye fell on Pinky Ward. At 3:15 P.M. on Friday, he cabled Eisenhower an “eyes only” message:

Ward appears tired out, worried, and has informed me that to bring new tanks in would be the same as turning them over to the Germans. Under these circumstances do not think he should continue in command although he has done the best he could. Need someone with two fists immediately.

While Eisenhower pondered this unsettling request in Algiers, the Allied command structure along the Grand Dorsal grew yet more convoluted. With part of the 1st Division dispatched to Bou Chebka, twenty miles southwest of Kasserine Pass, Fredendall initially gave Terry Allen the mission of commanding a large area that included French and British units. On Saturday morning, as defenses in the pass collapsed, he ordered Robinett to take over the remnants of Stark’s force and to counterattack with CCB. Ward again was excluded from the chain of command.

Several hours later, Fredendall thought better of handing Rommel the remaining American tanks on a platter. In an impromptu conference over the hood of his staff car near Thala, he instead ordered Robinett to defend the approaches to Tébessa. But he seemed listless and defeated: “There is no use, Robbie, they have broken through and you can’t stop them,” he said, then added, “If you get away with this one, Robbie, I will make you a field marshal.”

Robinett’s defense of the western avenues would be “coordinated” by Brigadier Dunphie, who was blocking the northern approaches to Thala, even though Dunphie lacked compatible radios or any other means to communicate with the thousands of American troops scattered across nearly a thousand square miles. As one final twist in a very twisted plot, Anderson—surer with each hour that Fredendall’s generalship was unlikely to resolve this mess—assigned his own candidate, Brigadier Cameron G. G. Nicholson, to command the British, French, and American forces now assembled south of Thala.

Fredendall retired to his wainscoted dining room to fret. Anderson’s First Army headquarters was hardly more composed. “Everything was confusion there,” reported one American colonel who watched a British officer slap a hysterical comrade across the face and bark, “Get hold of yourself.” A British Guardsman captured the sentiment of every man in the Allied ranks: “the most perfect example of order, counter-order, and disorder that has happened in my experience.”

Into the muddle stepped a man orderly in appearance, thought, and deed. General Harold Alexander had at last arrived from Cairo, ready to lead all ground forces in Tunisia, as agreed at Casablanca. Designated the 18th Army Group, his new command comprised First Army in the north and Eighth Army just entering Tunisia in the south. After visiting Eisenhower in Algiers on Monday, the fifteenth—“Your mission is the early destruction of all Axis forces in Tunisia,” the commander-in-chief advised—Alexander conferred with Anderson on Thursday night and toured II Corps on Friday while his staff of seventy officers and 500 enlisted men settled in at Constantine. Officially scheduled to take over on Saturday, February 20, Alexander found the front so disorganized that he advanced his own investiture by a day. At 7:20 P.M. on Friday night, four hours after Fredendall had asked for Ward’s removal, he cabled Eisenhower, “In view of situation I have assumed command.” In a note to Montgomery he confessed himself “very shocked. There has been no policy and no plan. The battle area is all mixed up with British, French, and American units.”

He cut a dashing figure in his red-banded cap, with his open tunic, leather jacket, and corduroy trousers tucked into Turkish knee boots. He was lean and bronzed, with deep creases at the corners of his mouth that became furrows for the tips of his mustaches, and his eyes were crinkled from a career spent squinting into the middle distance. He was the third son of the Earl of Caldeon and had been raised in patrician privilege on an immense estate at Ulster. (Once asked to cite manly virtues, he proposed “natural good manners.”) Considered “able more than clever,” he had aspired to become a painter and then president of the Royal Academy. Instead, he attended Sandhurst, soon becoming the youngest lieutenant colonel in the British Army and later its youngest general. His combat record over thirty years rivaled Hector’s. Rudyard Kipling wrote of him, “At the worst crises he was both inventive and cordial and…would somehow contrive to dress the affair in high comedy.” When a staff officer at Dunkirk told him, “Our position is catastrophic,” Alexander was said to have replied, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand long words.” Most recently, as Montgomery’s superior, he had helped engineer the British victory at El Alamein. Suave, phlegmatic, and immaculate—“the archetypal Edwardian hero”—he was Britain’s most admired soldier and Churchill’s favorite general.

Some thought him stupid. “Wellington without the wit,” one biographer called him. “Intellect was not his most conspicuous asset.” Despite his command of French, German, Hindi, and Urdu, Brooke and Montgomery both considered him an “empty vessel.” Another British officer confessed, “I cannot imagine his ever producing a plan, let alone a good plan.” Others were charmed by his unpretentiousness—he would tap-dance in regimental talent shows—and sangfroid. Harold Macmillan likened Alexander’s mess to high table at an Oxford college, where war was “politely ignored” and conversation rambled over “the campaigns of Belisarius, the advantages of classical over Gothic architecture, or the best ways to drive pheasants in flat country.”

Brilliantly slow or slowly brilliant, Alexander had arrived, he was in charge, and he was appalled. To Churchill and Brooke he wrote, “Real fault has been lack of direction from above from the very beginning.” He considered Anderson a “solid soldier, rather dull.” But, Alexander later observed, the First Army commander “was allowing the Germans to hurry him and he didn’t control his headquarters…. He had lost the initiative.”

Yet it was the Yanks who alarmed him more. By misfortune, the first Americans he encountered were swaggering Anglophobes, including the mercurial General Joseph W. Stilwell in Burma and now Fredendall in Tunisia. The latter was “utterly shaken,” Alexander concluded, with no idea how to redeem himself; his staff was “dithery.” “The poor body has a great weakness from its illness,” he had said of II Corps on February 18. The troops appeared “soft, green, and quite untrained…. They lack the will to fight.” American incapacity horrified him in those first hours and days; the impression lingered to damage Allied comity in Italy, where Alexander would serve as commander-in-chief.

“My main anxiety is the poor fighting value of the Americans,” he now told London. “They simply do not know their job as soldiers and this is the case from the highest to the lowest…. Perhaps the weakest link of all is the junior leader, who just does not lead, with the result that their men don’t really fight.” In a scathing comment to an American journalist he encapsulated this failure of young officers to look after their men: “You know, your chaps don’t wear the old school tie.” Unless the U.S. Army shaped up by the time an invasion of Europe was launched, he warned Brooke, it “will be quite useless and play no useful part whatsoever.”

Alexander’s mind lacked the subtlety to envision a day when this raw clay had grown tall or to apprehend the many differences between British and American men-at-arms, so easily masked by their common language. Having participated in several catastrophic retreats himself, he should have recognized that defeat sometimes carried annealing and even salutary properties. A great sorting out was under way: the competent from the incompetent, the courageous from the fearful, the lucky from the unlucky. It would happen faster in the American Army than it had in the British. Alexander was not wholly wrong, but he was wrong.

Three separate actions unfolded during or just after the fall of Kasserine Pass. From the Allied perspective, one was bad and two were good, a ratio contravening the run of luck heretofore. They unfolded east to west in geographic as well as temporal sequence.

First, Rommel’s northern thrust up Highway 17 with the 21st Panzer Division failed. As the panzers rolled toward Le Kef on Friday morning, February 19—this was the right wing of Rommel’s double assault on Allied defenses—German intelligence concluded that all the troops straddling the road at Sbiba, twenty-five miles above Sbeïtla, were French and British. In fact, eight American infantry battalions drawn from the 34th and 1st Divisions and backed by artillery held the terrain east of the blacktop. “If they attack us in force we cannot hold, but by God we will,” declared a 1st Division officer. Battered by British fire six miles south of Sbiba, truckborne grenadiers and twenty-five panzers veered eastward in an attempt to perforate the American flank. The German attack closed to within 600 yards of entrenched Yank infantry, then faltered; by midafternoon a dozen German tanks had been wrecked by artillery fire, and enemy corpses littered the desert. One GI likened the effect of 105mm shells on armor hulls to “taking shoe boxes and shoving them flat.”

A renewed assault Saturday morning by forty panzers and two Wehrmacht infantry battalions on the American flank quickly collapsed. With Rommel’s reluctant approval, the 21st Panzer backed off and dug in below Sbiba. In the reckoning that followed, French infantrymen seized half a dozen Arabs accused of spying or sabotage, stood them against the wall of a mosque, and dispatched them in a single smoking volley. A French captain strolled from body to slumped body administering the coup de grâce with a pistol bullet to the brain.

Checked on the right, Rommel turned his full attention to the left. The fall of Kasserine Pass suggested that the western, roundabout route through Thala was the easier way to Le Kef, and now the second action unspooled. Desperate to slow German momentum, Brigadier Dunphie ordered a small British rear guard down the Thala road toward Kasserine.

The result was foreordained, if valiant. At noon on February 20, tanks from the 8th Panzer Regiment slammed into the British two miles north of Kasserine Pass on Highway 17. For the next six hours, the Tommies yielded one untenable hill after another. “We were forced back, and on every ridge we left a few more of our tanks, derelict, perhaps burning,” wrote one soldier. A correspondent described crewmen fleeing their burning hulks “like caterpillars dropping from a flaming nest. They run zig-zag, eyes staring white in smoke-blackened faces, strings of German machine gun fire lashing them as they go.” The squadron commander, Major A. N. Beilby, strolled from tank to tank directing counterfire until shell fragments killed him. By six P.M., there were no tanks left to direct and every artillery officer lay dead with Beilby. Survivors scoured north “as hard as stiff legs and flapping revolvers in the leg holster would permit,” chased by dusk-brightened tracers.

Rommel again held the initiative, but with it came a familiar conundrum: now what? From his command post near Kasserine, he studied the map, then motored through the pass to study the ground. He had twice divided his army, at Sbeïtla and at Kasserine. “I hoped to split the enemy forces far more than our own,” he later explained. But now he lacked the strength to attack simultaneously north toward Thala and west toward Tébessa. Thala led north to Le Kef. But he could hardly ignore CCB and the other American forces lurking somewhere west, beyond the Bahiret Foussana, perhaps waiting to counterattack to sever the Axis path of retreat through Kasserine. Despite its grievous losses, II Corps still had 150 tanks.

A reconnaissance report at 11:25 A.M. on February 21 pushed Rommel to a decision that led to the third action in this sequence, which in turn would lead to Kasserine’s finale. Twenty miles west of the pass and parallel to the Algerian border, a jagged escarpment known as Djebel el Hamra ran north to south, crossed by the packed-dirt roadbed of Highway 13. Wehrmacht scouts reported that no substantial Allied forces could be found east of el Hamra; the shallow bowl of the Bahiret Foussana was empty. Without waiting for confirmation from Luftwaffe pilots that his left flank was indeed secure, Rommel ordered the 10th Panzer to continue up Highway 17 toward Thala in his main attack; the Afrika Korps would push to el Hamra and safeguard the flank by sealing the passes from Tébessa and Bou Chebka.

The scouts were wrong. Djebel el Hamra and its lesser foothills bristled with Americans, on good ground and in formidable strength. In the south, Terry Allen held the Bou Chebka Pass with the 16th Infantry. “Well, boys,” Allen announced, “this is our sector and we will fight in place.” To the north, on the east face of the ridge and in a thin screen across the Bahiret Foussana, Robinett commanded eight battalions, eleven artillery batteries—nearly fifty guns—and a hodgepodge of others, including Senegalese riflemen and 700 lost souls snagged in a straggler line. Thick pines and rocky redoubts provided excellent concealment along a 4,000-yard front. From his command post near Highway 13, Robinett could see twenty miles to Kasserine Pass across a foggy plain dotted with pear orchards and cactus farms. Cocksure as ever, he knew the enemy would come his way. “It was,” Robinett later claimed, “simply written on the ground.”

Anderson on this very Saturday had reported that “American fighting value was very low”—the Yank commanders, he added, were especially “frightful.” Yet a new bravado animated American ranks. Allen captured the mood in a message to Bill Darby, whose Rangers guarded against enemy infiltrators in the south: “There is a hell of a mess on our front…. Can you send me one reinforced company with a hairy-chested commander with big nuts?” Darby sent Company C, whose captain presumably possessed the requisite anatomical credentials, then told his own men, “Onward we stagger. And if the tanks come, may God help the tanks.”

The tanks came, but at Robinett. General Buelowius surged forward along the Hatab’s south bank at two P.M. on February 21 with forty panzers followed in trace by lorried infantry. Italian troops from the 5th Bersaglieri Battalion joined the attack, recognizable in their plumed pith helmets and distinctive running march. But within an hour, the weight of massed American howitzers began to tell. Shells burst around Axis formations tacking for cover where no cover existed. German 88s answered from the riverbank but Buelowius lacked enough guns for effective counterbattery fire. By four P.M. the attackers had drawn within range of American tanks and plunging fire from antitank guns hidden in the rocks. Even for the Afrika Korps it was too galling: at six P.M.Buelowius broke off the attack, still four miles short of Djebel el Hamra. Shades in feathers and coal-scuttle helmets backed into the dusk until searching shell fire could no longer range them. Buelowius had lost ten tanks, Robinett but one.

Repulsed on the right, Rommel ordered Buelowius to make a wide envelopment to the left. He meant to flank the Americans in the south and catch them from the rear. In darkness and teeming rain, Buelowius sidled across the mud; by first light on the twenty-second, his men were not only drenched and disorganized but lost, having wandered seven miles south of Djebel el Hamra.

Undeterred, two grenadier battalions attacked at dawn where they found themselves, just above Bou Chebka Pass. By eight A.M., five American howitzers and three lesser guns had been captured, along with thirty vehicles. The American line buckled and fell back, leaving a knobby, fog-shrouded salient known as Hill 812 covered with howling German grenadiers.

It seemed all too familiar: high hopes after a credible initial clash; an indefatigable enemy who pressed the attack; a brittle defense that fractured under stress. By chance, the Afrika Korps had struck the seam where Robinett’s authority ended and Allen’s began. Thirty-five miles away, the II Corps command post was feverishly packing for Constantine and Le Kef in the fear that Le Kouif would soon be overrun. Spooked by the German advances on what one Tommy dubbed Panic Sunday, officers joked about preparing their Oflag—prison camp—bags.

Yet something had hardened in this army. Even as violent death swept the ranks, men stood their ground. The line stiffened. The Afrika Korps was twenty-three air miles from Tébessa; it would come not an inch closer. At nine A.M. the fog lifted, exposing hundreds of grenadiers now marooned on Hill 812. Buelowius ordered two dozen panzers and the 5th Bersaglieri to push northwest at Djebel el Hamra as a diversion from his trapped infantry; the force came within two miles of the ridgeline before stalling under American fire from three sides.

“The air was full of hardware and smoke and the sounds of a real scrap,” Clift Andrus later recalled. If ever a man appeared propitiously it was Andrus, the imperturbable 1st Division artillery chief known as Mr. Chips: a bemused, bespectacled figure with a pipe, a walking stick, and a small mustache.

“The most skillful and practical artillery officer I know,” Allen called him, and now Andrus lived up to that praise. The Americans had many guns but no one to direct them in concert. Andrus rounded up wandering gunners and put them into the line. “Eyes at the back of their heads, whiskers, mud, and every sign of utterly exhausted men,” he wrote of one battery. Told that the Americans were about to counterattack, “most of them started to cry” in sheer relief. Ax-swinging gunners felled pines on the djebel’s front slope to clear fields of fire. And what fields they were. “An artilleryman’s dream,” Andrus reported. “The valley floor was covered with targets of every description, from tanks and eighty-eight batteries to infantry and trucks.”

A single battalion, the 27th Field Artillery, fired more than 2,000 rounds, and others were nearly as prodigal. By two P.M., the milling Afrika Korps was in retreat. Soon a headlong rout of terrorized soldiers heaved eastward. Enemy dead lay like gray flagstones across the Bahiret Foussana. The 16th Infantry drove the grenadiers from Hill 812, recapturing intact every gun and vehicle lost that morning. Henry Gardiner, who again found himself in the thick of the fighting, described “one of the most exhilarating sights…. A column of prisoners came marching around a bend in the wadi with their hands held high, led by one of our tankers with a tommy gun.”

An American soldier strolled through a makeshift POW cage filling a helmet with aluminum stars—rank insignia of the Italian private—then announced to Robinett that he had “captured a whole flock of Italian brigadier generals.” Robinett plucked two from the pile for his own shoulders. He had been looking for stars since his promotion to general officer before Christmas.

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