Military history

“Lay Roughly on the Tanks”

AS this action in the west played out, the final act in the Kasserine saga unfolded on Highway 17, where Rommel’s main attack rolled toward Thala, past the wreckage of the exterminated British rear guard. Exhausted and spattered with mud, the field marshal had felt, in the past two days, moments of exhilaration that rivaled the happiness he had known as a young officer in the Great War. An aide described Rommel’s arrival at the front early on Sunday, the twenty-first: “He suddenly appeared, just like the old days, among the very foremost infantry and tanks, in the middle of their attack, and had to hit the ground just like the riflemen when the enemy’s artillery opened up!”

By midafternoon all euphoria had leached away. Rommel saw that his Afrika Korps troops, long accustomed to the freewheeling combat of the open desert, had much to learn about seizing high ground and avoiding vulnerable valleys in hill country. And the 10th Panzer, now pressing up the Thala road with a spearhead of thirty tanks, twenty guns, and thirty-five infantry half-tracks, seemed sluggish. German intelligence had expected only Americans north of Kasserine Pass, but a pesky British armor force harassed the advancing German column through midday without offering decisive battle. Of Broich and the other panzer commanders Rommel would later complain, “They did not seem to realize that they were in a race with the Allied reserves.” For more than four hours, the German attack crept forward, Rommel in a staff car left of the highway and Broich on the right. Arabs in wool robes with pointed cowls flitted across the hills, stripping the dead of even their socks. Bodies lay spread-eagled, shockingly white.

The British had their own problems. Brigadier Nicholson, dispatched by Anderson to oversee Dunphie and the other defenders, failed to reach Thala until 3:15 Sunday morning, after spending six hours plowing through axle-deep mud in his Humber Box. Upon arriving, he found “no full-blooded orders” from Anderson but vague, irritating instructions to “act offensively” without risking the loss of armor that “might be wanted elsewhere.” Dunphie’s fifty tanks were mostly obsolete Valentines, no match for the panzers. His largest infantry unit—the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Leicestershire Regiment—had just arrived from England and “had no conception of what was coming to them,” Nicholson later noted. “I found it difficult to get a sense of urgency into them.” Except for five U.S. tank destroyers who joined the fight, a British officer reported that he had been unable to rally American stragglers passing by “at speed” with—as a Yank officer observed—“the usual story of being the only survivor.” All day long, hundreds of fleeing soldiers from Stark’s wrecked command drifted through Thala yelling, “He’s right behind us!” No one needed to ask who “he” was.

Absent full-blooded orders from Anderson, Nicholson issued his own to Dunphie: “You will ensure at all costs that the German armoured force on your front does not reach [Thala] before 1800 hours.” Twelve miles south of Thala, Dunphie stopped backpedaling at four P.M. and dug in. A mile away, the enemy assault line massed on a ridge with a precision that, as one Tommy reported, “was beautiful to watch but very frightening.”

With Rommel now in direct command, the panzers rumbled through the dismounted grenadiers, and the German line surged forward. Tank fire boomed across the hills. The outgunned Valentines, often suckered into betraying their positions with premature return fire, simply blew apart. After an hour of exceptional courage, Dunphie sounded retreat, minus fifteen tanks.

Back the British fell, scooting between cactus patches until they reached the ridge held by the Leicesters three miles south of Thala. “Machine gun fire could be seen snaking up the road straight for us,” one officer recalled. Dunphie stood “erect in his scout car, calmly conducting the battle over the wireless” before following the last Valentine into the perimeter behind billows of man-made smoke. It was 6:30 P.M. Darkness and rain draped the battlefield.

Dunphie was a gunner by trade, and he belatedly realized his mistake in not positioning artillery closer to the front. He had almost no guns available. Thala was held by a weak French battalion and a few other reinforcements quartered in the local brothel, “empty but heavy with cheap scent.” At an elevation of 3,300 feet, Thala had the feel of a highlands bastion, but holding it against a determined assault would be difficult with this feeble force. North of town the road straightened, the land flattened, and the route to Le Kef—forty miles away—lay undefended. “I felt strategic fear,” Juin later confessed, “for if Rommel broke through, all of North Africa was doomed.”

Almost on Dunphie’s heels, an armored column led by a Valentine clanked toward the British perimeter on Highway 17. Hatless soldiers lay smoking on the fenders of these apparent stragglers. The Leicesters, whom Nicholson had just berated for their half-dug foxholes and unlaid minefields, glanced up from their digging at the familiar turret silhouette. In better light they might have seen the name Apple Sammy stenciled on the Valentine’s flank. Apple Sammy had been captured at Tébourba three months earlier. “Keep away from my bloody trench,” a rifleman hollered at the passing tank. “You’re knocking it in.”

Like Greeks from a wooden horse, grenadiers spilled off the tanks and fell on the astonished defenders. Eight panzers, plus the duplicitous Apple Sammy, were inside the British harbor. Germans sprinted down the Leicester trench line, heaving grenades and spraying machine-pistol fire. Tank rounds destroyed the battalion signals truck, and pleas for help went out as dead air. German crews slewed their guns in a murderous crossfire. “Hands up, come out,” an accented voice called in the darkness. “Surrender to the panzers.” In minutes the Leicesters were undone, and 300 stunned prisoners vanished into the night.

Two thousand yards north, Dunphie’s remaining tanks sheltered in a grassy hollow just below the town. Dismounted crews had settled down for supper when “German tracers began to float over our heads,” wrote one soldier. “A flare shot up into the air…. Six German tanks were right upon us, greenish-yellow flame flickering from their machine gun muzzles.” A fuel truck exploded to lave the hollow in light, projecting weird shadows against the ridge.

“Lay roughly on the tanks!” a troop commander ordered, and for three hours a chaotic brawl surged across the tuft grass. “It was a tank fight in the dark at twenty yards’ range and under,” reported Dunphie. A few intrepid Tommies slapped passing panzers with “sticky bombs,” grenades covered with adhesive and fuzed for five seconds. At 9:30 a headquarters clerk scribbled in the war diary: “Situation confused.” Dunphie radioed Nicholson to warn that the Leicesters had been overrun and that a like fate threatened the tanks. But when he proposed pulling back to the edge of Thala, Nicholson refused: “Hold at all costs.”

At all costs they held, and the cost was dear. Dunphie’s original fifty tanks had been pared to twenty-one when the last German fired a last burst at midnight before skulking off; Rommel now occupied the ridge once held by the Leicesters, who now mustered forty able-bodied men, short by 800. Dunphie ordered every cook, driver, and batman in Thala to the line. Barely a mile away, Rommel—whose losses included nine panzers—massed his remaining force of fifty tanks, 2,500 infantrymen, and thirty guns. For the balance of the night “alarms were many and firing profuse,” one chronicler noted, and the British braced for the death blow, which would surely come at dawn.

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Dawn came; the blow did not. Better still for the British, another providential American artilleryman showed up, this one with 2,200 men, forty-eight guns, and a killer’s heart. Brigadier General Stafford Le Roy Irwin, artillery commander of the 9th Infantry Division, had covered 735 miles in a four-day motor march across the icy, rutted Atlas. Irwin’s arrival in Thala at eight P.M. on Sunday night was “dramatic and effective,” Dunphie later declared. “Irwin himself was a tonic. Artillery was the one thing we lacked and the one thing we wanted.” For his part, Irwin judged the predicament at Thala “extremely critical.”

A West Point classmate of Eisenhower’s, Irwin was a tall, russet-haired cavalryman who had switched to artillery in 1917 because calibrating gunnery seemed more challenging than guessing the proper mix of hay and oats for horses. Witty and urbane, a Virginian, he was a skilled watercolorist who loved poetry almost as much as he loved massing fires. By first light on February 22—despite wretched maps, squally weather, and British misapprehension over the enemy’s whereabouts—Irwin had emplaced his guns in a three-mile arc so that the first German shells of the morning were answered in kind. The lines were barely a thousand yards apart, and snipers discouraged forward observation, so much of the American gunnery involved blindly dumping hundreds of shells on the reverse slope of the next ridge.

It served. At seven A.M. Broich phoned Rommel, who had returned to Kasserine. The panzers had planned to attack, but now Allied shells were raining down. Also, at five A.M. the British had launched an armored sally against a salient on the German right. (“I’m sorry,” the British tank commander told his men, “but we’ve got to go out on a forlorn hope. I doubt whether any of us will come back.”) The attack had been repulsed, with seven of ten British tanks destroyed, but the raid implied unexpected fortitude. A more serious counterattack could follow. Perhaps they should wait? Rommel agreed.

The field marshal had shot his bolt. Despite captured stocks, his army was low on ammunition, with but four days’ rations left, and only enough fuel to travel less than two hundred miles. Arab spies and Luftwaffe reconnaissance reported Allied reinforcements headed to Thala. After Broich’s call, Rommel drove to the front. He scanned the shell-plowed terrain outside Thala, then returned to his tent in a thicket between Djebel Chambi and the Hatab River. At noon, Kesselring landed at Kasserine in his little Storch and motored to the command post in Rommel’s staff car.

True to character, Kesselring felt optimistic. Early in the weekend, he had feared the offensive was sputtering. But reports filtering into his headquarters near Rome the previous night seemed satisfactory, “even promising of success.” True, Arnim’s refusal to send all of the 10th Panzers was “a very serious failure…which could not be made good again,” and Kesselring had reproached him. Yet the Allies were reeling, Kesselring believed.

Rommel wasted no time in disabusing him of this notion. In an hour-long conference frequently interrupted by a jangling telephone, he insisted on “stopping the attack and withdrawing the attack group.” Rommel lashed out at Arnim, the Luftwaffe, the Italians, even the “poor combat value” of his own men. His left flank was exposed to attack from the west, where the American defense “had been very skillfully executed.” The assault on Thala, rescheduled for one P.M., would be postponed again. A staff officer recorded Rommel’s cooler arguments:

It appears futile to continue the attack in view of the constant reinforcing of the hostile forces, the unfavorable weather, which renders the terrain impassable off the hard roads, and because of the increasing problems caused by the mountain terrain, which is so unsuited to the employment of armored units. All this add[s] to the low strength of our organization.

“Rommel was in a depressed mood,” Kesselring observed. “I noticed in him a scarcely concealed desire to go back to his army on the southern front as soon as possible…. I thought it best to raise his self-confidence by expressing my confidence in him, citing his former accomplishments which were achieved under much more aggravating circumstances.” Montgomery’s army was “still far away” and no threat. “We have the initiative,” Kesselring added. “Tébessa is within easy reach.”

No use. The old warhorse would not answer the bugle again. He showed “nothing of his usual passionate will to command,” Kesselring noted. “Rommel was physically worn out and psychologically fatigued.” The Desert Fox had “undoubtedly turned into a tired old man.”

Thala would prove the high-water mark of the Axis campaign in northwest Africa. Shelling by both sides continued the rest of that rainy Monday. By sunset, American gunners had only a fifteen-minute supply of 105mm ammunition left; Irwin later deemed February 22, 1943, “the toughest day [I] experienced during World War II”—strong words from a man who would see much combat in the next two years. But the tide had swung. The reprieved Tommies at Thala chattered “as if they had been enjoying a bath after a polo match,” reporter A. B. Austin wrote. “Absolute Gilbert and Sullivan.”

Back in Rome, Kesselring formally authorized the withdrawal. On Monday night, Axis troops left their trenches and slipped back through Kasserine Pass, unhurried and unbowed. The 21st Panzer served as a rear guard, but there was nothing to guard against. “The enemy follows only hesitantly,” the Panzer Army Africa war diary noted on February 23. “The day passes without fighting of any consequence.” Broich waited near Kasserine village until the last vehicle had rolled through a gap in a freshly laid minefield and sappers had plugged the exit with a few final Teller mines. Rommel was already speeding through Gafsa on his return to Mareth in the southeast. He took a moment to write home: “I’ve stood up well so far to the exhausting days of battle. Unfortunately we won’t be able to hold the ground we’ve gained for long.”

The enemy follows only hesitantly. On February 22, Eisenhower sent Fredendall an unctuous cable, voicing “every confidence that under your inspiring leadership current advances of the enemy will be stopped in place and…your forces will, when the proper time comes, play an effective part in driving the enemy from Tunisia.” That night the commander-in-chief followed up with a phone call. The “proper time” had come. Intercepted German radio traffic suggested a broad withdrawal. Fredendall would be “perfectly safe” in counterattacking immediately to catch Rommel in the open. Eisenhower was so certain of this that he offered to “assume full responsibility.”

Fredendall demurred. The enemy had “one more shot in his locker.” It would be wiser, he insisted, to spend another day on the defensive as a precaution. Army intelligence officers had recruited Tunisian agents to scout the enemy’s movements, only to find that “the inability of most Arabs to read or write, to count accurately over twenty-five, or to tell time” limited their espionage value. No one knew exactly where Rommel was.

Hesitation gripped both II Corps and First Army. Having been knocked about for more than a week, senior commanders wanted only to put some distance between themselves and their tormentors. General Alexander remained closeted in Constantine, trying to make sense of the morass he had inherited three days before. Little effort was made to seize the initiative.

Several more convoluted command changes further impeded Allied pursuit. Eisenhower had been mulling Fredendall’s request to relieve Ward, and was about to accede when he heard from Truscott that Ward had “brought order out of chaos” during the retreat. From Morocco, the commander-in-chief summoned Major General Ernest N. Harmon, one of Patton’s lieutenants during TORCH. In Algiers, Eisenhower told Harmon to assume command of either II Corps or 1st Armored, whichever seemed appropriate. Harmon—a burly cavalryman once described as “a cobra without the snake charmer”—snapped, “Well, make up your mind, Ike. I can’t do both.” He then went to bed only to be rousted by Eisenhower, who helped lace his boots before packing him off to the Tunisian front.

At three A.M., Tuesday, February 23, Harmon arrived at Le Kouif. He was to serve as “a senior assistant” to Fredendall, who also received a pointed message from Eisenhower: “I have no thought of your replacing Ward who, it seems to me, on two occasions at least, rendered a very fine account of himself in actual battle.” Slumped in a chair next to the stove, Fredendall scratched out a letter of credence introducing Harmon as a deputy corps commander authorized to oversee the 1st Armored Division and British forces. This made Harmon the eighth tactical commander of Allied forces in less than a week. “Here it is,” Fredendall said. “The party is yours.” Concluding that the man was drunk, Harmon stuffed the paper into his pocket and motored off to Thala in a jeep.

There he found Brigadier Nicholson little impressed by him or his letter. Nicholson politely explained that he intended “to fight this battle out” then Harmon could take over. “[Harmon] was a little surprised at first but soon was cooperating whole-heartedly,” Nicholson reported, adding: “We gave them a fucking bloody nose yesterday and we’ll do it again this morning.” Harmon growled his approval, then drove to see Ward. “Nobody goes back from here,” Harmon declared.

In a Thala cellar on the morning of February 23, a breathless young officer dashed up to Nicholson and Dunphie. “The Germans have gone!” An excited murmur rippled through the command post. Cautiously, the brigadiers drove in a scout car to the sanguinary ridge once held by the Leicesters. “We could see nothing in front of us,” an officer reported, except for Arab looters. Nicholson could hardly believe his force had survived. He thought of Kipling’s lines:

Man cannot tell but Allah knows

How much the other side is hurt.

Surely Rommel still held the pass with a covering force, waiting to ambush overzealous pursuers? At 11:30 A.M., Nicholson, who later chastised himself for timidity, ordered reconnaissance forward but “not unduly to hasten.” With his approval, scouts waited until three P.M. before edging toward Kasserine.

Rommel had gone and his trail was stone cold, but it took more than a day for Allied troops to cross the Grand Dorsal in numbers. “Our follow-up was slow,” Harmon later conceded, “and we let them get away.” Ward had graciously offered Harmon his staff, then scribbled a terse note to Beetle Smith at AFHQ headquarters. He could no longer work under Fredendall. Mutual distrust had become intolerable. Dejected and silent, reduced to two staff officers and a driver, he set up a tent near Robinett’s command post to await a reply from Algiers. An aide noted that Ward “feels very low and needs rest.”

Light snow fell on the American and British soldiers picking their way through Kasserine Pass on the morning of February 25. The desolate landscape was “cluttered with wrecked German and American airplanes, burned out vehicles, abandoned tanks, [and] scattered shell cases,” Robinett reported. Ration tins, unfinished love letters, a pair of boxing gloves: the detritus of battles lost and won. Italian prisoners in black-plumed helmets dug graves for bodies now ripe beyond recognition; an American soldier sat guard in a jeep, chewing gum and reading a Super-man comic. Severe orders were issued against looting, and the throaty sound of tommy guns echoed in the snow. Tunisians ran, or fell.

Even if Allied troops had been roused to hot pursuit, Rommel’s sappers discouraged audacity. All nine bridges between Sbiba and Sbeïtla had been demolished, as had thirteen others around Kasserine. More than 43,000 German mines had been planted. East of the pass, Allied “vehicles were blowing up on the minefields in all directions,” said one British officer. “A most unpleasant and windy business.” Battery-operated mine detectors shorted out in the damp weather, forcing engineers armed with bayonet probes to “spread out like caddies and golfers looking for a lost ball.” Soldiers also watched for the telltale sign of dismembered camels, whose flat feet usually provided enough pressure to detonate the eleven pounds of TNT in a Teller mine.

A precise tally of casualties at Kasserine remains elusive, in part because of uncertainty over the French, Italian, and Tunisian tolls. American losses exceeded 6,000 of the 30,000 men engaged in the battle. Of those, half were missing. (German records, ever precise, listed 4,026 Allied soldiers of all nationalities captured.) Fredendall’s corps lost 183 tanks, 104 half-tracks, more than 200 guns, and 500 jeeps and trucks. British losses were relatively light, apart from the poor Leicesters and a few dozen tanks, and the Germans suffered fewer than 1,000 casualties, including 201 dead.

Some American units were mauled nearly beyond repair, among them the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 1st Armored Regiment—temporarily combined to form the understrength 23rd Battalion. The 3rd Battalion of the 6th Armored Infantry, so badly carved up at Oran during Operation RESERVIST, was again gutted at Kasserine, shrinking from 750 men to 418. Half the survivors lacked shoes, like ragamuffin Valley Forge soldiers. “Our people from the very highest to the very lowest have learned that this is not a child’s game,” Eisenhower told Marshall.

“The proud and cocky Americans today stand humiliated by one of the greatest defeats in our history,” Harry Butcher scribbled in his diary. “There is a definite hangheadedness.” From Faïd Pass to Thala, the Americans had been driven back eighty-five miles in a week, farther than at the infamous “bulge” in the Belgian Ardennes nearly two years later. At least in terms of yardage lost, Kasserine may fairly be considered the worst American drubbing of the war.

Grievous as the past ten days had been, the Allies had suffered a tactical, temporary setback rather than a strategic defeat. Rommel had failed to reach the Allied supply depots, failed to force the British First Army to withdraw from northern Tunisia, failed to gut the offensive capacity of Allied forces, who would soon make good their losses. Seasoned German soldiers proved themselves wily and ruthless, and Axis commanders demonstrated the battlefield virtue of leading from the front. But the Axis high command was more riven with rivalry and inefficiencies than even its Allied counterpart—a poor standard indeed.

Both sides had violated key principles of war to the detriment of their respective causes; they had, among other errors, failed to maintain contact with a retreating foe to exploit his derangement. The Axis had made this mistake at both Sidi bou Zid and Thala. Rommel, moreover, had violated the cardinal precept of concentration by twice dividing his force and attacking at too many places at once. Arnim had been right: the anabasis in mountainous country with a modest, footsore force was too ambitious, particularly without Arnim’s wholehearted support.

Allied failings were painfully evident, again. Portions of five American divisions had fought around Kasserine, but almost never intact. Leaders came and leaders went, sometimes changing twice a day as if washing in and out with the tide. Strangers commanded strangers. For years, Fredendall would be castigated for the poor American showing; like several of his subordinate commanders, he was overmatched, unable to make the leap from World War I’s static operations to modern mobile warfare. But Robinett made a fair point after the war: that it was “dead wrong” to blame Fredendall exclusively. “Possibly,” he wrote, “one would have to search all history to find a more jumbled command structure than that of the Allies in this operation.”

That error could be laid at Eisenhower’s door. Even as Rommel was forcing the pass on February 20, Eisenhower summoned reporters to a press conference in Algiers and took “full responsibility for the defeat”—remarks he then placed off the record. He acknowledged underestimating French vulnerability and stretching the Allied line to the breaking point. Subsequently he expressed regret at not having insisted, in November, on subordinating French troops to the Allied chain of command, and at allowing the dispersal of American forces as far south as Gafsa. Moreover, he wrote after the war, “had I been willing at the end of November to admit temporary failure and pass to the defensive, no attack against us could have achieved even temporary success.”

There were other, unacknowledged failings. He had recommended—but not demanded—that Fredendall counterattack vigorously on February 22, just as he had recommended but not demanded the concentration of the 1st Armored Division in mid-February. He expressed surprise in late February that the 37mm “squirrel rifle” and 75mm half-track “Purple Heart box” proved no match for German panzers, although these deficiencies had been recognized for months. During the “wearing and anxious” week after his trip to Sidi bou Zid, he spent so much time dictating explanations to the chiefs of staff that Marshall chided him: “I am disturbed by the thought that you feel under necessity in such a trying situation to give so much personal time to us…. You can concentrate on this battle with the feeling that it is our business to support you and not to harass you.”

Certainly he had done some things well, even very well. He cannibalized the U.S. 2nd Armored and 3rd Infantry Divisions for reinforcements, and hurried the 9th Division artillery to its gallant rendezvous at Thala. He worked on rearming the French; redesigned American training methods; unleashed Alexander; overhauled his intelligence operation; and parried Churchill, who had sent an annoying message insisting that the Tunisian campaign be finished by March and the Sicily invasion launched in June. “We must be prepared for hard and bitter fighting,” Eisenhower told the prime minister on February 17, “and the end may not come as soon as we hope.”

He studied his mistakes—this practice was always one of Eisenhower’s virtues—and absorbed the lessons for future battles in Italy and western Europe. And he steeled himself for the remote prospect that his first big battle might have been his last. To his son John, he wrote: “It is possible that a necessity might arise for my relief and consequent demotion…. It will not break my heart and it should not cause you any mental anguish…. Modern war is a very complicated business and governments are forced to treat individuals as pawns.”

Eisenhower could take heart that for the first time—notably in the successful defense of Djebel el Hamra—American commanders showed some capacity for combined arms combat, the vital integration of armor, infantry, artillery, and other combat arms. That art, like fighting on the defensive and operating within an allied coalition, had been given short shrift in stateside training; soldiers were forced to learn where lessons always cost most, on the battlefield.

The coordination of ground and air forces remained dismal, however. Fratricide flourished despite standing orders not to fire at airplanes until fired upon. In three Allied fighter groups alone, friendly fire destroyed or damaged thirty-nine planes. And error cut both ways: disoriented B-17 Flying Fortresses on February 22 missed their intended targets in Kasserine Pass by ninety air miles, killing many Tunisians and battering the British airfield near Souk el Arba. Apologies were issued, along with a few thousand dollars in reparations.

Beyond the modest combined-arms showing, three bright gleams radiated from Kasserine’s wreckage. First was the competence of American artillery at Sbiba, at Djebel el Hamra, and at Thala. Second was the mettle under fire displayed by various American commanders, among them Irwin, Robinett, Andrus, Gardiner, and Allen, and comparable mettle in British commanders. Third was the broad realization that even an adversary as formidable as Erwin Rommel was neither invincible nor infallible. He and his host could be beaten. This epiphany was not to be undervalued: they could be beaten. Amazingly, barely two months would elapse between the “hangheadness” of Kasserine and the triumph of total victory in Tunisia.

Demolitionists removed the guncotton and fuzes from the dumps at Tébessa. Exhausted men slept a sleep too deep even for nightmares. After ten days of cacophonous slaughter, an eerie silence fell over the battlefield, broken in the smallest hours of the morning by the hammer of typewriters in the adjutants’ tents, where clerks labored all night to transform the holiest mysteries of sacrifice and fate into neat lists of the missing and the wounded and the dead.

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