Baptism By Fire: 1943 // Americans In Tunisia – Part Three

March 26, 2018 by oriskany

It’s time for another chapter in this ongoing series, which takes a “wargamer’s view” of the American Army in Tunisia in February and March, 1943. These would be the first large-scale ground battles the US fought against the Germans in World War II, a bloody story of harsh and painful lessons, followed by eventual redemption.

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As you may have seen in Part One and Part Two, we’ve been using wargames like the upcoming Battlegroup Torch (IronFist Publishing) and classics like Avalon Hill’s Panzer Leader to examine these battles, looking at how the newly-arrived Americans had so much to learn from the hardened veterans of the German Wehrmacht.

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So far we’ve seen where the Allies were moving against Tunisia, the last Axis redoubt in Africa, closing in from the east and west. The army moving in from the west included the American II Corps which, after failing to support the French XIX Corps against a German counterattack, were bloodily mauled at Sidi Bou Zid (14th February 1943).

Aftermath Of Sidi Bou Zid

Doubling Down On Disaster

The Battle of Sidi Bou Zid (played out with Battlegroup Torch and Panzer Leader in Part One) had been a severe shock to the US 1st Armored Division, II Corps, and the American Army as a whole. The division’s “Combat Command A” (CCA, roughly a brigade-sized manoeuvre formation) had been effectively broken as a combat-effective force.

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One reason was the lack of American experience, from the individual ground soldiers, up through the NCOs, all the way to the generals at division and corps level. Major-General Ward (CO: 1st US Armored Division) had initially been out of touch, while Lt. General Lloyd Fredendall had micromanaged the division’s badly-scattered deployment.

The next day, the Americans lashed out in a series of poorly-executed counterattacks back toward Sidi Bou Zid. With 3rd Battalion / 1st Armored Regiment virtually destroyed, now 2nd Battalion was sent in, driving forward in almost perfect wedges, without infantry or artillery support, straight into German “88” fire and even Stuka air strikes.

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Needless to say, these attacks accomplished little beyond depleting German ammunition supplies and cranking up the already-devastating American losses. Finally, what was left of 1st Armored Division (and the rest of II Corps) had to fall back through the town of Sbeitla, then again to Kasserine and the mountain passes beyond.

Spearheads Toward Kasserine

The Germans Press The Advantage

To understand the importance of the Battle of Kasserine Pass lets take a quick look at the topography. As laid out in previous articles, western Tunisia is dominated by two mountain chains running generally northeast to southwest, called the Eastern and Western Dorsals.

Command of the passes through these mountains is vital for any army hoping to move through (or defend) Tunisia. The German victory against the French XIX Corps at Faid Pass had given them a cut through the Eastern Dorsal, while Sidi Bou Zid and Sbeitla had given them the lowlands leading to the Western Dorsal.

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Now at Kasserine, the Germans were ready to crack through the Western Dorsal. A solid breakthrough here would be disastrous for the Allies, as it would split their forces in western Tunisia, put German spearheads back in Algeria, and perhaps force an Allied withdrawal from western Tunisia altogether.

Despite being hateful rivals, the German commanders (Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and General Hans-Jurgen von Arnim) could agree that Kasserine represented a great opportunity for them. With 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions already pushed forward at Sbeitla, they were quick to reinforce and expand this attack toward the Western Dorsal.

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First, they sent 21st Panzer Division north toward the town of Sbiba, where British forces of V Corps / First Army were starting to shift to help the beleaguered Americans. On 19th-20th February, 21st Panzer met with the British 1st Guards Brigade and units from US 34th Infantry Division, which checked 21st Panzer’s northward advance.

However, the British could only buy so much time. Also, Field Marshal Kesselring had taken command of this attack from General von Arnim and given it to Rommel. While von Arnim had been exceedingly cautious, Rommel (as we all know) was hardly one to let the sand gather under his boots. For the Americans at Kasserine, time had run out.

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In fact, more Axis units were already on the move. To the south, elements of the old Deutsches Afrika Corps (DAK) and the Italian 131st “Centauro” Armoured Division were mobilized out of El Guettar. This spearhead had broken through near Gasfa and now headed north to meet with 10th Panzer to join in the attack through Kasserine.

Slaughter At Kasserine Pass

Operation Sturmflut (Storm Flood)

By February 19th, Rommel was ready to kick in the door at Kasserine. This would be Operation Sturmflut (Storm Flood) which, if all went well, just might open a route into Algeria and eject the Allies from western Tunisia.

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Initially, Axis victory seemed a sure bet. German reconnaissance had identified only one battalion of American engineers in position, assigned to construct defensive works. These hadn’t yet been completed, and Rommel hoped to storm the disorganised defences “on the fly” while the bulk of his forces were still en route.

Unfortunately for the Germans, American reinforcements had only just arrived. These included a battalion of the 26th Infantry Regiment, a handful of tanks and more “tank destroyers” in the form of 75mm guns on half-tracks. There was even a horse-drawn battery of old French artillery.

Haphazard as it was, this tenuous defence was just enough to frustrate 33rd Panzer Recon Battalion’s bid to rush the pass. German flexibility was also hampered by the Hatab River, which was at an usually high “desert flood,” running straight down the “throat” of the pass. This made it difficult for the two wings of the German assault to support each other.

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With Rommel “rolling all ones” on taking Kasserine Pass on the fly, he resolved to launch a set-piece assault. Two battalions of truck-mounted grenadiers (Kampfgruppe DAK) launched an assault on the high ground overlooking the northeast side of the pass, but this was soon bogged down and the Germans had to send in tank support as well.

Fighting continued through the day, with the Germans winding up with solid footholds on high ground dominating both sides of the pass (Djebel Chambi to the southwest and Djebel Semmama to the northeast). The Americans, now under the command of Colonel Stark, had prevented a breakthrough.

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It was a long night for both sides, with opposing infantry in close contact among the jumbled rocks and jagged cuts of the pass. The Germans kept trying to slip between and around scattered American positions, and small infantry skirmishes and firefights sizzled throughout the night. Sounds like some Bolt Action games waiting to happen.

Meanwhile, the British of V Corps / First Army had been watching developments with a wary eye. If Kasserine Pass fell, their southern flank would be fatally exposed. Accordingly, Brigadier-General Charles Dunphie and the 26th Armoured Brigade) was given permission to deploy southward as a contingency against American collapse.

February 20th was a drizzly, sloppy day, but that didn’t stop Rommel from sending in a much stronger attack. Now he committed the full strength of Kampfgruppe DAK, supported by the Italian 131st “Centauro” Armoured Division, as well as what was supposed to be the bulk of 10th Panzer Division.

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Here is where we run into some of the tension and rivalry between Rommel and von Arnim. Ever cautious, Arnim had held part of the 10th Panzer in reserve against large British forces to the north. In Arnim’s defence, the whole British 6th Armoured Division was up there, and Rommel’s flank was vulnerable.

Yet despite much of the 10th Panzer being missing from the assault, along with other foul-ups and misfires, the German assault smashed almost completely through Kasserine Pass. The 131st Armoured did well despite ghastly casualties, making good ground until it ran into Combat Command B of the US 1st Armored Division.

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Incidentally, this engagement of elements of Kampfgruppe DAK and the Italian 131st Armoured against CCB / 1st US Armored Division is the specific battle staged in Battlegroup: Torch for this article. I wanted a chance to use more American tanks, including a rare appearance of M3 Lees, and some Italian tanks that don’t normally get on the table.

A Truly Allied Effort

General Kenneth Anderson (British First Army) had little faith in the Americans’ ability to hold the pass. After Sidi Bou Zid, who can blame him? So in addition to Dunphie’s 26th Armoured Brigade, Brigadier-General Cameron Nicholson, assistant CO of the 6th Armoured Division, was sent from the north to keep an eye on things.

Sure enough, American defence at Kasserine was starting to splinter, and German forces were soon threatening the British-held town of Thala, anchoring the southern shoulder of the British V Corps. So Nicholson took command of what British forces he had to hand, and personally led them into action.

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Along the way, Nicholson gathered up other units as well – American units in reserve (waiting for orders that hadn’t come in the chaos), retreating Americans blown loose from their units, Free French infantry; anyone who had some kind of weapon and a generally “unfriendly view” toward continued German presence in Africa.

This hodgepodge battlegroup, called “Nickforce” after its commander, slammed into 10th Panzer Division’s spearheads approaching Thala. The fighting was ferocious, and at one point the Germans staged a sneak attack by using a captured Valentine tank to get close to the British defences before the ruse was discovered.

Other tank units, like the 2nd Regiment / Lothian and Border Horse Yeomanry, had to be ordered to make “forlorn hope” (i.e., death sentence) counterattacks to slow the Germans down.

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But the time bought by such courage paid off. By the morning of February 21st, more American units like the 9th Infantry Division had finally sealed off Kasserine Pass. Although the Germans had largely taken it, they no longer had the strength to exploit the success.

Kasserine In Retrospect

As more American forces were drawn toward Kasserine Pass, Rommel had to admit that “Sturmflut” had failed. By February 22nd he had begun a withdrawal, with the Americans retaking the pass but in no condition to press much further.

The Americans of II Corps had been severely hammered for the second time in a week. How badly had they done? Well, depending on your definitions, they couldn’t beat the Italians in the south…and had to be rescued by the British in the north. I honestly don’t know which is worse.

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Come back next week when we review the causes for Kasserine’s result, the effect on the American Army, and corrective action taken in the aftermath. Soon enough, the Americans will have a chance to redeem themselves as they meet the Germans for a third time, at a tiny Tunisian town called El Guettar.

Meanwhile, post your comments below! What do you think of the Battlegroup Torch release? Ever fancy a try at wider-scope “command tactical” wargaming? What would you have done differently at Kasserine? What’s your take on the Allies finally learning to work and fight together as a team?

Let us know below!

"...retreating Americans blown loose from their units, Free French infantry; anyone who had some kind of weapon and a generally “unfriendly view” toward continued German presence in Africa"

"Despite being hateful rivals, the German commanders (Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and General Hans-Jurgen von Arnim) could agree that Kasserine represented a great opportunity for them..."