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

March 19, 2018 by oriskany

Welcome back to our continuing series on the American “baptism of fire” in Tunisia during World War II. Fought in February and March 1943, these were the first large-scale ground battles between German and US forces, where grizzled Wehrmacht veterans would show the newly-arriving GIs just how much they had to learn on the battlefield.

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Using wargames like the upcoming Battlegroup Torch (IronFist Publishing) and classics like Avalon Hill’s Panzer Leader, we’ll look at where the novice Americans went wrong and how the Germans dealt them some very bloody noses. Most importantly, we’ll see how the Americans would apply these lessons throughout the rest of the war.

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If you’re just joining us, please take a moment to check out Part One, where we introduce the project and fill in some background on these climactic closing months of the North African campaign. For now, though, it’s time to climb back in the tank turret. Dust clouds are rising from the enemy’s side of the ridge, it’s time to engage!

Tunisia: February 1943

As we saw in Part One, November 1942 saw the Allies decisively turn the tide of World War II in North Africa with the near-simultaneous victory at El Alamein and the Operation Torch landings in Morocco and Algeria. By January of 1943, two allied armies were closing from the east and west on Tunisia, the last Axis stronghold in North Africa.

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Determined to retain a foothold in Africa, the Germans massively reinforced Tunisia. They held many advantages, like short supply lines, mountainous terrain and a heavy fortification line in the south, a lack of harmony between the US, British, and Free French allies, and woeful inexperience among the newly-arrived American divisions.

A new campaign was about to begin. First, let’s set the stage. Running down the “spine” of Tunisia are two north-south mountain ranges, closer together in the north, almost forming a rough “A” shape. These are known as the Western and Eastern Dorsals, cut by several key passes vital to any army trying to move through (or defend) Tunisia.

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As the British, Americans and French forces in Algeria pushed into Tunisia from the west, rival German commanders Erwin Rommel and the newly-arrived Hans-Jürgen von Arnim argued bitterly over how to counter the advance. Eventually, they agreed on a successful strike at the French XIX Corps at Faid Pass in the last days of January 1943.

So far, the Germans were doing well. One reason was a surprisingly strong showing in the air. The Luftwaffe was using permanent, concrete runways, while Allied air forces had to use dirt runways that were vulnerable to adverse weather. Thus, Allied air forces were often grounded despite a distinct numerical edge over the Germans.

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With the French temporarily out of the way, the Germans were able to occupy Faid Pass and thus secure a gateway through the Eastern Dorsal. This opened the way for an assault towards the Western Dorsal, the Algerian border, and perhaps a chance to oust the Allies from Tunisia. Only the “greenhorn” Americans stood in the Germans’ way.

Disaster At Sidi Bou Zid

Welcome to the War, Yank!

To be fair, “casual” historians do a slight disservice when they say this was the first real battle for the US Army in World War II. A detachment of Rangers was at the Dieppe Raid, there’d been hard fighting against the Vichy French, and there had been some sharp skirmishes against the Germans during the “Race for Tunis” the previous December.

The Americans had also launched some belated and half-hearted counterattacks against the Germans who’d just taken Faid Pass. But now with control of the Eastern Dorsal passes, and with at least partial control of the air, the Germans were now ready to strike hard against the Americans massing to the west.

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This would be Operation Frühlingswind, or Spring Wind. The target was the American II Corps, holding the low, broken ground between the Eastern and Western Dorsals. To break the American position, the Germans would hit elements of the US 1st Armored Division at a tiny crossroads town named Sidi Bou Zid.

If the Germans could crack the Americans at Sidi Bou Zid fast enough, they might be able to make a run for Kasserine Pass beyond, a vital cut in the Western Dorsal. This, in turn, would open the road back into Algeria. The Allies in western Tunisia would be split and might have to withdraw, leaving Monty’s Eighth Army alone in southern Tunisia.

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The American unit holding Sidi Bou Zid was the 1st Armored Division’s “Combat Command A” (CCA). American tank divisions typically had three such combat commands, semi-permanent and semi-independent formations roughly brigade in strength. This would allow the divisional commander to tackle several missions at once.

The 1st Armored Division (“Old Ironsides”) also had CCB and CCC in the area. But the commander of US II Corps, Major-General Lloyd Fredendall, had deployed his forces too thinly, and these units were too far apart to help each other when the Germans struck.

On Valentine’s Day 1943, Sidi Bou Zid was hit hard by two German axes of advance. Each was built around two “kampfgruppe” (battlegroups). Two of these “KGs” were formed from the newly-arrived 10th Panzer Division, the other two were from Rommel’s elite 21st Panzer Division, rebuilt after the long retreat from El Alamein.

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Out of the southeast came “KG Schütte” and “KG Stenckhoff” of 21st Panzer Division. They’d hooked far to the south through Maizila Pass and now approached Sidi Bou Zid from the right flank. Meanwhile, “KG Reimann” and “KG Gerhardt” from 10th Panzer Division come straight at Sidi Bou Zid from their newly-won positions at the Faid Pass.

In all the German force numbered about 140 panzers, plus artillery, “pioniere” assault engineers, panzer recon forces, and plenty of panzergrenadiers in trucks and half-tracks. KG Reimann even fielded a handful of the new PzKpfw-VI “Tiger” heavy tanks (on paper he had a company, but really he had about five).

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At 04:00 on February 14, KGs Reimann and Gerhardt advanced out of a sandstorm and smacked Sidi Bou Zid from the front, fixing the Americans in place by 06:00. They also encircled the high ground of Djebel Lessouda to the north (defended by a task force commanded by Lt. Colonel John K. Waters, George Patton’s son-in-law).

Cut off and surrounded, the Americans of “Force Lessouda” would eventually be overwhelmed. Lt. Colonel Waters wound up as one of the many American POWs from this debacle, leaving Patton with the nasty chore of writing his daughter to tell her that her husband was now an unwilling guest of the Third Reich.

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Meanwhile, KG Schütte and KG Stenckhoff had completed their wide flanking drive through the Maizila Pass. KG Schütte struck from the south, collapsing the American right wing. KG Stenckhoff flanked much further, hooking through Bir el Hafey to hit Sidi Bou Zid practically from behind.

By 0920, American commanders on the scene (Brigadier-General Raymond E. McQuillan, Combat Command A and Colonel Thomas Drake, 168th Regimental Combat Team) had requested permission to retreat. This request was denied by Fredendall, who ordered to hold positions and wait for reinforcements to arrive. This never happened.

In any event, it was too late. KG Gerhardt had now hooked around Djebel Lessouda to the north, approaching Sidi Bou Zid from the northwest. Thus, Sidi Bou Zid was now under attack from four directions (KG Reimann from the east, KH Gerhardt from the northwest, KG Schütte from the south, and KG Stenckhoff from the southwest).

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Enough reports were finally reaching Major-General Ward, commander of 1st Armored Division, to alert him of the gravity of the threat. Overriding his boss’ orders (Fredenhall), he ordered a reserve battalion forward to occupy a fallback position toward which the rest of CCA could hopefully retreat.

This position would be called “Kern’s Crossroads,” a desert road junction under the high ground of Djebel Hamra (Hill 672). The hope was that a reorganized stand could be made here long enough to pull in larger elements of 1st Armored Division, like CCC to the north and CCB to the southwest.

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The retreat of CCA was not a pretty one. By now elements of KGs Gerhardt and Stenckhoff were completely behind CCA’s main position, overrunning whole batteries of American field artillery and pitifully inadequate 37mm antitank guns. Reports clearly indicate wholesale panic in many American units. Not many of them made it.

Other units fought well, especially in the south against KGs Schütte and Stenckhoff. One tank battalion commanded by Lt. Louis Colonel Hightower fought north and south simultaneously, holding open the road west from Sidi Bou Zid toward Kern’s Crossroads long enough for other CCA units to escape.

Of course, Hightower’s battalion was effectively annihilated in the process. In fact, CCA was more or less wrecked in one of the most humiliating episodes the US Army would face in World War II. Adding insult to injury, German Stuka dive-bombers hammered the retreating Americans, sowing still more panic and casualties.

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By day’s end, Sidi Bou Zid had definitely fallen. Kern’s Crossroads had held, but only just … saved more by the fall of darkness than by the scratch force mostly of tiny M3 Stuart light tanks.

American counterattacks the next day, built mainly around Combat Command C of the 1st Armored Division, were thrown back with heavy losses. Wedges of Shermans simply drove straight at German Mark III Specials, Mark IV F/2s, Tigers, and entrenched 88s over open ground. Bad move, to say the least, and Stukas certainly didn’t help.

On February 16, it was the turn of Combat Command B. Once again with strong Luftwaffe support, the Germans cracked the disorganized, confused, and sometimes panicky American defence and took the town of Sbeitla. Now the road was wide open toward Kasserine Pass … and the Germans were just getting started.

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In fact, the only thing that slowed the Germans down was the arrival of part of the British 6th Armoured Division, which ran into 21st Panzer at the nearby town of Sbiba. Reinforced by units of the US 1st Infantry Division and French rifle battalions, this truly Allied defence halted and eventually pushed back 21st Panzer on 20 February.

All the same, one hell of a battle was shaping up at Kasserine Pass. The US II Corps, badly mauled at Sidi Bou Zid and subsequent skirmishes, was far, far from ready. Clearly, the Americans needed help, and the British were sending in more units from both north and south. But would they get to Kasserine in time?

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Please come back next week as this harsh “education” continues at Kasserine Pass, one of the darkest episodes in the history of the American Army. Assisted by their more experienced British comrades, can the Americans survive long enough, and learn fast enough, to eventually redeem themselves on these Tunisian battlefields?

For now, what battles have you played in the North African theatre? Are you thinking of picking up Battlegroup: Torch and giving this a go? Would you play the grizzled, weary, threadbare Germans … or the fresh, idealistic, and well-supplied Americans?

Keep the conversation going and post your comments, questions, and thoughts below!

"So far, the Germans were doing well. One reason was a surprisingly strong showing in the air..."

"Clearly, the Americans needed help, and the British were sending in more units from both north and south. But would they get to Kasserine in time?"

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