Hindering any Axis operation was the issue of who controlled the two armies in Tunisia. German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring in Italy had overall tactical command of Axis forces in the Mediterranean. Under him, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel commanded Panzerarmee Afrika (Panzer [or Tank] Army Africa) in southern Tunisia, and Colonel General Hans Dieter Jürgen von Arnim commanded the Fifth Panzerarmee in the north. The Axis plan called for von Arnim's 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions to move through Faid Pass and destroy American forces at Sidi bou Zid. Rommel was to seize Gafsa on the Allied right flank and then move north to link up with von Arnim. Although the Axis forces enjoyed combat experience, effective air support, and better equipment, the murky command arrangement mitigated against decisive success on the battlefield.
For the Allies in Tunisia, the embryonic nature of coalition operations began to manifest itself at all levels, to include integrating the French into the operational structure. The major U.S. element was Lieutenant General Lloyd Fredendall's II Corps, which held the southern flank between Faid and Maknassy Passes. Fredendall, both overconfident and overly cautious, deployed his inexperienced troops in unsupportable positions and unnecessarily complicated the command-and-control structure. His main battle element, the 1st Armored Division, was scattered into small detachments and could not fight as a complete unit. Fredendall directed operations from an elaborate underground command post some 70 miles from the front in Tebessa, which caused both superiors and subordinates to question his competence.
During a raging sandstorm on 14 February 1943, over 200 of von Arnim's tanks, supported by aircraft, began an attack reminiscent of the early blitzkriegs. The Americans' inexperience and poor leadership proved no match for the veteran panzer divisions, which quickly bypassed and isolated over 2,500 Americans near Sidi bou Zid. In two days, the Allies lost six battalions of infantry, armor, and artillery, leaving the 1st Armored Division in shambles. As Axis forces attacked toward Sbeitla, the demoralized Americans began a general retreat, during which they destroyed supplies to prevent their capture by the Axis forces.
As the Allies rushed reinforcements forward to stabilize their defense, the German command debated the objective. Rommel wanted complete operational control in order to cut Allied lines of communications and capture the logistics base at Tebessa. But Kesselring refused to grant Rommel's request and subsequently ordered the attack toward Le Kef and Allied reserves. This disagreement diluted the Axis attack and provided the Allies valuable time to recover and rest their disorganized forces.
On 19 February, Rommel struck at Kasserine Pass, a constricted defile 800 yards wide between 4,000-foot hill masses. The pass was guarded by a mixed force of more than 2,000 U.S. infantrymen and engineers, as well as French artillery, including a battalion of tank destroyers, all commanded by Colonel Robert Stark. Fredendall ordered Stark to "pull a Stonewall Jackson." Stark's command held until the next day, when an Axis attack supported by Nebelwerfer rockets broke through his defense. Deterred from gaining Tebessa by a strong Allied defense, Rommel ordered his forces toward Thala, where they swept through a British armor rear guard. An apparent Axis victory was blunted by a dramatic reinforcement of U.S. artillery on 21 February. Frustrated by stiffening Allied resistance and an inability to gain firm control of all the Axis forces, Rommel withdrew on 22 February to face General Bernard Montgomery's Eighth Army along the Mareth Line to the east.
Aided by Axis indecision, the Allies had held just long enough, but the cost was high. Records on both sides are fragmentary, but the Allies sustained nearly 4,000 casualties, with 60 artillery pieces and 64 armored vehicles captured. II Corps probably lost 20 percent of its engaged forces, as well as up to 400 armored vehicles and more than 200 artillery pieces. Kasserine Pass was a serious defeat for the inexperienced Americans. The U.S. commander in North Africa, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, quickly took steps to reshuffle his command including the replacement of Fredendall as commander of II Corps by Major General George S. Patton Jr. Steven J. Rauch
Blumenson, Martin. Kasserine Pass. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967.; Howe, George F. Northwest Africa: Seizing the Initiative in the West. Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 1957.; Morris, Roy. "American Baptism of Fire at Kasserine Pass." WWII History 1, no. 2 (March 2002): 34–43, 82.
Steven J. Rauch