The Battle of Kasserine Pass took place in World War II during the Tunisia Campaign. It was, in fact, a series of battles fought around Kasserine Pass, a two-mile (3 km) wide gap in the Grand Dorsal chain of the Atlas Mountains in west central Tunisia. The Axis forces involved were primarily from the German-Italian Panzer Army (the redesignated German Panzer Army Africa) led by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and the Fifth Panzer Army led by General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim. The Allied forces involved came mostly from the U.S. Army's II Corps commanded by Major-General Lloyd Fredendall which was part of the British First Army commanded by Lieutenant-General Kenneth Anderson.
Significant as the first large-scale meeting of American and German forces in World War II, the untested American troops, who were led in an inept manner by their commander, suffered heavy casualties and were pushed back over fifty miles (80 km) from their original positions west of Faid Pass in a humiliating rout. The battle has been described as when the amateurs first met the professionals. In the aftermath, the U.S. Army instituted sweeping changes from unit-level organization to the replacing of commanders. When they next met, in some cases only weeks later, the U.S. was considerably stronger.
Even after the Torch landings by the Allies, there was little organized defense in the western desert. More importantly, no effort was made by Allied naval or air forces to interdict the flow of Axis men and material into Tunis until later in the campaign after sizeable forces had already come ashore. In addition, the Allies moved very slowly to make and maintain contact with the Germans as they tried to negotiate with local Vichy French commanders. Several attempts were made to cut off Tunis in November and December 1942 before the German troops could arrive in strength, but poor coordination and the excellent defensive terrain allowed the small numbers of German and Italian troops landed there to hold them off.
On January 23, 1943, Montgomery's Eighth Army took Tripoli, thereby cutting off Rommel's main supply base. Rommel had planned for this eventuality, intending to block the southern approach to Tunisia from Tripoli by occupying an extensive set of defensive works known as the Mareth Line, which the French had constructed in order to fend off an Italian attack from Libya. With their lines steadied by the Atlas Mountains on the west and Gulf of Sidra on the east, even small numbers of German/Italian troops would be able to hold off the Allied forces.
Elements of von Arnim's Fifth Panzer Army reached the Allied positions on the eastern foot of the Atlas Mountains on January 30. The 21st Panzer Division met the French defenders at Faïd and defeated them with little trouble. Several attempts were made by the U.S. 1st Armored Division to stop their advance, but all three combat commands found themselves faced with the classic blitzkrieg— every time they were ordered into a defensive position, they would find those positions had already been overrun, and they were attacked by German soldiers with heavy losses. After three days the U.S. II Corps had been compelled to withdraw into the foothills.
Most of Tunisia fell into German hands, and the entrances into the coastal lowlands were all blocked. The Allies still held the interior of the roughly triangular Atlas range, but this seemed of little concern to Rommel since the exits eastward were all blocked. For the next two weeks, Rommel and the Axis commanders further north debated what to do next. Given his later actions, this delay may have proven costly.
On February 14 the 21st Panzer Division once again started moving west, attacking Sidi Bou Zid, about 10 miles (16 km) from Faïd in the interior plain of the Atlas Mountains. The battle raged for a day, but poor use of armor by the U.S. led to their defeat, and by the end of the day, the field was won by the Panzer Army Afrika. A counterattack the next day was beaten off with ease, and on February 16, the Germans started forward again to take Sbeitla.
With no defensive terrain left, the U.S. forces retreated to set up new lines at the more easily defended Kasserine Pass on the western arm of the mountains. By this point, the U.S. forces had lost 2,546 men, 103 tanks, 280 vehicles, 18 field guns, 3 antitank guns, and an entire antiaircraft battery.
Within minutes, the U.S. lines were broken. Their light guns and tanks had no chance against the heavier German equipment, and they had little or no experience in armored warfare. The German Panzer IVs and Tiger tanks fended off all attacks with ease; the M3 Lee and M3 Stuart tanks they faced were inferior in firepower and their crews far less experienced. Rommel had special words of praise for the 7th Bersaglieri Regiment, who attacked fiercely and whose commanding officer, Colonel Luigi Bonfatti fell mortally wounded during the attack.
Under fierce tank attack, the American units on Highway 13 also gave way during the night, with men at all points retreating before the Italian 131st Centauro Armoured Division. Meanwhile, U.S. commanders radioed higher command for permission to arrange a counterattack or artillery barrage, often receiving a go-ahead after the lines had already passed them. Once again, the 1st Armored Division found itself ordered into useless positions, and by the second day of the offensive, two of their three Combat Commands had been mauled while the third was generally out of action.
After breaking into the pass, the German forces divided into two groups, each advancing up one of the two roads leading out of the pass to the northwest. Rommel stayed with the main group of the 10th Panzer Division on the northern of the two roads towards Thala, while a composite Italian-German force supported by tanks of the Italian Centauro Armoured Division took the southern road toward Haidra. To combat the southern force, the remaining Combat Command B of the 1st Armored drove 20 miles (30 km) to face them on February 20 but found themselves unable to stop the advance the next day.
Morale among the U.S. troops started to fall precipitously, and by evening many troops had pulled back, leaving their equipment on the field. The pass was completely open, and it appeared the supply dump at Tébessa was within reach. However, desperate resistance by isolated groups left behind in the action seriously slowed the German advance, and on the second day mopping up operations were still underway while the armored spearhead advanced up the roads.
By the night of February 21, the 10th Panzer Division was just outside the small town of Thala, with two road links to Tébessa. If the town fell and the German division decided to move on the southernmost of the two roads, the U.S. 9th Infantry Division to the north would be cut off from their supplies, and Combat Command B of the 1st Armored Division would be trapped between the 10th Panzer division and their supporting units moving north along the second road. Two battalions of experienced Bersaglieri are recorded by the 23 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery as having made a daylight counterattack through the Ousseltia Plain, but the attack was broken up by heavy British artillery fire. That night, small units of British, French, and U.S. forces freed from the line to the north were sent piecemeal into the lines at Thala. The entire divisional artillery of the U.S. 9th Infantry Division, 48 guns strong, that had started moving on February 17 from their positions in the west, was emplaced that night. When the battle reopened the next day, the defenses were much stronger; the front line was held largely by British infantry with exceptionally strong backing by U.S. artillery.
Overextended and undersupplied, Rommel decided to end the offensive. Fearing that the approaching British Eighth Army would be able to cross the Mareth Line unless it was reinforced, he disengaged and started to withdraw east. On February 23 a massive U.S. air attack on the pass hastened the German retreat, and by the end of February 25, the pass had been reoccupied.
After the battle both sides studied the results. Rommel was largely contemptuous of both the U.S. equipment and fighting ability and considered them a non-threat. He did, however, single out a few U.S. units for praise, such as the 2nd Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment of Orlando Ward's 1st Armored Division. He characterized this unit's defense of Sbeitla "clever and well fought. For some time after the battle, German units deployed large numbers of captured U.S. vehicles.
The Allies equally seriously studied the results, and immediately General Dwight D. Eisenhower started to restructure the Allied command creating a new headquarters, 18th Army Group, under General Sir Harold Alexander, to tighten the operational control of the corps and armies of the three Allied nations involved and improve their coordination (there having been significant friction during the previous month's operations).
Most importantly for the U.S. forces, II Corps commander, Lloyd Fredendall, was relieved and sent to a noncombat assignment for the remainder of the war. Eisenhower confirmed through Major-General Omar N. Bradley and others that Fredendall's subordinates had no confidence in him as their commander; British First Army commander Lieutenant General Kenneth Anderson also thought Fredendall incompetent. On March 6 Major-General George S. Patton was placed in command of II Corps with the explicit task of improving performance. Bradley was appointed assistant Corps Commander and eventually commanded II Corps. Several other officers were removed or promoted. Brigadier Stafford Leroy Irwin, who commanded the 9th Division's artillery at Kasserine, became a successful Division commander. Commanders were given greater latitude to make on-the-spot decisions without having to ask higher command, and were urged to keep command posts well forward. In contrast, Fredendall had built an elaborate, fortified headquarters a great distance behind the front and rarely visited the front line. Furthermore, Fredendall tended to fragment his units below the Combat Command level so that isolated pockets of troops were easily surrounded and overrun.
Efforts were made to improve massed on-call artillery and air support which had previously been difficult to coordinate. While U.S. on-call artillery practices improved dramatically, the problem of coordinating close air support was not satisfactorily resolved until the Battle of Normandy over a year later. American air defense artillery also began the process of making substantial doctrinal changes. They had learned that while Stuka dive bombers were vulnerable to .50-caliber anti-aircraft machine gun fire, maneuver units and field artillery in particular needed protection from aerial attack (In one division 95% of the air attacks were concentrated on its artillery units).
Emphasis was also placed on keeping units together, rather than assigning elements of each Division to separate tasks as Fredendall had done. The II Corps immediately began fighting its divisions as cohesive units rather than parceling out small units on widely separated missions. By the time they arrived in Sicily, their forces were considerably stronger.