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A Place To Be Lousy In
The American army that beat Hitler was thoroughly professional, but it didn’t start out that way. North Africa was where it learned the hard lessons—none harder than the disaster at Kasserine. This was the campaign that taught us how to fight a war.
December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
If Elsenhower knew of such criticisms, he chose to ignore them and hammered away at the need for Allied cooperation. As the good ones always do, he led by example. In one of the most enduring stories of the war, Elsenhower shipped an officer back to the States not for calling a British officer a “son of a bitch” but for calling him a “British son of a bitch.”
Elsenhower’s benign countenance masked a fiery temper and prickly insistence on getting the details exactly right. He once fired a staff officer whose correspondence showed he did not know the difference between shall and will. Although Eisenhower once said, “I do not look upon myself as an American but as an ally,” he was fiercely determined that American troops prove their right to take on the major share of the war making yet to be done. That meant combat, not conversation.
The Americans who landed in North Africa did so with some braggadocio. None more so than Patton, who in his senior year at West Point had stuck his head into the line of fire on the rifle range just to see how afraid he would be. Not very. Before embarking, Patton grandly told President Roosevelt, “I will leave the beaches either a conqueror or a corpse.” He liked the line so much he used it again with Marshall later in the day.
The troops, too, were—as soldiers who have not yet been seriously shot at frequently are—rather full of themselves. After the landing some of the men of the 1st Armored Division were laughing over how well they had brushed past the French when the battalion commander, Lt. Col. John Waters, brought them up short. “We did very well against the scrub team,” he told them. “Next week we hit German troops.…When we make a showing against them, you may congratulate yourselves.”
The first true test came along shortly, and the results were troubling. The M3 tank, workhorse of the 1st Division, was an ugly thing. Its top turret always reminded 2d Lt. Freeland A. Daubin, Jr., of a hatbox about to fall off a closet shelf. The inside space was cramped, and a tank commander going into battle had to keep the overhead hatch open if he wanted to see anything. The crews liked their unlovely beasts anyway. The M3 was fast, and its 37-mm cannon packed plenty of wallop; so did the antiaircraft machine gun. They would be needed, for Daubin’s battalion was going into Tunisia alone. There was no artillery support and no infantry alongside.
The first problem showed up as soon as the M3 left hard ground. Its eleven-inch track was too narrow to float over sand, and the tanks frequently went belly down in the desert.
The second problem became apparent when German aircraft attacked. On November 25 Daubin’s battalion spotted a mixed wing of Messerschmitt fighters, Stuka dive bombers, and twin engine Junker 88s coming at them. The antiaircraft machine guns all opened up smartly—and had absolutely no effect on the planes whatsoever. Heavy machine guns might have done better, but there was only one assigned to the whole battalion.
There was worse to come when Daubin engaged his first German Mark IV tank. Daubin threw more than eighteen rounds at it and was struck by the thought that he might as well be throwing popcorn balls at Little Bo Peep. Much later, reviewing officers discovered that the battalion had not been issued armor-piercing shells; they were still using lightweight ordnance designed for training exercises.
Daubin was thrown out of his tank by the concussion from a Mark IV hit. Later he found himself sharing an ambulance with a captured German tanker who said he was certain the Americans would lose the war because they made such bad tanks. There was much in what the German said. The American army was heading for a bat tie at a place called Kasserine in tanks that couldn’t maneuver in the sand and were unable to defend themselves from attack by either land or sky.
The battle of North Africa served as the most ruthless kind of personnel review board, and the whole Army changed.
The fight that came to be known as the Battle of Kasserine Pass happened because the Allies lost the race for Tunis. Andersen’s offensive had stalled in the face of a series of brilliant German spoiling attacks and bad weather. The bluffs could be countered. The weather could not. When Elsenhower was visiting near the front, he saw four soldiers unable to extricate a motorcycle from some slop and admitted the offensive could go no further. Reluctantly, on December 24, he called it off.
The failure to seize Tunis on schedule had two immediate results: Gen. Jürgen von Arnim and the 5th Panzer Army landed in Tunis, and Rommel returned to the area full of fight. He saw an opportunity for a classic military maneuver. With the additional weight of the 5th Panzer, he could drive the Anglo-Americans back into Algeria and still have time to turn and face Montgomery. This was Rommel at his boldest. His plan was based on three assumptions: Montgomery would continue to be dilatory in pursuit, the Americans would break in the face of German firepower, and Arnim would do as he was told. Rommel was right on the first assumption and partly right on the second. He was dead wrong on the third.