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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
In the race for Tunis, Anderson needed more of everything, and Elsenhower ordered American units to reinforce the British. The principal American element was II Corps under Maj. Gen. Lloyd R. Fredendall. Fredendall was a curious figure. He had been sponsored by Marshall for command in Africa, and so far he had looked good. His troops performed well during the landings, and Eisenhower was so happy he sent Fredendall a letter of congratulations and a Distinguished Service Medal.
Fredendall was a difficult man for a coalition command. He didn’t like Anderson, he didn’t like the British, he didn’t like the French, and he didn’t like his chief subordinate American commander. And he was the kind of officer who let his dislikes be known. He was full of bluster and given to issuing orders in slang. “Go get ‘em....Go smash ‘em,” he radioed his commanders onshore during the landings at Oran. This sort of thing reads well but is hell on officers trying to know what they are supposed to do. When he wasn’t playing the cheerleader he was overly precise. Fredendall didn’t trust the 1st Armored Division commander, Maj. Gen. Orlando Ward, to do his job and directed the specific troop developments of Ward’s forces. This is not simply a breach of military etiquette. It flies in the face of American military doctrine, which holds that a commander tells his subordinates what he wants done but not how to do it. Doing so robs the local commander of his initiative. An officer should be looking for the enemy in front of him, not over his shoulder to the rear.
For a man who wanted to be known as a pit-bull fighter, ready to go after Germans, Fredendall had a bunker mentality. He rarely visited the front and was content to direct operations by telephone from inside a series of underground shelters that took two hundred engineers three weeks to blast out of rock. They were still working on the project when it had to be abandoned.
Inside his cheerless bunker eighty miles to the rear, Fredendall became increasingly isolated from events in the field. There were five passes through which the Germans might come, and Fredendall put out his defenses like a bride setting up a display of wedding presents. Instead of establishing a line with mobile reserves to counterattack the German advance wherever it came, he stationed his units on various pieces of high ground. The forces were too separated to support one another. It was just the kind of defense on which Rommel feasted.
Elsenhower visited the front on February 13 and talked briefly with the men of Combat Command A (CCA) of the 1st Armored Division at Sidi Bou Zid. He knew an attack was coming, but he didn’t know when or where. That night he took a lonely walk in the moonlight and could just make out Paid Pass in the darkness. It was as good a place as any for an attack, and II Corps was too far away to be much help if one came. Elsenhower drove back to headquarters, and at about five-thirty in the morning he got word that the 10th Panzer Division under Arnim had struck through Faid Pass. The battle was a ritual slaughter. German heavy tanks overran an American tank battalion and an artillery battalion in a moment. Combat Command A took a terrible beating. In the confusion Allied aircraft bombed the CCA command post, and one of the few kills scored by the CCA that day was an American P-40. As the CCA tried to retreat to Sbeitla, it lost ninety-eight tanks, fifty-seven half-tracks, twenty-nine field guns, and men beyond immediate calculation. The CCA, which Elsenhower had visited only a few hours before, was gone.
The next day the Germans struck on the southern end of the American line, and the battle was fully joined. Rommel occupied Feriana by the seventeenth and decided that a sweeping flank attack to Tebessa could force a major Allied withdrawal. His plan quickly ran afoul of a mixed command structure even more balky than Elsenhower’s. Arnim was Rommel’s equal in the German army, and both were subject to orders from the Italian high command in Rome, which didn’t understand either one of them. Arnim stood firm on the equality of his rank and refused to release the troops Rommel needed to develop his plan. With limited resources, Rommel turned toward Kasserine Pass.
By the time Rommel got there, Fredendall had lost all control of the battlefield. He didn’t know what the hell was going on. What was happening, said Bradley, was “complete disaster.” Units, trapped and alone on their highground positions, were marooned in a sea of German armor. The principal defense unit at Kasserine Pass was the 19th Engineers, which had been sent there to lay a minefield. Of its fourteen hundred officers and men, a single captain was the only one who had ever been in combat. With no flank support, the engineers went under a wave of German attackers and disappeared from the field. In time, a short time, II Corps command structure disintegrated, communications broke down, M3 tanks crumpled like so many Dixie cups, and the men ran.
Many American troops had been terrorized since the first German strike through Faid Pass. At the time, Col. Thomas Drake had called the command post in Sidi Bou Zid to report the rout taking place. Headquarters wouldn’t believe it and told Drake he must mean the troops were merely shifting position. “Shifting position, hell,” Colonel Drake replied. “I know panic when I see it.”