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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
Most of the men who bolted at Kasserine returned to be part of the greatest, most powerful army the world had ever known.
In the fifty years since North Africa, an ocean of editorial ink has been spilled describing the American disgrace at Kasserine. It should be remembered, however, that when all seems lost, it is the inadequately trained soldier’s right to flee. The men who bolted in North Africa share a bond with the Union soldiers who ran at Bull Run. Most of them returned to be part of the greatest, most powerful army the world had ever known.
This hand wringing also ignores the soldiers who held their ground, bought time, and eventually turned humiliating defeat into victory. It ignores the 9th Artillery Division under the command of Brig. Gen. S. LeKoy Irwin. Irwin was more than 700 miles away when he was ordered to get to Kasserine. He cranked up and came on, making 180 miles a day. Irwin arrived at 8:00 P.M. in the middle of a fenpcious fire fight, but he had his guns rekdy at first light.
No one knew at the time, but Irwin’s artillery barrage marked the end of the Battle of Kasserine Pass. The bold Rommel suddenly turned cautious. He had taken Kasserine Pass, but without Arnim’s tanks he couldn’t break out and exploit the advantage. One more smashing attack might have done it, but Rommel was running out of time. Montgomery would soon appear, and Rommel turned to face him. Rommel had hoped to deliver a knockout blow to the Americans. He had to settle for giving them a bloody nose.
Things began to change rapidly at Il Corps. Eisenhower sent Maj. Gen. Ernest N. Harmon, commander of the 2d Armored Division in Morocco, to Il Corps headquarters. Harmon’s orders were intentionally vague. He was identified as a “useful senior assistant” assigned to Fredendall’s command to help out in “the unusual conditions of the present battle.” His real mission was to report back to Eisenhower on the situation at II Corps. Harmon arrived at three in the morning. He met with Fredendall, who was so groggy from lack of sleep Harmon thought he was drunk.
Harmon had the swagger of a good tank man and instinctively took charge. He ordered fresh tanks from the rear and countermanded an order from General Anderson to pull back Irwin’s artillery. This last was risky business because Anderson was the ranking officer. Fredendall, near collapse, acquiesced meekly. “The party is yours,” he told Harmon, and went to bed.
Afterward Harmon told Eisenhower that Fredendall should be relieved. Eisenhower agreed and offered him Fredendall’s job. Now, Harmon was as ambitious as any commander, but he was also a man of principle. He refused to take the place of a soldier he had recommended be fired; it might look as if he were angling for promotion. Harmon turned down the top field command in the Army in North Africa on a point of honor and went back to his division in Morocco. The assignment went to George Patton.
Patton’s revitalization of II Corps is one of the most famous stories of the war and was accurately depicted in the famous motion picture bearing his name. Patton was truly hell on wheels. If he had kicked the odd soldier in the backside during the landing at Casablanca, now he kicked an entire corps in the pants. He made the men shave and dress according to regulations and wear their helmets at all times. More than once he ripped open a latrine door to make sure his orders were being carried out everywhere.
“Each time a soldier knotted his necktie, threaded his leggings, and buckled on his heavy steel helmet,” Bradley wrote, “he was forcibly reminded that Patton had come to command the II Corps, that the pre-Kasserine days had ended and a tough new era had begun.”
Patton was as hard on generals as he was on the troops. Visiting the command post of Maj. Gen. Terry Alien, he discovered that Alien had a personal slit trench near his quarters. The thought of a general diving into such a thing was contemptible to Patton. He stood over Alien’s facility and urinated in it. “Now use it,” he said, and walked off.
Patton was in command of II Corps for only thirty-nine days, but by the time he left to work on planning the invasion of Sicily, he had fashioned a minor miracle. When Bradley took over, II Corps performed solidly in the final battle for Tunis. On May 13, 1943, six months after the first landing, all Axis forces in North Africa surrendered. The Allies discovered an unanticipated benefit of losing the race for Tunis five months before. Instead of cutting his losses and preserving his forces, Hitler sent an army to Africa and lost it there. The final tally was 250,000 Axis prisoners, a quarter of a million soldiers who would not be around to defend Hitler’s captured European fortress when the Allies came to take it back.
We needed a place to be lousy in,” wrote the historian Eric Larrabee, and North Africa was the place. The lessons, dearly paid for, were lessons that needed to be learned. In August 1943 the Army distributed a document called “Lessons from the Tunisian Campaign” throughout the service. Much of it was old stuff. It called for better map reading, better patrolling, better coordination between infantry and armored units- the Army always wants that. This time, however, the word came not from a classroom instructor but from the battlefield, where men had died because they didn’t do such things well.