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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
The Army changed in a dozen ways because of North Africa. It extended the training cycle for recruits from thirteen weeks to seventeen and developed a doctrine of division integrity. In North Africa, divisions had been committed to action piecemeal. Now they would fight as units.
The Army and Navy tossed a mountain of faulty matériel on the scrap heap. The Army relegated its flimsy M3 tank to reconnaissance work and replaced it with the more heavily armored Sherman. The Navy jettisoned its plywood boats for an armada of specialized steel landing craft.
The battle for North Africa served as the most ruthless kind of personnel review board. Officers who did not measure up were replaced. Fredendall was sent back to the States and given a training command. Eisenhower fired his British intelligence officer. The British let Anderson fade from the scene; he was eventually given command of Gibraltar, a kind of old soldier’s home assignment. No one was exempt from reassessment. Eisenhower’s talents were not for the battlefield, but they were ideally suited for coalition command. As Roosevelt said, “he is a natural leader who can convince other men to follow him and this is what we need in his position more than any other quality.”
In the battle for the Kasserine, the thirty thousand men of II Corps endured more than 20 percent casualties: three hundred dead, three thousand wounded, and another three thousand missing and/or taken prisoner. More than seven thousand fresh troops from the States would be needed to make up the II Corps’s losses.
The benefits of the North African campaign were huge. It exposed the southern flank of the Axis and opened the way to the Suez Canal. Convoys heading for India and Australia no longer had to labor their way around the Cape of Good Hope. The American Army proved to itself that it could function in combat, and Eisenhower put together the team that would lead the assault on Europe. Churchill was right. Torch lit the way.