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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
There was no light. Most of the soldiers in the boats couldn’t see anything, but they knew they must be close because the wind offshore brought the smell of charcoal smoke and dry grass. The first assault troops landed sometime after eight bells. The only sounds they heard were the metallic jingle of their gear and the crunch of their boots on the wet beach. Two shore-based searchlights snapped open to look for aircraft. It took a moment for the enemy to realize that danger was coming at them not from the sky but from the sea. As coastal batteries opened fire, men on the flagship Augusta heard a voice over the loudspeaker call out, “Play ball!”
The big guns of the United States Western Naval Task Force tore apart the dark sky, and the main landing force prepared to go ashore at Fedala, near Casablanca. The landing on North Africa was under way. On November 8, 1942, eleven months after Pearl Harbor, American military forces had finally crossed the Atlantic to seek out the German army and fight it.
In breaching the African coast, American soldiers, who two weeks before had been bivouacked in Norfolk, Virginia, were heading into battle on a continent where neither army wanted to be. A truism of war, however, holds that you don’t always get to fight where you want to. Sometimes the important thing is just to have a fight.
The American landing in North Africa came as a result of a long and snarled skein of events reaching back to 1940. Africa became an official theater of operations on June 28, when Benito Mussolini, thinking he could increase his prestige with an easy desert victory, declared war on Egypt. He dispatched some 250,000 troops to drive to the Suez Canal. The attack was a sound strategic idea, but his ill-trained army was not up to the tactical requirements of the job. Two British divisions under the command of Gen. Sir Richard O’Connor banged the Italians hard at Sidi Baranni, capturing, in Winston Churchill’s phrase, “five acres of officers and two hundred acres of other ranks.” O’Connor pursued the Italian army across the desert until Adolf Hitler, viewing the campaign with contempt and distaste from Berlin, decided it was time to bail out his stumbling ally. He called on Erwin Rommel, a hero of the battle for France who knew tanks as well as anyone in the war, to handle the situation. Under Rommel, the German army became, for a time, the dominant military force in Africa. It also became a target.
Targets were what American military planners were looking for in 1942. President Franklin Roosevelt had committed America to a policy of waging war against Germany first and Japan second, but so far the only American troops to take the offensive were in the Pacific. The pressure for action in the West was great. Russia had been given money and matériel, but Premier Joseph Stalin wanted to see American men fighting on the ground in Europe to divert the German army that was tearing through the Caucasus. The American press, always willing to spill someone else’s blood, added to the din. Life magazine, in July 1942, wrote that in the face of monumental Russian losses, “the war effort of the Anglo-Saxon nations is so far pitifully puny.”
Viewed as part of the pageant of the war, the landings were neatly done; to the men in the boats, it was a desperate business.
Roosevelt became convinced it was imperative that American forces be engaged in the West before the end of 1942. In the first year of American participation in the war, however, logistics shaped policy more than desire. The campaigns against Japanese-held islands in the Pacific, though bloody, were relatively minor actions when compared with the requirements of fighting in the West. Every gallon of aviation gas earmarked for the Atlantic meant one less gallon for the planes flying over Guadalcanal. As Adm. Ernest King, eager to punish Japan for Pearl Harbor, remarked, “I don’t know what the hell this ‘logistics’ is...but I want some of it.”
Army Chief of Staff George Marshall had a plan for carrying the war to Germany. He had two, in fact, but the British didn’t like either one of them. To Marshall, the issue was simple. The United States should build up its forces in Great Britain and strike across the English Channel into continental Europe at the first opportunity. He proposed Sledgehammer, a landing in France that would be something between a large-scale raid and a suicide mission. It was a perilous undertaking, but within Roosevelt’s timetable. Sledgehammer would offer itself as a sacrifice to drain German troops from the Russian front and lure the Luftwaffe into battle with the covering Royal Air Force. A second operation, Roundup, would be a full-scale invasion on the Continent. Roundup could not be launched until 1943.
The British listened politely and seemed to assent, but from Churchill on down they were quietly appalled that untried American troops would think of going up against the welltrained German army that had thrown the British off the Continent two years before. If Sledgehammer failed, and there seemed no way it could succeed, the operation would be a disaster. In time the British flatly refused to go along with Marshall’s plan. Since Roundup could not be moved ahead, something else was needed to get America into the fighting by 1942. Churchill offered three possibilities: a strike at Norway, a campaign in the Middle East, or a landing in North Africa. Marshall was furious. These peripheral attacks did not strike directly at German strength. They amounted to a picador strategy of pecking away in subsidiary campaigns while the main target went untouched. And opening a secondary offensive meant postponing Roundup for at least a year.
A picador strategy was precisely what the British wanted. They did not wish to engage the German army on the Continent until it had been profusely bled elsewhere. With Sledgehammer dead, Marshall reluctantly accepted an invasion of North Africa as the “least harmful” option, but he went to his grave convinced that turning down Sledgehammer was “the blackest day in history.”
Marshall designated a promising young general with a good record as a staff officer to command the invasion. Dwight Eisenhower first drew up a plan called Gymnast for a small all-American force to land on the Atlantic coast of Africa. This was later expanded to a much larger Anglo-American operation with landings both on the Atlantic and inside the Mediterranean. Churchill personally rechristened the operation Torch. It was going to light the way for the Allied return to Europe.
Torch was enormously complicated. Nothing like it had ever been at tempted in the history of war. Three fleets, two from Great Britain and one from the United States, would traverse the Atlantic Ocean and converge on the North African coast to disgorge an invasion force in the dark. There were perils aplenty. The Western Naval Task Force would be sailing forty-five hundred miles over water that German submarines considered their private hunting ground. No one had any experience conducting a major amphibious landing. American boat crews had rehearsed in the Chesapeake Bay, but that was hardly the same as maneuvering in ocean swells. The nature of the opposition was a mystery. North Africa was held by forces controlled by the French puppet regime in Vichy, which was, in turn, controlled by the Germans. The American diplomat Robert Murphy made a clandestine visit to North Africa to bargain with the French to not oppose the American landings, but it was impossible to know if the deal would hold.
The biggest question mark was the American army. Its men were as untested as its matériel. Only a handful of officers had seen combat before. George Patton, commanding the Casablanca force, had made a name for himself in action during World War I, but Elsenhower had never heard a shot fired away from the rifle range, nor had most of the American generals. They were garrison soldiers who had known only what the British admiral Sir Cyprian Bridge once called “the cancer of the long peace.” Such a period, Bridge said, “fosters faulty methods, pedantic procedures and the spirit of the parade ground, which are usually the first casualties of war.”
The plan itself was held in suspicion by several British officers. Its principal mission was to capture Tunis and slam the door on Rommel’s forces now fighting the British 8th Army in the desert. The British said key targets in Tunisia must be taken in two weeks—twenty-six days at the most. The main Allied force landing near Casablanca would be eleven hundred miles away from Tunisia.
Judging the efficiency of a military operation is largely a matter of perspective. Viewed as part of the great historical pageant of World War II, the landings were neatly done with all beaches made secure. To the men in the boats, it was a desperate business.
The landing at Port Lyautey to seize the only all-weather airstrip in North Africa was snafu from the start. The troops were delayed getting into their landing craft, and many were taken to the wrong beaches. Once ashore, some of the soldiers, who had never heard naval guns before and could not distinguish between incoming and outgoing fire, bolted and had to be rounded up. By the second day less than half the troops had been landed. The Army commander, Brig. Gen. Lucian Truscott, later called the disembarkation a “hit or miss affair that would have spelled disaster against a well-armed enemy.”
Truscott was troubled to find that only a fraction of his troopers actually fired their weapons, and many soldiers surrendered to the French without a struggle. It took a while for Truscott to realize why his men so lightly gave up their arms. In stateside war-game maneuvers, recruits were taught to obey the umpire. When he said you were “dead,” you were through for the day. Truscott said that instead of teaching men how to fight, peacetime training had taught them how to surrender.
Many of the men who died trying to take Oran Harbor were victims of poor interservice planning. The Navy wanted the Army to enter the city overland before trying to unload troops in the face of French destroyers inside the harbor but was overruled. The landing was a horror. French warships blew the cutter Walney apart and set the Hartland afire. Men who scrambled topside trying to escape the flames below were cut down by machine-gun fire.
Patton’s communication system on board the Augusta didn’t work at all. It couldn’t raise Gibraltar, and radio personnel were so inexperienced they had to be relieved. What messages did get through had not been properly enciphered and were gibberish.
There is more than one way for a commander to communicate with his troops. Patton stormed onto the beach with his men, and when he saw a trooper faltering, the general kicked him in the ass.
French opposition varied. While one detachment might cooperate with the Americans—especially if no British were about—another would put up stout resistance. But after two days the invasion was securely lodged on the African coast in several places: Safi, Fedala, Casablanca, and Port Lyautey in Morocco on the Atlantic, and Oran and Algiers in Algeria on the Mediterranean.
Fredendall put out his defenses like a bride setting up wedding presents. His units were soon marooned in a sea of German armor.
On November 10 Elsenhower assigned the British general Kenneth Anderson to take charse of the dash for Tunis. The prize was now great. Rommel, defeated at El Alamein by Gen. Bernard Montgomery, was in retreat across Africa. Montgomery, meticulous to a fault, lagged a week behind and was moving “like a stately pachyderm,” according to one observer, but he was in pursuit. From the moment of the Torch landing far to the rear, Rommel’s chief thought was saving his army, and Tunisia was the only way out. If Anderson arrived before the Germans could reinforce Tunis, the “Desert Fox” could be neatly bagged. Anderson was a good soldier, thorough and careful with a reputation for personal valor. But he was not a dasher. Glum and somber, he was a natural pessimist who tended to look for problems rather than solutions. Of course, he was known as Sunshine. He made good time jumping off from Algiers, but on the seventeenth he ordered the 78th Division to concentrate its forward elements before making the final advance on Tunis. The pause was fatal. On the seventeenth, German defenses consisted of an undersize parachute regiment split between Tunis and Bizerte. It took Anderson nine days to get sorted out, and by then German forces had tripled.
Back at headquarters, Elsenhower was wrestling with political considerations. He had to deal with the French, always a tricky proposition. The Allies had been fortunate in finding the French admiral Jean Darlan in Algiers visiting his son, who had been stricken with polio. Darlan, head of all Vichy’s armed forces, could gauge a strong political wind when he felt one and quickly signed an armistice. This was a military benefit but a political liability. Tainted with the Fascist brush of working with a German collaborator, the “Darlan Deal” was severely criticized in Great Britain and America. Elsenhower’s distress was providentially solved on Christmas Eve, when the admiral was assassinated by a young French monarchist. The Allies now had the French army without Darlan.
More pressing were the problems of establishing a truly integrated command structure combining the Americans and the British. The idea was theoretically correct but difficult to pull off. Writing after the war, Eisenhower noted that military alliances in the past had frequently amounted to no more than “a pious aspiration thinly disguising the national jealousies, ambitions and recriminations of high ranking officers unwilling to subordinate themselves…to a commander of a different nationality.”
Eisenhower was determined to avoid that. He wanted to put together not only an Allied team that could fight a successful campaign in Africa but one that could carry the war to Europe as well. It was not easy. Although there is a kind of universal language employed by all military personnel, details can be maddeningly diverse. The British general Sir Frederick Morgan read the American operational order for the invasion and admitted he couldn’t understand a word of it. Sometimes cultural differences posed problems. When the French general Louis-Marie Koeltz presented a plan in French and apologized for its not being in English, Anderson assured him that “everyone here understands French.” The Missouri-born brigadier general Omar Bradley suffered through the briefing in uncomprehending silence.
Mostly it was a question of national attitudes. Many Americans felt their British counterparts were snobbish, overbearing, and militarily timid. Many Britishers found Americans raucous, overbearing, and militarily incompetent. Some called the Americans “our Italians.” The greatest British scorn was reserved for Dwight Eisenhower. Field Marshal Alan Brooke, Churchill’s chief military adviser, wrote that Ike “had neither the tactical nor strategical experience required for the job.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.