The Battle of Kasserine Pass was a key battle fought between American, British, and Free French forces and German and Italian forces in Tunisia.
In February Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Afrika korps, which had been retreating through Egypt and Libya, from the British, established itself on the Mareth Line in southeast Tunisia. The widely dispersed and long Allied supply lines permitted Rommel to launch his final offensive thrusts. In mid-February the Afrika Korps struck westward from Faid Pass and broke through the Kasserine Pass. With this limited objective achieved, Rommel returned to the Mareth Lines.
The Anglo-American forces that had landed in Algeria in November 1942, had rapidly crossed into Tunisia but after the mass Axis reinforcement of the northern half of the country via Sicily, were now ordered to attack the Italo-German Army retreating from General Bernard Montgomery's 8th British Army after Marshall Erwin Rommel's defeat in the Second Battle of El Alamein.
Kasserine Pass would prove to be Rommel's last victory in North Africa before going on indefinite sick leave on 9 March. During the fighting, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, chief conspirator against Adolf Hitler, would be seriously wounded when a British fighter plane strafed his vehicle.
Since Rommel had limited fuel supplies, the Allies did not expect he would make any significant countermoves and attack the Allied pursuing armies in Tunisia. The Allied commanders instead, expected Rommel to continue his gradual retreat northwards to the ports of Bizerte and Tunis in order to shorten the Axis supply route. The US generals, therefore left the Kasserine Pass undermanned, concentrating troops north of the pass, and on both sides of the mountain range.
The Axis attack
Upon confirming the enemy weak spots, Rommel realized there was an opportunity to make an attack and a quick advance through kasserine Pass to Tebessa and capture the Allied supply deposits. He began deploying troops to contain the Allied forces located east of the mountains. DAK Kampfgruppe and 21st Panzer Division (General Fritz von Broich) attack but fail in their push through Sbiba and Kasserine Pass, but the Italians in the form of the 131st Armored Division Centauro are successful with the Bersaglieri Corps overrunning the US 19th Combat Engineers Regiment under Colonel Anderson Moore.
While advancing along Highway 17, the panzer columns of von Broitch soon encountered strong British defensive positions from the 2nd Leicesters Battalion from the 6th Armored Division deployed outside Thala to halt 10th Panzer. Meanwhile, more units of the 6th Armored Division were rushed forward to reinforce Thala, including three full artillery battalions of the US 9th Division and an anti-tank company.
The Allied defence
Meanwhile, the US situation was still very worrying. In Tebessa they were plans in progress for the evacuating of the headquarters of General Fredendall and the destruction of fuel and ammunition depots and other supplies in the base area nicknamed Speedy Valley. Morale was collapsing, including that of Fredendall. Despite the confusion, a new American defense line was rapidly taking shape. Combat Command B (CCB), under Colonel Paul M. Robinett, was now blocking the road to Tebessa. Elements of the Centauro Division reached a US blocking position in the early morning of 21 February, and after a short but intense fight, the outpost was overrun. Assault Group Afrika Korps then continued advancing along Highway 13 but the US defenders held firm with CCB fighting all day long against repeated German attacks. That night the Africa Panzergrenadier Regiment tried to outflank CCB, but in the dark attacked and occupied the wrong hill. The British defenders were still resisting the advance of the 10th Panzer to Thala, but had lost two positions. The Germans had to resort to using captured British tanks Valentine, which worked and the British 26th Armored Brigade (under Brigadier Charles Dunphy) had to abandon its third line of defense outside Thala. On 22 February, the Germans continued their efforts to break through the last remaining British line of defense outside Thala. The commander of the British force (designated Nickforce</nowiki>) defending the town, was Brigadier Cameron Nicholson who managed to convince that day the US commanders present at Thala not abandon the town in favour of Le Kef, 50 miles away. That day, two battalions of Bersaglieri tried to outflank the defenses of Thala, but the Italian attack was broken by the heavy fire from British artillery. Assault Group Afrika Korps spent much of the day attacking and bombarding CCB, which still defended the road to Tebessa. On the afternoon of 22 March, the 10th Panzer Division was ordered to retreat, but the US and British fire was so fierce that the order could not be carried out until nightfall. On Highway 13, attacks from Assault Group Afrika Korps against Combat Command B also ceased, and in the afternoon the Germans in this sector also began their retreat.
North Africa was steep learning curve for the US forces, the Battle of Kasserine Pass proved nearly completely disastrous, that lead to a complete overhaul and change in tactics. Close to 30,000 US troops took part in the fighting for Kasserine Pass. Around 300 were killed, 3,000 wounded and close to 4,000 US soldiers were captured.
- ↑ "Rommel returned to the railway station at Kasserine which briefly served as the combined command post of the German Africa Corps and the 10th Panzer Division, and ordered these two formations to take the Kasserine Pass. In the evening dusk Rommel observed, as he dictated for his diary, 'the exciting scene of the tank battle north of the pass'. He had special praise for the 7th Bersaglieri, who attacked fiercely and whose commander fell during the attack; they threw the American, British and French forces out of the pass ...." Stauffenberg: A Family History, 1905-1944, Peter Hoffman, p.171, McGill-Queen's Press, 2008
- ↑ "The new commander of DAK Assault Group, General Bulowius, complimented them on their élan, which contributed significantly to Axis success. The Italian action was instrumental in breaking through the US positions and in opening up the road to Thala and Tebessa." Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts: Mussolini's Elite Armoured Divisions in North Africa, Ian Walker, p.210, Crowood Press, 2006
- ↑ "At 4:30 P.M., 20 February, Axis troops rolled through Kasserine Pass. A battalion of the Centauro Division headed west on the road to Tebessa ... The battlegroup from the 10th Panzer Division under Fritz von Broich followed the Centauro battalion into the pass but headed north following the branch road toward Thala." Exit Rommel: The Tunisian Campaign, 1942-43, Bruce Watson, p. 102, Stackpole Books, 2006
- ↑ "Axis forces also made a breakthrough on highway 13, where the Italians of the Centauro Division spearheaded the attack. In the early morning hours, the Italians pressed their offensive, broke through the remains of the American line, and continued up Highway 13." Facing The Fox
- ↑ Facing The Fox
- ↑ Facing The Fox
- ↑ THE 23rd FIELD REGIMENT, ROYAL ARTILLERY
- ↑ More than 200 U.S. tanks were destroyed and nearly 4,000 American troops were captured." World War II in Europe: An Encyclopedia, p. 985, David T. Zabecki, Routledge, 2015