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Monday, March 14, 2016

Military History Monday: Battle of Kasserine Pass

Welcome back to Cogitations of a Semi-Pro Wordsmith and my weekly column Military History Monday! Today’s topic is the World War 2 Battle of Kasserine Pass, 19–25 February 1943. This battle represented the first US taste of combat against the forces of the Wehrmacht of Germany. Allied forces included the UK’s 6th Armoured Division and elements of the US Army’s II Corp. The US II Corps consisted of the 1st, 9th, and 34th Infantry Divisions, along with the 1st Armored Division. The Axis forces primarily included the German 21st and 10th Panzer Divisions, commanded by the “Desert Fox” Irwin Rommel.

Precursor


Leading up to Kasserine Pass, things in North Africa had become tenuous for the Axis forces. Montgomery had already defeated their forces at El Alamein and had pushed through past Tobruk and taken Tripoli. US and UK troops had landed in Algeria and Morocco, behind the Axis forces in Tunisia, threatening to cut off the Axis forces in Africa from their supplies. Italian and German troops shifted from Sicily into Tunisia, and Rommel reoriented some of his forces to the west after the Allies gained a foothold on the eastern side of the Atlas Mountains.

Battle


On 19 February, Rommel sent two attacks against the Allied positions. The 21st Panzer division attacked to the north, against the UK 6th Armoured and their attached units, with most of the 10th Panzer attacking against the US 1st Armored at Kasserine. The attack of the 21st faltered, but the 10th saw success over the first two days, initially slowly but overnight between the 19th and 20th overran two US defensive positions and on the 20th inflicted heavy casualties on US defenders. Eventually, the Allied forces were displaced some 75–80 km to the West. On 21 February US defenders near Djebel el Hamra including elements of the 1st Armored and 1st Infantry Divisions held against a relentless attack by German and Italian forces. The next day, a counterattack by Allied forces pushed the Axis back. Over the next couple of days, Allied commanders mounted a defense against an Axis attack toward Thala, which resulted in heavy Allied casualties but prevented the Axis from taking the town and cutting the Allied defenders in half. Axis commanders including Rommel recognized their attack would be unsuccessful and elected to pull back to their original positions and concentrate their efforts against Montgomery’s 8th Army in Tripoli.

Outcome & Aftermath


The immediate outcome of the battle was that Axis and Allied forces essentially returned to the same positions they had been in on 18 February. Tactically, the battle revealed enormous problems with US military command structure, leadership, equipment failings, and troop training. Aside from casualties, which were very high, the US Army learned valuable lessons and relieved most of the senior commanders. Some of these lessons included training soldiers to not silhouette themselves at the tops of ridge lines, emphasizing that leaders perform personal recon of the terrain when possible, and a heightened focus on integrating infantry, artillery, armor, and tank destroyer units as combined arms forces.
Ultimately, the costly defeats suffered by the US forces at Kasserine resulted in a markedly improved fighting force, one that Rommel himself later would note had made drastic and positive changes in a relatively short period of time. In addition, the replacement of senior commanders resulted in a new commander and deputy commander of the US II Corps, in George S. Patton, Jr. and Omar Bradley. These two soldiers would be instrumental in improving the combat effectiveness and tactical flexibility of US forces in Europe.

Further Reading



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