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Defeat at Kasserine Pass and the Collapse of the Africa Korps

Updated on June 25, 2017
Mark Caruthers profile image

Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Arkansas Fayetteville in Geography & History.

The Battle for Kasserine Pass

As a brief howling sandstorm swept across the Tunisian plain on Sunday morning the 14th of February 1943, tanks crews for the German Army in black tunics walked down Highway 13 carrying lanterns to guide more than a hundred tanks and as many infantry lorries and half-tracks, among them were a dozen Tiger tanks Germany's most feared tank of the war. As dawn began to burst all around him, Germany commander, General Heinz Ziegler, climbed a rocky ridge above the squalid hamlet of Fad. He observed that the American forces below him didn't appear aroused, or even alert. At precisely 6:30 A.M. German tank drivers shifted into gear and German tanks spilled from the Eastern Dorsal mountains of Tunisia onto the plain below. Behind them the sun began to rise through the dust as an enormous, molten sphere warming the desert floor beneath the tracks of the advancing armor. The Germans in their tanks sprang down onto the plain like hungry wolves. Before them American units were obliterated one after another the headlong retreat before the German juggernaut began. The Battle for Kasserine Pass actually was a series of battles that took place over seventy-two years ago, when raw American troops were involved their first major battlefield encounters with the German Army. The Battle of Kasserine Pass is considered one of the worst defeats ever suffered by the United States military. The battle was fought around a two mile gap in the Grand Dorsal chain of the Atlas Mountains in west central Tunisia. In ten days, the relatively untested and badly led American forces suffered heavy casualties and were hurled back over 50 miles from their positions west of the Faid Pass losing 186 tanks and nearly 10,000 men.

German Tiger Tanks

The German Tiger tank was a 54 ton monster with a massive 88-mm cannon no Allied tank could counter its firepower.
The German Tiger tank was a 54 ton monster with a massive 88-mm cannon no Allied tank could counter its firepower. | Source

The Battle for Kasserine Pass Battle Maps

A map of Tunisia
A map of Tunisia | Source
Source
The Africa Korps had to fight a two front war as it retreated into Tunisia.
The Africa Korps had to fight a two front war as it retreated into Tunisia. | Source

The Americans

The American forces involved in the battle were the U.S. Army's II Corps, commanded by Major General Lloyd Fredendall. The American general was a compulsive micromanager who led his forces from the rear. For weeks Frendendall had 200 engineers digging and pouring concrete to construct his command post, a vast bombproof bunker over one hundred miles from the front lines. General Bradley, stated that Fredendall's command post was an "embarrassment to every to every American soldier." One the battle unfolded Fredendall's strategy prove flawed, he failed to concentrate his armor and the advancing battle tested German forces took full advantage of his lack of leadership.

American Prisoners of War

German troops escorting American Prisoners of War captured during the Battle for Kasserine Pass February 1943.

American General Fredendall

Fredendall's poor leadership would be a major factor in the American defeat at Kasserine Pass. Fredendall's forces were badly deployed and easily overwhelmed. German tanks destroyed 112 out of 120 American tanks placed to defend the Kasserine Pass and inflicted 6000 casualties. The American 37-mm anti-tank gun could hardly cause a dent in the German armor. Fendendall commented wryly that "the only way to hurt a kraut with a 37-mm anti-tank gun is to catch him and give him an enema with it." Eisenhower's naval adviser wrote in his diary that the proud and cocky Americans today stand humiliated by one of the greatest defeats in our history. An Enigma transcript revealed that the Germans, too, having engaged American forces for the first time, held little respect for the fighting skills of their new enemy.



Rommel Part 2

The American Forces in Tunisia

The American Grant Tank
The American Grant Tank
The Sherman Tank
The Sherman Tank

American Armor in Action at Kesserine Pass

The American Sherman tank proved no match against the Germany Tiger tank and its 88mm cannon, luckily for the Americans there were very few available at that time in the war. The Sherman tank was a very mobile tank but lacked the armor and fire-power to battle one-on-one with the Tiger tank.



The Tiger Tank Versus The Sherman Tank

Captured German Tiger Tank

Sherman vs Tiger

Rommel the Desert Fox

Rommel in his command car during battle in North Africa.
Rommel in his command car during battle in North Africa.
Rommel with his troops in North Africa, in the command car on the right.
Rommel with his troops in North Africa, in the command car on the right.
Rommel reviewing his troops in North Africa
Rommel reviewing his troops in North Africa
Rommel with his generals on the battlefield.
Rommel with his generals on the battlefield.
Rommel again in battle leading his troops.
Rommel again in battle leading his troops.

The "Desert Fox" General Erwin Rommel

General Erwin Rommel was a strategic genius known as the "Desert Fox" and the leader of the German Africa Korps during the Second World War. The German forces under his command at the Kasserine Pass consisted of two Panzer divisions from the 5th Panzer Army, and elements of the Italian Centauro armored division. After the Allied landings in Morrocco, and the defeat of the French forces under German control, Rommel needed a victory to turn the tide of war against his new enemy, almost two years before he was within a eyelash of capturing Egypt and the Suez Canal England's lifeline to the Middle East and Africa and achieving total victory in North Africa . For a short time von Arnim and his political advisers appeared willing to let him use the newly arrived tanks to score a quick victory and lift the morale of the Africa Korps, and it was Hitler's wish that Rommel departed North Africa having won a final victory with his propaganda value intact. The victory at Kasserine would be catastrophic lost opportunity for the German armed forces in North Africa. Had Rommel been more bold and continued to strike toward the east, he could have captured the Allies huge supply depot in Algeria changing the course of the war in north Africa. It is unlikely that Rommel expected to make any permanent gains when he attacked the U.S. II Corps positioned at Sidi Bou Zid and Kasserine Pass. Having occupied a large swath of the Kasserine valley, Rommel would disappear back through the pass during the night of the 22cnd of February 1942. His medical adviser was urging him to return to Germany and he had already been officially dismissed. The once invincible tank commander was tired from years of battle, and frustrated by the second guessing of Adolf Hitler and his rival officers, as the result he proved hesitant and indecisive, squandering the Africa Korps last real chance of retaining its foothold in North Africa. When Rommel took off from Sfax airfield at 0750 on the 9th of March 1942, he was never to return to North Africa, although at the time he had every intention to do so and there is little evidence to support Eisenhower's assertion that "he escaped, foreseeing the inevitable and desiring to save his own skin." Leaving von Arnim in command, he flew first to Rome to talk to Mussolini, then on to confront Hitler. He hoped that a final, personal appeal to the two leaders would convince them the Allied armies in Tunisia could not be defeated and it was necessary to save German troops for use in the defense of Europe which was soon to come. It would be Rommel's last battlefield victory of the entire war, thoroughly demoralized he left North Africa believing that any further attempts at holding a Nazi foothold in Africa was suicide. The Axis forces surrendered two months later leaving North Africa to Allied forces.


The Battle of North Africa

The Defeat of the German Army in North Africa

German Prisoners taken in the final days in North Africa.
German Prisoners taken in the final days in North Africa. | Source
Knocked out Tiger Tank
Knocked out Tiger Tank | Source
Knocked out Panzer III in Tunisia
Knocked out Panzer III in Tunisia | Source
Knocked out Tiger tank
Knocked out Tiger tank | Source

The Nazis lose in North Africa

In May 1943 the Africa Korps surrendered to the Allied forces, over 267,000 German and Italian soldiers became prisoners of war. The Allies captured over 1,000 pieces of artillery, of which 180 of them were the deadly 88mm anti-tank guns, 250 tanks, and many thousands of motor vehicles. During the entire campaign in North Africa the Germans and Italians would suffer 620,000 casualties over 100,000 of them would lose their lives in the desert war.

Captured German Equipment

American troops inspect a captured German tank.
American troops inspect a captured German tank. | Source
German prisoners led by an Allied tank over 200,000 Axis troops surrendered in Tunisia.
German prisoners led by an Allied tank over 200,000 Axis troops surrendered in Tunisia. | Source
A battery of German Nebelwerfer multiple rocket launchers
A battery of German Nebelwerfer multiple rocket launchers | Source
The Africa Korps meets it End in Tunisia
The Africa Korps meets it End in Tunisia | Source

German Nebelwerfer Multiple Rocket Launcher

Sources

Ray, John. The Illustrated History of WWII. Weidenfeld & Nicolson The Orion Publishing Group Ltd. Orion House 3 Upper Saint Martin's Lane,. London WC2H 9EA . 2003

Swanston, Alexander. The Historical Atlas of World War II. Chartwell Books. 276 Fifth Avenue Suite 206 New York , New York 10001, USA. 2008



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