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The Defeat of Africa Korps : North Africa 1943

Updated on March 30, 2020
Mark Caruthers profile image

BA University of Arkansas (Fayetteville) Geography & History

The Battle for Kasserine Pass

With the Africa Korps on the edge of total defeat, Erwin Rommel once again was determined to beat the odds and take the initiative away from his enemy. Known as the Desert Fox, Rommel was a larger than life legend in the struggle for control of North Africa. So feared by the British that they attempted to assassinate him in a daring commando raid on his headquarters near Sidi Rafa, in Libya in November 1941. To even Rommel, it seemed only a matter of time before his army would meet its fate in the rugged desert of Northern Africa. In two years of unending desert warfare, he had performed a miracle saving his army after its total defeat at the gates of the Suez Canal during the Second Battle of El Alamein. Outnumbered and cut off from supply by Allied air and naval forces which had reduced his supplies to a trickle, he still managed to hold his much beloved Africa Korps together, in spite of all the devastating setbacks it had experienced. With his back against the Atlas Mountains of Tunisia, trapped between American forces advancing to block his retreat, and British forces in hot pursuit, he had decided to roll the dice once again. Rommel was the keen observer and a strategic opportunist who had come within a eyelash of capturing the Suez Canal in the spring of 1942. He saw weakness in the American forces whose troops were green and largely untested in battle. If he could rush through the Kasserine Pass and take Tebessa, a major Allied supply hub, and sweep north and take the remaining Allied forces facing him in the flank and rear he could turn the tables on his enemy. The American II Corps was his primary target. It was led by a Major General Lloyd Fredendall, who had a habit of talking tough, which alienated him from his men and sometimes made his orders unclear. These faults of leadership could possibly break the Desert Fox out the trap which surrounded his Africa Korps.

As a brief howling sandstorm swept across the Tunisian plain in the early morning of February 20, 1943, German tanks crews in their black tunics walked along the highway carrying lanterns to help guide their tanks through the darkness. The battle group advanced with more than a hundred tanks including super heavy Tiger tanks which struck fear among the American and British tank crews. Followed by infantry lorries and half-tracks the Afrika Korps was going on the offensive once again. The attack would focus on what Hitler would call the Italians of the Allied forces, the American Army. As dawn began to burst all around him, German commander General Heinz Ziegler climbed a rocky ridge above the squalid hamlet of Fad to get a better look at the American lines. He observed that the Americans defending the pass below him didn't appear aroused, or even on the alert. At precisely 6:30 A.M., German tank drivers shifted their tanks into gear and spilled onto the plain below. As the sun began to rise the advancing Germans created an enormous dust cloud.

Led by a dozen German Tiger tanks, the German attack broke through the American lines creating panic among the American troops.The German tankers in their Tiger tanks sprang down onto the plain destroying the American tanks from a distance of over two miles. The Germans also deployed a relatively new weapon, the Nebelwefer multiple-rocket launcher which caused confusion great among the green American troops. The German juggernaut obliterated one unit after another forcing the Americans into a headlong retreat. The Battle for Kasserine Pass was the first major battlefield encounter between American troops and the battle tested German Army. The battle is considered one of the worst defeats ever suffered by the United States military. It 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, badly led American forces suffered heavy casualties, and were hurled back over 50 miles from their positions west of the Faid Pass. They would leave 186 tanks and nearly 10,000 men dead or dying on the battlefield. The capture of Captain John Knight Waters during the battle, son-in-law to the next commander of II Corps, George Patton, would lead to the disastrous Raid on Hammelburg Germany in 1945 during the last days of the Second World War in Europe.

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini the Axis Powers

Dictators Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini would attempt to seize Northern Africa and capture the vital oil fields of the Middle East early in the Second World War.
Dictators Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini would attempt to seize Northern Africa and capture the vital oil fields of the Middle East early in the Second World War. | Source

The Battle for Kasserine Pass Battle Maps

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
Tunisia the Winter of 1943
Tunisia the Winter of 1943 | Source

American Prisoners of War taken after Kasserine Pass

American troops capture at the Battle for Kasserine Pass.
American troops capture at the Battle for Kasserine Pass. | Source
A knocked out American light tank, many troops were left on the field of battle for days.
A knocked out American light tank, many troops were left on the field of battle for days. | Source

Operation Torch November 8, 1942

General Fredendall was in command of the Central Task Force landings at Oran.
General Fredendall was in command of the Central Task Force landings at Oran. | Source
In response to the Allied landings on North Africa Hitler rushes in fresh reinforcements to counter the new Allied threat to his Africa Korps.
In response to the Allied landings on North Africa Hitler rushes in fresh reinforcements to counter the new Allied threat to his Africa Korps. | Source
The Messerschmitt Me 323 assault glider loading equipment bound for Tunisia in January 1943.
The Messerschmitt Me 323 assault glider loading equipment bound for Tunisia in January 1943. | Source
The Messerschmitt Me 323 was the largest glider used by either side during the Second World War. Hitler was use whatever he had on had to re-supply German troops in North Africa in response to the Allied Landings in North Africa.
The Messerschmitt Me 323 was the largest glider used by either side during the Second World War. Hitler was use whatever he had on had to re-supply German troops in North Africa in response to the Allied Landings in North Africa. | Source
On April 22,1943, the German Air Force would deploy twenty-one MC 323 Gigant motorized gliders to fly petrol to Tunisian airfields. Allied fighters intercepted and shot down sixteen of the twenty-one before they reached German airfields.
On April 22,1943, the German Air Force would deploy twenty-one MC 323 Gigant motorized gliders to fly petrol to Tunisian airfields. Allied fighters intercepted and shot down sixteen of the twenty-one before they reached German airfields. | Source

Major General Lloyd Fredendall

Major General Lloyd Fredendall aboard  a British aircraft carrier before the Torch Landings November 1943.
Major General Lloyd Fredendall aboard a British aircraft carrier before the Torch Landings November 1943. | Source

The Amerian General Who Failed at Kassrine Pass

Major General Lloyd Fredendall's poor leadership was a major factor in the American defeat at Kasserine Pass. After dropping out of West Point, Fredendall received his commission as a second lieutenant in the United States Army. He served in the Philippines and eventually in France during the First World War. By the time of Operation Torch, Fredendall was a major general in command of the Central Task Force landings at Oran and was well respected by the Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower. In Tunisia, Fredendall would fail because he basically lacked the leadership skills needed to lead troops on the battlefield. Fredendall biggest fault was that he didn't spend much time on the front line. He instead relied on maps as he sat safely in his headquarters and issued orders over the radio. That would undoubtedly become a major factor in the woeful unpreparedness of the front line in the American sector. Inevitably, the situation affected the moral and confidence of his troops. One fact which shocked Eisenhower as he visited his friend was that Fredendall's headquarters was located over 70 miles behind the front line. Fredendall appeared seemingly overly obsessed with the potential for an enemy air attack. He therefore ordered his battalion engineers to blast out underground bunkers in the side of a ravine, and ringed his headquarters with anti-aircraft guns. He was a compulsive micromanager which also created confusion among his front line troops. For weeks Frendendall had 200 engineers digging and pouring concrete to construct his command post, a vast bombproof bunker. General Bradley would state that Fredendall's command post was an "embarrassment to every American soldier."

Once the battle unfolded Fredendall's defensive strategy prove flawed. He had failed to concentrate his armor, and the Germans took full advantage of his lack of knowledge about the disposition of his front line troops. Fredendall's forces were badly deployed and easily overwhelmed by Rommel's battle group as it advanced through the Kasserine Pass on the early morning of February 20,1943. Fredendall had made a grave mistake deploying his forces on the two hills protecting Kasserine Pass. The men on the hills were supposed to support the American tanks and troops on the plains below. But the forces on the two hills were not strong enough to affect the outcome of the battle on the plains below and were too far apart to support each other. Soon the American forces on the hills were marooned as German tanks plowed through the passes below their positions. German tanks destroyed 112 out of 120 American tanks placed to defend the Kasserine Pass, and inflicted 6000 casualties as German forces wiped out the American defences. 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. Eisenhower sacked Fredendall, and gave command of the demoralized II Corps to George Patton who would turn the II Corps into a potent combat force. Patton was just the opposite of Fredendall, he would become famous for leading his forces in the face of battle.

Possibly in a sense the U.S. Army was the real winner at Kasserine Pass. The campaign in North Africa perhaps was a painful yet necessary testing ground for the American forces, enabling them to gain experience and fine-tune their tactics. Incompetent commanders such as Fredendall were weeded out and replaced. In their place more competent and aggressive leaders such as George S. Patton were groomed for larger operations. Rommel had awakened the Americans out of their cocksure complacency, hardening them for a long, drawn out struggle.

The American Forces in Tunisia

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

Captured German Tiger Tank

Rommel the Desert Fox

The German Mk IV tanks was the main battle tank in the Africa Korps tank divisions.
The German Mk IV tanks was the main battle tank in the Africa Korps tank divisions. | Source
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 who became known as the "Desert Fox" and the charismatic 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 nearly achieving total victory in North Africa. But the Africa Korps with its extended and exposed supply line was stopped at El Alamein and almost practically destroyed. Refusing to take Hitler's orders and stand to the last man at El Alamein, Rommel decided to save his troops and would lead his army on a westward retreat of over 1,4000 miles into Tunisia in January 1943. The fleeing army would leave behind more than 30,000 soldiers, who were captured and marched off to barbed-wire stockades near Alexandria, Egypt. But Rommel's survivors manage to reach the sanctuary of the Tunisia's hills, winning the race against time with Montgomery's Eight Army snapping at the heels.

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. It was Hitler's wish that Rommel depart 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 possibly 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 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 Surrender in North Africa

The German and Italians still left in North Africa formed a considerable force, with over eleven divisions. However, the Axis supply situation was extremely critical because the Italian Navy had been decimated by British and American naval forces. Of the fifty-one ships sent to supply the new Panzer Army Africa only twenty-nine would arrive in Tunisia. On May 8, 1943, the German Air Force confronted by over 4,500 Allied war planes were forced to abandon their Tunisian bases altogether. By the end of April 1943, the German forces in Tunisia had only seventy-six tanks still running and was trying to distill fuel for their engines from locally produced wines and spirits.

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

Sources

Keegan, John. The Second World War. Penguin Group. 40 West 23rd Street New York NY 10010 USA. 1990.

Mitcham, Samuel W. Hitler's Commanders. The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group Inc. 4501 Forbes Boulevard, Suite 200 Lanham MD 20706 2012.

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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