A Brief History
On February 19, 1943, the Battle of Kasserine Pass started, the first major American engagement of ground forces with the Axis forces in the Western Theater of World War II. Unfortunately for the US Army, the performance of the soldiers and their equipment was a major disappointment, perhaps crushingly so, disheartening not only the US higher commanders (General Eisenhower) but also our British allies. General Omar Bradley (later a 5 star General) later said that Kasserine Pass was the worst performance by the US Army in all its history.
After World War II started in Europe in 1939, the fighting had spread to North Africa in 1940 when the British, based in Egypt, began fighting the Italians, based in Libya. The German Army sent forces to intervene on the side of the Italians in 1941, led by General (later Field Marshall) Erwin Rommel, and a long series of battles followed across the Northern part of the continent, largely through deserts and barren ground. British fortunes were somewhat limited, perhaps by less than stellar commanders until Lieutenant General (later Field Marshall) Bernard Montgomery was given command in 1942. The American involvement in World War II after the Pearl Harbor attack of December 1941, made a much-anticipated introduction of American ground combat forces a highly sought event. Americans were eager to prove the value of their equipment, tactics and soldierly virtues, and the British were anxious to have their new ally finally get involved in the hard ground war. Meanwhile, the Soviets were demanding a “second front” ground war with Germany be initiated by the British and Americans, preferably on the main European Continent, but the North African invasion of Tunisia, called Operation Torch, is what they got.
When the US Army finally got a chance to show their military prowess, it was a fiasco! In the area of Kasserine Pass in the Atlas Mountains in Tunisia, German General Hans-Jurgen von Arnim led his Afrika Korps Panzers to throw back the French and Americans a whole 50 miles from their positions. Initially, the US commanders (led by Major General Lloyd Fredendall) were giddy about destroying a few German tanks and the apparent retreat of the Germans, and gave immediate chase, right into a trap! German anti-tank guns destroyed numerous US tanks, and American defensive positions were poorly dug in and poorly sited with little mutual support between units. The 5 day battle was a rout of the US Army II Corps, an enormous embarrassment for the Americans. The overextended German forces had reached the limit of their supply line and could not advance further, eventually pulling back to more defensible positions where Allied (American) forces later redeemed their honor by defeating the Germans.
German losses amounted to 34 tanks and 2000 men, while the US lost 300 killed, 3000 wounded, another 3000 missing (mostly captured) and 183 tanks destroyed. American soldiers had shown little battle savvy, and American tanks, notably the light tanks and the goofy looking M3 Grant. Units equipped with the semi-automatic M-1 Garand rifle were clearly better armed than those equipped with the bolt action ’03 Springfield rifle, causing accelerated transition to the superior M-1. The US 37mm anti-tank gun was found to be inadequate, and future anti-tank guns would be of larger and more powerful calibers. The introduction of the bazooka was found to be a distinct advantage, and this weapon became of widespread issue. The Americans also failed to secure air superiority or provide for adequate anti-aircraft fire, resulting in relentless harassment of American forces by German fighters and dive bombers. Tactics using the widely available .50 caliber machine guns against enemy aircraft were quickly developed. American soldiers learned to dig in deep and prepare defensive positions carefully, and how to avoid German ambushes.
General D.D. Eisenhower, the overall US commander in Europe, relieved Maj. Gen. Fredendall of his command and gave Major General GS Patton command of the II Corps, with Major General Omar Bradley as his second in command. The US Army learned the hard lesson of Kasserine Pass incredibly quickly and became an unstoppable force in North Africa and later across mainland Europe. The Germans had come under the mistaken impression that American troops and equipment were substandard, totally failing to foresee the rapid improvement in American tactics and equipment. British impressions of Americans as military amateurs remained throughout the war, despite massive evidence to the contrary. (You cannot please everyone!)
Question for students (and subscribers): Was Kasserine Pass the worst US Army performance of all time? Probably not, as the fiasco was soon rectified, and losses were not as massive as some other battles. In fact, perhaps the lessons learned were of such value that the end result could be said to be beneficial. What do you think? Please give us your thoughts on the Battle of Kasserine Pass and where you believe this battle ranks in the history of US Army disasters in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Blumenson, Martin. Kasserine Pass. Cooper Square Press, 2000.
Rottman, Gordon. M3 Medium Tank vs Panzer III: Kasserine Pass 1943. Osprey Publishing, 2008.
Zaloga, Steven. Kasserine Pass 1943: Rommel’s last victory. Osprey Publishing, 2005.