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Angry winds from the sahara lashed the mountains and plains of central Tunisia just before dawn on Sunday, February 14, 1943–St. Valentine's Day. The howling currents and swirling dust cloaked the maneuvers of advancing German armored battle groups. At 0400 hours, with resolute purpose, elements of the crack 10th and 21st Panzer divisions had launched an attack through Faid and Maizila passes. The German tanks were bound for the village of Sidi Bou Zid, where General Dwight D. Eisenhower himself had inspected forward American troop dispositions just three hours earlier.
The panzer groups were implementing a plan personally approved by Adolf Hitler and calculated to relieve the pressure on Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps. To the east, British General Bernard L. Montgomery's Eighth Army, which had chased Rommel from Egypt, was gathering strength for a final assault. Rommel's western flank was likewise threatened by imminent Allied incursions through the passes of the Eastern Dorsal, a mountain chain running from the Miliane River to Maknassy. The 'Desert Fox' viewed the interminable retreat from Egypt with disdain and longed for an opportunity to resume the offensive. To avoid being trapped in a tightening vise, he turned and struck first. The Kasserine campaign, the first major clash between the American and German armies in World War II, had begun.
The essence of Rommel's plan was to counterthrust through those mountain passes, penetrate deeply to the northwest and completely disrupt the Allied rear. He meant to deal the Americans a resounding defeat that would instill a feeling of inferiority in the green troops and give his hard-pressed army some breathing room. Facing the Germans were fragmented units of the 1st Armored Division, stretched thin to cover a 60-mile front. It was the first American division to engage the Germans in combat, the first to fight in the desert and, ironically, the only one of the 16 U.S. armored divisions in World War II not to receive any desert warfare training.
On that fateful morning, German Panzerkampfwagen Mk.IVs, backed by new, 60-ton Pzkw. MK.VI Tigers, churned over, through and around the American lines. Lieutenant General Heinz Ziegler, the deputy to Col. Gen. Hans von Arnim, led the attacking force.
Spearheading Operation 'Spring Wind' was the 591st Tiger Detachment. The 7th Panzer and 86th Panzergrenadier regiments supported that shock force. Spring Wind had four thrust points: Kampfgruppe (KGr.) Gerhardt rolled around the northern edge of Djebel Lessouda, while KGr. Reimann advanced directly along the road from Faid. To the south, units of the 21st Panzer Division poured through Maizila Pass and divided into two groups to encircle Sidi Bou Zid. KGr. Schuette advanced to the north and KGr. Stenkhoff to the west.
Forward elements of the Americans' 168th Regimental Combat Team, divided among the Lessouda, Garet Hadid and Ksaira djebels (hills), were bypassed and quickly marooned. At least 2,000 men were trapped. They had been imprudently placed there by the II Corps commander, Maj. Gen. Lloyd R. Fredendall, who had never even visited the front lines.
Strenuous efforts to hold the line continued through the morning. At midday, 51 M-4 Sherman tanks of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Armored Regiment, rolled out to engage the enemy. A fierce fight ensued, resulting in the loss of 44 of the battalion's tanks. The noble sacrifice, brilliantly led by Lt. Col. Louis I. Hightower, temporarily delayed the panzers' progress. But by dusk, the Germans had captured Sidi Bou Zid. Having achieved their objective, they halted, satisfied to consolidate their gains.
At 2320 hours that Sunday, after driving through the night, Lt. Col. James D. Alger arrived at the Tunisian farmhouse that would become the headquarters for Combat Command (CC) C of the U.S. II Corps. 'Gentleman Jim' Alger's 2nd Battalion, 1st Armored Regiment, had raced from its concealed bivouac near Maktar to an assembly area at an outpost south of Hadjeb el Aioun. As his tankers refueled, Alger awaited the arrival of Colonel Robert I. Stack and his party from division headquarters. They were carrying his counterattack orders.
The easygoing Alger had walked into a desperate and fluid situation that evening. The Germans knew that the American infantry forces were trapped on the Lessouda and Ksaira hills, and planned to obliterate them. The American commanders in the rear prepared to counterattack the next morning in order to rescue the isolated infantry, retake Sidi Bou Zid and drive the Germans back.
In the vanguard of the counterattacking force would be Alger's 2nd Battalion. It had never been in combat before. The unit had been conducting reconnaissance forays into Ousseltia Valley to the north when the attack through Faid Pass began. At 1500, the 2nd Battalion was ordered to move immediately to Hadjeb el Aioun, and Alger was directed to report to Stack, who had just been placed in command of the hastily assembled CC C. All Alger knew when he reached the command post was that units on CC A's front had been battered and that an unknown number of Germans had moved through Faid Pass.
Stack and his entourage arrived at the command post at 0230, Monday, February 15. Alger was only given preliminary information during the initial briefing. An hour later, two lieutenants from the regiment's reconnaissance company gave him a firsthand account of the battle around Lessouda. Despite what they had seen, the two had little knowledge of the German strength and disposition. There were no terrain maps of the area for Alger to review.
The march and counterattack orders for CC C were issued at 0400, from a plan personally drafted by Maj. Gen. Orlando Ward, the 1st Armored Division commander. Ward's plan was based upon an intelligence estimate of 40 German tanks near Sidi Bou Zid. In fact, as he would later learn to his chagrin, there were more than 100 in the village, as well as emplaced 47mm and 88mm anti-tank guns.
Ward's order to Stack read as follows: 'Mission to CC C….This force will move south, and by fire and maneuver, destroy the enemy armored forces which have threatened our hold on the Sbeitla area. It will so conduct its maneuver to aid in the withdrawal of our forces in the vicinity of Djebel Ksaira, eventually withdrawing to the area north of Djebel Hamra for further action.'
Two German armored divisions and part of a third, plus supporting units, waited near Sidi Bou Zid to obstruct Alger's thrust and foil his mission. Against this formidable force, the Americans were sending an uninitiated tank battalion, reinforced by a tank destroyer company consisting of halftracks mounting 75mm cannons. The frontal movement would be supported by the 68th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, less Battery A, and the 6th Armored Infantry Battalion, riding behind in halftracks.
As the briefing continued, Alger learned that his tank battalion had been ordered to attack in a formation consisting of a column of companies, with the center wing back. Two platoons would be on line in a narrow front to provide depth, with the third platoon of each company toward the center rear in reserve. Each flank was to be covered by a heavy tank destroyer platoon.
The commander of the 1st Armored Regiment, Colonel Peter C. Hains, explained the known geographical contours and features of the area to Alger. He advised him of the deep, irregular wadis in his path and indicated that they were passable at certain points. Only three maps were available, and those were all of a scale that provided little in the way of detail. There were still no terrain maps to work from. Worst of all, there had been no reconnaissance forward from the jump-off point to Sidi Bou Zid itself.
At 0500, Alger returned to the battalion assembly area and issued the march and attack orders to his men. At 0620, his battalion moved out and headed from the jump-off position, three miles south of the road junction later to be known as Kern's Crossroads.
Between 0700 and 1100 hours, the battalion's movement along the road to the jump-off point was repeatedly interrupted by reconnaissance operations. As the battalion closed on the crossroads, Alger ordered his reconnaissance platoon to the right flank. He had selected Captain Province M. Winkler's Company D to lead the attack. Captain John L. Peyton's Company F came next, followed by the battalion assault guns, self-propelled artillery commanded by Lieutenant Leo J. Farber. In reserve, was Company E, under Captain Harris O. Machus and Major William W. Emory. The 3rd Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry, and Companies B and C of the 68th Armored Artillery Battalion backed these forward elements. Tank destroyer platoons were located on each flank.
Two forward artillery observers reported to the battalion at the staging area. Alger sent his own radio operator, Warrant Officer Frank D. Leger, Jr., to attempt to adjust their radios to the battalion net. Due to the rush, however, the radios had not been synchronized by the time the attack began.
Alger met with his officers to verify the direction of the assault and confirm the attack orders. In the absence of terrain maps, he used the north nose of Djebel Ksaira as a reference point for his attack.
Company D moved far to the front and east of the jump-off position. Its two leading platoons, on line, preceded the main group by 500 yards, to act as a covering force. Around noon, Alger climbed to a hilltop with Hains and Hightower, and they scanned the attack route east toward Sidi Bou Zid, 13 miles away.
The village lay across a sun-drenched plain cut by steep ravines and washes. They discussed the terrain, the likely crossing points and the day's objectives. Next, they pointed out the probable locations of anti-tank guns. However, they had only a vague idea of what awaited them near Sidi Bou Zid.
In fact, the Germans had emplaced anti-tank guns and artillery on high ground positions around the village. Others were established in or near it, covered by buildings, walls, wadis and groves. Furthermore, the full extent of the opposing force was disguised by the geographic features.
Despite many causes for concern, the attack had to go on. After surveying the terrain, Hains turned to Alger and said, 'Seek the enemy armor and destroy it.'
'Yes sir,' Alger replied with a smart salute. They all shook hands, and Hightower wished his subordinate luck and said he hoped they would 'get 4-to-1' in their favor. Just as they parted, perhaps foreshadowing what was to come, the crossroads was heavily bombed by 14 Junkers Ju-87 Stukas. The aerial strike scattered Alger's vehicles and delayed the start of the attack. Damage was slight, but the German pilots were able to transmit the size and disposition of the American force to their tankers waiting in Sidi Bou Zid.
Alger climbed into the turret of the battalion command tank and at 1300 received the order to begin the attack. As Alger's tank moved into position with Company D, Stack watched the formation pass by from his lofty command post on Djebel Hamra. He was pleased that the attacking force was moving with parade ground precision and keeping proper intervals. It was an organized, perfect, textbook movement–just as if the battalion were going on maneuvers, not rolling to meet a deadly foe. As Stack scanned Sidi Bou Zid through field glasses, the 'Stars and Stripes Forever' blasted from a truck radio on the plain below. The small troop moved out into the open desert, fully exposed to the enemy.
By 1350, the lead force had passed south of the town of Sadaguia, and the tank destroyer platoon on the left flank had entered the town. As Company D reconnoitered the first large irrigation ditch and wadi east of Sadaguia to find a crossing, another flight of Stukas dive-bombed the town and strafed the advancing column. The tank destroyer platoon did not exit the town.
Company D found a lone crossing point, and every American was forced to converge and cross at that single location. However, only one tank was lost in the wet irrigation ditch, due to a thrown track.
As his tanks advanced, Alger received a message from Captain Robert L. Sweeney: 'Our birds will visit the first objective soon. Delay attack until they have completed mission.' Alger told his commanders that aerial support was on the way. To avoid being caught in the midst of a friendly air attack, the Americans slowed their pace considerably. Unfortunately, the expected airstrike never materialized.
As Winkler's command tank and the balance of Company D approached the second wadi, they were showered with airbursts. Winkler's handpicked crew had been together since Northern Ireland. They had endured Stuka dive-bombings and convoy strafings during the long march from Algeria, but they had never experienced such intense artillery fire. Sergeant Everett Gregg, the tank commander, was the assistant driver/gunner that day. Alphonse Urbanovski was the driver. The usual driver, Philip Caldwell, had moved to a trailing tank destroyer to make room for Captain Winkler, who was taking the company into battle. In the turret with Winkler were Lee C. Kaser, the radio operator/loader, and Corporal Robert A. Newton, the 75mm gunner.
All in all, the men were eager to see action and proud of their jobs. 'We're damn glad to be tankers,' Newton wrote. 'Next to the Air Corps, and we dispute that, we are the elite of the Army. We wouldn't be in any other branch of the service. There's a peculiar feeling of pride in being a tanker that only a tanker knows.'
The tankers rolled toward Sidi Bou Zid, confident that their new Shermans would see them through. Winkler's crew had dutifully maintained their tank for just this eventuality. 'The great tradition of cavalry from which we evolved is still with us,' Newton wrote. 'The mount comes first.'
Winkler's 1st Platoon, on the left flank, started to cross the second wadi and was fired upon by anti-tank guns trained on the crossing from a range of 350 yards. Shells streamed in from the north and burst all around them. Many even landed on the 3rd Platoon, held in reserve 500 yards back. Both the 1st and 2nd platoons then engaged the German anti-tank guns, knocked out all of them and overran their positions. Four 88mm anti-tank guns and two 47mm guns were destroyed. Approximately 50 enemy personnel were killed.
As the tanks continued to cross the second wadi, the shelling intensified. The heaviest fire poured in from the western slopes of Garet Hadid, southeast of Sidi Bou Zid. Company F's progress was slowed by the high-velocity pounding. Alger called for counterbattery fire, but there was no reply to his message. He then asked Winkler to use his reserve platoon on the target if possible. Meanwhile, Battery C of the 68th Armored Artillery Battalion, responding to a request from the forward observer riding with Company F, moved up and provided the needed counterbattery fire. Alger's men continued to scan the skies in vain for air support.
At 1420, the hamlet of Sidi Salem came into view. By 1430, Company D had finished crossing the third wadi on the village's west side. It was then that the Germans unleashed the full fury of their emplaced artillery. Dense fire poured in from Sidi Bou Zid, which was still three miles to the east. Stukas rolled down from the sky, adding to the onslaught.
Alger instructed Company F to roll off to the right in order to cover the southern flank. He also directed the company to prepare to sweep toward the western slope of Garet Hadid to destroy the enemy artillery installations that were wreaking such havoc on the battalion. Company E was ordered to remain in reserve, behind the second wadi.
Company D, with Alger in tow, reached the edge of Sidi Salem at 1500. Enemy tanks and wheeled vehicles appeared to the south and charged toward town. Alger's tank and the right flank platoon of Company D engaged and knocked out two German tanks and set some of the other vehicles on fire. They then moved slowly into the town.
By 1515, Company D's occupation of Sidi Salem was completed. Winkler's tanks moved through the town, smashing machine-gun nests set up in houses. While the American tanks moved to the east of town in an aggressive reconnaissance, Alger turned back to check on the progress of Company F.
Just east of Sidi Bou Zid, Lieutenant Kurt E. Wolff, a German tank commander, was about to pour himself a cup of coffee when his communications officer reported clouds of dust on the western horizon. The Germans knew that the dust meant the Americans were coming. Through binoculars, they counted 30 American tanks approximately 5,500 yards away from their position. Two German companies were farther south, and a complete German tank regiment was poised to the northeast. In 10 minutes, the Americans would be close enough for him to open fire.
As Wolff climbed into his tank and ordered the engine started, his commander wheeled by and called out his orders: 'Drive straight at the enemy and stop him. The 1st Company will be led into their flank. Do not retreat under any circumstances.'
There were 14 tanks in Wolff's center company, including Tigers. The Germans' first objective was a flat hill overgrown with cactus astride Djebel Lessouda. It offered some cover, and ahead of it lay a level plain approximately 900 yards across, which each of the American tanks would have to pass if they did not turn off.
South of Sidi Salem, the 68th Artillery Battalion was still effectively engaging the enemy artillery on Garet Hadid with counterbattery fire. Companies E and F were trying to overrun anti-tank batteries north and south of the village.
As Wolff's tank reached the hill, he could see the white stars of American Shermans as they plunged past him on the right, showing their broadsides. The Americans were apparently preoccupied with KGr. Gerhardt to the north and failed to detect Wolff's company in the center. The main body of the American force throttled back, then halted 3,000 yards away. Wolff's group slowed, awaiting orders.
At 1545, Winkler's 1st Platoon reported the movement of enemy tanks along the road to the northeast. The strength of the panzer force was then undetermined but would later be estimated at 30 tanks. Moments later, Peyton reported an enemy force of 25 Pzkw. Mk.IVs thrusting from the south parallel to the Bir el Hafey Road. He coaxed Company F into defiladed positions southeast of Sidi Salem. Tank guns flashed as the Americans and Germans began firing at one another. KGr. Stenkhoff's panzers had been discovered–but too late.
There was little cover for Company F's tanks as the Germans drove into Peyton's force with fierce determination. They were now in position to turn Alger's southern flank.
Alger joined Company E in maneuvering from the west edge of Sidi Salem to engage KGr. Gerhardt, which was moving steadily toward them from the north. Winkler's 1st Platoon caught four German panzers moving through a cactus patch and knocked them out. Two additional enemy tanks were later destroyed in the same position. The balance of Winkler's tanks opened fire from the cover of the village, with the 3rd Platoon destroying eight enemy tanks. One of Company D's tanks was engaged by seven panzers. The outgunned American tank was able to destroy one of its tormentors before it was wrecked.
As he watched the action unfold, Wolff's mind raced. When would the order to advance be given? The southern force had already broken through the American perimeter. Suddenly, his radio crackled with the order: '4th Company, attack!'
Wolff joined his group in a dash across the broad plain, and they were soon within 2,500 yards of the Americans. The Germans were mystified that the Americans seemed oblivious to their advance–not one of their turrets turned to face Wolff's advancing armor.
Wolff's men kept estimating the distance to the white stars, asking their lieutenant excitedly when they could fire. Their armor-piercing rounds were already loaded in the firing chambers, but they were still 400 yards too far away for effective fire.
German artillery positioned in and around Sidi Bou Zid opened up with a murderous barrage as the advance continued and Wolff's tanks drew closer. Finally, the order to fire was given. Wolff's company poured blistering shells at the Americans. In an instant, red flames and black smoke appeared on the horizon.
Stack looked on in horror and disbelief as the German force came into view and began cutting into the American tanks. Alger had been sent directly into the jaws of an ambush. The 2nd Battalion would be crushed in a flanking vise by an overwhelming armored force, while simultaneously being hammered in the center–a classic encirclement.
At 1615 Alger lost contact with Winkler. By then, the opposing tankers were fighting at point-blank range. Unbeknown to Alger, Winkler had his head down in the turret when an armor-piercing round exploded in the tank with a brilliant red glow, a splash of molten metal and an eruption of fire. The compartment was immediately engulfed in flames. Kaser was killed instantly by the blast. Winkler's face and hair were seared and his eyes were burned shut. Newton was scorched on the face, hands and chest. Both Gregg and Urbanovski suffered superficial head wounds. The survivors bailed out of the stricken tank as the battle raged around them.
When they were on the ground, Winkler asked who was there. The crew said all but Kaser. He asked them to check on Kaser but one or more came back and told him it was no use. At Winkler's request, Gregg led his blinded commander to the nearest officer's tank to check in by radio with Alger. Winkler was unable to reach Alger on the radio but talked briefly in person with a Lieutenant Holder of Company E. Gregg then suggested that Winkler try to walk out while Gregg returned to the tank to help Newton and Urbanovski put the fire out. He said that they would pick up Winkler if they could douse the fire and restart the engine.
Meanwhile, Stack radioed Alger for a situation report. 'Still pretty busy. Situation is hard,' Alger calmly replied. That was Stack's last communication with the 2nd Battalion commander. Moments later Alger's radio antenna was blown away by a tank shell.
At 1645, armor-piercing rounds struck the engine compartment of Alger's tank, starting a fire. The early Sherman was nicknamed 'the Ronson' due to the propensity of its lightly armored gasoline engine to burst into flames. Now, Alger's command tank was ablaze. Immediately afterward, two armor-piercing rounds ripped through the south side of the turret, killing radio operator Leger. Alger and the rest of the crew jumped from the flaming tank and tried to work northward to join the remnants of Company D.
The hostile armored force now bored in on the American flanks. Multicolored tracer shells streaked through the sky as the Germans rampaged at will among the burning M-4s. The survivors retreated west through lanes of heavy pursuing fire. Soon the envelopment was finished. Just four of Alger's Shermans and some scattered crews returned as night descended.
One of the tanks with a knocked-out gun picked up Winkler, who had walked west alone, guided only by the warmth of the setting sun on his scorched face. Alger and his crew were quickly spotted by Germans and captured, as were Gregg, Newton, Urbanovski and most of the battalion's dismounted crews.
The 68th Armored Artillery Battalion and the 6th Armored Infantry were cut off and threatened with encirclement. Nevertheless, the American artillery continued directing a steady stream of fire at the approaching German panzers, then only 2,000 yards away. Two guns disappeared in brilliant flashes of fire, while the others withdrew into defilade.
Stack was heartsick and had seen enough. Alger's entire battalion had been annihilated. At 1800, he ordered immediate disengagement and withdrawal to Kern's Crossroads. The American infantry trapped on Djebels Lessouda and Ksaira were written off and told to get back as best they could.
The Germans were elated. They had decimated an entire American tank battalion. Acrid, dark gray and black smoke filled the air. The American tanks huddled beside the wadi Oued Rouena, at the edge of Sidi Salem, flames flickering in the desert night.
As the victorious panzers droned and prowled around the village searching for stragglers, Wolff roamed from company to company asking his men and himself: 'Did you ever see anything like it? Did you ever see anything like it?'
In just two days, the strength of the 1st Armored Division had been depleted by a total of 98 tanks, 57 halftracks, 29 artillery pieces and 500 men. Instantly swept away were 100 of its highly trained tank crews. These were the darkest days of the division's history. Alger later likened his doomed attack to the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava during the Crimean War, lamenting that 'there was little or no foresight in planning or execution of the operations.'
This article was written by Robert A. Newton and originally appeared in the September 2002 issue of World War II magazine.
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