The February 1943 Battle of the Kasserine Pass marked the first serious confrontation between America’s amateur army and Germany’s professional Wehrmacht— specifically the elite Afrika Korps— so it should come as no surprise the Allies got beat. But what is surprising is that everybody from General Dwight Eisenhower down to platoon leaders made so many mistakes that defeat was inevitable.
Least guilty of incompetence were the draftees. As war correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote: “There is nothing wrong with the common American soldier.…The deeper he gets into a fight, the more of a fighting man he becomes.” Unfortunately, Maj. Gen. Lloyd Fredendall and his unit commanders stuck the American fighting man so deep into this scrap there was no way out.
The debacle began when the Allies conceived a grand plan called Operation Satin, intended to destroy the Afrika Korps in Tunisia by luring it between the pincers of General Bernard Montgomery’s British to the north and U.S. II Corps to the south. Ike’s biggest mistake was handing over command of II Corps to Fredendall, a mouthy cock of the walk who set up his command post deep in an inaccessible ravine 70 miles behind the front lines and rarely left it. Nor did it help that he split up American units, sharing them among British and French forces under commanders who were strangers to the U.S. soldiers. Making matters worse, the British considered the Americans incompetent, and the Americans figured the Brits for clowns.
In the week leading up to the climactic confrontation at the Kasserine Pass the panzer armies of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel to the south and General Hans Jürgen von Arnim to the north shoved back the Allies some 85 miles. The Americans fell back to the pass; in mileage lost it was the biggest single U.S. retreat of the war, bigger even than the fallback at the infamous Belgian Bulge.
The Kasserine Pass was about a mile wide at its narrowest, and the Allies chose to defend it by spreading four task forces across the valley floor, leaving the shoulders of the pass largely undefended. The Germans promptly outflanked the flatlanders to control the pass from its heights. The final battle was over quickly. The Americans alone took 6,500 casualties—20 percent of the Allied force—to the Germans’ 1,000.
■ Keep it together. Don’t parcel out men, armor and artillery piecemeal to a dozen different units. There were days when U.S. troops weren’t sure who was in command or under whose flag they were fighting.
■ Lead from the front. Fredendall, hunkered down in his distant bunker, knew little of the battleground beyond what he saw on imperfect maps.
■ New wars call for new weaponry. Less-sophisticated American tanks couldn’t match the firepower or armor of the German vehicles, and U.S. soldiers nicknamed the Army’s half-tracks “Purple Heart boxes” and the 37mm antitank gun “the squirrel rifle.”
■ Fight today’s war, not the one you remember. Fredendall’s static, strungout defensive tactics were straight out of World War I and ignored the speed and mobility of modern armor.
■ Mutual support is crucial. U.S. forces and their counterparts could see each other over the flat desert terrain but were often too far apart to help one another.
■ Air superiority counts. The Germans owned the skies. Junkers Ju-87 Stukas dive-bombed armor at will, protected by Messerschmitt Bf-109s far superior to the Americans’ Curtiss P-40 Warhawks, while British Supermarine Spitfires rarely made a showing.
■ Know your enemy—and your friend. The Americans admired Rommel, but Fredendall despised the British and made it obvious. Cooperation is crucial in a coalition command.
■ Know your venue. To the Americans, Africa meant equatorial jungles and heat, so they brought little cold-weather gear to North Africa. But, in fact, it snowed during the retreat to the Kasserine Pass.
■ Gasoline is not your friend in combat. Panzers ran on fire-resistant diesel fuel, while U.S. armor ran on hazardously flammable gas.
Originally published in the July 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.