Operation ‘Morgenluft’ – The Battle of the Kasserine Pass

Operation ‘Morgenluft’ was a German operation in southern Tunisia undertaken in concert with ‘Frühlingswind’, slightly farther to the north, on 15/22 February 1943. The operation was designed firstly to check the anticipated link of Lieutenant General K. A. N. Anderson’s Allied 1st Army and General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s British 8th Army, an event which would divide Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen von Arnim’s 5th Panzerarmee in the north from Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel’s Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee in the south, and secondly to make a drive to the coast at Gafsa. Rommel proposed a combined offensive by the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee and General Heinz Ziegler’s (from 20 February von Arnim’s) 5th Panzerarmee under Rommel’s sole command, with Generalleutnant Friedrich Freiherr von Broich’s 10th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Hans-Georg Hildebrandt’s 21st Panzerdivision of the 5th Panzerarmee undertaking ‘Frühlingswind’ and a detachment of Generalmajor Kurt Freiherr von Liebenstein’s Deutsches Afrikakorps undertaking ‘Morgenluft’. Generale d’Armata Vittorio Ambrosio, chief-of-staff of the Italian Comando Supremo, was unable to impose a single command on the joint offensives, which was ultimately to lead to operational failure though not to tactical defeat.

The most important engagement of the operation was the Battle of the Kasserine Pass, which was in fact a series of battles fought around the Kasserine Pass, a gap 2 miles (3.2 km) wide in the Dorsale Orientale chain of the Atlas mountains in the west central part of Tunisia. The battle was of significance as the first large-scale clash between US and German forces in World War II: inexperienced and untested, the US troops were led ineptly, suffered heavy casualties and were driven back more than 50 miles (80 km) from their original positions west of the Faid Pass in a humiliating rout. The US Army learned quickly from its mistakes at Kasserine, and instituted a number of sweeping changes extending from unit-level organisation to the replacement of senior commanders.

Lack of comprehensive planning
Even after the Allied ‘Torch’ landings in North-West Africa on 8 November 1942, with the object of driving east into Tunisia to link with the advance of the 8th Army from Egypt after the 2nd Battle of El Alamein, the Allies initially launched no comprehensive or consistent air and sea campaign to interdict the flow of Axis manpower and matériel into Tunis, which is only one day’s steaming south of Sicily across the Mediterranean. Thus sizeable forces were landed before a major effort was finally undertaken. The advent of substantial Axis forces was in itself a threat to the Allies, but the swift movement which could have mitigated this threat was not attempted, and while several attempts were made to cut off Tunis before the German and, to a lesser extent, Italian troops could arrive in greater strength, the combination of poor Allied co-ordination and excellent defensive terrain allowed the numerically inferior Axis troops to hold them off. On 23 January 1943 the 8th Army had taken Tripoli, thereby removing Rommel’s primary supply base from the operational equation. Rommel had planned for this eventuality, intending to block the southern approach to Tunisia by occupying an extensive set of defensive works known as the Mareth Line which the French had built in the 1930s to fend off any Italian invasion from Libya.

With their lines steadied by the Atlas mountains on the west and Gulf of Sidra on the east, the Axis commanders felt that even modest numbers of divisions should be able to check the Allied forces. Upsetting this plan was the fact that some US troops had already crossed out of the eastern end of the Atlas mountains and established a forward base at Faid in the foothills on the eastern arm of the mountains. This put them in an excellent position to cut land communications between the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee in the south and the 5th Panzerarmee in the north, so halting the flow of supplies, however, limited, to the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee. From the Axis point of view this was a situation which could not be allowed to continue, and the Deutsches Afrikakorps reached the new line on 30 January, when the 21st Panzerdivision struck the French defence of Faid and overcame it without difficulty.

Fruitless endeavours
Major General Orlando Ward’s US 1st Armored Division made several attempts to check the German advance, but all three of the division’s combat commands found themselves confronted by the full fruits of experience their German opponents had gained in rapid offensive operations by combined armour, infantry and artillery forces. Every time the US forces were ordered into a defensive position, they found that the positions in question had already been overrun and they were swiftly taken under attack by the German defenders, who inflicted heavy losses on the Americans. After three days of fruitless effort, the US forces yielded the field and the lines were withdrawn into the foothills. At this point most of Tunisia was still in Axis hands, and the entrances from the western mountains into the coastal lowlands were all blocked. The US forces still held the interior of the roughly triangular Atlas range, but this appeared to be no cause for concern and all of the exits to the east were blocked.

For the next two weeks, Rommel and his fellow commanders farther north debated what they should attempt. Rommel eventually decided that he could improve his supply situation and further erode the US and French threat to his north-east flank by attacking toward and taking the pair of US supply bases just west of the Dorsale Occidentale in Algeria. Although he had little interest in holding the mountain’s interior plains, he appreciated that a typically quick thrust would gain the supplies he needed, and also disrupt any plans that the Allies might be concocting for this part of the North African theatre. While von Arnim planned a strike through Faid to Sidi Bou Zid as a means of securing his hold on the Dorsale Orientale, Rommel schemed an offensive from the south through Gafsa and Fériana toward Kasserine, with the object of destroying Lieutenant General Lloyd R. Fredendall’s US II Corps (consisting of little more than the 1st Armored Division reinforced by the 168th Regimental Combat Team of Major General Charles W. Ryder’s 34th Division) and opening the way between the remnants of the II Corps and Général de Corps d’Armée Louis Marie Koëltz’s French XIX Corps for an advance through the Dorsale Occidentale on Tébessa in conjunction with a Panzerdivision of the 5th Panzerarmee.

The scene is set
Thus was set the scene for ‘Frühlingswind’ and ‘Morgenluft’ launched on 14 and 15 February respectively. Commanded by Generalleutnant Hans Ziegler, von Arnim’s chief-of-staff, the 10th Panzerdivision and 21st Panzerdivision began ‘Frühlingswind’ at 04.00 on 14 February, and immediately made gains and so attracted Allied reinforcements to the northern sector. The two German divisions first attacked Sidi Bou Zid, about 10 miles (16 km) from Faid in the interior plain of the Atlas mountains. The battle raged for a day, but the US forces’ poor use of armour paved the way for their defeat by the end of the day. A US counterattack on the following day, when the Deutsches Afrikakorps moved off in ‘Morgenluft’ farther south, was beaten off with ease, and on 16 February the Germans started to press forward again, this time with Sbeitla as their immediate objective. Tactically out-thought and outfought, and with no defensive terrain left to them, the US forces retreated to set up new lines at the more easily defended Kasserine Pass in the Dorsale Occidentale. By this point, the US forces had lost 2,546 men, 103 tanks, 280 other vehicles, 18 field guns, three anti-tank guns, and an entire anti-aircraft battery.

Dissension now caused Rommel’s overall plan to go awry, for while the Deutsches Afrikakorps advanced toward Kasserine and the break through the Dorsale Occidentale, von Arnim was pulling the 10th Panzerdivision out of Sbeitla to hold German positions farther north on the road north-east to Fondouk, leaving just the 21st Panzerdivision to push forward as part of the exploitation (authorised on 19 February) from Sbeitla via Sbiba to Le Kef, only later being supplemented by the 10th Panzerdivision, which was recalled on 19 February, advancing from Kasserine (which fell on 18 February) via Thala with the support of a diversionary attack toward Tébessa by the Deutsches Afrikakorps. Rommel had meanwhile attacked on 15 February and soon taken Gafsa before pressing on toward Fériana, which fell on 17 February, the day on which von Liebenstein was wounded and passed command of the Deutsches Afrikakorps’ detachment to Generalmajor Karl Bülowius. The Deutsches Afrikakorps continued along the same road north-east toward Kasserine, which it took on 18 February. Behind the town lies the eponymous pass through the Dorsale Occidentale between the Djebel Chambi in the south and the Djebel Semmama in the north, where a breakthough offered Rommel the opportunity for an advance to Tébessa. Here there would be the possibility of wheeling south to cut off and destroy the II Corps, or alternatively to press on toward the north-west to strike at the XIX Corps and Lieutenant General C. W. Allfrey’s British V Corps as the German forces drove forward toward Constantine and even Bône on the coast, again cutting off sizeable Allied forces for piecemeal destruction.

Rommel’s probing attacks
On 19 February Rommel launched several probing moves, and decided that the Kasserine Pass remained the optimum point for any breakthrough assault. On the following day he personally led the attack by the 10th Panzerdivision, lent by the 5th Panzerarmee in the north, hoping to take the supply dumps, while the 21st Panzerdivision continued its attack north through the Sbiba gap. Within minutes the Deutsches Afrikakorps had broken though the US line. The matériel of the II Corps’ units, especially their light and medium artillery and their armour, were qualitatively inferior to those of the German formations, and the combat skills of the inexperienced US formations were decidedly worse than those of the combat-experienced German formations. The German PzKpfw IV battle tanks and PzKpfw VI Tiger I heavy tanks had no difficulty at all in beating off any of the poorly conceived and ill-executed attacks by US forces with M5 Stuart light and M3 Lee medium tanks. As the German breakthrough continued, US commanders contacted their command levels by radio for permission to arrange a counterattack or artillery barrage, but often received a positive reply only after the German attack had passed by their forces. Once again the 1st Armored Division found itself ordered into useless positions, and by the second day of the German offensive two of the 1st Armored Division’s three combat commands had been mauled while the third was generally out of action.

After breaking into the pass, the German forces divided into two groups, each advancing up one of the two roads leading out of the pass north-west. Rommel remained with the main group of the 10th Panzerdivision on the northern road in the direction of Thala, while a composite German and Italian force took the southern road in the direction of Haidra and Tébessa. To combat the southern force, the 1st Armored Division’s sole effective element, Combat Command B, drove 20 miles (32 km) to face it on 20 February, but found itself unable to stop the advance on the next day on the northern side of the Djebel Hamra. At this stage the morale of the US soldiers, already low, started to plummet, and by evening many troops had pulled back, leaving their equipment on the field. Kasserine Pass was now completely open, and the supply dump at Tébessa appeared to be within the reach of the Axis forces. Desperate resistance by isolated groups left behind in the action seriously slowed the Axis advance, however, and on the second day Axis mopping-up operations were still under way as the Panzer spearheads advanced up the roads. By the night of 21 February the 10th Panzerdivision was just outside the small town of Thala, with two road links to Tébessa.

Allied reinforcements
If the town fell and the German division decided to move on the more southerly of the two roads, Major General Manton S. Eddy’s US 9th Division to the north would be cut off from its source of supplies, and Combat Command B of the 1st Armored Division (supported by Major General Terry de la M. Allen’s US 1st Division) would be trapped between the 10th Panzerdivision and its supporting units moving north along the second road. During that night, small units of British, French and US forces freed from the line in the north, and including Brigadier C. A. L. Dunphie’s 26th Armoured Brigade and Brigadier F. A. V. Copland-Griffiths’s 1st Guards Brigade of Major General C. F. Keightley’s British 6th Armoured Division, were sent into the line at Thala as and when they became available. All 48 guns of the 9th Division’s artillery, which had started moving on 17 February from their positions in the west, were emplaced during this night. When the battle resumed on the following day, the Allied defence was considerably stronger, the front line being held largely by British infantry with exceptionally strong backing by US artillery.

Overextended and undersupplied, Rommel decided to call off the Axis offensive. Fearing that the approaching 8th Army would be able to cross the Mareth Line unless the line’s defences were reinforced, he disengaged and started to retreat toward the east. On 23 February a massive US air attack on the Kasserine Pass hastened the German retreat, and by the end of 25 February the pass had been retaken. The German losses were some 2,000 compared with Allied casualties of about 10,000, including 6,500 in the II Corps.

Lessons learned?
After the battle, both sides closely studied the results. Rommel was largely contemptuous of both the equipment and fighting ability of the US forces, and considered that they posed no significant threat. For some time after the battle, however, German units made use of large numbers of captured US vehicles. The US Army studied the results in greater depth and began to improve its forces. Highest up the chain of command, Fredendall, commander of the II Corps, was replaced and employed only on non-combat assignments for the rest of the war. Eisenhower confirmed through Major General Omar N. Bradley and others that Fredendall’s officers had no confidence in him as a commander, and Anderson, the British officer commanding the 1st Army, also thought Fredendall incompetent. On 6 March, Major General George S. Patton assumed command of the II Corps, with Bradley as assistant corps commander, and embarked on a programme to improve the formation’s performance. Several other officers were removed or promoted: for example, Brigadier General Stafford L. Irwin, who commanded the 9th Division’s artillery at Kasserine, became a successful divisional commander. Other changes included greater latitude for commanders to make on-the-spot decisions without reference to higher command, and an emphasis on locating command posts well forward. Attempts were also made to improve massed rapid-reaction artillery and air support, which had been difficult to co-ordinate before this time. Emphasis was also placed on keeping units together, rather than assigning elements of each division to separate tasks as had been the practice of Fredendall. The II Corps immediately began fighting with its divisions gathered as cohesive fighting formations rather than as large numbers of small units undertaking widely separated missions.