Document Source: Dr. Jürg Gassmann, 15 June 2020, [email]. The Battle of Kasserine Pass: A Forgotten Medieval Battle.
(Doc Snafu Final Check September 13, 2022)
Modern academic historians rely on facts formerly on the ground (archaeology) or sources, either of which can be referenced and are available to peer reviewers and readers to confirm and cross-check. But both these two pillars of academic inquiry have their limitations, which quickly become apparent when dealing with a practical discipline, such as military history, where ‘soft’ matters as e.g. organization, tactics, training, command procedures, leadership, and morale are often of crucial importance. This paper selects a battle from modern history, the WW II Battle of Kasserine Pass, where these ‘soft’ issues were decisive to the outcome. We attempt to analyze it on the premise that the only hard information available to us was the information available for the typical medieval battle, to ruminate on the faulty conclusions that might be drawn by the superficial student, the subtle clues that would lead the alert historian to question the superficial findings, and the skills that would be necessary to see and understand the clues. The purpose of the paper is to encourage reflection on the complexity of interpreting the evidence of archaeology and the sources where practical disciplines are involved.
The Battle of the Kasserine Pass took place between January 30, 1943, and February 20, 1943; after successfully landing in Algeria (Operation Torch), American, British and French forces moved east to open a second front on the German-Italian troops in North Africa. By early 1943, the Allies had failed to occupy Tunisia before FM Erwin Rommel could re-establish himself but held passes across the two mountain ranges crossing Tunisia. The US II Corps under Gen Lloyd Fredendall was stationed around the Kasserine Pass, on the right, the southern flank of the Allied front. Under the overall command of FM Albert Kesselring, Gen Hans-Jürgen von Arnim’s 5.Panzer-Army and the remnants of FM Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps, reinforced by Italian Armor and Bersaglieri, were ordered to break through the Allied lines.
With von Arnim in the north and Rommel in the south, the Germans attacked at the Faïd Pass and Sidi Bou Zid, driving back the Allied forces. Rommel petitioned Kesselring and separately the nominally in charge Italian High Command to drive through the Kasserine Pass, at the southern tip of the Axis front, to capture the Allied supply based at Tébessa.
The High Command approved Rommel’s plan, but – to Rommel’s horror and chagrin – changed the objective. Rommel nevertheless attacked through the Kasserine Pass and inflicted a devastating defeat on the US forces. The Allies were thrown back 120 KM, with the loss of around 200 tanks against the Germans and Italian forces. Rommel was unable to follow up his success, and by the end of February, the Allies had re-established their position on the pass. By mid-1943, the Afrika Korps was in full retreat and evacuated North Africa. Obviously, this battle did not occur during the Middle Ages, but during World War II; the title is clickbait to highlight a few issues that I feel are important to bear in mind when considering medieval battles based only on archaeology and often cryptic sources.
3. THE BATTLE OF THE KASSERINE PASS
An Inquest to understand my points: Why did the US Army fail, and fail so badly? (1)
To begin at (or near) the top, Gen Lloyd Fredendall turned out to be a woefully inadequate commander. That he would prove so was not a foregone conclusion: Fredendall had a deservedly excellent reputation as a trainer of men and was highly respected by both subordinates and the US high command.
At the landings in Oran in the opening phase of Operation Torch, his performance had been competent, albeit against only token resistance from the Vichy French Forces. But Fredendall could not accommodate himself to working with non-American officers – while Gen Dwight D. Eisenhower held overall command of the Mediterranean Theater, Fredendall’s immediate superior was British, Gen Kenneth Anderson and the Torch Task Force included Free French and British formations. At the Kasserine Pass, Fredendall never left his command bunker out of fear of the Luftwaffe, he made his dispositions on the basis of pitifully inadequate maps, spread his troops far too widely, and stayed in touch with his subordinates only by telephone. During the battle, he compounded his failure to obtain reliable and contemporaneous intelligence by issuing orders that bypassed the chain of command, were micro-managing and were often vague to the point of being incomprehensible. (For the facts and analysis, I have relied mainly on Evans, The Battle of Kasserine Pass, and David, Military Blunders, pp. 348-64.
One of Fredendall’s follies was his command post. Located an extraordinary 100 KM (70 Miles) away from the front, Fredendall had II Corps’ engineers spend three weeks blasting tunnels and galleries deep into the rock. So preoccupied were the engineers with this task that no time or manpower remained to entrench the troops. To make matters worse, one of the II Corps’ units had neglected to bring its own entrenching tools. But failure extended down the line when the German-Italian attack came, many of the US troops simply fled, abandoning their heavy weapons in their positions or, even worse, during the retreat, clogging the narrow mountain roads and hampering a counterstrike.
While the troops’ dismal performance cannot be wholly blamed on Fredendall, they were ill-served by their commander. Even if they had tried, they would have been hard-pressed to apply their Army’s fighting doctrine. They had been split up into detachments too small and weak for the tasks assigned, spread so widely that they could not support each other, allocated positions on the basis of maps that often bore little relation to the geography, unable to prepare properly, and given orders that could be baffling. Very much unlike the German Army leadership style, Fredendall obviously did not nurture a culture of initiative in his officers, and many of them – though not all – acquiesced. Nor did Fredendall himself show much independence or initiative; he had correctly concluded that the Axis attack would fall in the south, his sector, but he was unable to persuade his command, and, more importantly, nor did he prepare accordingly. It did not help that II Corps was severely under strength, with two divisions still on the road to joining the main force when Rommel attacked.
During the battle, Fredendall stayed hunkered in his command post and made no effort to motivate or rally his troops – again a marked contrast to the style of his opponents, where both von Arnim and especially Rommel were famous for leading from the front, as Patton would as well. Nor do his superiors escape blame; Anderson, the English commander of the Allied Torch force, relied too readily on ambiguous intelligence, rejecting Fredendall’s (as it turned out, correct) analysis, and further weakening Fredendall’s already under-strength assets. Eisenhower, who had not commanded more than a battalion in action, too must bear some fault; even though Eisenhower could see Fredendall’s failings, and received complaints from Fredendall’s subordinates when Eisenhower inspected Fredendall’s dispositions, he took no corrective action.
As usual in military confrontations, the enemy has a vote. GFM Albert Kesselring had two crack corps at his disposal, both in terms of men and materiel, and both of Kesselring’s commanders, Generaloberst Hans Jürgen von Arnim and Generalfeldmarshal Erwin Rommel, were highly experienced and showed imagination and initiative.
Also, at this point in the war, Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe equipment constraints were not yet debilitating, and the Luftwaffe was highly effective, due partly to an inability of the Allies to establish forward air bases. German timing was also excellent – the Allied advance had reached a stage where supply lines were strained and the front was spread out, and Kesselring Battle of Kasserine Pass – A Forgotten Medieval Battle Pages 3 of 9 chose his objective well – in fact, Fredendall had correctly predicted the focus of Kesselring’s thrust, but was ignored by his superiors.
But not everything went in favor of the Wehrmacht; Rommel’s resentment of von Arnim was heartily reciprocated, and Kesselring clearly preferred von Arnim. Rommel was in ill health, and Kesselring and von Arnim intended to let Rommel have a small success before he was invalided back to Germany – a tactical success rather than the strategic victory Rommel planned. This led to resources not being allocated sensibly and opportunities being missed. Ultimately, the Wehrmacht’s dearth of petrol and an Allied rally meant that neither von Arnim nor Rommel could press their advantage, allowing the Allies, once resupplied and reinforced, quickly to recover lost ground. But conversely, what if Rommel had been given the additional assets, had been able to reach Tébessa, had been able to capture the Allied petrol and supplies, had cut off the long and tenuous supply lines of the Torch Task Force to the Algerian Coast? He got close. What if Rommel had then been able to realize his strategic vision, pinning the struggling Torch Task Force, now deprived of its supplies and reserves, between his anvil and von Arnim’s hammer?
It has to be borne in mind that Tunisia was the first time the US Army engaged with the Axis – no one in the US Army, from high command down, had any recent hands-on fighting experience; FM Sir Alan Brooke, the chief of the (British) Imperial Staff, had deliberately argued for a first US engagement in North Africa, to give the completely green US troops an opportunity to learn. (Brooke was insistent that the Allies’ first move had to be to secure the Mediterranean, to allow British supplies of oil from Persia and goods from India to come through the Suez Canal, instead of having to take the much longer and more exposed route around the Cape) And learn they did, and quickly. On the level of command, Fredendall was relieved by Eisenhower and returned to the USA, where he was promoted to lieutenant general and served out the war doing what he did best, that is training troops. Younger officers who had distinguished themselves were rapidly promoted; command of II Corps went to Gen George S. Patton, newly promoted to Lt Gen. Problems were identified and fixed, the Allied advantage in materiel was not squandered again, and Allied air superiority became the rule.
But let me approach the battle by the two avenues we have available for understanding medieval battles: Archaeology, and sources. If all we had on the battle were the physical remains on the ground and clippings from the inevitably censored press in Berlin or Washington (and not, as we do, detailed, frank, and insightful regimental histories and records from both sides), how likely would we be to form a reasonably accurate view of the dynamics of the event?
Battlefield archaeology can provide a wealth of information on the respective equipment used, the troops’ positions, and sometimes the sequence of the battle. For e.g. the archaeology of the 1461 Towton Battlefield has been meticulous and highly informative; (Sutherland-Schmidt, Towton, 1461) the fine-tooth combing of the 1876 Little Bighorn Battlefield for rifle shells and other metallic artifacts revealed previous unappreciated details on the flow of the battle – and incidentally confirmed Native Indian Reports, which had hitherto been ignored. (Michno, The Secret of E Troop.
Assuming the battlefield had not been meticulously tidied up, the archaeology would show the roughly 200 Allied tanks destroyed, versus the Germans’ 50. The US II Corps had been issued with M-4 Shermans – though they had the distressing propensity to brew up even from merely glancing hits (earning them the nickname ‘Ronsons’), they were overall roughly equivalent to the Germans’ Panzer Mark III and Panzer Mark IV models. Rommel had only a few of the vastly improved Panzer Mark VI-1 Tiger, which the Western Allies never matched. Only one battalion in the US II Corps still used the older M-3 Grant/Lee. So the defeat was not due to clear inferiority in the quality of the armor.