With Montgomery approaching from Libya and Eisenhower closing in from Algeria, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel had to do something. He constructed the Mareth Line to Heisman Monty, whom he knew would stop to deliberately attack. This allowed Rommel valuable time to deal with the Americans and Brits advancing from the west.
On Valentine’s Day, 1943, Rommel unleashed the 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions, and the Italian Centauro Division against MG Lloyd Fredendall’s American II Corps at the Faid Pass in the Atlas Mountains. Fredendall was an excellent peacetime trainer and one of George Marshall’s favorites, but in combat he completely fell apart.
Fredendall liked to issue complicated orders over the radio using slang and code words only he knew. Also, he turned out to be a “chateau general” in the First World War style. Over the past two weeks he had an entire engineer battalion blast tunnels in the side of a narrow valley seventy miles behind the lines to serve as his headquarters, from which he issued orders and refused to leave. Fredendall was barely on speaking terms with the 1st Armored Division commander, Orlando Ward, who vehemently disagreed with Fredendall’s practice of scattering his tank regiments and ordering them around without telling him. Fredendall had even given one of Ward’s company commanders instructions directly.
But Fredendall shouldn’t bare the entirety of the blame, he was just emblematic of the problems that plagued all levels of the US Army in North Africa. When Rommel attacked, the inexperienced, uncoordinated and poorly led Americans immediately broke under the assault by German and Italian tanks. Rommel continued on through the Kasserine Pass. Fredendall ordered a general retreat, routing virtually the entire II Corps. Mass chaos erupted across American lines as soldiers abandoned all of their equipment and fled west as fast as they could drive, or run.
Fortunately, Fredendall’s superior British Lient Gen Kenneth Anderson countermanded him and ordered all units to stand and fight. Also, Eisenhower dispatched the senior American armor general in theater, the commander of the 2nd Armored Division MG Ernest Harmon, to be II Corps’ deputy commander. (Patton was busy turning Casablanca and Western Algeria into a logistics hub.) As soon as Harmon arrived at Fredendall’s headquarters, he was given command and Fredendall went to sleep. Harmon reorganized the 1st Armored Division and the managed to pull the II Corps back together into a semi-coherent defense. Finally, Anderson brought up experienced British infantry and massed American and Brit artillery to stop Rommel before he reached the big Allied supply dumps in French Algeria. After several days of hard fighting starting on 21 Feb, Rommel could no longer continue forward and withdrew back into Tunisia. By 27 Febuary 1943, the Battle of Kasserine Pass was over.
Although the battle was at best a draw for the Germans, or even technically a defeat, the US Army’s first contact with the German Wehrmacht (and the Italians for that matter) was embarrassing and ignoble. In a few short days, Rommel laid bare the flaws in American tactics, discipline, doctrine, leadership, training, and equipment. And with over 10,000 casualties, these were expensive lessons. The Americans would take the war with the Germans much more seriously from then on.