|The Hammer of Hell |
Chapter 3 The Tunisian Campaign:
The Tactical Situation
On the 18th of February, 1943, General Erwin Rommel was in the midst of his most desperate campaign. Since the battle of El Alamein, five months earlier, General Bernard Montgomery and the Eighth British Army had pursued Rommel and the remnants of the Afrika Corps from Egypt into Tunisia. Montgomery paused near Mareth in early February, but it was only a matter of time before the British continued the offensive from which English historians would draw comparisons between the "Viscount of El Alamein" and the Duke of Wellington.
The First Allied Army was to the west of Rommel, deployed with three corps on line from north to south, their forward line bisecting Tunisia. Generaloberst Juergen von Arnim's 5th Panzer Army faced the British 5th Corps in the north. Rommel was attacking the two southern Allied Corps; the French XIX in the middle of the Allied line and the American II Corps in the south.69
Characteristically, the "Desert Fox" intended to prevent the Allies from crushing his forces against the Mediterranean by initiating an offensive. On the 14th of February, the 21st Panzer Division assaulted Combat Command A of the 1st Armored Division at Faid Pass, and the Afrika Corps survivors attacked the French and Americans on an axis from Gafsa to Feriana to Kasserine. By the 19th, the Germans had pushed II Corps into the Western Dorsals, a series of low mountains running from the southwest to the northeast across Tunisia70
The morning of the 19th, Rommel ordered Colonel Hans Georg Hildebrandt, the commander of the 21st Panzer, to attack through the broad pass at Sbiba and take the First Army supply and transportation center at Le Kef. The German occupation of the principal Allied logistical center and the severance of the Allied supply line would force the British First Army back, buying time to deal with Montgomery.
By noon, Rommel terminated the attack. Hildebrandt encountered accurate artillery fire, and because his maneuverability was restricted to the roads by the heavy rains of the past 48 hours, he took heavy tank losses. The pass was fortified and well defended by the American 34th Infantry Division and the British 6th Armored Division, which had been rushed to Sbiba the night before. 71
Rommel needed to penetrate the mountains to continue the momentum of his offensive. Reports emanating from Mareth indicated Montgomery was about to resume his offensive. The Sbiba approach denied to him, Rommel turned to the only other pass within a reasonable distance, the one that lay five miles west of the small village of Kasserine.
Afrika Corps reconnaissance elements had probed the Kasserine area the previous day. The village was unoccupied, but the Allies had mined the narrow pass, which was only 700 yards wide. Rommel knew that the road running from the village to the pass continued onto the village of Thala and then to Le Kef. A kilometer west of the pass, a trail broke off the Thala road and meandered along a steep plateau named the Bou Chebka Plateau after its most prominent village. The trail then twisted around a small mountain called Djebel Hamra into Tebessa, the major II Corps logistics and transportation center. Taking either Tebessa or Thala would hurt II Corps, force them to alter their plans, and open the door to Le Kef.
The terrain to the west of Kasserine Pass formed a basin, called the Bled Foussana, which limited Rommel's maneuver room. Its southern edge was formed by the Bou Chebka Plateau. To the north, a string of mountains paralleled the paved road to Thala. The basin would act as a caldron, containing the upcoming battle.72
The Desert Fox ordered the 21st Panzer Division to hold in place. Two critical German combat elements were not yet on the battlefield: the 10th Panzer Division was marching south from General Arnim and the Luftwaffe was grounded due to the low cloud cover and rain. The battle would begin without them, but Rommel knew the timing of their arrival could be critical.
The Blitzkrieg operations Rommel favored featured the close integration of the German armor and the German Air Force. The Luftwaffe was an important member of the Blitzkrieg team, but their close air support and reconnaissance over Kasserine could be especially important. For Rommel, the tactical situation before him was similar to the German crossing of the Meuse River in May 1940. There, the Germans had been forced to execute a penetration under enemy fire. They called for the Luftwaffe, whose Stuka dive bombers pounded the French line and artillery senseless, allowing the German tanks and infantry to cross the river. The pass at Kasserine was another obstacle that had to be forced, and the absence of maneuver room in the Bled Foussana meant the Luftwaffe support was again vital to success. The opposition had to be blasted away because there was no room to go around them. If only the Luftwaffe could fly.
Holding the Line
Fredendall was the II Corps Commander, and the tone of his guidance was indicative of the pessimistic mood in the Allied high command. The corps commander had three axes of advance into his sector, and he did not have enough units, especially infantry, to defend each of them well. In addition to Kasserine Pass, the Germans might attack west from Feriana onto the Bou Chebka Plateau through El Ma el Aboid to Tebessa. The third approach was just to the north of the second, from Thelepte to Bou Chebka, then to Tebessa. The routes onto the Bou Chebka Plateau were narrow and not as conducive to armored operations as was Kasserine Pass, but they warranted a defense.
General Fredendall ordered General Joseph E. Welvert, who had delayed the Afrika Corps from Gafsa to Feriana, to defend the Bou Chebka and El Ma el Aboid approaches and several small trails that paralleled them onto the plateau. Welvert's French Constantine Division was an infantry unit, and they had taken heavy combat losses. Consequently, Fredendall attached his last two remaining infantry battalions to the Frenchman, who ordered them to defend Bou Chebka. Welvert already had one reinforced American infantry battalion in his command, the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John Bowen. This unit became known as Task Force Bowen, and Welvert placed them near El Ma el Aboid.75
Fredendall ordered the 1st Armored Division into an assembly area a few miles west of Task Force Bowen. The Division's Combat Command A had taken significant losses during the previous week's combat, but General Paul Robinette's Combat Command B was almost unscathed. The division was the corps reserve, with orders to support Welvert or Colonel Stark at Kasserine Pass. 76
The corps withdrawal into the Western Dorsals caused Fredendall's Antiaircraft Artillery officer, Colonel James E. Harriman, to readjust his coverage. For the past week, Harriman had tried to solve the traditional antiaircraft artillery problem. With insufficient antiaircraft units to cover everything, Harriman had to decide whether to defend the corps rear or the corps combat units.
The II Corps rear area was typically loaded with a myriad of vulnerable and vital assets, most which were clustered near Tebessa. The single rail line into the II Corps rear terminated at Tebessa, where the supplies were off loaded and stockpiled in a number of supply points that ringed the rail yards. Additionally, the evacuation of the airfields at Feriana and Thelepte forced the American 12th Air Force to reposition most of their combat aircraft to Tebessa, Youks-les-Bains and Le Kouif.
From December 1942 onward, the German Air Force attacked Tebessa and the nearby 12th Air Force airfields regularly. The Luftwaffe bombed the rail yards at Tebessa and the trains traveling to the front. The Air Force membership in Eisenhower's Antiaircraft Artillery and Coast Defense Committee routinely screamed for more protection for the forward air bases. Defending airfields in North Africa became a tactical question and an inter-service political issue.
By the end of December, General Eisenhower publicly stated that his forward combat elements needed more antiaircraft protection. The German Air Force strafed command posts and troop movements and attacked the American field artillery with an unrelenting ferocity.77 In one division area, 95 percent of all air attacks were against the divisional artillery.78 The American 155mm and 105mm howitzers out-ranged the German artillery, and by February, 1943, the Americans had developed techniques that made their artillery an effective tank killer. Rommel realized this, and gave his artillery, the Luftwaffe, standing orders to kill as many American howitzers as they could find.
The mature state of the corps rear and the number of field artillery battalions forward, combined with the available antiaircraft, left Harriman in the unenviable position of having more assets to cover than he had men and materiel.
On the 9th of February, Harriman ordered two 90mm Gun batteries and two automatic weapon batteries to defend the critical road network at Sbeitla. The rains of the last month restricted movement to the roads, and the Sbeitla crossroads became the funnel through which reinforcements and supplies were sent forward to the 1st Armored Division.
When Combat Command A was overrun at Faid Pass on the 14th, Harriman ordered the 90mm guns forward in an antitank role. The 90mm AAA Gun, M1, had huge outriggers to steady the gun when it was fired in the antiaircraft role. The outriggers took time to emplace and displace, and consequently, the gunners from the 1st Battalion, 213th Coast Artillery, selected positions well to the rear to allow time to exit in front of harm's way. The battalion did not fire a round in the antitank role and they were ineffective in the antiaircraft mode, so Harriman withdrew the 90mms and the AW batteries to Tebessa on the 17th of February.81
The two 40mm Bofors batteries at Sbeitla were from the 106th Coast Artillery Battalion, Kentucky National Guard. The 106th was one of the first separate AW battalions and its battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Wallace Brucker, was a West Pointer and an outstanding trainer of men. In addition to the two batteries at Sbeitla, Brucker had one battery attached to Task Force Bowen and another defending Tebessa. When Brucker withdrew from Sbeitla on the 17th, Harriman ordered one of the batteries with him to the air strip at Le Kouif and the other to temporarily defend the 1st Armored Division in its assembly area. Using towed 40mm guns to protect an armored force in a stationary assembly area was satisfactory, but when the division moved, self-propelled AAA protection would be required.82
In February 1943, there was one self-propelled Antiaircraft Artillery battalion in North Africa--the 443d Coast Artillery Battalion. 83 The First Army assigned two batteries from the 443d to II Corps in January 1943 and had the other two batteries defend point targets in the theater rear. The corps further attached them to the 1st Armored Division, where the battalion's M15s and M13s supported Combat Command A at Faid Pass, where they were overrun. The II Corps G3 placed the AAA losses on the 14th of February at 12 of the 31 systems present.84 The unit history more accurately states that the batteries ceased to exist.
As intelligence reports of the impending German offensive were analyzed in early February, the First Army Staff agonized as to where to assign the remaining two self-propelled AAA batteries. Finally, on the 16th, Batteries A and C of the 443d Coast Artillery Battalion (SP) were assigned to II Corps. Harriman attached them to the 1st Armored Division, where 16 guns supported Combat Command A and the second 16 guns supported Combat Command B. Two self-propelled platoons remained from Batteries B and D, and the 443d Battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Werner L. Larson, assigned one to the division's reconnaissance company and the other to defend the divisional command post. 85
On the 18th of February, two days after receiving the attachment of the 443d Coast Artillery Battalion, Harriman also acquired the 2d Battalion, 213th Coast Artillery Regiment, the regiment's Bofors battalion. Realizing the line of contact was closing in on Tebessa, Harriman continued to strengthen its defense by assigning the 2d Battalion there to augment the coverage of the 1st Battalion, 213th Coast Artillery Regiment and Battery D, 106th Coast Artillery Battalion, which had been near Tebessa for several weeks. Tebessa was well covered, and the 1st Armored division had antiaircraft artillery help, but Task Force Welvert on the Bou Chebka Plateau and Task Force Stark in Kasserine Pass required protection.
Supporting the Combined Arms Front
Just behind the thousands of mines that covered the entrance to Kasserine Pass, two Bofors 40mm antiaircraft guns from Battery D, 105th Coast Artillery Battalion (AW), waited for the Luftwaffe. The officer in charge was First Lieutenant Kenneth C. Madden, an OCS graduate from Delaware who had been with the 105th Coast Artillery Battalion since April 1942. Madden, his platoon sergeant, and two Bofors sections occupied their positions in the darkness in the early morning of the 18th.87
Madden and one gun section hunkered down next to Djebel Chambi, the mountain forming the southern edge of the pass. Madden's platoon sergeant commanded the second gun, which was less than one thousand yards to the north, directly in the middle of the pass. Lieutenant Madden nervously waited until dawn, worried about his other gun. He had no radio or wire communications with them. If one drew a north-south line, the antiaircraft artillerymen were just behind the infantry to their north and a few hundred yards in front of the engineers.
Madden's battery commander, Captain George Zorini, was two miles to the southwest, along the Tebessa road with the other six Bofors sections in his battery. In the early morning hours of the 18th, Zorini was briefed on the situation by Colonel Anderson T. Moore, the 19th Engineer Regiment commander who would be replaced by Colonel Stark the next day. Moore had an infantry battalion, the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, and it occupied defensive positions along the Thala road. Moore's engineers laid thousands of mines and then acted as infantry, occupying a three-mile defensive line that stretched from the infantry position to Djebel Chambi. Moore's artillery, two batteries of 105mm howitzers from the 33d Field Artillery Battalion and a battery of French 75mm howitzers, were near Zorini. The 805th Tank Destroyer Battalion occupied a wadi near the right (north) shoulder of the pass and had orders to sally forth to engage any German armor trying to enter the pass. The Americans had no reserves, but additional forces were on the way.88
Madden and Zorini were not attached to the engineers, but there was no question that their mission was to defend the American task force in the Bled Foussana. Unable to locate Colonel Moore, Zorini was left to prepare his own defenses. To do so, he called upon the unit's training and its experiences in North Africa to design his defense.
Initially, the coast artillerymen had to adjust to a strange environment. Madden had left Camp Davis convinced that antiaircraft artillerymen were point defenders---they defended supply installations, forward airfields, and transportation facilities in the combat zone. Although he had anticipated operating in a division area, neither Madden, his superiors nor the instructors at the Antiaircraft Artillery School at Camp Davis had expected the AW battalions to be along the line of contact. The battalion's initial experience in North Africa had seemed to reinforce these preconceptions. After landing as part of the assault elements near Oran in November 1942, the battalion had spent two months defending a series of airfields.89
On the 25th of January, the battalion relieved its Battery C in the defense of the airstrip at Thelepte, less than 20 miles southwest of Kasserine. From the 25th of January until the 16th of February, the battalion fought off daily German air attacks on the field. While the defense of Thelpte did little to increase the battalion's tactical awareness, it did provide the battalion the opportunity to cure its other major training deficiency aerial gunnery.90
The battalion was one of the first ten separate AW battalions, and their training was plagued by resource shortages. At Camp Hulen, Colonel Fox, the Battalion Commander, had the foresight to insist upon moving the battalion to the field. Since the battalion only had four 37mm guns, to practice squad tactical operations, boxes were mounted on trailers and a stick affixed to simulate the AAA guns. At Camp Young, California, the battalion maneuvered in the desert and learned valuable navigation skills that allowed them to find Moore in the dark. Although the battalion was prioritized by the Antiaircraft Command and thus received a full complement of Bofors in May 1942, training ammunition was nonexistent, and the M5 directors for the guns had not been available until the battalion reached England in the fall of 1942. There, the ammunition and target shortages so prevalent in the Antiaircraft Artillery Command Training Centers until mid-1942 were exacerbated and the battalion fired their Bofors in the aerial role only once before Operation Torch, the Allied landings in North Africa. The combat at Thelepte taught them how to shoot.
In addition to the paucity of tactical training in OCS and the unit's experiences in North Africa, the battalion's unit training in the United States did little to prepare the 105th CA battalion for a tactical situation like Kasserine Pass. The 105th Coast Artillery Battalion had conducted no combined training---they had never maneuvered with armored or infantry forces---when assigned to the Antiaircraft Artillery Command. At Camp Young, Madden and the rest of the 105th had seen General George S. Patton's 2d Armored Division tanks from afar. The 105th Coast Artillery Battalion went to the field by themselves and practiced the defense of point targets, which required little coordination with the supported commander or understanding of the tactical situation. Yet the Antiaircraft Artillery Command gave the 105th Coast Artillery Battalion credit for combined training as a result of their training at Camp Young. The standard was established, but the Coast Artillery had not analyzed or implemented the training requirements needed to meet the standard.
Captain Zorini and his men were closer to combat than anyone ever imagined. The new situation and the proximity to the Germans made the Coast Artillery officers uncomfortable as the battle at Kasserine loomed on the horizon. After a quick appraisal of the situation, Zorini placed most of his unit around the field artillery. It seemed the logical thing to do. It was common knowledge the Luftwaffe made the American artillery a prime target. Additionally, it was the least mobile portion of Moore's Task Force.
Zorini made provisions for the rapid movement of his sections if it should become necessary. Unlike the other batteries in the battalion, Zorini's battery left their directors behind when they entered the Bled Foussana. He also assigned an officer to every two guns to reduce the span of control.
Zorini's decision to locate Madden's guns in the mouth of the pass was interesting. Madden's thought that he was there to provide early engagement against low-altitude Luftwaffe attacks. Theengineers, on the other hand, thought that the antiaircraft artillerymen were there to cover the minefields.
Zorini's establishment of a forward defense was based on his experiences at Thelepte. There, the Luftwaffe had attacked out of the rising or setting sun with JU 87 Stuka dive bombers and Me 109 and Fw 190 fighters. The Luftwaffe tactics changed with every attack. Sometimes, the aircraft would enter the target area from the same direction, other times from all different directions. The Stukas would fly low and use their machine guns to strafe the field or drop the 100-pound bomb they carried under each wing. The fighters protected the dive bombers by strafing antiaircraft positions and flying a protective air cap. Often they would join the Stukas for the final kill.91
The ultimate tactical objective was to create a situation in which the Stukas could enter the target area at high altitude and attack targets from an almost perpendicular dive, delivering the 500 pound bomb carried under the fuselage. By February 1943, the Germans had learned this tactic was costly. Even in a steep attack angle, the Stuka reached speeds of only 200 mph, and the American and British Bofors guns could engage aircraft flying up to 300 mph. At Thelepte, the American antiaircraft artillerymen discovered they had the ability to decimate a Stuka dive bombing attack.92
Furthermore, the Antiaircraft Artillery was effective against the German fighters, which had to slow to a speed of 250 miles per hour to acquire and attack ground targets. However, the antiaircraft gun's effectiveness against fighters depended on director fire control, and the boxes slowed emplacement and displacement times so much that Battery D left them behind when the battery moved forward.
At Thelepte, the 105th Coast Artillery learned early warning was the vital key to a viable defense. The battalion positioned observers, taken from the gun crews, out from the airfield in the direction of the expected enemy attack and equipped them with radios and binoculars. The observers identified incoming aircraft and radioed their identification back to a battalion information center that was in communications with the gun sections. The 105th Coast Artillery Battalion was good at aircraft identification, but the alert warning reinforced the process. When notified of the approach of friendly aircraft, the Antiaircraft Artillery fratricide was significantly reduced. Zorini's hope was that Madden would get an early shot at enemy airplanes and thereby notify the rest of the battery they were inbound. The 40mm rounds self-destructing over the pass would be the only notification; Madden was not in communications with Captain Zorini.
As dawn broke on the 19th of February, the antiaircraft artillerymen of the 105th Coast Artillery huddled against their guns and waited for the Germans. They would not be idle for long.