|The Hammer of Hell |
Chapter 4 The Battle of Kasserine Pass:
Four Days to Victory
Kasserine Pass was a miserable place to be on Friday morning, the 19th of February, 1943. A cold wind blew sheets of rain onto the soldiers of Task Force Stark. The desert floor was so saturated from weeks of rain that even tracked vehicle movement was restricted to improved roads.
In the early morning fog, General Buelowius began the battle with an attempt to slip an infantry battalion through the pass. Starks outposts detected the attempt and called for fire from the 33d Field Artillery Battalion. By mid-afternoon Stark received reports the Germans were moving parallel to his front, climbing the two small mountains that formed the shoulders of the pass. Around 3:30 in the afternoon, Buelowius tried the direct approach, assaulting the pass with infantry and armor covered by German artillery fire. The Afrika Corps vehicles and the Italian tanks attached to them ran into Colonel Moores minefields, and the Germans withdrew, harassed by the American artillery. Buelowius, still confident, gathered his commanders around him and ordered them to infiltrate the American lines that night in preparation for a continuation of the assault the next morning.93
The German artillery fire fell around the two Bofors guns in the pass, and when it lifted, Lieutenant Madden immediately proceeded to his other section to ascertain the damage. When he arrived in the middle of the pass in the late afternoon, Madden was startled to see the gun march ordered and its crew preparing to move to the rear. When Madden asked his platoon sergeant what was going on, the NCO replied, "Lieutenant, we cant stay here. Its rough out there, and were artillerymen." Madden ordered the gun back into position and thereby took command of his platoon. 94
Late in the day, Colonel Stark was reinforced with two infantry battalions, which he ordered into positions on the Thala road. Brigadier Charles A. L. Dunphie, the commander of the 26th Armored Brigade of the British 6th Armored Division, had moved into Thala earlier that day. His mission was to support his parent unit at Sbiba or reinforce the Americans in the Bled Foussana. When the Germans were easily repulsed at Sbiba early on the 19th, Dunphie decided to concentrate on supporting Stark.
Late that afternoon, Dunphie visited Stark at his command post, a mile from the pass. Stark was optimistic about his ability to hold, but Dunphie became less so when a small band of Germans machine gunned Starks headquarters. Returning to Thala, Dunphie requested permission to send a battalion to reinforce Stark while the remainder of his command prepared defensive positions along the road between Kasserine and Thala. As dusk fell, Dunphies request was approved, and he ordered the 10th Royal Buffs, a composite infantry, armored and artillery battalion to Kasserine.95
As the British unit occupied their positions behind the American infantry, near the northern edge of the Bled Foussana, they began to encounter more and more American infantrymen, fanned out in many directions, trying to find the rear. Many of these soldiers were in their first combat. When the Afrika Corps surrounded their battalion headquarters and cut the communications to it, single soldiers and then small units abandoned their positions. The panic spread down the line, and some engineers joined in the rearward movement, despite the admonitions of their leaders. The situation became chaotic; no one knew what was happening. Colonel Moore considered a counterattack against the Germans, but he wasnt sure where they were, and he finally reasoned there was no need to attack if the Germans were ready to break through the pass.96
Stragglers passed by Maddens position during the night. Every group told the antiaircraft artillerymen they were the last remaining element from their company or battalion. Madden and his men nervously stood fast.
On the other side of the pass, Rommel reevaluated his situation. The continuance of the attack against Sbiba looked like a bloodbath; the strength of the Allied defense seemed to preclude the quick breakthrough the Germans so desperately needed. On the other hand, General Buelowius continued to be confident of success at Kasserine. Early in the evening, General Rommel ordered General Broich and the 10th Panzer Division to meet him at Kasserine and directed General Buelowius to continue the attack the next day.97
Saturday, 20 February 1943
Madden drove the short distance to Colonel Moores headquarters to ask permission to withdraw. The engineer was still in the process of sorting out the events of the night before and brushed the lieutenant off, instructing him to remain in position.
The artillery fire continued until mid-morning when a single halftrack approached Maddens position. He flagged down the vehicle, which was occupied by the commander of the 805th Tank Destroyer Battalion. Madden appraised the officer of Moores decision and asked for his advice regarding withdrawing his men. The colonel looked to the east and asked Madden if he could see a burning track off in the distance. When the lieutenant replied he could, the colonel said that was his last tank destroyer. He couldnt advise Madden, but he was heading to the rear. Madden immediately ordered the Bofors to march order.
With the 40mm gun and its AAA machine-gun in tow, Madden drove to the center of the pass. When he arrived at his platoon sergeants position, the NCO had already march ordered the gun and was preparing to move his crew to the rear on his own. He had understood Maddens orders of the night before, but the intensity of the artillery fire had changed the whole situation. Madden led his men out of the artillery barrage down the dirt road to Tebessa. Two miles east of the pass, an officer flagged down Maddens small convoy. It was Captain Zorini, who directed the lieutenant to move behind the field artillery, just off the road in the opposite direction. The situation was not good. The engineers had folded and the Afrika Corps was expected anytime.
Two hours later, around noon, Madden and his men saw 200 men in American uniforms walking down the lower slope of Djebel Chambi, heading towards the artillerymen. About 300 yards from Maddens position, they stopped, emplaced the machine guns and then began firing. The Battery D machine guns returned the fire, but the attackers steadily moved toward the American artillery. The 40mm guns remained in position until the assailants came within hand grenade range and then withdrew under the covering fire of their AAA machine-guns.98
The men attacking Maddens position were the advanced elements of the Afrika Corps, dressed in American uniforms. General Buelowius was through the pass by mid-morning, and he attacked toward Tebessa and Thala. The 10th Royal Buffs and American infantry on the Thala road made the going slow on the German right, and with insufficient forces to attack in strength in both directions, Buelowius delayed his exploitation along the Tebessa road. After a conference with Rommel, Buelowius was ordered to block the Tebessa road while the 10th Panzer passed through the Afrika Corps and attacked along the Thala road.99
By nightfall, General Broich beat off the valiant defense of the outgunned 10th Royal Buffs and pinned its survivors and the American infantry against the mountains, which formed the northern boundary of Bled Foussana. The road to Thala seemed open.100
Unsure of the situation, Rommel sent reconnaissance parties in both directions. Nine miles up the Thala road, Broichs scouts encountered General Dunphies first line of defense and withdrew after a violent firefight. On the Tebessa road, Buelowius reconnaissance elements ran into American tanks near Djebel Hamra from Combat Command B, 1st Armored Division, which had moved into the Bled Foussana during the late afternoon. The Germans withdrew out of range and waited.101
Upon receipt of the two situation reports, Rommel decided to wait until the next morning to continue the attack. The poor weather of the last two days was due to clear, and he hoped the Luftwaffe could provide the reconnaissance to clarify what was before him and attack the American artillery, which had given him so much trouble during the last week.
Sunday 21, February 1943
While Colonel Moores engineers were disintegrating, the Allies formed a second line of defense near Djebel Hamra. General Paul Robinette positioned the 2d Battalion, 13th Armor Regiment, in a wadi just to the northeast of the hill. The 27th Field Artillery Battalion was just behind the tanks, prepared to fire in their direct support. Robinette located his infantry battalion, the 2d Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry, and the 68th Field Artillery Battalion, to the right (south) of the 2d Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment, just in front of Djebel Hamra.102
General Terry Allen, the commanding general of the 1st Infantry Division, had marched onto the Bou Chebka Plateau the night of the 20th, with four infantry battalions and two field artillery battalions. They formed an "L" with General Welverts Task Force, oriented toward the Bled Foussana.103
On the opposite side of the basin, General Dunphie established an outpost line nine miles from Thala and intermediate positions on two successive ridges between the initial British line and Thala. The brigadier planned to delay before withdrawing with his armor battalion to a final position near Thala where the British infantry and brigade artillery were dug in.104
The establishment of the subsequent II Corps defensive line required Jim Harriman to reassess the Antiaircraft Artillery situation the night of the 20th. Two batteries from the 105th Coast Artillery defended one of the two corps long-ranged artillery battalions on the Bou Chebka Plateau. The corps artillery remained well protected. Colonel Larsons two self-propelled AAA batteries defended Combat Command B's road march to Djebel Hamra, and were now in position to defend the two field artillery battalions.105 Harrimans challenge was to scrape forces together to defend the 26th Armored Brigade artillery at Thala.
In the wake of the collapse of the 19th Engineer line on the 20th, small bands of American soldiers had groped their way toward the west end of the Bled Foussana. Since first light, Battery B, 105th Coast Artillery Battalion, had defended a road intersection 20 miles west of the pass, and had taken charge of the Battery D Bofors sections, which had split from the remainder of the battery in the confusion of the withdrawal. Some fire units had been forced to escape to the west, rather than toward the Bou Chebka Plateau with the rest of the battery. When the Battery B commander had reported in that night, Harriman had ordered 12 Bofors sections to Thala and remainder of the battery to join the 7th Field Artillery Battalion, 1st Infantry Division, on the Bou Chebka Plateau.106
The morning of the 20th, Colonel Fox ordered his executive officer, Major John Barkley, to take command of Batteries B and D and coordinate their employment. Barkley was a solid officer, a disciplinarian and an ex-cavalryman. Even his talents were not sufficient to establish a coherent defense in the valley in light of the German successes. He surely assisted in Battery Bs reorganization for combat, and that contribution was significant.
At about the same time, Ken Madden and his men withdrew with Battery C, 33d Field Artillery Battalion, to the mouth of the Bou Chebka Pass, where they occupied a heavily wooded position at the base of the plateau. The lieutenant now commanded three Bofors, but was unsure of the situation. He was in contact with the field artillerymen he continued to defend, but he was unaware of Zorinis whereabouts or the location of his battalion headquarters. He took some solace from the fact the artillerymen told him he was in a secure area and suggested he and his men get some rest.
Around noon the next day, Lieutenant Madden heard tank and artillery firing near the pass. Rommel, having received Luftwaffe reconnaissance reports, had resumed the attack. The Afrika Corps moved slowly down the Tebessa road. Around 4:30 P.M., the Germans encountered Robinettes tank battalion, which occupied excellent positions in the wadi to the northeast of Djebel Hamra. The 27th Field Artillery opened fire when the Germans came in range. Exposed for some distance as they approached the Americans, the attackers were astonished by the accuracy of their artillery fire, and Buelowius called for the Luftwaffe.
Ground and aerial reconnaissance pinpointed the location of the 27th Artillery guns and 10 on-call Stukas swooped down on them. The antiaircraft halftracks from the 443d Coast Artillery Battalion greeted the German Air Force with a wall of .50 caliber fire, destroying two dive bombers and driving off the rest. The field artillerymen did not lose a gun.107
The Luftwaffe was active all along the south side of the Bou Foussana and on the Bou Chebka Plateau. Batteries A and C of the 105th Coast Artillery Battalion, which used their Bofors to protect the corps long-ranged artillery, blasted away, and the American "Long Toms" continued to take their toll of German tanks and infantry. The antiaircraft artillerymen had just rejoined the artillerymen that morning. The previous night, the 36th and 175th Field Artillery Battalions had moved to alternate positions and had forgot ten to tell the antiaircraft atillerymen. Captain Francis Grevemberg, the commander of Battery C, recalled that both sides had a lot to learn about working as a team.108
Just after the Stukas departed, two American flights appeared overhead, and the 443d Coast Artillery Battalion engaged them, damaging seven planes, five beyond repair. Robinette was furious, and ordered no one to engage any aircraft until after it had attacked---a "hold fire" condition. Their fratricide relegated the antiaircraft artillery to a revenge weapon. The problem largely occurred because, with the emphasis on mobility, the 443d Coast Artillery had not deployed observers.109
Across the Bled Foussana, General Boich pushed tanks down the Thala road. The heavier German tanks brushed aside Dunphies out-gunned but valiant tankers, and by 7 p.m, the 10th Panzer Division threatened the final British line.
In the darkness, the Germans used a captured British tank to follow the last British vehicle, Dunphies command track, through the wire. The tank opened fire and caused enough confusion for the Germans to rush the defenders and get amongst them. A wild melee ensued that lasted for three hours, after which both sides withdrew 1,000 yards in each direction.110
Across the valley, Ken Madden and his men watched the horrible spectacle. Time after time, Madden saw British 37mm guns fire and the rounds bounce off the German tanks, ricocheting into the night. Lieutenant Madden went to bed worried.
Monday, 22 February 1943
The artillery fire came from Brigadier General S. LeRoy "Red" Irwins 9th Division Artillery. Irwin and his men had moved into position 1,200 yards from Dunphies final line during the melee the night before. When daylight came, Irwins battalions had been ready to fire and, after the initial barrage, continued to harass the 10th Panzer all day. General Broich, surprised at the volume of the fire and thinking that the Allies were initiating a counterattack , delayed his offensive and called in the Luftwaffe.111
The German Air Force had supported the Afrika Corps on Sunday because Buelowius offensive made the best progress during daylight. Now, the 9th Division Artillery was the obstacle, another ideal Luftwaffe target.
The sky over the Bled Foussana was filled with German airplanes on Monday. No one kept track of the number of sorties, but unit combat logs described the action as "heavy." The Bofors gunners protecting Red Irwins artillery fired away. Irwin lost four howitzers to ground and aerial fire, but the antiaircraft artillerymen kept him in business and the 10th Panzer on their line of departure.112
Late in the day, American fighters ripped into Broichs units, still assembled at the line of departure. However, five U.S. P-38s were shot down by friendly fire. The P-38, with its unique twin tail, was the easiest of all aircraft in North Africa to identify. The antiaircraft artillerymen, who deployed observers to the flanks of the guns, held fire. The fire came from infantry machine guns.113
Hurt, and confused by the intense American artillery and air attacks, Broich asked Rommel for permission to withdraw. Rommel had inexplicably lost his resolve and approved the request, a move eastward that would not halt until the Germans reached Montgomery at Mareth.114
Earlier the same day, on the other side of the valley, Ken Madden had awakened from a light sleep. He had gone to bed fully dressed, and as he tugged on his boots, he had sensed something was wrong. There was a rustling in the bushes, and suddenly, Madden heard the unique sound of a German burp gun. The lieutenant jumped into a nearby wadi, where he was joined by three other men. They spent the day hiding in the ravine, and moved out when night fell. The Germans were Afrika Corps infantrymen who had tried to attack Robinettes flank in the darkness, had became disoriented, and had ended up several miles east at Bou Chebka Pass.
The 1st Infantry Division counterattacked in mid-afternoon and recaptured Maddens three Bofors and the howitzers from the 33d Field Artillery Battalion. Consequently, Lieutenant Madden and his companions were easily reunited with their unit that night. Maddens platoon sergeant and several other men were missing, prisoners of war. The next time Lieutenant Madden saw the NCO would be 35 years later.
Battery D could salvage some pride from the withdrawal. Before most of the unit pulled back, they took the breechblocks off the Bofors, which made them incapable of firing. 115
By late afternoon, his attack disorganized and floundering, Buelowius withdrew. That night, the II Corps Command Post moved back to Le Kouif. Lacking an accurate picture of the battlefield, plans were being discussed to move Combat Command B and the 9th Division Artillery back to better positions. Cooler heads prevailed.
The next morning, Irwins howitzers opened fire at daybreak. The Americans were surprised to see no Germans before them. Still cautious, II Corps remained in position, occasionally firing artillery to harass the Germans, whom many believed were still out there, somewhere. Around 3:00 oclock in the afternoon, American reconnaissance parties reported the Germans were gone. It was clear all the way to Kasserine Pass. The battle was over.
Thoughts on the Tunisa Campaign
Pattons recommendation was an admission that peacetime antiaircraft artillerymen had been overly optimistic in assessing their capabilities, particularly those of their automatic weapons. The realities of combat dictated Colonel Harrimans employment of his 90mm battalion and the assignment of the AW battalions to defend point targets. Gone were the mathematical solutions to the antiaircraft problem. The doctrinal shift from area to point defense was an admission of fact, not unsubstantiated expectations.
The battle at Kasserine Pass highlighted that there would never be enough antiaircraft forces to meet every need, and that their major use would occur in a fluid environment. In mid-February, 1943, Jim Harriman began the battle, weighing his coverage toward the forward combat units. As Rommel reached the mouth of the pass, Harriman thickened the defense of the most vulnerable and critical Tebessa logistical complex, and collected and then allocated his few remaining forces to the most critical forward combat elements--field artillery battalions. He was lucky--the few Bofors at Thala and the two self-propelled AAA batteries at Djebel Hamra were sufficient to protect the critical American artillery, which, in turn, staved off defeat.
The 105th Coast Artillery Battalion was atypical of the 1942 American Army--they were led by an exceptional group of officers and noncommissioned officers whose combat in North Africa honed their gunnery skills for Kasserine. Special people were at the critical place on the Kasserine battlefield, but their arrival was happenstance, the product of exceptional junior officer initiative, not the product of an effective doctrine.
The question remaining was: "What was the best way to cover the corps rear while simultaneously protecting the critical points in the divisions? Furthermore, given a situation like Kasserine where the flow of the battle dictated a local thickening of the antiaircraft coverage, where should those forces come from, division or corps, and what should be the command and control arrangement? The solution of this doctrinal question would evolve in Sicily and achieve more definition in the invasion of Italy, and the lessons learned would be well known in antiaircraft circles, especially in the AAA units preparing to invade Europe.
While the organization for combat would continue to be debated until June, 1944, the combat in North Africa identified the philosophical underpinning of the required changes. Given the scarcity of AAA units and their capability to defend points, the tactical requirement became the ability to move on the battlefield; to keep up with the supported unit and to shift to the key spot as the campaign ebbed and flowed. Antiaircraft protection might be needed anywhere in a corps area and had to be massed at the critical time and place. McNair had been right in his decision that AAA was best employed in a mobile mass. Where he erred was in his belief there was no continual requirement for Antiaircraft Artillery in the division. The intensity and frequency of the Luftwaffe attacks on the American artillery changed all that. In Sicily, American field artillery units would not move until their AAA was present.
The requirement for accurate AAA fire remained fundamental, but automatic weapons needed to use onboard fire control, which did not require the alignment and emplacement of the director. The 90mm gun needed more mobility if it was to capitalize on its potential as an antiaircraft and antitank weapon.
The emphasis on mobility required hardware modifications, training and a new mindset. The Antiaircraft Artillery Command began work immediately on an on-board sight for the Bofors and the development of a new carriage to make the 90mm gun more mobile. The translation of the training requirements of an Antiaircraft Artillery doctrine of mobility and the attitudinal adjustments to adapt coast artillerymen to the rain, mud and murderous artillery fire at Kasserine would take time, and would never be successful without in theater training programs. The Army could not afford any more Ken Maddens brave, bright men who struggled to do their job without understanding what that mission should be and without command and control mechanisms in place to ensure they could do it well.
The final doctrinal enigma emerging from the Tunisian campaign was the integration of ground maneuver with the Army Air Force. As the Army Air Force focused on the strategic bombing mission while the war progressed, and used those command and control arrangements to define their relationship with the Army, an institutional solution became more difficult. The antiaircraft portion of the fratricide problem would be largely solved with the issuance of binoculars to automatic weapon crews, giving them the ability to identify friendly aircraft at a distance. In Europe and the Pacific, Army Antiaircraft Artillery units and their Army Air Force equivalents would ignore interservice politics and exchange information, alerting the AAA of pre-planned air missions. Identification, both from the ground and in the air, would never be solved and the command and control arrangement would continue to be beset with problems.
North Africa was the Antiaircraft Artillerys baptism of fire in the field army. The branch had proved its worth; now it had to establish itself as a permanent member of the combined arms team.