After the Anglo-American landings in North Africa on November 8, 1942, the Americans remained optimistic about their ability to fight a real opponent like Erwin Rommel and the Afrika Korps. In retreat after the Battle of El Alamein, Rommel had disobeyed orders of his Führer. He was not without the ability to fight, however. He intended to consolidate his forces closer to his supply lines.
The green Americans moved slowly to take advantage of the Axis retreat, and while Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery pursued Rommel across North Africa, taking Tripoli on January 23, 1943, the Americans did not press the Axis western flank. Eisenhower would later write that the American operations “violated every recognized principle of war.” Nevertheless, confident Allied commanders planned for the conclusion of operations in North Africa.
Rommel and his junior officers were openly contemptuous of the Americans’ ability to fight. After a buildup that included heavy Tiger I tanks that mounted the 88mm gun that the Afrika Korps had pioneered in antitank combat, Rommel attacked the Americans at Faud on February 14. Rommel drove the Americans back on what would be the defining moment for the American ground soldier against the Germans — Kasserine Pass, in the Tunisian Dorsal Mountains.
Kasserine Pass would teach the Americans how to fight the Wehrmacht. On February 19, Rommel probed the American lines, and concluded the Pass was the soft spot. The next day, he personally led the attack that cracked the American defenses and sent them reeling back.
Almost everything the Americans believed about mobile warfare was wrong. The M3 Lee and Grant tanks, mounting both a 75 mm (2.95 inch) casemated gun and a 37 mm (1.47 mm) turreted gun, had a high silhouette. One American called it “A damn cathedral coming down the road.” It had good high explosive rounds, but was at a disadvantage in combat with the German Panzerkampfwagen Mark IV and especially the heavy Tiger I Mark VI panzers. The tank commander always had to point his tank directly at the panzers to score a hit. Also, the Americans fought tank-to-tank, while the Germans concentrated their fire. The early M3 would burn when hit and the first tanks’ riveted construction would shoot hot flying spall around the crew compartment when it was hit. Also, tactical doctrine was inflexible and did not account for the rapid German advance. Finally, the Americans initially lacked armor-piercing ammunition for the 75 mm gun.
The Americans suffered heavy losses of 1,000 dead, hundreds taken prisoner, and the loss of most of their heavy equipment engaged. The Germans who analyzed the captured American equipment sent back unfavorable reports on the American tanks and guns, which would entice German commanders to underestimate the Americans in the future.
For the Americans studied Kasserine Pass even more intently than the Germans. They changed leadership where in was needed, and gave junior officers the authority to make on-the-spot decisions. Major General Lloyd Fredendall, commanding II Corps, was replaced by the more aggressive General George Patton. The M3 tank was quickly replaced with the M4 Sherman, which mounted the same 75mm gun in a traversable turret. While it was never the one-on-one equal of the German tanks, it was easier to maintain and traveled much further between refits. And Detroit made 50,000 of them. Just 1,500 Tiger Is were completed; and most of those headed East to face the Soviets.
Most importantly Kasserine Pass taught the Americans the doctrine of massed firepower. The Americans developed ways to mass artillery fire, and to coordinate aircraft with ground forces. Three days later, on February 23, massive air bombing drove Rommel back through Kasserine Pass attempting to reach his prepared positions on the Mareth Line.
Again the Americans paused. Rommel made it to his fortifications, a twenty-two-mile line built by the French against an Italian invasion of Tunisia. He reached the Mareth Line on February 25. The next day Montgomery’s Eighth Army attacked, and in a series of probing battles weakened the Axis forces. Coming into conflict with a split Axis command, Rommel clashed with his subordinate and successor, General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim, over tactics and logistics. Allied forces on Malta had cut his supply lines, and he was running out of food, ammunition and fuel.
On March 20, The Allies broke the Mareth line and linked on April 8, 1943. Rommel had already been flown out, too ill to continue the battle. By May 13, the day the last resistance ended, 240,000 Italian and German prisoners were rounded up. Rommel was flown out. Von Arnim stayed to surrender the Nazi forces and end the African campaign.
The buildup began for the invasion of the Italian mainland in North African ports. The first stop was the island of Sicily.
Years of hard fighting lay ahead for the Allies and the Axis. But all the major players were now engaged. Churchill, at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, called North Africa “not the beginning of the end. But the end of the beginning.”