Rick Atkinson, An Army at Dawn:
“I had never gambled,” Rommel later wrote, “never had to fear losing everything. But in the position as it was now, a rather greater risk had to be taken.” The weaker force must take the longer chance. A thrust to Tébessa and then on another 140 miles to Bône would unhinge the entire Allied line…. In a message to Kesselring and Comando Supremo in Rome, he requested that both the 10th and the 21st Panzer Divisions be placed under his command for “an immediate enveloping thrust of strong forces…on Tébessa and the area north of it.” Awaiting a reply from Rome, Rommel dined in Gafsa on couscous and mutton…. Arnim disagreed, in a phone call to Rommel and in messages to Kesselring. “The terrain would be against us,” he warned. Tébessa was mountainous and easily defended…. Better to veer north in a shallow envelopment….
Kesselring dithered, then concluded that opportunity outweighed risk and threw his weight behind Rommel’s plan…. After more exasperated prodding by Rommel, who pleaded that the operation had “a chance for success only if the attack is launched without delay,” approval would come from Rome at 1:30 on Friday morning. Rommel could have the two panzer divisions “to a decisive success in Tunisia.” There was a catch, however. Rather than lunging as far west as Tébessa, he was told to aim seventy miles due north of Kasserine, at Le Kef… splitting the difference between Rommel’s proposal and Arnim’s. Rommel ranted at “an appalling and unbelievable piece of shortsightedness” by superiors who “lacked the guts to give a whole-hearted decision.” Then, calming himself, he ordered a bottle of champagne. North or west hardly mattered. He was on the attack. Suddenly, he told his aide, he felt “like an old war horse that had heard the music again….
Ward and Robinett braced for an attack at dawn on Wednesday, February 17, but no attack came. Position, numbers, and morale lay with the Axis, yet they held back, snuffling cautiously rather than slamming into the disordered Americans. Kesselring remained in East Prussia. Arnim chased his wild goose to the northeast. Rommel ate couscous in Gafsa and drafted petitions to Comando Supremo. Although Luftwaffe squadrons battered Sbeïtla and other Allied strongholds, there was no galloping urgency.
The Axis seemed afflicted with the same languor that had marked Allied movements early in the Tunisian campaign, and each passing hour permitted reinforcement and Ward regained his swash. “We stood in the cactus patch all morning and on into the afternoon,” a sergeant told his parents. “With the glasses and then with the eye, you could see the dots of the armored fighting vehicles. The general, one of the finest men, stood on the skyline smoking a cigar, very calm, which was good on the nerves of a number of very jittery people, including me.”
Fifteen minutes before noon, the attack resumed. Wehrmacht infantry advanced down Highway 13 and panzers struck CCB on the American right, where Robinett had strung a tank destroyer battalion in a picket line several miles east of town. A few crews fired on the converging panzers, but most broke for the rear; then all did. Rather than leapfrogging back by company as planned, the half-tracks “just turned and kept going,” one soldier later recalled. “Everybody was throwing out smoke pots, so it made a dramatic scene.” At 1:15 P.M., the panzers sidled toward the 2nd Battalion of the 13th Armored Regiment, whose commander, Henry Gardiner, had fought with gallantry around Tébourba nearly three months before. Gardiner’s tankers still mounted the antique M-3 General Lee, but they had been given time to burrow into a wadi and to camouflage artistically with wet clay. “I counted thirty-five enemy tanks come rolling over a rise in the ground almost to the direct front, a distance of about three miles,” Gardiner reported. Waiting; waiting; and then at point-blank range he cried, “Boys, let them have it!” Fire leaped from the wadi, striking fifteen panzers and destroying five. They “stopped the attack cold,” Gardiner added.
For an hour.
Then the panzers came again, angry now, with a sweeping attack around the American right five miles south of Sbeïtla. Artillery gun chiefs screamed for more ammunition, their open mouths bright red O’s in faces black with grime and powder. Between shellings, men at the last pitch of exhaustion napped sitting upright. “We were all very shaky after the battle of the night before because we had little or no sleep and because we had lost quite a few men,” one artilleryman recounted. Gardiner warned Robinett that his tanks would “soon be in serious trouble.” At 2:30 P.M., Ward authorized CCB to withdraw behind her two sister combat commands. For three hours Gardiner’s men fought a deft rearguard battle at a cost of nine General Lees, including the battalion commander’s. With his driver dead and his tank in flames, Gardiner hid until sunset, then fled west in the wake of his retreating army. At dusk, German and Italian troops edged into Sbeïtla. It was rubble, an empty, burning, stinking place of demolished bridges and dribbling water mains. Only the Roman temples and St. Jucundus’s crypt, ruins already, had escaped destruction. Robinett might have invoked another Sherman aphorism: “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.”
Darkness slipped down on the Allied column winding west into the thick forests beyond Kasserine Pass, the defile that would give this two-week sequence of battles its name. “The night was heavy with low cloud, and always intolerable wind… and all the inevitable turmoil and confusion of night movement,” wrote A. D. Divine. “Clouds were red with the burning of the Sbeïtla dumps.” Again the Allies had been drubbed.
But in the glooming a spark kindled among those who had stood fast and fought well at the end. Pride, vengeance, anger came, yes, and a sense that enough was enough, that from this havoc a ruthless killing spirit could emerge. The war was coming inside them now. Among those trudging beneath the dark towering peaks of the Grand Dorsal was Ernie Pyle, who considered the retreat “damned humiliating” even as he wrote of the soldiers around him:
You need feel no shame nor concern about their ability…. There is nothing wrong with the common American soldier. His fighting spirit is good. His morale is okay. The deeper he gets into a fight, the more of a fighting man he becomes.
Pyle was telling his readers what he knew they wanted to hear. Oddly enough, it was the truth.