Noted for February 21, 2013
Sam Wilkinson: Republican Grifters Gotta Grift: Pete Domenici Edition

Liveblogging World War II: February 21, 1943

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Kasserine Pass, from Rick Atkinson's An Army at Dawn:

Rommel again held the initiative, but with it came a familiar conundrum: now what? From his command post near Kasserine, he studied the map, then motored through the pass to study the ground. He had twice divided his army, at Sbeïtla and at Kasserine. “I hoped to split the enemy forces far more than our own,” he later explained. But now he lacked the strength to attack simultaneously north toward Thala and west toward Tébessa. Thala led north to Le Kef. But he could hardly ignore CCB and the other American forces lurking somewhere west, beyond the Bahiret Foussana, perhaps waiting to counterattack to sever the Axis path of retreat through Kasserine. Despite its grievous losses, II Corps still had 150 tanks.

A reconnaissance report at 11:25 A.M. on February 21 pushed Rommel to a decision that led to the third action in this sequence, which in turn would lead to Kasserine’s finale. Twenty miles west of the pass and parallel to the Algerian border, a jagged escarpment known as Djebel el Hamra ran north to south, crossed by the packed-dirt roadbed of Highway 13. Wehrmacht scouts reported that no substantial Allied forces could be found east of el Hamra; the shallow bowl of the Bahiret Foussana was empty. Without waiting for confirmation from Luftwaffe pilots that his left flank was indeed secure, Rommel ordered the 10th Panzer to continue up Highway 17 toward Thala in his main attack; the Afrika Korps would push to el Hamra and safeguard the flank by sealing the passes from Tébessa and Bou Chebka.

The scouts were wrong. Djebel el Hamra and its lesser foothills bristled with Americans, on good ground and in formidable strength. In the south, Terry Allen held the Bou Chebka Pass with the 16th Infantry. “Well, boys,” Allen announced, “this is our sector and we will fight in place.” On the north, on the east face of the ridge and in a thin screen across the Bahiret Foussana, Robinett commanded eight battalions, eleven artillery batteries—nearly fifty guns—and a hodgepodge of others, including Senegalese riflemen and 700 lost souls snagged in a straggler line. Thick pines and rocky redoubts provided excellent concealment along a 4,000-yard front.

From his command post near Highway 13, Robinett could see twenty miles to Kasserine Pass across a foggy plain dotted with pear orchards and cactus farms. Cocksure as ever, he knew the enemy would come his way. “It was,” Robinett later claimed, “simply written on the ground.”

Anderson on this very Saturday had reported that “American fighting value was very low”—the Yank commanders, he added, were especially “frightful.” Yet a new bravado animated American ranks. Allen captured the mood in a message to Bill Darby, whose Rangers guarded against enemy infiltrators in the south: “There is a hell of a mess on our front…. Can you send me one reinforced company with a hairy-chested commander with big nuts?” Darby sent Company C, whose captain presumably possessed the requisite anatomical credentials, then told his own men, “Onward we stagger. And if the tanks come, may God help the tanks.”

The tanks came, but at Robinett. General Buelowius surged forward along the Hatab’s south bank at two P.M. on February 21 with forty panzers followed in trace by lorried infantry. Italian troops from the 5th Bersaglieri Battalion joined the attack, recognizable in their plumed pith helmets and distinctive running march. But within an hour, the weight of massed howitzers began to tell. Shells burst around Axis formations tacking for cover where no cover existed. German 88s answered from the riverbank but Buelowius lacked enough guns for effective counterbattery fire. By four P.M. the attackers had drawn within range of American tanks and plunging fire from antitank guns hidden in the rocks. Even for the Afrika Korps it was too galling: at six P.M. Buelowius broke off the attack, still four miles short of Djebel el Hamra. Shades in feathers and coal-scuttle helmets backed into the dusk until searching shell fire could no longer range them. Buelowius had lost ten tanks, Robinett but one.

Repulsed on the right, Rommel ordered Buelowius to make a wide envelopment to the left. He meant to flank the Americans in the south and catch them from the rear. In darkness and teeming rain, Buelowius sidled across the mud; by first light on the twenty-second, his men were not only drenched and disorganized but lost, having wandered seven miles south of Djebel el Hamra.