The Kasserine Pass is a gap in the Grand Dorsal chain (an extension of the Atlas Mountains) in central Tunisia.

During the Allied offensive in Tunisia in World War II, the pass was the scene of an Axis counteroffensive on February 14, 1943 to February 22, 1943. This was the United States Army’s first encounter with veteran Nazi German forces of Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps in North Africa. The Americans did not do well. The 1970 film, Patton starring George C. Scott, opens with a fairly good representation of the heavy casualties and demoralization the U.S. Army suffered at Kasserine Pass.

Under the sobriquet “Operation Torch” the Americans landed in the western part of the North Africa, in Morrocco, in November, 1942, while at the same time, the British Eighth Army under the command of Bernard Law Montgomery pursued Rommel from the east, following a victory at El Alamein in October, 1942.

Rommel retreated from the advancing allies and consolidated his forces, including brand new Panzerkampfwagen VI “Tiger” Heavy Tanks, equipped with 88 mm cannons, supported by even better "Acht-Acht", 88 mm anti-aircraft guns, which Rommel had adapted for use as the premiere anti-tank gun of World War II. He began a counteroffensive on February 14, 1943 which forced the Americans into defensive positions in the Dorsal Mountains.

The 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions smashed into the U.S. VIIth Corps at Kasserine Pass. Over 1,000 American troops were killed, hundreds captured, and the bulk of the American’s heavy equipment was either destroyed or captured. German casualties were minor.

The Americans learned some valuable lesson from the debacle at Kasserine Pass:

Equipment: At Kasserine the U.S. Army used M3 “Lee and Grant” tanks. This tank mounted a 75mm gun directly to its hull --not on a turret-- and thus had very limited ability to traverse. The M3 had a revolving turret, but it was equipped with relatively small, 37mm gun. Its armor plating was riveted, and the rivets “fragged” the unfortunate tankers if the tank took enemy fire. The M4 Sherman tank used by the U.S. Army in the rest of the war was a definite improvement, though American WWII tanks never matched the Germans or the Russian T34.

For the rest of the war, the Nazi high command relied on the reports sent back by the Afrika Korps regarding the Americans’ inferior equipment for the rest of the war, and apparently never grasped that U.S. weapons improved throughout the war.

Tactics: The Americans needed to learn to concentrate firepower. Air support, in particular, was doled out to Army field commanders who frittered it away in sporadic close support operations, as if it were field artillery. Later U.S. air doctrine concentrated all available assets under a single, separate command (which later evolved into an “Air Force” entirely separate from the Army) to pursue a unified strategy of air superiority.

Similarly, the Afrika Korps demonstrated for the Americans the necessity of concentrating artillery and tank fire in armored combat, rather than one-on-one tank battles, which the U.S. tanks were sure to lose in any case. Later, massed firepower would be absolutely critical to the successful employment of faster and more numerous M4 “Sherman” tanks against heavier German tanks with better guns.

The idea that General Patton single-handedly rebuilt morale and revised army doctrine is, of course, Hollywood myth. If, however, George C. Scott’s character is taken as representing the entire American command, from Dwight D. Eisenhower down to the lowliest lieutenant, then the movie accurately portrays the task before them and the results achieved.

The M3 Tank, pictures: