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Liveblogging World War II: February 19, 1943

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

Just beyond the Roman ruins west of Sbeïtla, Rommel tried to draw his own line between what he wanted to do and what he had been told to do. Hands clasped behind his back, goggles perched on his visor, he studied the distant peaks of Semmama and Chambi. That way led seventy miles to Tébessa and the great supply dumps he had hoped to despoil before following the glory road to Bône. But it also offered, via Highway 17 through Thala, a backdoor route to Le Kef, the objective ordered by Comando Supremo.

A more direct and slightly shorter path to Le Kef could be had by taking Highway 71 north for eighty miles from Sbeïtla along the eastern flank of the Grand Dorsal. The enemy would certainly contest both routes. Where would the defenses be softer? Left, through Kasserine Pass, or right, directly toward Le Kef? Rommel studied the terrain with his field glasses while staff officers in slouch hats toed the ground with their double-laced desert boots.

His choice had been complicated by Arnim, who instead of giving Rommel the entire 10th Panzer had held back half the division’s tanks, including the Tigers, on a thin claim of needing them in the north. While denouncing the “pigheadedness” of his two African commanders, Kesselring had yet to return from East Prussia to adjudicate their squabble. Kesselring believed the order from Comando Supremo contained enough ambiguity to permit Rommel a full attack on Tébessa before he turned toward Le Kef. But Kesselring was not here and Rommel—demonstrating an atypical obedience possibly infused with spite—chose to believe that Le Kef must be his first objective.

At 4:50 A.M. on Friday, February 19, Rommel issued his orders: the Afrika Korps was to drive west and capture Kasserine Pass; 21st Panzer would attack north on Highway 71 toward Le Kef; 10th Panzer—or as much of the division as could be mustered—would concentrate at Sbeïtla, ready to exploit whichever route seemed easier. With two roads diverging before him, Rommel would divide his force and travel both.>Even at his distant remove Fredendall recognized the vulnerability of Kasserine Pass. He peeled away a battalion from Terry Allen’s 1st Division and shoved it forward to join the 19th Engineers, along with a four-gun French battery and some tank destroyers. That brought the number of defenders to 2,000. In another call to Truscott late Thursday morning, he asserted that “the 1st Armored gave them a good licking”—a triumph that existed mostly in II Corps imaginations—while asking for 120 replacement Sherman tanks. Truscott could offer fifty-two, nearly enough to outfit a battalion, and he chose not to reveal that Eisenhower had decided to hold back more than 200 other newly arrived Shermans for fear of losing them all.

At eight that evening, Fredendall phoned Colonel Alexander Stark, commander of Allen’s 26th Infantry Regiment, who was south of Tébessa. “Alex, I want you to go to Kasserine right away and pull a Stonewall Jackson. Take over up there.” Stark hesitated. “You mean tonight, General?” “Yes, Alex, right away.” It took Stark nearly twelve hours to pick his way across the dark bowl of the Bahiret Foussana, alive with challenge—“Snafu!”—and countersign—“Damned right!” He arrived in the pass at 7:30 on Friday morning, just as the Germans did.

Unlike the Confederate general whose military genius he was now to replicate, Stark knew little of the capacity or disposition of his troops, many of whom had never heard of him. A quick inspection of the misty pass revealed a predicament even Stonewall would have been hard put to salvage. Except for a single platoon positioned on the slopes of Djebel Semmama, all four infantry companies occupied low ground on the left side of the pass; likewise on the right, where one engineer platoon held Djebel Chambi and three companies held the flats. To shift troops from one side of the defile to the other would require a ten-mile detour to the nearest bridge over the Hatab River. Antitank mines had simply been dumped, rather than buried, on likely enemy approaches. Another 60,000 mines and booby traps were on their way from Algeria by cargo plane and truck, but the arrival time was uncertain. Fredendall had also asked Anderson for thirty tons of barbed wire, and every platoon was pleading for sandbags, shovels, and picks.

A German attempt at dawn to seize the pass in a coup de main had been repulsed with good shooting from the French 75s; the Afrika Korps reconnaissance battalion bounced back as if brushing a hot stove. But at ten A.M., enemy artillery began falling around Stark’s command tent three miles west of the Kasserine narrows. “Thirty-five to forty trucks brought up enemy infantry at 10:15,” reported a staff officer. “They are making for high ground on our left.” And, soon, on the right. Wraiths in field gray scrambled up the rocky inclines, flopping to fire before scuttling on. Machine-gunners crouched behind them with tripods and ammunition boxes, lashing the pass with flails of tracer fire. American reinforcements arrived early in the afternoon, including the regimental band, a tank platoon, and three companies from the 9th Division’s 39th Infantry. The badly laid mines sufficed to cripple five panzers below Djebel Chambi, and Stark’s spirits lifted despite German capture of the ridgeline below Semmama’s peak.

Shadows swallowed the pass when Stark received a late-afternoon visit from Brigadier Charles A. L. Dunphie, whose British 26th Armoured Brigade straddled the Thala road twenty miles behind the Americans. Stark pronounced the battle “well in hand,” despite “slight difficulties with communication” from artillery shells severing his phone lines. Dunphie suspected that Stark was mistaken, a suspicion reinforced when the brigadier ventured forward 400 yards in his staff car for a personal reconnaissance and came streaking back to the tent beneath a swarm of German bullets. Enemy infiltration past U.S. lines was as obvious as it was ubiquitous. The Americans had no reserves, and, Dunphie reported, even the “position of [Stark’s] own troops was vague, and in particular he could not tell me where he had laid minefields beyond the fact that they had laid all they could get hold of.” In short, Dunphie concluded, Stark “had completely lost control of events…. I thought Stark a nice old boy—gallant but quite out of his depth.” Returning to Thala at seven P.M., he reported to Anderson that conditions were “very poor at the pass.”

For his part, Stark dubbed Dunphie “that blockhead.” Even in the face of mortal peril the cousins could not forbear their squabbling. Stark had not yet “completely lost control of events.” That would happen in the next few hours. But Anderson chose this moment to issue a stand-or-die edict effective at eight P.M.: “The army commander directs that there will be no withdrawal from the positions now held by the First Army. No man will leave his post unless it is to counterattack.” Even as this puff of gas circulated through the ranks, many a man was leaving his post, and not to counterattack. Enemy artillery fell with greater insistence as the night deepened. “The worst of it all was to see some of your best buddies next to you being shot down or blown up,” observed an engineer corporal. “I never knew that there could possibly be so many shells in the air at a time and so many explosions near you and still come out alive.” Compounding the terror was a new German weapon deployed for the first time, the Nebelwerfer, a six-barreled mortar that “stonked” targets with a half-dozen 75-pound high-explosive rounds soon known as screaming meemies or moaning minnies because the wail they made in flight was said to resemble “a lot of women sobbing their hearts out.”

Night fever spread through the engineer ranks holding Stark’s right. “A considerable number of men left their positions and went to the rear,” an engineer officer reported. Some were corraled and herded back to the line; more simply melted into the night. Stark’s left was even shakier. At 8:30 P.M., enemy patrols overran the infantry battalion command post. German infiltrators cut off the solitary company on the slopes of Djebel Semmama, then seized Point 1191, the mountain’s most important ridge. Many GIs who eluded capture were subsequently robbed of their clothes and weapons by Arab brigands. “In some instances the Arabs got the drop on the men with M-1 and ’03 rifles they had already obtained,” a chagrined company commander told the provost.