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Liveblogging World War II: February 20, 1943

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

Bad as the bad night had been, the foggy morning of February 20 was worse. Rommel rose early to visit an Italian Centauro Division battalion sweeping into the pass from the southeast. At 10:30 A.M. he drove to Kasserine village, passing the bloated bodies of dead American drivers behind the wheels of their charred vehicles. On a rail bridge spanning the Hatab River, Rommel met General Karl Buelowius, commander of the Afrika Korps, and General Fritz Freiherr von Broich, commander of the depleted and tardy 10th Panzer Division. The field marshal was displeased. Although Buelowius had ordered two grenadier battalions to resume their assault, the attack seemed sluggish. The Americans were crumbling but stubbornly refused to collapse. Unless the Germans punctured the pass this very day, Rommel believed, Allied reinforcements would clot the wound and prevent him from exploiting any breakthrough, particularly since the 21st Panzer had made little progress in its northward probe up Highway 71. He ordered three more battalions into action for a six-battalion attack—10th Panzer on the Axis right, Afrika Korps on the left—supported by five artillery battalions. After sharply berating Buelowius for torpor and Broich for not leading from the front—both stood glum as apprehended truants in their greatcoats and slouch hats—Rommel returned to the command post in the Kasserine train station.

The American collapse began in earnest by late morning. At 11:22 the 19th Engineers’ commander, Colonel A.T.W. Moore, warned Stark by radio that enemy infantry and tanks were forcing the pass along Highway 13. An engineer major bellowed: “Forget about our equipment and just save your life.” Artillery observers fled, explaining plausibly if ingloriously: “This place is too hot.” Companies disintegrated into platoons, platoons into squads, squads into solitary foot soldiers chased to the rear by screaming meemies. Half an hour later, Moore radioed, “overrunning our C.P.,” and bolted for high ground. He soon arrived at Stark’s tent to announce that the 19th Engineers no longer existed. In fact, with 128 casualties, the regiment had been sorely hurt but not obliterated.

The “uncoordinated withdrawal,” as Moore delicately called it, was mirrored on the American left. Stark ordered his artillery to fall back; French gunners, without tractors to move their 75s, wept as they spiked the guns and took to the hills. Colonel Theodore J. Conway, sent forward by Truscott to assess Stark’s plight, was shocked to see troops streaming past him for the rear. Briefly, he thought of Washington on horseback in the battle of New York, whacking his fleeing Continentals with the flat of his sword in a vain effort to turn them; having neither horse nor sword, Conway joined the exodus. Stark held until after five P.M., when grenades began detonating near his command post in the Hatab gulch. With his staff and two hapless Army cameramen who had just arrived in search of “some action shots,” he hurried upriver before striking overland toward Thala. “We had to crawl,” Stark later recounted, “as in some instances [German soldiers] were not more than fifteen yards away.” Casualties just among infantrymen totaled nearly 500 dead, wounded, and missing.

Italian tanks drove five miles on Highway 13 toward Tébessa without seeing a trace of the Americans except for burning wreckage. At 3:35 A.M. on Sunday, February 21, precisely a week after the offensive had begun, Fredendall’s headquarters warned: “Enemy reliably reported in possession of heights on either side of Kasserine Pass…. Attack also going towards Thala on a four-thousand-yard front and has advanced about two thousand yards beyond the pass.” Kasserine Pass was lost. Anderson observed the occasion with another windy exhortation. “There is to be no further withdrawal under any excuse…. Fight to the last man.” That, the weary Yanks agreed, simply meant the British were willing to fight to the last American.