On the evening of February 17, 1943, Erwin Rommel (1891–1944) was in a great mood.
He feels "like a cavalry gaul who hears the trumpet," said one employee, describing the mood of his boss, who had even ordered a bottle of champagne.
The Field Marshal General, who had been Commander-in-Chief of the German-Italian Panzer Army in Africa since 1942, was planning an operation in which he had assigned his best man in command: himself.
Despite his fast, steep career, which made Hitler's favorite general from the commander of the Führer Headquarters in Poland to command of a tank division in the western campaign to the commander of the German Africa Corps in Libya, the now 51-year-old had basically always remained the shock troop leader, the one in the first World War 1917 was awarded the highest order Pour le Mérite.
Rommel preferred to lead from the command tank from the front than from the map table far behind the front.
Now he wanted to break through the ring with which the Allies threatened to lock him into Tunisia with a bold advance against the US-led superiority.
The days of spectacular triumphs were long gone.
For the advance of the Wehrmacht on Stalingrad, many aircraft had been relocated from the Mediterranean to the east, so that supplies to Africa were an easy sacrifice for the Royal Navy.
Before El Alamein, the British 8th Army finally not only stopped Rommel's attack on Egypt in November 1942, but immediately began the advance to the west, which could only be brought to a standstill in the Mareth Line in southern Tunisia, which was still under control the Vichy government stood.
Also in November, an Allied army landed in Morocco as part of "Operation Torch" and quickly advanced east.
Even if the 5th Panzer Army had been set up under the command of Hans-Jürgen von Arnim to defend against them, it was basically only a matter of time before the German and Italian troops would run out of tanks, ammunition and fuel.
In this situation, Rommel developed the plan to attack at the interface of the British and American troops, bypassing them and finally taking them in the rear.
The long-term goal was the large supply base of Tebessa, which is already in Algeria.
That would panic the Allies and force them to retreat, so the calculation.
With the Africa Corps to the last attack: Erwin Rommel (1891–1944)
Source: picture alliance / Heritage-Imag
However, Rommel had to get in touch with Arnim (Hitler did not appoint Rommel as Commander-in-Chief of Panzer Group Africa until February 23).
Arnim, however, had already started the "Operation Spring Wind" against Sbeitla and switched off dozen US tanks in the process.
Instead of three, Rommel was assigned only the 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions of Arnim's army, which were to be supported by the Italian Centauro Panzer Division.
That was roughly the size of the Africa Corps, which originally included the 21st Division and with which Rommel had achieved his spectacular successes in 1941/42.
Also, Tebessa was no longer chosen as the operational target, but the closer Le Kef, which, however, meant the abandonment of the great embracing movement.
On February 19, Rommel personally took command of “Operation Morgenlust” and gave the order to attack the Kasserin Pass.
US troops advancing on the Kasserin Pass
Source: picture alliance / Everett Colle
General Lloyd Fredenhall's 2nd US Corps had taken on its cover.
With 350 tanks it was technically superior to its German opponents, who only counted a third of their nominal strength in combat vehicles (60 to 70 each).
But the GIs had little combat experience.
The machine-gun positions were poorly positioned, the foxholes not deep enough and not on the slopes, but on the pass road.
Mines had not been buried, only laid out, and barbed wire entanglements had been dispensed with altogether.
50 American tanks were destroyed in the first few hours.
After his soldiers had occupied the pass the next day, Rommel stormed forward with his few tanks.
His people were amazed "at the amount and quality of American equipment that had been captured more or less intact," says a US report.
US soldiers who became German prisoners of war in February 1943
Source: picture-alliance / United Archive
The British General Harold Alexander relentlessly summed up what Rommel's breakthrough meant for the Allied front: “In the confusion of the retreat, American, French and British troops were inextricably mixed up;
there was no longer a common defense plan and instead it was completely unclear who was in command. "
Even the Allied supply depots, which were 60 kilometers behind the front, have already been set on fire in order not to let them fall into Rommel's hands.
Fredenhall's corps alone lost 183 tanks, 104 half-tracks, 200 guns and 500 trucks and jeeps.
“The 'terrible' coordination of ground and air forces and the 'pathetic' cooperation between US armored forces, artillery and infantry resulted in losses of 6,000 men (out of a total of 30,000 soldiers deployed),” summarizes the British historian Andrew Roberts, “during the Germans lost only 989 men (201 of them were killed) and 535 Italians were taken prisoner. "
But Rommel broke off the attack on February 22nd after consulting his superior Albert Kesselring.
On the one hand, he was running low on fuel and, on the other hand, he realized that the Americans were drawing up reserves and that the British were threatened with an attack on the Mareth Line.
In fact, the battle of the Kasserin Pass was his last victory in Africa.
Harry Butcher, the secretary of US General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who at the time commanded the troops of "Operation Torch", concluded that his "proud and cocky" compatriots "are now humiliated after one of the greatest defeats in our history".
Even if the Panzer Group Africa had to capitulate three months later to the overwhelming power - Hitler had ordered Rommel back in March - the disaster on the Kasserin Pass is for the American historian Paul Kennedy the "most humiliating blow for the Americans in World War II".
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