STABILIZING THE BREAKTHROUGH AND WITHDRAWAL
The German breakthrough had the sobering effect of all harsh lessons learned in combat. Reconnaissance on a far wider front might have warned of the enemy attack sooner; too many layers of command and lack of adequate communication probably slowed command response to a developing situation; coordination among Allied forces needed strengthening; and antiaircraft fire needed to be held until enemy planes were well within range. But the Allies, with their available resources, took rapid action to try to rescue trapped units and to stabilize the action.
On 15th February, II Corps assigned the 1st Armored Division the extraordinary mission of trying to free the 2nd Battalion, 168th Regiment, trapped on Djebel Lessouda and the 3rd Battalion of the 168th still holding out on Djebel Ksaira and Garet Hadid. The Division ordered CCC under Col Stack to accomplish the mission with standby support from CCA, holding positions on Djebel Hamra. CCC moved toward Sidi Bou Sid, making slow progress against heavy artillery and tank fire and attacks. In addition it was subjected to numerous, intense air raids. During the action, Platoon B-2, protecting CCC Command Post, shot down seven enemy planes and badly damaged five others. But as enemy tanks pressed in from both sides, CCCs armored infantry was unable to resist and so failed to relieve enemy pressure on the forces surrounded on Djebels Lessouda and Ksaira. Patrols were unable to maintain contact between CCCs battalions because so much of the area was securely in enemy hands and was strongly patrolled. Finally, at 6pm on 15 February, CCC was ordered to withdraw to Djebel Hamra. The 168th Regiment was ordered to attempt to fight its way out but only scattered remnants reached the American lines. And the Commanding General, 1st British Army, directed that forces holding high ground west of Faid be withdrawn and the Pass at Kasserine be organized for defense.
After repeated requests, General Robinetts CCB was released by the British 1st Army to the US II Corps. It moved to the vicinity of Sbeitla to reinforce CCA and CCC which were both hard-pressed after two days of furious fighting. The 68th Armored Field Artillery and the 1st Armored Regiment moved to the Sidi Bou Sid area to receive, cover and send to the rear, any men of the 168th Infantry who were able to break through from Djebel Lessouda under cover of darkness. About 200 of these men worked their way down Lessouda, while under constant attack. A few escaped but most, including regimental commander Col. Drake, were captured. All day on 16 February, stragglers drifted into the 443rd Provisional Headquarters at Sbeitla. Included were the following who had been listed as missing in action: 22 from Platoon A-1, 4 from Platoon B-3, and 5 from Platoon B-4.
It appears likely that as many as 130 enemy tanks were engaged in the fighting. The 1st Armored Division lost 86 medium tanks in attempting to relieve the trapped infantry on the two mountains while enemy losses were 23 tanks. During the morning of 16 February, German tank patrols began pushing west toward Kerns Crossroad and Sbeitla. These patrols continued to build in strength in spite of harassing artillery fire from the withdrawing defenders. On orders from II Corps to hold Sbeitla at all costs until 11 am on 17 February, the 1st Armored Divisions General Ward threw a protective defense around Sbeitla which included all antiaircraft and artillery as anti-tank defenses. CCB moved south and southwest and CCA moved east and northeast of Sbeitla to block any enemy approach. During hours of darkness, units were to begin moving west to new defense positions just east of Kasserine. But by 2:50 pm on 16 February enemy pressure began increasing as planes began flying overhead to distract attention from more tanks moving swiftly into the action. The new arrivals included the famed, heavy "Tiger Tanks", (Mark VI), and by evening they were in the vicinity of Kerns Crossroad. There seems little doubt that General Rommell sensed the possibility of a deep breakthrough to seize Kasserine and even Bone on the coast.
U.S. armored artillery continued to hold positions and fire on the advancing enemy until forced to withdraw in leap-frogging action, often through encircling forces. By 7:45 pm, CCC was attached to CCA and occupied defensive positions east and west of Sbeitla. Shortly after dark the Germans attacked Sbeitla but withdrew after three of their tanks were destroyed. Later in the night American troops blew up the ammunition dump and the railroad bridge at Sbeitla. Again, at 9am on 17 February, the Germans attacked Sbeitla in force but were held east of the town until 3 pm. This strong holding action enabled a more orderly but still confused withdrawal to be made under frequent bombing and strafing attacks. The 1st Armored had held Sbeitla well past the 11 am time ordered.
Fighting a strong rearguard action against renewed enemy armored and infantry attacks, 1st Armored Division units began moving toward Kasserine. Enemy capture of Feriana, to the south, forced the Division to funnel through the narrow Kasserine Pass toward Tebessa. Remnants of the 443rd AAA Provisional Battalion Headquarters also moved to two miles west of the Pass. During the Division defense of Sbeitla, Platoon B-2 destroyed four more enemy planes, B-1 shot down another and B-4 destroyed three more. During 14, 15 February, the 1st Armored Division was without command control of its troops and was forced to operate with a single combat command at a time, with only one battalion of tanks in contact with the enemy. It was never in a position to concentrate its force against the enemy. But when it was finally assembled as a unit, the Division functioned admirably and without appreciable loss in its fighting withdrawal from Sbeitla.
Losses of men and of gun-tracks during these battles had left an already under-equipped 443rd with even less fire power. Consequently, the Provisional Battalion Commander, Major Larson, began to search toward Tebessa for Lt. Col. Smith, 443rd Battalion Commander and his convoy, coming from Morocco. He found only wagon loads of fleeing French and Arab refugees with others on donkeys and on foot, moving toward Feriana (already captured by the Germans) and Gafsa, trying to escape the German and Italian advance. After his unsuccessful search, Major Larson returned to Sbeitla seeking to find any straggling gun-tracks as well as the Maintenance Section and other vehicles that were missing. Upon his return to Kasserine at 10 pm on 17 February, he met General Ward who asked him to unload all 443rd trucks and use them to help move as much ammunition and gasoline as possible from Kasserine before midnight. This was done and the remaining supplies were blown up shortly thereafter. At the same time, CCB had been ordered to block the Thelepte-Kasserine road against attack from Feriana where a large German tank concentration was reported.
At 3 am on 18 February Lt. Col. Smith arrived in Tebessa with the 443rd AAA AW Bn (SP), having been relieved from the Gun Operation Room Information Center in Casablanca on 3 February. By rail and in convoy the remaining, scattered elements of the 443rd had come from Casablanca, Rabat, Meknes, Port Lyautey and Algiers to rendevous with the Provisional Battalion in bivouac six miles southeast of Tebessa near Bekkaria. Lt. Col. Smith reorganized the Battalion into Batteries of four platoons with four gun-tracks each, except for Battery D which had four, towed, 40 mm guns per platoon. This action was to cope with the loss of thirteen gun-tracks and trailers during the action from Faid Pass to Kasserine. All platoons were immediately sent into action protecting the 1st Armored Division. Units of batteries B and D which had been engaged in fierce battles saw morale of the men drop as a result of this assignment. They had hoped for a period for rest and recuperation but the tactical situation did not permit such luxury. Morale of many in the newly arrived 443rd units suffered too, as they were told horror stories by those who had come through all the bitter Tunisian fighting.
It was evident that the Afrika Corps had thrown the bulk of its armor, in North Africa, into the fighting in a supreme effort to knock out the green American forces in Southern Tunisia, in order to be able to turn and successfully combat the British Eighth Army on the Mareth Line. Immediate availability of Allied replacements and reserves prevented complete enemy success. German forces had gained complete control of the Gafsa-FerianaKasserine-Sbiba-Pichon area and defeated in detail all II Corps elements opposing them. Capturing Sbeitla enabled the enemy to exploit their drive toward Sbiba from Sbeitla and Feriana through the Kasserine Pass. The Kasserine Valley Battle began in earnest.
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