The Desert War – February 1943

Nov 1942 On Road to matruk-Galal
Previously unpublished photo courtesy of DJM’s uncle David, © 2021

This month sees the battle of the Kassarine Pass.This was where the Axis forces gave the Americans a run for their money and may have been the start of the “our Italians” handle given to the American forces by the British and Empire troops. Remember that the Americans were in almost their first action whereas the other troops had experience of fighting the Germans and Italians. It had already been pointed out by the British leaders that they needed to play the Greek role to the Americans Roman one as happened in Ancient Rome.

I remember my dad being quite scathing of the Americans, his point of view was that we had to dig them out of a hole twice. At the end of the day, the Germans had to withdraw and lived to fight another day.

German losses were 200 killed, 536 wounded and 252 missing, 20 tanks lost, 67 vehicles and 24 guns. American losses were 300 killed, 3,000 wounded and 3,000 missing, 183 tanks, 104 half-tracks, 208 guns and 512 motor vehicles, some captured by the Germans. In their defence, it appeared later that the Americans had learned quickly and well, this level of loss did not happen again.

On the 1st Ettore Bastico stepped down as the Governor-General of Italian Libya, succeeded by Giovanni Messe. Over lunch, Dwight Eisenhower informed George Patton that Patton had been chosen to help plan the invasion of Sicily. HMS Welshman, a fast minelayer and veteran of many supply runs to Malts, was sunk by U-617 en route from Malta to Alexandria. She had been laying mines in the Strait of Sicily.

On the 3rd two Italian destroyers were sunk by mines northeast of Bizerta in Tunisia laid by HMS Abdel.

On the 4th Winston Churchill visited Tripoli, Libya and inspected British 8th Army. this was also the day  units of the Eighth Army crossed the Libya/Tunisia border. All of Libya was now in Allied hands.

On the 5th HMS Stronsay (T 178) under command of Lt. Arthur Fredrick Boumphrey, RNVR stuck a mine and sank in the western Mediterranean Sea off Philippeville, north-eastern Algeria. The trawler was on minesweeping patrol at the time. The mines had been laid by the German 3rd S-Boat Flottilla. It had been thought that the trawler had been torpedoed by the Italian submarine Avorio, which had been operating in the area, but subsequent investigation shows that she arrived at the spot 24 hours after Stronsay was lost. Arthur Boumphrey survived and went on the command the MS trawler HMS Benbecula (T 379) until the end of the war.

On the 6th the convoy KMF-8 (Gibraltar to Bône (now Annaba), Algeria) was attacked by two formations of German Ju 88 bombers and Heinkel 111 torpedo aircraftled by Hauptmann Rudolf Schmidt. The Flower-class corvette HMCS Louisburg was hit by bombs and torpedoes and sank. Less than half of the ship’s crew were rescued. Two Heinkel aircraft were shot down with the crew being rescued by a Spanish trawler, the British freighter Fort Babine was torpedoed and damaged by Heinkel IIIs. As the convoy sailed on to about 80 miles west of Algiers, German submarine U-77 (Oberleutnant zur See Otto Hartmann) attacked. The British merchant steamers Empire Banner and Empire Webster were torpedoed and sunk.

On the 7th The 409-ton minesweeper trawler HMS Tervani (Frederick Blockwell, RNR) was sunk by the Italian submarine Platino off Cape Bougaroni, Algeria. Blockwell was killed in the attack.

On the 9th HMS Erica (Lieutenant A. C. C. Charles Cuthbert Seligman) was mined and sunk whilst escorting a convoy from Benghazi, Libya to Alexandria, Egypt. The first of seven Axis convoys left Italy with reinforcements bound for Tunisia but British aircraft from Malta, submarines, and minefields took a heavy toll. During the night, Canadian corvette Regina located and sank the Italian submarine Avorio (Lieutenant Leone Fiorentini) off Philippeville, Algeria.

On the 10th The British Admiralty officially announced the loss of submarine HMS Utmost, sunk by Italian gunboat Groppo off Sicily, Italy on 25 Nov 1942.

On the 13th the Jews of Djerba, Tunisia were ordered to pay 10 million Francs to the local German occupation administration. This was not unusual. The Jews in Greece had to pay their fares to Auschwitz when they were rounded up. The Wehrmacht achieved this by stealing everything it could get away with.

On the 14th German troops launched an offensive against American forces at and near Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia.

On the 15th American forces in Tunisia launched a counterattack at Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. Though achieving some results, the Americans suffered heavy casualties and lost 46 medium tanks.

On the 16th German forces captured Sidi Bouzid and Sbeitla, Tunisia. The British 8th Army entered Tunisia, led by the 7th Armoured Division.

On the 17th American forces east of Kasserine Pass, Tunisia retreated into the pass.

On the 18th Erwin Rommel submitted a plan to Albert Kesselring and the Italian High Command for attacking the Americans guarding the Tunisian-Algerian border.Down to only 13 flyable P-40 fighters, USAAF 33rd Fighter Group was withdrawn from Telepte Airfield in Tunisia.

On the 19th Rommel launched a surprise counter-attack at Kasserine Pass, Tunisia, overwhelming the fresh but inexperienced Americans.

On the 20th German and Italian troops defeated American troops at Kasserine Pass in Tunisia, but the force attacking Sbiba Pass was met with strong resistance. The Germans made the first use of their new 15 cm Nebelwerfer 41 rocket launcher against the western allies at Kasserine Pass in Tunisia.

On the 21st Axis troops pushed American troops back toward Thala, Tunisia and threatened to cross the Tunisian-Algerian border. By this date, the Americans had lost 100 tanks, 55 heavy guns, and 80 trucks. USAAF 33rd Fighter Group and its remaining 13 flyable P-40 fighters arrived in the rear area at Agadir, Morocco.

On the 22nd Allied troops pre-emptively struck the Axis attacking forces near Thala, Tunisia.

On the 23rd Erwin Rommel ordered his forces in western Tunisia to move east to avoid being attacked on both sides.

On the 24th Omar Bradley arrived in French Algeria.

On the 25th the Battle for the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia closed with the Americans, inexperienced and poorly led, suffering a major defeat. Nevertheless, the Americans would regain the pass at the end of the battle as overall strategy dictated the Axis forces withdraw back into northern Tunisia.

On the 26th British submarine HMS Torbay (Lieutenant R. J. Clutterbuck, RN) sank the 1,327-ton German merchant Mariaeck (former French vessel Oasis, built 1938). The submarine opened fire with her gun about 30 nautical miles south of Cape Mele, Italy. Torbay also torpedoed and sank the 3,561-ton Spanish merchant vessel Juan de Astigarraga. Both ships were under German control.

In other news – on the 5th Benito Mussolini personally took over the Italian Foreign Ministry after firing his son-in-law Galeazzo Ciano, on the 6th Wilkinson Sword Limited renewed the contract to produce more Fairbairn-Sykes commando daggers; they would be the firm’s final government contracts of the war, on the 8th Brigadier Orde Wingate’s first Chindit expedition departed from Imphal in India the expedition’s mission was to create havoc using ambush and sabotage behind the Japanese lines in Burma, the operation was entrusted to the 77th Infantry Brigade, comprising the 13th King’s (Liverpool) Regiment, 3/2nd Ghurka Rifles, 142 Commando Company, 2nd Burma Rifles, eight RAF sections, a Brigade Signal section and a mule transport company, on the 9th shoe rationing went into effect in the United States, on the 11th General Dwight Eisenhower was selected to command the Allied forces in Europe, on the 18th the construction of a large electromagnetic separation plant for enriching uranium, codenamed Y-12, began at Manhattan Project’s Oak Ridge site in Tennessee, on the 20th American movie studio executives agreed to allow the Office of War Information to censor movies, on the 23rd Germans brought 39 Jewish prisoners from Auschwitz II-Birkenau to Block 20 of Auschwitz I in occupied Polan, these prisoners, aged 13 to 17, were killed by phenol injections administered by SS-Unterscharführer Herbert Scherpe in the evening and were originally from the Zamosc region of Poland, on the 26th in Burma, Orde Wingate lectured his officers about the British practice of worshipping gallant losers, citing the celebration of those who succeeded in the Dunkirk evacuation without placing blame on the same leaders whose failures made such an evacuation necessary, on the 27th Jews in Berlin who had previously been allowed to remain there due to their positions in the armaments industry were deported to Auschwitz Concentration Camp, meanwhile, the Rosenstrasse protest began in Berlin by women who had married Jewish men, on the 28th construction began on the first full-scale plutonium production reactor in the world at Hanford, Washington, United States.

It is worth remembering that the biggest “the Italians are useless” man was Rommel himself. He seldom gave them any credit when it was due and if they were involved anywhere a setback happened, blame was laid at the door of the Italians.

By now the convoys supplying the Axis in Tunisia were being hammered night and day. The Luftwaffe tried to supply their forces using Ju-52 aircraft flying at sea level. The RAF’s reaction was to fit extra fuel tanks to their Spitfires which gave them five and half hours in the air. Very few Ju-52s reached their destination.

© well_chuffed 2022