Command Failure: Lloyd Fredendall and the Battle of Kasserine Pass
by Dwight Jon Zimmerman
Introduction by Col Mike Howard US Marines:
“There are no bad battalions, just bad battalion commanders.” Napoleon
The Battle of Kasserine Pass for American military historians is like the Atlantic equivalent of Pearl Harbor in the Pacific … it was a disaster to be debated and studied. There are so many lessons to be learned and applied toward our future. Kasserine Pass was the first significant US Army battle in the WWII Campaign for North Africa. US Marines were holding their own and pushing forward against the Japanese in the Solomon Islands at places like Guadalcanal. The Tunisian Campaign was the US Army equivalent in pushing the Germans out of North Africa. Britain and her coalition of Allies had been methodically driving Rommel and his Afrika Corps westward out of Egypt and across Libya since the Battle of El Alamein in late 1942. The Germans were now in danger of being encircled in Tunisia with US forces advancing from Morocco in the west and British forces in the East. It was February 1943, and Hitler had rushed reinforcements to Rommel, particularly new German Tiger tank units. Rommel decided to strike the Americans hard before the British had advanced to confront him. The German place of choosing was Kasserine Pass, a strategic two mile wide gap in the chain of the Atlas Mountains in west-central Tunisia.
At Kasserine, veteran German units under Rommel rapidly struck inexperienced American II Corps units under Major General Lloyd Fredendall. The latter had been slowly advancing eastward in an unsecure manner. Fredendall assumed that the Germans were virtually defeated in North Africa.
But like a cornered predator, Rommel and his experienced Africa Corps still had a lot of fight left, and they were determined to prove this to the naïve Americans. The Battle of Kasserine Pass was the first major engagement between American and Axis forces in World War. Rommel caught Fredendall by complete surprise. US troops were poorly led and suffered heavy casualties. They were rapidly pushed back some fifty miles. Eventually the US II Corps rallied and was able to stop the German advance.
Kasserine Pass demonstrated a lack of American senior operational leadership in North Africa. It resulted in the United States Army instituting a series of sweeping changes in unit organization and tactical training and use of equipment. But above all, it resulted in Eisenhower relieving Fredendall of his command and replacing him with General George Patton. This has always reminded me of the American Civil War, when Lincoln finally found a General by the name of Ulysses Simpson Grant who would fight and stay focused on pursuit of the enemy.
Command Failure: Lloyd Fredendall and the Battle of Kasserine Pass “Like Maj. Gen. George S. Patton, Maj. Gen. Lloyd Fredendall was “over the hill” – an exception to the cut-off age U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall had for senior commanders. Like Patton, Fredendall was an excellent trainer of men. And, like Patton, Fredendall was a Marshall man of whom great things were expected, with Marshall describing Fredendall as “one of the best.” On Nov. 12, 1942, Lt. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of Operation Torch, for whom Fredendall commanded the Central Task Force landings at Oran, wrote to Marshall, “I bless the day you urged Fredendall upon me and cheerfully acknowledge that my earlier doubts of him were completely unfounded.” But by February 1943 at Tunisia, Fredendall’s reputation was in ruins, described by historian Carlo d’Este as “one of the most inept senior officers to hold a high command during World War II.”
“According to Harmon, Fredendall is a physical and moral coward.” Maj. Gen. George S. Patton Jr., March 2, 1943 diary entry
What went wrong? The short answer is: everything. Historian Steven L. Ossad’s study of Fredendall’s actions in Tunisia included a five-point condemnation:
· Fredendall “failed to understand his mission”
· He “violated several basic principles of command embodied in American doctrine”
· He “ignored the profound benefit that comes from the leader’s appearance of personal bravery”
· He “forgot that self-control is an absolute prerequisite for command”
· Finally, “a commander cannot make fundamental tactical mistakes in the field and expect to survive.”
Fredendall was a Francophobe and an Anglophobe ill-suited to wage coalition warfare; a micromanager who bypassed the chain of command – giving orders as far down as company level; a coward, he allowed animus with subordinates to affect his judgment and undercut their authority; and finally, staring defeat in the face at Kasserine, he tried to pin the blame on others.
The Allied Tunisian campaign in the west got off to a bad start. A fragmented command structure, a poorly equipped French corps, and American inexperience contributed to German ground success in January 1943. Eisenhower had a chance to set things right, and he fumbled
the opportunity. Though he fixed the command situation by having Fredendall and French Gen. Alphonse Juin report to British First Army Lt. Gen. Kenneth Anderson, he did not order a concentration of the scattered armored units of the American 1st Armored Division. Eisenhower suggested they be used to conduct raids in the south. He also failed to take action regarding the poor defensive placement of units even after being told of such concerns by commanders in briefings at 1st Armored Division and Combat Command A headquarters and inspections of the front lines.
Meanwhile, instead of paying attention to what was happening on his front, Fredendall focused on the construction of his headquarters located at least seventy miles (some accounts claim one hundred miles) from the front. A battalion of engineers was blasting a series of tunnels deep in the rock face of a ravine to construct a bombproof headquarters. Called Speedy Valley, troops referred to it as “Lloyd’s very last resort” and “Shangri-la, a million miles from nowhere.” Unlike Eisenhower, Fredendall never visited the front, content to direct deployments based on map readings. His orders, issued over the radio, were a combination of slang and obscure phrases designed to baffle any enemy monitors. Unfortunately, subordinates were equally baffled. The following was a typical example:
“Move your command, i.e., the walking boys, pop guns, Baker’s outfit and the outfit which is the reverse of Baker’s outfit and the big fellows to M, which is due north of where you are now, as soon as possible. Have your boys report to the French gentleman whose name begins with J at a place which begins with D which is five grid squares to the left of M.”
On February 14, three hours after Eisenhower had inspected American positions at Faïd and Maizila passes, German forces, including 140 tanks attacked. In the resulting Battle of Sidi Bou Zid, Patton’s son-in-law, Lt. Col. John Waters, was captured.
Fredendall collapsed, blaming others for the growing disaster. On February 20, Eisenhower ordered Maj. Gen. Ernest Harmon, commander of 2nd Armored Division, to be Fredendall’s deputy corps commander. When Harmon arrived at Speedy Valley, Fredendall handed Harmon a note authorizing him to take charge. Then he went to bed.
Harmon stabilized the front, a situation aided by the fact the Germans were retreating, though he didn’t know it at the time. Upon returning to Eisenhower’s headquarters, he told Eisenhower that Fredendall was “no damn good” and should be relieved. After Harmon rejected the offer of II Corps command, Eisenhower chose Patton.
To keep home front morale high, Fredendall returned to a hero’s welcome and a third star. He spent the rest of the war in stateside training assignments, retiring in 1946.”
Col Howard comment: Short of a preferred Court Martial, Friedendall should have been adversely relieved of command, reduced in rank, and retired from the Army. But WWII US Army Public Relations, political correctness and embarrassment prevented this being done.
DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN, a native of Harvey, North Dakota, was born in 1953. He has written extensively on military-history subjects for American Heritage, the Naval Institute Press, Vietnam Magazine, and numerous military-themed publications. His books include The Hammer and the Anvil and The Vietnam War: A Graphic History. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He published this article February 1, 2013.