Sunday, April 4, 2021


Only a few historians remember an episody of World War 2: the Axis attack inside Algeria during the famous Kasserine Pass Battle of February 1943. This was the only time when Algeria (in 1943 a french territory nicknamed "Algerie Francaise") was invaded -even if in a minimal "area"- by the Italian-Germans under Field-Marshal Rommel leadership.

Official US Map showing with red arrows the Centauro attacks toward Tebessa (and Bou Chebka) in eastern Algeria, on the red "Line of February 24"
The American force in the region was the II Corps, spearheaded by the 1st Armored Division. In charge of the Americans and operating semi-autonomously was Lieutenant General LLoyd Fredendall. He chose to command his corps from Tebessa, some 80 miles to the rear of his forward units (after the debacle of Kasserine Pass battle, Fredendall was relieved of command of II Corps by General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in North Africa, and replaced by Major General George Patton on March 6, 1943).

In the Axis, Rommel began to cherish the dream of a spectacular action of all his forces towards Tebessa to try to reverse "the bulk of the allied troops from Algeria". The "Desert Fox" (nickname of Rommel) tried to force Kasserine's Pass in order to finally point to Tebessa. However, Hitler and his generals thwarted these plans as they were reluctant to embark on an action of this magnitude. Rommel was furious: he contacted the Italian Supreme Command which only on the evening of February 18 gave the go-ahead for the operation with italo-german armored divisions. However, the attack had to be conducted towards Thale and El Kef instead of Tebessa. According to Rommel, this decision was "an incredible example of myopia" The British Sixth Armored Division with numerous contingents of US infantry and artillery in support was positioned in Thala.

On the 20th, the german 10th and 15th Panzer Divisions with the italian 131st Armoured Centauro division conquered the Kasserine Pass inflicting a very heavy series of losses on the American troops. Over 4,000 Americans were taken prisoner, 200 wagons and hundreds of vehicles were burned, illuminating the African night, while the Axis units hoarded all kinds of rations and armaments that these inexperienced soldiers had at their disposal. Eisenhower enraged by the great defeat replaced Fridendall with the energetic Patton. Complete victory was now within reach: American troops faltered and fuel depots and warehouses began to be burned in the rear (mainly at Tebessa).

In terms of kilometers, the Kasserine Pass battle represented the largest defeat of US forces in all World War II, pushed back 140 km in a single week. But on this occasion, however, Rommel decided -for reasons that are still debated by historians- on late February 23/early February 24 to retire and return to the frenzied "Mareth line" in southern Tunisia.

Centauro tank destroyed, inspected by US troops after the Kasserine Pass battle

The Italian "131st Armoured Centauro Division" attack

The Centauro Division was composed of the:

131st Tank Regiment (13th, 14th & 15th Armored Battalions, with M14/41 tanks)
5th Bersaglieri Regiment (14th, 22nd & 24th Bersaglieri Battalions)
131st Artillery Regiment
132nd Anti-Tank Artillery Regiment
“Lodi” Recce Battalion (with AB41 Armored Cars)

On February 19, 1943 the Centauro Division & the German divisions were ordered by Field-Marshal Rommel to capture Kasserine Pass from elements of the U.S. 1st Armored Division. On February 20th, during the opening attack on the key American position of the town of Djebel, the 5th Bersaglieri Regiment made a frontal assault on the U.S. positions that lasted most of the morning and finally conquered the position, loosing the Regimental commander ( colonel Bonfatti) in the process. This action cracked open the Allied defenses, opening the road to Thala and Tebessa. By midday the accompanying Axis armored units poured through the pass, routing U.S. forces into the worst U.S. defeat of the Tunisian Campaign. The 5th Bersaglieri Regiment was complimented for their achievement by General Bulowius, commander of the "Assault Group" toward Tebessa, who sighted their actions as the instrumental event of the Axis victory.

In the way to Kasserine, on February 15 the famous general Rommel captured 50 tons of fuel and lubricants that the Americans had failed to destroy when partially defeated near Kasserine Pass. But even though he was pleased with his spoils, he was looking farther up the road, past Kasserine toward Tebessa, where the US II Corps was headquartered and where there were enormous dumps of fuel and supplies. If he captured Tebessa, his advance could swing all the way to the city of Bône on the eastern Algerian coast, cutting off the British—who were advancing on Tunis from Libya—from their supplies in Algeria. Kasserine Pass was the key to making these triumphs real.

Indeed on February 19, 1943, two Italo-German battle groups probed the American line of defense around the Kasserine Pass. "Kampfgruppe Deutsches Afrika Korps" (the German Afrika Corps Battle Group), including elements of the Italian Centauro Division, approached that morning from the west and, after skirmishing there, crossed the front of the American line, dismounted from their trucks in the foothills of Djebel Semmama, and prepared for the assault.

Exploratory Axis groups went from Thelepse and Feriana toward Tebessa, but stopped in the Bou Chebka area (inside Algeria territory, just a few miles from Tebessa), that was strongly defended by the Command Combat B (CCB).

In the afternoon the second battle group, from the 10th Panzer Division, arrived from the east and launched the attack on the American line. By early evening, the US 19th Engineer Regiment, defending Highway 17, was being infiltrated by groups of enemy infantry. A new German weapon, the Nebelwerfer six-barreled rocket mortar (soon to be nicknamed “Screaming Meemie” by the Americans), was hitting the engineers and the tanks and tank destroyers supporting the American line. Under fierce artillery bombardment, the line gave way during the night, with men at all points running away from the bombardment. The roads leading out of the north of the Kasserine Pass and the foothills on either side were beginning to fill with fleeing American soldiers.

Axis forces also made a breakthrough on Highway 13, where the Italians of the Centauro Division spearheaded the attack. In the early morning hours, the Italians pressed their offensive, broke through the remains of the American line, and continued up Highway 13 toward Tebessa.

At Tebessa (in the border of eastern Algeria, just 10 miles from Tunisia), preparations were being made to shift Fredendall’s headquarters out of harm’s way and to destroy the dumps of fuel, ammunition, and supplies in the nearby US Speedy Valley base area. Morale was slipping badly, including that of Fredendall himself.

A "Semovente"75/18 of the Centauro. Next to it, can be seen Field-Marshal Rommel (with his typical hat) on his desert military vehicle

US General Harmon, en route to the battlefield, would later comment on his journey to the front: “I have never forgotten that harrowing drive: It was the first—and only—time I ever saw an American army in full rout....... Jeeps, trucks, wheeled vehicles of every imaginable sort streamed up the road toward us, sometimes jammed two or even three abreast. It was obvious there was only one thing in the minds of the panic-stricken drivers—to get away from the front, to escape to someplace where there was no shooting.”

Harmon reached Tebessa and met Fredendall, who asked if the command post should be moved. Harmon said it should stay where it was. Fredendall then handed Harmon a typed sheet that assigned Harmon command of the 1st Infantry Division and the British 6th Armoured, the latter of which Fredendall did not control.

The next day the Kasserine Pass fell. The bersaglieri of the "Centauro" division brilliantly carried out the final assault. 2450 valid prisoners against 192 fallen: the Americans were harshly defeated for the first time in the WW2 African battleground, suffering the loss of many who were made POWs. Kesselring met Rommel on the hill conquered and the two marshals walking in the middle of an impressive amount of abandoned material, said: “We have a lot to learn from them,” said Rommel pointing out to the perfection of the American Supply/managerial system. Kesselring then answered: "but they too have something to learn from us!".

The 131st Centauro Armored Division, which at the time had only 23 tanks M14/41 and some "Semoventi" 75/18, and the Bersaglieri of the 5th and 7th Regiment, engaged in harsh close combat with the Americans (Colonel Luigi Bonfanti, commander of the 7th, heroically fell in combat receiving the 'Gold Medal'), while advancing toward Tebessa and the Bou Chebka Pass.

Rommel wrote in his memories that the "5th bersaglieri" of the Centauro Division won the US defenses in the Kasserine Pass and opened the road to attack Thalia and Tebessa, but lost his commander (Bonfanti).

But on the western side of the valley, Command Combat B (CCB) was blocking the road to Tebessa. Elements of the Centauro Division hit a CCB outpost early on the morning of February 21, and after a brisk fight, the outpost withdrew. The Afrika Korps group continued up Highway 13. The CCB defenders held firm that long day against repeated Italian and German attacks. That night "Panzergrenadier Regiment Afrika" (Afrika Korps motorized infantry) tried to flank CCB to the south near the Bou Chebka Pass, but in the darkness it ascended the wrong hill. Luck was beginning to swing toward the Americans.

Indeed after having broken through the defenses of the Kasserine Pass, FieldMarshal Rommel sent two groups toward the Algeria border: part of his forces along the road to Thala and another part towards the road to Tébessa. Apparently undecided on the best direction in which to exploit the success, the German "Desert Fox", after consultations with general Kesselring, who on 20 and 21 February stayed in Tunisia to try to coordinate the offensive and to push to attack in turn towards Pichon, kept the two groups divided (also separated by the course of the Hatab river -located in the middle of Kasserie Pass- whose main bridge had been destroyed by the American engineers). He remained with the main group of the 10th Panzer-Division of General von Broich marching with about 30 tanks, 20 self-propelled and two motorized battalions on the northernmost of the two roads, towards Thala and Le Kef, while an Italian-German mixed force (made mainly with the Centauro) under General Bülowius took the southern route towards Haïdra and Tébessa.

The next day, February 22, found the Italians and Germans of the second group pushing against two stubborn lines of Allied defense. They spent the day pounding away at Command Combat B, which was defending the road to Tebessa. But the group had been somewhat dispersed by the previous day’s maneuvers and could not pry the defenders out of their positions at Bou Chebka area.

Map showing the location of Bou Chebka, the place inside Algeria reached by the Italian-German Axis troops during the Kasserine Pass battle

Moreover, we must not forget the value of the “Grado” battalion of the Centauro: it had had an extremely difficult task; it had to conquer and then unblock the very armed “Pass” of Tefifila, which American and French troops were trying to defend at any cost; the conquest of that Pass, in fact, opened the way to central Algeria. It was an obligatory passage, between Jebel Alfa and Jebel Bou Dabbous.

After a strenuous struggle, which cost some losses to the "Grado" that also captured two entire Algerian units, that Pass with skilful nocturnal action was conquered, thus giving the 10th German armored division the opportunity to advance. It is worth mentioning the heroic behavior of Lieutenant Rodolfo Pampalone Morisani, who was the battalion's liaison officer and came from the 'Grenadiers of Sardinia'. In concert with the commander of the "Grado" battalion, Lieutenant of Vascello Ernesto De Brazzi, Lieutenant Morisani organized and conducted the night attack that surprised the enemy defenders of the western sector of the Pass of Tefifila, constituted, as mentioned above, by the two harsh hills of Gebel Alfa and Bou Dabouss (for weeks in vain attacked by the Superga Division, by Bersaglieri and by a unit of Italian Tunisian volunteers). In fact, these were well fortified positions, which rose to over 800 meters above sea level, dominating the extensive plain of Kairouan where low dunes rose that gave only a very modest shelter and were the only starting point for the attackers. The conquest of that Pass unlocked that stagnation situation and allowed the German 10th division to approach the outskirts of Thala (that was temporarily occupied).

Finally, the Axis forces (5th Bersaglieri, a Semovente group from Centauro and 15 Panzer) launched another assault on the U.S. position on the late morning of the 22 February toward Bou Chebka. Although the American defenders were pressed hard the line held and, by mid-afternoon, the U.S. infantry and tanks launched a counterattack that broke the combined German and Italian force. More than 400 Axis prisoners were taken as the counterattack was pressed into the Axis positions on late February 23. Rommel decided to stop the fightings for the Kasserine Pass area on February 24.

The battle was was a "tactical" victory for the Axis troops, but it was the last they obtained in Africa. According to US historian Brian John Murphy, the Centauro division overran a part of the US forces defending Highway 13 during the Battle of the Kasserine Pass: "Axis forces also made a breakthrough on Highway 13, where the Italians of the Centauro Division spearheaded the attack. In the early morning hours, the Italians pressed their offensive, broke through the remains of the American line, and continued up Highway 13 toward Tebessa."

The Centauro division on March 10, 1943 had only 30 combat-ready units (2 "semoventi" 75/18, 18 tanks M14 and 10 "autoblindo" AB41): on April 7, 1943 -after other "desperate" battles in Tunisia in which lost nearly all the remaining men and armaments- the ''131st Armoured Division Centauro'' was dissolved.


1) Video of the "Centauro Division" (made in July 1942, just before the Centauro was sent to north Africa):