The Battle of Sidi Bou Zid was a World War II battle that took place during the Tunisia Campaign. The battle was fought between forces of Nazi Germany and forces of the United States. The German forces included the 10th Panzer Division and the 21st Panzer Division of the Fifth Panzer Army commanded by Colonel General (Generaloberst) Hans-Jürgen von Arnim. The American forces included elements of the II Corps commanded by Major General Lloyd Fredendall. The battle was fought around Sidi Bouzid in central Tunisia.
The battle of Sidi Bou Zid was part of the Tunisia Campaign, a series of battles fought between Axis forces and Allied forces for control of Tunisia. The Axis forces consisted primarily of German and Italian units. The Allied forces consisted primarily of American, British, and Free French units.
The Allied effort to capture Tunis in late 1942 following Operation Torch had failed and since the year end a stalemate had settled on the theatre as both sides paused to re-build their strength. Hans-Jürgen von Arnim commanded the Axis forces defending Tunisia. By this time, his command was strengthened to become the Fifth Panzer Army (5.Panzer-Armee). Von Arnim chose to maintain the initiative gained when the Allies had been driven back the previous year by making spoiling attacks to keep his intentions hidden.
In January 1943, the German-Italian Panzer Army (Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee) under command of Erwin Rommel (also known as Desert Fox) had retreated to the Mareth Line, originally a French line of defensive fortifications near the coastal town of Medenine in southern Tunisia. They thus linked up with von Arnim. In the Sidi Bouzid area there were elements from both armies, notably 21st Panzer Division transferred from German-Italian Panzer Army's Afrika Korps and 10th Panzer Division from the Fifth Army.
Most of Tunisia was in German hands but since November 1942, the Eastern Dorsale of the Atlas Mountains had been under the control of the Allies. The Eastern Dorsale was held by elements of the inexperienced U.S. II Corps under Lloyd Fredendall and the poorly equipped French XIX Corps under Alphonse Juin. Fredendall neither visited the front nor considered input from commanders farther forward. He was settled in Tebessa 80 miles (130 km) away. In the absence of clear intelligence as to Axis intentions, Fredendall had dispersed his forces to cover all eventualities. However, this left his units generally isolated and unable to support each other if threatened with a concentrated attack. At Sidi Bouzid he had bypassed his divisional commanders and ordered the defensive dispositions himself, without having seen the terrain in person. Sidi Bouzid was defended by infantry of U.S. 34th Infantry Division's 168th Regimental Combat Team (RCT) commanded by Colonel Thomas Drake and the armor of U.S. 1st Armored Division's Combat Command A (CCA). Fredendall had caused most of this force to be placed in defensive "islands" on high ground which risked them being successively isolated and defeated in detail.
Rommel was very conscious of the threat posed by Allied forces on the Eastern Dorsale if they were to make an eastward thrust towards the coast some 60 miles (97 km) to the east and isolate the two Axis armies and cut German-Italian Panzer Army's line of supply from Tunis.
On 30 January von Arnim had sent 21st Panzer to attack the Faid Pass, held by French XIX Corps. Called to assist, Fredendall had reacted slowly and von Arnim's troops had overcome fierce French resistance and achieved their objectives while inflicting heavy casualties.
At 04:00 on 14 February four battle groups totalling 140 German tanks drawn from 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions and under the leadership of Lieutenant General Heinz Ziegler, von Arnim's deputy, advanced through Faïd and Maizila passes, sites that General Dwight D. Eisenhower had inspected three hours earlier, to attack Sidi Bouzid. The attack started with tanks belonging to the 10th Panzer Division under the cover of a sandstorm advancing westward from Faïd in two battle groups (the Reimann and Gerhardt groups) . Elements of CCA tried to delay the German advance by firing a 105 mm M101 howitzer semi-fixed installed in an M4 Sherman tank. The Germans responded by shelling the American battle positions with 88mm guns. By 10 a.m. the Germans had circled Djebel Lessouda (defended by Lessouda Force, an armoured battalion group commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John K. Waters, George S. Patton's son-in-law) and joined up north of Sidi Bouzid.
Meanwhile the two battle groups of the 21st Panzer Division (Schütte and Stenckhoff groups) had secured the Maizila Pass to the south and the Schütte group headed north to engage two battalions of the 168th RCT on Djebel Ksaira while Stenckhoff headed northwest to Bir el Hafey in order to swing round and make the approach to Sidi Bouzid from the west during the afternoon. Under heavy shelling from the Schütte group, Colonel Thomas Drake requested permission to retreat. This request was denied by Fredendall who ordered him to hold his positions and wait for reinforcements to arrive. The reinforcements never arrived. By 5 p.m. Stenckhoff and 10th Panzer had made contact and the tanks and artillery of CCA had been driven nearly 15 miles (24 km) west to Djebel Hamra with the loss of 44 tanks and many guns. The infantry were left marooned on the high ground at Djebel Lessouda, Djebel Ksaira and Djebel Garet Hadid along with elements of the 1st Armored Division's 81st Armored Reconnaissance Battalion.
During the night US 1st Armored Division's commander Orlando Ward moved up Combat Command C to Djebel Hamra to counter attack Sidi Bouzid on 15 February. However, the attack was over flat exposed country and was bombed and strafed early in the movement and then found itself between the two German armoured Divisions employing more than 80 Panzer IV, Panzer III and Tiger I tanks. They were forced to retreat, losing 46 medium tanks, 130 vehicles and 9 self-propelled guns, narrowly regaining the position at Djebel Hamra. By the evening von Arnim had ordered three of the battle groups to head towards Sbeitla. They were engaged by the battered CCA and CCC who were forced back. On 16 February, helped by intensive air support, they drove back the fresh Combat Command B and entered Sbeitla.
The experienced Germans performed well and caused heavy U.S. losses before the U.S. withdrew on 17 February. The poor performance of the Allies during the actions of late January and the first half of February as well as at the subsequent Battle of the Kasserine Pass led the Axis commanders to conclude, notwithstanding that American units were generally well equipped, they were facing inferior opposition, both in terms of leadership and tactical skills. This became received wisdom among the Axis forces and resulted in a later underestimation of Allied capabilities as units gained experience and poor commanders were replaced.
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