443rd AAA Bn in World War II

TUNISIAN CAMPAIGN

GERMAN BREAKTHROUGH AT FAID

General Anderson, 1st British Army Commander, in non-compliance with an order from General Eisenhower, did not bring the 1st Armored Division into a central location, from which it could operate against the enemy, under a single command. Meanwhile, General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps was pouring into Tunisia with General Montgomery’s British Eighth Army, flushed with victory, hard on its heels. Rommel needed more operational room in order to join General Von Arnim’s Northern Tunisia Army. Consequently, the Germans kept punching at the many weak points in the Allied front, trying to hide their intentions and keeping the entire II Corps off balance. By 13 February, American and French forces were thinly spread out in small, separate units that could not possibly provide each other with mutual support.

On Sunday, 14 February, CCA was entrenched between the two key terrain features, Djebel Lessouda and Djebel Ksaira. 443rd Commander Larson and Division Artillery Commander Maraist and two others were having their second cup of coffee at 443rd Headquarters in Sbeitla when over the command radio came the voice of CCA Commander McQuillen saying that the Germans had broken out of Faid Pass and that his units and command post were being surrounded. His transmission ended suddenly. Colonel Maraist left at once for his Artillery Command Center and Major Larson left by jeep for Sidi Bou Sid.

At 6:30 am on 14th February 1943 the enemy had begun shelling the Djebel Lessouda positions and had followed up with a tank attack. Within two hours about 40 Mark III and IV tanks along with towed, high velocity 75 mm anti-tank guns, supported by artillery and infantry, were by-passing Djebel Lessouda on the north. Half of this force proceeded toward Sbeitla. The remainder, joined by 20 other tanks, including some Mark VI heavy tanks coming through Faid Pass, engaged CCA forces that were counterattacking the advance near Lessouda Oasis. The CCA armor was outnumbered two to one by mostly heavier tanks. Waves of heavy enemy bombers began attacking Sidi Bou Sid and and Djebel Ksaira. CCA began smoking the area to provide some concealment to its outnumbered forces. Continuous air attacks continued across the front all day and the Luftwaffe dominated the skies against US XII Air Support Command planes flying from Thelepte Airfields almost 45 miles away.

By mid-morning enemy tanks and infantry began moving on Sidi Bou Sid from north of Djebel Ksaira, and a large number of tanks emerged from Maizilla Pass, south of Djebel Ksaira. In spite of valiant counterattacks by CCA units, heavy casualties were being sustained in both men and equipment. (By 1 pm the 3rd Battalion of the 1st Armored Regiment had suffered casualties of almost 50%). The Allied effort was soon turned into delaying tactics. German tanks and infantry columns were surrounding CCA positions from the north and from the south and were threatening to close a giant pincers movement nearly 10 miles west of Sidi Bou Sid and just short of Kern’s Crossroad. In late afternoon CCA was ordered to withdraw through Kern’s Crossroad (nearly 10 miles west of Djebel Lessouda) and to select rallying points in the direction of Sbeitla. During the day the 3rd Battalion 168th Armored Regiment, continued to maintain a strong defense while practically surrounded on the Djebel Ksaira and Garet Hadid positions. Neither of these positions was overrun.

During the hectic fighting 443rd units were highly effective. Summaries of some actions follow:

Platoon B-3, supporting the 91st Armored Field Artillery Battalion, covered the battalion withdrawal. Two gun-tracks, protecting anti-tank guns, moved north toward Djebel Lessouda and were never seen again. Another gun-track took an armor piercing shell in its gas tank and blew up, killing four crewmen. At least one Stuka was shot down in the action even though enemy tank fire was heavy and vehicles of all types were burning in the column ahead of and to the rear of the gun tracks.

Platoon D-3, Protecting CCA Command Post east of Sidi Bou Sid, discovered in mid-morning on 14 February that CCA had withdrawn without notifying the 443rd unit. Consequently, Platoon D-3, commanded by Lt. Cramer, began moving southwestward on a small trail. The entire platoon was captured in the encircling German armor movement and spent the remainder of the war in German P.O.W. camps.

Platoon A-1 was protecting the 17th Field Artillery Regiment and supporting the 168th Regiment on the southern slopes of Djebel Ksaira. The 2nd Battalion of the 17th was ordered to withdraw to the west, by leap-frogging its batteries, but it was intercepted and wrecked by enemy dive bombers. Platoon A-1 was then moved to Sidi Bou Sid where it shot down two enemy planes. With an increasingly confused situation, conflicting orders being received and continuing enemy shelling, strafing and bombing, Platoon A-1 and Platoon B-4 lost contact with the 17th Field Artillery and decided to move cross-country to Sbeitla under enemy tank fire. A-1’s ammunition truck and a gun-track were blown up before the platoon column reached CCA’s command post on the Sbeitla-Faid road. Twenty-two men were missing although most of them filtered into the 443rd Battalion Headquarters at Sbeitla within 24 hours. Platoon B-4 was with CCA’s supply train three miles south of Sidi Bou Sid and on 14 February was under constant air attack as well as receiving much tank fire. B-4 had two gun-tracks blown up before withdrawing toward Sbeitla. The platoon shot down three enemy planes and nineteen of its men, missing in action, escaped and rejoined the Battalion.

On 14 February American losses were 40 tanks, 15 self-propelled mounts, 7 armored personnel carriers, and many other vehicles. At least 71 men were captured. And for many days following the fighting, long lines of towed, 37mm anti-tank guns could be seen moving to the Allied rear. They had been proven quite useless in action against the heavily armored German tanks and vehicles.

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