Patton 360

Season 1 Episode 2

Rommel's Last Stand

Aired Friday 9:00 PM Apr 17, 2009 on The History Channel

Episode Recap

On February 20, 1943, the German 10th Panzer tank division is in the Kasserine Pass, Tunisia looking to wipe out the American forces situated one mile north. American forces have been in North Africa for three months but this would be their first real test in combat. 2,000 US troops, supported by four Sherman tanks, thirty six tank destroys and eighteen artillery pieces comprise the American forces with 8,000 German soldiers, one hundred panzers and sixty five artillery pieces. William Harper, who was a member of the American 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion, recalls they were outgunned in every respect and Lawrence Marcus, a Lieutenant, recalls shells exploding all around them. Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, known as 'The Desert Fox', was in command of the German forces and his skill and tactics are legendary. Rommel's key offensive weapon is the Mark IV Panzer tank, which weighs twenty five tons, has three inch thick armor and a 75mm gun. As the tanks close in, the Americans are on the brink of collapse and need a top battlefield commander like Patton.

However, Patton is back in French Morocco planning the upcoming invasion of Sicily and Major General Lloyd Fredendall was in charge of the American forces. Fredendall lacks battlefield experience and is sixty miles away from the front. German panzers punch through the front and the American soldiers retreat quickly more than fifty miles in a massive defeat that led to doubts whether the Americans could stand up to the German war machine. Within a few days, British and American reinforcements slow the German advance and shortly thereafter, Rommels pulls his forces back to shore up his eastern flank. One of the prisoners taken by the Germans during the battle is Patton's son-in-law and after hearing the news, Patton writes a letter to his wife telling her things are going very badly for the troops.

On March 4, theater commander Dwight Eisenhower fires Fredenhall and summons Patton to use his aggressive tactics to turn the tide. Patton starts working on improving the small things that matter to the troops as well improving the morale and discipline of the troops, which included wearing ties, leggings and proper attire. Within ten days, Patton has whipped Second Corps into shape and has them attacking Rommel's troops in a viselike attack with the British 8th Army, led by Bernard Montgomery, attacking from the southeast. Near Tunis, a second British force is bringing pressure to bear on German troops manning an Axis bridgehead.

Patton's 1st Armored Division looks to push through Maknassey while the 1st Infantry Division looks to drive El Guettar. El Guettar is the site of the first action on March 23, 1943 but it is the Germans making the first move with tanks and armored vehicles moving out of the pass and into the valley. William Parker recalls seeing the Germans moving from a position on a hill as the Germans try to spoil the Americans advance. However, Rommel is not in command of the German forces as he has left Africa due to illness.

The new German commander Hans Jurgens Arden has had combat experience before in World World I as well as the Russian front in the current conflict. The Italian commander is Giovanni Messa though the Italian fight spirit does not match their German counterparts.

Patton's men are caught off guard with Lawrence Marcus recalling that he got word that German dive bombers were heading his way to attack the artillery and opening fire on a bomber when the bombs start landing. Patton heads towards the point of the German advance quickly. William Harper recalls Marcus firing at the bombers just as a Stuka plane drops a bomb. Marcus jumped out of the half-track but is hit by shrapnel from the bomb though he survives.

The Panzers grind forward but the terrain poses dangers for them as American infantry and tank destroyers can fire on them from three sides. General Terry Allen and his assistant Ted Roosevelt Junior oversee the American forces until Patton's arrival and the latter has admiration from the troops.

The M3 tank destroyer is the American's main mechanized unit for this battle and weighs ten tons and a 75mm main gun. Today, knocking out dozens of tanks would take very little time given the advances in munitions. In World War II, though, this wasn't the case and the 601st had to fire away at the advancing German tanks with unguided weapons.

A mile and half ahead, part of the 18th infantry regiment has slept atop a ridge overnight before coming under fire from the Germans. Walt Ehlers, who was a member of the division, recalls it was a good defensive position and artillery was called in to stop German half tracks advancing up the hill. However, the observer calling in the fire coordinates makes a mistake in his calculations and the American troops themselves wind up getting fired on as a result.

In the valley, German tanks close in on the American position threatening to flank them but a tank destroyer company blocks the German tanks and reinforcements arrive and German tanks start to be destroyed rapidly. The surviving German tanks retreat and regroup even as German infantry continue to attack the American soldiers in their positions around the valley.

Patton arrives at El Guettar just as the Germans launch a second tank assault. American artillery opens fire on the German tanks with the main pieces of artillery consisting of an M1 155MM piece that can fire a six inch shell up to fourteen and a half miles. The artillery rounds are geared to explode over the enemies heads and creates carnage in the German ranks, which Patton somewhat laments in respect to the German professionalism. In today's battle, Patton would have had to view the battle through an electronic console but for El Guettar, he was able to see everything as it unfolded.

Eventually, the German Panzers retreat for good and Patton is proud of his men beating off the attack without tank support.

Meanwhile, the American tank and infantry forces are bottled up at a mountain pass near Maknassey. The American armored commander is under orders to take Maknassey and the pass but lacks Patton's aggressiveness and does not take the initiative. The Germans reinforce the Italians already there and repel American attacks until a larger number of German troops arrive and bring the area to a stalemate.

Patton arrives in the area and is frustrated by what he sees. Teeford Robuck, who was a member of the 62nd armored Field Artillery division at Maknassey, recalls the division digging in but are vulnerable to return fire. Robuck is at the headquarters manning a radio and could hear the carnage all around him.

With Macknassey stalemated, Patton fires the armored commander and orders one hundred of the tanks there to move south to El Guettar with an eye on smashing the German line in the south.

Under the command of Colonel Clarence Benson, the tank and artillery force has the confidence of Patton publicly though in a private diary entry, Patton hopes the force doesn't get trapped. Benson's force gets slowed down by minefields right away and Patton spurs them on by leading the force at the front in his command car for two miles despite the danger.

Benson's tanks soon come under fire from German flack guns on hilltops a mile away and Hobart Molin, who was a member of the artillery, recalls the sharp crack sound the guns made. American artillery quickly return fire but soon German aircraft start dropping bombs in the area with shrapnel wreaking havoc.

Patton is frustrated and angry by the lack of progress and notes it in his diary. On April 6, Patton and his commanders sense the enemy lines have softened even as word comes that the British have broken through in the north. The Germans pull back to Tunis and the Allied troops take a brief break before the next battle commences.

The Allied forces press against the final German bridgehead but Patton has been recalled to Morocco to plan the upcoming invasion of Sicily. On April 14, Ike writes Patton congratulating him on his ability to get the North African troops back into fighting shape.

Back in North Africa, American forces close in a major German hill fortification known as Hill 609. Entrenched with heavy armaments, the Germans engage the Americans 1st infantry division and the fight goes on for several days. The Americans bring in Sherman tanks to aid the assault and on April 29, the American penetrate the German defenses and take the hill.

Tunisia officially falls on May 9, 1943 and the remaining Axis forces in North Africa surrender on May 13th. The North African campaign have given the American forces believe in their abilities going forward.

As for Patton, his ability to lead and command have been proven and will be needed in the upcoming battle in Sicily.
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