Operation Morgenluft, 16-18 February 1943

Operation Morgenluft (16-18 February 1943) was Rommel's contribution to a joint operation with von Arnim's Fifth Panzer Army, and saw his forces expel the Americans from Gafsa and then advance north to Kasserine.

By the start of 1943 there were two Axis armies in North Africa - von Arnim's Fifth Panzer Army in northern Tunisia, and Rommel's Panzerarmee Afrika, approaching southern Tunisia from Libya, after their defeat at the second battle of El Alamain. Rommel was heading for the Mareth Line, originally built by the French to guard against any Italian invasion of Tunisia, while von Arnim was concentrating on stopping the Allied forces advancing from Algeria. After the first direct Allied advance on Tunis failed late in 1942, the focus of his attention moved south, to the Eastern Dorsal Mountains. These ran north-south parallel to the coast in the area south of Tunis, and early in the campaign most of the key passes were held by the French. There was a real danger that the Allies could advance east, and reach the Tunisian coast between Rommel and von Arnim, preventing them from joining up (and leaving Rommel without access to any major ports).

In order to reduce this threat von Arnim launched Operation Eilboete (18 January-3 February 1943), and successfully expelled the French from the main passes across the Eastern Dorsals. The Allies still held the area between the Eastern and Western Dorsals, but not in any great strength.

On 4 February Rommel suggested that von Arnim's offensive could be expanded to push the Allies even further back. If von Arnim attacked west from Faid Pass towards Sbeitla, while Rommel attacked towards Gafsa, then the most advanced Allied troops would be trapped between two pincers, and might have to retreat into the Western Dorsal mountains. At best this might lead to a major attack north behind the Allied front line, at worst it would remove any threat to Rommel's position in the Mareth Line.

Panzer III Ausf L in Tunisia
Panzer III Ausf L in Tunisia

This attack was approved, although the original aims were limited to Sbeitla and Gafsa. Von Arnim's part of the attack, Operation Frühlingswind, began on 14 February. The first line of Allied defences, at Sidi Bou Zid, just to the west of Faid, were soon overrun, and on 16 February he advanced owards Sbeitla. This position fell on 17 February, and the Amerians withdrew towards the Kasserine Pass.

Operation Morgenluft (Morning Air) Rommel's part of the offensive began on 15 February. He found Gafsa undefended - after the start of the attack on the previous day General Anderson, commander of the British 1st Army, had ordered General Fredendall to withdrawn from the town and strengthen the right flank of his defensive line, at Feriana. The retreat took place on the night of 14-15 February, and triggered some panic at Feriana. The easy capture of Gafsa didn't entirely help the Axis cause. In the original plan von Arnim was to have used 21 Panzer Division in his attack, and then transferred it to Rommel for the attack on Gafsa. Because the Allies hadn't defended Gafsa, it had fallen while von Arnim still had control of the division, and he refused to hand it over to Rommel, claiming that it wasn't needed. Instead he began moving one of his Panzer divisions back towards the northern front, which he believed to be the more important.

Rommel's column reached Feriana on 17 February. He found the Americans in the middle of a mass evacuation of the area. There were two airfields at Feriana, and the Americans destroyed 60,000 gallons off fuel and 34 damaged aircraft. The chaos forced Fredendall to move his Corps HQ, but the move was badly handled, and he was out of contact with the rest of his army for much of the day.

On 18 February reconnaissance elements from Rommel's and von Arnim's forces met at Kasserine, to the south of Kasserine Pass (crossing the Western Dorsals). By now Rommel was convinced that a larger victory was possible, and suggested continuing the attack towards Tebessa, to the north-west of Feriana. A successful advance in this direction had the potential to get behind the entire Allied line in Tunisia, and potentially cause a major collapse amongst the inexperienced Americans. Perhaps to his surprise the general idea was approved, although the target was altered to Le Kef, further to the east. As a result the main thrust of the new Axis attack would be made in the Kasserine pass, the location that gave its name to the entire battle.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (13 June 2017), Operation Morgenluft, 16-18 February 1943 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_morgenluft.html

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