An Army at Dawn:
Scenario Preview, Part Three
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
An Army at Dawn brings the Fourth Edition of Panzer Grenadier to the North African theater, with forty scenarios set in the Tunisian campaign. Here’s a look at the third segment of 10 scenarios from designer Mike Perryman; you can read about the others here, here and here.
Back to Sened Station
1 February 1943
The success of the raid on Sened Station reached fantastic proportions in the mind of Maj. Gen. Lloyd Fredendall, II Corps’ commander. Even now, with the Germans threatening to drive his corps out of the Eastern Dorsals, all he seemed concerned about was launching another attack on Maknassy. The first part of the attack called for his forces to return to the place of the previous week’s success.
The intelligence reports provided to Combat Command D described 250 defenders equipped with four antitank guns and a couple of 75mm field pieces. Despite the inaccuracy of the estimate, the Americans managed to slowly work their way into town before an Italian counterattack drove them out. The Americans came on again and attacked a second time shortly before 1700, securing the town by nightfall.
The Americans are on the attack with a fairly large force on a relatively small battlefield, against Italian defenders well-supplied with support weapons and boasting a company of tough Bersaglieri probably best held back to counter-attack the Americans as the historical commander chose to do.
2 February 1943
Fredendall raged furiously at his subordinates for taking all day to secure Sened Station. “It is of vital necessity for you to get forward and place your infantry on its objective four miles east of Sened Station,” he vented. “Too much time has been wasted already.” The troops captured the ridge line in due course by noon the next day. But could they hold it?
The Americans quickly dug in to repulse the expected German counterattack which arrived in short order. On seeing enemy tanks for the first time some of the Americans broke but others held strong preventing a catastrophe. Nevertheless five panzers broke through and headed west to spread mayhem until confronted by American armor held in reserve. By 1900 the fighting quieted down for the night. When the Americans pulled back the following day the casualties for the drive on Maknassy totaled 51 killed, 164 wounded, and 116 missing.
The Americans face a strong German tank-infantry force and are subject to “tank panic” as a result. This one’s going to be tough for the Americans, who have improved their morale a little from previous battles but are slightly outnumbered and slightly outgunned as they try to hold off the Germans. Plus they face a high-density air attack to open the game.
14 February 1943
Once again II Corps bypassed 1st Armored Division’s commander and arranged the American defenses down to company level. Fredendall and his staff considered Djebels Lessouda and Ksiara the keys to defending Sidi Bou Zid but they were too far apart to control the ground between them or offer protection to each other. This necessitated sending tanks forward each morning with orders to send up a flare in case of an attack. Artillery would then fire on predetermined coordinates to slow the attackers while Lt. Colonel Louis V. Hightower’s 3rd Battalion of the 1st Armored Regiment advanced to meet the intruders.
Things didn’t go right from the beginning for the Americans, as the forward tank commander overslept and did not fire a flare when the Germans made their move. The Wehrmacht soldiers quickly isolated the Americans on Djebel Lessouda and left them for later. As they began to swing south Colonel Louis V. Hightower received orders, as planned, “to clear up the situation.” He found his tanks outnumbered and outgunned, and quickly retreated back to Sidi Bou Zid with just a dozen tanks, leaving the rest to cover the supply train’s retreat. The armored force suffered heavily with only seven of the battalion’s 52 Shermans surviving the day. However, they did extract a toll on the enemy while the supply train slipped safely away and Combat Command A’s headquarters moved.
This scenario is going to be great fun. It’s a tank battle with the Americans starting spread all over the place against a fairly strong German battle group built around a couple of platoons of Tiger tanks. Then both sides get tank-heavy reinforcements and the real battle begins.
14 February 1943
While 10th Panzer Division swung to both sides of Djebel Lessouda they left the Americans on Djebel Ksiara alone. The 21st Panzer’s arrival changed all that. The boys on the hilltop were in for a hot time: placed much too far from the other American forces to expect any support, the outnumbered, outgunned and out-generaled troops on Djebel Ksiara were on their own. Fredendall had not visited the front lines and remained in his headquarters 80 miles from the fighting.
Fredendall refused Col. Thomas Drake, the American commander on the scene, permission to retreat when he requested it at 0800. Drake sent some of his force four miles west to Garet Hadid to set up a fall back location. Fredendall ordered Drake to plan a counterattack to help the beleaguered troops on Djebel Lessouda, but the appearance of Kampfgruppe Schutte put an end to that nonsense. Even when half of the advancing German tanks veered off to take Sidi Bou Zid from the south things didn’t look much better. But the Americans managed to hold their ground while delaying the attack on Sidi Bou Zid. By the time the sun set the Germans had inflicted heavy casualties on three of the five Combat Command A battalions, and completely surrounded two more.
This is a smaller scenario than its twin, with half the map boards in play and less than half the forces, most of the infantry. The Germans are going to have a much tougher task here: their edge in numbers is not great, and the American morale continues to improve.
15 February 1943
The Allied army commander, Dwight Eisenhower, convinced himself that the German main thrust would come in the north due to a misunderstanding of an ULTRA intercept. He compounded his misunderstanding by belittling the II Corps’ intelligence officer during a visit to II Corps. With Eisenhower fretting over a nonexistent threat in the north, this meant that II Corps had to devise their own solution to the very real problem in the south. Knowing Hightower’s earlier counterattack lacked enough strength to dislodge the enemy, II Corps planned a stronger one to reach the trapped infantry on Djebel Ksiara and Garet Hadid. The commanders of Combat Commands A and C, accompanied by a number of other officers and newsmen including the famed Ernie Pyle, climbed Djebel Hamra to watch Lt. Col. James Alger’s Sherman battalion teach the Germans a lesson.
The watching Americans learned a lesson they did not expect. A small German blocking force, heavily equipped with antitank guns, pinned the Americans in place, though Company D managed to briefly enter Sidi Salem before being forced back out when panzers fell on both their flanks. When summing up the day’s action the tank battalion’s diary noted that out of the 52 Shermans sent forward, “none returned.” The infantry managed to avoid encirclement and pulled back at 1800 hours. Headquarters advised the infantrymen they had been sent to rescue to make their way back to friendly lines as best they could. In two days the Americans suffered 1,600 casualties, while losing 29 artillery pieces, 57 halftracks, and 98 Shermans for negligible gains. The commanders were not learning very quickly.
The Americans seem to have all the advantages here; the game will ride on how the German player manages his or her reinforcements (two balanced tank-infantry groups) and how the American player reacts to their arrival. The Americans have a lot of armor to throw around, but the Germans have some powerful anti-tank weaponry.
15 February 1943
In their haste to take Sidi Bou Zid, the Germans chose to screen rather than eliminate the opposition on Djebel Ksiara on the 14th. With their primary task accomplished, they turned their attention to repelling the expected counterattack. Next, having decisively defeated the counterattack, they returned to the American holdouts on Djebel Ksiara.
This time the Germans underestimated their opponents. Instead of the company they expected to displace from the hilltop, almost a full battalion awaited them on Djebel Ksiara. The Germans spent little time pressing the attack once they realized their mistake, but the Americans remained isolated. The following night the 1,900 men of the 168th Infantry Regiment defending Djebel Ksiara and Garet Hadid attempted to break out and reach friendly lines. Only one officer and a few men managed to make good their escape.
The German attacking force is just about equal to the American defenders, so it will have to rely on its armor support to carry the day in this, literally, uphill struggle.
16 February 1943
Despite propaganda to the contrary, the Wehrmacht ranks boiled with personnel rivalries and a lack of strategic planning. General Hans-Jürgen von Armin launched Operation Spring Wind early and without informing higher headquarters. Nor did he coordinate with the Afrika Korps as ordered. This meant that the overwhelming success of the previous two days could not be leveraged into a strategic victory. Even on the 16th, instead of aggressively exploiting their gains around Sidi Bou Zid, the Germans piddled away the whole morning dealing with the remnant Americans on Djebels Lessouda and Ksiara who were attempting to reach friendly lines. Not until the afternoon did a small force try to force their way into Sbeitla.
German intelligence reports revealed that the Allies planned to abandon Sbeitla, but Gerhardt’s battle group found it strongly held. The American rear guard claimed 15 panzers destroyed while the Germans admitted to losing five. With Sbeitla still in American hands, First Army decided to fight for the strategic town instead and dispatched Combat Command B to join the defense. As if II Corps interference wasn’t enough, now Army headquarters was involved in ordering 1st Armored Division’s subordinate units around.
Both forces are heavy on tanks, but the American Shermans are going to have a hard time with the late-model Panzer III and Panzer IV tanks. The Germans have to fight their way past the Americans, which is going to require some close-quarters fighting to clear the way.
Combat Command B Holds Steady
17 February 1943
The newly-arrived Combat Command B established positions by mid-afternoon three miles east of Sbeitla, while Combat Command A tried to disengage from the enemy and cover Combat Command B’s left flank. The rear guard had done a fine job of buying them time, but First Army continued to equivocate about how strongly Sbeitla was to be held, if it would be abandoned to the enemy and if so, when the pullout was to occur.
A reconnaissance by fire the night before caused panic in Combat Command A, and a number of its troops, including their commander, retreated without orders. American engineers doing demolition work sent most of their men toward the fight. A scratch force under Lt. Col. Hightower held their ground. The sudden appearance of a large number of enemy vehicles, coupled with the loud demolition explosions, convinced the Germans that a counterattack was being launched, so they paused their own attack until daylight. Combat Command B, having seen almost constant combat since late October, fought off repeated the German assaults. Meanwhile, First Army and II Corps headquarters disagreed all night about abandoning Sbeitla until the corps finally received an order to hold until at least 1100. They held until 1430 before starting an orderly withdrawal that held the enemy at bay for another two and a half hours before retiring. Ernie Pyle was on hand to witness this “damned humiliating” retreat and afterwards wrote “You need feel no shame . . . American soldier . . . The deeper he gets into a fight, the more of a fighting man he becomes.” While written to appease readers back home, the next two weeks would prove him right.
The Germans wield a powerful tank force here, built around Tiger tanks but including many late-model medium tanks as well. The Americans are going to have a difficult time stopping them, though the victory conditions reward a sacrificial effort to do so.
17 February 1943
Due to increasing German pressure the Allies decided to abandon the Eastern Dorsals and southern Tunisia. But after the Germans occupied the abandoned Gafsa, the constant bickering between German army commanders over how to best exploit this windfall almost derailed the whole operation. Meanwhile, the Americans left behind a small task force at Feriana with orders to hold until at least 1800 hours in case they decided to move forward again.
Ordered by First Army to abandon Feriana and withdraw, II Corps commander Lloyd Fredendall instead instructed Col. Alexander Stark to leave a force there to hold off the German advance, supported by a battery of heavy artillery. The Germans ran over, around and through the small task force, which proved too weak for its assigned task. By noon the Germans were racing for the Allied airfields at Thelepte.
This is just a small scenario; the Germans need to brush past the blocking force as quickly as possible while the Americans need to get in their way and inflict as many casualties as possible regardless of their own losses.
Kasserine Pass: Djebel Semmama
19 February 1943
After wasting the 18th debating their strategic options, the Germans decided to head for Le Kef. To do that they needed to secure a pass through the Western Dorsals. Kasserine Pass offered serious advantages to the defender but it lay close by the forward German positions and appeared not too well guarded. Before contesting the pass itself Djebel Semmama needed to be subdued. At 0930 the Americans saw the Germans step off toward their perch.
The German infantry managed to wrestle most of the eastern slope from the Americans of Task Force Stark. However, a tenacious defense of the rest of the hilltop kept the Americans on the summit at the end of the day. Stark certainly could have used the troops, tanks and artillery thrown away by Fredendall’s foolish deployment at Feriana two days previously.
Another small scenario, this is an infantry fight with the Germans trying to slog their way uphill and eject the Americans from their elevated positions. Neither side cares about their casualties, so this is going to be a close-quarters bloodbath.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.