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“Soft and Weak” Americans Try Stopping Nazis in 1943

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
February 13, 2023 3:01 am

“Soft and Weak” Americans Try Stopping Nazis in 1943

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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February 13, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, our next story from Stephen Ambrose begins in early 1943—America's first battle during the Second World War.

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Download the Roto app or check out This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people. To search for the Our American Stories podcast, go to the iHeartRadio app or wherever you get your podcast. Stephen Ambrose was one of America's leading biographers and historians. At the core of Ambrose's phenomenal success was his simple but straightforward belief that history is biography.

History, he always said, is about people. Stephen Ambrose passed away in 2002, but his epic storytelling accounts can now be heard here on Our American Stories thanks to those who run as his state. Our next story begins in early 1943 during the Second World War.

Here's Stephen Ambrose with a story. The first battle the United States Army fought in the Second World War began on St. Valentine's Day of 1943 at a place called Casser and Pass in North Africa. And the way that battle went, all this unconditional surrender business that we had been demanding a month before was just talk because the U.S. Army did not do well at the Battle of Casser and Pass. There were a lot of reasons why it didn't do well. First of all, the training hadn't been rigorous enough. The army and the men in the army, the army officers who were doing the training, the old regular army officers who were the cadre around which this miracle took place to transform the American army from less than 200,000 men in 1940 to an army of 8 million men in 1943. This cadre of officers who trained these guys, they thought they were putting them through the toughest training that you could put somebody through and indeed they thought it was up to the standards of the SS or the Red Army. And the men thought that they were at the absolute peak of physical condition and that they had been very well trained and they were ready to take on the Wehrmacht and they all found out they weren't. They were not well trained, they were not in good shape. They didn't know their weapons, they didn't know their tactics, their fire control was miserable, their communications between units was sadly lacking. Even their knowledge of the equipment was short of what was required. The battle thus provided a lot of lessons, some of which were on the need for training and more of it and more realistic training and twice as hard as it had been and three times and even four times as hard. A lot of what was learned was in terms of techniques.

A lot of what was learned was about the shortcomings of intelligence and thereby hangs a bit of a tail. In 1939, as Poland was falling, some Polish mathematicians managed to get an Enigma machine out of Poland. Now the Enigma was a coding machine that had been developed in the 1920s and used in some European businesses, taken over by the Nazis, the patent for it, in 1933 when they took power, and it became their encrypting machine for World War II. They were certain that it was the best encoding machine in the world and they were right.

They were sure that it was unbreakable and they were wrong. The British, with the help of this machine that the Poles had got and with the help of Polish mathematicians, managed to break the Enigma code in the same way that the Americans had broken the Japanese purple code. And so through the war, the allies were listening in on all German radio traffic, which meant that whenever the Germans were in a situation and they didn't have secure telephone lines and had to use the radio, we knew what they were saying to each other. Sometimes you only got a part of the message. Sometimes the decoding of the message took so long that by the time it had been accomplished, the information was useless.

Sometimes the information hurt rather than helped. And that's the story of Kasserine Pass. As Rommel retreated from Alamein all the way across Libya, he finally got into Tunisia in January of 1943. Meanwhile, Eisenhower's forces, British and American, coming in at Casablanca, Iran and Algiers were driving on Tunisia. The Germans had ferried troops from Italy down through Sicily into Tunis and had established a front line. Rommel, coming up from Libya, encountered the Americans for the first time. Rommel was as much a psychologist as he was general officer. He thought it was- if Germany was going to win this war, it was going to have to impose an inferiority complex on the American army.

And we're going to have to do it right now in this first encounter. So he proposed to launch an attack spearheaded by what was left of his Africa Corps armor at a place called Kasserine Pass. It would break through the American lines and then go all the way up to Algiers and take Algiers, and thus cut all of these British and American forces off from their supplies and force a general surrender. But more importantly, even from Rommel's point of view, impose this inferiority complex on the American troops. He thought that it would be relatively easy to do because he, like many German officers, thought of the Americans as soft, effeminate even. An attitude that was very much strengthened when his patrols began coming back and said, my God, boss, they delivered- can you believe this? They delivered turkeys for Christmas dinner for these guys on the front lines. Once somebody came back and brought in a box and it had a chocolate cake in it that had been baked in Georgia and sent overseas and the Americans had given it space on planes and brought it over to North Africa and delivered it to a kid on the front lines. And from the point of view of Rommel and his officers, these guys ain't ready for war at all.

And you've been listening to the great Stephen Ambrose telling stories like no one else can tell. Our first battle, it didn't go well. We weren't prepared. We were humiliated. We had a lot to learn about almost everything.

The more superior trained forces of Rommel thought they were, well, giving us a beat down and getting inside our heads and thinking we could not fight. Moreover, they gleaned some perhaps wrong conclusions by seeing how we treated our soldiers flying in turkeys and flying in good food from overseas. When we come back, more of this remarkable story of American resilience and so much more here on Our American Stories. Lee Habib here, the host of Our American Stories. Every day on this show, we're bringing inspiring stories from across this great country, stories from our big cities and small towns.

But we truly can't do the show without you. Our stories are free to listen to, but they're not free to make. If you love what you hear, go to our American stories dot com and click the donate button. Give a little give a lot.

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Let's pick up where we last left off. And from the point of view of Rommel and his officers, these guys ain't ready for war at all. So he proposed to launch his attack. But Hitler thought, no, that's not right. Rommel doesn't have the fuel supplies that will carry him all the way to Algiers.

He's going for too big a solution. And the Americans down here are too weak and too ill organized in any case. The threat is the British up here in the northern part of Tunisia, threatening Bezerte and the city of Tunis.

They need to be driven back. And so Hitler decided we'll have an offensive up here in the north commanded by General von Arnim. And radio messages came from Rome to Rommel in Tunisia, ordering him to send his troops up north. Those messages were intercepted, decoded, came to the Allied intelligence headquarters. And there, a British general who is the G2, the head of intelligence, his name was Machler Fereman, wonderful British name. Machler Fereman read these intercepts and said to Eisenhower, General, they're going to be attacking in the north. We'd better move our strength up there.

I said, well, I don't know. He said, you know, the reports that we're getting from our patrols down around Kasserine is that Rommel's building up down there. I think we ought to leave this strength down here in the south.

No, Machler Fereman said, absolutely. I've got the message right here. Rommel's going to be moving those men up north and von Arnim's going to attack.

And you'd better get your strength up north. And Eisenhower did. And Rommel just disobeyed orders. And right there is the trouble with intelligence.

It can be absolutely accurate, right up to date. The real thing, this is the order that Rommel gets. What are you going to do with the guy who disobeyed the order? The intelligence is worthless.

It's worse than worthless. It causes you to make bad dispositions, which Eisenhower did. Rommel's initial successes in Kasserine were staggering. An entire armored regiment is gone. Trucks abandoned, tanks abandoned, tanks blown up, men shot up, men taken prisoner. The commanding general of the American forces, the second corps it was, his name was Fredendall, Lloyd Fredendall, had before the battle been digging in his headquarters behind the front lines. He had all of his engineers working on blasting holes in the rock and getting way down, way, way down deep into the earth. So he'd have a secure headquarters.

People were embarrassed when they saw it. Eisenhower saw it and he said, Lloyd, you've got to get out into the front lines once in a while. And he said, let me remind you, Lloyd, generals are expendable just like anything else in this war. If it leads to victory, Fredendall kept digging.

And when the attack came, he cracked under the pressure. And within the first 12 hours, he turned the battle over to his regimental commanders and went down into his cot deep into the bowels of the earth and took a 24-hour nap. We were discussing whether a 1943 invasion of France would have worked or not, could Roundup have happened. It's always seen to me that the answer has to come down finally, no, because that is it wouldn't have worked because the commander of the American forces and what would have been a 1943 Operation Overlord would not have been Dwight Eisenhower, it would have been Lloyd Fredendall. He was a wonderful officer.

General Marshall thought the world of him. It was assumed he was going to be one of the American stars, if not the Eisenhower of the Second World War. But when the test came, he cracked.

And there's no way of ever knowing in advance who's going to crack and who's going to be able to handle the strain. And as I've said, it wasn't just Fredendall who did badly in this Catherine Pass and Eisenhower himself has a lot to answer for because he was, after all, the responsible officer. He realized that and he realized the value of what had been learned. Our soldiers are learning rapidly, he wrote to Marshall at the height of the battle. And while I still believe that many of the lessons we are forced to learn at the cost of lives should have been learned at home. He was absolutely right about that. The training should have been a lot tougher. I assure you that the troops that come out of this campaign are going to be battle-wise and tactically efficient. He said the men are now so mad they're ready to fight.

They didn't like getting kicked around by the Germans. All our people, he went on, from the very highest to the very lowest have learned that this is not a child's game and we are ready to get down to business. Now some might have said this is a little late in the game to be getting down to business. This is January or February of 1943. The Russians have been getting down to business for a long time, as well as, of course, the Germans.

Anyway, now we're ready to get down to business. He called George Patton from Morocco to come out and take command of the Second Corps. He dismissed Fredndahl and sent him home in disgrace. And he brought George Patton in from Morocco. When Patton arrived, I gave him advice that he might well better have given to himself because he had had doubts about Fredndahl when he saw him digging in the ground like that. Well, here's his own analysis. You must not retain for one instant, he told Patton, any man in a responsible position where you have become doubtful of his ability to do the job.

This matter frequently calls for more courage than any other thing you will have to do, but I expect you to be perfectly cold-blooded about it. And here he is referring to something that did hurt the U.S. Army in the Second World War. The officer corps before the war was so tiny, you know, of senior officers. Everybody knew everybody, and they were all friends, and they'd all been to parties together and gone hunting together and served together in Panama or the Philippines or Fort Bragg or wherever. And they hated to have to dismiss in disgrace their friends. But I said this matter calls for more courage than any other thing you'll have to do, but you have to be perfectly cold-blooded about it. Officers who fail must be ruthlessly weeded out, considerations of friendship, family, kindliness, and nice personality have nothing whatsoever to do with this problem.

You must be tough and get rid of the lazy, the slothful, the indifferent, or the complacent. Those were very valuable lessons that were learned and at a relatively small cost. And we did stop finally. Rommel's advance, although the truth of the matter is it was more a case of his running out of supplies, especially gasoline, than anything else that stopped his casseron pass advance. And now the weight of materiel began to make itself feel. Hitler had written off North Africa, Rommel wasn't getting anything. And the United States was pouring the goods into North Africa. A general offensive was undertaken against the von Arnim forces in the north and Rommel's forces in the south, Hitler recognizing that it was going to go under pretty soon and realizing that he had with Rommel a tremendous national asset because of Rommel's incredible popularity in Germany, pulled Rommel out. Rommel also had high blood pressure and other problems. But Rommel was pulled out so that he wouldn't be there for the humiliation of the final surrender and so that he would be available for the defense of France when the time came. And in May, May 8th of 1943, Tunis fell to General Bradley's forces and to the Axis had now been cleared out of North Africa. And you've been listening to Stephen Ambrose tell the story of the casseron pass, the early difficulties, and then ultimately the victory that led to our victory in North Africa and on to bigger things and harder things in Northern Europe.

And great job on the production as always by Greg Hengler. And my goodness, what we learned about intelligence, they thought they had good intelligence until they found out they didn't. And that can happen to all of us, right? We were certain about things we think we know until everything, well, is different than what we know. And there was a humiliating defeat, but they miscalculated, the Nazis did, how Americans would bear defeat. And that was we got angry and we got better and we got tougher. And then in came Patton and in came a person who could do the job. And my goodness did he. The story of our first victory, our first loss, and so much more.

The Northern Africa campaign as told by Stephen Ambrose here on Our American Stories. So the price I see is my unique price. That's right.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-19 13:14:09 / 2023-02-19 13:22:37 / 8

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