Combined Arms: Lessons from Kasserine Pass

What the heck. It's Memorial Day Week, and I'm all the time thinking about old battles whenever I think about football. One battle that I think is especially instructive is the Battle of Chourigui, the first tank-on-tank engagement between U.S. and Germany.  It's usually included in the larger Battle of Kasserine Pass, when the U.S. 1st Army was on its (in)famous Run to Tunis, in late 1942. For an account of these early engagements, and the lessons it teaches, I suggest Battle at Kasserine Pass, a master's thesis on the battle, by Maj. Mark T. Calhoun, in 2003. Good reading.

Up to this point, and for a good while after, German forces were considered invincible in the field, with much the same mystique as Napoleon, in an earlier century. German equipment, training, and close coordination of air, armor and infantry, were a potent combination (helped, no doubt from lessons learned in Spain and Poland). And yet, they weren't invincible, as many seemed to think.

There were many valuable lessons offered from this first engagement, and some of them were actually learned by American command.  Others, not so much. Maybe you'll find this entertaining or even instructive.  I know when I'm thinking about football, that phrases such as "The Right 53" always come to mind.  So does the saying "There's more 'n one way to skin a cat," which I throw around a lot.

Folks have a habit of always taking the wrong lessons from the facts before them. This is something that occupies my thoughts quite a bit, wondering when I'm guilty of such and how to get through to others when maybe I think they are. There's a lot goes into a football team.

Stuart Light Tank, from Wikipedia
Stuart M3A1

In the engagement at Chourigui Pass, the U.S. discovered the equipment they had developed between the wars was far inferior to the equipment employed by the enemy. The M3A1 Stuart Light Tank, with a measly 37 mm popgun made a pretty poor showing head-to-head with Panzer Mark IIIs and IVs. These guns couldn't penetrate the front armor of the Mark IVs.

Without going into a lot of detail, suffice it to say that the U.S. Armor raced ahead of its infantry and split into two small forces. One occupied the pass, itself, while a detachment of measly Stuarts set up in defilade position on a back slope. 10 minutes after the blocking force engaged the Germans, half of its 12 tanks were destroyed. But the battle itself came out a draw, because the Germans were so eager to press their advantage, that they ran right past Tuck's small detachment of Stuarts, and quickly lost 9 of their 13 medium tanks to fire from their left rear, where they weren't so invulnerable. This first small engagement was a draw.

Panzer Mark IV

The defilade tactic off of the sacrifice of a few good men, who'd be ordered to plant themselves in the path of German forces and invite the advance, is pretty much all the Americans did, in tank-to-tank combat. Our tankers in those days were sitting ducks head-to-head, and our commanders never hesitated to send our boys in there, so that other guys could attack the Germans from the flanks. Not a very satisfactory tactic for our tanker crews.

But more than just the inferior equipment (As late as 1944, Patton himself didn't see any need to make our tanks more survivable, or carry significantly heavier weapons - although the Shermans used later showed improvements in both). It was all about the doctrine of artillery and infantry punching a hole and light armor attacking transportation and supplies behind the lines. Even after Chourigui (and Kasserine), nobody in the U.S. command thought much about tank-on-tank battle. (If the need arose, they'd just sack a few unlucky tank crews and swarm the enemy from the rear and flanks.)

AP Photo of an older model

But just because the equipment wasn't up to snuff didn't mean that U.S. armored forces couldn't take on Panthers, Leopards and Tigers. They just had to accept heavy losses, which is pretty easy to do over a map, from a warm tent several miles behind the lines.

But I think the most important lesson that it took U.S. forces a LONG time to figure out was how the Germans won engagements by total integration of armor, artillery, infantry and air power. With air superiority and proper coordination with ground forces, your side wins, regardless of how your tanks match up, one-on-one. Proper coordination with air forces gives you better intelligence, not to mention what a pleasing target a tank is for a diving ground support aircraft (although American 50-caliber guns pretty much put an end to Stuka dive-bomb attacks).

But what does this all have to do with football? It relates to how a team concept can surpass the sum of the individuals involved. Our old (old old) friend Mike Vrabel, for instance, because of how he plays with TEAM success in mind, might turn out to be far superior to a much (much much) younger player, with superior speed and quickness. The key is how you've welded your 11 guys into an effective UNIT. And just plugging in thicker armor, bigger guns, or bigger engines is not the answer.

Now I'm not suggesting we sacrifice our older models, but to remind folks of how important the combined-arms aspects, taken together really are. Myself, I'm not in a huge hurry to throw this guy under the bus, just yet. I think he might be the perfect glue to keep this young and learning defense firing on all cylinders, especially during the first quarter of the 2011 season, when coordination of forces is at least as important as blazing speed (especially from that SILB, where I see him playing quite a bit in September/October, while Houston's breaking in).

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Arrowhead Pride's writers or editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of Arrowhead Pride writers or editors.

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