16 November: Failed Offensives

Two different conflicts, two failed offensives in 1863 and 1944, both involving American forces trying to stay ahead of the winter weather.

In east Tennessee in 1863, James Longstreet with about 15,000 men detached from Braxton Bragg’s Army of the Tennessee was trying to make the best of his orders to attack the Federal stronghold at Knoxville, encountered a Federal column near the old haunt of Andrew Jackson at Campbell’s Station on 16 November.  Ambrose Burnside’s 16,000+ men from his Department of the Ohio arrived at the junction of the Concord and Kingston roads southwest of Knoxville.  Burnside’s men were on their way to reinforce the tiny garrison at Knoxville, and fought of an attempted double-envelopment with relative ease, especially since they had been forced-marching for three days were just coming out of march order.  Scholars disagree with the meaning of Campbell’s Station, with some holding that Longstreet could have taken Knoxville with a single rush had Burnside not made an appearance in time.  Others maintain that with Burnside so close behind it seems unlikely that Longstreet would have been able to simply walk unimpeded the next thirty miles (essentially three days march).  Total casualties for both sides was about a thousand men.

On 16 November 1944, Operation Queen, aimed at capturing the Rur (or Roer) River dams in Germany and penetrating the Siegfried line, began.  Despite heavy bombing the offensive was slowed by heavy German resistance, especially in the Hurtgen Forest.  For more than a month the American 12th Army Group under Omar Bradley slogged forward in miserable weather, fighting for every hamlet and patch of trees that reminded some veterans of the Great War.  While the Americans were making steady progress, it was slow.  Still, nothing that the Allies did against the West Wall was easy, and yet Walther Model’s Army Group B was not about to commit their best troops, then being husbanded for the Ardennes Offensive being planned for mid-December.  The result was the steady deterioration of the German’s position and the equally steady decline of American energy and patience.  When the offensive was called off on 15 December when the German counterattack began in the Ardennes, they had not quite reached the dams.   Casualties were about 38,000 for the Americans and probably equal for the Germans.  The most important takeaway for Operation Queen was that the Americans were still making complex plans against sagging but still stolid German defenses.  Further, Allied failure to detect the withdrawal of some of the German’s best mobile formations somehow failed to reach the right ears at the right time.

Today, like Campbell’s Station, the Rur campaign leaves scholars discussing possibilities against realities.  East Tennessee was a thorn in the Confederacy’s side, and after the loss of Chattanooga it became a logistical base for the Union invasion of the Confederate heartland   The Rur dams were important not because they crossed the Rur but because they kept the upper Rhine valley from flooding, potentially blocking and Allied moves into the Ruhr.  Both were defended by pickup units.  Neither fight achieved what was intended.

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Kasserine: The Battlefield Experiment

There’s a great deal of confusion about the first major ground fighting between the Germans and Americans in Tunisia.  There is a distinct impression that it was one decisive, smashing battle, brilliantly executed by Erwin Rommel, the vaunted and fabled Desert Fox commanding the undefeated Afrika Korps, who humbled his primary opponents, American Lloyd Fredendall commanding US II Corps, and Englishman Kenneth Anderson, commanding the Allied First Army.

While Rommel did indeed plan the fight, for once he couldn’t do what he wanted to do.  It was his plan to severely drub the Americans in western Tunisia so he could fight Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army to his south.  But he an his men had been fighting more or less non-stop since September; his desert veterans were mostly gone.  In their place were replacements: capable, but not as savvy as the men who lay across a dozen battlefields from El Alamein to Tunisia.  Rommel himself was ill with a debilitating nasal condition that would compel his evacuation.  Since he failed, after a week of fighting, to completely eject the First Army from the Atlas Mountains, his attack only delayed the inevitable,.  The inevitable it was becoming clear, was the ejection of German and Italian forces from North Africa.
But American battle performance had been abysmal.  The 1st Armored Division’s M 2 tanks were completely outclassed by the German Pzkw IIIs and IVs; the M 3 tank’s riveted hull was poorly protected, even if the 75 mm main gun was better than most German tank guns in North Africa.  American infantry dug slit trenches instead of foxholes, could not (or would not) advance without considerable support, and generally acted like…green troops.
But they did not melt away, as British, French, Polish, Dutch and Russian troops did at first contact with German veterans.  At the end of the battle, a consolidated artillery group under the command of Stafford Irwin was able to pin down enough German assets forward to effectively starve them of ammunition and fuel, halting the offensive.  For the first time, American insistence on firepower and the Anglo/American polar plot fire control system combined with Anthony McAuliffe’s time-on-target barrage technique brought the German attacks to a halt.
As Rick Atkinson made clear in An Army At Dawn, the first clash at Kasserine was a portent of the future.  The Americans may not have been the best infantry in the world, but they were some of the most persistent, and they did have the best artillery fire control in the history of land warfare.  The Americans had fared poorly in nearly every “first battle” in every war they had ever fought.  But at Kasserine, the artillery that would mark their performance in future was consistently superb.