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COMMAND FAILURE: Lloyd Fredendall and the Battle Kasserine Pass

According to Harmon, Fredendall is a physical and moral coward.”—Major General George S. Patton Jr., March 2, 1943 diary entry

Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall famously was reputed to have, whether real or metaphorically, a “black book” in which he kept tabs on junior officers he judged has having promise. For the most part, his judgment was justified for almost all of the officers in his list became successful field commanders during World War II. The key word here is “almost” because for as great as his ability was for identifying talent, it was not infallible. Case in point: Major General Lloyd Fredendall.

When Marshall was cleaning out the “dead wood” of senior commanders shortly after he became chief of staff, two of the older generals he did not put out to pasture due to their age being above his cut-off, were Fredendall and George Patton. Like Patton, Fredendall was an excellent trainer of men. And, like Patton, Fredendall was a Marshall man of whom great things were expected, with Marshall describing Fredendall as “one of the best.” On November 12, 1942, Lieutenant General Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of Operation Torch, for whom Fredendall commanded the Central Task Force landings at Oran, wrote to Marshall, “I bless the day you urged Fredendall upon me and cheerfully acknowledge that my earlier doubts of him were completely unfounded.” But by February 1943 at Tunisia, Fredendall’s reputation was in ruins, described by historian Carlo d’Este as “one of the most inept senior officers to hold a high command during World War II.”

What went wrong? The short answer is: everything. Historian Steven L. Ossad’s study of Fredendall’s actions in Tunisia included a five-point condemnation: Fredendall “failed to understand his mission,” “he violated several basic principles of command embodied in American doctrine,” “he ignored the profound benefit that comes from the leader’s appearance of personal bravery,” “he forgot that self-control is an absolute prerequisite for command,” and “a commander cannot make fundamental tactical mistakes in the field and expect to survive.”

Fredendall was a Francophobe and an Anglophobe ill-suited to wage coalition warfare, a micromanager who bypassed the chain of command—giving orders as far down as company level. A coward and a bully, he allowed animus with subordinates to affect his judgment and undercut their authority, and, finally, staring defeat in the face at Kasserine, he tried to pin the blame on others.

The Allied Tunisian campaign in the west got off to a bad start. A fragmented command structure, a poorly equipped French corps, and American inexperience contributed to German ground success in January 1943. Eisenhower had a chance to set things right, and he fumbled the opportunity. Though he fixed the command situation by having Fredendall and French General Alphonse Juin report to British First Army Lt. General Kenneth Anderson, he did not order a concentration of the scattered armor units of the American 1st Armored Division, Eisenhower suggested they be used to conduct raids in the south. He also failed to take action regarding the poor defensive placement of units even after being told of such concerns by commanders in briefings at 1st Armored Division and Combat Command A headquarters and inspections of the front lines.

Meanwhile, instead of paying attention to what was happening on his front, Fredendall focused on the construction of his headquarters located at least seventy miles (some accounts claim one hundred miles) from the front. A battalion of engineers was blasting a series of tunnels deep in the rock face of a ravine to construct a bombproof headquarters. Called Speedy Valley, troops referred to it as “Lloyd’s very last resort” and “Shangri-la, a million miles from nowhere.” Unlike Eisenhower, Fredendall never visited the front, content to direct deployments based on map readings. His orders, issued over the radio, were a combination of slang and obscure phrases designed to baffle any enemy monitors. Unfortunately, subordinates were equally baffled. The following was a typical example:

“Move your command, i.e., the walking boys, pop guns, Baker’s outfit and the outfit which is the reverse of Baker’s outfit and the big fellows to M, which is due north of where you are now, as soon as possible. Have your boys report to the French gentleman whose name begins with J at a place which begins with D which is five grid squares to the left of M.” ((Trouble in River City, and then some!))

On February 14, three hours after Eisenhower had inspected American positions at Faïd and Maizila passes, German forces containing 140 tanks attacked in the Battle of Sidi Bou Zid in which Patton’s son-in-law, Lt. Colonel John Waters, was captured. Fredendall collapsed, blaming others for the growing disaster. On February 20, Eisenhower ordered Major General Ernest Harmon, commander of 2nd Armored Division, to be Fredendall’s deputy corps commander. When Harmon arrived at Speedy Valley, Fredendall handed Harmon a note authorizing him to take charge. Then he went to bed.

Harmon stabilized the front, a situation aided by the fact the Germans were retreating, though he didn’t know it at the time. Upon returning to Eisenhower’s headquarters, he told Eisenhower that Fredendall was “no damn good” and should be relieved. After Harmon rejected the offer of II Corps command, Eisenhower chose Patton, and Fredendall was sent home—to a promotion to lieutenant general and a hero’s welcome.

To say that Fredendall got off lucky is an understatement. Above all, he benefited from timing. The battlefield failure of American troops in their first action against the German army coming so soon after the political firestorm over theater commander Lt. General Dwight Eisenhower’s agreement with Admiral Jean Darlan authorizing the former Vichy official to administrate the French Northwest African territories under Allied control led the U.S. Army to do everything it could to squash further bad press.

So, instead of a court-martial or demotion, and in order to keep home front morale high, Fredendall was awarded a third star and given a hero’s welcome. But his career was effectively over. He spent the rest of the war in stateside training assignments, retiring in 1946.

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