Monday, April 15, 2013

Jimmy Tiller -- Erwin Rommel & Kasserine Pass

I met Jimmy Tiller six weeks ago when I went to visit him at River Oaks Place in Lenoir City, Tennessee. River Oaks is a rest home. Jimmy’s real estate listing had just expired on his lake house so I asked him to give me the opportunity to sell his place. I’m a real estate broker. We talked back and forth for a week, and he agreed. Jimmy told me he was in World War Two. I mentioned that I have a military blog and I would like to include him. He said okay.

Yesterday I called to tell Jimmy I have an offer on his lake property. I called three times. Finally I called the front desk asking where he was. The lady on the phone told me I would have to talk with his sister. She couldn’t give out information. I asked her to contact the sister for me. An hour later Barbara called, Jimmy died two days ago.

I liked Sergeant Tiller. This is my tribute to my veteran friend.

October 23 – 11 November 1942:  Bernard Montgomery defeated Erwin Rommel at the Battle of El Alamein in Egypt. Montgomery was portrayed in the press as a great general. That’s not true. Montgomery was a cut above average. Erwin Rommel, the notorious “Desert Fox”, was the great German general.
Montgomery had twice as many tanks with 200 more in reserve, half again as much field artillery, twice the armored cars, three times the anti-tank guns, fighter aircraft were about equal, and 195,000 Allied personnel versus 116,000 troops comprised of Rommel’s Italian and German forces. Rommel was short on fuel, ammunition, and just about everything else. Still, it took the plodding Montgomery two and a half weeks of constant fighting to break through Rommel’s defenses.

Rommel had lost 500 tanks, 1,000 guns, and 75,000 men, killed or captured.

Rommel retreated west out of Egypt across the Libya desert into Tunisia where he dug in behind the Mareth Line, a defensive fortification built by Vichy French forces. After receiving re-enforcements from Sicily, Rommel regrouped setting his sights on Tunis, Tunisia’s capitol and a key strategic goal for both the Axis and Allied forces. General Rommel determined the weakest point in the Allied lines was at the Kasserine Pass, a two mile wide gap between Tunisia’s Dorsal Mountains defended by green American soldiers.

Fighting around the Pass began in December when the German general in Tunisia, Jurgen von Arnim, launched an attack to link up with Rommel’s retreating forces withdrawing through Libya.
Allied command was a confusing hierarchy of British, French, and American generals. General Lloyd Fredendall commanded this convoluted army 70 miles behind the lines in a fortified concrete bunker. Erwin Rommel was out front directing his Panzer IVs and 88 mm Tiger tanks the whole time. The Allies suffered a major defeat at Kasserine due to lousy command decisions, and stupid rules of engagement.

Rommel lost 2,000 men. The Allies lost 10,000, 6,500 of them Americans killed or captured. American artillery slowed Rommel’s advance toward Tunis, so his assault force turned back to face Montgomery advancing on his flank. That was Rommel’s last victory in North Africa. General Eisenhower sacked the incompetent Fredendall, replacing him with General George S Patton. The fortunes of war changed with Patton in the forward echelons.

Jimmy’s battalion was in the middle of the fighting trying to stop the Afrika Korps. They were overrun and many of them captured. Jimmy said the most difficult part of being a prisoner was lack of food. He explained although the guards didn’t mistreat the prisoners, there was never enough to eat.

“They didn’t keep it from us.” he told me.  “They didn’t have anything to eat either.”

Jimmy died before we could talk further about North Africa or Korea and Vietnam. He did tell me he served in Korea with the Army, and later on in Vietnam. He retired after 30 years as a sergeant major.
He was a brave soldier, and a patriotic soul.

I asked him earlier what it felt like facing Rommel’s panzer tanks.

“We knew they were coming because you could see dust rising over the hill. Then we heard that awful squeaking their tracks made.  It was scary. I thought we were goners. Our guns had very little effect on the big Tiger tanks. Then they overran my position.”

I made reference to the people we have running our country today. Jimmy shook his head.

“Disgraceful,” he said. “Disgraceful bunch of incompetents.”

Good Friday 2013
I attended Jimmy’s wake tonight. He looked peaceful lying there in his summer suit. It was raining. The rain reminded me of what they taught us recruits at Parris Island in 1957, night and rain are the soldier’s friends.

Jimmy Tiller is out there somewhere in the dark standing guard over our Republic.