Sooner or later the raw U.S. forces that had arrived in North Africa with the Torch landings were going to come up against some of the most experienced fighting troops in the world. The 21st Panzer Division had been in the Desert since March 1941, formed from men experienced in Poland and France, and knew every tactical trick in the book and more. They also had some formidable weapons. They were long experienced in drawing the enemy onto well dug in 88mm guns. Now that gun, capable of penetrating the armour of a Sherman tank from over a mile away, was mounted on their latest tank, the Tiger 1.
Captain Ernest Hatfield, an aide to Major General Orlando Ward, commander of the 1st Armored Division, was one of the first to learn of the breakthrough:
Awakened at 0700 hrs by telephone call from CCA. Germans are attacking Lessouda in force with tanks and artillery. Stukas bombing their CP. Tanks (30 German) surrounded Lessouda hill and overran B Battery of 91 st Field Artillery. Thirty tanks striking south from Lessouda toward Sidi Bou Zid – unknown number of tanks striking toward us at Sbeitla … Fighting is very hard and bombing is ongoing. Our air support isn’t too good.
Ernest C Hatfield, Personal diary, February 14, 1943 see Vincent M. Carr dissertation.
The official British summary for the day states:
In Central Tunisia a heavy German attack was launched at dawn on the 14th westwards from Faid. The thrust was in two directions, the main strength being directed north-west of Sbeitla and a lighter column driving south-west towards Gafsa.
In their northern thrust the Germans met with initial success. By 0715 hours, 20 of their tanks had reached a point five miles north-east of Sidi Bouzid while the village itself was subjected to dive-bombing. By noon 50 enemy tanks with infantry and artillery had, in spite of a small U.S. counter-attack, reached the north-west slopes of Djebel Lessouda and were advancing south-west to the Faid-Sbeitla road.
Throughout the morning of that day a heavy armoured battle took place in the Sidi Bouzid area, and in result the U.S. armoured forces were compelled to withdraw to the south-west, having suffered substantial tank casualties, largely through bombing.
The German attacking force was estimated to consist of between 90 and 130 tanks, including about six Mark VI heavy tanks. Twenty enemy tanks were put out of action.
By the end of the day U.S. infantry forces were still holding positions on the high ground north and south-east of Sidi Bouzid …
At dawn on the 15th, U.S. armoured forces launched a strong counter-attack southward from the area north-west of Sidi Bouzid. A long and inconclusive battle continued all day, resulting at 1600 hours in our forces consolidating their positions north and south of Sidi Bouzid.
From the Military Situation Report for the week, as reported to the British War Cabinet, see TNA CAB 66/34/21.
It was just the beginning of some confusing engagements that would continue for the following few days.