Staff Sgt. Paul Grube’s puny M3 Lee tank, with its 37-millimeter gun, was no match for German Gen. Erwin Rommel’s Panzer IVs and Tiger tanks with their 88-millimeter main guns.
Despite the disadvantage at the Battle of Kasserine Pass, which took place in North Africa in February 1943, the now 85-year-old held his own against overwhelming odds.
It was the first time American ground forces fought Hitler’s fabled tank commander during World War II. The green American troops were badly beaten by the German general who would eventually receive “The Desert Fox” moniker from friend and foe alike.
Grube was a gunner in Company C, 4th Tank Battalion, 1st Armored Division during this crucial encounter in the mountains of Tunisia. He was 22 years old at the time.
“We got a call to make a night run in our tanks to Kasserine Pass. We were down south eight hours away by tank,” the old soldier recalled. “We got there the next morning and sat in the valley in our tanks waiting for the Germans to advance.
“”Over on our right was a French Foreign Legion artillery unit with four guns. We sent the Third Platoon, with five tanks, over to our left. We held the center with the remaining nine tanks,” he said.
“The valley is a couple of miles wide and maybe six to 10 miles long. The Germans were on the other side of the hill, we couldn’t see them,” Grube said.
“It was starting to get dark and everything was real quiet. We were sitting out there on the desert with no trees or nothing to camouflage us,” he said. “I asked the company commander ‘s permission to check and see if the Foreign Legion and their guns were still there. I jumped out of my tank and headed toward where they had set up their guns. They were gone, they had pulled out and left us.
“I looked over toward the five Third Platoon tanks and they were all on fire. The Germans had spotted them and fired on them,” he said. “The rest of our tanks were in a position the Germans couldn’t see.”
When Grube returned to his tank he told Lt. Berlinkee, his tank commander, they had better fade into the darkness and pull out, too.
“Lt. Berlinkee said, ‘I just got orders from our company commander that we have to stay here regardless what happens and hold the valley. This is where we win or lose right here.’
The company commander moved his tanks back a little from the position in the open valley they had been holding.
“Lt. Berlinkee was always out front. He was an All American quarterback at North Carolina State before the war,” Grube said. “I didn’t like being out front all the time, but he was in charge of our tank and that’s where we were.
“As darkness overtook us we could hear the Germans coming. They started shooting bazookas at us. I fired down the road with my gun but never hit anything,” Grube said. “We backed up to a wadi, a watering hole in the desert. We were still up front, and I was firing blindly as the Germans advanced toward us, but hit nothing. I told the lieutenant the Germans weren’t on the road. They must be moving toward us but 150 feet or so off the road.
“I told the driver, ‘When I start shooting you start backing up. If you don’t back up as I shoot about the third shot, the Germans will get us,” he said. “When the lieutenant gave me the word to shoot, I started shooting my gun right and left. I fired shell after shell. I must have hit one of their tanks because we could hear the Germans hollering and crying in the dark.
“The next morning the lieutenant told me to look out the back of our tank. I looked out and there were 52 tanks from Combat Command D spread out behind us on the valley floor.
That was a good feeling because by that time we were down to seven tanks. The Germans had knocked out half the tanks in our company.”
Combat Command D engaged Rommel’s Panzers, but Grube’s unit stayed out of the battle. That night, what remained of his company retreated to the hills to get resupplied.
The next morning Grube and his unit returned to the valley and the fight. As they got back in line to renew the battle, the U.S. Air Force flew over and “dumped a ton of stuff on the Germans.”
After waiting in position for things to heat up again, nothing happened. It was at this point in the battle his unit was given new tanks. They received the superior and heavier Sherman tanks with its 75-millimeter main gun. It was still no match for the superior German tanks, but it was better than the M3 Lee tanks they had been fighting with.
The only way they could knock out a German tank with their Shermans was to hit one on the tread or from the rear. If they shot at a German tank from the front, their 75-millimeter projectile would not penetrate the armor on the front of a 68-ton tank.
The end result was that the American soldiers usually died in their steel coffins when the German 88-millimeter projectile penetrated the Sherman tank’s light armor.
The Battle of Kasserine Pass was a disaster for the American forces. As a consequence Gen. Lloyd Fredendall was relieved of command. He was replaced by Gen. George Patton, who would become the premier tank commander of U.S. forces during World War II.
About the time Patton assumed command in Tunisia, Grube got up close and personal with the two-star general. Patton was making the rounds of his new command to meet and greet his troops and their officers.
“We were out there in the desert with our tanks setting up on a little knoll. I was standing outside the tank with members of our crew when I saw this Jeep coming toward us. The guy was standing up in he Jeep holding onto the windshield. There were red flags flying from the front fenders of the Jeep with two stars on them.
When he got closer I looked at him and realized it was Paton. He drove up to where we were, walked right by our officers and straight toward me. He was wearing his two ivory-handled revolvers. He was a cowboy all the way,” Grube said with a smile. “He got up to me and I came to attention and saluted.
“‘Cut the crap,’ he barked. ‘Get in the tank.’
“Patton gave me firing orders and I started firing my 75. After a couple of rounds he told me that was enough. He jumped off the tank, climbed back in his Jeep and drove off still standing with flags flying.
“My company commander, came over to me. He told me, ‘Patton said the nicest things about you he even said about anybody. He said ‘You were pretty good, but you needed a little practice.”‘
Grube’s company commander promoted him on the spot from corporal and tank gunner to sergeant and tank commander. Despite the extra stripes and the increase in pay, he always liked being a gunner better than a tank commander.
A few days later his unit headed to El Guettar, Tunisia and another encounter with Rommel’s North Afrika Korps.
“We were all lined up at El Guettar when the Germans showed themselves and started moving toward us. Our commander told us to start backing up slowly. As we were backing up, I looked to my left and saw this new tank with a really long barrel and white star on its side.
“What we didn’t know at the time was, we were the bait to draw the Germans into a trap with the 701st Tank Destroyer Battalion and their new 90 millimeter guns. It was the 701st’s first battle. They out-shot the Germans at El Guettar. It just tickled us to death.”
A short time later, Grube’s company was attacked by 34 Stuka dive bombers.
“I was standing out by my tank trying to figure out how to get it started when this Messerschmitt fighter flew over… I ran around the other side of my tank to shield myself from the machine-gun bullets. As he passed over I thumbed my nose at him.
“He came at me again, and I ran around to the other side of my tank. As he flew over I climbed up into the tank, closed the lid and got into the gunner’s seat. As the Messerschmitt made a third run at my tank, I looked through the gun slit but couldn’t see anything.
“I sat there for a moment and fell asleep. I hadn’t been to sleep in 36 hours. When I woke up it was dark and I thought to myself: ‘Boy, I’m in trouble.’ I finally got my tank started and when I reached my company they were glad to see me.
“It was funny because I ran out of ammunition at Kasserine Pass. At El Guettar, I never fired a shot even thought I was strafed, bombed by German planes and fired at by enemy tanks,” he said.
Grube and the 1st Armored Division, with a little help eventually ran “The Desert Fox” out of North Africa. The 1st Armored went on to take part in the Italian Campaign, fighting at Anzio and Monte Cassino. After two years of fighting, Grube and his tank were in Milan, parked in the main square in front of the cathedral in the northern Italian city.
“I saw thee Italians with nickel-plated revolvers holding a guy with a rope around his neck. As they got closer I realized the men were holding Benito Mussolini, the deposed Italian dictator. American soldiers had been cautioned not to get into fights with Italians, so I didn’t try and stop them.
“About that time we were ordered to check out a situation at the end of the nearby street. When we returned to the main square in our tank, Mussolini was hanging by a rope around his neck from a second-floor balcony,” Grube said.
A few days later the Germans surrendered, and the war in Europe was over.
Staff Sgt. Paul Grube flew home in a C-54 transport. Like 16 million other men and women who fought in the Second World War he was discharged from the service and went on with his life.
Paul Grube of Port Charlotte, Fla. served in North Africa and Italy for two years during World War II. He received the following commendations:
Puple Heart, Five battle stars for fighting in five major battles with the 1st Armored Division: Tunisia, Poe Valley, Naples-Foggi, Rome-Roarno and North Apennines, European-American Theater Ribbon, American Defense Ribbon, Good Conduct Ribbon.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Sept. 11, 2006 and is republished with permission.
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