Battle of Medenine (Operation Capri) and Overflanking Mareth Line (Operation Puglist and Operation Supertcharge II) - The Memoirs of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery

After Rommel had pulled out from the First Army front I thought it likely it would be my turn to be attacked next: and it was. We got indications of movement down to our front. I brought up the New Zealand Division from Tripoli and got ready to receive the blow which I was sure would come. I was not very strong on the ground at the time because I had taken certain risks in answer to Alexander’s cry for help. Any setback we might receive would upset the preparations for our own attack against the Mareth Line, which was timed for about the 19th March. Still, one cannot always get what one wants in war; the great thing is to turn every mischance into an advantage. Perhaps this might prove another Alam Haifa, a defensive battle which would help the offensive one which followed.

On the evening of the 5th March all indications pointed to an attack the next morning.


As expected, Rommel attacked early in the morning with three Panzer divisions: this attack was beaten off. He attacked again in the afternoon; again he was driven back. Our tank losses were nil; our total casualties in personnel were 130 all ranks. The enemy lost 52 tanks, all knocked out by the anti-tank guns of the infantry, except seven which were destroyed by a squadron of Sherman tanks. I fought the battle in the same way as I had at Alam Haifa. I made up my mind that Rommel’s attack would be made in a certain way and I planned to receive it on ground of my own choosing. I refused to move to counter any of his thrusts. I refused to follow up when Rommel withdrew. And I proceeded with my plans for our own offensive when the battle was over. It lasted only one day. As Alam Haifa had helped Alamein, so Medenine was to help the Battle of Mareth. The 52 tanks which Rommel lost at Medenine would have been of great value to him at Mareth.



The Mareth Line had been constructed by the French in Tunisia as a defensive position in case of Italian aggression from Tripolitania. It was very strong naturally, and had been improved artificially by the French, and later by the Germans. Its eastern flank rested on the sea and its western flank on the mountain massif of Matmata. A switch line ran north-west from Matmata towards El Hamma.

The country to the west of the Matmata hills was reported to be an impassable “sand sea,” stretching away to the west for many miles. The French told me that any outflanking movement through this sand sea was impossible. I decided that a frontal attack against such a strong position would be unlikely to succeed by itself, for there was little room for manoeuvre between the Matmata hills and the sea. The main feature of my plan must be an outflanking movement to the west of the Matmata hills: to be synchronised with a limited frontal attack.

The problem then was: could a route through the sand sea be found?

It will be remembered that I had launched reconnaissances into this area from the Agheila area before Christmas. A passable route was found by the Long Range Desert Group and the plan then took shape.

My plan in outline was as follows:

(a) 30 Corps to attack the eastern flank with three divisions. This would be a relentless pressure, with the right flank on the sea. Its object would be to draw the enemy reserves down to this part of the defensive line.
(b) To launch the New Zealanders, heavily reinforced with other units, round the western flank and to “break-in” behind the Matmata massif.
(c) To hold 10 Corps in reserve with two armoured divisions (1st and 7th), available to fling in on either flank as opportunity offered. This corps was so positioned that it protected all my “vitals,” and secured the important ground.
(d) The whole operation to be supported by the concentrated and sustained effort of the air striking forces.

The flank move by the New Zealanders was a force of 27,000 men and 200 tanks. It was assembled on our southern flank, without detection by the enemy, by dawn on the 18th March. On the night of the I7th-18th March we carried out certain preliminary operations on our right flank to mislead the enemy about where the real blow would fall. These operations were successful but during them 201st Guards Brigade ran into very extensive minefields which were defended by Germans: hand-to-hand fighting took place and the 6th Battalion Grenadier Guards lost 24 officers and 300 men. The Guards Brigade fought magnificently that night and made a notable contribution to the final success which was to come our way.

The attack of 30 Corps on the right flank was timed to begin at 10.30 p.m. on the 20th March. It was clear to me on the morning of the 20th March that the enemy had discovered the New Zealand force lying concealed on my southern flank; I therefore ordered it to abandon any further attempt at concealment and to go “like hell” northwards and get on with the job: which it did. I issued the following message to the Army on the 20th March:

“1. On 5th March Rommel addressed his troops in the mountains overlooking our positions and said that if they did not take Medenine, and force the Eighth Army to withdraw, then the days of the Axis forces in North Africa were numbered. The next day, 6th March, he attacked the Eighth Army. He should have known that the Eighth Army NEVER WITHDRAWS; therefore his attack could end only in failure-—which it did.
2. We will now show Rommel that he was right in the statement he made to his troops. The days of the Axis forces in North Africa are indeed numbered. The Eighth Army and the Western Desert Air Force, together constituting one fighting machine, are ready to advance. We all know what that means; and so does the enemy.
3. In the battle that is now to start, the Eighth Army: (a) Will destroy the enemy now facing us in the Mareth position. (b) Will burst through the Gabes Gap.
(c) Will then drive northwards on Sfax, Sousse, and finally Tunis.
4. We will not stop, or let up, till Tunis has been captured, and the enemy has either given up the struggle or has been pushed into the sea.
5. The operations now about to begin will mark the close of the campaign in North Africa. Once the battle starts the eyes of the whole world will be on the Eighth Army, and millions of people will listen to the wireless every day—hoping anxiously for good news, and plenty of it, every day. If each one of us does his duty, and pulls his full weight, then nothing can stop the Eighth Army. And nothing will stop it.
6. With faith in God, and in the justice of our cause, let us go forward to victory.

This battle has been described by several writers and it seems unnecessary to tell the detailed story again. The major tactics may be summarised as follows:

(a) The battle opened with a hard blow on our right.
(b) When this blow went in, a strong outflanking movement was set in motion on our left.
(c) The blow on the right made good progress at first.The threat here became so serious to the enemy that the available German reserves were drawn in to meet it. These reserves counter-attacked, drove us back, and we lost all our gains. We were back where we had started two days before. I well remember the Commander 30 Corps (Leese) coming to tell me this at 2 a.m. on the morning of the 23rd March. It is interesting to note that the crisis of the battle of Alamein also took place at 2 a.m. (on the 25th October). Leese was very upset. I said: “Never mind, this is where we’ve got ‘em; but you must keep the German reserves tied to your corps front.”
(d) I immediately decided to hold hard on the right, but to maintain such pressure there that the German reserves would be kept in that area. I also opened a new thrust line in the centre against the Matmata hills, using the 4th Indian Division.
(e) I then sent the 1st Armoured Division from my reserve round to join the New Zealand outflanking movement, which was gathering momentum.In short, I decided to reinforce success. I sent H.Q. 10 Corps (Horrocks) to take charge of this left hook, and while this reinforcement was moving to the left flank, we tee-ed up the blitz attack which was to go in when it arrived.
(f) The enemy saw what was happening and tried to move his reserves from opposite our right to stop our now very powerful left thrust. They were too late. The blitz attack went in twenty minutes after the last vehicle of 1st Armoured Division had arrived, and it swept everything before it.By 9 a.m. on the 28th March we were in full possession of the famous Mareth Line, after a battle lasting only one week. Having received a setback on our right, we recovered quickly and knocked the enemy out with a “left hook.”

We never lost the initiative: without which in war you cannot win. The enemy was made to commit his reserves in desperation and piecemeal, as at Alamein; we committed ours in one concentrated blow on a narrow front. The outstanding feature of the battle was the blitz attack on the left flank, in daylight, on the afternoon of the 26th March. It was delivered at 4 p.m. with the sun behind it and in the enemy’s eyes. A dust storm was blowing at the time, the wind also being behind us and blowing the dust on to the enemy. The enemy was making ready for our usual night attack; instead he was assaulted in the afternoon with great ferocity.

The attack was simply conceived; it was dependent on surprise, on complete integration of land and air forces, and on a willingness to take risks and to face casualties.

The air forces played a notable part in the attack, using twenty-two squadrons of Spitfires, Kitty bombers and Hurricane tank-busters, operating in the area beyond the artillery barrage; in that area every vehicle, and anything that appeared or moved, was shot to pieces. Brilliant and brave work by the pilots completely stunned the enemy; our attack burst through the resistance and the battle was won. In this attack we took 2500 prisoners, all Germans; our own casualties were only 600, and we lost only 8 pilots.

This blitz attack was the most complete example of the close integration of land and air power up to that time. It should be noted that there were grave misgivings at the headquarters of the Tactical Air Forces; Coningham considered the risks were too great and an officer was sent over to try and stop the use of air power in this way. But the A.O.C. Desert Air Force (Harry Broadhurst) decided to accept the risks and refused to listen to the emissary. When it was all over and had been proved a great success with very small losses, he received many congratulations from Air Headquarters in Tunisia; and even from the Air Ministry!

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It was obvious that the end of the war in Africa would now come quite soon.

The Eighth Army had only to burst through the Gabes gap and join hands with the American forces; the remaining enemy would then be hemmed in, and in an ever diminishing area.

We had a stiff one-day battle on the line of the Wadi Akarit north of Gabes on the 6th April, where we took another 7000 prisoners. On the 8th April, we joined up with the American forces moving eastwards from Gafsa. We were now taking prisoners at the rate of 1ooo a day, and no army can lose men at that rate for very long and remain efficient.

On the 10th April we captured Sfax. General Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff, Bedell Smith, had visited me in. Tripoli in February and we had discussed the problem of how soon the Eighth Army could join up with the First Army north of Gabes. I had said that I would be in Sfax by the 15th April. Bedell Smith said that if I could do that, General Eisenhower would give me anything I liked to ask for. I said I would do it, and would like an aeroplane for my personal use. Bedell Smith agreed, willingly.

On the morning of the 10th April I sent a message to Eisenhower asking for the aircraft. It arrived on the 16th April, a B17 (a Flying Fortress). It made me a thoroughly mobile general. Later, I got properly ticked off by Brooke, the C.I.G.S., for my action in the matter. He said that it was all a joke on the part of Bedell Smith and that Eisenhower was furious when I demanded the aircraft. I explained that it was very far from a joke on that day at Tripoli when the statement was made. I don’t think Bedell Smith had ever told Eisenhower about it, and he was suddenly confronted with having to pay. Brooke added that the R.A.F. could well have provided me with an aircraft; they certainly could, but didn’t—in spite of my repeated, requests. Eisenhower produced it at once. And, being the great and generous man he is, he arranged that I was provided with an aircraft from American sources for the rest of the war; furthermore, he did this for my Chief of Staff also. He saw the need and acted promptly.