THE BATTLE OF MARETH: 20TH TO 27TH MARCH 1943
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.
7. FORWARD TO TUNIS! DRIVE THE ENEMY INTO THE SEA!”
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!