Eighth Army’s Greatest Victories - Capture of Tripoli and Approach to Mareth Line , January 1943 , Adrian Turner

Coningham’s fighters and fighter-bombers were much in evidence when Operation FIRE-EATER began on 15 January 1943. Montgomery’s plan to capture Tripoli and rest of Libya , called for two widely separated thrusts, the first one being launched by 30th Corps commanded by General Leese at 0715 as an outflanking movement south of the enemy position. This attack was delivered by 2nd New Zealand Division with 4th Light Armoured Brigade on its left and the bulk of 7th Armoured Division on its right. The attackers encountered strong resistance from 15th Panzer but by evening had destroyed fifteen German tanks, were across the Wadi Zem Zem, and had in fact turned Rommel’s defences.

Meanwhile at 2230, 51st Highland Division attacked down the Via Balbia. Remembering how his control of events after Alamein had been thwarted by poor communications, and considering that the distance between the separate thrusts was too great to allow them to be controlled by one Corps Commander, Montgomery took personal charge of this advance. 51st Highland Division encountered deep minefields and since the Highlanders had suffered heavy casualties at and after Alamein, Montgomery ordered that they proceed with caution – at first. Nonetheless Wimberley’s steady advance, coupled with the threat of being outflanked, was enough to ensure Rommel’s retirement. By dawn on the 16th, the whole Buerat position was in Eighth Army’s hands.

Now that the fixed defences had been passed it was vital that Eighth Army should reach Horns and Tarhuna before its enemies could prepare adequate defences there. Montgomery promptly cancelled all orders for caution, calling instead for ‘great resolution and determination’. Despite the mines, demolitions and booby traps on the coast road and the appalling going facing Leese’s advance, the men of Eighth Army met the challenge. By the evening of the 17th, Leese had captured Beni Ulid, south-east of Tarhuna and due south of Horns, while 51st Highland Division had advanced to within some twelve miles of Misurata.

That night the Desert Air Force’s light bombers effectively hit the main Axis air base at Castel Benito, just south of Tripoli, an operation which they repeated on the night of the 18th/19th. During the intervening daylight hours, the Allied fighters and fighter-bombers were also out in strength, playing their part in the capture of Misurata by 51st Highland Division, followed in the late evening by that of Zliten, midway between Misurata and Horns, by 22nd Armoured Brigade. The enemy fell back to Horns and Tarhuna, and the crisis of the battle was at hand.

Montgomery was well aware of this. During the night he summoned Wimberley to his Tactical Headquarters which was now with 22nd Armoured, and warned him of ‘the need for speed now on the coastal route’ in view of the serious shortage of supplies and the consequent need to take Tripoli within ten days of the start of the offensive. Over the next forty-eight hours, Montgomery would continue to badger his unfortunate subordinate, his rebukes showing little consideration for the Highlanders’ very real problems but being justified perhaps by the urgency of the situation.

On 19 January, Wimberley closed up to the Horns defences, while away on Eighth Army’s left flank, 7th Armoured Division was attacking the pass at Tarhuna – a narrow defile between two high ridges – and 2nd New Zealand Division and 4th Light Armoured Brigade were pushing south of Tarhuna towards Garian. Unhappily during the attack on Tarhuna, Harding, who was standing on top of a Grant tank directing operations, was blown off it and badly wounded in the left arm and leg by a bursting shell. His senior staff officer, the future Field Marshal Carver, was able to arrange for Harding’s hasty removal to hospital in a light aeroplane and, on Harding’s own previous recommendation, his place at the head of 7th Armoured was taken by Roberts. He, however, could only arrive next day and in the meantime progress on the Tarhuna front came to a halt.

In practice this did not matter greatly, for Rommel, alarmed by Harding’s pressure, had already transferred 15th Panzer Division , 164th German Light Division, the Ramcke Brigade and his Reconnaissance Units to Tarhuna, leaving only 90th Light to hold Horns. Thereupon Montgomery, as at Alamein, switched the direction of his main thrust, reinforcing 51st Highland Division with 22nd Armoured Brigade and sternly commanding Wimberley to attack day and night until victory had been achieved. The Scots certainly did their best. Horns was taken on the afternoon of the 20th, and Corradini 12 miles to the west, despite bitter resistance by 90th Light, fell next day. On the 21st also, a detachment of the 1/7th Queens Royal Regiment from 131st Brigade under Major William Griffiths was able to move round to the west of Tarhuna, and that night, concerned over the threat this development posed and appreciating that it was in any case no longer possible to halt Montgomery’s coastal thrust, Rommel abandoned the Tarhuna pass to fall back towards Tripoli.

On the 22nd therefore, all the Allied forces continued their advance. That of 51st Highland Division and 22nd Armoured Brigade along the coast road was delayed temporarily during the afternoon by demolitions guarded by rearguards from 90th Light, but Wimberley, as ordered, renewed his pressure successfully during the hours of darkness. Meanwhile on the left flank, 2nd New Zealand Division and 4th Light Armoured Brigade captured Azizia to the south-west of Tripoli, while 7th Armoured Division struck out towards Castel Benito, where on the previous day the Kittyhawks of Nos. 250 and 260 Squadrons had performed the unusual but important task of destroying tractors which were attempting to plough up the airfield so as to prevent its future use by the Allies. South of Castel Benito, the enemy checked this pursuit for a time from behind a double anti-tank ditch, but a night attack by 1/6th Queens, led by Lieutenant Colonel Roy Kaulback, took the position by storm. Eighth Army’s twin thrusts were closing in on Tripoli and despite the protests of Cavallero, Rommel decided it was pointless to try to hold the city a moment longer.

‘In the swaying battle of the desert,’ declares Alan Moorehead, ‘Tripoli had for two and a half years appeared as a mirage that grew strong and now faded away again, and was for ever just beyond the Eighth Army’s reach.’ He compares its capture to that of Paris by the Germans and Singapore by the Japanese and the re-entry into Stalingrad by the Russians. Yet none of these had had to wait so long for their moment of triumph. ‘So many had died,’ says Moorehead, ‘or been withdrawn through wounds at a time when the struggle looked futile and endless. So many had recovered hope only to lose it again. So many had aged and grown sick and weak.’

Now at last it had all proved worthwhile. At 0530 on 23 January 1943, the 11th Hussars from 7th Armoured Division thrusting north from Castel Benito entered the capital of Libya, just ahead of the 50th Battalion of the Royal Tank Regiment from 23rd Armoured Brigade pushing westward along the Via Balbia with the men of the 1st Gordon Highlanders riding on its Valentines. Montgomery and Leese met and shook hands and, just three months from the start of the great offensive at El Alamein, the soldiers of Eighth Army were able to stand in the main square and gaze with delight at the plumes of white water from the fountains of Tripoli.



In the early hours of 8 November 1942, while the Desert Air Force was hastening Rommel’s withdrawal, eighteen Hurricane IICs from No. 43 Squadron RAF, the ‘Fighting Cocks’, were on their way from Gibraltar to the Maison Blanche aerodrome near Algiers. At their head was Wing Commander Pedley who must have been an anxious man for he had only once previously flown a Hurricane and he did not know for certain that he would be able to land at Maison Blanche if he got there – it might still be in hostile hands. In that case, even with their long-range tanks, the RAF fighters could never have returned to Gibraltar. Fortunately, when they reached their destination at about 0900, the troops holding it proved to be American. That evening, Pedley attacked a Junkers Ju 88. He claimed only to have damaged it but enemy records indicate that it failed to return to its base.

Pedley’s experiences might serve as a symbol of the fortunes of Operation TORCH, the code name given to the Anglo-American landings in Vichy French North Africa under the overall command of Lieutenant General Dwight Eisenhower. It had been prepared hurriedly. It took place in an atmosphere of uncertainty and justifiable anxiety. It was risky in the extreme. But in the end it proved successful.

This was partly because complete surprise was achieved, for despite the contrary advice of Kesselring and the Italians, the German High Command had been convinced that the target of the troop transports was Tripoli or perhaps Sicily or Sardinia. Even so all the main landings, at Oran and Algiers in the Mediterranean and at Casablanca on the Atlantic coast of French Morocco, suffered from considerable delay and confusion; an attempted parachute raid on the airfields at Oran failed completely; and direct assaults on the harbours of Oran and Algiers resulted only in the death or capture of every man who got ashore. At Algiers resistance had ceased by 1900 on 8 November, but Oran was not taken until midday on the 10th – and then mainly because the French commanders there were aware that negotiations for a general armistice were in progress – while in Morocco, Major General George Patton had at that time still not secured Casablanca or the vital airfield at Port Lyautey some 55 miles to the north.

Luckily Eighth Army’s victory at El Alamein cast its ‘bright gleam’ over the Allied fortunes. In the first place it ended any chance that Hitler might be able to persuade Spanish troops to seize Gibraltar or at least render its harbour and airfield unusable by artillery fire, thereby severing the Allied supply route – a fact which the Führer was sensible enough to realize. In addition, it seems to have had a crucial influence on Admiral Darlan, heir-apparent to the aged Marshal Pétain as Vichy’s Head of State, who happened to be in Algiers visiting a son dangerously ill with polio. Since his aversion to the British was notorious and his first angry reaction to the news of Operation TORCH had been to put the US Consul-General in Algiers, Mr Robert Murphy, under arrest, he can scarcely have been a convinced believer in the Allied cause. On the other hand, as Liddell Hart drily remarks, he had ‘a shrewder sense of realism than many of his compatriots’ and recognized that the tide of the war had turned. He therefore issued a ceasefire order to all French troops in North Africa at 1120 on 10 November.

The British First Army, under Lieutenant General Sir Kenneth Anderson, now began a rapid advance eastward towards Tunis and the port of Bizerta, aided by further seaborne landings at Bougie and Bone and by a parachute drop on the Bone airfield. By the end of November, Anderson’s men had approached to within 20 miles of Tunis – but they were not to cover that last short distance for many weary months.

On 9 November, Junkers Ju 52s had arrived in Tunis carrying all the German troops that could be found at short notice: a parachute regiment and Kesselring’s personal guard unit. Others followed by air and by sea for though the Malta striking forces were still decimating the Axis convoys to Tripoli, they were not at first able to interfere with the new shorter route to Tunisia. By early December, there were 15,000 German and 9,000 Italian soldiers in that country, forming the Fifth Panzer Army under General Jürgen von Arnim, a harsh, grim man who had formerly been a corps commander in Russia.

It was not only von Arnim of whose services Germany’s Eastern Front would be deprived. As Major General Fuller points out in The Decisive Battles of the Western World, Hitler’s attention had been ‘suddenly attracted to events in North Africa’. German reinforcements destined for Russia ‘were not sent east, but were sent west into [Vichy] France’ –which unhappy country they quickly overran – ‘and to Tunisia’. Some 400 operational warplanes and numerous aerial transports were transferred out of Russia to the Mediterranean area. These decisions led directly to an Axis catastrophe, for they greatly assisted the Russian counter-offensive at Stalingrad and subsequently vastly increased the difficulties of supplying the trapped German forces from the air.

Nonetheless Hitler considered he had no choice in the matter. If the Allies could speedily conquer Tunisia, they could attack Tripoli from the west thereby dooming Panzerarmee Afrika. Moreover with North Africa secured, they could launch an assault on Italy which Hitler rightly feared would knock his increasingly reluctant ally out of the war. Whatever the risks he had to fight for Tunisia. On 27 November, Field Marshal Kesselring personally hurried to Tunis to forbid any further withdrawals. Four days later, the newly arrived 10th Panzer Division counter-attacked against most advanced positions of Firat Army in Tebourba , Tunisia and the battle for Tunisia had begun in earnest. It was a battle in which Eighth Army was to prove in Churchill’s words, ‘a new favourable factor of decisive importance’.

Eighth Army’s new battleground was very different from its old one. The only desert areas in Tunisia were in the southern third of that country which was strategically unimportant. Central Tunisia by contrast was a fertile, fairly well-watered plain which was covered with pretty white villages and groups of olive groves and in spring, as Alan Moorehead recalls delightedly: "burst into a wild fantasy of colour, and that overworked cliché ‘a carpet of flowers’ became a proven fact. It was just that, a rich deep Persian carpet woven of bluebells and poppies, of sweet-peas and tulips, of daisies and lillies; and these grew so thickly that for miles you could not see the ground or the grass, only flowers. They made patterns that swept over hill-tops, hilarious shouting bands of colour. "

Clustered around the central plain, as though to protect it, were the mountains, their lower slopes covered with forest, broken by fertile but usually steep valleys. In the north was the Atlas range, running all the way from Morocco, to end in the Cape Bon Peninsula, thrusting north-eastward into the Mediterranean just south of Tunis. Through this area moved two rough roads, one near the coast making its way towards Bizerta, the other further inland, at first following the course of the Medjerda River which flowed into the sea midway between Bizerta and Tunis, then swinging away southeastward to the capital city.

It was along these roads that the men of First Army were attempting to advance but on 7 December, the resistance of the enemy was reinforced by the hostility of the elements. On that day, reports General Jackson, ‘the Tunisian winter rains broke, turning the valleys and plains into quagmires of thick yellowish-grey mud of a glutinous consistency which bogged vehicles, beat the power of tank-engines, and made men’s lives a constant battle with the all-pervading clay’. On the coast road, no further attempts were made to overcome German resistance at a narrow defile between Djebel Azag and Djebel Adjred – Green and Bald Hills as the British called them – where the advance had been checked at the end of November. In the Medjerda valley, fighting continued throughout December around the sinister double-crested Djebel el Almara – Longstop Hill – but after changing hands several times it was finally secured by the Germans on Christmas Day, and Eisenhower and Anderson abandoned their offensive for the winter.

Having reached the base of the Cape Bon Peninsula, the mountains turned south. A spur doubled back to the east reaching almost to the sea at Enfidaville to form the northern boundary of the central plain. Its western boundary was a longer range called the Eastern Dorsale which ran due south from Cape Bon and in which were a number of important passes – Karachoum, Kairouan, Fondouk, Faid and Maknassy – while an outer guard was provided by the Western Dorsale which proceeded south-westward from Cape Bon.

While Anderson had been fighting in the north, other Allied forces had been moving up to the Eastern Dorsale. The French by this time were wholly committed to the Allied cause and their 19th French Corps secured the three northern passes, while Major General Fredendall’s 2nd US Corps took the Faid Pass, leaving only the Maknassy Pass, guarded by the Italians, in Axis hands. Unfortunately Kesselring was not prepared to allow this situation to continue and during the latter part of January 1943, Axis counter-attacks regained all the passes and inflicted over 4,500 casualties.


The Allies had been checked in northern Tunisia and again in central Tunisia. Luckily there was one further avenue of advance open to them. On 23 January, Tripoli fell to the Eighth Army. 7th Armoured Division which had now been rejoined by 4th Light Armoured Brigade, was given little time to enjoy this triumph, being ordered by Montgomery to keep Rommel ‘on the run’ as far as the Tunisian frontier. Following the retreating enemy along the coast road, 7th Armoured took Zavia on 25 January. It was then hampered by bad going and bad weather but on the 31st, it reached Zuara and by 4 February, had crossed the border into Tunisia.

There would be a delay before the main body of Eighth Army could move up to its support, however. The weather continued to be dreadful and, as Montgomery reports in El Alamein to the River Sangro, ‘for several days the desert became a quagmire and made operations impossible’. Furthermore, as Kesselring rather admiringly points out, ‘the British Eighth Army had marched halfway across North Africa – over fifteen hundred miles – had spent the bad winter months on the move and in the desert, and had had to surmount difficulties of every kind’. Nor did those difficulties cease once Tripoli was reached, for the enemy, as Captain Roskill states in his Official History of The War at Sea, had ‘managed to destroy the port facilities very thoroughly, and to block the entrance completely with six merchantmen’ that had been scuttled as well as with other debris including ‘many barges filled with concrete’. Air raids and a violent storm did nothing to improve the situation, the first supply ship could only enter the harbour on 2 February, and it was not until the 14th that large quantities of stores began to arrive. Yet when weather conditions improved at last on 15 February, Eighth Army had managed to overcome all difficulties and was ready to resume its victorious advance forthwith.

The natural defences guarding the southern edge of the Tunisian plain were of a type already familiar to Eighth Army in Tripolitania: salt marshes – but those in Tripolitania were as nothing to the vast, trackless wastes of Tunisia’s Chott el Fedjadj which blocked any attempt at an outflanking manoeuvre as effectively as did the Qattara Depression at El Alamein. A long tongue of the marsh reached out particularly close to the sea just north of the little town of Gabes, to provide a tight bottleneck called the Gabes Gap, across which was a series of high ridges running from west to east.

To the south-west of the salt lake lay an almost equally impassable sea of sand known as the Grand Erg, while to the south-east the Djebel Tebaga and the Matmata Hills ran parallel to the line of the coast. There was thus a further narrow passage to be negotiated east of the hills at Mareth, and this had been barred by what Ronald Lewin calls the ‘French-built, solid defences’ of the Mareth Line. Finally, any movement through the difficult country west of the Matmata Hills would be blocked by the marshes and would have to turn back towards the coast through the tightest bottleneck of them all, the Tebaga Gap.

Eighth Army’s first operation in Tunisia was an attack on the Axis stronghold of Ben Gardane on the coast, which was duly taken on 16 February by 7th Armoured Division reinforced by 22nd Armoured Brigade. 51st Highland Division was also moving up to the front line and on the 17th it combined with 7th Armoured to capture the important road centre at Medenine, south-east of the Mareth Line, as well as its four landing grounds. Next day, Foum Tatahouine (Luke Skywalker’s home planet in Star Wars) , to the south of Medenine and on the eastern fringe of the Matmata Hills, also fell. It is again interesting, in view of all the criticisms about Eighth Army’s deliberation and slowness, to discover that Rommel records that these conquests were achieved ‘rather earlier than we had bargained for’.

Eighth Army’s next task was to build up its supply bases in the area of Ben Gardane, ready for an assault on the Mareth Line. 30th Corps was to be responsible for this, while 10th Corps would be kept in reserve to follow up success and perhaps break through the Gabes Gap on the heels of a retreating enemy. It was anticipated that this operation would take place by mid-March, but on 22 February, all plans were disrupted. A signal was received from General Alexander, who had arrived at Algiers a week earlier to establish Eighteenth Army Group Headquarters, from which he would exercise tactical control over the entire land battle in Tunisia. In this, Alexander urgently requested that Eighth Army should put increased pressure on the enemy immediately so as to assist the Allies to rectify a grave situation that had arisen elsewhere.

While Eighth Army was waiting at Tripoli in order to build up its strength, Panzer Army Afrika was falling back onto its supply bases in Tunisia. Encouraged by this fact, by his junction with his comrades, and by the prospect of assaulting inexperienced troops instead of his usual formidable Eighth Army opponents, its leader now reverted briefly to the old, aggressive Rommel of the days before El Alamein.

Rommel’s first aim was to strike at Gafsa, west of Maknassy, which was the nearest position held by II US Corps and which threatened the rear of his right flank. For this attack he wished to use not only his own armoured units, 15th Panzer and the Italian Centauro, but also his former 21st Panzer Division, now re-equipped and led by Major General Hildebrandt, and 10th Panzer Division under Major General von Broich. Von Arnim opposed this suggestion as he wanted 10th and 21st Panzer to attack westward from Faid towards the American positions at Sidi Bou Zid. Kesselring, attempting to keep the peace between his two difficult subordinates, therefore declared by way of compromise that von Arnim’s attack should proceed but thereafter he should release 21st Panzer to Rommel to help the latter’s advance.

Von Arnim placed his Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Heinz Ziegler, in command of the preliminary offensive and on 14 February, that officer struck at Sidi Bou Zid, well supported by Kesselring’s dive-bombers. The Americans knew an attack was planned but ‘Ultra’ interceptions had indicated that it would come in the Fondouk area. Consequently the defenders were taken completely by surprise and ‘in three days’ says General Jackson, ‘Ziegler had destroyed two tank, two artillery and two infantry battalions of Fredendall’s II US Corps’.

Rommel’s spirits were raised dramatically by Ziegler’s success, particularly since it had forced the Americans to evacuate Gafsa, which was occupied without resistance on the 15th. He now proposed that he be given command of all the German armour, with which to strike north-westward beyond the Western Dorsale to the main American bases with their vast supply dumps, the capture of which he felt certain would wreck all chance of an American offensive for the foreseeable future. Kesselring, despite von Arnim’s objections, gave his support, and on 19 February, Rommel, disdaining once more to concentrate his armour, advanced down both the two main roads leading through the Western Dorsale, attacking the Sbiba Pass with 21st Panzer and the Kasserine Pass with 15th Panzer and Centauro.

Contrary to later exaggerated accounts, these assaults achieved comparatively limited results. All attempts to seize the passes on the 19th failed and Rommel was forced to abandon his planned breakthrough at Sbiba entirely. Reinforced by units from 10th Panzer, reluctantly and belatedly released by von Arnim, he did manage to capture the Kasserine Pass on the afternoon of the 20th, but he was able to make little further progress next day, and on the day following he was compelled to turn his attention to a new source of anxiety.

For on the 22nd, Alexander’s signal for assistance reached Eighth Army. General Richardson records that, knowing Montgomery’s insistence on making proper preparations and remaining ‘balanced’ at all times, ‘I would not have been surprised if he had answered that there was nothing he could do. Not a bit of it! His reaction was: “Alex is in trouble; we must do everything we can to help him”.’

‘It is at such moments,’ remarks de Guingand, ‘that Montgomery is at his best. He always responds wholeheartedly to an appeal.’ ‘It was Monty in his most generous mood,’ agrees Richardson. 7th Armoured and the Highlanders were ordered up to the Mareth Line at once; the Desert Air Force’s Kittybombers stepped up their attacks; and Montgomery sent a cheerful signal to Alexander – which did not reflect his true feelings – that they might be able to get Rommel ‘running about’ between them ‘like a wet hen’.

Alexander replied that he was ‘greatly relieved’, as well he might have been. Rommel would later remark only that success at Kasserine was no longer possible and would make no mention of any concern over Eighth Army’s activities – but then Rommel rarely gives more credit to his conqueror than is absolutely essential, and what he may have said afterwards is unimportant compared with what he felt at the time his decision was made. On the evening of 22 February, he reported his reasons for abandoning further attacks in the Western Dorsale to Hitler. His signal was intercepted by ‘Ultra’, and we know therefore that a major motive was ‘the situation at Mareth’ which ‘made it necessary to collect my mobile forces for a swift blow against Eighth Army before it had completed its preparations’.

Certainly Rommel also gave other reasons for his decision, chiefly the arrival of Allied reinforcements, bad weather and difficult terrain. Yet even ignoring the points that his troops had been outnumbered throughout the offensive and that on 22 February the weather and the terrain over which they were fighting were both better than they had been in the immediate past, these arguments were irrelevant. If Rommel wished to collect his mobile forces for a swift blow against Eighth Army, then he could not have continued his operations against the Americans even had no reinforcements reached them, had the weather been perfect and had the terrain been entirely suitable for his purposes. The simple fact was that his mobile forces could not be in two places at once.

Field Marshal Kesselring emphatically confirms that Rommel’s main anxiety was with Eighth Army and other factors were little more than excuses. ‘On 22nd February 1943,’ Kesselring reports, ‘I had a long talk with Rommel at his battle HQ near Kasserine and found him in a very dispirited mood. His heart was not in his task and he approached it with little confidence. I was particularly struck by his ill-concealed impatience to get back as quickly and with as much unimpaired strength as possible to the southern defence line.’ Nor did Kesselring think that Rommel’s anxiety was ill-founded for he approved the decision to break off the Kasserine battle, and indeed promoted Rommel to the command of Army Group Afrika which had been set up to control the activities of both German-Italian Panzer Army Afrika and von Arnim’s Fifth Panzer Army.