Eighth Army's Greatest Victories - Battle of Medenine and Battle of Mareth Line (March-Aprill 1943) Adrian Turner

The ‘Ultra’ interception detailing Rommel’s intentions reached Montgomery on 25 February. Ronald Lewin in his Ultra Goes to War: The Secret Story claims that the code-breakers had thus ‘intervened with devastating effect’. In reality the Allies were already aware that Rommel was retreating from the Western Dorsale since they had reoccupied Kasserine Pass without resistance on the previous day; air reconnaissance had revealed the German movement in any event; and Monty’s Chief of Intelligence in Eighth Army HQ , Brigadier Williams would inform Nigel Hamilton that from his knowledge of ‘how Rommel would behave’, he was absolutely certain that such an attack was coming: ‘You didn’t need “Ultra” to know that this was going to happen.’

Nor was the news in any way welcome to Montgomery for, despite his previous cheerful ‘wet hen’ signal, he was really far from happy about the situation in which Eighth Army was now placed. He ‘frankly admitted to me,’ says de Guingand, ‘that for once, through his action to assist First Army, he now found himself unbalanced.’ Half his army – 10th Corps – was still at Benghazi and his nearest reserve division, 2nd New Zealand, was 200 miles from the front line reorganizing in Tripoli. No wonder that he feared for Eighth Army’s forward units and that when the danger had passed he would tell de Guingand that he ‘had sweated a bit at times!’

The real credit should therefore be given to Eighth Army’s administrative staff who performed the brilliant feat of rushing substantial reinforcements to the front over a single inadequate road, which luckily was well protected by the Desert Air Force. On 28 February, the tanks of 2nd Armoured Brigade arrived at Tripoli from Benghazi on transporters. They were at once sent on to 7th Armoured Division at Ben Gardane, where they were handed over to its 8th Armoured Brigade. The Valentines of 23rd Armoured Brigade were also moved up to the battle-area, as were 2nd New Zealand Division, 201st Guards Brigade and as many additional anti-tank guns as could be found. By the evening of 4 March, a ‘period of great anxiety’, as Montgomery calls it in El Alamein to the River Sangro, had passed.

‘Rommel,’ adds the Eighth Army Commander, had ‘missed his opportunity’, yet it should be noted that while ‘Ultra’ had warned Eighth Army of Rommel’s general intentions – and in any case, as already seen, Eighth Army ‘didn’t need “Ultra” to know that this was going to happen’ – it had revealed neither the date nor the direction of Rommel’s thrust. Eighth Army’s Intelligence staff deduced from more orthodox means – chiefly air reconnaissance – that the date would be after the 3rd and before the 7th of March, but as Nigel Hamilton relates: ‘Not until the Axis formations emerged from the mist on 6th March 1943, did Montgomery know for certain the line of the enemy attack.’

For that matter, the line of the enemy attack was not even decided until 3 March. The flurried improvisations on the Axis side, while having the unintentional advantage of concealing the plan from ‘Ultra’, form indeed a sorry contrast to the calm, sound and extremely thorough preparations made in a very short space of time by Eighth Army. Nor were the attackers helped by disputes between, or belated changes in the identity of, the men who were to lead them.

When Rommel was promoted to the command of Army Group Afrika, he handed over his old Panzer Army Afrika, now renamed First Italian Army, to General Giovanni Messe. Ronald Lewin in his history of the Afrika Korps, calls Messe ‘an excellent, experienced, if stolid commander’, and like many of the later arrivals in North Africa, he had gained that experience in Russia, where he had led an Italian Corps with sufficient ability to be awarded a Knight’s Cross by Hitler. Yet this was hardly an easy time for a new man to take over, and his task was made still less easy by his Chief of Staff, Bayerlein, now a major general, retaining direct and complete control over all German units. The Afrika Korps was originally entrusted to Ziegler, but on the day before the battle, he was replaced by Lieutenant General Cramer. While that officer was well suited for this post – he was a former commander of 8th Panzer Regiment from 15th Panzer Division – it was an odd decision to remove a leader of Ziegler’s calibre on the eve of an encounter which Rommel, in his own words, believed would be of ‘decisive importance for the defence of the whole Tunisian bridgehead’.

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General Giovanni Messe , new commander of former Panzer Army Afrika now retitled as 1st Italian Army

Rommel’s initial desire was for a direct attack from the north-west down the main road from Mareth to Medenine. On 3 March, a reconnaissance in force in this area drove back 51st Division’s outposts but also revealed that the defences were very strong, ‘heavily mined and covered by many guns’. Rommel’s subordinates were also afraid that a tank attack from the north-west would have no room for manoeuvre and so be an easy target for the British artillery and the Desert Air Force. Finally it was felt that paths for the tanks would first have to be cleared through the Germans’ own minefields protecting the Mareth Line and this would prevent any chance of attaining surprise. Faced with this opposition, Rommel reverted to his mood of sulky pessimism. He withdrew from any further role in planning the assault, being content to demand ‘the utmost commitment from every soldier’ participating therein.

The panzer commanders therefore planned a sweep round Eighth Army’s defences in order to attack these from the west and south-west out of the Matmata Hills. By one more irony, this decision did enable them to achieve complete surprise. Montgomery, who at Alam Halfa had agreed with his Intelligence staffs assessment because it fitted in with his belief as to how Rommel would act, and who at Alamein had anticipated that Rommel would deliver those impulsive counter-attacks which proved so beneficial to Eighth Army, had once again correctly predicted Rommel’s personal intentions. He was convinced that Rommel would wish to advance down the road from Mareth. Even when his airmen reported movement in the Matmata Hills on the afternoon of the 4th, he considered that this was a feint to divert his attention from the real point of attack.

This error could have had serious consequences, for the Axis onslaught was potentially a formidable one. A subsidiary thrust was to be made down the Mareth-Medenine road by a force called ‘Column Bari’ under Graf von Sponeck, containing his 90th German Light and the Italian Trieste and La Spezia Divisions. The main assault was due to come from the west against a small but steep hill known as Tadjera Khir which dominated Eighth Army’s western defences. This assault would be the responsibility of Cramer’s Afrika Korps, with the sixty tanks of 15th Panzer on the left and the forty-six tanks of 21st Panzer Division on the right. Meanwhile the thirty-five tanks of 10th Panzer, supported by detachments from 164th German Light Division , would strike from the south-west directly towards Medenine, and 3rd and 33rd Reconnaissance Units, as at Alam Halfa, would provide the extreme right flank of the turning movement; they were to block the road from Medenine to Foum Tatahouine to prevent reinforcements arriving from this direction.

The attack was to be supported by as much Axis artillery as could be brought to bear, including a number of the new six-barrelled 150mm mortars which the Germans called ‘Nebelwerfers’ but the British ‘Moaning Minnies’, and which were vastly superior to anything of a similar type on the Allied side. The Axis air forces would also take part in the attack, and they had about 100 German and sixty Italian warplanes serviceable. Moreover the Stukas, ME 109s and Macchi MC 202s had now been joined by a Gruppe of Messerschmitt Me 210 fighter-bombers, which for the sake of convenience may be described as much improved successors to the Messerschmitt Bf 110s, and a Gruppe of the very latest German Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighters. In addition the Axis cause would be much assisted by the fact that poor weather conditions over the Allied airfields would considerably handicap the Desert Air Force.

As at El Agheila and Buerat, Eighth Army in the coming action – it would be known as the Battle of Medenine – had only Leese’s 30th Corps on hand. This again contained three divisions: 51st Highland, 2nd New Zealand and 7th Armoured Divisions. Admittedly 7th Armoured was exceptionally strong, for it consisted of 8th Armoured Brigade, 22nd Armoured Brigade, 4th Light Armoured Brigade and 131st Motorized Infantry Brigade, with 201st Guards Brigade also temporarily under command – another example of that integration of the Army which by now was accepted as a matter of course. In consequence, as its critics never tire of pointing out, Eighth Army was still superior in men and material.

Yet such superiority in the past had scarcely guaranteed victory: it should not be forgotten that Rommel had had only 2,500 infantrymen at the start of the Battle of Mersa Matruh (26-28 June 1942 ) when Panzer Army captured 6.000 prisoners and huge number of enemy supplies while Messe had 10,000 at Medenine; it should not be overlooked that Panzer Army Afrika had won ‘Battle of Second Ruweisat’ (during Battle of First Alamein in July 1942) with forty-two German tanks of which only eight were of a calibre comparable to any of those used by First Italian Army at Medenine; it should not be ignored that Eighth Army, as General Jackson rather unkindly remarks, had ‘about half the equipment which the Americans possessed in Tunisia’ – the difference being that it was made up of ‘experienced troops’.

What decided Medenine in fact was neither the numbers of nor the weapons in Eighth Army, but the quality of the soldiers behind the weapons and of the commanders who led them. Montgomery, as Liddell Hart remarks, had made ‘the most of his ability for planning a well-woven defence’ and despite his confidence that the attack would come from the north-west, he had not neglected the defences in other areas either; the hallmark of his preparations was always their thoroughness. He had for instance appreciated the crucial importance of Tadjera Khir, and de Guingand relates a visit to this key hill by Montgomery, Leese and their staffs which might have had tragic consequences. The position was well within range of German heavy artillery to the west, and as the party descended it was spotted by the enemy. ‘The Army Commander,’ (Montgomery) says de Guingand, ‘was in the middle of a discussion with Leese when a shell landed very close to our path. It had no visible effect on him whatsoever; there was not even a pause in his conversation.’

On 6 March 1943, therefore, the Eighth Army’s positions were secure at all points. From the coast the front line moved gradually south-westward along the Wadi Zessar which had been strengthened by 70,000 mines and behind which the bulk of 51st Highland Division had taken its stand, supported by the eighty Valentines of 23rd Armoured Brigade. Then the defences turned south, continuing for 16 miles in all along the western edge of the ridge which carried the Mareth-Medenine road, the angle between the northern- and western-facing defences being strongly held by 51st Highland Division’s 154th Brigade plus a number of additional anti-tank guns. On the left of the Highlanders was 131st Brigade, then 201st Guards Brigade holding Tadjera Khir, and finally 2nd New Zealand Division guarding the approaches to Medenine.

The defenders’ main weapons were their anti-tank guns, some 460 of them, mostly 6-pounders though there were still a number of 2-pounders in this total and also a few brand-new and extremely formidable 17-pounders which went by the innocuous name of ‘Pheasants’. Moreover, so confident were the men of Eighth Army and so far had the fear of the panzers evaporated, that for the first time the anti-tank guns, in the words of the Official History, were ‘sited to kill tanks and not to “protect” infantry, field-guns or anything else’. Not that the artillery was negligible either for Eighth Army had 350 field or medium guns which, as General Jackson tells us, were ‘centralized under 30th Corps’ control to ensure concentration of fire on important targets’.

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‘We always thought,’ declares Brigadier Howard Kippenberger 5th NZ Brigade commander, ‘this Medenine position was our masterpiece in the art of laying out a defensive position under desert conditions.’ It was ‘admirably thought out’ agrees the more sedate Official History. So much so that the 300 tanks in 7th Armoured Division – as well as those in 23rd Armoured Brigade – saw hardly any action, though for the record 8th Armoured Brigade was stationed behind 51st Highland Division, 22nd Armoured behind Tadjera Khir, and 4th Light Armoured behind the New Zealanders.

So good in fact was Eighth Army’s defensive technique that the battle appears in retrospect as very unexciting, the issue never in doubt. Of course it all seemed rather different at the time. At 0900 on 6 March, the enemy attacked from three directions. The diversionary move by ‘Column Bari’ was easily repelled with heavy losses. The thrust by 10th Panzer Division towards Medenine was neither particularly resolute nor well organized and was halted by the anti-tank guns of 28th Maori Battalion which destroyed five panzers at point-blank range and drove the rest into hasty retreat. But in the centre around the crucial Tadjera Khir hill, the Axis armed forces proved worthy of their reputation.

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Here the attackers were Eighth Army’s old foes 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions, which advanced with great determination, their tanks in the lead, their supporting infantry regiments close behind. They closed to within some 400 yards of the defences, but then the British artillery went into action, concentrating as ordered not on the panzers but on the German infantrymen, who were forced to seek shelter, leaving the tanks to continue on their own.

This they duly did, probing persistently for weak spots but failing utterly to find any. 21st Panzer attacked the Guards Brigade. Brigadier Julian Gascoigne had held back 6th Battalion, the Grenadier Guards as a reserve, and 3rd Battalion, the Coldstream Guards was scarcely engaged, but 2nd Battalion, the Scots Guards was quickly in action, destroying three tanks. The remaining ones fought back, knocking out some of the British guns, but the Scots Guards hit tank after tank, claiming to have destroyed fifteen during the day. On their left, the Coldstreams’ anti-tank platoon was at last able to join in the fight, setting a panzer ablaze with the first shot fired.

An even heavier attack was delivered by 15th Panzer on 131st Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Lashmer ‘Bolo’ Whistler, whom Montgomery would call ‘perhaps the best fighting brigadier in the British Army’. The main blows fell on 1/7th Queens in the centre of the brigade’s position, its anti-tank gunners claiming the destruction of twenty-seven panzers in a series of clashes throughout the morning. So determined and so continuous was the enemy assault that Whistler asked for assistance and 22nd Armoured Brigade moved up a squadron of Shermans in close support; these put seven more enemy tanks out of action.

By midday, the Axis commanders had had enough and retired to reorganize. At 1530, they renewed their advance from the same three directions as before, but this time it was their infantrymen who came forward first, the tanks lagging well behind them. Again all the attacks were broken, mainly by artillery fire, and though an attempted counter-attack by 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of 154th Brigade was halted by German mortars, by 2030, the Axis soldiers were withdrawing on all fronts and the battle was over. This was not immediately apparent since a number of movements on the part of the enemy were reported during the night – they attracted heavy artillery fire and kept the defenders on the alert for further encounters. In reality, as it subsequently transpired, these movements were merely attempts by the Germans to recover their knocked-out panzers. They failed in this mission but achieved an unexpected bonus by masking the retirement of their main forces. By dawn on 7 March, they had all fallen back into their own defences in the Mareth Line.

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A destroyed panzer at Battle of Medenine , inspected by British engineers

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‘The Battle of Medenine,’ declares Montgomery’s Chief of Staff Brigadier de Guingand, ‘was a little classic all of its own. It was the perfectly fought defensive battle.’ The Axis soldiers had not even penetrated Eighth Army’s front-line defences as at Alam Halfa. There had been no flaws like the misfortunes of Operations BULIMBA and BERESFORD (during Battle of First Alamein and Battle of Alam el Halfa) to mar the brilliance of the whole encounter.


Brigadier de Guingand

Before it began Montgomery had sent a message to his troops, urging them to ‘show him [Rommel] what the famous Eighth Army can do’ – and that they, and especially the infantry and the anti-tank gunners, had certainly done!

Eighth Army’s losses had been minimal: not a single tank, hardly any guns, and 130 killed or wounded, ‘all ranks’. The enemy had lost 635 dead, wounded or prisoners, over two-thirds of them Germans. Rommel would later admit to ‘40 tanks totally destroyed’, but Paul Carell, who gained his information from senior German officers including Bayerlein and Ziegler, records that ‘fifty-five burnt-out German tanks’ were left behind when the panzers retreated, while de Guingand states that ‘Rommel lost fifty-two of his tanks which were counted on the battlefield.’

It was Rommel’s final battlefield in North Africa. On 9 March, he handed over Army Group Afrika to von Arnim and returned to Germany, a sick, disillusioned man, his exhaustion shown clearly by the unsightly boils which covered his face. It is much to the credit of his army that Rommel’s departure, in Ronald Lewin’s words, ‘made no essential difference to its performance in action’. Indeed his absence may have been a blessing as Rommel’s ‘mood of depression’ had by now become ‘acute’ and his pessimistic outlook can hardly have had a beneficial effect on morale. Certainly after he had left, Panzer Army Afrika, now Messe’s First Italian Army, would come very close indeed to an achievement that had never been attained by Rommel: the defeat of an Eighth Army commanded by Montgomery.

‘Will you please convey to General Montgomery and the forces under his command my sincere congratulations on their magnificent performance of March 6th.’ Eisenhower, who since 11 February, had been a full ‘four-star’ general, had every reason to express his gratitude to Eighth Army for having ended the series of Allied set-backs with an indisputable success, but for Alexander, to whom this signal was sent, the victory at Medenine was of even greater significance.


thanks :pray: fot your excellent work, very well written as well


As was mentioned earlier, in late February, Alexander had set up the Eighteenth Army Group in Algiers, with which to co-ordinate the actions of all Allied forces in Tunisia. From then onwards, the campaign was, relates General Jackson, ‘his concept, carried out under his direction and in his way. He earned his title Lord Alexander of Tunis.’ It was Alexander’s intention to employ his armies in what he liked to call a ‘two-fisted assault’. The Battle of Medenine, however, completed his belief, according to Jackson, that his ‘fists were unequal in striking power. Eighth Army – his right – could be relied on to find its mark and inflict serious damage; First Army was less experienced, lacked confidence, and its thumb – 2nd US Corps – was badly bruised.’

This was particularly unfortunate because 2nd US Corps was on paper ideally placed to sever the links between Messe’s First Italian Army and Fifth Panzer Army – now under von Vaerst’s command – by advancing either eastward through the Faid or Maknassy Passes to the port of Sfax, or south-eastward to attack the Gabes Gap from the rear. In practice, though, Alexander did not feel that it was yet capable of doing either. As a first essential therefore, he proposed, as he states in his Official Despatch, ‘to get Eighth Army through the Gabes Gap into the flat country’ where it would form a continuous front with the remainder of his Army Group. First Army would assist in this aim but only by drawing Axis troops away from Eighth Army, not by cutting off Messe’s retreat.

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General Giovanni Messe , 1st Italian Army commander

Alexander’s decision provides an eloquent tribute to his faith in Montgomery’s men. To reach the ‘flat country’ of the central Tunisian plain, Eighth Army would not only have to overcome the defences in the Gabes Gap but, as was seen earlier, before it could even reach these, it would have to get past the Mareth Line, once designed to protect the French from the Italians but now, ironically, protecting an army that included Italians from an army that included a contingent of Fighting French. And Alexander’s own opinion, declares Jackson, was that ‘the combination of the Mareth Line and the Gabes Gap gave Messe a stronger position than Rommel had defended at El Alamein’. Furthermore, as at El Alamein, Eighth Army had to carry out its task quickly. In Russia, the Germans, recovering with astonishing rapidity from the disaster at Stalingrad, were again embarking on an offensive which would culminate in their recapture of Kharkov on 15 March. The Western Allies were in consequence beset with demands that they should relieve the pressure on the Russians by an invasion of Italy. It had already been appreciated that if meaningful progress was to be made in that mountainous country before the approach of winter, the preliminary move – the occupation of Sicily – must take place in July. To prepare for this adequately, it was essential that the Axis bridgehead in Tunisia should be eliminated without delay.

No wonder therefore that when Lieutenant General Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff, had visited Montgomery in Tripoli towards the end of February, he had been both amazed and delighted to learn that the Eighth Army Commander was confident that his men could reach Sfax by 15 April. As Montgomery relates in his Memoirs, Bedell Smith had promised that if this could really be done, then ‘General Eisenhower would give me anything I liked to ask for.’ It was not a wise offer. Montgomery had immediately requested that a Flying Fortress, complete with its American crew who would remain on the US pay-roll, should be provided for his use for the rest of the war. When Eighth Army duly performed its part of the bargain, its commander promptly claimed his ‘prize’ and insisted that Eisenhower should ‘pay up’.

‘Perhaps no other act,’ states Nigel Hamilton, ‘would so typify Monty’s monstrous insensibility to the problems of coalition warfare than this insistence on the payment of an unwritten bet’ which would involve the hapless Eisenhower in difficult explanations to the US War Department. Brooke understandably was most displeased by the incident but to their great credit, both Eisenhower and Bedell Smith swallowed any indignation they may have felt in recognition of the achievement which the payment of the ‘bet’ acknowledged. Indeed the real point of the whole story is surely that when Bedell Smith made his offer, he simply did not expect that he would ever have to make it good. It is not surprising that he is reported to have said that to serve under Montgomery would be a great privilege for anyone, but to serve over him was hell!


Montgomery in Tripoli with recently arrived General Miles Dempsey

In the series of actions by which Eighth Army would win a Flying Fortress for its leader – and a title for its Army Group Commander – it would deservedly be assisted by the effects of its previous triumphs, particularly its capture of Tripoli. Those who had believed that Tripoli must be held for as long as possible if Tunisia was to be properly secured were about to have their views justified. Despite heavy air attacks the port was now providing a suitable base for Eighth Army, eliminating the long tenuous supply lines which had proved such a handicap in the recent past. As a result, for the first time since Alamein, Eighth Army was able to build up its forces to their full potential.

Thus 10th Corps was back again in Eighth Army’s battle-line. It brought its 1st Armoured Division with it, while 7th British Armoured was now placed under its control as well. 4th Indian and 50th (British) Divisions also arrived as reinforcements for 30th Corps, though neither was at its full strength of three brigades, the latter possessing only 69th and 151st Brigades and the former 5th and 7th Indian Brigades. And then there was ‘Force L’ – the initial standing for General Philippe Leclerc, who on 1 February had joined Eighth Army at Tripoli at the head of over 3,200 French and colonial troops, volunteers all, who had marched a thousand miles over the desert from Chad in French Equatorial Africa to place themselves under Montgomery’s orders.

Although the Eighth Army Commander was not normally a great admirer of his French allies, he immediately, says General Richardson, ‘recognized’ Leclerc’s ‘quality’. Leclerc ‘became “one of us”’ and was given ‘what proved to be a highly critical role in the Mareth battle, which we were already beginning to plan’.


General Phillipe Leclerc

One aspect of that planning had taken place even before Eighth Army captured Tripoli. Back in December 1942, Montgomery, once more looking ‘one battle ahead’ – in this case rather more than one – had sent the Long Range Desert Group to check on the possibilities of carrying out operations to the west of the Matmata Hills. Its patrols had reported that movement in this area, though difficult, was perfectly feasible, and Lieutenant Nicholas Wilder had discovered south-west of Foum Tatahouine, a ‘gap’ in the hills which would henceforth bear his name and provide the route by which forces could be moved westward from the coastal area.

These discoveries, though, by no means solved Eighth Army’s problems. A force moving through Wilder’s Gap and then northward along the edge of the Matmata Hills would still have to make a detour of some 150 miles over extremely difficult, waterless terrain. Then when it reached the northern end of the hills, it would have to turn eastward to the south of the Djebel Tebaga into a narrow valley which could be a death trap if properly defended. Nonetheless, the knowledge that an outflanking movement was possible gave flexibility to Eighth Army’s planning and dictated the ‘highly critical role’ that Leclerc would be asked to play. For when 7th Armoured Division headed for Medenine in mid-February 1943, Leclerc’s Fighting Frenchmen advanced also, guarding its left flank.

Their objective was Wilder’s Gap, through which they passed to take up station to the west of the Matmata Hills, thus ensuring that the way would be clear for use by Eighth Army. Then when Alexander called for increased pressure by Eighth Army to help ease the situation at Kasserine, ‘Force L’ pushed on to the craggy massif of Ksar Rhilane due west of Foum Tatahouine and about a third of the way forward from Wilder’s Gap towards the Djebel Tebaga.

At Ksar Rhilane, Leclerc’s men were dangerously isolated, and Montgomery, who had already made a personal gift of a new battle-dress for their leader, ensured that they received reinforcements, including a pair of Sherman tanks, sixteen 6-pounder anti-tank guns and the British 159th Light AA Battery. It was a wise decision for on 10 March, in the curiously casual words of the Official History, ‘Major von Luck with a group of reconnaissance units, reinforced by tanks, investigated this area.’

It was not a move welcomed by Leclerc but he remained admirably unperturbed, despite also suffering heavy attacks from the Luftwaffe which inflicted losses of men and material. Fortunately, although Eighth Army was too far away to assist, Leclerc as ‘one of us’ enjoyed the support of Eighth Army’s companions in arms of the Desert Air Force. The Kittyhawks of No. 112 Squadron which provided fighter cover suffered heavily, shooting down two 109s but losing seven machines with six of the pilots killed or captured; but the Kittybombers of Nos. 250 and 260 Squadrons made a highly effective attack, and the anti-tank Hurricane IIDs of No. 6 Squadron made repeated highly effective attacks on the German ground forces, destroying or damaging six tanks, five half-tracks, thirteen armoured cars, ten lorries, a gun and a wireless van.

The enemy, not surprisingly, retired. Messages of congratulation, from Tedder, from Montgomery, and, presumably with especial fervour, from Leclerc, poured in for the successful pilots – but it seems scarcely likely that they had any idea of the importance of the precedent which they had just set.

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After its experiences at Medenine and Ksar Rhilane, First Italian Army had no further intention of resuming the offensive, but wisely preferred to stand firm behind the fixed fortifications of the Mareth Line. This ran south-westward for 22 miles from the coast to the Matmata Hills. Its main feature was a natural one, the Wadi Zigzaou which varied from sixty to 200 feet in width and was some twenty feet deep. Its sides had been artificially steepened and on its far bank an anti-tank ditch had been cut – all of which factors combined to make it, in de Guingand’s words, a most ‘horrible obstacle’. Parallel to the Wadi Zigzaou and about halfway between it and the Wadi Zessar, which Eighth Army had defended in the Battle of Medenine, was another useful barrier, the Wadi Zeuss; this formed the outer perimeter of the Axis defences. Between the Wadi Zigzaou and the Wadi Zeuss were numerous strongpoints, the chief of which, in the centre of the position, was at Sidi el Guelaa, or as the British called it for obvious reasons, Horseshoe Hill.

It was beyond the Wadi Zigzaou, however, that the Mareth Line was at its most formidable. Here the original French defences had been greatly strengthened by the Germans and consisted of a maze of mutually supporting artillery posts, connected by trenches, protected by barbed wire, and backed up by fortresses as much as 1,200 yards long by 400 yards deep which were capable of holding a full battalion. The areas around the defences and the bed of the Wadi Zigzaou were densely packed with mines, 100,000 anti-tank and 70,000 anti-personnel, plus innumerable booby traps.2 And holding the defences were most of Messe’s infantrymen: nearest to the coast the Young Fascist Division which contained, says de Guingand, ‘the best of the Italian troops’ and which had been further strengthened by German detachments; on its right flank the Trieste Division; then in the centre 90th Light; and finally La Spezia and Pistoia.

At the south-western end of the Line, the high, rugged Matmata Hills, the tracks through which had also been mined, provided further protection. They were held by 164th Light. At their northern end were Messe’s remaining infantry, some seven battalions of frontier guards, known as the Saharan Group, whose task was to watch the Tebaga Gap. These were not regarded as being of particularly good quality but if it proved necessary, Messe could transfer reinforcements to this area much more easily than his opponents who had to cover far greater distances. In addition, the Tebaga Gap was only four miles wide, was protected by an anti-tank ditch, minefields and a series of strongpoints and, as the RAF Official History records, was ‘bristling with enemy guns’. In all First Italian Army contained some 80,000 men, about 450 field or medium guns and 720 anti-tank guns, over 300 of them German and seventy-six of them 88mms. As for the Axis armour, 15th Panzer Division was stationed in close support about five miles north of Mareth. It had only thirty-two gun-armed tanks fit for action but fourteen of these were the ‘murderous Mark IV Specials’, superior to any in Eighth Army, and ten more were Mark III Specials. 10th Panzer Division had moved north to watch 2ns US Corps but 21st Panzer Division was in General Reserve at Gabes from which it could direct its seventy tanks to counter a breakthrough by Eighth Army at either Mareth or Tebaga as required.

Eighth Army, as its critics eagerly relate, had a considerable superiority in numbers: 160,000 men, nearly 750 tanks, nearly 700 field or medium guns and over 1,000 anti-tank guns, three-quarters of which were 6-pounders. In the air, the Allies had an even greater advantage, for whereas their enemies could be supported by only about 100 German and sixty Italian warplanes – and only some two-thirds of these were serviceable – the Desert Air Force was now stronger than ever and equipped for every possible task.

Thus for reconnaissance duties there were now three full squadrons: No. 680 Squadron RAF, upgraded from No. 2 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, and flying Spitfires and Hurricanes, mainly the former; No. 40 Squadron SAAF which in early March had begun to re-equip and also now possessed more Spitfires than Hurricanes; and No. 60 Squadron SAAF with its Baltimores, plus a pair of precious Mosquitos which had joined it on 4 February in response to a personal request to Churchill made by Montgomery. In the light bomber role, the Desert Air Force still contained its two veteran Boston squadrons, three squadrons of Baltimores and four of Mitchells; while for heavy bombers the Allies had their Wellingtons and Halifaxes operating from further afield.

It was in fighters and fighter-bombers though, that the Desert Air Force had made its greatest advance. The Hurricanes of No. 73 Squadron still shouldered the night-fighter duties, but in the day-fighter role there were now the equivalent of six squadrons equipped with Spitfires, the latest arrivals adding to the wide variety of nationalities fighting in North Africa, namely No. 417 Squadron from the Royal Canadian Air Force, recently moved to the front from Egypt, and the Polish Fighting Team, a hand-picked volunteer unit attached to No. 145 Squadron but led operationally by Squadron Leader Skalski, a distinguished officer who would later become the first Pole to command a British squadron. There were also no less than sixteen Kittyhawk or Warhawk squadrons, all now used in the fighter-bomber role, while the Hurribombers of No. 241 Squadron would join them on 23 March. And finally there were the anti-tank Hurricane IIDs, the ‘winged tin-openers’ of No. 6 Squadron RAF.

Nonetheless this superiority in numbers was certainly not sufficient to guarantee success against defences which were naturally far stronger than those at Alamein and had been artificially increased in all the hideous ways previously described. Moreover the Axis commanders now enjoyed the benefits of good Intelligence work. Whereas at Alamein the defenders had been caught completely by surprise, on this occasion intercepted signals had given them advanced warning of Eighth Army’s outline plans for the operation in general and they had exact knowledge of one of the preliminary moves, having captured a British artillery officer who was carrying a map setting out full details of the supporting fire plan.

These preliminary operations began on the night of 16th/17th March, when 30th Corps advanced across the Wadi Zeuss. The main movement by 50th and 51st Divisions, assisted by the Valentines of 50th Royal Tanks and by ‘Scorpions’ to help clear a way through the minefields, was successful in driving the enemy back to the Wadi Zigzaou, while a diversionary raid by 4th Indian Division into the Matmata Hills also inflicted casualties without any corresponding loss. But an assault on Horseshoe Hill by two battalions from 201st Guards Brigade, 6th Grenadiers and 3rd Coldstreams, met with disaster. This was the attack about which the enemy knew all the details, and the position was protected by what Montgomery in El Alamein to the River Sangro, rightly calls ‘most intensive minefields’. As the Guards struggled through these, they came under very heavy fire and it is greatly to their credit that, covered by a powerful artillery bombardment, they did in fact wrest almost all their objectives from the defenders, a detachment from the redoubtable 90th German Light Division.

Unhappily so many casualties had been suffered in the process, particularly by the Grenadiers, that there was no possibility that the captured positions could be retained. They were heavily shelled by the enemy and all attempts to bring up supporting vehicles through the minefields proved unsuccessful. In the early hours of the 17th, 90th German Light Division counter-attacked, taking over 100 British prisoners, and just before dawn, the British troops withdrew over the Wadi Zeuss. The Grenadiers had lost 27 officers and 336 men killed, wounded or captured, among the wounded being their CO, Lieutenant Colonel Clive, whose conduct during the action won him a DSO; the Coldstreams’ casualties were 11 officers and 148 other ranks.

It is at least pleasant to be able to record that Montgomery later wrote to Brigadier Gascoigne, apologizing for having underestimated the strength of the defence but offering the consolation that the operation had ‘definitely helped the Army plan’. This statement sadly would prove more generous than accurate, though by another irony it might have been true if only Montgomery had taken to heart the warning provided. As it was, the Eighth Army Commander remained in a dangerously over-confident mood and his plan for the assault on the Mareth Line – it went by the belligerent name of Operation PUGILIST – is accordingly open to a good deal of criticism – though not by those who deride Montgomery’s very thorough and realistic planning on other occasions as ‘over-cautious’.

As in his assault on Tripoli, Montgomery intended to attack in the coastal area and also from the open desert – at both Mareth and Tebaga. The New Zealand Division, as the expert on outflanking operations, was entrusted with the latter task, being suitably reinforced for the purpose – indeed it was officially raised to the status of the ‘New Zealand Corps’. Just as 9th Armoured Brigade had formed the New Zealanders’ third brigade at Alamein, so their 5th and 6th NZ Infantry Brigades were now joined by Brigadier Harvey’s 8th Armoured Brigade with about 100 Shermans and fifty Crusaders. The armoured cars of the 1st King’s Dragoon Guards were also added to Freyberg’s strength, as were Leclerc’s ‘Force L’, the 111th Field Regiment and 64th Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery with a total of 112 guns, the 57th Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery with 172 guns, and the 53rd Light AA Regiment.

This considerable force, containing in all some 26,000 men and 6,000 vehicles, had assembled behind Eighth Army’s lines near Foum Tatahouine by 18 March. It was supplied with enough food and water to make it self-sufficient for eleven days and carried as much ammunition as could be packed on board its transports. On the evening of the 19th, Freyberg set out and that night passed through Wilder’s Gap to head northward for Ksar Rhilane.

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Mareth Line map - Monty's Left Hook , combined with failed frontal attack on Mareth Line

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It had originally been hoped that the existence of the New Zealand Corps could be kept concealed from the enemy; the intention had been that it would remain stationary and undetected throughout the daylight hours of 20 March, move on again during the night, and make a surprise attack on the Tebaga Gap – which Eighth Army had renamed ‘Plum Pass’ – on the morning of the 21st. Unfortunately his Intelligence had already warned Messe that a major force would be making for Tebaga, and by the 20th, an ‘Ultra’ interception had revealed to Eighth Army that its secret was out.

Montgomery therefore ordered Freyberg to abandon deception and race for Tebaga as fast as possible. Ahead of Freyberg’s main force, Leclerc’s men seized areas of high ground which might threaten the advance, while a detachment of British sappers with ‘Force L’ prepared crossing-places over the deep dry wadis that lay on Freyberg’s route. This was very necessary, for even as it was, Kippenberger complains that the New Zealanders ‘never did more difficult and tiring marches’. The tank-transporters were particularly liable to be bogged down, on several occasions having to unload their tanks so that these could tow them onto firmer ground. As the New Zealand Corps moved northwards, the terrain became still more difficult, an attack by American bombers did nothing to assist progress, and Freyberg was eventually forced to halt for the night of the 20th/21st March, some 10 miles short of Tebaga.

Freyberg’s open advance, Montgomery tells us, ‘would, I hoped, distract attention from the coastal sector’. This is an interesting statement because, with his usual reluctance to admit that all had not gone exactly ‘according to plan’, Montgomery would later emphasize the flanking manoeuvre and ‘play down’ the coastal thrust. It is true that he always intended, as with his advance on Tripoli, that if the enemy should concentrate against one of his moves he would reinforce the other, but his use of the flanking operation to ‘distract attention’ strongly suggests that initially at least he regarded it as very much the less important of the two. Kippenberger, who attended a conference where Montgomery explained his plan to officers down to the rank of lieutenant colonel, also states that his clear understanding was that Montgomery ‘expected the frontal attack to be decisive’; while the Official History unhesitatingly calls the offensive against Mareth ‘the main attack’ as compared with ‘the New Zealand Corps’ subsidiary flanking manoeuvre’.

That the coastal thrust was more important seems certain when it is appreciated that Operation PUGILIST was intended to do far more than just break through the Mareth Line. It will be recalled how Eighth Army had captured the Buerat position, stormed the Homs-Tarhuna defences before the enemy could organize resistance here, and taken Tripoli, all in one continuous series of encounters. Montgomery now aimed to repeat this success, this time capturing the Mareth Line, storming the Gabes Gap before the enemy could organize resistance here, and taking Sfax, the port of Sousse further to the north, and perhaps even Tunis, all in one continuous series of encounters. Yet to do so, he really needed to break through with his coastal attack. As the Official History points out: ‘A successful quick thrust’ at Mareth ‘would have split open the position and crippled the defence, and so would have given the considerable forces of exploitation, and the outflanking New Zealand Corps their opportunity.’

The trouble was that the ‘forces of exploitation’ were too ‘considerable’, while the attackers of the Mareth Line were not strong enough. 30th Corps had three infantry divisions available, yet only 50th British Division was detailed for the attack, and although it would be backed up by the fire of thirteen field and three medium regiments, the only armoured formation in support was 50th Royal Tanks, containing just fifty-one Valentines. 51st Highland and 4th Indian Divisions were held in reserve with the intention of launching them through the bridgehead once this had been secured, while 10th Corps, with 1st and 7th British Armoured Divisions under command, was also kept back, ‘ready’ in the words of its leader, Horrocks, ‘to exploit success towards Gabes’.

Both Montgomery and Leese seem in fact to have paid far more attention to the plans for exploiting success than to those for achieving success. As a result, states the Official History, 50th British Division’s commander, Major General Nichols, ‘was left largely to his own devices’. This was hardly a wise or a fair course of action considering that the division had played only a small part at Alamein and had seen little action thereafter; though Nichols did entrust the initial assault mainly to his more experienced brigade, the 151st.

In other words, Montgomery had committed exactly the same error that Auchinleck had made so often during his infamous five attacks in July 1942: he had been so obsessed with the uses to which victory could be put that he had forgotten the need to win the victory first. This might seem the more surprising as Montgomery had steadfastly avoided this mistake in the past and should have been well aware of the strength of the Mareth Line – apart from the warning given by the action at Horseshoe Hill, he had been well served by offensive patrols, by air reconnaissance, in particular that of ‘his’ two Mosquitos, and by invaluable advice from a number of French officers, including Captain Paul Mezan, a former Garrison Engineer at Mareth.

‘Fame, adulation and a growing feeling of infallibility after Medenine,’ declares Nigel Hamilton sternly, had ‘all contributed’ to Montgomery’s over-confidence. So no doubt they had, but the main cause of that over-confidence was quite different – it arose from the fact that Eighth Army had once again received misleading Intelligence from ‘Ultra’.

Thus ‘Ultra’ interceptions had revealed that some of the leading enemy commanders, chiefly Rommel and his successor at the head of Army Group Afrika, von Arnim, favoured a withdrawal from Mareth to the Gabes Gap or even as far as Enfidaville. This tended to suggest a lack of resolution which was quite contrary to reality, since in practice Hitler, Kesselring and even Messe had no intention whatever of abandoning the Mareth Line without a struggle. ‘Ultra’ had also revealed the anxieties of the Italians in particular, which had given Montgomery what Ronald Lewin in his book on this subject, calls ‘a well-founded contempt for the defensive will of the Italians’ – except that in many cases that contempt was not in fact well-founded.

‘It is difficult not to feel,’ Lewin concludes, that it was principally ‘the authority of “Ultra”’ which led Montgomery to believe ‘that an abrupt assault by his infantry, supported by generous gunfire, would “bounce” the Young Fascist and Trieste Divisions into a rapid retreat’. It is indeed, and it may again be noticed that the existence of ‘Ultra’, far from guaranteeing Eighth Army’s success, thus proved a handicap which would bring Eighth Army perilously close to failure.

Eighth Army was also hampered by its usual ill-luck with the weather. This all but prevented the Desert Air Force from carrying out the preliminary operations planned for 19 March, and though happily better conditions prevailed on the 20th, when the coastal thrust was due to commence, on subsequent days the elements would again restrict the aerial support at vital moments. Worse still, heavy rain falling on the Matmata Hills had made the Wadi Zigzaou a still more ‘horrible obstacle’ than the enemy had intended. It now contained a watercourse which in places was thirty feet wide and up to eight feet deep, while the ground underneath the water became soft and treacherous – increasingly difficult for vehicles to cross.

Nonetheless all went well at first. The Royal Air Force Baltimores, the South African Air Force Baltimores and Bostons, and the United States Army Air Force Mitchells kept up raids on the enemy defences all day on the 20th, while after dark, Wellingtons and Halifaxes, accompanied, as at Alamein, by Fleet Air Arm Albacores to drop flares, continued the assaults, and the Hurricanes of No. 73 Squadron, again as at Alamein, roamed ahead to look for targets of opportunity.

Meanwhile at 2230, Eighth Army’s artillery opened fire on the Mareth Line and at 2345, 151st Brigade launched its attack. Ronald Lewin, perhaps feeling the need to mitigate the ill-effects of ‘Ultra’s’ misleading information, argues that Eighth Army, ‘fresh from the open spaces’, was ‘not suited mentally or technically for smashing its way into a stronghold’, but it is not necessary to look to subsequent events at Tebaga or Wadi Akarit to refute this suggestion. The assaulting units, 8th and 9th Battalions, Durham Light Infantry, burst over the Wadi Zigzaou and by morning, despite fierce resistance, had gained a bridgehead about a mile wide and some 800 yards deep and taken a considerable number of Italian prisoners. On their left, 7th Battalion, Green Howards from 50th Division’s other main formation, 69th Brigade, though under heavy fire, stormed a strong forward position threatening the Durhams’ flank, and then held it in the face of repeated counter-attacks, Lieutenant Colonel Derek Seagrim, whose outstanding bravery proved an inspiration to his men throughout the action, earning a Victoria Cross.

It was not the seizing of the stronghold that could not be achieved but the provision of adequate support for the men who had seized it. When the Valentines of 50th Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment moved into the Wadi Zigzaou, the first one stuck fast in the water, bringing the whole advance to a halt. The Royal Engineers, working furiously under artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire, managed to construct another route across the wadi and four tanks passed over this. They carried ‘fascines’, large bundles of wood, tightly bound together, about ten feet long by eight feet high, and these they dropped into the anti-tank ditch on the far side of the wadi and so were able to cross this also. Then came disaster. The next tank to arrive, in the graphic words of General Jackson, ‘broke through the thin crust of the wadi floor and sank up to its turret, totally blocking the crossing’. No further vehicles reached the far bank that night or the next day.

Despite the lack of armour, the men of 151st Brigade, with the aid of further supporting attacks by the Desert Air Force’s light bombers, retained and consolidated their positions during the 21st. Then at 2330, reinforced by their third battalion, 6th Durhams, and by 5th East Yorkshires from 69th Brigade, they resumed their advance, capturing five major strongpoints and further large numbers of prisoners. Meanwhile, during the day, the selfless efforts of the sappers, whose losses were very heavy, improved the crossing over the wadi sufficiently for it to be able to take vehicles again, though they could not construct more than one passage as had originally been hoped.

Indeed at this point the situation in the coastal area looked considerably brighter than that at Tebaga. During the 21st, Freyberg closed up to the entrance to the pass, while the Desert Air Force’s Kittybombers and anti-tank Hurricanes attacked enemy concentrations. That night, Brigadier Gentry’s 6th New Zealand Brigade pushed through minefields to rout the Saharan Group and capture a key enemy outpost at Point 201. Gentry urged that 8th Armoured Brigade should break through the Tebaga Gap forthwith but although Brigadier Harvey had no objections, ‘nothing resulted’ as the Official History relates, ‘because Freyberg had not been enthusiastic’, preferring to wait until dawn.

By then Messe had already taken action. Early on 22 March, 21st Panzer Division arrived from the Axis Army Reserve, being closely followed by 164th German Light Division which Messe had transferred from the Matmata Hills. Freyberg has been accused of missing a great opportunity, but it should be noted that even if he had passed through the Tebaga Gap he would have had to face the full might of 21st Panzer Division in the open, and the New Zealanders, understandably enough, were still very conscious of the perils inherent in such an encounter. Yet whatever Freyberg’s justification, the fact was that the defence of the pass had now come into the hands of 164th German Light Division 's commander, Major General von Liebenstein, and a typically resolute German resistance henceforth barred the New Zealand Corps from any further noticeable progress.

By contrast, at Mareth, Eighth Army, for all Lewin’s comments, had in fact successfully ‘smashed its way’ into the ‘stronghold’ by dawn on 22 March, and the defenders had again suffered during the night from the attentions of the Albacores lighting the way for their Wellingtons and Halifaxes. Moreover the gallant sacrifices of the sappers had by this time cleared the way for reinforcements. Though an enemy counter-attack was a virtual certainty, it appeared that at worst Eighth Army would face an Alamein-style ‘dogfight’ which Montgomery rather welcomed if anything. Yet just when success seemed assured, a series of ill-judged or unlucky steps were taken which would deprive Eighth Army’s soldiers of the rewards earned by their valour.

For a start, Major General Nichols, who was not nicknamed ‘Crasher’ for nothing, had personally crossed the wadi to encourage and hearten his men in the front line – the best place no doubt for a brave and honourable soldier but not for a divisional commander whose Headquarters was left undirected and as a result lost control of the battle.6 The burden of command thus in practice fell on Brigadier Beak and though he was an officer of immense personal courage – the holder of a Victoria Cross – this was the first occasion on which he had directed 151st Brigade in action.

No doubt it was lack of experience which caused Beak to neglect preparations ‘to receive a counter-attack with 6-pounder guns ready … in spite of repeated enquiries from above whether this was being done’, as Montgomery later complained to Alexander.7 Instead he employed the early hours of 22 March in bringing up the remaining Valentines of 50th Royal Tanks. Forty-two of these did pass over the wadi but they so damaged the crossing that no other vehicles, wheeled or tracked, could use it. More heavy rain then fell, making conditions still worse and preventing even the Royal Engineers from rectifying the situation. On the 22nd, Montgomery personally ordered that ‘6-pounder guns and machine-guns must be manhandled across the wadi at once’ – but by then it was too late.

For at 1340, the tanks of 15th Panzer Division’s 8th Panzer Regiment did counter-attack, backed up by the division’s 115th Motorized Infantry Regiment, units of 90th Light – and the elements. Once more Eighth Army was cruelly unlucky with the weather for more heavy rain at the critical moment handicapped the British artillery and even more the Allied airmen. By one further irony, at almost this precise time near El Hamma, which lies to the north-east of the Tebaga Gap, the Hurricane IIDs of No. 6 Squadron were destroying nine tanks from 21st Panzer Division; but at Mareth, the Desert Air Force’s light bombers which might have delivered, and were preparing for, a much more powerful blow against 15th Panzer Division, were grounded by the downpour.

The Valentines of 50th Royal Tanks did everything possible to resist the enemy onslaught but in vain. Much stress has been laid on the fact that only eight of them had been uprated to carry a 6-pounder, which meant that all the others were out-gunned by Messe’s 10 Mark III Specials and even the eight were outgunned by the long-barrelled 75mms carried by Messe’s fourteen Mark IV Specials. The British armour was thus far more genuinely inferior to that of the enemy than on most earlier occasions on which a similar excuse is put forward. Yet it was the absence of those anti-tank guns which had broken the panzers’ attacks at Alam Halfa, at Alamein and most recently at Medenine, that really crippled the defence. No one was more aware of this than the armour’s CO, Lieutenant Colonel Cairns, who throughout the morning of the 22nd had been pleading that anti-tank guns be sent forward – but the Wadi Zigzaou remained impassable.

By contrast the Germans did have anti-tank guns available, which as usual were handled more boldly and more brilliantly than their armour. These knocked out three Valentines before the panzers fired a shot. Throughout the day, 50th Royal Tanks kept up the fight but by nightfall, thirty Valentines had been destroyed, Cairns was dead, and his successor in command, Major Maclaren, had withdrawn the remains of his force to the edge of the wadi.

The British infantrymen were also in trouble. Three of the captured strong-points were lost again, and casualties mounted. At midnight, the Germans put in a new attack and 50th Division was once more driven back. At 0200 on 23 March, Montgomery was aroused from sleep to be told by Leese that Eighth Army’s bridgehead had been virtually eliminated.

Chapter 12


On hearing this news, Montgomery’s cool self-confidence deserted him for once – and paradoxically this fact is a supreme tribute to his generalship. At Alamein, when Montgomery had been awakened to hear pleas by his subordinates that his attack be called off, he had curtly refused. Almost any other commander, recalling this earlier incident, would have been tempted to think that once more all that was needed was a bit of resolution, and have insisted that 50th Division keep up its pressure. It is very much to Montgomery’s credit that he realized instinctively that this time the situation was very different.

The point was that this time Montgomery was personally worried by the situation, particularly the failure to bring the 6-pounder anti-tank guns into the front line – hence the ‘repeated enquiries from above whether this was being done’. For the moment he ordered Leese to hold fast in the bridgehead to the best of his ability but he clearly recognized that this could only be a temporary expedient, and at 0900, he called another conference at which he told Leese that the coastal thrust would be abandoned. During 23 March, the light bombers of the Desert Air Force made no less than ten raids against enemy positions, but these were designed to protect the British troops from further molestation, not to assist a renewed advance. That night, under cover of a heavy artillery barrage, the surviving tanks and infantrymen fell back over the Wadi Zigzaou. 151st Brigade alone had suffered some 600 casualties.

Montgomery’s anxieties had already prompted him to ask Alexander whether 2nd US Corps – now commanded by Patton – could assist him by striking at First Italian Army from the rear. As was mentioned earlier, the Americans were ideally placed to trap Messe’s men either by breaking through the Maknassy Pass or by advancing from Gafsa which they had reoccupied without resistance on 17 March. Alexander did request Patton to push forward strongly in both these areas, but his doubts whether this would prove effective were quickly realized. Patton’s 88,000 men were opposed by only some 1,000 Germans and 7,000 Italians, backed by the forty tanks of 10th Panzer Division and the obsolete Italian armour with the Centauro Division; yet a series of attacks starting on 22 March all met with failure, though at least they prevented the Axis forces resisting them from adding to the numbers facing Eighth Army.

The American assaults also greatly alarmed von Arnim, who appears to have inherited Rommel’s pessimism as well as his post at the head of Army Group Afrika. Fearing that First Italian Army might be cut off as Montgomery envisaged, von Arnim issued instructions that the defenders at Mareth should begin to withdraw on the night of 25th/26th March, covered by von Liebenstein’s troops at Tebaga, and be back in the defences of the Gabes Gap by the 28th.

These orders would later lead Patton, whose arrogance was certainly no less than that of any other officer of any nation, to claim that it was really he who had ‘won Mareth’ for Eighth Army; but his contention overlooks the point that von Arnim’s views were rejected by his superiors and in particular by the unquenchable Kesselring. On the afternoon of 24 March, by which time of course 50th Division had already retired across the Wadi Zigzaou, Kesselring arrived at Messe’s HQ. Here, as the Official History makes clear, he firmly ‘pronounced against withdrawal’. Next day, he also ‘visited the Tebaga sector and reported to von Arnim that von Liebenstein was not in immediate danger’. In addition Messe, ‘encouraged by Kesselring’, sent a written report to von Arnim recommending that the retirement to the Gabes Gap ‘be postponed’ and Tebaga ‘reinforced’. Von Arnim provisionally ordered that the retirement should be delayed until the night of the 26th/27th March, but Messe’s actions on the 25th scarcely indicate any intention to withdraw at all; on the contrary he now sent 15th Panzer to an area south of El Hamma, ready to reinforce 21st Panzer and 164th German Light Divisions at Tebaga should the need arise. During the 25th also, Patton’s final attacks were broken, thereby proving that von Arnim’s fears had been groundless.

The danger to First Italian Army would in fact come not from 2nd US Corps but from Eighth Army. When Montgomery held his conference at 0900 on 23 March, he had, as General Richardson relates, ‘recovered his “poise”’. His orders to de Guingand, Leese and Horrocks, all of whom were summoned to attend, were to set in motion what Ronald Lewin would call ‘the brilliant outflanking move by the New Zealanders and 1st British Armoured Division which levered General Messe’s army back into Tunisia’. In Eighth Army it would become known simply – and very appropriately in a battle code-named PUGILIST – as ‘The Left Hook’.

In fact two moves were set in train. One was by forces from 10th Corps, chiefly 1st British Armoured Division under Major General Raymond Briggs, through Wilder’s Gap to join Freyberg. The other was by Tuker’s 4th Indian Division from 30th Corps due westward into the Matmata Hills, taking advantage of the withdrawal of 164th German Light Division to Tebaga. Its tasks were first to clear the Hallouf Pass the use of which would provide a much shorter route by which to get supplies to the forces at Tebaga, and then to head northward through the hills with the object of outflanking the Mareth Line in this area also, thereby putting still more pressure on its defenders.

When Montgomery had first learned of 50th British Division’s repulse at 0200 on the 23rd, he had spent more than an hour discussing with de Guingand the prospects of strengthening the New Zealand Corps. Consequently when the 0900 conference broke up, the Chief of Staff was able to begin at once to put the necessary steps in hand. There were, however, a considerable number of these, chiefly the provision of transporters for the tanks of 2nd Armoured Brigade, now once more commanded by Brigadier Fisher, which formed the cutting edge of 1st Armoured Division, and the arrangement of anti-aircraft protection. In addition, as after Alamein, there was the confusing circumstance of two different corps trying to advance over the same area.

As a result, neither 1st British Armoured nor 4th Indian Division could set off until late on the 23rd. 7th Indian Brigade which was ordered to attack the Hallouf Pass from the south-west was then able to embark on its mission without further delay, but 5th Indian Brigade, the task of which was to clear the pass from the east, and 1st Armoured Division both arrived at Medenine at the same moment on converging lines of march, causing a tremendous ‘traffic jam’ which cost a good deal of valuable time.

Fortunately little real harm was done except to strained nerves. On 26 March, 4th Indian Division secured Hallouf Pass, though in practice the route through this was scarcely needed. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Scott had already led his 4th Battalion, 6th Rajputana Rifles northward through the hills, and the remainder of 5th Indian Brigade now followed, and was in turn followed by 7th Indian Brigade which had been much hampered by extensive minefields. Enemy resistance proved understandably slight for on 27 March, a general Axis retreat was ordered as a result of dramatic events elsewhere – ironically 4th Indian Division would probably have met with far greater opposition had it not been delayed by the ‘traffic jam’. But the natural obstacles and the mines proved a more than sufficient handicap on their own and it was not until the morning of 28 March that Tuker’s men emerged from the hills and successfully outflanked the Mareth Line – only to find that it had already been abandoned by German and Italian forces.


In any case the exploits of 4th Indian Division were minor compared with those of 1st Armoured Division – which, it may be added, was not the only part of 10th Corps to be involved in the coming action. Late on 24 March, Horrocks, with the Headquarters staff of that corps, arrived at Tebaga. The official reason given for his presence was that now that 1st Armoured was being added to Freyberg’s forces, the number of troops employed would need a corps HQ to handle them. The real reason, though, was that Montgomery had shrewdly assessed that, in the words of General Fraser, ‘Freyberg had to be pushed hard, for he needed to husband New Zealand manpower and he was disinclined to take risks.’ Horrocks, thrusting and enthusiastic, was, Montgomery felt, just the man for this task, though for reasons of tact, it was agreed that all messages would be sent to both Freyberg and Horrocks jointly as equal commanders.

Unfortunately this combined control made it difficult for Horrocks to overcome Freyberg’s anxieties. That officer favoured a further outflanking move by 1st Armoured around the western end of the Djebel Tebaga while the New Zealanders contained the enemy in the pass. This would not only take another ten days but would mean that the two formations would be separated by an impassable mountain range. Possibly a series of ‘set-piece’ attacks might be made at Tebaga instead, but Freyberg estimated that these would take from five to seven days. Finally an all-out attack could be launched on the Tebaga Gap but it would probably prove costly and even this would result in further delays while the artillery and ammunition necessary to support it were brought forward.

Montgomery not only rejected the first two alternatives out of hand but made it quite clear that there was to be no delay in putting the third into effect. ‘I want to speed up your thrust as much as possible,’ he signalled brusquely to his two generals, ‘and I think we can do a great deal to help you by heavy air bombing all night and day. To take full advantage of this you would have to do an afternoon attack with the sun behind you.’

The suggestion of an attack when the afternoon sun was shining into the eyes of the defenders – much used by the Germans but never before possible for Eighth Army since this was the first time it had attacked from west to east – was also greatly favoured by Briggs, and it would accordingly be adopted by Horrocks and Freyberg. Yet they found it impossible to meet Montgomery’s wish that their blow – to raise morale it was given the same code name of SUPERCHARGE as the decisive attack at Alamein – should be delivered on 25 March. It was just not possible for 1st Armoured Division to arrive before the 26th. More alarmingly, it was clearly equally impossible to provide the additional weight of artillery which Freyberg rightly thought necessary, for several days after that.

Fortunately, however, an alternative could be found. After de Guingand had left the conference on the morning of 23 March, he had held hurried consultations with the leader of the Desert Air Force. Coningham, who had been promoted to Air Marshal, was now in Algiers as the head of North-West African Tactical Air Force, of which his former command, the Desert Air Force, formed only part. Consequently it was to his successor that de Guingand turned for aid.

Air Vice-Marshal Harry Broadhurst had begun the War as the CO of No. 111 Squadron which two years earlier had been the first RAF unit to receive Hurricanes. On 29 November 1939, he had shot down a Heinkel He 111 to gain his squadron’s first victory. Promoted to Wing Commander, he had seen further action in the Battle of France, the Battle of Britain and the subsequent cross-Channel sweeps over occupied Europe, raising his total of enemy aircraft destroyed to twelve. In May 1942, he had become a Group Captain, but his rank had not prevented him from flying four sorties in a borrowed Spitfire during the raid on Dieppe on 19 August. In November, now an acting Air Commodore, he had joined the Desert Air Force as Coningham’s Senior Air Staff Officer, and in February 1943, had succeeded him in command, with a further promotion to acting Air Vice-Marshal, the youngest in the RAF. De Guingand describes him as ‘a delightful man to work with, and full of initiative and new ideas. He was also prepared to accept risks.’

This was just as well in view of de Guingand’s proposals. In the past, the men of the Desert Air Force had of course co-operated splendidly with Eighth Army but mainly by attacking enemy positions, lines of communication or ‘thin-skinned’ vehicles. They were now asked to participate directly in the actual Army assault on the Tebaga Gap. Moreover, apart from the anti-tank Hurricanes, the Allied fighters and fighter-bombers had not normally come down to very low levels to make their attacks, but de Guingand felt that they should do so on this occasion because ‘the cannons of the fighters might prove more deadly and disrupting to the enemy than the fighter-bombers with their bombs dropped from comparatively high altitudes.’

This was quite a favour to ask, for although the Official History proclaims that ‘the technique had long been worked out by the Desert Air Force’, it had certainly never been put into effect. In consequence the ‘chief memories’ of those who participated in the action at Tebaga, as Horrocks recalls, would be of ‘our fighters and bombers screaming in at zero feet, the first time that this had been attempted in the desert’.

Nor were several important Air Force officers at all eager that the technique should be put into effect. Coningham was so concerned that he sent his Senior Air Staff Officer, Air Commodore Beamish, to warn Broadhurst that to use his Air Force in this way could result in very severe losses and the ruin of his career. There was every excuse for this view, since the sides of the Djebel Tebaga and the Djebel Melab which formed the northern point of the Matmata Hills were liberally supplied with 88s in the dual role of anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns. Yet by now co-operation between the different branches of Eighth Army had been fully achieved, and Broadhurst was not the man to allow co-operation between the services to lag behind. ‘I will do it,’ he promised de Guingand. ‘You will have the whole boiling match – bombs and cannon. It will be a real low-flying blitz.’

Indeed for the next few days, it was the airmen who would dominate the battle – and not only those of the Desert Air Force. The ever-obliging Alexander had agreed to assist by ensuring that the Allied Air Forces in northern Tunisia should keep the Axis warplanes at bay while Broadhurst directed his whole attention towards the support of Eighth Army. On 23 March, Spitfires from ‘Alexander’s Air’, flown by American pilots, were on patrol near Gabes when they were attacked by 109s headed by the leader of Germany’s fighter force in North Africa, Major Müncheberg. That redoubtable pilot shot down the Spitfire of Captain Theodore Sweetland in flames – but it was his last success. Whether Sweetland flew his burning aircraft into the 109, or, as seems more probable, this was hit by flying debris from the Spitfire, is not known for certain, but Müncheberg crashed beside his 135th victim, and his loss undoubtedly weakened Luftwaffe morale just at the moment when the Desert Air Force began its preliminary onslaught in preparation for the breakthrough at Tebaga.

Also on the 23rd, Bostons, Baltimores and Mitchells attacked enemy positions, while the Hurribombers of No. 241 Squadron and the Kittybombers of Nos. 2 and 5 Squadrons SAAF and of No. 450 Squadron RAAF, all struck at ‘thin-skinned’ Axis transports near Tebaga, destroying a large number of these. Next day, the Hurribombers and Kittybombers, now joined by the antitank Hurricanes of No. 6 Squadron, resumed their attacks, and 164th Light lost thirty-two vehicles. The following night, the Wellingtons and Halifaxes, guided by Albacores, continued the offensive and the night-fighter Hurricanes of No. 73 Squadron were also in action, Pilot Officer Chandler shooting down a Junkers Ju 88. On the 25th, the Bostons of Nos. 12 and 24 Squadrons SAAF and the Baltimores of No. 21 Squadron SAAF, escorted by Kittyhawks from No. 260 Squadron and Spitfires from No. 145, again bombed targets in the Tebaga area, the Spitfires of No. 1 Squadron SAAF flew offensive patrols, and No. 6’s Hurricane IIDs hit eleven tanks but lost six aircraft to AA fire, though amazingly not one of the pilots was injured and all returned safely in due course.

This was perhaps not an encouraging omen for the planned ‘blitz’ at Tebaga, but, after another night of bombing, the Desert Air Force made ready for its greatest test on the 26th. That morning, a bad dust storm prevented operations, but by 1330 the worst was over and Broadhurst’s men confirmed they would be able to carry out their tasks. Arrangements were hurriedly completed whereby the exact locations of friend and foe could be given to the pilots by means of smoke or shell bursts, and Wing Commander Darwen, who had so brilliantly carried out Operation CHOCOLATE, was sent up to the front in an armoured car to radio directions to the fighter-bombers as the need arose – a technique which would develop rapidly and with outstanding success later in North-Western Europe, Italy and Burma.


P-40 Kittyhawk


Hurribomber , Hawker Hurricane II equipped with bombs and cannon

There still remained the problem of whether 1st British Armoured Division could arrive in time. ‘Superhuman effort,’ declares Montgomery, was ‘expended in getting the transport across the difficult country’. The drivers of the tank-transporters, many of whom had manned long-distance lorries in peacetime, met every challenge successfully. They ‘never stopped moving,’ reports de Guingand, ‘until they got to their destination’. The last vehicles arrived just half-an-hour before the attack was due to start. The ammunition lorries drove right up to the gun positions to unload their shells, heedless of the risk from enemy artillery, and some of the tanks are said to have come straight off their transporters to form up on their start-line. Ten had been lost during the approach march but Fisher’s 2nd Armoured Brigade still contained 67 Shermans, 13 Grants and 60 Crusaders, 22 of which had been uprated to carry 6-pounders.

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Harry Broadhurst

Vice Air Marshal Harry Broadhurst (“Broady”) , RAF Desert Air Force Commander during Battle of Mareth Line whose contribution led British Commonwealth victory considerably

At 1530 on 26 March, the new Operation SUPERCHARGE began, as the Bostons of Nos. 12 and 24 Squadrons SAAF, the Baltimores of No. 21 Squadron SAAF and No. 55 Squadron RAF and the Mitchells of Nos. 83 and 434 Squadrons USAAF, coming in at very low altitude from an unexpected direction, bombed Axis positions, knocking out a number of guns and disrupting the enemy’s communications systems. Close behind came the antitank Hurricanes of No. 6 Squadron RAF and the Kittyhawks of No. 250 Squadron RAF and No. 3 Squadron RAAF – and from then onwards the assaults of the fighters and fighter-bombers in support of Eighth Army were continuous. In just over two hours, the Desert Air Force flew 412 sorties and despite the fears expressed earlier, only one Baltimore from No. 21 Squadron SAAF and thirteen single-engined aircraft were lost – though a few more force-landed at Allied bases – and six of the pilots returned safely to their units while others survived as prisoners of war.

Under cover of the confusion which these strikes caused, the New Zealand infantry and 8th Armoured Brigade whose previous preparations had been concealed by the dust storm, moved forward: 3rd Royal Tanks followed by 6th New Zealand Brigade on the left; the Staffordshire and Nottinghamshire Yeomanry followed by 5th New Zealand Brigade on the right. Their orders were to advance 4,500 yards to a wadi, the Wadi Hernel, capturing the high ground on either flank in the process. They would be supported by the full artillery strength of the New Zealand Corps, plus two field regiments and one medium regiment which had come up from 10th Corps. Even so the officers of 8th Armoured referred to the attack among themselves as ‘the Balaclava do’, while Horrocks admits that ‘they thought they were being launched on a second Balaclava, but there was no hesitation.’

Behind this initial wave came 1st British Armoured Division, with 2nd Armoured Brigade in the van. Its duty was to pass through the positions gained and proceed for a further 3,000 yards. It would then halt until 2315, when the moon was due to rise, after which it would press on to El Hamma, while the New Zealanders dealt with any enemy still remaining in the Gap before rejoining it. Freyberg, who had not forgotten what had happened on earlier occasions, was still anxious. ‘If we punch the hole,’ he asked Horrocks, ‘will the tanks really go through?’

"Yes, they will,’ retorted the eager 10th Corps Commander, ‘and I am going with them.’

At 1600, the artillery barrage opened, and at 1623, as at Alamein, it began to move forward, the tanks and infantry following closely behind it. The Axis soldiers, already shaken and disorganized by the air attacks, and handicapped by having the setting sun in their faces, offered only weak resistance at first. On the left flank, 3rd Royal Tanks, despite difficulties with mines, reached the Wadi Hernel, knocking out several guns in the process. Here Major Barker’s ‘C Squadron was engaged by 21st Panzer Division , losing five Shermans, but the attack was beaten off and the Germans lost four Mark IV Special tanks. The Staffordshire Yeomanry also reached its objective for the loss of six Shermans, and indeed pressed on beyond it to seize another wadi, the Wadi Aisoub.

Only on the extreme right did the attackers meet real problems. Anti-tank guns on Point 209, a hill too steep to be climbed by the armour, destroyed three of the Nottinghamshire Yeomanry’s Shermans and delayed the advance for a time. 28th Maori Battalion attacked the hill, but the savage fighting there would continue for many hours to come.

Nonetheless by 1800, the enemy defences had been torn open and 2nd Armoured Brigade, with brigade commander Brigadier Fisher urging: ‘Speed up, straight through, no halting’, was taking full advantage of the hole that had been punched. It reached the area planned at about 1930, and though clouds hid the moon, delaying a further move until about midnight, the British armour then continued its advance, and by 0210 on 27 March, von Liebenstein was ordering all his forces to fall back to El Hamma. Some units of 21st Panzer Division, which had been cut off by 2nd Armoured’s progress, attacked it from behind but were repulsed by anti-tank guns including some of the new 17-pounder ‘Pheasants’. At dawn, 15th Panzer also tried to intervene from the flank but was thrown back in disorder by the 10th Hussars, whose CO, Lieutenant Colonel Wingfield, was later awarded a DSO.

The breakthrough at Tebaga had cost Eighth Army about 600 casualties but 2,500 prisoners, all of them German, had been taken, and the Battle of the Mareth Line had been won. Isolated pockets of resistance still held out but were remorselessly subdued, the last of them being at Point 209 which fell on the evening of the 27th, after a final gallant assault led by Second Lieutenant Ngarimu who won a Victoria Cross – posthumously, for he was shot dead in the moment of victory.

It seemed at one time that the ‘Left Hook’ might be able to trap the whole of Messe’s First Italian Army, but it was not to be. Early on the morning of the 27th, von Liebenstein managed to gather together enough anti-tank guns to check the British armour in a defile three miles south of El Hamma. This anti-tank screen was reinforced as the day wore on and more dust storms imposed a further handicap on Horrocks who was not able to overcome the defences and was reluctant to outflank them before the New Zealanders caught up with him, which they did only in the early hours of the 28th.

Meanwhile the Axis troops in the Mareth Line were pouring back along the coastal road, covered by 90th German Light Division, the last units of which moved out on the night of the 27th/28th. Next day, 30th Corps, attempting to pursue, was delayed by the ‘usual’ mines and booby traps, while further dust storms continued to hamper 10th Corps and the New Zealanders. On the 29th, 1st British Armoured division at last captured El Hamma and the New Zealanders and both 4th Indian and 51st Highland Divisions from 30th Corps moved into the town of Gabes – but by then the survivors of First Italian Army were already falling back into the safety of the defences north of the town. Eighth Army had captured at least 8,000 prisoners, one third of them German rest Italians, and about the same number of Axis soldiers, Germans or Italians combined, had been killed or wounded. 15th and 21st Panzer and 164th German Light Divisions had all been terribly mauled and the last-named had lost almost all its heavy weapons and vehicles. The Italian divisions had also suffered badly and only 90th German Light Division had retired in good order. Moreover it seems that the enemy’s confidence had again been shaken.

Mareth Italians

Italian troops surrendering at Mareth Line , 29th March 1943

For the men of Eighth Army on the other hand, the battle, in particular the ‘Left Hook’, had increased still further their confidence in their leaders, their supporting Air Force and themselves – and with reason. ‘It showed,’ declared Captain Liddell Hart,

“Montgomery’s capacity for flexibility in varying his thrust-point, and creating fresh leverage when checked – even better than at Alamein – although, as was his habit, he subsequently tended to obscure the credit due to him for such flexibility, the hallmark of generalship, by talking as if everything had gone ‘according to plan’ from the outset. In many respects Mareth was his finest battle performance in the war.”

General Fraser similarly considers that ‘the battle demonstrated Montgomery’s excellent flexibility of mind. It also once again showed his strength and will-power’ – though he too deplores Montgomery’s ‘proneness to exaggerated claims for the nature of his successes, untouched by error or miscalculation’. De Guingand and Eighth Army’s staff in general, Horrocks, Freyberg, Briggs and their subordinate commanders all did well, while Broadhurst, who was prepared to risk the wrath of his superiors and possibly his career in the cause of inter-service co-operation, is surely entitled to especial credit.

Yet none of them would deny that the greatest praise belongs elsewhere. ‘Most of all,’ reports Fraser, ‘it (the battle) demonstrated the excellence of British troops who, from the preliminary operations on 17th March, through to 1st Armoured Division’s rapid move [when movement became possible] and dashing assault on 26 March, showed a skill and energy which gave its true lustre to the day.’ And it was not only the excellence of the ground troops that was demonstrated. ‘Never before,’ relates de Guingand, ‘had our Desert Air Force given us such superb, such gallant and such intimate support.’ ‘Brilliant and brave work by the pilots,’ declares Montgomery in his Memoirs, ‘completely stunned the enemy.’

On 30 March, the advanced forces of Eighth Army reached the Gabes Gap which Montgomery had originally hoped to break through ‘on the run’ as he had the Homs-Tarhuna position. Sadly the chances of doing so without very heavy casualties had been wrecked by the initial repulse on the Mareth Line as even the eager Horrocks was quickly forced to conclude. Montgomery therefore proceeded to make preparations for another ‘set-piece’ battle. He has been strongly criticized for his ‘caution’, but not by the men whose lives were saved thereby.

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OPERATION SCIPIO , Eighth Army Breakthrough Wadi Akarit - Gabes Gap , link up with 2nd US Corps and march to Enfidaville (2-13 April 1943)

Wadi Akarit 4

Attack on Wadi Akarit


51st Highland Division attack on Akarit Line

For the Gabes Gap seemed designed by nature for a successful defence. It was some 15 miles in width, stretching from the sea to the salt marshes of the Chott el Fedjadj, which could be neither outflanked nor crossed. Rising abruptly from the edge of the marsh was a ridge, about 500 feet high and a mile wide, which ran north-eastward to the centre of the position where it doubled in width to form the feature called the Djebel Fatnassa, and in height to the peak of Ras Zouai, which Eighth Army knew as Point 275.

Beyond the eastern outcrop of the Djebel Fatnassa, a flat-topped hill named El Meida, there was a two-mile gap until the ridge rose once more as the Djebel Roumana, again 500 feet high and too steep to be crossed by tracked or wheeled vehicles. Then came a further small gap before the coastal sector, nearly four miles long, was reached. This was protected by the Wadi Akarit, from which Eighth Army, somewhat misleadingly, would name the coming battle; like the Wadi Zigzaou at Mareth it had been deepened, widened and mined to make it a daunting obstacle. The gaps on each side of the Djebel Roumana had been blocked as well, in their cases by wide anti-tank ditches. Both the wadi and the ditches contained considerable amounts of water after the recent rains, and while the enemy had paid less attention to the defences at Gabes than to those at Mareth, the approaches to them had been guarded by 4,000 mines. Messe’s supporting artillery included twenty-eight 88mms detailed for use solely as anti-tank guns and thirty-five more in the dual-purpose role; and although we are told that the defenders were short of ammunition, it can only be said that no one in Eighth Army appears to have noticed this deficiency.

Montgomery’s first intention was that 51st Highland Division should cross the upper reaches of the Wadi Akarit and the anti-tank ditch to the west of it, while 4th Indian Division secured the Highlanders’ flank by taking the Djebel Roumana. 10th Corps would follow up, using both 1st British Armoured Division and the New Zealanders who had been demoted from their status as a corps on 31 March, and were attached to 10th Corps for this battle. 7th Armoured Division would remain in reserve.

Remembering what had happened at the Wadi Zigzaou, neither Tuker nor Wimberley was greatly enamoured of this plan. In addition the former had learned from night patrols, splendidly organized by the 1st Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment, that the defenders of the Djebel Fatnassa had overestimated the difficulties of its forward slopes and had therefore sited most of their heavy weapons so as to fire east and west rather than straight ahead. Furthermore they were too few in number to hold such a large area – indeed the whole length of the front from the salt-marshes as far as the first anti-tank ditch, including Fatnassa, had been entrusted to the Pistoia Division, stiffened by what was left of von Liebenstein’s shattered 164th German Light Division. Tuker therefore persuaded first Leese, then Montgomery, that the battle should commence with a night attack on Fatnassa by 4th Indian Division, unsupported by artillery fire so as to achieve surprise. This attack has understandably attracted much high praise but the adulation heaped on Tuker and his division is in many ways unfortunate since it has distracted attention from other at least equally important aspects of the battle.

In the first place while 4th Indian Division achieved surprise because of the enemy’s over-confidence in the difficulties presented by the Djebel Fatnassa, Eighth Army as a whole also achieved a more important surprise for a different reason. At the time he originally issued his plan – that is before Tuker suggested the assault on Fatnassa – Montgomery had already, in the words of Liddell Hart, taken ‘the bold decision’ that ‘rather than wait a further week for a moon-light period’, he would begin the battle ‘in the dark, relying on the advantage of security to outweigh the risk of confusion’. De Guingand confirms this, stating that: ‘As time was important, the Army Commander decided to attack on a dark night – with no moon. We had not attempted this before and so he hoped to obtain a measure of surprise.’

This hope, as the Official History makes clear, was happily fulfilled. The Axis leaders had not envisaged an encounter before the period of the full moon. In consequence when Eighth Army’s attack began on the night of 5th/6th April, it found the Italians – though not, to their great credit, the Germans – completely unprepared. Moreover von Arnim had placed both 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions in General Reserve on 5 April. Though he ordered them to the Gabes Gap on the 6th, they were too late to take part in the battle, as a result of which only 15th Panzer Division was on hand to support Messe’s German and Italian infantry.

The redirection of Tuker’s men to Fatnassa also meant that 51st Highland Division was now compelled to carry out not only its own tasks but those previously intended for 4th Indian Division as well. Its 154th Brigade, covered on its right by diversionary actions on the part of 201st Guards Brigade, would strike across the anti-tank ditch to the east of the Djebel Roumana, a move that would be opposed by the Trieste Division, detachments from 90th German Light Division, and possibly the Young Fascist Division which guarded the Wadi Akarit. 152nd Brigade in the meantime would attack at right-angles to 154th against the Djebel Roumana, defended by part of the La Spezia Division. 153rd Brigade, not surprisingly, was kept back as a reserve in case of trouble.

This would still leave a gap between Wimberley and Tuker, so to fill it Montgomery ordered up 50th Northumbrian Division from Mareth Line. The losses suffered by 151st Brigade meant that only 69th Brigade could come forward and because of the short notice given, there was no chance of bringing up 50th Northumbrian Division’s artillery in support. 69th Brigade’s task was to cross the anti-tank ditch to the west of the Djebel Roumana, defended by the rest of La Spezia. 152nd, 154th and 69th Brigades were all opposed by more enemy soldiers, more artificial defences and more heavy weapons than were the British and Indian troops commanded by Tuker. They were also to inflict greater losses on the enemy – after the battle both the Trieste and La Spezia Divisions had been so mauled that they retreated in disorder whereas Messe was able to detail Pistoia to form part of his rearguard along with his German divisions.

Not that 4th Indian Division did not play its own part brilliantly. As darkness fell on 5 April – and the night-fighter Hurricanes of No. 73 Squadron yet again set out to seek targets of opportunity – its 7th Brigade commenced its stealthy advance into enemy territory. By midnight, 1/2nd Gurkhas had taken the heights of Ras Zouai in an action made memorable by the Victoria Cross awarded to Subedar Lalbadur Thapa who had captured three machine-gun posts, the last single-handed after his men had been shot down, in a display of what even the restrained Official History calls ‘superhuman dash and valour’. With Ras Zouai in the hands of the Gurkhas, the men of 1st Royal Sussex struck out northwards and then eastwards and those of 4/16th Punjabis southwards to clear most of the Djebel Fatnassa by about 0400 on the 6th.


Subedar Lalbahadur Thapa

Lalbahadur_Thapa 2_VC

Two hours earlier, 5th Indian Brigade, led by 1/9th Gurkhas, had also headed into the hills. 1/4th Essex then moved round the flank of the anti-tank ditch between Fatnassa and the Djebel Roumana, capturing large numbers of Italian prisoners in the process, and quickly got to work preparing a crossing over the ditch.

Meanwhile at 0330, supported by a tremendous artillery barrage from some 450 guns, the main attacks had begun. 152nd Brigade broke through the forward defences, gaining the crest of the Djebel Roumana by 0615, and Point 112 at its north-eastern end by 0700. Further east, 154th Brigade thrust across the anti-tank ditch facing it and captured 2,000 Italians.

69th Brigade fared less well. Its attacking battalions, 5th East Yorkshires and 7th Green Howards, overran the enemy outposts, then passed through the minefields under cover of a bombardment provided by the New Zealand artillery. When the anti-tank ditch was reached, however, the brigade came under heavy fire from both flanks and was brought to a halt. Lieutenant Colonel Seagrim, the Mareth Line VC, was mortally wounded at the head of the Green Howards, while 5th East Yorkshires won a new VC, sadly a posthumous one, thanks to the heroism of Private Eric Anderson, a stretcher bearer who three times brought back wounded comrades under intense fire before being killed in an attempt to rescue a fourth. Not until 0935, when pressure from 4th Indian Division was beginning to tell, could 69th Brigade make further progress, but then its reserve battalion, 6th Green Howards, got over the ditch, taking 400 Italian prisoners.


69th Brigade troops in Wadi Akarit

Earlier at 0845, a jubilant Tuker had told Horrocks that the way was clear for 10th Corps to break through the enemy lines to Sfax, that there was nothing to stop it and that the end of the war in Tunisia was in sight. Horrocks notified Montgomery who gave permission for 10th Corps to advance at once and sent off a triumphant signal to Alexander.

Unhappily Tuker’s prediction was not to be fulfilled and, in very human fashion, he would later complain bitterly that Horrocks and Briggs had missed their opportunity. Yet the character of these officers, to say nothing of their recent achievements at Tebaga, must surely give pause for consideration.

In reality Tuker’s hopes would be dashed because both the premises on which he had founded them were mistaken. It was not correct that the way was clear for 10th Corps to break out. Beyond the crossing won by 1/4th Essex was another line of hills, the Oudane el Hachana, and it was not until 0935 that this could be attacked by 4/6th Rajputana Rifles. That attack took 1,000 Italian captives, relieved much of the pressure on the suffering 69th Brigade, and won a DSO for the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Scott. But it achieved success too late to prevent Horrocks from feeling – rightly – that Tuker’s optimism had been premature, and, no doubt for that reason, there was then a further delay while 10th Corps waited for the situation to become more clear.

Then when 1st British Armoured Division did move up to join the advanced elements of 4th Indian at about noon, it was quickly discovered that there were in fact obstacles to its progress. These were 88mm anti-tank guns, backed by a number of field guns sited in protected positions north of the Djebel Roumana – which were still killing some of Tuker’s men four hours later – and they were soon to be supported by some tanks from 15th Panzer Division. It may be argued that 1st Armoured Division should have rushed the anti-tank guns, but this was not a practice which was recommended by the lessons of the past, and in any event the situation of the Allied infantry was by this time rapidly changing for the worse.

Wadi Akarit indian


4th Indian Division troops at Wadi Akarit

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Because by late morning, the Axis reserves, in particular the main part of 90th German Light Division , had begun a series of counter-attacks which, it may be noted, fell mainly on the unlucky 51st Highland Division. 152nd Brigade was forced off the crest of the Djebel Roumana; captured it again; was driven off it again; and once more regained it. Wimberley sent 5th Battalion, the Black Watch from 153rd Brigade to assist, and the key localities remained in the Highlanders’ hands. Across the anti-tank ditch to the east, the fighting was, if possible, still more desperate, for here 15th Panzer as well as 90th Light was taking part in the battle. All afternoon and into the evening, 154th Brigade held the enemy back, its efforts being crowned and symbolized by the Victoria Cross awarded to Lieutenant Colonel Lorne Campbell, the CO of 7th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

That a Victoria Cross was gained by each of the three Infantry Divisions most involved provides the final proof that the Battle of Wadi Akarit was won not by any particular formation but by Eighth Army as a whole. It had lost some 600 men killed and perhaps 2,000 wounded, and 32 tanks had been destroyed or damaged. It had taken 7,000 prisoners, though almost all were Italians, had temporarily destroyed the Trieste and La Spezia Divisions as effective fighting units and had exhausted even the dauntless 90th Light. On the night of 6th/7th April, First Italian Army withdrew, though Eighth Army did not realize this until next morning since Messe had cleverly covered his retreat with local thrusts, chiefly against 69th Brigade. The Allied airmen, however, harassed the enemy throughout the hours of darkness, with Wellingtons and the flare-dropping Albacores again seeking out targets, and Flying Officer Henderson of No. 73 Squadron shooting down a Junkers Ju 88.

Highlanders 2

Montgomery ,inspects Highlanders , Egypt before El Alamein


Montgomery inspects Gurkha trops and looks into their Kukri blades

On the 7th, the Desert Air Force once more saw combat, though the antitank Hurricanes of No. 6 Squadron suffered severely. This was the last appearance of this unit in the campaign and it may be worthwhile to summarize its achievements. In the course of the fighting in Tunisia the squadron had claimed the destruction of forty-six tanks as well as many other vehicles, but attacking as it did at very low level it inevitably attracted every kind of antiaircraft fire and during this same period the squadron lost twenty-five machines. Mercifully, and astonishingly, only four pilots died, but this loss-rate provides a true measure of the dangers which they had to face and gladly did face in support of Eighth Army.

The soldiers of Eighth Army were also in action on the 7th, as they moved triumphantly out of the Gabes Gap, 51st Highland Division taking the coast road, 1st British Armoured and 2nd New Zealand Divisions guarding the inland flank, and 7th British Armoured Division advancing in the centre. There were a number of clashes with enemy rearguards, the wretched Pistoia Division incurring very heavy losses, but in the main the Axis forces were intent only on retreat. The garrisons in the Eastern Dorsale fell back with them and on 7 April, the 12th Lancers made contact with Patton’s 2nd US Corps. Thereafter Eighth Army was handicapped mainly by the almost embarrassing numbers of prisoners it was taking – they were coming in at the rate of 1,000 every day.

On 9 April, 7th Armoured Division caught up with and mauled 15th Panzer at Agareb to the west of Sfax. Next day, Sfax fell and Montgomery claimed his Flying Fortress. The day following, Eighth Army overran some twenty Axis landing grounds and linked up with 9th British Corps from First Army at Kairouan south-west of Sousse. On the 12th, it captured Sousse, and by the evening of the 13th, after covering 150 miles, it had completed its conquest of the central plain and, as even the ever-optimistic Kesselring accepted, ‘the end of the Tunisian campaign was in sight.’ The remaining bridgehead, he tells us, had ‘insufficient depth’ and could be subjected to ‘concentrated air and sea attacks on ports and airfields’ under which ‘our supply lines and accordingly whole resistance would break down within a few days.’

This indeed was the exact position. The capture of the ports of Sfax and Sousse not only provided advanced bases for the light craft of the Royal Navy and the transports that were supplying Eighth Army but robbed the Axis powers of their use. Their convoys were therefore restricted to a narrow funnel leading to Tunis and Bizerta and this quickly became a hunting-ground for the submarines from Malta and the bombers from North Africa, increasingly large numbers of which came from the United States Army Air Force.

The consequences were inevitable. In November 1942, the Italian Navy and merchant marine had delivered 90,000 tons of food, fuel, tanks and guns to Tunisia without loss. Thereafter casualties had mounted but the Italian seamen with praiseworthy fortitude had continued their efforts and for the next three months the tonnage received had varied between 60,000 and 75,000. Even in March 1943, 43,000 tons had come in by sea. But in April, over half the vessels making for Tunisia were sunk and only some 27,000 tons of supplies and 2,500 troops reached their destination, while in the first few days of May, some three-quarters of the cargoes sent went to the bottom and only 2,000 tons passed safely over what had become known as ‘the death route’.

In an attempt to compensate for the crippling of their seaborne traffic, the Axis leaders turned to their transport aircraft, but their efforts were thwarted almost before they had begun. The capture of their landing grounds in central Tunisia meant that the Axis warplanes had to be grouped together on their few remaining airfields. Here they were exceptionally vulnerable to Allied air raids which were made more effective by the use of the recently developed small fragmentation bomb. As a result the enemy air forces were rapidly brought to the point where they could not possibly mount a challenge to the Allied attacks on ‘thin-skinned’ vehicles, on supply-dumps – and on the Axis aerial transports.

Already on 5 April, a major attempt to interrupt the Axis airborne supply-line had commenced. Code-named Operation FLAX, it had achieved useful results even before Eighth Army overran the central Tunisian airfields, but thereafter its successes were spectacular. The Junkers Ju 52s had managed to deliver 8,000 tons of supplies during March. They still managed to deliver 5,000 tons during April as well as a fair number of troops, but at the cost of losses so heavy as to deal, in the words of the RAF Official History, ‘a grievous blow’ not merely to the Axis powers’ ‘hopes in Tunisia but to their whole future prospects of success elsewhere’; reducing their transport fleets, ‘so potent an asset at the beginning of the war’, to a factor ‘of little account’.

The destruction, caused mainly by the Kittyhawk and Warhawk squadrons of the Desert Air Force, reached its culmination in the ‘Palm Sunday massacre’ of 18 April. On that day, four American units, the 64th, 65th, 66th and 314th Squadrons, shot down twenty-four Junkers Ju 52s, besides causing thirty-five more to crash-land on the coast – five of these were later finished off by the Hurricanes of No. 73 Squadron. Next day, the Kittyhawks of Nos. 2 and 5 Squadrons SAAF destroyed eight Italian transport aircraft and badly damaged four more. Finally on the 22nd, the Kittyhawks of Nos. 4 and 5 Squadrons SAAF sighted some twenty Messerschmitt Me 323s, huge, six-engined transports, each carrying ten tons of petrol, sent sixteen of them blazing into the sea and for all practical purposes ended the Axis attempts to replenish their forces in Tunisia by air.

For the men of Army Group Afrika the future was now only too clear. The decimation of the Junkers Ju 52s and the dominance of the Allied Navies and Air Forces over the waters around Tunisia meant that almost certainly they could not be evacuated even had Hitler altered his fixed refusal to permit this course of action. They had therefore to fight or to surrender, and if they fought they would face a situation far worse than any they had previously experienced. Their ammunition was dangerously low, their fuel was so restricted that they could carry out only limited manoeuvres, they were almost without protection from the air, and von Arnim would later tell Paul Carell that: ‘Even without the Allied offensive I should have had to capitulate by the 1st of June at the latest because we had no more to eat.’ Such were the consequences of Eighth Army’s campaign in central Tunisia.

On 7 April that campaign, de Guingand tells us, had ‘cost me and many others, a very dear friend’. Brigadier Frederick Kisch, Eighth Army’s brilliant, inventive and much-loved Jewish Chief Engineer, who had served in the Desert from the start of the fighting there, was killed by a mine while examining the defences of the Wadi Akarit. In war, even more than other human activities, no success is ever achieved without sacrifice.


It was just eight months since Montgomery had taken charge of Eighth Army. During that time his soldiers had first defeated their enemy’s last and best chance of reaching the Nile while Malta was still unconquered, at Alam Halfa; then ensured that Malta never would be conquered, at El Alamein. Then they had ‘swept across the breadth of Africa’. In a week they had reconquered Egypt. In three months they had conquered Libya. In two-and-a-half months more they had conquered a good three-quarters of Tunisia and had doomed two Axis armies. And in the immediate future some of Eighth Army’s units under one of Eighth Army’s leading commanders would strike the final blow that ended the North African campaign. The days of the ‘Djebel Stakes’ and the ‘nonsenses of July’ (failed attacxks of Eighth Armöy during First Battle of Alamein in July which devestated Australian and New Zealand infantry and Brtitish armor) must have seemed a world away.

During that time also, the soldiers of Eighth Army had won seven battles, two on the defensive, four on the offensive, and the most famous on what can only be called the defensive offensive since they had gained their victory not by their own attacks but by their successful repulse of enemy counter-attacks. It seems sad therefore that all except Alamein have tended to be forgotten and all, even Alamein, have tended to be belittled. The fashionable attitude appears to be that it was easy for Eighth Army to achieve its conquests because it now had the superior numbers and the superior equipment that its predecessors had lacked.

Such suggestions are grossly unjust. In sheer numbers of men Eighth Army did have the advantage throughout the period of its conquests but so it had done throughout the period of its ordeals. Indeed at Alam Halfa, that victory on which all else depended, ‘the strength of the two sides was nearer to an even balance than it was either before or later’. It was Rommel who had increased the number of his German divisions from three to four, plus his independent parachute brigade; who had been joined by the finest of his Italian divisions, the Folgore; who had doubled the number of his flak regiments with their 88mms; who had at last received the ‘murderous Mark IV Specials’; whose Mark III Specials had more than doubled in number from those available in June, more than quadrupled in number from those available in July. No wonder he was confident that Alam Halfa would be his ‘decisive battle’. And even in later encounters, Eighth Army would never have the overwhelming weight of numbers in its favour that it had done under Auchinleck in July.

Nor did Eighth Army enjoy a qualitative superiority of weapons during the period of its conquests. On the contrary, while the Allies had had the better tanks throughout the whole of Auchinleck’s rule as C-in-C, Middle East, in August 1942, the arrival on the battlefield of the Mark IV Specials gave the Germans a tank which was superior to all on the Allied side and would remain so despite the later advent of the best of the Allied tanks, the Shermans. Eighth Army’s disadvantage was again of course at its greatest at Alam Halfa when the Shermans had not yet reached the front line. The German 88mm anti-tank guns had been superior to any that the British could find throughout the days of Eighth Army’s ordeals – and they remained superior until the first few ‘Pheasants’ (17 pounder anti tank guns) arrived at the time of Medenine. The only difference was that at Alam Halfa, Alamein and the Mareth Line, the Axis commanders had more than, and at Wadi Akarit almost, twice the number of 88mm guns that had been present during CRUSADER, three times the number that had been present at ‘First Alamein’.

It should also be emphasized that throughout its conquest of North Africa, Eighth Army had had to overcome problems not experienced by its predecessors. Its supply-line had to stretch further than ever before at the time of its victory at El Agheila, and even further still at the time of its final thrust to Tripoli. At Medenine also, Eighth Army’s supply-line was far from adequate, a fact which makes the admirable defensive preparations it carried out in an astonishingly short space of time all the more remarkable.

In addition, when Auchinleck had launched his attacks in July 1942, the enemy had had no opportunity to prepare adequate defences, while during CRUSADER he could outflank the defences altogether through the open desert. For that matter Rommel had enjoyed the same advantage during his counter-offensive after CRUSADER and at Gazala.

By contrast when Eighth Army took the offensive at Alamein in October 1942, the Axis position could not be by-passed and was protected by half-a-million mines and all the hideous devices of the ‘Devil’s Gardens’. At El Agheila it was possible to avoid the defences but only by crossing terrain worse than any that either Eighth Army or Panzerarmee Afrika had yet encountered. At Buerat the front line could be outflanked without too much difficulty, but the going encountered later left even the tough, experienced New Zealanders ‘speechless’; while the Homs-Tarhuna escarpment was only mastered because Eighth Army moved too quickly for Rommel to offer adequate resistance there. At Mareth, Eighth Army was opposed by long-prepared fixed defences, the only way round which led to a ‘bottleneck’ so dangerous that it was feared an attack through it would be ‘a second Balaclava’. And finally in the Gabes Gap Eighth Army faced a formidable natural barrier which it had to assault head-on. Only superb troops could have surmounted such a series of difficulties.

But then the men of Eighth Army had always been superb troops. All they had lacked had been ‘a clearly defined purpose and a leader’. They ‘got both in Montgomery’. His critics have referred to him slightingly as ‘a superlative actor’ or ‘a great showman’, and certainly some aspects of his attempts to restore morale when he arrived in the Desert are open to such complaints. These were, however, unimportant, in fact largely irrelevant, compared with the actions which really did restore morale: first, his cancellation of all previous plans for withdrawals to reserve positions, whether within the Alamein defences or outside the combat-zone altogether; next, his victory at Alam Halfa, won in just the way he had foretold and as a result of precisely those alterations which he had made to the previous plans.

Moreover Montgomery made other contributions to success at least as significant as his restoration of morale, vital though that was. He welded the different branches of Eighth Army into one integrated whole, and added to it the close co-operation of ‘his’ Air Force. He displayed great strategical insight as demonstrated by his ability to think ‘one battle ahead’. Most of all perhaps, in his seven victories he justified the opinion of Brooke that he was ‘without question the best tactical commander in the [British] Army’.

It might indeed be queried whether any mere actor or showman would have proved capable in just over a fortnight of transforming a plan which ‘might almost have been written for Rommel’s express benefit’ into one which provided the basis for the victory of Alam Halfa. Or of devising those ‘crumbling’ operations against the enemy infantry at Alamein which compelled the enemy armour to risk crippling losses in counter-attacks and at the same time made the enemy anti-tank guns less effective. Or of showing that combination of ruthless resolution and flexibility of mind which then saw Alamein through to its successful conclusion. Or of making the imaginative move of ‘grounding’ one corps and using it to provide supplies to the front for the advance on Tripoli. Or of thrusting past the Homs-Tarhuna defences before these could be organized properly. Or of winning the flawless defensive battle of Medenine. Or of executing the ‘Left Hook’ which so brilliantly redeemed the initial failure at Mareth. Or of overcoming the positions in the Gabes Gap – according to Rommel the most formidable natural obstacle in North Africa – in less than twenty-four hours.

Brigadier Sir Edgar Williams certainly thinks otherwise. Williams is frequently reported as hating the Army and although this was not the case he had no intention of making it his career and he was very far from being respectful of its senior officers. He was also well aware of the advantages and deficiencies of ‘Ultra’. His judgement: ‘Montgomery was the best British field-commander since Wellington.’

Alexander also has often received less credit than he deserves. Despite his great charm, he too was a forceful personality and it is interesting to note that when he arrived in Algiers in February 1943, to find a dangerous situation awaiting him, he took charge of Eighteenth Army Group prematurely, exactly as Montgomery had done with Eighth Army – perhaps on reflection Alexander felt that he had been over-obliging on that earlier occasion. It was Alexander who directed the strategy of the Tunisian campaign, and if he did not attempt to control Eighth Army’s strategy during his term as C-in-C, Middle East – or its tactics in Tunisia – there was a good reason for this. He believed, states the Official History, that Montgomery was undoubtedly ‘better qualified’ to lead Eighth Army ‘than any other British officer of his acquaintance … In the operations which began with El Alamein he never had cause to override his Army Commander.’ This though is no criticism of Alexander; rather it is a compliment. There had been far too many attempts to control Eighth Army from Middle East Headquarters in the past.

Not that Alexander’s assistance was of a purely passive kind. Montgomery, adds the Official History, ‘was fortunate in having a Commander-in-Chief who understood him so well, had confidence in him and was determined to help him in every possible way’. ‘My great supporter throughout,’ Montgomery confirms in his Memoirs, ‘was Alexander. He never bothered me, never fussed me, never suggested what I ought to do, and gave me at once everything I asked for – having listened patiently to my explanation of why I wanted it. But he was too big to require explanations; he gave me his trust.’

The men of Eighth Army displayed a similar trust in their leader. By the end of the North African campaign, his ‘personal popularity,’ says Alan Moorehead, had ‘gone to fantastic lengths’. Still more important, there was also ‘an almost passionate belief in him. The whole army identified itself with the general.’ ‘I believe they would have done anything I asked,’ declares Montgomery proudly. ‘They gave me their complete confidence. What more can any commander want?’

So great was this trust that the sick rate, already low enough in all conscience, dropped still further when a battle was imminent. Horrocks declares that no one wanted ‘to be left out’ and ‘on many occasions NCOs and men who had recovered from their wounds and had been sent to some reinforcement unit in the Delta escaped and thumbed lifts for over a thousand miles to rejoin their units at the front’.

In return Montgomery showed an intense loyalty towards, sympathy with and interest in those under his command, particularly if they had suffered for his sake. When de Guingand broke down after Alamein, Montgomery came to see him, encouraged his intention to marry, urged him to have a quiet honeymoon in Jerusalem and ‘not rush about to parties etc.’ and then, but only then, ‘come back to me’ – which de Guingand did just prior to Montgomery’s final thrust on Tripoli. When Harding, whom Montgomery called ‘that little tiger’, was injured during the same thrust, Montgomery visited him in hospital and, says Harding, ‘spent an hour or more telling me all that had happened since I was wounded, particularly the exploits of my old division, and of his plans for my future’. At that time it was believed that Harding had no chance ‘of further active duty and Monty knew it. I shall always remember with deep gratitude,’ Harding concludes, ‘that act of kindness and compassion.’


Nor did Montgomery show this attitude only towards trusted officers. He came to treat his army, Alan Moorehead relates, ‘as a kind of family. He delighted in being with the soldiers, and he drove among them for hours every day.’ He might be ungracious or ungenerous to his equals or his superiors but never to the men under his command. ‘The soldiery gave of their best,’ he reports. His ‘only fear’ was that he personally ‘might fail these magnificent men’.

Yet in two instances it might be said that Montgomery did fail them. At the beginning of 1944, it was decreed that the men of Eighth Army could wear an Arabic ‘8’ on the ribbon of the Africa Star, but this privilege was restricted to those who had fought at or after Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein. It was not Montgomery’s decision, but he was well aware that when he reached the Desert he took command of ‘truly magnificent material’ and that it was no fault of the soldiers that lasting success had previously eluded them. Moreover the decision slighted those who had won Alam Halfa, his most commendable triumph and one which, as he personally complains in El Alamein to the River Sangro, ‘has never received the interest or attention it deserves’. At the time Montgomery had many other matters on his mind since he had just begun planning for the great invasion of Normandy. Even so it seems a pity that he should not have protested against such an invidious distinction.

And right at the end of the North African campaign, Montgomery appears to have allowed his ambition for himself and for his army to blur his normally very clear military vision. On 10 April 1943, he had signalled to Alexander suggesting that either First or Eighth Army should deliver the ‘final assaults on the enemy’s last positions’ while the other should ‘sit tight and merely exert pressure’ but ‘on no account must we split our effort and launch two or more thrusts none of which can be sustained.’ He was probably not pleased when his superior replied on the 11th: ‘Main effort in next phase will be by First Army. Preparations already well advanced.’

Alexander’s decision was undoubtedly correct. First Army had an easier line of attack through country more suited to the employment of armour. Moreover Eisenhower had made it clear that for political reasons it was essential that II US Corps, which was now entrusted to Major General Omar Bradley, should take part in the culmination to the campaign. Bradley therefore skilfully transferred his corps to the northern flank of First Army, his objective being the capture of Bizerta.

Eighth Army’s task was limited by Alexander to putting ‘maximum pressure against Enfidaville position’ to draw enemy reserves away from the First Army area. In addition having already had a number of valuable officers – Roberts for instance – sent to First Army, Montgomery now lost Briggs and his First Armoured Division plus the armoured cars of the 1 st King’s Dragoon Guards; they left for the northern front on 18 April. Nonetheless Montgomery still hoped that Eighth Army might do more than exert pressure; that it might be able to break through the Enfidaville position altogether and so have the honour of capturing Tunis.

The defences at Enfidaville bore a considerable resemblance to those in the Gabes Gap. There was no wadi on the eastern sector but the village of Enfidaville, about 5 miles inland, was protected by an anti-tank ditch, while beyond it the coastal strip narrowed still more to form a ‘bottleneck’ between the sea and another confusingly named Djebel Tebaga; this was blocked by wire, mines and a further anti-tank ditch. To the west of the coastal area was a line of hills culminating in the 1,000 foot high Djebel Garci, the equivalent of the Djebel Fatnassa at Gabes. Between the Djebel Garci and Enfidaville was the equivalent of the Djebel Roumana, the steep-sided crag of Takrouna, topped by a rocky pinnacle on which stood a few stone buildings. But the great difference between the defences at Enfidaville and those in the Gabes Gap was that behind the former was no wide fertile plain but a series of hills which ran almost all the way to Tunis. And the determination of Messe’s defenders, both German and Italian, was stiffened by the knowledge that this time they would be fighting in the ‘last ditch’.

Probing operations quickly showed that there was no possibility of the enemy retiring without a fight, so Montgomery delivered a full-scale attack, supported as usual by aircraft and artillery, on the night of 19th/20th April. While 7th British Armoured demonstrated on the left flank and 50th British Division made a subsidiary move along the coast to pin down the Young Fascists and 90th Light, 2nd New Zealand Division attacked Takrouna and 4th Indian Division attempted to seize the Djebel Garci, after which it was optimistically intended that it should strike north-eastward through the hills to take the ‘bottleneck’ from the rear.

These initial actions were not unreasonable – ‘worth the attempt’ is the way General Jackson expresses it. Unfortunately Messe was not to be caught by surprise a second time. In the face of savage resistance 4th Indian Division captured part, though not all, of the Djebel Garci, Havildar-Major Chhelu Ram of 4/6th Rajputana Rifles winning a Victoria Cross and Jemadar Dewan Singh of 1/9th Gurkhas an Indian Order of Merit.4 5th New Zealand Brigade took Takrouna despite heavy casualties which included every company commander of 28th Maori Battalion. The final pinnacle was captured by a Maori force of two NCOs and seven ‘other ranks’ ‘led,’ reports Horrocks, ‘by a most gallant sergeant called Manahi’. ‘The enemy casualties,’ he adds, ‘were 150 prisoners and forty to fifty killed, all by this handful of men’ – of whom only four were left standing. Horrocks considers that this was ‘the most gallant feat of arms I witnessed in the course of the war, and I was bitterly disappointed when Sergeant Manahi, whom we had recommended for a VC, only received a DCM’.

The valour of Eighth Army’s soldiers had remained exceptional until the end. During 20 and 21 April, 50th Division captured Enfidaville and advanced a further three miles beyond it, all enemy counter-attacks were repulsed with heavy losses and the number of Axis prisoners taken rose to about 800. Yet the New Zealanders had suffered 500 casualties by this time, the Indians 550, and it seemed obvious that further progress would be both difficult and costly.

It was at this point that Montgomery’s vision appears to have failed him, though in fairness it should be pointed out that he could not possibly have exercised his normal tight control over events as he had to be in Cairo from 23 to 26 April, engaged yet again in planning ‘one battle ahead’ – for the invasion of Sicily. In addition he was far from well and on the 27th he retired to bed with a high temperature, suffering from influenza and tonsilitis.

Probably for these reasons, Montgomery showed none of his customary flexibility but insisted that Eighth Army should continue its attempt to break through the Enfidaville position by delivering a further assault in the coastal area. To provide fresh troops for this he sent 56th (British) Division into action on the night of the 28th/29th – but only to afford one more proof that ‘reinforcements, whether of men or material’ could never be ‘guarantors of victory’. 56th Division had come forward all the way from Iraq, one of its brigades only arriving on the 28th, and it was completely inexperienced. On the 29th, an Axis counter-attack, supported by heavy artillery fire, threw it back in disorder.

Montgomery’s vision now cleared again. On his return from Cairo, Horrocks had warned him: ‘Of course we can break through, but there won’t be much left of your fine Eighth Army when we have done it.’ Montgomery had ‘merely grunted’, but Horrocks had made the one point most likely to make Montgomery pause. On the 29th, all Eighth Army attacks were cancelled and Montgomery, who was still too ill to travel, asked Alexander to visit him.

On 22 April, Alexander’s own main thrust in the north had begun. It was delivered on a wide front, had petered out by the 28th, and was rudely called a ‘partridge drive’ by Montgomery. Yet it had in fact prepared the way for the final triumph. Green, Bald and Longstop Hills were at last in Allied hands. The German tanks had been reduced to some sixty in number, almost all with 15th Panzer; while the half-dozen or so remaining with 10th or 21st Panzer were out of fuel and would in due course have to be destroyed by their own men. Ammunition was also desperately low and most of the remaining Axis warplanes were being withdrawn to Sicily.


Alexander was confident therefore that one more assault could end the campaign and there seems no doubt that when he saw Montgomery on 30 April, he intended to order a further transfer of Eighth Army personnel to the north. Yet the order never needed to be given, for Montgomery, again demonstrating the mutual understanding that existed between these two very different but very fine soldiers, offered the reinforcements unasked. The units selected, 7th Armoured Division, 4th Indian Division and 201st Guards Brigade, set out before dark that same day, the tanks being carried on transporters. They had some 300 miles to cover but with typical Eighth Army efficiency the move was completed in only two days.

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Montgomery had again recovered brilliantly from a set-back. As at Mareth he proposed to set in train a ‘Left Hook’ and it is clear from the account of Air Vice-Marshal Broadhurst, who was present at the meeting between Alexander and Montgomery, that the Eighth Army Commander had decided exactly what was to be done. Nigel Hamilton quotes Broadhurst as revealing that Alexander had intended another attack on a broad front, but Montgomery retorted that this would suit the Germans, since they had ‘no transport, no petrol’. He urged instead that Alexander ‘pick the best place and then overwhelm it … you’ll be through in 48 hours.’

Alexander, to his credit, appreciated the advice. Without even consulting Eisenhower, he made prompt preparations for an assault in the ‘best place’ – the Medjerda valley. The Eighth Army units were added to the British 6th Armoured and 4th British Infantry Divisions in 9th Corps to which Alexander proposed to entrust the main blow. Its commander was also supplied by Eighth Army, for Lieutenant General Crocker had been injured during a weapons demonstration and Montgomery, rejecting Alexander’s suggestion that Freyberg be appointed, had recommended Horrocks for the task in the belief that his experiences in the Tebaga Gap would prove invaluable. It is worth noting incidentally that Montgomery clearly bore no resentment towards Horrocks over the latter’s forthright criticism of the Enfidaville operation.


So at 0300 on 6 May, it was Horrocks who watched with satisfaction as a tremendous artillery bombardment fell on the enemy defences in the Medjerda area, almost annihilating 15th Panzer’s 115th Motorized Infantry Regiment. ‘I never felt so confident about any battle before or after,’ he relates; adding that he was ‘fortunate to be in command of a battle in which victory was a foregone conclusion’. The 4th (British) Division did experience some difficulties but 4th Indian, at a cost of only some 100 casualties, had broken through the Axis positions by 0730; a series of heavy air attacks starting at dawn helped to paralyse the defenders; and by 1000, 7th Armoured was already thrusting out beyond the ground gained by the infantry. By noon, 6th Armoured Division had also broken through and, says Horrocks, ‘the tanks were grinding their way forward down the valley towards Tunis.’

Even now the Axis soldiers showed their mettle. 15th Panzer Division temporarily checked the advance around the village of Massicault – but the odds were too great and by evening the last of the German armour had been wiped out. Nonetheless the British tank commanders decided to halt for the night while the supporting infantry joined them. Next day they moved on, only to be held up again near St Cyprien by those old adversaries, the German anti-tank guns. But by the afternoon the last obstacles had been overcome and at about 1545 on 7 May, the leading British armoured cars entered Tunis.


British troops enter outskirts of Tunis

Which armoured cars has remained a matter of dispute. Horrocks tactfully states that the 11th Hussars from 7th Armoured and the Derbyshire Yeomanry from 6th Armoured ‘entered Tunis by different routes at exactly the same moment’. Liddell Hart says they ‘entered almost simultaneously’ but gives the prize to the 11th Hussars. De Guingand thinks that the 11th Hussars was ‘probably’ the first unit in, while Montgomery, always loyal to his Eighth Army, has no doubt of it. Nor, it should be said, has Paul Carell who may be regarded as reasonably impartial. Incidentally, he refers to ‘Montgomery’s 11th Hussars’ and Major General Erskine the Commander of 7th Armoured Division would write to the Eighth Army Commander next day, telling him that ‘we are all very proud to have been your representative here to finish the job’.

liberation of Tunis 2

liberation of Tunis

The men of Eighth Army, even if temporarily under First Army command, had deserved this honour. Over the next few days they and their erstwhile comrades still under Eighth Army’s control gained the reward for their months of toil. 7th Armoured, swinging north from Tunis, attacked the remnants of von Vaerst’s Fifth Panzer Army which had evacuated Bizerta on 7 May. During the 8th, 11th Hussars took 10,000 prisoners. In the early morning of the 9th, it took 9,000 more and von Vaerst was reporting to von Arnim that he was ‘without ammunition and fuel’. Though he added ‘we shall fight to the last’, not even the Germans could fight with no ammunition and by midday his remaining men had capitulated.

South of Tunis, 6th Armoured Division cut across the base of the Cape Bon Penninsula to prevent any retirement there by the surviving Axis soldiers – though their shortage of fuel would probably have prevented this in any case. On 12 May, 4th Indian Division claimed the capture of von Arnim who surrendered to Lieutenant Colonel Glennie, CO of 1st Royal Sussex. At Enfidaville on the two previous days, Freyberg had demanded the surrender of 90th German Light Division but Graf von Sponeck, though repeatedly attacked by the Desert Air Force’s light bombers, had refused to comply.

At midday on the 13th, however, Messe, who had just been made a Field Marshal – a promotion well earned by his earlier stubborn resistance, if scarcely appropriate in its timing – ordered his First Italian Army to give up the fight. Then he personally hurried south to ensure that his own capitulation should be received by the renowned Eighth Army, not by the forces closing in from the rear. Like von Thoma before him, he dined with Montgomery and ‘we discussed various aspects of the battles we had fought against each other’. Ronald Lewin watched 90th German Light Divisionsurrender, seeing ‘the white flags go up: first in small clusters, turning into larger groups as platoons merged with companies. White everywhere as if butterflies were dancing over the hills. It had been a long haul from Alamein, and exhilaration predominated. But there was a sense of compassion too: this had been a good enemy.’

Estimates of the final total of prisoners vary widely. Eisenhower and Alexander were both to give it as 275,000 but it seems their claims were somewhat exaggerated. The number of men in prisoner-of-war camps was later stated at over 258,000 but this no doubt included many who had been taken earlier. Liddell Hart reports that the Axis powers assessed their own strength in early May at between 170,000 and 180,000 men but their records may well have become incomplete in the prevailing confusion. General Fraser believes that ‘over 100,000 German soldiers passed into Allied captivity – a greater number than taken at Stalingrad a few months before – and nearly 90,000 Italian.’

In any case it mattered little. The main point was that Alexander could signal to Churchill: ‘All enemy resistance has ceased. We are masters of the North African shores.’ Even after Stalingrad the Germans could and did hit back in Russia. From this defeat there could be and was no recovery. Never again would the Allies be threatened in North Africa. Instead from North Africa the Allies could threaten the Axis powers with fresh assaults. ‘In the six months since the break-out at Alamein,’ declares General Fraser, ‘the British Army had ridden a turning tide of war. Norway, Dunkirk, Gazala and Singapore could be put aside as nightmares. Ahead, in the new dawn, lay the coasts of Europe.’

And in Eighth Army, ‘the soldiers,’ says Alan Moorehead, ‘stripped off their uniforms, washed and fell asleep in the sunshine.’


See map, pretty ironic that the Romans/Italians will lose Carthage on the 8th of May. Not sure if anyone specifically paid attention to this in 1943.

" Carthāgō dēlenda est by Cato"

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